Choosing a subject for a landscape painting

Published: 20th May 2009
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Choosing a subject for a landscape painting

by Geoffrey Warburton

What, exactly, do you paint? How do you choose, from everything there is to see, the subject you end up painting? I can only answer for myself, and say that there has to be a call to action. I've walked past the same spots every day, and suddenly seen the potential in a particular view; a change in the light, a new appreciation of the possibilities. If that's not there, then nothing is going to happen. It sounds a little airy fairy, maybe, as if you have to wait on inspiration, but it's more a case of putting yourself in inspiration's way. If you look for a subject, and you look long enough and hard enough, you will find it.

As a case in point, I found a view I liked on my walk and kept coming back to the spot to make more drawings.

There is no substitute for this. The process eases you into the painting by slow degrees. You see more and more things you will end up using, and gain great confidence through your slow mastery of them. By repeatedly returning to the spot, I rehearsed the painting that I intended to do.

It raises another important point that you might care to consider: when you keep coming back over time, you see the same scene in different seasons, at different times of day. This not only helps you to decide which aspect of the scene is the one you want to paint, it also gives you valuable insight into the structure of the scene. Going back in winter gave me the shapes of the bare branches of the trees. Going back at different times told me where the light came from, and how it changed in colour and the angle at which it fell. Don't be in a hurry, is the motto. Getting to know a scene is never time wasted.

Doing the drawings brought up the problems I'd have to face too. I wanted figures on the path going down, to provide some narrative interest and to help explain the recession in depth, but I knew there was a risk of ending up with a sight the eye would baulk at; one figure apparently next to the other, but much larger because of perspective. Easy to read in real life, but tricky to set up in a painting. Also, the view of the field on the left that I wanted required me to adopt another point of view and somehow blend it with the view down the path. Technical considerations that had to be addressed, and I think I did all right.

It sounds a little cold and calculating, which is really a good thing. I'm not a great believer in unplanned art. I think there's always a balance to be reached between inspiration and craft. Without the former, there's no point in making art. Without the latter, it all falls to pieces. You need a spark, but you also need to know how to lay the firewood, as it were. I could labour over some more similes, but I think you get the point. Art needs craft.

I began to tackle the tricky business of how much detail to include and how much needed editing. Visible reality is a ghastly mess, for the most part. There's far too much of it, for one thing, which is why using photographs as reference sources is a mixed blessing. Photographs tell you too much. They're like the friend who starts to tell you a story and doesn't know what to leave out, so that in the end the story is lost in irrelevant detail.

How do we solve this problem? I suspect the invention of the digital camera may prove to be he best thing since sliced bread. An image editing programme such as Photoshop or Paintshop Pro can be used to fiddle with reference shots so that irrelevant detail is removed, blurred or altered. It's another weapon in the artist's armoury, and one we would be remiss to ignore.

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