Choice of Subject Matter
Perhaps the most important decision an artist makes is his choice of subject matter. It should be a deliberate and personal matter, rather than one that is taken lightly. All too often I see people painting still life and floral works that seem bland and lacking in energy, perhaps because they are set up in haste or the most convenient items that are available to paint. (This being said…painting still life and floral works is always great practice and very often a worthy subject.) Subject matter should be something that a person knows and understands, and that is representative of his individuality not only as an artist, but as a person as well.
I once had a painting class in college, when I was very seriously avoiding the prospect of becoming an artist. My teacher asked us to choose a subject that we really hated, and to paint it. I chose detergent bottles. Not only did I hate doing my own laundry, but there was also the fact that they were made of plastic and I was a budding ecologist. One of my fellow students who was an adult returning to school chose the subject of a single Milk of Magnesia bottle. We painted these subjects that we really disliked, and they turned out rather well, because we had distinctive feelings about them. What we didn't know when we chose the subject was that we would be asked to paint it again and again !
The choice of subject matter is personal, but you don't have love your subject matter for the painting to turn out well. Feelings about both form and function, both negative and positive can be expressed equally well in painting. I believe that an artist should have very definite feelings about his subject. He should paint something that is near and perhaps, dear, to his life experience, something that reflects an expressive quality in the action of painting. For me that choice is often a combination of items or a landscape scene that is captured in a beautiful lighting situation. If I am enamored of a subject, I will find myself saying excitedly …"look at the light !!"
Paying Homage to Light
I began paying attention to "light" early in my life, because I was always carrying around a camera. Years ago, in a workshop with one of my favorite, and well known artists, Betty Lou Schlemm, I learned more about ways to interpret light on the paper. She has written a book about it called "Watercolor Secrets for Painting Light", Art Instruction Associates, 1996. I have certainly become one of her disciples.
An artist can paint a scene more realistically and with more energy by looking at the way light reflects and refracts around the edges of his subject matter, for instance, by painting the color of the sky as it reflects in the tree tops, or noticing how warm and cool light bounce around under the overhanging eaves of a house. One needs to look very hard at the colors he needs to represent, and avoid making assumptions about those colors. For example, is a tree trunk brown, or is it really a composite of its own innate color complemented by direct and ambient light.
Check out any of Betty Lou Schlemm's books for more information about light and composition. Better yet, go see an exhibit.
Seeing Negative Space
I strongly believe in maximizing the use of the negative spaces that occur within and around the subject matter in compositions. I think that it really helps a person to see the edges, and work over areas of the paper that one might unintentionally avoid. It is a technique that I began to use after finding that I would very often in eagerness, paint the central subject matter of a painting, let's say a bouquet of flowers on a table, and avoid painting the background. When I finally painted in the background, I ruined the painting !
A background is just as important as the subject matter that it surrounds. In my paintings, backgrounds are sometimes even more important. I like to work around the edges of my subject matter in order to pay closer attention to their form, as if I am actually touching them.
Now, if I am painting a garden scene, maybe some fancy zucchini leaves, I paint everything around those leaves first. This does two things. First it allows me to really observe and paint the complicated patterns that are part of the whole composition. And second, it helps me to preserve the white of the paper. In watercolor, it is sometimes important to leave areas of the paper unpainted. It is hard to do, and very often while one is deeply involved in the process of representing his subject, he eagerly paints over those areas unconsciously.
Having painted the background, I've saved the best (and perhaps, easiest) for last, I can now paint the subject whose edges have already been defined. I no longer have to think about those edges, and I can concentrate on the light and texture, as well as preserving the whites.
Gestural Brush Strokes
The use of expressive brush strokes brings life and energy to a painting. It is important to me to try to keep the process of painting a lively experience that helps to express how I feel about my subject matter. This assumes that I am choosing subject matter that I know and understand, and that is representative of my own individuality not only as an artist, but as a person as well.
Very often I can get trapped in a "coloring book" style in which I work with a sketch and then proceed to color it in carefully, trying not to go over the lines…like a kindergartener! We know we can do this, but can we paint the same shapes with expressive brushstrokes? If this technique suits our own style, and we practice and learn to execute energetic brushwork that still illustrates our subject, our finished product will be more dynamic and perhaps even more interesting and engaging to the viewer.
If I choose a subject that requires a tighter style, very often I will add expressive and gestural brush strokes in Chinese White, when I am near completion of the painting. These bits of white represent various and random splashes of light that may be reflecting from somewhere outside the edges of my painting. Dabs of other colors are suitable for this technique as well, especially if one is painting tree branches or adding interest to an abstract area in a background.
Experiment with your brushes by holding them in different ways, but not like you would hold a pencil !