On the face of it this seems like a no-brainer. When you set out to depict something in a representational way, you’d probably spend some time looking at what it was you would be wanting to portray and then painting it. Either from life, or from photographs. However there are powerful forces at play here that perhaps move you to where you are painting what you “Know” much more than what you “See”.
For instance we visually tend to get lazy and start to categorize what we see. Trees = green. Tree trunks = brown. Mountains = jagged “saw-tooth” shapes. Snow = white. Sky = blue or if cloudy – gray. The list becomes relatively endless.
We’ve seen these things so many times we perhaps stop really “seeing” them. Also from an early age when making marks on paper that define the world around us we adopt a visual “shorthand”, if you will. Lollipops on sticks are what most children draw to express “tree”. Saw-tooth jagged shapes are mountains. A yellow ball with rays – why that’s the sun.
At an exploratory elementary school in Canon City, CO on an early fall morning I was introducing first and second graders to the joys of picture books and how they are created. Part of the exercise was to have them draw their favorite outdoor place to hide. In discussing one young girl’s drawing I asked her to tell me about it. (A more preferred approach than the oft heard “What’s THAT?”) She excitedly told me about this stand of trees where she’d hide in the shadows. And of course the stand of trees were green lollipops on brown sticks.
After the group discussion I asked her to get her drawing pad and come with me over to the window. We sat at the window together- both with our pencils and paper and I said “let’s draw what’s right across the street there at the edge of the sidewalk.” She pointed to a large old elm tree whose leaves were just beginning to turn. “Yup- let’s draw THAT”, I said, never once saying, ”Let’s draw a ‘tree’.”
When the task was to portray what she was looking at, bolstered with the initial talk we shared about putting down on paper the shapes and angles and colors that she was LOOKING AT, she was able to come up with a pretty sophisticated (for a first grader) colored drawing of “tree”. Not a lollipop in sight.
That experience reinforced for me what I’d been exploring in the plein air painting I was just moving into. When you are standing at your easel and there’s a stunning play of light on land it feels SO important to accurately put down what it is that made you stop in your tracks and say “THAT”. “I want to paint THAT!” In those moments you begin to see tree trunk is decidedly NOT brown – tree is so much more than green. If there’s red in there- you put that in. If there’s purple and green in the tree trunk mix the color and lay it down.
Never do I question what I’m looking at- I simply put it down on the canvas. Many painters have noted what is really a solid basic truth. All I have to do is simply get the right color, in the right temperature, the right value and the right shape and put it in exactly the right place. And then I do that again for the color right next to the one I just put down, pretty soon I’ll have painted a ___________________ (fill in the blank). Never once was there an inference to depict anything that you KNOW. Only a call to portray exactly what you are SEEING.
Another common point of discussion one hears when artists talk is that anxious declaration “Oh, I just can’t paint horses…(or cars, feet, faces, or poultry – it’s almost endless!). If you hold to the admonition laid out in the previous paragraph and steadfastly NOT consciously think about the SUBJECT MATTER that you are painting you should be able to accurately paint ANYTHING. Because at the core of it everything is simply combinations of color and shape and value.
Then when you consider painting a face, let’s say, and you notice an aqua green sliver of color alongside a nostril or a fuchsia slab of color underneath a lower eye lid- you simply mix the color and lay it down. No questioning the fact turquoise and fuchsia are not necessarily thought of as “flesh colors”. You SEE them there and wanting to faithfully express the myriad and exciting color that plays across the flesh of face, you confidently apply them. Pretty simple.
And I believe this can assist you in exploring color as an element of non representational art. Or color as an enthusiastic expression of how you WANT this object to be seen. An expression and depiction existing nowhere but in your creative vision. Limitless possibility. THAT is the ultimate joy of creativity.