Working Methods

“To evoke in oneself a sensation
which one has experienced before
and having evoked it in oneself,
to communicate this sensation in such a way
that others may experience the same  sensation…
in this does the activity of art consist.


Leo Tolstoy


As we have learned, a grammar exists for painting. Rules, and the principles upon which they are based, must be learned and followed. Every passage must bear relation to the preceding one; the whole must express a clear idea, unforced, spontaneous — even hiding the rules that governed its creation. The making of a painting is more than just the manipulation of color and value, it is the beauty of how these attributes construct form in a specific light. It is, therefore, a matter of design and rhythm.


As I have said, the act of painting can be thought of as a process of getting each area of color and value to faithfully portray the scene in the light in which it exists. Sounds easy! But consider how difficult it would be to choose first the final color that depicted the smallest divisions. It is almost impossible. It is nearly always true that we can not tell if a color is correct until we see it next to other colors. Therefore, it is necessary to have the ability to modify each area of color.

Note that when I am referring to different colors, I do not mean shaded variation of the same color. Nothing can kill a painting faster than graded color: a darker (or lightened) version of the same color. I do mean a different color.

Usually, even the most complex scenes can be visualized in a manageable number of large areas. Naturally, it is easier to visualize a few large areas than numerous smaller ones. Comparing six to ten areas, one to the other, is much easier than attempting to adjust a hundred spots of color.


By working with large masses first, the painter avoids showing detail. As we have seen, too many painters are preoccupied with pictorial details or, in extreme, oversimplified forms in flat color areas. The balance of these extremes is a matter for the painter’s judgment. Complicated forms should be edited out or grouped to meet compositional requirements and then modeled to convey a sense of solidity. Be guided by what conveys the spirit of the message. Often the overall essence of a work changes when the slightest detail is changed.

As the painter moves from major to minor variations, details can show specific form. But even at the last stage of a painting, beware of being too descriptive. Details often call upon themselves undue attention. To quote Inness, “The true artist reproduces nature not as the brute sees it, but as an idea partaking more or less of the creative source from which it flows.”


Once each large area, or mass, is defined by a different color, the actual painting starts. The first choice of color is crucial as it sets up the quality and kind of light striking the scene. However, as it is the first choice, it is often crude (inspired for those with refined vision) rudimentary. It must be modified to more accurately depict the light falling on that space. Once defined initially, each mass’s reconsideration begins to refine it in its relationship to the others.

This stage of reconsidering each mass is often done several times before breaking down the masses into smaller areas.


Once you feel that each large mass faithfully reveals the light, you divide each into major variations. For example, the large mass representing the shade side of a cluster of foliage might break down into three sections, each slightly different (not graded color) but true to how that overall mass is seen in the light. As it gleans some of this strong light, the section nearest the adjoining mass of full light might resemble a half-tone. The opposite edge will be a different color and value as it picks up parts of the sky and reflections from surrounding objects. Buffeted by these other variations, the third part of the original mass may be a slightly different color from the other two and may embody more of the color of the larger mass. Not that this is only an example — not a rule — of how an initial mass might be divided into several major variations.


Once the large masses establish the caliber of the falling light and are further broken down to record the light more precisely, each major variation is further divided into smaller sections. For example, the half-tone described above may now have a throng of different colors describing how the light melds the larger masses of light and shade.


Painting in this manner is building from within. It is the optimal way to record the light falling upon a scene. Moving from large masses to major variations to minor variations is the most practical and efficient way to show step by step the scene in a specific effect of light.

This procedure may appear to be a deliberate process. It is rewarding for each stage; a goal is set: first, recording the overall effect of light; second, breaking each larger area down to more specific components; and third, achieving the final accuracy of each individual form in that light.

In the beginning, then, large color masses describe the simplified structural integrity of a given scene. The accuracy and beauty in which each mass relates to another is measured by the painter’s experience and sensitivity.


One device that painters sometimes use that injures a painting is to arbitrarily fill in background, and then over this artificial backdrop, add other elements. For example, one should not paint the sky across the top of a landscape and then add mountains and trees. This puts false emphasis on things — mountains and trees –rather than on the overall relationship between the sky, mountains, and trees. Elements become like applied postage stamps and downgrade the image. The solution is to refine each area separately, going to all the others before coming back to any single mass. Once the painter has worked on each large area several times, then he or she breaks these down into major variations before seeking smaller sections.

Radiance in a work comes from intentional regard for each large area’s color and value fidelity. To do this the painter must equally reference the accuracy of each mass to all the others. For example, equal consideration of each large mass allows the painter to get closer to the truth of what he or she sees before these masses are broken down to more specific shapes.


Whether the painter paints by brush or painting knife, the choice is personal and esthetic. While a brush allows speed, it often constrains, as it is not easy to change color while working with one. The brush, however, is less clumsy than the knife, permitting a fluid redefinition of form.

While not as facile, the painting knife does allow for a more controlled application. Further, the knife does not require a medium, which tends to break down the intensity of color. As it is easy to keep the knife clean, the painter can introduce a pigment into a mixture, thereby refining an existing color mixture of different pigments into a single new color.

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