When a goal to “get better” at doing something is on the line, deliberate practice is the tested and true strategy to use. It works, because it makes the difficult familiar and, therefore, easier to do. Deliberate practice involves repetition and a coach or mentor, who can help guide the practice and offer constructive critiques, is often involved.
I paint landscapes and I want to get better at it, which to me means painting faster (so I accomplish more in the out-of-doors), seeing nature better, and expressing the essence of a scene and the emotion I feel (my reason for selecting a scene) in my paintings. So I’ve assigned myself the task of doing 50 pochade paintings/studies. A pochade is the box you see in the photo. Mine sits on a tripod and I carry it in a backpack that also contains my paints, brushes, and the other supplies I need to do a painting. My pack weighs about 17 pounds. I give myself 90 minutes to complete a study, and when that time is up, I have to stop working on whatever I’m painting. I don’t include the time it takes to mix the colors I’ll use on a study.
I chose the scene because I’m doing a larger painting (reference photo below) and I don’t want to spend a lot of time trying to figure out what to do on the larger painting. So, in a sense, doing the small studies will help me solve many of the problems I will encounter in the larger painting.
While working on the small study, I thought it might be easier to paint the sky behind the tree first and then paint the tree over the sky. And that’s just what I planned to do the next time I went out to paint the same tree (which I will do several more times). Painting skyholes isn’t hard to do, but I reasoned – wrongly, I must add – that painting the sky first would be more efficient, because it would save me time so I could paint quicker.
In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t try painting the sky in and laying the trees over top. For one thing, Titanium white paint dries slow. All my greens would have mixed with the sky color (which contains a lot of white) and that would have caused my painting to look washed out. I could add a bit of the Gamblin Fastmatte white to make my Titanium white dry faster, and if painting faster was my highest or only priority, the Fastmatte would help to mitigate the problem of greens mixing into light-colored clouds. But my primary goal is to be a better painter, so I read about how other painters have solved problems. Some artist authors (not all) make excellent mentors. And I attend classes and workshops offered by people who have something to teach me.
What I Learned
I’m reading Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting by John F. Carlson. It was first published in 1958 and is considered a classic among books written on the subject. It’s as relevant today as it was sixty years ago. In the chapter on Light, Carlson explains that light loses brilliance when filtered through a dark mass. When the light of the sky touches the edge of trees or passes though sky holes, the light is less brilliant (less white/brilliant and more blue or more gray). I’ve heard people explain that the sky is always a little darker when seen through a skyhole. But that isn’t the “whole” story. Carlson goes on to explain that the sky color varies in value according to the size and consequent amount of light they admit through them. The lightest holes are the biggest holes. The small holes are darker.
This is an important distinction to make for people who are interested in the structural quality of a tree, as I am. Through the combination of reading, deliberate practice, and instruction, I can become a better painter. I am very sure of one thing. If I had painted the sky in before painting the tree, my painting teacher would have said, “What are you doing? Then he would have said, “Scrape off that paint and try again, and leave a little canvas showing where you want to put the skyholes.”
More studies of the tree. I’ll walk up closer to the tree to see better what is around the tree. I need to find a natural way to solve the problem of having an entry point and exit point in the larger painting I will do. And I’ll try some different options on the small studies I’ll paint.
I highly recommend Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting by John F. Carlson, which is available from Amazon and elsewhere, to anyone who is serious about painting landscapes.