Sunday, February 24, 2013

Can this old painting be saved?

Over the past weeks, I've revisited a couple of my old paintings and shown how they can be vastly improved through better use of color, lighting, and detail work. Overly dark shadows have been eliminated, the illusion of distance has been added, and more natural shapes and color harmonies have been created.

This week's revisited painting presents an additional challenge:

This old painting suffers from many of the same problems as much of my earlier works: the excessive use of black in the scene despite the clear sky and supposedly ample lighting, the lack of color harmony - even if this is an oak forest in fall, there is still way too much red everywhere, and trees placed in a fence-row pattern in the background.

The bigger problem is the questionable composition: the distant trees present a dark and ominous barrier to the eyes and stop rather sharply at the edge of the sky. The foreground tree, meanwhile, draws too much attention in a negative way with black branches slashing across the scene. We've all taken photos like this in the woods, where random tree limbs get in the way of the picture, but that doesn't mean one should paint the scene that way.

The composition problems make it much harder to fix this painting. First, I had to push the background trees further away and break them up a bit so they didn't feel like a solid wall. This was achieve through "negative painting" - adding in misty sky holes with Cerulean Blue and Titanium White. Secondly, the foreground tree, while dramatic, still feels like a dark, dead shadow. I had to tone down the excessive darkness of the tree and add some colors to better integrate it into the scene. I also added some leaves to it to avoid it looking like a gnarled snag.

The river was a problem as well - it was barely visible in the original painting and thus the shoreline had to be tweaked to offer a clear view of the water. Finally, the run-away red was corrected so the scene has a more natural feeling. The grass in particular needed to stand out with its own colors vs. blending in with the trees. The bushes were the same way - they never should have been red in the first place since they certainly were not small oaks.

Final result - acrylic painting, 14" x 17"

Despite the vast improvement - the greater light, more realistic colors, and improved sense of depth - there are still limits to what could be done with this painting because of the compositional mistakes made at the beginning. When painting forest interior scenes, such as this one, solid walls of trees must be prevented from the start. Add in sky holes, push the background trees into blurry shapes much further away than the eye would see - whatever it takes to avoid that solid mass of singular green that can take away a painting's interest. Similarly, while close-up trees are interesting, the one in this scene is still in an odd location and the heavy limbs that cut up the painting still lurk beneath the sun-speckled leaves. Unless you're painting a portrait of a tree, never overuse tree limbs close-up - the end result will be distracting and draw attention away from the rest of the scene.

Hopefully, this post will be of use to budding landscape artists who can benefit from seeing the compositional  mistakes made by others and thus avoid them on their own.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Dusk's Last Embers - Revisited

Almost 20 years, I painted the original painting shown below. While it was decent for its time, I've learned a lot since then. The original scene is far too dark, with stiff trees carved completely out of black paint and out-of-place white highlights scattered around. The sky is leaden and lacking interest, aside from the fiery colors, and the forest in the distance is also overly dark and heavy.

Original painting:

On the plus side, the composition is interesting - standing on a cliffside amid gnarled old trees while watching the sunset in the valley beyond is a great setup for an exciting landscape painting. The original scene, while flawed, worked well as an underpainting since the excessive darks could be built upon with a lighter and better mix of colors.

The scene was adjusted with the addition of more interesting clouds to the sky and properly colored reflections in the water to match them. The trees have been brightened up with the low-angle light, and the forest has been pushed further into the distance to stand against the improved glow of the setting sun.

Improved painting: 14" x 17"

The end result is a far better scene that captures the drama and strong colors of the moment in a way inspired by some of the great landscape paintings of previous generations. Much like the other times I've improved old paintings, hopefully this post will be of use by providing solid examples of what to do and what not to do when trying to bridge that gap between a novice landscape painter and an experienced one.