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.

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