I came across this quote today by a plein air pastel artist, and found it to be a perfect description for the process of realism painting. In my own work, time and again, I find I need to come back to basics in order to accurately portray the form and mass of an object or the atmosphere of a scene–to see things simply, before choosing to add complexity and detail. The ongoing challenge that all of us who undertake the realist genre have is depicting the true, unmistakable essence of an object or scene without being a slave to reference or the infinite detail of reality. When we manage to accomplish this tightrope walk, we create an illusion that ironically seems more real than reality, in turn creating a sense of awe and wonder in the viewer.
Simplify the Scene
by Richard McKinley
“Because light changes, it’s important to work with efficiency and power when you’re working en plein air. Detail is not an artist’s friend; it’s easy to believe it holds the answers, but in fact it becomes the diversion. Simplifying what you see is a necessity. Remember, it isn’t individual blades of grass that make the field rise and fall across the landscape.
“Without light, we see nothing, so light falling on form is the key to communicating what we see. It’s by arranging shapes and creating the form that you represent the scene to the viewer. Your goal isn’t to create a painting that’s polished and finessed, but rather to capture the essence of the light and the magic that captured your attention in the first place.
“Ever since the arrival of photography, artists have had to fight the urge to see it as the master of what is real. There’s no doubt that photography, used carefully, is a valuable tool. What limits its usefulness is the belief that it can’t tell a lie. That can prejudice your thoughts more than you realize. Try to imagine what artists thought the world looked like two hundred years ago. It’s difficult to do when you’ve never known a time without the printed picture as a part of your consciousness.
“When you take photos back to the studio to use as reference, be sure to ask yourself: What is it that the camera won’t capture? That’s what you want to infuse into the painting.”