Monday, December 20, 2010

Columbia County Courthouse, Magnolia, AR, Columbia County

This post could be just as easily titled "How to Fail at Exploiting the Gray Areas."  By gray areas, I'm meaning the places where the "rules" we learn as painters seem to intersect and oftentimes conflict.  Basically, I took a very difficult composition and tried my best to work through it's pitfalls.  In this case, I made a beautiful failure.  The painting is nice enough in a way but it certainly isn't great.  I expended a great deal of time on it but it was not wasted. I learned a lot.  I learned that there is an order of precendence to some "rules."  Some we can break without much fear.  Others we try to work around to our folly.  And some times, the ability to bend or break these "rules" is dependent on a things such as our lighting!

The painting in question puts the viewer at the intersection of Main Street and Vine Street in Magnolia, AR looking eastward at the Columbia County courthouse.  This courthouse sits up on a small rise in a square.  The traffic on Main St. divides into one way segments around the courthouse.  The shapes of the courthouse are somewhat reminiscent of the the step pyramid mounds made by the Native Americans who lived in Arkansas.  It was precisely this that I wanted to emphasize in this painting.

At the corner of Main and Vine, facing south is a large church with 2 buildings, both of which have large steeples.  They are on the left as you face the courthouse and are very prominent.  This presents quite a headache.  How does one subordinate such structures relative to a building that appears much smaller only 2 blocks away?  How does one control the eye around a steeple that is not a part of the focal object?  Steeples are strong visual cues, commanding us to look skyward.  My courthouse, although beautiful in its own right had no visual elements capable of competing with that strength without playing some major games.  These questions formed major headaches.  I probably should have just bailed on this fight but that's not my style so I took it headlong, doing no composition sketches or notans or anything else.

My strategy:

1.  Remove one church building, at least this way I'm only fighting one steeple.
2.  De-emphasize the church by slightly skewing it's perspective so it's more sidelong than my reference (thereby moving the viewer more into the street than the sidewalk from where my reference was shot.)
3.  Further de-emphasize the church by decreasing its visual size slightly while at the same time increasing the courthouse in size.
4.  Emphasize the courthouse even more by slightly increasing the size of the rise on which it sits, moving it higher up on the visual plane.
5.  Provide a visual recirculation path from the steeple via clouds with multiple paths to both a copse of trees beyond the sidewalk on the left as well as back into the focal region itself.

I quickly realized that my cloud work just was not going to cut it for #5.  I have some technical issues with clouds as the size of the paintings increase.  It's mostly an equipment problem.  I'm a huge admirer of the use of flats.  I really like the look they can achieve when "stepping on" already applied layers of wet paint.  I have a wide array of flats but they are all synthetic bristle which means that the large ones behave like a wet biscuit until you get a nice build up of hardened paint deep in the belly of the brush so it has some rigidity.  Alas, none of my big flats have enough rigidity to make the types of marks I need to do large cloud work!  (I think some good big hog bristle flats are in order for Christmas!)  A sable bright might offer more give than a synthetic or hog bristly bright but I can't afford a 1" sable brush!  So in light of this, I opted to go a different route.  I changed the time of day to earlier with the sun just cresting beyond the edge of the canvas.  This let me put a large bright region right over my focal point and gave me lot so flexibility with varying colors in the sky.  I would instead use color and temperature variations, along with the stoplight horizontal to recirculate the eye from the steeple back into the painting.

Above is the finished product.  I think my sky became far too desaturated for the relatively dark shadowed areas on the side.  The courthouse is possibly far too prominent!   Even being a focal point, it feels quite assertive.  The hard edges are too focused.  It actually did not need the help I tried to give it to bring it to prominence!  With a more saturated sky, I could have taken out the stoplight.  It's very interuptive here I feel and does not fulfill it's planned role at all.  There's really interesting stuff going on in the sky but since the color is so desaturated, it's almost impossible to make out in a photograph and not a whole lot easier in person.  In addition, the trees on the right hand side are too dark relative to everything else.  I could have put a lot more light here.  I realy like the church and it's steeple, I think I did a good job there.  The red truck on the right was actually parked facing the wrong direction.  I liked that and left it like I saw it.  Some of the work on the cars is good too even if they are a bit distracting and bunched too closely across the middle of the plane. Maybe only three cars would have been better.

So there you go.  The moral of the story is that I overthought this one, totally overplanned in the wrong ways.  If I had done a couple of small quick notan studies I probably could have sidestepped the actual issues I had without introducing new ones by overthinking.  We artists do tend to be our own worst critics but sometimes that's a good thing.  I am, of course, disappointed in this one because I really hoped it would be something great.  I felt very strongly in this location and had what I thought was a great concept and plan of attack.  I doubt I will go back and adjust this piece but I may try it again cleanly.  This time though, I'll do a small study or two beforehand!  Beauty is in the eye of the beholder so if someone out there falls in love with this, it is available but I'm pretty sure I'll never enter it in any shows or try to display it anywhere.

I would also like to point out that this is not entirely a self critique.  I did post this to WetCanvas to get the thoughts of other artists.  Some pointed out items I had seen but I also got some additional things to think about as well which I have included in this post.

No comments:

Post a Comment