For the longest time I used to paint from memory, than from photos, and than from just bits of photos and yesterday in an afternoon of painting I experienced several shifts of thought and realized very distinct differences in painting and the feeling you have when you are deeply involved in a painting.
I think teaching painting has very much pushed me to not be happy with the idea of pushing paint around, the feeling is very enjoyable if not frustrating which depends on your place and mood.
I have several waterfalls started-one of Petit Jean in Arkansas which has been pending for about a good two years and another of Turner Falls in Oklahoma-you notice a trend here-waterfalls. I don't want to paint another landscape that is as good, even closely to anything I have previously created, I want the water to be so clear and so crystal the viewers get at least a cold feeling or even barely the feeling they get sitting in front of a waterfall. I want the viewer to look for the movement and clarity and try to find the key to how the painting has captured that feeling so well-this is a tall order for a painter but something that I believe is a process that has showed me the place where painting from memory can only fail. The simplest things we don't notice are the reasons why we see a waterfall and feel things in a landscape-these small details are the first things we lose in a painting from memory.
Here is the experience that I noticed first hand. Usually I start painting with the idea that I have a short time to do as much work as I can get done and I must feel whatever painting I decide to start. If I am in the mood for a cold winter scene, I have a hard time painting a sunny landscape. If I am extremely detail oriented, I will chose to paint something that has lots of details I can get lost in and not a water scene that begs for less detail and more quick responses to atmosphere and image. I have always said the less you put into t a water scene the better because the details are often in what you don't see or barely see rather than the great use of details. I have a rose painting that people have remarked about the droplets-it's the simplicity and lack of paint that actually captured the droplets-this image was actually created from life which brings me to the next idea and supports the idea that memory often fails us. When we try to capture something beautiful and simple our memory tends to overdo the image-we fill in the gaps with details and ruin the fresh simplicity which will make the image what the viewer has a dilemma and begs the question-how did he or she do that?
I painted the Petit Jean image and departed from the original idea that escaped me and made me push paint back and forth for the last six months, granted in overlapping the strokes of paint the skeleton image beneath was actually necessary and made the overlapped detail work but at the time it seemed tedious at best-ask my student about painting rocks-notice the second painting she did was void of details-that says a lot. So suddenly after looking at a photograph the image came together and suddenly every stroke was called for-I knew where the paint went and what color went where because it made sense and the photograph although missing much information allowed me the direction to support whatever memories failed me.
After having a great flow of work with the one painting I switched to a commission I am working on from a photograph, the image is very detailed but extremely well positioned and thought out. The lines are clean, the execution is almost without surprise-which is the drawback of painting from a photograph where the knowledge of the scene increases the quality of the image being captured, much of the surprises and mistakes that occur from memory are lost. Much of the freedom of stroke and movement are somewhat toned down-there are drawbacks to both. After a very successful time painting this painting I switched to a portrait for all of a second or two but I just wasn't in the detail oriented mode and feared ruining what I started. So on to the Turner Falls image-painting from memory and some poor pix-I felt like I did more harm than good-the colors muddied quickly, the depth and clarity of the water turned more into a bunch of lines and colors that just didnt' capture any depth, coldness or clarity of the water-I was pushing paint again.
I quickly got off before I did too much damage and worked on an ocean scene that has gone through many changes in form and focus-it's kind of a wild card but here is the fun of painting from memory-freedom-almost working in an abstract feeling-enjoying the movement in lines, the change of form and colors-I created an ocean scene but nothing in the scene was clear as a wave or a rock, even the boat was somewhat an afterthought. The only success I felt I had achieved was a great depth of the painting, a change in the light and movement and it was a really free enjoyable process-I will in the future look at an ocean scene to capture some of the intangible details that I feel I missed in the execution. It is just funny how the brain reacts to different processes of painting and different needs are achieved by different approaches we take to capturing realism/impressionism/expressionism., which brings me to the new year and the new process I am excited to embark on-Plein Air- I plan on painting outside from life more often and I'm excited to see the change of works and how the eye and brain depicts realism from life instead of photographs or memory.