This November, right after a lovely snowfall, I rushed out with my painting equipment to catch the light. I had in mind a meandering creek not far from where we live. I found a spot to set up and in a few short weeks the result is what you see above. How did I get to this point? It was partly due to good luck (finding a great subject), lots of experience and practice (the painting part) and much more (allowing artistic instinct to guide me). Let me try to explain.
Whenever I attempt a large canvas, (such as Catch the Light, 30x30 shown in progress above) the process seems to fall into two phases. The first is finding a subject and creating a working sketch; it is critical to choose something that is imaginative and catches my interest immediately. After I have settled on a subject and worked out a concept, I set up my easel and get started. Over a two-hour period, I work quickly and give it my best, recording the event in acrylics, on a 11x13 canvas. Sometimes the outdoor work misses the mark and I pack up and move on. Occasionally, a sketch will resonate with the energy of the impression. The sketch (on the right above), chosen for this larger work, is a good example.
I call the second phase, interpretation. Once back in the studio I examine the sketch under studio lighting, similar to what we find in our homes, and make minor adjustments. I take time to reflect on the moment when I started painting the sketch. I clearly recall, for example, that the only thing that caught my eye was the mesmerizing effect of seeing the late-afternoon sun’s rays flooding the creek and the surrounding forest. I remind myself, that I was oblivious to the foreground, other than the feeling of being immersed in its darkness. However, when I paint en plein air I can’t always set up my easel at the location where I would have chosen to stand; in fact, this time, I was obliged to remain at the roadside. Another concern is that the longer one paints a subject, the more time is available to become distracted by superfluous detail that originally went unnoticed.
The interpretative phase may take weeks to coalesce into an artistic statement or it may fall into place quite quickly. It often develops through trial and error as I paint. In this case, I decided that I must incorporate the mysterious dark foreground as part of the composition giving the effect of watching through the trees and undergrowth. (I have unconsciously repeated this technique in other paintings because I feel comfortable being integral to the forest as opposed to someone observing from a distance.) I deliberately made the foreground shapes and patterns vague to complete the feeling of standing there fixated by the wonder of the last rays of sunlight.
I still have a ways to go in finishing this painting, but the statement is strong and my interpretation is truthful in respect of the inspiration. The real job is done.
Catch the Light 30x30, finished and signed, is now posted, along with the original 11x14 sketch.
The Art of Charles Spratt