There's nothing more enlightening and inspiring than watching a really talented artist paint, and that's exactly what I got to do today. Kevin Macpherson, the author of two of the best art-instruction books around, was in town (well, in Middletown, close to Cincinnati) for the opening of his exhibition at the Middletown Arts Center. While here, he gave a lecture and a demonstration. He showed us how he translates a small field sketch into a larger studio painting, although some of his students in the audience had fun teasing him about being too chicken to tackle all this Midwestern summer green in a plein-air demo!
One of the most valuable things for me was watching Kevin do his block-in. I tend to do the block-in very quickly, trying to cover the canvas with big shapes as quickly as possible. I try to be accurate with the values but I don't take much care with variations in color and I really don't think about the edges. Kevin takes an entirely different approach. He thinks of a painting as a jigsaw puzzle, and his objective is to lay in each small piece (shape) as accurately as possible in value, color, and edge.
He starts by putting in all of the shadows, and as you can see in the first photo, he allows the shadow shapes to be much larger than they actually are. That's because in the middle phase he goes in and paints in the medium value-shapes negatively. This allows the colors to intermingle, creating entirely new colors right on the canvas. His finished block-in really represents all of the dark and middle values very accurately, including beautiful color and temperature variations. He then goes in and adds all of the lightest shapes, highlights, and details, reworking some edges as needed. Because he's so careful with the very first layer of paint, he doesn't have to go over every shape to create the form--he only needs to add lights where needed. It's a very economic, efficient, and direct way of painting.
I'm really inspired to try his approach, taking greater care right from the start. I'm thinking of using it to re-work the plein-air sketch I started yesterday morning. We got rained out after about 45 minutes but I felt like I was off to a good start with that painting so I'm going to give it another go.