You’re standing there on the shores of Lake Michigan. The sun is setting, the sky is lighting up, and both — bold in subtle ways — are taking your breath away. All set to the soundtrack of crashing waves.
Now, how are you going to paint it? The simple answer is: You’re not. You’re going to use that moment, that feeling, and that photo you took that doesn’t quite measure up as a jumping-off point.
It’s your job to interpret that view in a way that’s entertaining first to yourself, and then the viewer. So yes, use that photo as an excuse to paint. But then, please, please, disregard it. Unless you happen to also be a rock star photographer with a gig at National Geographic, the photo isn’t measuring up to that moment anyway.
So rearrange it and reinterpret it. The best way to do this is in a sketch or watercolor study. This is a practice I was really good at early in my career, which I later I abandoned. I’m getting back to it, because it is so much better to work out the details on a piece of paper than in the midst of a large painting. I’ve done it; I’ve painted all day, just to discover my composition needs to be changed. It’s something that’s completely avoidable when you do your studies in either pencil or paint in advance.
Now that you’ve transferred your sketch or study onto the early phases of your painting, put your photo away. Yes, you can go back and reference it if need be, but now is the time for you to be an artist. It’s time for you to focus on the canvas and your interaction with it and what the paint is doing and how interesting that is to you. Now is the time to be an entertainer: Use your skills as an artist to make the piece entertaining to the viewer.
This is why we create. We don’t paint to imitate nature; nature has already done a super big job of that. We paint to express our own feelings and interpretations. You have a permission slip to do that. And, frankly, I’m inviting you to. So go make art that is uniquely you, and all the better for it.
As always, I love to hear from you in the comments; it’s where the best discussions happen. Write down your thoughts, your ideas and your questions. And look for me on Facebook and Instagram, I’m there everyday!