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PAINTING BACKGROUNDS

IT’S A PHILOSOPHICAL THING

In response to inquiries on this subject

Airbrush

The most seemingly insignificant part of any picture can make or break the final result. The sky is a key element in landscapes and nature painting and my comments will apply to this and not to other painting subjects such as portraits. With watercolour paintings the background (sky, forests etc), if painted too lightly first time can result in needing a second coat. It is then that the risk of loosing vibrance by making the paint too dense is a real possibility. And paint the background sky too dark and the tonal range of the whole picture can be jeopardised (unless you want a dark background which is a common thing). My preference in painting backgrounds is with a large Raphael Le 803 brush (sizes 5-11)., and lots of water to boot. Not everyone wants to use a brush.

Over the past decade or two,I have observed the increased use of air brush technique when making pictures of nature. Air brush painting has been an acceptable practice since early 1890’s, and used very effectively for creating pictures of vehicles, motor bikes, boats, portraits, huge wall murals and even by panel-beaters and car decorators. There is a clear and valid use of the device, which I expect, requires a lot of training and skills development- just like any art technique. I have seen images of motorbikes painted using air brush and they are just superb. It is also a technique that appears to lend itself to hyper-realism picture production and helps to create a real bing in a picture. My enthusiasm starts to decline with vehicles, buildings, graffitti and architectural images.

Despite not liking to be boxed into an art type my artwork appears to be consistent with those known as naturalism works- a subset of realism. I like using brushes because they are a natural tool for watercolour- a bit like charcoal and graphite for drawings and linework. My favourite subjects are found in nature and landscapes. I even have a native plant garden. But back to the subject-

The use of air brush technique to make a picture of a natural subject relies in the first instance upon a personal choice which is to answer the question: how do you want the final picture to appear? it’s a philosophical thing really. Each to their own, I say. Many a person trying to paint nature starts out by trying to replicate a photograph. And it is right there that things start to unravel. Well known artists even make air brush backgrounds- and eventually they all start to look the same- same colours, same everything. And if you look in their studio there will be a line-up of pictures being mass produced. That’s just professional art you say. It’s a personal choice- I say. Where is the wrestling with the picture, where is the uniqueness, where is the art? Painting of nature (fauna and flora) has shifted in recent years with hyperrealism artists making huge pictures of small creatures like 60cm high wrens. And that’s all there is- just a wren or a lion or a zebra- no composition with habitat, just an objectified thing and perhaps clinging to a straight stick. And the air brush is used to create the equivelant of an out-of-focus background in a photograph. It’s a studio adaption not a natural reality. The gradation of a shape from in focus to out of focus as achieved in a photograph is not how our eyes perceive an image. We focus on what we are looking at and the rest is simply not specifically recognised. However, since digital photography has become so commonly used we have allowed ourselves to replicate¬† a photographic style in place of a natural style. And that’s a philosophical choice. My real concern is the lack of creativity being applied by artists when making a composition- originality is being replaced by photo interpretation.

I have never used an air brush and I don’t expect I ever will because I have a technique that I enjoy. It’s a philosophical thing.

and while I am at it another thing that I don’t do- use masking fluid

I don’t use masking fluid to achieve highlights or to protect a piece of paper for later pure colouring. A close examination (and sometimes not so close) of a watercolour painting may reveal the use of masking fluid- the shape of the latex gunk used these days is usually sharp rough edged like a ragged triangle and unlike any natural highlight- it usually looks awful and extremely unatural. So why do people use the stuff in nature painting ?

Before latex masking fluid was availanble one thing artists use to use was wax on paper to stop paint soaking in and then use a hot iron over blotting paper to absord the unwanted wax.

In nature, you will be pushing uphill to find true white, so why imagine that preserving bright white miss-shapen highlights will bring a benefit to a picture. A white feather on a bird will usually be a very pale buff yellow/white; grey/white, pinky/white or so on.

Wandoo and shrubs

The picture above (Wandoo and Shrubs) forms part of a much larger watercolour landscape painting. I wanted the pale trunks of the Wandoo trees to stand out from the darker colours of the shrubs. A feint pencil line indicated where the tree trunks were to be. I carefully but freely painted up to those lines with the dark green and blue. I didn’t care if a bit of paint went to far (as you can see) as long as I maintained the impression of stand out tree trunks. The clouds are wet brushed with clear water added before and sfter the blu paint was applied and then lifted out for the cotton wool effect- revealing a suitable white to give a reliable impression of clouds.

The same approach was used in this painting of karri trees trunks against the blue sky.

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