“What if?” can lead to a stronger painting.
We hear it all the time… “Just because it is in the photo doesn’t mean we have to paint it that way.” And our common response may be “but that’s how it looks in the photo.” It can take a while before we feel confident enough in our skills to give ourselves permission to re-interpret a scene. I would like to share with you such a journey that led to a 2nd place award that I received in the 21st Annual Pastel Journal’s Pastel 100 Competition.
As I shared in the April 2020 edition of the Pastel Journal, during a walk in the woods 10 years ago, a young raccoon came toward me along the footpath, unaware of my presence. As it stopped to take a drink from a stream, I quickly and quietly took some photos. The painting that I created soon after this interaction diligently copied the scene, including the brown of Autumn. I was very pleased with that initial painting because it looked like the photo, well, pretty much.
Ten years later, I decided to revisit the moment. Over those years, not only have my skills with pastels improved, but I’m more comfortable with asking “what if?” and giving myself permission to step away from photograph.
The “what if?” phase happens for me when developing thumbnail sketches, considering various compositions. Once I select a composition that I feel is strong, then I’ll ask myself “what if” I change the direction of the lighting or the overall color scheme? These all went into creating “Cool Drink.”
Wanting to bring more focus on the moment, cropping in closely to the raccoon edits out many of the potential distractions and essentially unimportant elements in the scene.
Changing the color scheme to the greens of summer allowed for a more vibrant complementary palette and prevented the raccoon from becoming lost in the Autumn reflections. And lastly, shifting the light source to backlighting gave me an opportunity to punch up the glints on the water and lead the viewer’s eyes into the scene.
By stepping away from copying the reference photo literally, it can result in a stronger painting and a more compelling story. If we only give ourselves permission to ask, “what if?”