Capture the Moment

Give your landscapes greater emotional impact by looking beyond the surface.

The Artist’s Magazine | 2003 September issue | By Po Pin Lin

When people stand in front of one of my paintings, I want them to feel as if they’re right there at the site. To create this feeling, I start by painting the things that I love- often scenes of my life and travels in California. Then I look for something underneath what I see, such as an atmosphere, a mood or a feeling, that best describes the moment.

Subtlety is very important, and a lot of information can be provided by simple elements. Reflections of the sky, buildings and lights can  that a tree is wet, for example, or dark clouds and gloomy sky- as “The breath of Winter” (on page 35)- can indicate that a storm is coming. In some paintings I add an overall glow to capture the rich atmosphere of a sunset. I use color to add drama to my work, and I’ll exaggerate my color choices if it helps, get my message across.

Point of Reference

I prefer to work in oil on canvas. Oil allows me to create great variations in color and makes it easier to correct mistakes and keep color clean. I also find that the elasticity of a canvas allows for the most controlled, expressive brushstrokes. I use medium-textures cotton canvas. Rougher canvas wears out of the brushes too quickly, while soft canvas unnecessarily reveals each brushestrokes.

I work both en plain air and in the studio. In general, I limited myself to smaller works- rarely larger than 18×24- when painting outdoors. When I go on location, I study the area and select the senses I want to paint. Then I take lots of reference photos. I try to familiarize myself with the environment, the feeling of the moment, and the colors.

I use this combination of photos and memory when I go into the studio to design a composition for a larger painting. I pick four to five pictures that have potential, then combine and simplify the elements in each until I feel comfortable enough to start my painting. In some cases, I may also do a sketch or a small study using oil on canvas to set my composition.

When I’ve settled on a composition, I design a color palette for that particular painting. Choosing colors is mostly a matter of personal experience – and everyone’s experiences are a little different. Typically I use titanium white, Naples yellow hue, cadmium red light, cadmium orange hue, yellow ochre, permanent alizarin crimson, cobalt violet hue, burnt sienna, French ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, cerulean blue, and viridian green hue.

My subject helps determine what size the painting will be. If I’m planning a wide-open cityscape, I usually work larger than 24×36. However, if I’m focusing on a particular object, such as a street corner, a shoreline, a rock or a tree, I may work smaller. If I’m doing a large painting, I typically start by toning the canvas with brush sienna to help harmonize my colors. For medium and small paintings, I usually work directly on the canvas- the white surface seems to allow me to better explore value and hue in smaller formats.

Colorful Conclusions

Now I’m ready to paint. I sketch the general outlines of the objects on my canvas, adding more detail around my focal points. This is very important – the drawing provided the foundation for the piece, and it must be correct. I then use burnt sienna mixed with turpentine to establish my lightest and darkest areas, and the direction of the light.

Next, I begin to color the objects. Nature is y guide here, although I often push the creative envelope. I start working at my center of interest and move outward. When the canvas is covered, I go back over the entire painting, adding color, making corrections and applying the final touches. This is my favorite part of the painting process. Sometimes I purposely show the underlying colors to give my paintings more depth and color variations.

As I work, I pay lots of attentions to edges. I typically use a painting knife to re-create texture effects, such as the roughness of rocks, the thickness of snow and the dryness of grass. I use brushes to break up the sharp edges created by the knife. Or I may use the side of a brush to create soft edges or uneven shapes. Together, brushes and painting knifes add life to a painting. Without both, a painting would be like an ocean without any waves- boring and lifeless.

I struggle most in deciding when to stop a painting, and I try to avoid overworking. I believe a good oil painting should contain some loose, powerful brushstrokes. The worse case would be to overwork a painting to the point that it loses the quality of an oil painting and looks too much like a photo.

Subtle Reminders

Careful study lies at the heart of good landscape. But to capture the potential power of a scene, you must become involved n a more personal level. By looking for the nuances that suggest weather conditions, season and places, the adding the all-important ingredient of your own experiences, you’ll develop your own vocabulary –  one that helps you say what you want to say, the way you want to say it. 

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