Chris Curtis, of the Searchers 1941-2005
I received this query via e-mail the other day. Following that is my answer.
I have a question that has been keeping me up at night. You have talked before about laying down paint in a tiled fashion with each brushstroke next to the other. You and other smart dudes also emphasize that each brushstroke must be planned and mixed before you lay it on the canvas. Does that mean that no two color spots on the canvas are the same? Is there ever any cause to dab at the canvas repeatedly without reloading the brush?
And finally, how big are the tiles? Say you're standing looking at a barn. If it's very far away, one brushstroke will be enough to describe it, and presumably it will only be one color. As the barn gets closer, assuming it's not shade-dappled or so big that it needs to be described with atmospheric perspective, how much of it will you describe with one brushstroke, or one color? What about a stand of bushes or a snow-covered hillock? How many tiles will you lay to describe it? Or a mass of trees?
Of course micro-local (I just made that word up) color will vary. But say you have an area in front of your eyes about the size of your palm that is all approximately the same color, like a roof or a field or a tree crown. How do you fill that in or enlarge that color spot? Thanks as always for your educational blog. After you answer this question I will be able to go back counting sheep instead of leaves.
Signed,.................................Toiling in the Data Mines.
Dearest Data miner:
I often tell students to lay tile. What I mean by this, is to mix a "tile" of the appropriate color and value on the palette and lay it in place discreetly on the canvas then take the brush away. I do this for two reasons. The first is to discourage them from trying to "worry" the paint on the canvas into a picture. The idea is to mix up the note, lay it on the canvas and move on. Secondly, "tile" implies a structure with body and thickness rather than a stain of turpentine and pigment. You cannot make a painting out of thinner. "Laying tiles" encourages a purposeful and precise authoritative approach as opposed to mucking about in an undisciplined flurry of ill conceived or tentative strokes.
I think it is OK to daub at a canvas several times with a loaded brush, but then it it's time to stop! It is really easy to get carried away and stop thinking about what you are doing. When you wake up from your reverie you have thrown the same note in too many places without thinking. So it is best to make and lay a tile or two, and then STOP! Time to think again, observe nature, consider your design and intent, and mix a new note. It might be a variation on the last one, but it should be reconsidered. Avoid going into a trance and daubing stupidly all over your canvas. That's really easy to do. So Stay Awake!
Then you asked "And finally, how big are the tiles? Say you're standing looking at a barn. If it's very far away, one brushstroke will be enough to describe it, and presumably it will only be one color. As the barn gets closer, assuming it's not shade-dappled or so big that it needs to be described with atmospheric perspective, how much of it will you describe with one brushstroke, or one color? "
The tiles are often a pixel, that is, at least for your layin, you are going to cover the canvas with pieces of intelligence of a certain size. You might decide to make marks no larger or smaller than a thumbnail. I sometimes joke when beginning a picture, that I am throwing hamburger sized chunks at the painting. This is part of "starting out with a shovel and finishing with a needle". You might start laying in your painting with large strokes and then as you finish subdivide them into smaller strokes. As for your barn, I would caution you against covering a very large area with one brushstroke of a single tone, like a house painter. Better to superimpose two related or similar colors. That will give vibration and visual interest to the painting. I often point out to students that in my own paintings, that if they slid a wedding ring across the surface there would be several notes within it's circumference no matter where they placed it.
An area of a size larger than say a walnut should be varied in color. If you paint an area larger than that with a flat tone, like a house painter, it will go flat. Every surface varies in value, temperature and color as the eye travels across it. Your barn should be one color at its base and another at the eaves. It would also benefit by some modulation within the general tone used to describe it, barns are weathered, so throw in some variation, grayer here and redder under the eaves where the paint has not weathered as much. Invent those variations if necessary. These variations please the eye and confuse it as well. That better gives the idea that we are looking at the complexity of nature.
I am not suggesting that you will always see these things, but that your picture will be more convincing and pleasing if you install them.