An orchestra is more than a collection of soloists. In the same way, a painting is more than the collection of its parts.
Violin by DuBois – Source: morgueFile
There are a number of parameters that an artist must take into account to achieve the desired effect in a painting: tones, colours, shapes, composition, contrasts, texture, lights, shadows, etc. You can think about them as pairs (for instance light/shadow or soft edges/ hard edges) or as sliding scales between two extremes that the artist uses to fine tune the final painting.
All of these parameters are linked together. In one of his Lectures on Art, John Ruskin explained how light, shadows and colours are just different ways to describe the same thing:
“Painters who have no eye for colour have greatly confused and falsified the practice of art by the theory that shadow is an absence of colour. Shadow is, on the contrary, necessary to the full presence of colour; for every colour is a diminished quantity or energy of light; and, practically, it follows from what I have just told you - (that every light in painting is a shadow to higher lights, and every shadow a light to lower shadows) - that also every colour in painting must be a shadow to some brighter colour, and a light to some darker one.”
The task may seem daunting for any student who wants to progress. As soon as you correct one element in the painting, another parameter gets off balance. It’s like trying to learn juggling too many balls at once…
There are ways around this apparent complexity. Here are five suggestions:
1) Just paint what you see. Don’t try to analyse everything you do: just observe and paint what you see the way you see it. At the end of the session, put the painting away and, at the beginning of your next session, take a few minutes to analyze your work in progress. Shortcomings in your paintings are easier to see with a fresh eye.
2) You can draw or paint a quick tonal study before you start the actual painting. In the same way, a series of thumbnails will help you establish a good composition. These are ways to handle different parameters one after the other and get them sorted out before you start the actual painting.
3) You will find with experience that some aspects are best handled in a certain order. For instance, in oil paintings, it is easier to paint all edges as soft edges first, then to introduce hard edges where you want to draw the attention of the viewer.
4) When you study, you can isolate one particular element and concentrate on it. To use the orchestra metaphor again, it is like having all musicians rehearsing their part on their own before bringing the whole orchestra together.
5) Execute a series of small paintings with the same subject. For each painting, you can try out different effects or combinations of effects.