Oil painting mastery does not come in a single moment. I’m not even sure exactly what ‘mastery’ means. All the professional artists I’ve met – and I’ve talked with dozens of the best artists in the country – declare the same message – “I’m still trying to reach that higher level”.
Last time we showed the profound changes that master artists Clyde Aspevig and Carl Rungius made in their work part way through their careers. Is that the way to do it – make a sudden and extreme change in the way we paint? I don’t think so. Those kinds of dramatic shifts are rare.
Most of us make continuous, gradual adjustments over a lifetime of painting.
Whether we’re in the first group or the second, overall, we simply hope to get better and better at touching our viewer’s hearts. We long to consistently climb to higher peaks in our mastery of oil painting.
Today I’ll share one example of another master artist who’s focused beautifully on incremental changes over a lifetime of painting. Then I’ll tell you a bit about my own journey and show you some recent examples of paintings I’ve tweaked and why.
Richard Schmid is a textbook example of consistent focus and the perfecting of his skills. Many of his landscape paintings from the ’60s and ’70s look incredibly like his landscape paintings completed in the ’90s and 2000s.
If we analyze his paintings closely, some of those incremental changes become visible – like greater control of his edges. A quick glance however only shows us that the same artist obviously painted both.
One of the strongest changes I noticed was a veering away from strong texture throughout his paintings.
Over the years he seems to have chosen thinner strokes of color with thicker paint reserved for focal areas. That makes me a bit sad because I love the way he applies plentiful strokes. There is so much variety of striated color and movement within them. The sky and water in the painting above are both so interesting to look at because of the color temperature shifts and the paint texture. They feel alive to me.
Now, is that because paint texture has been on my mind lately with my own paintings? How much of what we love in other artists’ artwork reflects what we want to achieve in our personal work?
The characteristic Schmid vision is visible in both his high textural and his thinner paint. Maybe he felt he could achieve greater realism and subtle color shifts without so much thick paint. Maybe he didn’t want to feel constrained by an only thick-paint technique. I don’t know what guided his choices.
And I’m not sure it’s entirely a conscious decision – at least not always.
When I look through my paint drawer I see colors I used to love that are no longer on my palette. I can’t tell you when or why I stopped using them. It may have been a momentary thought or experience that guided me and once a choice was made I didn’t think of it again. Reminds me of that shirt from the 90s hanging in my closet that I no longer wear and don’t know why.
Each of us needs to follow our individual instincts. There’s no right or wrong answer. One direction isn’t necessarily better than another.
Why I Changed Directions – Then Circled Back (Kind Of)
My own work falls closer to the Aspevig group. (In case you missed part 1 – stop – and go here!)
In the late 90’s I felt a longing for more subtlety and realism in my paintings.
Early in my career, my paintings were created with much thicker paint and vibrant color.
Color and brush texture applied spontaneously and with vigor influenced my painting decisions. I was so caught up in ‘juicy color’ and expressive painting I wasn’t paying much attention to anything else – like values shifts.
The work sold well, and I could produce a 40×40 like the painting above in a day.
The thing about many of us artists is that we’re not fiscally minded. We focus on getting better and better at painting – or at creating something that comes close to that slightly hazy ideal that is our goal.
So, we take detours along the way.
In my new pursuit of realism, and after some horrendously stiff and lifeless paintings, I finished Twilight Tango in 1999 or 2000. I loved it. It felt real and much closer to what I hoped to achieve as an artist.
Overall, that’s what I’ve been reaching for since then.
Funny thing though, I’ve never shaken my early love of color and brush texture. I often have inner turmoil, “Do I let my desire for realism hold sway or give in to expressive color and texture?” That battle has caused me a lot of frustration and doubt. I believe it is also -ultimately- making me a better painter.
Learning to combine the best of both worlds has been a huge struggle for me, but I think I may finally be nearing one of those mountain summits.
Why I Reworked an Aspen and a Hollyhock Painting
Since I made that leap and commenced a synergy between expression and realism I’ve discovered something interesting. If I focus in one direction or another too heavily, my paintings either get boring and lifeless, or they feel fake and unnatural (decorative). When the two are balanced successfully – magic happens!
In my pursuit of realism in the early 2000s, I often smoothed out the brush strokes. Today, brush and paint texture have increasingly worked their way back into my paintings.
The trick is to add texture and color in ways that complement my pursuit of realism.
Misty Mountain was an extreme experiment in texture. On a whim, I troweled titanium white paint on to the panel so that it was about an 1/8 to 3/8 of an inch thick and then worked into it.
That experiment was encouraging and fun and the painting is still one of my favorites. It has continued to fuel other ideas and techniques to see just how much and what type of texture I like in my paintings.
That brings us to the hollyhock painting.
At Home on the Range was a painting of hollyhocks I completed in 2014. At that time, I didn’t keep my pieces around the studio very long. A while after I sent it off to the Broadmoor Galleries the doubts began creeping in.
When I saw it on their website the bright blue mountain in the background suddenly stood out like a neon sign. It should have been the hollyhocks that most grabbed my attention, but I couldn’t help looking at that bright blue.
Once I got it home (5 years later) other things began to stand out. The color temperature of the grasses was too similar from front to back which canceled out much of the feeling of distance. That, in turn, brought the mountains too close.
The colors and values in the hollyhocks themselves worked well, but I wanted a bit more drama with light and shadow. Also, too many of the hollyhocks faced forward and were similar sizes – not enough variety of angles and shapes.
At first, I simplified the sky and background entirely so that it just looked sort of dusty. I wanted a shapeless background so the hollyhocks would stand out fully. Fortunately, Kristie questioned the background and I realized it needed more.
The reworked version has a lot of small shifts and changes:
- Small bits of color like the sprinkles of light blue in the front grasses.
- Pushing hollyhocks and leaves into the shadows and changing the color of some entirely.
- Pulling other elements forward with brighter values and colors to lead the viewer around the painting.
- Breaking up the large patches of orange and yellow foreground grasses with warm and cool transitions.
- Extending the right hollyhock stem right off the top of the painting and wrapping another stem around it for variety and balance.
Whether they were successful changes or not is often decided by individual taste, but I think it’s much better now.
The aspen painting Waiting for Rain was another that took some time for me to discover the weaknesses. Something that kept getting in the way of my thinking was that I convinced myself it was full of tonal subtlety and nuance.
In the end, I figured out that subtlety, in this case, meant lack of drama – or in other words – yawn!
The leaves are sparkly, but they’re pretty much the same from one side of the painting to the other. The aspens have some variety of sizes, but the values and colors throughout are treated identically. The only break-up to the monotony is the rocks and a patch of darker green grasses.
So, I began in earnest to increase drama and interest.
- The value pattern was pushed to increase the feeling of light, shadow, and distance. I darkened and cooled the temperature of some aspens while heightening the sense of warm highlights on others to pull them forward.
- Adding the dark fir trees and bushes broke up monotonous spaces. They also helped give clarity to depth perspective and a foil to the red bushes I painted to spruce up the color range.
- The overly same-shade-of-green grasses were broken up and with new shapes and a variety of warm and cool colors.
- The bottoms of the aspens were moved so they wouldn’t be on the same spatial plane.
- The leaves had a major overhaul to better move the viewer’s attention from one area to another – rather than getting lost in sameness.
- The rocks were reworked a bit as well – mainly because I was having so much fun experimenting with color and value. But, I also wanted to increase the feeling of light and shadow to heighten the drama.
- Finally, we changed the title to Gold Rush. Why? Because Kristie wasn’t a fan of the first title – which was a good reason for me to change it!
There you have it. Were the original paintings complete duds. Probably not. All I know for sure is that I wasn’t happy with them and now I am.
There were elements of each of the two paintings that appealed to me – like how the designs led the viewers through the paintings. This led me to believe I liked the paintings entirely.
Deep down I think I knew that I wasn’t thrilled with either of them, but since I didn’t know why, I sent them out into the world.
That’s not always a bad thing to do.
If we keep paintings around too long the tendency is to overwork them. Often, the best course is to ship them off – after observing the finished paintings in the studio for a week or two. Then start a new painting and keep working toward those consistent, life-long improvements.
The goal is to master painting – not to perfect every painting.
Mileage is the best approach – never sitting still too long. That, of course, needs to be tempered by intentional study of art we admire, pondering, experimentation and lots of prayers.
We don’t necessarily want to change our style because it’s often tied to our unique view of the world.
A quote I heard sinks into the heart of it for me – “the meaning of life is to find your gift, and the purpose of life is to give it away”.
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