As we have suggested before – the problem of painting may not be as critical as the problem of seeing. Learning to see may present a much more significant problem for the beginning artist and even for the experienced artist. Often when I am teaching in a classroom or on location I will observe a student’s painting and simply ask the question about something they just painted: “Where do you see the object you just painted?” For example, the student may be painting a rock beside the water’s edge and it does not exist in what they are observing. They typically respond, “Well I thought it would be nice to include a rock.” The problem then is that you have switched to your imagination or, more often than not, have included a rock to hide something you painted that did not look right. I am not advocating a photorealism of what you are observing but I am suggesting that the inclusion or exclusion of objects in a painting done on location be more than just a whim or convenience. Good paintings, even those done on location, require careful attention and planning with regards to composition. My experience with painters who are just beginning to paint on location is that they usually include far too much in their paintings. They also tend to add things they enjoy painting. They give very little thought to composition and often, by the end, their painting has little resemblance to what they are looking at. To overcome this, I suggest students start with a simple still life that has a defined and unchanging light source – e.g. a few flowers in a vase, or a table top arrangement of two apples and an orange. Learning to do this can be very helpful. Leonard Woods, a wonderful painter and friend, who used to teach at Vancouver Art School, told me that his first semester of drawing as a student, the class only drew potatoes. He jokingly said “It was very boring but if ever I have a painting with potatoes in it, I do a great job.” The point is to build on what we learned the previous day. A person who constantly changed the musical instrument they played or the song they play would likely not learn as quickly as the person who played one instrument and focused on learning a limited repertoire first.
That is why I suggest working first with a simple still life and observing carefully what you are painting. Here, a good teacher can help immensely by “walking through” what you should be looking for and how to see carefully.