Details Matching Reality


I’m in full detail mode with this latest painting. That doesn’t mean I’m close to finishing. The more I look at it the more detail that I see to add. One thing I’ve noticed is that the mountains are darker than I first thought. The mountains in the distance are also greyer and lighter than I thought. I think this has more to do with contrast than anything else.

I’m thinking about using an unsharp masking technique to reduce this. Normally unsharp masking is associated with sharpening but In this case I’m going to use it to make the mountains look darker and the background mountains look lighter.

This technique was commonly used by the old masters, although I don’t believe they thought of it as sharpening.

The mountains have the light blue sky immediately next to them. This is making them look darker than they are. So the actual shade in the image I’m working from appears different than the painting. I’m not trying to get an exact match, just trying to get them to stand out approximately the same as they do in the image I’m working from. This image looks different on my monitor, the painting, a print-out and I bet it looked very different in real life. I always have to adjust the relative contrast of various areas of a painting in order to get the focal point and realistic illusion just right.

This brings up a related point. I’m adding detail to the boat. My standard method is to get a colour on my brush and add it to the appropriate area. Now I take the same colour and find other places to put it on the painting. As I’m over-thinking this, it sounds a little counter-intuitive. Much of what we see is based on the colour of light falling on the object and reflections off the object. So it makes a lot of sense for similar colours to appear in various parts of an image, even though we may not be consciously aware of it. I often amalgamate various images into my paintings and the colours are often quite different. Using the same or similar colour on various parts of an image tends to pull the painting together. I often fail at this. Garden Stairs is an example of a failure, where the flowers in the lower left corner were added to the image. They have never looked quite right to me. Sea Stars was done similarly. I had four images of Siwash rock and the result was a success. As I add colours to various parts of an image they all look different. This depends on what the adjacent colour is and how it contrasts with the colour I am adding.

Controversial art

If your art is controversial people will look at it. For example paint a female nude in a suggestive pose. Actually in this case it can be utterly blatant. Men will look at it. If it’s good women will also look at it. Just remember that your market may be limited.

Also remember that where you post it may invite criticism or censorship. My daughter was trying to post an image that included a female nude. She was surprised when it was rejected since as nudes go it was rather innocuous. Apparently nipples are a problem on this particular site. Shock value can certainly sell art. I’m not opposed to shock value, I just don’t see it as necessary. However if it puts food on the table then go ahead (I’m a fan of food).

Nothing I do with my work is particularly controversial. I don’t seek out controversy to put in my paintings. Controversy can make people stop and think so in that way it’s good. Does it add to the painting? In most cases I don’t think so. Painting a haunting picture of a starving child may elicit a great deal of response but it likely won’t change the child’s circumstances. If you are enamoured with the beautiful image of the child and are compelled to paint it then great. However if you paint the child because you want to bring attention to the circumstances or want to change them then don’t bother. Give some money to a children’s charity where it might do some good. If you are compelled to do both then I might agree.

If It Looks Wrong Change It

So many of the artists that I have studied under have said this. I got very tired of hearing it but I did it occasionally, enough to hate the time and hassle of changing large or even small portions of a painting. I know that the great masters changed many of their paintings. We know this because of x-ray investigation of their works; with the exception of Vermeer they all show large changes. I’ve always thought this was due to commissions; the person forcing the change was the one with the money.

I’ve just realised that I now make large scale changes to my paintings because it looks wrong or just doesn’t match what I had in mind. Acrylics have made this easier. The option always existed with oils it’s just easier with acrylics. Now when things look wrong I change it (things often look wrong). Fast drying acrylics allow me to do this quickly. I don’t have to wait days or weeks for paint to dry before I make the change. I tend to put acrylics on more thinly than I used to with oils so this is also a benefit.

I likely wouldn’t have noticed this if I wasn’t taking pictures of the work I do. I take a picture every day, sometimes more often. With digital images it costs nothing. As a result I have a complete record of each painting. I can see the evolution of the work from start to finish. This is useful if you have to re-paint it or in my case if I just want to analyse a painting’s progress.

Final Details

When I’m doing final details on a painting it’s usually with the addition of highlights and deep shadows. I’m working quite close to the canvas and I’ve noticed that, at this close perspective, the image creates a pleasing abstract design. At this point when I step back from the painting the image often takes on a lifelike quality. I really want to equate that abstract design with the lifelike quality but I don’t see any valid reason for it.

Does anyone experience something similar?


Most of my art teachers wanted me to add more contrast to my work. In graphic design the standard workflow for images adds some contrast, vibrancy and sharpness. A digital image is somewhat flat without being sharpened but vibrancy and contrast are more in the eye of the beholder. Sharpening is a technical requirement due to the printing process. Stochastic printing has reduced this requirement so you might not notice it with a home inkjet printer.

I’ve noticed that focusing my attention on slight contrast differences in the midtones often make the painting more lifelike. I think that a human’s ability to see tonal differences in nature is quite different than in a photo. Our eyes have the ability to see very fine shades of green but less so with blue and red. This may be a characteristic of our eyes or it may have more to do with our brain processing the information. Regardless I’ve noticed that the realistic look of a painting is often enhanced by careful attention to variation in the midtones. This doesn’t mean that the painting will look flat. Bright highlights and dark areas still need to be added but midtone variations are essential.

I first block-in the shadows and highlights. Then I start working in the midtones by adding detail that I’ve missed with the first iteration. Midtone details often impart a realistic feel to the painting. This may only be noticeable when I look quickly at the painting or go and have lunch before looking at it again. At this point adding bright highlights and/or dark shadows will usually make the painting pop; if not I start over with blocking in.

Now any details I add with highlights and shadows usually enhance the realistic look. I pick a location and add detail until I can no longer see anywhere to add detail or I am really tired of it. I’m usually thinking about a new project at this point.

Fractals and randomness

I’m working on a painting that has a pebble beach. The pebbles seem random but are not. The size varies but there is an upper and lower limit. Actually there appear to be two limit sets; larger and smaller.  I’ve talked to quite a few artists who have problems with randomness. There aren’t many things in nature that are truly random but there are a lot of things with random components. Fractals, as made famous by Mandelbrot, do represent what we see in nature very well and include some random components.

This does not mean that reality has anything to do with Fractals; it just means that with a small number of calculations we can simulate reality with Fractals. It is certainly suggestive that Fractals appear so similar to what we see. There have been and still are several computer applications that use Fractals to represent reality. The pebbles on my beach have upper and lower size limits so they are not random. Bigger ones usually migrate to the top. Clouds are probably the most random things we see in nature although Fractals can represent them very well. There is a level of randomness in all Fractals.

I find this highly interesting although it doesn’t really help an artist. Fractals are not a quantum phenomenon although water reflections are. Now before one of you physics whizzes out there jump down my throat; the specular reflections are likely not a quantum phenomenon but the secondary reflections probably are. And yet again this doesn’t help. It’s useful to know that pebble sizes are not random; they have an upper and lower size limit like a Fractal. Although that doesn’t mean you can’t have the odd bolder. I try to make everything appear random but with some structure; I think that is the closest to what I see. Ultimately it’s what I see that defines the painting. My observations are not particularly helpful but it’s just the way I see things.

I don’t paint or draw in a random way, so as long as I let that non-random structure through, the resulting image usually appears realistic. I often let the image get too random. Then I have to go back and repaint the structure and add a little less randomness. The trick is to add just enough randomness. I often get it wrong the first time. Thank god for acrylics. I think the pebbles will look good. Although I’m going to have to include some larger rocks.