Question: How do you bring a fresh approach to a scene that you’ve painted several times before?
Painting the same scene or at the same location can have it’s challenges. I may paint an area that I’ve painted frequently in the past because of necessity- maybe a gallery prefers paintings from that location or perhaps I am participating in a plein air show in the area, or I might just really like the location.
The first thing I do when I get to a location is take a quick walk around, composing a painting in my mind or doing a few really quick thumbnail sketches in my sketch pad. I might see a scene that is the obvious choice but find a way to tweak that view, or pass it up completely and look for different angles or a design that would still incorporate everything that I was attracted to in the first place.
Sometimes, I may come upon a unique view by accident. While walking in Paris one evening at sunset, I came around the corner and was confronted with this grand close-up view of the Eiffel Tower and it’s immense size and scale. I immediately knew that I wanted to paint that view – it was so different then anything I had seen before.
When painting at a plein air show at the Grand Canyon, I know that I can’t compete with all those wonderful painters who paint the sprawling vistas and the grandeur of the canyon really well. So, I’ll hike down the trails, looking for something different, or even narrow my focus to something in the distance, maybe a view of the river winding through a gorge or a cloudscape.
One year, I painted one of the sight-seeing planes at the nearby airport and drove over to the canyon rim and filled in the background with the view of the canyon, to make it appear that the aircraft was in flight. I had more fun painting that scene and it was certainly different from any of the other paintings in the show. To do something like that, you really need to know your strengths and weaknesses as a painter.
With my background in illustration, I’ve always felt more comfortable drawing than painting, so getting an airplane down quickly, in the right perspective, was not a problem and I knew it might be worth the challenge. I later tried the same thing at a show in Carmel and won an award for the painting, but now I need to avoid that subject for awhile – I don’t want to be pegged as the plein air airplane painter (then it’s no longer unique).
When painting the coast, especially Crystal Cove near Laguna Beach, I’m always looking for some different idea, whether it is a view from above the beach or below, using the light in a different way, perhaps focusing on an activity on the beach. I might not even show the water, just showing the long trek across the sand in the morning haze. Finding something new can seem like an impossible task – the coastline here in Southern California has been painted inside out over the past century, and I’m sure I’m not breaking any new ground. As long as I find something that interests me, I know that I will enjoy the process and that, hopefully, the viewer will feel my emotional response to the scene.
It’s always important to remember to paint what interests you, and not what you think others might find interesting. When searching for something unique, don’t paint it just to impress others or to stand out among your peers. Find something that YOU like, that you know you can paint, that is fresh in your eyes. The painting will have a greater chance of being successful. I have found scenes that I’ve never seen painted before, that intrigued me so much that I didn’t know where to start, or what NOT to include. I came across a view over downtown Los Angeles where every turn on the old road had something new to offer. I had never seen this view before. I did a series of pencil sketches and then small painting sketches, trying to capture as much as I could, moving things around, but remembering to keep that feeling that I had when I first saw it. After finally settling on a view for a painting, it no longer seemed unique or new to me. Only after getting some positive feedback on the piece after it was finished did I realize that it was still a somewhat fresh view.
Finding a good painting spot can take a lot of energy and work (why do all the best views seem to be from the middle of a highway where you can’t pull over?!?). Sometimes it takes a little walking around, getting away from your comfort zone, sketching some designs and compositions that work. Think outside the box a little bit, but remember what it is you are trying to convey, what story you are trying to tell with your painting.
It’s also important to remember that it’s not so much what you are painting, but how you paint it. But that’s a blog post for another time…
Michael Obermeyer is a Signature member of LPAPA.
Visit his website to see more of his work.