I’ve just started work on a new painting. I’m excited about this one, and I’ll be sharing my progress as well as some thoughts about the composition here in The Artist’s Studio. If you’re inclined to follow along, and have any questions or comments as I go, I encourage you to write in and add to the conversation.
This painting started with the simple and general idea of kids reading, and the way their imaginations can take a story and turn it into something really incredible. The way kids view the world is a constant source of inspiration for me, as an artist. They have a sense of optimism and wonder that is often lost or suppressed in adults, but that I am always trying to capture in paintings. When they hear something amazing in a story, it’s not just something interesting or amazing, it’s something possible.
I made use of my most convenient models, my own kids, and spent a couple of mornings loosely staging a handful of scenes at locations around our neighborhood. One of the shots that really stood out happened to be an impromptu pose of my older daughter reading to her little sister under a tree on a hill at a local park. I had taken a dozen photos while they weren’t paying attention, which is often the only way to get good poses with kids, and between them I had enough to piece together a drawing for the foreground of the composition.
When I first started thinking about this painting, I envisioned the child or children reading as a vignette in the foreground, with the story as it was playing out in their imaginations featured as the bulk of the composition in the background. This is an idea I am still planning on working with, but a couple things led me in a slightly different direction with this painting.
The first (and biggest) factor is that I have been slowly leaning a new direction with composition ideas in general over the last few years. I keep coming across the idea, stated slightly differently but consistent in its meaning that ‘the future isn’t what is used to be’. Or at least, what people envision when they think about the future is vastly different from what it used to be. I’m an optimistic person, but not totally naive. I’m not suggesting that I think the future should be some utopian paradise. What I find interesting, beautiful, and worth trying to capture is the optimistic attitude toward the world and the future that seems to have been replaced by a certainty that we are heading for some apocalyptic, dystopian nightmare.
So, rather than painting purely contemporary scenes or scenes of what I think the future will really be like in a literal sense, I want to make pictures that evoke a feeling of wonder , optimism, unlimited possibility and anticipation about the future. But, I want to paint those in a subtle style influenced by what I love about the naturalist/classical realist/romantic painters of the 19th century. The idea is to paint as if I were a naturalist or genre painter of the romantic bent who happens to be living and working in the version of the present or near future I would like to think is possible. Bouguereau/Norman Rockwell meets Jon Berkey. Or something like that. It’s not exactly science fiction, but maybe a blend of that with historical fiction told from a future perspective. I’ve been calling the idea ‘Optimistic Futurist Realism’, which isn’t quite right, but is approaching it. Ideally, the themes and subjects would be similar to what I’ve worked with before, but there would be subtle differences in the backgrounds or costumes or settings that would slightly change the meaning.
In any case, this seemed like a perfect piece with which to start exploring that whole concept. Why have the foreground be a vignette juxtaposed in front of a background scene when that scene could be the actual background?
So, the girls are sitting under a tree in the park, reading a book. Pretty timeless. What to change? Not the costumes. I’m not shooting for science fiction. And not the actual, physical, paper book. It’s too iconic. Symbolic. No room for misinterpretation of what the girls are doing under that tree like there might be if they were holding a tablet or other electronic device. So, I change the background beyond the foreground trees then. Excellent! The reference photos were taken in the morning and were strongly backlit which exaggerated the washed out atmospheric effect of the valley and mountains in the background. A valley and mountains, but different.
This is where the second factor comes in. Somewhat coincidentally, in the weeks leading up to actually shooting the reference photos and refining the concept for the painting, I had decided to do a few small, faux-plein air paintings for practice and to get a feel for what I would actually want to take with me were I to go on a plein air painting expedition later in the fall (which I would love to do, but have no prior experience with). My intention was to do three of four little, 8 x 6 inch paintings and then move on. After the first three or four, I found that I was really enjoying working on the little studies. I was able to play with the effects of brush strokes, different color combinations, different pigments, different effects in a way not possible on a larger scale or when I had definite idea for how I wanted the finished painting to turn out. But, I was getting a little bored, so I decided on a whim to drop a classic, Ray Bradbury era, science fiction-ish rocket into one of the paintings. It was fun, so I did another. And another. A little narrative began to emerge that I wasn’t even really aware of at first, but that became more intentional when I started adding the suggestion of an astronaut or two on EVA outside the rockets. I realized I was really enjoying myself in a way I hadn’t for a long time, and that something about these little paintings was making me really happy. The response to the ones that I posted online was overwhelmingly positive as well.
I realized that one reason I was so excited by these weird little compositions was that they were striking a chord that resonated perfectly with the ‘Optimistic Futurist Realism’ idea I had been mulling over. The rockets were becoming more than just rockets for me. They were becoming symbols of a different, more optimistic, wonder-filled view of the future. And the ability to create an intriguing narrative with the addition a couple of dots of white paint was absolutely fascinating.
So, while I was playing around with different ideas of what exactly to put in the background of the ‘kid’s reading’ composition, just for fun, I dropped a rocket on a pad in the middle of a lake or bay, and some futuristic-looking architecture into the valley behind the girls on the hill. I immediately loved it. So I spent some time refining the idea, moving things around until I like the composition, redesigning the rocket, etc. until it was just right.