I’ve been watching painters paint for some time now. You can observe some interesting and seemingly strange behaviours, when you do this. There are two particular habits I have observed which almost always sabotage the painting and leave the artist frustrated with the result.
The first habit is to try to paint everything in detail. This kind of artist starts with a tiny amount of paint and very small brushes and continues in that vein. They spend a huge amount of time fussing about how accurately they have caught a particular element of the scene they are painting, but there is an inevitable outcome. They never finish their painting.
The painting seldom has a finished background and often they don’t even finish the subject of the painting. Worse still, because they have focused on the tiny details exclusively, there are huge tonal problems with their use of light and shade and so the light falling on the subject looks wholly unconvincing. Also, the composition of the painting is usually a mess and there may even be problems with their use of perspective, or the proportions of their subject. In going for high resolution, they have lost the gestalt.
(For those that don’t know, “gestalt” literally means “shape” and it refers to the overall shape and placement of major elements in the scene you are painting and their relationship to one another.)
The second habit I have observed is the painter that takes very broad brushes and blocks out the main elements of the painting. This is a good way to start, in my view. They get the basic composition right quickly, their brush work looks fresh and the tonal values appear to work much better. Ideal, you might think. The bad habit occurs when, in trying to resolve finer features, such as faces, hands and feet, for portraiture, or leaves, flowers and grasses, in landscape painting, they stick with the giant brushes.
Aiming a few bristles from a whole paint-laden brush full of bristles, so that they make just the right mark on the canvas demands a steadiness of hand that most do not possess and a good deal of luck and guesswork, as the exact landing point of the bristles is obscured by the rest of the brush. Pretty soon, the artist has to erase the incorrect marks and try, try, try again, resulting in muddy colours, messy delineation of features and a complete loss of any likeness. When a likeness is lost, they pile too much wet paint over too much already applied wet paint and it becomes a gooey, indistinct mess. In going for the gestalt, they have lost the resolution.
I think that, as a painter, you need to think, observe and use the appropriate tools for the different resolutions you are momentarily working at. It’s a good idea to block out the composition and main areas of light and shade with broad brush strokes. Having done that, it is time to turn your attention to finer details, using smaller painting tools. The dynamic range of your brush sizes is reflected in the play between sweeping, bold statements of colour, applied with confident, bold brush strokes and detailed features, applied more painstakingly, in your painting.
That said, most artists will discover that, as they become more adept at handling their paint and brushes, using a brush just slightly larger than the one you think you need, when painting the details, will give you the most painterly effect. You’re not a camera and will never be as good as a camera at catching every last hair or freckle. Fine, if that’s the effect you want to achieve, but not quite as bold or exciting as creating a more painterly interpretation, in my view.
I think the problem for painters that paint with brushes that are too small is that they might have infinite patience, but not infinite time. You have to actually finish the work for it to be any good, in general. Those that insist on brushes that are way too large probably lack patience and want to finish very quickly. The irony is that these artists require exquisite motor skills to paint fine details with massively large brushes, but probably lack the patience to develop it. It follows, then, that you need to apply the appropriate amount of patience for the scale and resolution you are currently working at. You must block out the entirety of your painting at some stage, so there is no reason to take forever to do that, or worse defer it indefinitely. Having established the composition, it is probably a good idea to take your time with features that identify the subject matter and to be patient in applying the paint, in these areas. If that’s a hand, for example, then you are going to need to paint in at least three tones, with some very subtle shapes and shadows, to render a hand convincingly. You might, heaven forbid, even have to wait until one tone dries, before applying the next.
Besides taking care of the gestalt and the resolution, painters like Kandinsky also spoke about capturing the stimmung, or mood (atmosphere, ambience) of the scene you are painting. That’s something you have to do with your choice of colour, shadows, resolution and composition. You will find that capturing the stimmung requires that you change your brush sizes to do what is required. Sticking with the too small ones or the too large ones won’t get you there. Just changing your brush sizes isn’t enough, though. You’re going to have to think about your edges, how the light plays, the difference between the darkest and lightest areas of your painting, the gradations of tone and your colour palette. Paint in either too high or low a resolution for the mood you are trying to capture and you will wreck it.
As an artist, you also have to capture the zeitgeist, or spirit of the age you are attempting to depict. Again, this has to do with resolution, gestalt, colour palette, dynamic range of lights to darks, shadows, composition and even subject matter. If you are attempting to recreate a classical tableau, you are going to struggle, using fluorescent colours. Similarly, you can’t evoke impressionism with a triple zero sized sable brush.
There’s a lot to think about and this is what artists spend their lifetimes learning to do. Not only do you have to learn to observe, learn to coordinate hand and eye and develop your fine motor skills, but there are questions of resolution, gestalt, stimmung and capturing the zeitgeist that you also need to consider, as you place each and every brush stroke.
It’s a messy business, but somebody has to do it.