The artist's first step toward the ultimate beauty, unity and organization of painting is learning to see everything in pictorial terms. This will mean the closest possible unification between the eye, the hand and the medium with which we have chosen to work. In time, most artists find tat hand automatically works with the eye even to the mixing and application of medium. In fact, artists often are surprised - and delighted - to discover that they have unconsciously used a certain technique to express exactly the impression they had intended. The artist either puts down a suggestion of what he sees, or the object as he sees it, being at the moment unconcerned with technique. Technique is thus a result rather than a conscious manner of stroke. Yet every artist in time develops a technical approach, if he is patient and has faith in his vision and emotional reaction.
Of course, we all see shining examples of technique, some of which we admire very much and which the young especially - and sometimes the old - are tempted to copy for technique's sake alone. As a result, technique actually gets in our way and we end up by not seeing the subject we are painting truly and often overlook many of the other essential elements of painting as well.
When a man is thinking in terms of technique, he probably is not giving his best attention to values, relationships, or even color. He is thinking about the strokes he is making and not very much else. Technique is a strong indication of individuality and if you allow it to do so, it will get into your work subconsciously. It is much like handwriting, of which no two specimens are exactly alike.
The best advice I can offer is to paint what you see as you see it. And if you can suggest an object or a scene so that it is convincing, that may even be better than completely boning it out. In a landscape, for instance, a lightly sketched-in figure can often look more alive and real than one that has been painted in great detail. The truth is that we can quite easily train the eye to see as we want it to see; in fact it has already been trained to do this. We can skim through a crowd and spot the face we are looking for, and hardly be conscious of any of the other faces there. If we are painting warm sunlight, we may see it warm, possibly warmer than it actually is. If we are drawing in outline we see in outline, and are only faintly aware if anything else. If we are rendering a subject in tone, we begin to see values and relationships that we had noticed before. In the first case we are really looking primarily at outline and see everything else as secondary; in the second case, mass and tone become of primary importance to us and edges and outlines more incidental. When we look for color, we must somehow also keep values or tone very closely associated with it, and here is where training of the eye begins.
The tendency to see only one thing or aspect of a scene at a time is something we must educate our eyes not to do. Too many pictures are started with line only, then the outlines are filled in with tone, without regard to the real edge, or what the tone is doing, or what its relationship is to other tones. Tone and color are applied in a more or less schoolbook manner, simply by filling area between outlined limits. This is not painting in the true sense.
The experienced painter studies his subject in all its aspects. The more he can see the total effect before he starts, the better the painting will be. He will look at mass with its edges or outlines, seeing the mass in its value and color and according to its relationship to other masses and colors. He does not single out one thing at a time, for all these things are closely connected and belong to or affect one another.
We may start a picture in outline, but only after we have carefully noted where that outline is going to merge and lose itself in other tone. We may even indicate this on our drawing with short lines across the edge, which means that this edge is to be soft or lost. If we draw a hard outline around everything, the chances are that we will forget all about the true edges and accept the hard edges we have set down. Then we end with a tight, hard picture with no freedom of approach, one that is unimaginative and not particularly creative. Such a picture is really a colored drawing. Working from photographs has a tendency to increase this tightness and hardness. We can not see the life image; we simply copy what a sharp lens has recorded, putting in every detail.
Before you look at your subject, before you lay a hand on the canvas, stop and realize that any picture starts as a flat tone (the canvas) which is eventually broken up into more tones. Thus a pattern of arrangement of masses and spots is created. This is actually the first thing you should train your eyes to see - the picture as a whole with as much identification as possible of the pattern of design. You should decide where the borders of the picture will be and its shape and dimensions. The habit of roughing out patterns or composition in miniature is a good one.
Learning to see your subject in terms of simple masses with a general relationship to one another in color and value is the first law of good painting. We can train our eyes to see mass without detail by deciding what the general value and colors are to be. Then, later on, we can raise the value for the highlights and lower it for the shadows. What we are really seeking in this manner is the approximate middle tone of the area or mass and this we set down quite flatly in simple poster terms. In cases where you want to maintain the under drawing, which is usually done with charcoal and fixed, or is a light drawing gone over with waterproof India ink, you can use thin turpentine washes over the drawing so that it shows through. It is even better to learn to draw within the mass, establishing planes, halftones, accents, highlights or texture as you develop the picture.
To see the general tone of the mass with less detail, try squinting the eyes and looking through the lashes.
From the very beginning, line up the values in order in which they appear. Look for the lightest value and label it number one; the next value will be number two and so on until you establish about eight gradations. Here we are training the eye to see values in relationship to one another in the black and white scale. Areas of the same value may appear lighter or darker than they actually are because of a neighboring color. A light yellow may seem much lighter and brighter than a light blue, although they have the same black and white ration in the value scale. To recognize this takes a certain amount of training.