Learning to Paint: Painting to Learn
by John D. Tatter
Birmingham-Southern College


Nothing is so bad a symptom in the work of young artists as too much dexterity of handling; for it is a sign that they are satisfied with their work, and have tried to do nothing more than they were able to do. Their work should be full of failures; for these are the sign of efforts.
-- John Ruskin, Modern Painters

My sabbatical project for the fall and winter of 1998-99 had three distinct parts. The first was to complete work on my Stowe Landscape Garden Web site, particularly to finish developing individual Web pages for some three dozen temples and monuments in the garden and surrounding park, and to add more photographs to the interactive map. The site now consists of three separate garden tours, a glossary of gardening terms, a page of links to other landscape gardening Web sites, a page of frequently asked questions and their answers, a bibliography of sources for additional reading, a historical account (with photographs) of my work on the ha-ha restoration project in 1993, an essay on Alexander Pope and the relationship of his aesthetic principles to the gardens at Stowe, and a series of 18th century poems on the garden for which I have provided pop-up windows of the garden features they mention.

The first of the three tours introduces site visitors to the ten "character areas" of the garden and provides a map and a detailed history of each area's development. The second of the three tours provides site visitors with separate Web pages devoted to each building and monument in the garden and the surrounding park. Each of these individual pages provides a description and history of the structure as well as photographs, translations of Latin inscriptions, and biographies of those memorialized in or by the building or monument. The third of the three tours provides site visitors with an interactive map of the garden. On this map are over 160 small arrows, each of which is linked to a photograph taken from that spot in the direction the arrow is pointing.

This past summer I added a counter to the site, and since August it has received over 6000 hits at an average of about thirty a day. In addition, a number of other Web sites have asked to link to my site from theirs. I am most pleased with two of these links: the Official Stowe School site has listed my site as one of their sources for further information, and Jack Lynch's 18th-century Resources Page, the foremost site for 18th-century research on the Web (based at Rutgers University), has listed me as a source for landscape gardening and archetecture. I am also pleased that the Edinburgh College of Art (Heriot-Watt University) has provided a link to my site on their Web pages as a source for landscape architecture. And since my counter also tells me where the hits are coming from, I have discovered that there are already a few faculty members at other institutions who use the site for Web-based assignments.

I would not have been able to finish developing this Web site had I not been able to spend the three weeks in England in December 1998 that my sabbatical leave provided for me. While in England I took over 200 more slides of the garden and purchased invaluable resource material at the Stowe bookshop. The slides allowed me to round out a more complete view of the gardens on my "virtual" tour page, and the resource material allowed me to develop several new pages on individual garden and park buildings that I had previously known very little about.

The second and third parts of my sabbatical project were linked even more closely. Realizing that I needed to learn more about the landscape painters of the 18th and 19th centuries if I were to teach my students more competently about the arts part of my course in literature and the arts, I set about studying a slice of art history that included the paintings, writings, and influences on the two major British landscape painters at the turn of the 19th century -- John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. Linked with the hours reading and taking notes were two extended gallery tour road trips -- one during August 1998 to Washington D.C., New York City, and Cleveland, Ohio; and one that December to London. In an effort to understand the principles of landscape painting from another perspective, I proposed as the third part of my sabbatical project to learn the basics of watercolor landscape painting. I hoped by taking a painterly perspective to be able to understand better the fundamental changes in aesthetic theory and artistic practice as the neo-classical movement gave way to the Romantic Movement as the 18th century progressed. Though learning to paint landscapes certainly reinforced what I already knew both about the differences in these two aesthetic perspectives and about the similarities of their principles, it actually served a larger, unexpected purpose. The activity of painting focused my attention on the learning process.

When the Provost's Office asked for a title for my sabbatical report, I chose "Learning to Paint; Painting to Learn" because the most important thing that happened to me during my nine months away from the classroom was that I rediscovered what it means to be a student. Not since I participated in the micro-teaching workshops here on campus and at Rollins College have I had the chance to focus so closely on the learning end of the teaching-learning process. It was an exciting, frustrating, exhilarating, and humbling experience. And it continued this past fall term when I took Steve Cole's Basic Painting course along with my 14 English 102 students.

First of all, I rediscovered that just as teachers have to juggle the two roles of encourager and evaluator, students have to juggle the roles of learner and performer. The learner role is one in which we take chances and allow for mistakes and failures. The performer role, which is the one reinforced by the approval of an audience and by grades from our teachers, is one in which we hope not to make any mistakes and, therefore, one that brings with it a heavier load of stress -- performance anxiety. I found that my desire to perform well often eclipsed my desire to learn. Steve Cole, who had graciously agreed to coach me during my watercolor experience, once asked me during one of our sessions how many paintings I had ruined. I told him, realizing in a flash that I was giving him the wrong answer, that I hadn't ruined any yet. Ruining a painting felt like failure. What I had to learn, and what I have yet to feel comfortable with, is that ruining a painting is the only way to know exactly how far to take a particular technique, the only way to learn limits.

I also rediscovered that the learning process has three distinct stages. The first stage is close observation. The student -- whether in the painting studio, the chemistry lab, or the writing center -- must learn to see what is there instead of what he or she thinks is there. This activity requires stripping away our expectations and assumptions and noticing that, for example, clouds are not just white and grey but also pink and green and brown -- and not just at sunrise and sunset. Take a long look sometime, especially when the weather is changing, and you'll see what I mean. I finally understand what Joni Mitchell meant when she wrote words I've had memorized for years:

I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It's clouds' illusions I recall:
I really don't know clouds at all.
I practiced this first step in the learning process when I created my first watercolor painting. I copied a favorite photograph shape-for-shape, color for color. I didn't paint a scene. I reproduced it, and I did so without thinking much about the subject matter. I stuck to the facts and tried to avoid interpreting them for a while.

The second stage in the learning process is understanding what we see. A couple of weeks after I finished this watercolor, which is a picture of the Palladian Bridge in the landscape garden at Stowe, I discovered that the area I had painted a dark green just above the roof of the Bridge is actually the shadow of the tree to its left. I had not realized at the time that I was painting the tree's shadow: I had simply painted a patch of dark green because a patch of green appears in the photograph. But now I learned the purpose of the patch of green. Close observation of detail gives way to questions about why details are arranged the way they are. In this second stage, then, the student learns concepts: for the artist, concepts like geometric and atmospheric perspective, fore-shortening, the location of the light source and the direction of the shadows, the different color values that represent different kinds of shadows.

The third stage in the learning process is assimilating the concepts so that the student begins to act on principles rather than simply following rules. This stage is particularly difficult because it requires independence, and students who still expect their teachers to provide them with all the facts and a set of formulas for processing the facts are often frustrated. They usually revert to old habits: following rules because rules offer a certain degree of comfort (Don't use the first person when writing a paper) or copying familiar models like the five-paragraph essay instead of trying to create something that suits their purposes. I'm not suggesting that rules or models are bad things. Both are powerful learning tools. But students must learn to look behind the rules and to move beyond the models enough to see that they are not ends in themselves but means to ends. Teachers perform a vital function in creating a context in which students can make the leap: they offer an objective perspective and redirect students' efforts. In my case, I would not have progressed as quickly or as far without the guidance of Steve Cole, who was generous enough to critique my work, point out my strengths, give me clues about how to overcome my weaknesses, and remind me to push myself beyond the comfortable and the familiar.

Let me give you an example of what must happen in this third stage of the learning process. There was in the 18th century an aesthetic concept called the picturesque, which in painting terms came to be a formula that most of us will recognize in the composition of the postcards we buy while on vacation. Three specific areas comprise the scene -- a foreground, a middle ground with an object designed to catch the viewer's attention, and a distance. On either side there are screens of some sort that lead the viewer's eye toward the object in the middle distance. The picturesque also reflects a mood -- there's often an emotion expressed in the scene's wildness or roughness, in the sombre weather, or in the quality of light. Painters can learn and exploit this formula. But painters reach a higher plateau by assimilating the principles that every student learns in Basic Painting: Dominance, Unity, Movement, Balance, Contrast, Proportion, and Rhythm. Picturesque paintings are appealing to viewers not because they illustrate the picturesque formula but because they illustrate these seven principles. The object of attention in the middle distance is attractive because a painting needs a dominant form. The side screens provide movement and direct the eye back into the middle of the painting. The foreground, which is often dark, contrasts with the middle distance, which is often in full sun. The branches and foliage of trees often create a rhythm with the shapes of clouds. A building in one part of the painting is balanced by a rock in another part. And so on. As students learn the principles, the need for formulas drops away.

These seven design principles, by the way, also apply to writing. As my students this past fall heard me say over and over, a paper must have a dominant topic or thesis, and the evidence supporting it must be unified. Transitional words and phrases provide movement through the paragraphs. Balanced arguments are the most convincing. Contrasting examples in support of the thesis provide interest. The parts of a paper must be in proportion to one another. And the central ideas of the paper need to be repeated as the writer moves through the paragraphs toward the conclusion. Students who learn these principles can design a document to communicate any idea or to serve any purpose in the world of academia or in their profession. They become independent writers who base their document's design not on pre-fabricated templates but on what the specific situation calls for.

One of the books I read during my sabbatical was John Ruskin's Modern Painters, which champions the work of J.M.W. Turner, the 19th-century British landscape artist who painted what Ruskin considered to be the truth of nature. One warning Ruskin gives throughout the volumes of his book is that a young artist should not choose painterly technique over faithfulness to detail taken directly from nature. I suspect that these two choices are not mutually exclusive. That is, I suspect that as a young artist I can suggest an evergreen tree by a series of horizontal strokes that create a long triangle, and that I can suggest the net-like fan of twigs at the end of a branch of a denuded tree in winter by painting a smudge of light grey, and not be false to nature. But in my second painting of Salisbury Cathedral in which I inserted a stand of evergreen trees I painted not what I had seen in Salisbury but what I had seen in other paintings. That is, I was trying to reproduce not real trees but trees I had seen in a painting in a gallery Homewood the weekend before. True to form, Steve Cole asked me about the evergreens when I showed him the painting. Steve detected the falseness of those brushstrokes. He also warned me that it is far easier to delete something from a scene I wish to paint than to insert things in the scene that aren't there. To insert something and make it seem to belong there, I would be most likely to succeed if I did a study from life of the object I wanted to introduce before actually putting that object into the painting.

Now, one thing I must point out about Ruskin's warning is that Ruskin was criticizing professional painters who never went beyond an imitation of other painters' style and technique. I am not yet proficient as a painter, and I have many techniques to learn. So in trying out a new technique, or in trying out a possible solution to a painting problem -- a solution that I have seen used in other painters' work -- I am simply pursuing an apprenticeship. But Ruskin and Cole are right in that I must always measure those techniques, styles, and solutions against nature itself. Sloppy execution that creates incorrect geometric perspective can be so distracting to a viewer that a picture is spoiled. But skillful execution of a technique when it is not needed or useful or appropriate -- when it is used simply for its own sake -- can also spoil a picture. I believe that I will be on solid ground as a painter if I use the techniques I am capable of to produce a painting that is true to my vision of nature. Oddly enough Ruskin, Cole, and I are in line with that most neo-classical of 18th-century poets Alexander Pope, who encouraged writers to

First follow Nature, and your Judgment frame
By her just Standard, which is still the same:
Unerring Nature, still divinely bright,
One clear, unchanged, and Universal Light,
Life, Force, and Beauty, must to all impart,
At once the Source, and End, and Test of Art.
Here I want to pick up on another of Ruskin's points -- that there are different kinds of imagination, particularly what he calls associative and penetrative imagination, that produce different kinds of visions. I have realized even this early in my painting experience that, though I paint realistically, I do not wish to reproduce a scene photographically. I want to reproduce my memory of a scene, and that memory brings with it qualities of light, and mood, and a selection of images. I do not remember all the details from even my most beloved scenes. What I remember may, however, be associated with what was going through my mind at the time or with some other place I had been recently or had been thinking about. In that sense, making Salisbury Cathedral more golden than silver in one of my watercolors (silver being its truer color, according to nature) is not necessarily a lapse into lying visually. It is only a problem if the viewing audience trips over my choice of color and finds it enough of a distraction to stop paying attention to the painting. Changing the color or re-arranging or editing the details in a painting can be a function of the associative or penetrative imagination: associative because I want to convey something in addition to what I saw, and penetrative because I want to convey something beneath the surface of what I saw. But all of my decisions must be purposeful, done for a reason, even if that reason is one I cannot articulate at the time. And one of those reasons must not be because I have seen another painting in which it was done: unless that thing in the other painting struck my heart as being true and not just struck my mind as being interesting or novel. I am free to use painterly tradition. In fact, I cannot really paint outside of tradition. I may be self-taught in the sense that I attended no watercolor classes, but in another sense I have been taught by Crespo, who wrote the textbook I began with, by Steve Cole, who responded to my work, and by all of the painters whose works I studied, and by Ruskin and Burke and Hogarth and even the art historians who wrote the copy on the cards next to the paintings in all the galleries I have been to. As alone as I felt at times during my sabbatical, I was never completely on my own. I cannot escape influence and, actually, I don't want to. But I must not be content doing something just because someone else has done it successfully before.

The man who taught me to write poetry during my undergraduate years, Jack Leax, wrote a book entitled Grace is Where I Live, that, among other things, recounts his experiences on his own most recent sabbatical during which he proposed to write a set of new poems. Unlike Jack, I chose not to keep a strict record of my sabbatical experiences. Instead, I read and took notes, I painted and analyzed, I toured art galleries, and for the most part I tried to open my inner and outer eyes to the world around me -- to see the truth of nature and to begin to pay more attention to detail in what I see. I actually wrote a lot, but much of it was in response to art history, art theory, and works of art themselves rather than an account of my own development as an artist.

Something Jack was struggling with that I have never really had to is art as a vocation and the relationship of the artist to audience and critic. It may be that out of fear of rejection -- the performance anxiety that I mentioned earlier -- I avoid the issue and simply don't offer my work for criticism; instead, I give it away as gifts. I don't consider myself an artist by profession any more than I consider myself a poet, musician, photographer, cook, or automobile mechanic or restorer, though I have played each role often during my adult life. But I haven't made a long-term commitment to any art form; therefore, I have felt free to pick up my pen or guitar or camera at any time and also to lay it back down at any time. I've reached a level of proficiency to please myself, and that's all I feel I need. I have never cared to publish, and I'd much rather play my guitar with someone than for someone. I don't expect an audience to be satisfied with the level of my work because I don't usually take an audience into consideration when I work. The one exception, I suppose, is my Stowe Web site, if that can be considered a work of art.

Of course, when I give my art away I want it to be appreciated as much as I used to as a child who offered his parents crayon drawings done at school -- I want to see my work attached to the fridge with a magnet. As Alice Walker has Shug Avery say in the passage that explains the title of her novel The Color Purple, everyone loves admiration, even God. (God isn't vain, Shug explains, "just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it.") But beyond "wanting to share a good thing," I have little sense of responsibility to an audience. My impulse toward art is very selfish: in poetry, photography, music, and painting I want most to preserve my memories. As long as what I produce does that for me I am satisfied. Of course, the more I learn about the techniques of preserving memories, on page, paper, or canvas, the more it takes to satisfy me.

Why then have I chosen to hang over a dozen watercolors in the art seminar room for the month of March? I want to share a good thing -- the process of my work. Though I would be glad for you to like what you see in terms of the finished products, I am more interested in your seeing the growth of one painter's mind. I have hung a number of seriously flawed and incomplete paintings in order to chronicle that growth. Art, for me, is about choices and selections, and I have wanted to document those choices and selections.

In spite of what I have said about painting only for my own pleasure, therefore, my sabbatical was not an exercise in self-absorption or aesthetic hedonism. There is a product to be evaluated and shared in addition to my Stowe Web site and what hangs in the seminar room -- my teaching. If I can teach writing better by having struggled with painting, then I have a worthy product. If I can draw clearer parallels between the sister arts in my Literature and the Arts class, then I have a worthy product.

And I suppose this is where my friend Jack Leax's experience and my own intersect. Unlike Jack, I am not a specifically Christian artist with a specifically Christian audience. But my students are my audience, and I must minister to them, testify to them, offer an example for them, share a vision with them. And like Jack and the negative reviewer he talked about in his book, I must understand that some of my students may never respond with enthusiasm to what I teach or how I teach. Like any audience for any art form, my students are not required to like what they see me do. But I must do my best to help them understand what I do and why.


The following is a selection of the paintings I had on display during the month of March along with the commentary that accompanied them.


Learning to Paint: Painting to Learn

The point of connection between the literature and the art of the 18th century is the way in which writers and artists conceived of and responded to nature. What was natural to a neo-classical writer or artist was closely connected to rational forms, for the neo-classical thinker conceived of nature as the orderly creation of a rational Deity. It was the business of human beings to discover form and purpose in the seeming chaos. It was the business of neo-classical writers and artists to reflect that order in their compositions.

What was natural to a romantic writer or artist was closely connected to the emotional quality and density of a moment or a scene. Rather than primarily celebrating universal forms, the romantic thinker celebrated the individual perspective and the individual experience as a way of expressing common human experience. It was the business of romantic writers and artists to express the individual voice or vision in their compositions.

My own experience painting taught me a valuable lesson about the habits of mind of both the neo-classical and the romantic artist. It is one thing to look at the differences between the artistic creations of those different minds; it is quite another to pursue the creative process. As a result, I now require my students in EH 349 to complete a "laboratory" notebook in which they literally try their hand at visual composition in response to their readings about nature.

An unexpected result of my experience painting was my subsequent idea to pair my section of EH 102 with Professor Steve Cole's AR 101 Basic Painting course. Using Hewlett grant funds, I adapted my writing course to emphasize the principles of visual composition in AR 101, and I redesigned my writing assignments to interrelate with the painting assignments. I also joined my writing students as a member of AR 101 so that the issues of composition we wrestled with were not just their problems but mine, too.

The Theory of the Picturesque

In its simplest definition, picturesque means "like a picture." To be able to say that something is like a picture, however, we need first to have seen pictures, and those pictures must have had certain standard recognizable qualities about them. To say that a particular sunset is picturesque, for example, we most likely mean that the sunset looks like other sunsets most often pictured in postcards purchased on vacation, sunsets that reflect a certain mood. Likewise, to say that a small cottage in the woods is picturesque, we most likely mean that the cottage has the look and feel of those we have heard described in fairytales or seen depicted in engravings and storybooks (or perhaps depicted in brochures for vacation cottages in the mountains).

Both the visual arts and literature make use of the concept of the picturesque, because both involve certain sets of expectations about ideal scenes. Thus, a poem or novel that sets a scene in an idealized way may be said to be picturesque. In the same way, a landscape garden that is designed to offer views similar to those found in landscape paintings may also be said to be picturesque. What is perhaps even more interesting is that those very landscape paintings were taken not from nature itself but from nature in its idealized forms. That is, when a painter went out into nature to paint, only certain scenes that had certain aspects of composition and certain physical and "spiritual" qualities would be considered worthy of transferring to canvas.

There were, therefore, by the late 18th and early 19th centuries certain specific qualities that had come to be associated with the picturesque. In particular, the composition of a picturesque scene includes a low perspective, screens (of trees, rocks, or ground) on either side, and areas of focus in the foreground, middle-ground, and distance, with an object of interest in either the foreground or middle-ground. In addition, the picturesque reflects a mood somewhere in the middle of a spectrum defined by the extremes of beauty and sublimity. Beauty, according to the aesthetic theorists of the period, consists of the qualities of symmetry, neatness, smoothness, and lightness, whereas sublimity consists of qualities of unevenness or roughness, age or decay, and grandeur. The picturesque tends toward the sublime but partakes of some of the qualities of both sublimity and beauty.

The literature of the late 18th and early 19th centuries reveals its connection to the picturesque most clearly in the poetry and fiction of romanticism as it grew in reaction to neo-classicism. The poetry of Thomas Gray, James Thomson, and William Wordsworth, for example, presents nature in a far more emotional and personal way than does the poetry of Alexander Pope and Jonathan Swift. In the same way, the novels of the Brontė sisters use setting in more moody and dramatic ways than those of Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, or even those of Jane Austen. In fact, the Gothic novel would not have been written, nor would it have had an audience, had not concepts of the picturesque been widely accepted and approved. Thus, I believe that the development of literary aesthetics, at least in this case, becomes far more clear when seen in the context of the development of aesthetic principles in the visual arts of painting and gardening.

The Paintings

1. The Palladian Bridge, Stowe Landscape Gardens

This is my first watercolor painting. I copied a favorite photograph, and I began by drawing in the basic outlines to scale using a ruler. I then filled in the masses with paint according to what I saw on the photograph rather than what I knew to be in the scene. The dark green in the trees above the Bridge, for example, I did not identify as a shadow until after I had completed the entire painting. This exercise taught me how to mix my paints and reproduce color.

In the process of painting the riverbank on the left, I found that I had created a muddy effect by mixing too many colors together. Unhappy with the result, I worked clean water into the paper with a brush and lifted the pigment off with paper towels. The mottled stains that were left proved to be a happy accident, and I was able to go over these with brushstrokes that represented long grass.

At this point, I was not aware of the importance of leaving parts of the paper unpainted to represent white highlights in a scene. You will notice that I covered the entire paper with pigment.

As we begin to express ourselves in a new medium, we often learn best by copying something. There is little independent creativity in this act, but we benefit by familiarizing ourselves with new techniques even if we don't understand completely what we are doing and why. Theory doesn't always have to come before practice.

2. The House across the Street

Pleased with my first attempt, I chose to do my second painting from life instead of from a photograph. It proved to be more difficult than I imagined. I first sketched the house across the street, and then I transferred that sketch to my watercolor paper using a ruler as before. I began painting the background, but I never finished the piece because I became too frustrated.

This painting proved frustrating for two reasons. First, not having planned for highlights, I made the scene darker with each layer of paint I laid on. Second, not having planned for the movement of the sun, I found the colors and the shadows changing minute by minute, so while the dimensions and shapes of the subject stayed the same, its appearance did not. It was as if my subject wouldn't sit still long enough for me to catch its essence. As a photographer, I am used to being able to freeze a moment in time on a frame of film. In painting this scene I was just beginning to learn that, at least for me, painting involves capturing something beyond a moment, something beyond the literal.

As we begin to express ourselves in a new medium, or as we strive to reach a higher plateau in a familiar medium, our fear of failure often cages us in the realm of what we know. We are tempted to try what has worked before, not realizing that using a crutch can actually slow us down.

3. The Rose Garden, Birmingham Botanical Gardens

When I showed the previous painting to Professor Cole, he encouraged me not to use a ruler to make my underlying sketches but, rather, to be more free with my outlines. "Remember," he said, "that you're not reproducing a scene -- you're painting a painting."

Taking Professor Cole's advice, I sketched this scene without a ruler. Learning from my previous attempt, I went to the Botanical Gardens to paint at the same time every morning for a week so that the colors and shadows would be consistent as I worked.

On this painting I practiced the technique of leaving part of the paper unpainted to represent white. For the bars and posts of the gate, I masked the paper with masking fluid, which rubs off like rubber cement later after the background has been painted in.

This painting also taught me a lesson about the importance of atmospheric perspective. When I first showed it to Professor Cole, he explained that as we look into the distance, objects farther away are paler and more muted in color, as if we are looking through a mist. He encouraged me to make the hills in the background less distinct.

One important stage in learning any art form is moving from a focus on the finished product to a focus on the process of creating it. I believe I entered that stage with this painting.

4. Sycamore Trees, Birmingham Botanical Gardens

This is the first painting in which I loosened up as a painter. (Loosening up was one of Professor Cole's major goals for me.) While I was waiting for my rose garden painting to dry, I moved into another part of the Botanical Gardens and decided to paint what I saw -- the morning sun coming through a stand of sycamores.

I washed in some pale blue for the sky, diluting the blue as I went down the paper to give a sense of atmospheric perspective. After letting it dry for a few minutes in the sun, I painted the greens in quickly -- light colors first, and then darks. My orientation towards the light source made this basic technique of watercolor painting seem natural because the outer leaves of the trees are the lightest of yellow-greens and the interior masses the most dense and dark.

I didn't worry about the foreground between me and the trees. At the time, it didn't seem important. What seemed important instead, to offer a balance to the sycamores, was a spray of sweet gum leaves at the upper left. For the first time, I had painted not a scene but a painting.

Loosening up as we learn a new medium has at least this great benefit: we become aware of what the work of art needs as opposed (sometimes) to what the artist wants. A fiction writer begins to listen to the voice of her characters; a painter begins to sense what the painting wants to be.

5. The Plaza, Birmingham Botanical Gardens

I include this painting because it reveals a flaw in one of the main design principles of painting -- unity of technique. I painted this piece in several sittings, each time working on a different part of the scene. Because I suited my brushwork to the part of the scene I was painting at the time, the painting lacks a consistency of appearance.

When I showed the piece to Professor Cole, he pointed out how loose and broad the foliage of the trees is on the upper left in contrast with the detailed brushwork of the rocks and swing in the middle sections. While the different objects in the painting do indeed have different textures, Professor Cole emphasized the need to represent what the eye takes in rather than what the brain knows each separate object to be.

The artist must not only learn what he or she is seeing but also how he or she sees. The object and the process are equally important. Likewise, the artist must learn to imagine what an audience will see, and take into consideration an audience's needs and expectations.

6. Jackson Square, New Orleans

This painting was my first full-blown attempt at using a watercolor technique known as wet-into-wet. One of the most delightful properties of watercolor is that it can surprise. Although the painter can predict to a degree what will happen if he or she adds water to wet paint already on the paper, or wets the paper with water first and then adds pigment, the properties of the water medium will move the paint around in almost magical ways.

Here I wanted to give the impression of a glance at the Saint Louis Cathedral and its surrounding buildings from across Jackson Square, as if no details register on the retina -- only vague shapes and colors.

The images are accomplished by laying in the shapes of the parts of the buildings in clear water and then touching a brush loaded with pigment to the wet area.

This painting and the next one are based not on a photograph of the square but on a sketch, a verbal description in my journal, and my memory. I realized at this point that I would rather paint what I remember seeing than a photo-realistic scene.

7. Jackson Square, New Orleans

This version of Jackson Square reflects more control on my part of the shapes of the buildings and the vegetation. It was painted in the more traditional way of moving from lighter pigments to darker ones and leaving the appropriate parts of the paper unpainted to represent the highlights and whites.

I solved a particular problem in this painting by turning to my rollerball pen to represent the wrought-iron fence surrounding the square. I was not able to control paint precisely enough with a brush, so I took a deep breath and began drawing over the watercolor after it had dried. I felt fortunate in the effect.

Although the distinct lines of the fence may seem to disrupt the unity of the more vague details of the rest of the Square, the fact that the fence is closer to the viewer's perspective allows it to appear naturally more exact than objects farther away.

As we seek to improve our skills in a new medium, we must learn to be more comfortable taking chances. As John Ruskin wrote, "Nothing is so bad a symptom in the work of young artists as too much dexterity of handling; for it is a sign that they are satisfied with their work, and have tried to do nothing more than they were able to do. Their work should be full of failures; for these are the sign of efforts."

8. View of Florence, Italy

This painting was created from two photographs I took of the old part of Florence from across the Arno River during the summer of 1992. I was interested in playing with the colors and quality of light at sunset. As with the Jackson Square paintings, I was less interested in duplicating the scene and more interested in capturing my memories: in this case the feeling of peace and quiet I remember experiencing when I took the pictures.

The major landmarks of the city appear in the painting, but they are approximate. What pleases me most is the sense of depth created both by the atmospheric perspective and by the foliage in the foreground.

I believe that this painting, like most of the other successful ones in this collection, gains something by being a representation of one of my favorite places. Whether it is the focused attention that goes into the work or some mystical way in which desire or pleasure is infused in the product, I believe that a painter's attitude adds a detectable, if not a quantifiable, dimension to the painting.

Waiting for inspiration is not always possible, but trying to create something under stressful or distracting conditions is always dangerous. Focus is essential.

9. Derwent Water

This was my first attempt at a painting based on the notion of the picturesque in 18th-century aesthetic thought. The Lake District was one of four major destinations for picturesque travelers during the period: it had all of the rough wildness of untamed nature and the variety of subject matter that informed the vision of the growing Romantic Movement.

The scene looks toward the end of Derwent Water where the village of Borrowdale lies: this area was often chosen as a subject because of the steep sides to the valley. Because I wanted the silhouettes of the mountains to be as close to life as possible, I sketched their outlines based on a photograph. The rest of the scene I re-created from memory.

When I showed Professor Cole the piece he challenged me to add more layers of paint to the mountainsides. Vegetation, he reminded me, is full of a variety of colors. In response, I laid in a variety of greens, blues, yellows, and browns and, in the process, created mud. I knew enough to wash and blot the paper to remove some of the paint, and when I did I found that the landscape had taken on the varied colors I had hoped to create.

The sailboat is here for two reasons. First, picturesque theory demands an object of attention near the foreground. Second, in 1948 my father proposed marriage to my mother in such a boat, and I gave them this picture as a fiftieth anniversary gift.

10. Stonehenge -- Summer Afternoon

Stonehenge was a favorite subject of Romantic painters, including the two I studied in the greatest detail during my sabbatical -- John Constable and J.M.W. Turner. It stands atop a rise in the middle of the rolling hills just north of Salisbury in Wiltshire, and it is a lonely and mystical place.

One rainy evening during the summer of 1997, on our way back to Salisbury from Stourhead Landscape Gardens where we had spent the day, Jonie and I stopped to see if the monument was still open to visitors. With a half-hour until closing, we walked around the ring of stones, and to our delight the clouds opened up and the sun shone dramatically through one of the openings. Jonie shot a roll of film in an attempt to record the moment.

I was so taken with both the experience and one particular photograph that I tried to capture the moment in watercolor, using wet-into-wet technique for the clouds. I'm pleased with what I was able to do with paint, but the photograph still does a better job of expressing the experience we had. I expect to paint this scene many more times.

Young artists often hang on to the hope of succeeding at something on the first attempt. The accompanying feeling of failure when we don't perform well enough or complete our work by the deadline is fed by the emphasis we place on grades. Grades are important measures of our growth, but we need to concentrate more on growth and less on grades.

11. Stonehenge -- Winter Morning

This view of Stonehenge is based on one of one of several sketches I made during December 1999. In the painting I was less interested in the overall setting than in the composition of the standing stones themselves. I wanted to record the shapes and textures of each, giving my line drawing a third dimension. I worked from the sketch as I laid in the first layer of paint, and then I turned to a photograph taken from the same perspective in order to record the texture and shadows on the stones.

This painting lacks the drama of the previous one. It does, however, suggest the pale light of winter. I found that I had to use an entirely different palette for my winter watercolors than I had used for my summer and autumn scenes. This painting and the next several illustrate the change in color.

Not all compositions are done for the purposes of exhibition. Some are simply studies that will serve the purposes of the artist at a later date: activities that record the details of a subject and keep the artist's hand and mind supple.

12. Oxford University Spires from Christchurch Meadows

As I was walking in the Broad Street in Oxford one day in December 1998, I saw a watercolor of this scene done in summer, and I fell in love with it. I decided to try a winter scene in which I might capture the greys and silvers of the landscape.

One problem in choosing a winter scene is that I lost the variety of colors that animate the scene in summer. Add this loss of variety of color to the strong horizon line and the painting's problems multiply: everything becomes too static.

One of the unifying devices of Virginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse is a painting that the character Lily Briscoe attempts to complete during the course of the years that the novel covers. Lily completes her painting when Woolf completes the novel -- by simply drawing a line in the center of the canvas. I discovered a similar solution in this painting when I laid in the tree branch in the upper right foreground. It serves both to indicate the depth of the scene and to draw the viewer's attention back into its center. I was nervous about ruining the painting by adding the branch, but I am sure now that the painting would not have been successful without it. The Oxford spires, as beautiful as they are, were not enough in themselves to make the composition complete.

Another important lesson for young artists to learn is that subject matter and form must be entirely interrelated. Works of art are compositions -- that is, their elements are composed, not compiled.

13. Salisbury Cathedral from the Southeast

Almost every time I have been to England I have begun and ended my travels at Salisbury. The Cathedral is one of my favorite spaces anywhere, and my sabbatical trip to England allowed me to make it one of my favorite subjects for drawing and painting.

John Constable, who was intimately acquainted with the Bishop of Salisbury and his family, often made the Cathedral his subject. This painting takes the approximate perspective of one of Constable's lesser-known paintings of the Cathedral.

Salisbury has changed, of course, since Constable's time -- buildings now block many of the views he had of the Cathedral. In this painting I removed several buildings and added a stand of evergreen trees instead. When I showed the painting to Professor Cole, he immediately focused in on the evergreens, suggesting that their strong color detracts from the spire in the background, which should be the focal point of the painting. I was amazed that he was able to pick out the one element of the painting that I had fabricated, and he warned me that while it is often useful to remove things from a scene as we paint it, we must be more careful about what we insert. I inserted a few brushstrokes that I thought would be taken naturally for evergreen trees, because I had seen evergreens represented similarly in other paintings. The artificiality of those brushstrokes damages the otherwise natural feel of the painting.

14. Salisbury Cathedral from the Water Meadows

This view of the Cathedral is the one most often painted by local water-colorists (their works are always for sale in local shops) and similar to the famous one painted by Constable that hangs in the National Gallery in London. Constable's painting depicts the Cathedral in dramatic summer weather -- weather that includes both heavy rain clouds and a rainbow.

I chose to paint it in the pale light and bare landscape of winter if for no better reason that that is the most recent image I had of it. I worked from a photograph I took in December 1998, but I added and removed some vegetation to provide a better view and a better frame for the principal object.

Picturesque theory requires a foreground, middle ground, and distance, with framing objects on the left and right that draw the viewer's eye to the focal point. This view of the Cathedral fits the picturesque formula perfectly, and I enhanced the side "screens" by adding the tall grass to the right. Correcting my mistake in the other view of the Cathedral, I made sure this grass was based on what I had seen in nature rather than what I had seen another painter do.

For me, this painting is the culmination of everything I learned about watercolor technique and composition. It springs from both the head and the heart, from both tradition and personal experience, from both the desires of the painter and the expectations of the viewer.

15. Salisbury Cathedral from the Marsh Close

This painting is a copy of the one by Constable hanging in the National Gallery in Washington D.C., where I saw it most recently last October. During the basic painting class that I took along with my writing students last term, we were given total freedom in choosing our final painting for the course. I chose to copy this painting by Constable -- it is less finished than most of his other paintings of the Cathedral, and I felt I had learned enough about oil painting technique to have a go at it.

I felt confident choosing this painting for my final project for several reasons. First, I have -- as I have said -- a deep emotional attachment to the place, and I believed that attachment would carry me through the frustrations of not living up to my own hopes for the painting. Second, one of our early assignments in the painting class was to copy a collage made of photographs we cut out of magazines. All of us had such success with that assignment that we had more confidence copying than inventing. Third, in my research on Constable I found that he (like most painters) had often copied the paintings of his favorite painters. This activity has had two great benefits for the young painter: it provides the intellectual stimulus of learning technique, and it provides an emotional connection with another artist.

We learn by thinking, and we learn by doing. But I think we learn best when we take an assignment and find a way to make it our own.


© John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College, jtatter@bsc.edu