Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Soul of a Painting

The Chestnut Group (Plein Air Painters for the Land) is working on paintings of plantations and battlefields just now, in preparation for a fundraiser for these historic monuments. Yesterday was a perfect day to paint, and I took a trip to Franklin to paint at Carnton Plantation.

This plantation has an especially beautiful garden, with a row of handmade trellisses and arbors covered in grapevines. It also has a formal area of plantings "on axis" to the garden gate and the huge double antebellum porch on the mansion. As I stood in the center of the garden, I was captivated by a row of pear trees espaliered onto arches over the path.

One of the arches perfectly framed the garden gate, leading up to the house which reared its impressive bulk behind the delicate plantings. Nice contrast of bulk and delicacy, light and shadow; frames within frames, and all in all a very promising composition.

After setting  up my easel and doing the preliminary value study, I snapped a shot of the scene just in case I needed reference for details later. I usually don't wind up using my reference photos, but it seems to be a good idea to do diligence.

This particular mansion has an especially bloody history. The family who lived there was caught in a horrific battle. Hundreds of wounded soldiers were brought into the house. The floors were soaked with blood. The family buried 1500 dead.

As I painted, I kept reflecting on that history. The very ground cried out to me. The great house and the delicate plantings took on a melancholy air which was not dispelled by the gentle May sunshine. The painting itself turned out to be moody, even a little stormy. 

When I got back to the studio, I took a look at my reference snapshot. In the photo, I see only a pretty garden and house. In other words, the film failed to capture the ghosts. 

This is why it is so very important for us as artists to go through the rigors of our work, and to paint from life. When painting from life, our hearts and souls go into the picture. We can't help but tell the story of what went on beneath the surface. Here are the two images; see for yourself:

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