How Much Do You Plan Your Paintings?

"Hex" Oil on Canvas 16" x 12" © 2009 Marilyn Fenn
“Hex” Oil on Canvas 16″ x 12″ © 2009 Marilyn Fenn

I recently read an article by a representational painter on another blog, in which the writer said that one should very carefully and thoroughly plan one’s paintings.  My first thought was, “No waaaaay!”  That would take all the fun out the process of discovery that, for me at least, is a great deal of what painting is about.  Feeling a little smug, I thought of the following much-loved quote:

You are lost the instant you know what the result will be. – Juan Gris

Then I started to remember some of the paintings that I got stuck on somewhere in the process — paintings that went awry perhaps because I hadn’t done any planning.  I began to reconsider my assessment of the writer’s claims.

In reality, the amount of planning one should do for painting probably lies somewhere between completely planned out and no plan at all, and probably depends primarily on the aims and temperament of the artist.

Still Life with Teapot and Orange · Oil on Panel · 1992
Still Life with Teapot and Orange · Oil on Panel · 14″x18″ · © 1992 Marilyn Fenn

Planning Representational Work

When painting representationally, a pretty clear plan is suggested by the arrangement of the still life objects (or the portrait model or the landscape or interior scene) and one’s spatial relationship to them.

The process of painting becomes a series of decisions: where to crop, what color palette to employ, how to apply, and arrange the paint on the canvas, etc.  Then you just keep painting until what you’ve created on the canvas looks something like the model from which you worked.

With any luck, the artist has breathed life into what was once a blank surface through such things as their own personal style and vision, their design decisions, and their application of paint.

One Flight Down · Oil on Canvas · 28"x28" · 2004
One Flight Down · Oil on Canvas · 28″x28″ · © 2004 Marilyn Fenn

Planning Stylized Abstraction

The period of my work a friend named “prismism” — a kind of abstraction where the objects are broken up by lines and planes of color —  actually required more planning than painting from life.

I selected my object or objects, reduced the shapes through a series of lines on the canvas, and then chose each color with the utmost of care to relate to all the adjacent colors in a particular way, depending on whether the adjacent areas were part of the object in question or not.

After painting about 10-12 paintings in this style, I couldn’t keep going in the same direction.  It started to feel like I was just painting by numbers (but without a chart), and left little room for freewheelingness – something that apparently I need.

Painting is an adventure to an unknown world. New ideas and concepts develop along the way. – Ratindra Das

Planning My Current Abstract or Non-Representational Work

Now I prefer a loose plan, sometimes as little of a plan as deciding that I just want to paint circles or I want to see what I can do with a diagonal composition on a square canvas.  At times, I still reference images from life, but they serve at the pleasure of the rest of the painting, so to speak.  Often, I have some sort of imagery in mind, though usually not a whole composition.  Sometimes, I discover the most delightful things working this way; at other times, I create paintings that just strike me as too goofy or weird.  For instance, the painting at the top of this post, now called “Hex,” was once this:

Marilyn Fenn · Hot Links · Oil on Canvas · 16" x 12" · 2009 · destroyed
Hot Links · Oil on Canvas · 16″ x 12″ · © 2009 Marilyn Fenn · (destroyed)

I think I scared myself a little.  Was it a mistake to paint over it?  Maybe, but it’s done now.  What remains in the piece named “Hex” is the 4th or 5th version of paint on this canvas. The history of the previous renditions still peeks through the top layers of paint, adding a kind of interest to this work that wouldn’t have existed if I’d started with a basic plan for “Hex.”

On the other hand, another painting in this series, “Turbulence,” now renamed to “Yellowstone,” I repainted three times, which resulted in a great improvement.  I did not have much of a plan for this painting, either: I just knew I wanted to paint some loops and something diagonal, and I was really grooving on the yellow color used in the background of this series.  I got the composition on the first shot, but the application of paint was a little too loose in places, a little too stiff in other places, and a little too undefined in the area that now looks like a cloud.  The whole painting actually flows much better now due to my continuing to rework it until I was happy.

How Much Planning Do You Do?

I’d love to hear about your process.  How do you think the amount of planning you do affects your work?  Does it help or hinder the process?  Does it help or hinder the outcome — the finished piece?

Here’s one more of my favorite quotes that supports staying loose in the planning stage:

In the brush doing what it’s doing, it will stumble on what one couldn’t do by oneself.  Any art is academic by definition if you know what the result is going to be before you start. – Robert Motherwell

3 Replies to “How Much Do You Plan Your Paintings?”

  1. I do plan my paintings. I do sketches first. On the canvas, I use a process the French Impressionists did called “underpainting”. Doing an “underpainting” serves as a sort of “road map” to my final destination and it lets the underpainting “color” infuse top painting in nice, unexpected ways. I use two colors; depending on whether my subject has flesh tones or not.
    My final painting is often very different from my “road map”…”happy accidents” are welcomed in painting, as they were when I studied advanced printmaking lithography, etching and collographs. Often in the printmaking process, my artist’s “proofs” and experiments were more precious than the editions!

    So I do plan but I’m open to surprises.

    I remember reading in an art history book once: the best abstract painters base their works on reality; even the most abstract subjects are “abstracted from reality”.

  2. I do sketches on a scrap of paper before I start, they are very loose. Then I will transfer the sketch to my canvas with a pastel or colored pencil. The canvas has been treated with the leftover paint from my last piece, I clean the palette this way. The “whiteness” of a canvas can be intimidating so I get rid of that before I even know what is coming next. That tends to make for happy accidents since I am very driven by color. I do find that I can get stuck when the first excitement is over and the difficult decisions are ready to be made. That is when I wish I had put everything down like a paint by number. If I just keep pushing the best work comes with surprise solutions and patterns. When I come to faces I always put on the brakes and have to really work through it.
    Great question. Hope your pieces are coming together for your show.

  3. I would say that generally, I don’t plan. What I do do is think about do I want a vertical or horizontal painting…a warm or cool painting, a high or low key painting,etc. And I don’t always do that from the beginning unless I’m wanting a change or feel like all my paintings are saying too much of the same thing.
    Not that planning is wrong…just not always right for every painter at every stage of their progress through their years at the easel.
    I do like to tone a canvas…and if i’ve thought about it enough might tone on with a warm ground if I want a cool painting or vice versa. AND I love to then start making marks with willow charcoal. That usually gets me going into working relationships and so the process begins again.
    The main thing for me is that I have to give up the intent (if and when there is one), if things change in the process and take off on their own.

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