Ever since I started this whole Americana painting series, I've been besieged by people asking where I get my ideas for scenes. Well, I'm not saying hundreds of people ask me. In truth it might even be less than a dozen. Okay, maybe one person asked.
Apparently, I have a low thresh-hold when it comes to besiegers...
Anyway, since I keep no "Official Artist Secrets" I thought it would be fun to chat about that aspect of painting.
Doing figurative, and even narrative scenes does require a tad more thought than zipping around the country side looking for places to paint, if I say so myself. After all, the Americana paintings involve depicting scenes of 100 years ago. But whether a painting is a landscape or Americana, first the inspiration has to hit me.
I have a pretty good collection of books pertaining to the 19th Century, and I'm always hunting for more. I keep some of them in my studio where I love to kick back and go through them in search of ideas. It isn't the photos that usually get me, but some description of an event. If it's written well, a mental image pops up that might inspire me.
Take Day Dreamer, for instance. I got the idea from a diary entry written by a young girl at the turn of the Twentieth century. (It was in the dark blue book above, next to Hometown U.S.A.) In it, she talked about her chore twice a week of trimming the wicks and cleaning the soot from the chimneys of oil lamps. I thought that might make an interesting little slice-of-life scene, so I noodled the small thumbnail sketch I show at the top of this page. But there it sat for months until I stumbled upon an authentic dress from that time period at an antique store. I knew my grand-daughter Paige would make an excellent model for the girl-- and in truth I wanted to use her in some kind of picture all along. So after a posing session with her wearing the dress, and sitting at a table with some old oil lamps, Voila! There it was.
The painting Daily Commute was a different animal entirely.
That one started as a simple car trip through Bowdoinham, Maine on a glorious summer day. I was passing over the Cathance River and saw a train trestle that is actually still in use. In my minds eye, I saw a group of kids playing and swimming in the water near the stone trestle as a train chugs by. I thought it was a marvelous idea. In fact, it was so good Thomas Eakins almost did it for me...
Okay, I thought, what else could be going on in the river? For some reason, a river ferry came to mind. Why, I don't know-- I hadn't been reading or looking at any photos of one. But hey-- why not? So, a ferry traversing the river while a train goes by. Oh, and wouldn't it be cool if I showed someone- maybe in a horse and buggy- waiting on the shore? And that's really the skinny on how I do it; I just start thinking up scenarios as I go along. After my brain-storming session, I started in with the thumbnails:
Basically, these are just short-hand to get my thoughts on paper. I finally settled on this one:
I don't know about you, but I really try very hard to make as compelling an over-all design as I can. I might have one idea or vantage point when I first come up with an idea, but I'll try several thumbnails to work out any possible alternative. You may not like the one I chose, but it wasn't because I didn't think of anything else.
Now, all of those were done without any reference material. So the next step was to find locations, research old photos, you name it, anything I could find to look at in order to make this idea come to life.
Here's a screen shot of my reference file for this painting:
And I still had plenty more. You can see that I have a mixture of here and now, and way back then. The here-and-now shots are of places up to fifty miles from my home. But also notice-- I didn't copy any of these in the painting!
I use photo reference material for one reason: To show me how something looks so that I can make an informed depiction of it. I can imagine a tree, or a river or a plank fence. But seeing the real thing gives me those little details that I probably would not have thought of otherwise. So while the scene is imaginary, all of the elements in it are based on real things, just reverted back to my imagination to fit in with the scene. Don't be afraid-- It makes sense to me...
After all of that comes the painting part. See? Nothing to it!
So now you know how it all comes about. Currently, I'm in-between paintings. But not to worry-- I think I may be coming up with an idea!
And so the process begins anew...