Paul Kratter's (Mastering Landscape and Mastering Trees) paintings embody the light, atmosphere, and emotion that only an accomplished artist can convey. In this week’s Artist of the Week, Paul explains how he knows he’s found the right scene to paint, the power of planning, and how he assesses his work after he’s finished.
Art Notes: How do you know you’ve found the right scene to paint? What does it need to have for you to want to paint it (AND for it to make a good painting?)
I usually know right away that a scene is worth painting because of the graphic shapes I see. Quite often it's a group of trees. The silhouette is what I see first, and usually strong light, but lately I like foggy scenes too. I'm usually looking for five to eight graphic shapes of all different sizes. I usually walk around the scene moving left and right, moving back or getting closer, and sometimes I'll go to the other side to see what the best angle is. I do not get my art kit out, just my sketchbook and ballpoint pen. I'm drawn to subtle colors, and earth colors in nature are my favorite.
Art Notes: Why is it important not to skip the sketching part of the painting process? What does sketching give you as an artist?
The most important part of my painting process is my sketch! I first draw in a light outline and then add more firm lines. I try to use three main values: the white of the paper, a dark that represents my black, and one or two midtone grays. I also work on the composition by breaking up the elements into graphic shapes. This is done in a sketchbook, two to a page and about 2 x 3 inches.
Art Notes: Along similar lines, what does planning allow you to do as an artist that you wouldn’t have without it?
I leave the sketch at my feet so I can refer to it, as I never want to lose that impact that I saw. Sometimes the light may change, and a good sketch will capture that light and I can refer to it for the shapes. This does happen often enough that I am thankful I took about five minutes to work out a good sketch.
Art Notes: Could you walk us through your process? What is your goal for each step?
After my sketch, I transfer it onto my canvas with a light pencil. I then use an ochre color and redraw the image one more time. This way I can make subtle corrections that would be problematic if I rushed to start painting. I usually block in the shadow shapes using a No. 8 bright brush (all my brushes are brights). I then block in the lights and stand back to see what I've done.
This is so important, to keep moving away from your work to get a fresh view. The goal here is to cover the board and block in the whole painting. Sometimes this is not possible, and I'll finish an area that is going to change the most at the start of my process. If there's lots of atmosphere, then I'll work from the most distant areas to the closest ones. Too often we fall in love with a brushstroke or color that isn't working.
I mix most of my shadow colors in the same pool so they stay related to each other. The lights are mixed separately to stay cleaner. This is the stage that is usually ugly to me, but a necessary step. I then go back to the shadow side and repeat the process with the goal of adding more color variations and refinement. The same is true on the light side, but this paint is more opaque, with white added to it, and is a bit thicker to contrast with the thinner shadow areas.
I step back again to scan the piece for things that might need fixing, like a slanted building, or for an area that needs more refinement. The last step is refinement of every area, and at this stage I may use Nos. 4-6 brushes, and the smallest details might require a No. 2 brush. I soften the trees and add sky holes. I may add fences and other small details. I'll clean my palette and get a clean brush to work in the sky. This is important, as the sky is easy to contaminate. If the sky is interesting, with clouds, then I'll paint it first as that's a changing element.
Art Notes: How do you change the shapes from what you see to what would make a good painting? Why?
I do change the shapes of some elements, especially trees. I imagine what an arborist would do to trim the tree to make it more elegant, where any dead branches would be removed.
Art Notes: How do you change the colors you see in your subject for the benefit of the painting? Why?
I tend to see warm colors, and I love subtle grays. If you were in a room and turned down the dimmer switch, that's how I see color.
Art Notes: How do you assess a painting once you’ve finished?
I'm fortunate that my wife, Tia, an artist who has 35 years' experience with Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, is someone who can make suggestions about my work, and she's always right! Sometimes I put my painting away for a while and then I'll pull it out and it's clear that I need to change something. Being critical of your own work is very important.
I also have several artist friends who once in a while point out something that needs correcting. Sometimes I'll put an image on social media, and if I get a lot of positive feedback, I may want to enter it in a show.