Envisioning the Image

One of the most difficult things about beginning a painting is being able to envision what it will look like when it is complete. This envisioning the painting beforehand is critical and is often overlooked. But how can one even begin if one does not know the path one is to take? Monet said (I believe it was Monet), “don’t paint anything if you cannot imagine it first as a painting”. One needs to see in the mind’s eye the image in as much detail as possible- what it will look like; how the color will flow; what will be the focal point and how the painting process will reveal this; how the melody of color and form will heighten the emotional content; how the composition will bring this all together to create a lasting impression. One will only know if a piece is complete if it fulfills this first “vision.” Otherwise, one is apt to paint on it continuously because as moods change, both for the model as well as the artist, the sense of the painting changes. Before you know it you are lost in “the dark wood”.

There is also the question of technique. The proper technical means to achieve the desired result will be found because the image itself will call forth what it needs in order to speak . This puts technique at the service of the image and not the other way around. Technique must succumb to this envisioning process. Henri states,

“It is useless to study technique in advance of having a motive. Instead of establishing a vast stock of technical tricks, it would be far wiser to develop creative power by constant search for means particular to a motive already in mind, by studying and developing just that technique which you feel the immediate need of, and which alone will serve you for the idea or emotion which has moved you to expression. You will not only develop your power to see the means, but you will acquire power to organize the means to a purpose.” ( Robert Henri, The Art Spirit, p.220)

Possibly a new approach will be necessary in order for the image to be realized. Finish will come when the means has approached the initial “vision.” To seek technique for its own sake is a vapid exercise.

This does not mean that spontaneity is removed from the process. One always needs to be attuned to the moment for it is in the moment that we get a glimpse of what lies hidden beneath the surface. But if one provides the framework of meaning and emotion, spontaneity has the chance to dance upon that structure adding greater depth to a piece. And this is what you want- a combination of opposing forces, true to our experience of the natural world.

Locating one’s vision is sometimes,unfortunately, referred to as “what do you want to say?” but language is limited and image usually goes beyond the verbal to contain something more deep and unspoken. Words cannot contain the thought or the feeling in quite the same way. When one has a feeling for an image, a vague sense seeking form, by what means can the artist come to know that image more fully? In what way can he allow that image, that remains somewhat hidden, to reveal its self?

As a practice, I attempt to draw the image from my mind’s eye first. Repeating this process until the image speaks back to me that feeling I am after. Then I recreate this image using a model and whatever other means necessary, again repeatedly doing studies until the image “speaks” back to me. Then I tackle it from the angle of color and melody by painting color studies from memory until they contain the right emotion. Finally, I paint a color study of the model combining my feeling for color with the reality before me. It is this final combination that brings me close to envisioning what my piece will look like when it is complete. The french academies of the 19th century referred to these final studies as etudes. It is a vision or summation of the final painting, containing all the elements and emotional content that the final piece will entail. It is the “spirit” of the image seeking its final fulfillment. In many ways these etudes of the 19th century have a greater impact to our modern sensibilities than the later Salon pieces because the forza is immediate and finish is reduced to a minimum. In the end, it is the furia and intentionality that we seek to translate in a visual form- making it tactile and leaving an impression that will reside in the memory. [Furia– the living quality, the height of invention. (David Summers, Michelangelo and the Language of Art,p.63)]

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

One thought on “Envisioning the Image”

  1. Judith, your studies are beautiful. The reclining figure is exquisite! I love it! There is so much wisdom in your blog. Your statement that if the one does not have as complete a vision as possible of what the finished piece will look like “one is apt to paint on it continuously because as moods change, for the model as well as the artist, the sense of the painting changes” could have been written for me. I often have no idea what I want to paint and ask the model to assume various poses until I settle on one- as I write this I am thinking I could decide what is interesting about the pose and then envision and begin working on studies of what the final painting will look like. In any case ” Envisioning the image” is one of several things that you write about that I have got to continuously remind myself of when painting. Thanks for describing your practice for “allowing the image to reveal its self ” looking forward to trying this.

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