- Optical or “Paint what you see” (reacting to observed color)
- Intellectual or “Paint what you know” (modeling the form with value based on the direction of the light source.)
The first style of visual thinking, the optical mode, tends to generate paintings that are highly chromatic with a stimulating range of hues. Form is created primarily through temperature changes (contrasting warms and cools). The virtues of this style are graphic impact, energy, movement and emotional effect. The vices of this approach are a patchy, crude or "posterized" look. In my opinion, this approach is exemplified by artists like Ben Fenske.
The Intellectual Mode
The second style of visual thinking, the intellectual mode, tends to generate paintings that are tonal, with a subtle variations in values and a limited palette of hues and subdued chroma. The virtues of this style are a subtle, poetic, and intellectually sophisticated look. The vices of this approach are a stylized mannequin-like polished feeling and a static lack of energy. In my opinion, this approach is exemplified by artists like Scott Waddell.
Of course, in practice great painters combine both approaches fluidly, alternating between the two modes at different stages of the painting. This level improvisation requires a a high degree of skill, experience and confidence which few of us can readily achieve. Fortunately in painting, “The Process is the Product” and those of is who are mere mortals can bake the benefits of both approaches into our process.
The Process is the Product
I recently tried intentionally alternating these approaches during a six-hour portrait study session at Grand Central Atelier.
Stage 1: Block-In
Stage 2: Optical Impressions
This stage is focused on reacting visually to color and identifying regions of color that can be grouped together. This stage involves keeping each region of color generally flat and relying on brush application and edges for the transitions rather than “modeling” transitions with blended gradations of value. Form is turned towards or away from the light with relative temperature changes (warmer or cooler). The values are intentionally compressed into the middle ranges.
Stage 3: Intellectual Modeling
This stage is focused on “modeling form” by conceptually understanding of the surface planes as they turn towards or away from the light sources. Starting in the shadows, gradations of value are applied that gradually working out from the shadows and into the lights. The value range of the painting is expanded by working from the darkest darks to the highlights.
The combination of these two modes of visual thinking, each at a separate stage of the process, seems to yield a more nuanced and balanced result than favoring one approach at the exclusion of the other.