When your first impression of an artist comes from looking at reproductions in art books or images on a computer, you can get the sense the artist was flawless. Hints of the struggle the artist had with the piece can be hidden by the photograph. And you can come away with the sense the artist's feet don't really touch the ground. But as a veteran painter, I assure you they do. Completing a painting is a little like scaling a mountain. You get to the top by a circuitous route and you take a lot of steps.
Here's an early Edward Hopper oil, Sailing, I have always loved. Some years ago I was in Pittsburgh and got to see it in person at the Carnegie Art Museum. As I stood looking at it, I was annoyed by random bumps in the pigment in the sky. Then I realized what I was seeing- if one squinted one's eyes you could just make out a human head underneath the sky and sail. Hopper had recycled one of his early canvases. It had been a vertical portrait study he'd done that had apparently not turned out. Turning it on its side, it became this wonderful flowing impression of a sailboat surging forward under the wind.
In retrospect, Hopper probably realized he really hit it with this one, and I bet he regretted not having begun the painting on a fresh smooth canvas. Oh well.
Interestingly, he didn't seem to make the same mistake later on in his career. Just the opposite. As he grew older, Hopper got into planning ahead. Below is a mysterious and spooky Hopper titled Cape Cod Evening. I think it achieves a wonderful moodiness, partly from its unusual color chords, and partly from the odd unsettling relationship between the two figures and the collie.
His thinking didn't start out that way, as suggested by this little compositional study he did in pencil. Here the dog looks toward the woman, a pose he would abandon in favor of the collie turning away to gaze at something unseen outside the picture's frames. "What's calling to the dog?" he wants us to wonder.
Painting a painting is like any other relationship- you come to know another person well only over time. Initial impressions my be proved right, or may have to be adjusted or dismissed altogether. As a painter comes to know her or his painting more fully, its design has to evolve. If as an artist you know exactly where you're going ahead of time, you're going to turn out a very dull painting. Searching, discovering the unexpected, and integrating it into our vision is what it's all about. We can see Hopper working with the changes that went through his mind.
Below is a pencil study Hopper did in his Cape Cod studio. It looks like the room is just about to be flooded by the incoming sea. Though Hopper usually stood up to paint his oils, he is sitting down in a chair to do the drawing. When I've been in his studio I experimented to see if I could create the exact same viewpoint. If you look out when seated, the water (Cape Cod Bay) appears to flow right up against the open studio doorway.
And here's the final painting, Rooms by the Sea, now in Yale University's art museum (those ivy-league kids get all the nice ones). Hopper kept his idea of the water lapping right up against the door frame. You can see Hopper's thinking continued to develop as he went from pencil to oil versions of his idea. He moves his point of view slightly and expands the width of the empty white wall. Obviously he wants us to look first of all at the brilliant diagonal splash of sunlight there. Intriguingly, in real life, the sun never shines on this wall as the wall faces north. You realize his original pencil sketch was intended to help Hopper visualize a light that existed only in his imagination.