How Important is Painting an Accurate Likeness?

The name of this painting is the Bull Cave. According to old timers and a photo someone has [I haven’t actually seen it] the cave had two wooden doors attached, now long gone. Dating around the turn of the 20th century the cave with doors would have enlarged it’s interior. The cave was used as a place to rest or stay overnight if need be as travelers made their way up the canyon. Locals say it was an overnight stop for horses and wagons carrying freight from the railroad station. The homesteaders who could have given me more concrete information have passed.

In the beginning, my intention was to paint this location with all that rich history in mind. I started the painting on my first visit at about 3pm. I liked the way the sun hit the limestone rock showing a variety of colors. Early in the day all of that was in shadow along with the cave. I went back three times in the late afternoon so I could observe the light on the limestone.  Almost immediately I wanted to change the length of the limestone as it curves around the road to accommodate my 11” x 14” panel and to allow for blue sky. That action prompted a few other compositional shifts. At this point an accurate portrayal of an historical place was in the background of my considerations.  Instead I was aware of the two main actors in the painting. The limestone was the lead. It was so ancient and powerful. The supporting actor was the water and the sun’s reflection bouncing off the rock. The sun is always the director and the light was different every time I went so I committed to one reflection on the water and stayed with it. Even after coming back to the studio I worked on it for several days scraping paint off and reapplying it until I was satisfied.

In the end I had some conflict about changing things in the painting to make it more interesting to look at. I chose to bend toward my impression of what I saw. I think if I had wanted to document an historical artifact then better to draw an illustration or take a photo. Instead I also wanted to paint the feel of the place.