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-   -   The Spotlight - February 2016 - Simplifying Part II (http://www.wetcanvas.com/forums/showthread.php?t=1397881)

DAK723 01-31-2016 07:51 PM

The Spotlight - February 2016 - Simplifying Part II
Welcome artists!

Here is a quick recap of what The Spotlight is all about!

The Spotlight is an activity thread for pastel artists of all experience levels working from photos chosen by a monthly host. Most months, the host will choose photos from only one subject, putting that subject into “the spotlight,” so to speak! For example, one month the subject will be painting water, another month will spotlight flowers, etc.

Some months, rather than spotlight a subject, the focus will be on a challenge of some sort. In those cases, we might have a wider variety of photo references, but “the spotlight” will be on the challenge itself.

Since this is a group activity, we can pool our knowledge and resources, and grow as artists in a fun, “no-pressure” atmosphere.

And, remember, no critiques unless specifically asked for.

The intent is to have fun, try new things, experiment, and perhaps most of all, to see what our friends and colleagues are painting from the same reference material!

Please note: The photos this month were taken by me or are from the Reference Image Library. You have permission to use the photos as reference to create your artwork and to sell them and/or exhibit them. The actual photos still retain the copyright of the photographer. So you cannot copy the photo to your blog, for example, without the permission of the photographer, or digitally alter or reproduce the photo for any purpose other than for your personal use, with the exception of crops, digital alterations and posts of these photos within "The Spotlight" thread.

This month’s Spotlight continues our exploration of…Simplifying!

In our Spotlight on Simplifying last month, we discussed using large value and/or color masses to create the foundation for our paintings. This month we will look at the use of shapes and silhouettes to simplify both masses as well as individual objects on our paintings.

Keep in mind that the examples I am using in this and the previous Spotlight on Simplifying are specifically chosen to best represent what I am discussing. The painters represented have done many paintings that are not simplified to this extent and may have also done many paintings that are quite complex. Using these techniques and principles is a choice – certainly not a rule. The extent that you decide to simplify is totally up to you!


On a most basic level, artists are not painting trees, rocks, bananas, cats, teacups, etc.; we are painting shapes that represent real objects. The importance of the overall shape – the silhouette - cannot be over-emphasized. If the overall shape captures the essence of the form and makes it instantly recognizable, then little or no interior detail is needed. Minimizing interior detail is a wonderful way to simplify!

If fact, the importance of the silhouette was a topic of a previous Spotlight, which can be found here:


Last month we discussed beginning paintings with large areas of flat color – with no modeling of form. Well, needless to say, the same principle can be used when painting individual objects. After all, a silhouette is flat – with no modeling of form! And as we discussed in that previous Spotlight on silhouettes – the edges of the silhouette is where the “action” is! The more information you can apply at the edge of the silhouette, the more recognizable the shape.

I used this Monet in that earlier Spotlight. The bush along the shore and the tall tree on the right are shapes with little interior detail. The leaves and twigs that stick out from the silhouette give the impression of detail all over.

Here is a painting by Albert Bierstadt. Check out those mountains! While there is a small amount of detail and some variation in value, each layer of the mountain is basically depicted by its silhouette. Also note those trees in the lower right corner. Those silhouettes define the trees beautifully! In many cases (but not all, of course) the overall shape can capture the essence of the object it represents without needing much interior detail.

As we discussed in last month’s Spotlight (and in many Spotlights over the years) the amount of detail you add in a particular object or area of your painting often has to do with whether it is the focal area, or an area of lesser importance. The focal area often needs more detail to attract (and hold) the viewer’s attention. Distance also plays a part in how much detail may be visible (or desired) in objects or areas of your painting.

Next is a wonderful painting by Emile Gruppe. Notice those wonderful palm tree shapes. They contain some smaller shapes indicating light and shadow, but not much detail. There’s enough detail at the edges of the shape (including those coconuts!) to make the shape very recognizable. And the tree shape also lets us know that the wind is blowing!

Watercolor is a great medium for making shapes. Although some watercolorists can create lots of detail, for many of us watercolor is a medium that lends itself to making simple shapes that have to be painted and left alone! No modeling of form, no adding lights over darks, etc. Below is the same watercolor painting by Winslow Homer that we saw last month. It is almost all silhouettes!

Below - another painting by Homer. The details along the edges provide us with most of the information for the background shapes. This painting, as well as the Homer above, are also great examples of using those large value masses to simplify our paintings and give them a strong foundation.


One common challenge for artists is deciding how much detail to put into their paintings. For landscape artists, that may mean deciding how to handle leaves on trees, flowers, grasses, and other small objects. It often depends on how close those objects are, but regardless of the distance, it is often possible to group objects together rather than paint individual entities. Sometimes just a few little individual strokes or dabs can give the impression of lots of detail when in actuality most of the leaves or grasses (or whatever) are grouped together.

Here is a painting by Bob Rohm that has some beautiful trees and foreground grasses. The leaves are painted in “clumps” with just a few smaller dabs along the edges. Grasses and flowers are depicted as shapes with a few little dabs to give the impression of individual entities.

Another example of grouping by the artist Marius Breuil:

Grouping objects can also be used with larger objects as well. Instead of painting 3 or 4 individual trees, or a number of rocks that are each standing alone, you may find that grouping them together will help simplify and improve your composition.

Eliminating What is Not Needed

OK, I realize that it is easy to write “Eliminate what is not needed.” But how do you know what is not needed? Yes, that is the difficult part. Quite frankly, I have no secret formula. Nor is it something that I am particularly good at, as we shall see!

While trying to determine what is not needed may be difficult, Andrew Loomis, in his book The Eye of the Painter, gives a good description of how adding too much to our painting can often throw us off our destination.

“We must realize that in our first appraisal of a scene, we usually look at the whole and are moved by it. Then later, after our work starts, we may notice the little things that we overlooked, and gradually, by concentrating on these increasingly bothersome details, lose sight of our original impression.”

Been there, done that, as they say!

And here is an example taken from a photo that appeared in an earlier Spotlight.

Below are two paintings done from the reference photo. Mine is on top, the bottom painting is by Charlotte Herczfeld (aka Charlie and Colorix).

Even though my painting was done later, I failed to learn from Charlie’s simplifications. While both of us simplified our paintings by removing some of the rocks, my tree has more branches and leaf clusters. In my opinion, far too many branches and leaf clusters! Charlie’s painting has simplified the tree to a greater extent, thus putting more emphasis – and allowing us to see – the shape of the trunk and the major branches that give the tree its character! Plus, her leaves are grouped into larger shapes, whereas in my painting those leaves are depicted in far too many smaller, distracting shapes!


Cropping a photo – or “zooming in” on a real scene painting from life, is one of the best ways to simplify. Loomis recommends that an artist should choose either to simplify what they see or to select a simpler subject. Or choose part of a scene rather than the whole subject; choosing a barn rather than the whole farm, or even just part of the barn with an animal or two in front of it, rather than the whole barn, for example. Loomis says:

“Most amateur painters try to include too much, while the experienced painter knowingly forces their attention on the most interesting part of the scene before them.”

I know, at least from a personal standpoint, that this was true for me. When I first wanted to paint landscapes, I tried to do wide, panoramic paintings. Now I realize that all my best landscapes are smaller, more intimate scenes.

One reason to crop or choose a more intimate scene is that allows for a more obvious subject matter or focal area. If your painting can be divided up into smaller complete paintings, better to do multiple smaller paintings!

OK, to summarize: Some of the best ways to simplify are to use the power of the silhouette as we paint our shapes, using edge detail to give the impression of detail all over! We can use larger shapes to depict smaller objects such as leaves, grasses, flowers, etc. by grouping them together. Or, if the objects aren’t needed, we can simplify by leaving them out altogether! One way to eliminate what isn’t needed is by cropping and zooming in! Pretty simple, right?

[Please note that the Rohm, Gruppe, Herczfeld paintings used in this post are copyrighted and used for educational purposes. Please do not copy and/or reproduce.]


Photo by Charlie's Mum

The rest of the photos are by me

Feel free to modify the references as you wish! Once again, feel free to do thumbnails or initial sketches to help you simplify the compositions!

And have fun!


Ruthie57 02-01-2016 03:36 AM

Re: The Spotlight - February 2016 - Simplifying Part II
I'm here! Thanks for another great lesson Don. I love your examples and the thoughts you put with them.
I'm having a few days off painting, got visitors coming. But I'll be on this later in the week and I'll have a peek at the thread whenever I can!

Blayne 02-01-2016 08:20 AM

Re: The Spotlight - February 2016 - Simplifying Part II
Thank you for the lesson and the beautiful ref photos, Don! I'm here but still very preoccupied with settling my daughter in (she has moved back home), spending hours enjoying her company, and getting my studio in shape. If I don't join you this month, I'll be back next month for sure. Hello, everyone!🙋

Norma46 02-01-2016 11:16 AM

Re: The Spotlight - February 2016 - Simplifying Part II
Thanks for the lesson. I have been an absolute slug for two months and I am now going to focus on daily art. I am going to do at least three of your spotlight references (maybe from your previous silhouette spotlight). Thanks for inspiring me.

kedwards 02-01-2016 02:16 PM

Re: The Spotlight - February 2016 - Simplifying Part II
Great lesson, examples, and references. Thank you!

I don't have my pastels available at the moment, but I made some thumbnails and then roughed in the shapes/values

DAK723 02-01-2016 04:47 PM

Re: The Spotlight - February 2016 - Simplifying Part II
In case any newcomers have found this thread and are wondering where Part I is, her is a link:


kedwards, Always good to start with thumbnails to work out the composition! Thanks for setting a good example!


Still-trying 02-01-2016 06:34 PM

Re: The Spotlight - February 2016 - Simplifying Part II
Thanks Don. Good teaching here. I did one of the refs today and had to wipe out completely. Perhaps I'm thinking too much. At least I saved the paper! Look on the bright side!

kedwards 02-01-2016 08:05 PM

Re: The Spotlight - February 2016 - Simplifying Part II
Here is in completed (or mostly completed) version

kedwards 02-01-2016 08:07 PM

Re: The Spotlight - February 2016 - Simplifying Part II
That's strange... the new entry seemed to have overwritten the initial block-in I had in the first post... or is it just showing that way on my computer?

*Deirdre* 02-01-2016 08:24 PM

Re: The Spotlight - February 2016 - Simplifying Part II
Did you save them with different file names? Or upload via phone...which just overwites them if used twice on the same day...

Still-trying 02-01-2016 08:45 PM

Re: The Spotlight - February 2016 - Simplifying Part II
Nice Canada goose K.

robertsloan2 02-01-2016 09:02 PM

Re: The Spotlight - February 2016 - Simplifying Part II
Great lesson, Don! I love the references - and thank you for showing Charlie's painting as an example. She simplifies and changes silhouettes often, brings the most wonderful color and lively motion to her paintings. The essence of the subject is there but she'll also tweak the shapes to work better in the painting.

I may have a go this month, missed last month but I put it in my goals.

kedwards, wow! Love your goose. Thanks for showing your preliminaries. I was thinking the same thing, focus on the sentinel goose. He's gorgeous! You captured his gesture perfectly and your painting is great. Fantastic textures on him, implying more detail than shown.

naglel 02-01-2016 09:41 PM

Re: The Spotlight - February 2016 - Simplifying Part II
Jay, I hear you...my life :lol: There is a challenge in the WDE this week to choose a ref you would not normally do...I believe there may be a reason for this..
Kedwards, love the Canada Goose, very well done!

This month is a very busy one, may not be able to do much but here is one I did today from one of the refs...can you guess which one?
Trees are a bit of a challenge and I followed the ref for a bit but when the frustration started I ditched the ref and went solo lol!
For some reason my scanner loves yellows, and doesnt show the slight pink hue overtop the clouds ...pffft!
This is on 6x8 MT, Im not entirely happy with it, the scanner is a great way to show up errors

DAK723 02-01-2016 10:37 PM

Re: The Spotlight - February 2016 - Simplifying Part II
kedwards, Nice job on the goose! Nice crop! As Deirdre mentioned, each file you upload needs a unique name or it will overwrite the previous file.

Raini, Nice job! The trees are nice and simple and the crop simplifies the composition!


robertsloan2 02-01-2016 10:49 PM

Re: The Spotlight - February 2016 - Simplifying Part II
Nice crop, Raini! Thanks for mentioning the color shift, it's easy to visualize what's missing. I've sometimes played with images a lot in Gimp to get them truer to the art, especially when I used a scanner. My Kindle camera gets color truer but still needs tweaking.

I like how you massed the foliage and those violet accents really make it shine. Well done!

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