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 is on…Simplifying!
I’m sure you have heard it many times. One of the tools that an artist needs to have is the ability to simplify. Rarely do we come across a scene – whether in real life or in a photo – that has exactly the right amount of elements to make a unified, cohesive drawing or painting. Plus, unless we are photo-realists, we won’t be putting in every detail. So, in a sense, we all simplify or paintings compared to the actual scene. But what’s the best way? What’s the approach one should use?
Well, it’s difficult to say that “this is the best way,” or “here’s the approach that always works!” And that is why the subject of simplifying is a difficult one to approach with any type of certainty. I’ve been thinking about doing a Spotlight on Simplifying for a few years, actually, but it’s not the type of subject where you can find examples of what painters left out of their paintings or how they rearranged the elements! All we see is the final result!
But, luckily, lots of art books talk about simplifying and make a number of suggestions. But, again, these are just suggestions and the actual choice of what to simplify, what to leave out of a scene, what elements you might combine, are all at the individual artist’s discretion. Two artists looking at the same scene will undoubtedly make different decisions, so keep that in mind.
Also keep in mind that the examples I am using in this 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 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!
The importance of designing our paintings starting with the large shapes or masses is a common topic in many of today’s art instruction books. Reducing your composition to a few large shapes is a good way to simplify right from the start so that your painting has a strong foundation.
From The Eye of the Painter
by Andrew Loomis:
“In choosing our subject, we should first consider how effective it would be in a small sketch…. Even though in a small sketch we would normally only suggest the outlines and forms of the subject, the patterns should be simple enough to make the design carry 10 feet or more (in a sketch that is about 5-by-7 inches).”
Many books on composition will discuss those design patterns in terms of values. One way to simplify your composition is to mass your elements into large masses of a similar value. A large group of trees may be massed into a dark value mass. The more distant mountains might be grouped into a middle value mass. The foreground field might be a light value mass, etc. As you progress the painting, some value variety will appear in some or all of those areas, but starting out with large value masses will set up a good foundation for your painting.
One easy way to work out those value masses and the overall simplification of your subject is to start with that small sketch that Loomis mentions or with a thumbnail sketch or a notan. Designing your composition with 3 or 4 values – and large designed shapes – will help simplify!
While many paintings are not designed with 3 or 4 large value shapes, here are a couple Monet examples:
It’s possible that Monet could have started with simple 3 or 4 value thumbnails, simplifying the elements into value shaped masses, like this:
In his first painting, notice how little value variation there is in the foreground. Aside from a few darker greens in the immediate foreground, the rest of the colors are all a similar value. Presumably, Monet wants you to move over that foreground to the more important part of the painting – the row of trees. Within those trees, he depicts light and shadow values and more details (even though they are quite small). And then, the background blue mountain is once again depicted with little variation in color and value. By using a narrow value range within the larger mass, the mass retains a unified general value and is simplified. If you squint at the painting, the value masses should be quite clear!
Take a closer look at the painting with the boat and notice the large mass of background trees. Whether or not Monet actually is depicting this tree mass as he saw it (or perhaps it was more individual trees), notice how the mass of trees is simplified by using very little detail. There are enough smaller shapes depicting branches or clumps of leaves to give us the impression of many trees, but the trees are not painting as individuals, but rather as one mass. Once again, those smaller shapes and the mass in general has very little variation in value, and in this case, color as well. Again, enough variation to give the impression of detail, but not enough variation to break up the unity of the mass.
Of course, finding a balance of how much variation and how much detail to put into the mass while still keeping it unified and simplified is the hard part! Generally speaking, masses that are farther away – and/or masses that are of secondary importance can have less value and color variation and detail. Masses that are of greater importance and/or the focal area will have more variation in color and value and more detail.
Using large, designed shapes is not restricted to value studies. You can lay out large shapes of color, too. In his book Fill Your Oil Paintings with Light and Color
, Kevin McPherson suggests the following:
“Think of building your scene with sheets of colored construction paper. Imagine cutting out the shapes very simply. Use as few shapes as possible to get your canvas covered.”
Needless to say, since many of Monet’s paintings are based more on color contrast than value contrast, we can find examples of large color shapes in his paintings as well! Below is another Monet and beneath that, the painting reduced (by me) to simple color shapes.
The nice things about simplifying your initial sketch into color shapes is that it can give you a road map for your actual painting. In other words, you can start your painting with these big color shapes! It’s a great way to simplify and to keep your basic color shapes from becoming too fragmented. There are many books that recommend starting a painting – whether it be pastels, oils or acrylics, with large areas of flat color. Once the flat color has been established, then it is easier to add only as much detail and as much variation to the areas of color as is needed. There’s no rule as to what your flat color should start out as – since you can paint light over dark, dark over light, or both light and dark over mid value. The key is that it gives you a foundation. Then you can decide how much variation in color and value you want to add to the color/value masses.
It is also easier to change your design at this early stage when working with big flat shapes. Changing the shape of those shapes, or even adding or eliminating shapes can be done easily at this early stage to design and refine your composition.
Monet, for example, may have started with big flat areas of color like this version on top:
And with the foundation in place, adding highlights and shadows or slight gradations of color should be much easier. Adding a slightly darker blue at the top of the sky and a lighter blue at the horizon was simple to do as the basic sky color was already established in the initial block-in. When choosing additional colors for the tree and foreground masses, any color chosen that may be too light or too dark, or a color that stands out too much, will be immediately recognized since you can compare it to the color and value of the mass already established. Since you are adding detail and accents at the end stages rather than at the beginning, you can choose exactly where you want those details to be and only add as many as you need. And you may find that you don’t need many details after all!
Linking Darks and Lights
One way to create larger, simpler masses of value and/or color that is often mentioned is to link darks and/or lights in our paintings. This can be a merging of shadow shapes or highlights – or can be the merging of larger areas as well. Linking darks and/or lights can do a lot to simplify your painting into stronger, clearer, simpler shapes.
Massing and linking not only simplify the painting by reducing it to larger shapes, but it prevents creating paintings with too many scattered elements. Too many scattered elements can over-complicate your composition and create confusion as to where your focal point or focal area is.
Here’s a link to the Daniel Smith site. Take a look at example 2 and the painting by Caroline Buchanan where she links her subject figure to two dark shapes to create one large dark shape that extends through the painting.
Here is a watercolor by Winslow Homer. Since we don’t know what the original scene looked like, we can only speculate if he changed it much, but he has created a dark shape that connects all of the palm tree leaves – and in fact, connects that dark shape at the top of the trees to the dark shape that extends all the way to the left edge. Did he link all these shapes intentionally? It’s hard to say, but they do create a very simplified and bold painting!
Most of the books I have that discuss Massing and Linking are about landscapes (and so are my examples), but the same principles can be applied to any type of painting. Here’s a link to a blog with a nice still life by Craig Shillam. Notice that his step 1 is a very simplified sketch of 3 values.
And here is a nice figurative painting by the great Sorolla! I think you can see how he used fairly flat shapes of color to begin this painting.
Here is an online article about simplifying and massing that may be of interest:
Next month we will discuss some more simplifying strategies, but for now we have a lot to digest! So let’s concentrate on simplifying the subject by using large shapes to design our compositions. Feel free to do value and/or color thumbnails or sketches that experiment with those simplified shapes. Start with large areas of flat color! Post the thumbnails and sketches if you wish, as well as your final paintings! Remember, there are no rules when it comes to simplifying. How much, and how you approach it, is totally up to you!
(All photos by me)
As always, feel free to crop and otherwise modify the references.
And have fun!
And Happy New Year to all!