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…Silhouettes!
You’ve probably heard it many times – whether from art books, instructors, or right here on WetCanvas - we don’t paint things, we paint shapes. By concentrating on shapes, we can design our pictures with quick thumbnails or sketches that block-in the biggest shapes without worrying about any detail. When we start our paintings, we can do the same – block-in the overall shapes and then redefine those shapes into smaller shapes. In many cases, if the overall big shapes are well defined, we don’t need much detail.
There is a good reason that overall shapes – or silhouettes - are so important. Apparently the human eye and brain are especially good at shape recognition. We can recognize many objects solely by their silhouette without seeing any detail at all. As artists, we can take advantage of that part of our visual ability.
For the purpose of this Spotlight, we will expand the usual definition of silhouettes. Normally, silhouettes are a solid – usually black or dark – shape that defines the overall shape of something. Here, this month, we’ll use the term to describe the overall shape of something – even if it’s not one solid color. It may also be an overall shape that is within a larger shape – such as the overall shape of someone’s hair. We’ll also use it to describe a shape that may contain many objects – such as a mass of flowers or trees. We’ll also discuss partial silhouettes, since when we paint we usually overlap objects making them only partially visible. But even in those cases, the power of the silhouette can be utilized.
We’ll see how artists use the silhouette – especially the information at the edges of the shape
– to help makes things more recognizable and to draw attention to certain areas of their paintings.
Let’s start with an overall silhouette shape. Imagine we are painting a tree (or bush), what information do we want to convey to the viewer that says – this is a tree? I would suppose we would want to give the impression of leaves and branches. We could paint in a lot if leaves and branches over the entire area of the tree, or perhaps we could just paint a few along the edges of the silhouette. Would that work?
Let’s look at a painting by Monet.
This painting has many silhouettes – areas of general shape without much interior detail. But let’s concentrate on the bush on the lower left and the tall narrow tree on the right. The lower bush does have some interior detail, but the branches and leaves that extend out over the water are the details that really matter and help define that shape as a bush. The tree on the right is almost a real silhouette – as it is almost a solid color – but the detail along the edge defines it as a tree with leaves and branches. We really don’t need to see any details within the tree, especially as the tree isn’t that close up.
So, as we can see, limiting interior details can also be a method of simplifying the painting. In most cases, simplification is the goal of the artist, but it can always be difficult to decide what to show and what to eliminate. Sometimes, using strong overall shapes with detail at the edges can suggest detail for the entire shape – even if we don’t show much detail in the interior. There’s no real formula for this, the artist still has to make judgments on how much interior detail to show. But as I looked at paintings in preparation for this Spotlight, I was constantly surprised at how little interior detail is often painted by the likes of Monet, Renoir, Degas, etc.
Here’s another Monet.
Lots of strong overall shapes – not much detail. Only the shrubs at the base of the trees have any real interior detail.
Often when doing flowers, an artist can get caught up in all the details of each petal and each leaf. Here’s a van Gogh that primarily uses the “zig-zag” shape of the silhouette to indicate the petals of the flowers.
Information at the edge of the silhouette can be useful – even when it is just a few strokes or lines – such as when painting hair. Many artists keep hair very simple – with perhaps just a couple strokes to indicate the highlights as the only interior details. But just a couple “hair” strokes along the edge and we recognize the shape as hair without a second glance. Without those little wisps, curls and bangs, hair can sometimes look like a hat or helmet when we paint. Interior detail might
help – details along the edges definitely
helps define hair as hair! Two Renoir details:
In these still lifes by Cezanne, there are lots of strong overall shapes with not much interior detail. Notice how the containers are positioned so that we can see the handles relatively clearly. If the handles were hidden, the silhouette would give us less information and the object may be less recognizable.
Here’s a van Gogh with some strong silhouettes – even though all the objects overlap to some degree.
One thing to consider regarding silhouettes and detailing more information at the edges is emphasis. As we discussed in our Spotlights on edges, harder edges and more detail are “eye-catchers” that create more emphasis. So, it may depend on what you want to emphasize (or de-emphasize) in your painting that helps you determine how detailed and strong your silhouette shape should be. As always, decisions have to be made! There are no rules or formulas to memorize – sorry!
Here are some photo comparisons that hopefully show some examples of how more detailed silhouettes – or seeing more of the silhouette – help us identify objects.
In the following example, which tree looks more “tree-like?”
I would vote for the tree on top! There is more information along the edge of the overall shape – more leaves and twigs – that defines the shape as a tree. Here’s another: Which photo better defines a row of reeds?
I would vote for the bottom photo – as it gives us more detail along the edges of the overall mass or shape. The overall shape of the reeds in the top photo forms a straighter line and is more solid than those on the bottom photo, so if we aren’t careful, it might look like a wall in our painting (believe me, I’ve been there!).
The top photo has more detail in the interior – a lot more stems and reeds are visible – but those interior details don’t really supply that much information – it seems to me. Certainly not as much information as the greater detail and variation along the top edge of the overall shape in the bottom photo.
Another example. Which tree line looks more like a tree line?
I would choose the top photo as it has more tree shape silhouettes along the edge of the tree line. Again, the more of the overall shape we see – and the more information at the edges of the silhouettes - leads to more recognizable shapes.
I should mention that concentrating on the silhouettes – and adding detail on the edges – is just one more tool for artists to use. Not every tree or bush or hairdo is painted with little or no interior detail and lots of detail on the silhouette edge. It’s something to consider and use when you feel it will help – not a rule! There are times when the only detail is in the interior. But when given the opportunity – such as a teapot, tree line or “wall” of reeds or grasses, it might help to add, or exaggerate the details that are on the edges and use the power of the silhouette!
Here are a couple James Gurney blog entries that talk about the silhouette!
And now the references!
photo by kdkbrown
photo by stalksthedawn
photo by TrishaFritz2
the rest of the refs are by me
Remember, you can crop, modify, rearrange, delete elements from the references. And, if you want, show us any WIPs (works in progress) and let us know the particulars (size, paper type, pastels) that you use to create your Spotlight paintings!
And most of all - have fun!!