How to Simplify a Complex Subject

Simplify, simplify, simplify, you’ve heard it a hundred times, but how do you really do it?

I’m going to walk through a recent painting showing the steps I went through to make it easier for me to paint.

Here is the original image. 

I liked the gesture of her putting on a shoe, also the lighting was interesting. But the photo was taken on a stage with all sorts of things in the background that had nothing to do with her. It needed to go someplace else. O.K. she’s in her closet, packed with dresses, and shoes, lots of shoes, on the floor and in boxes. Now I’ve got something to run with.

Even though this may seem like a lot of stuff, I’m organizing it into  three big shapes, the simplify.

So first the initial drawing, it doesn’t need to show everything but it does need to be accurate.

Now is the the time to revisit those big shapes, which are:

• The girl, her seat and the floor (shape 1)

* All the clothes, the wall and the shoes (shape 2)

• The stack of boxes (shape 3)

So how  am I going to hold them together?

• Shape 1, this shape will contain the darkest darks, the lightest lights and the most intense color. All those things add up to the most important shape, nothing else will be allowed to upstage this shape.

• Shape 2, this shape will fall into a medium value of muted warm tones.

• Shape 3, this shape will also be midtones with muted colors used in shape 1.

In the image above I layed in a flat tone behind the girl so I could better judge my values. Here I have roughed in the girl, and the floor, just the big important shapes, keeping in mind how I want to hold her together. Yes, there is a lot more information within her that I could paint, but I have to force myself to move on. Some of things like strands of hair that I really like, may not even be necessary in the final painting, focusing on the whole instead of the parts, simplifies.

Generalizing shape #2, mixing several tones next to each other on my palette really helps to keep these close in value and saturation while getting a variety of reddish, yellowish and blueish tones. Working from the most obvious shapes to the more subtle, knowing the ones near her face should be more interesting. Some of this may stay untouched for the rest of the painting, some may be redone, but I’m working on getting a base here to work with. Next on to shape #3 the boxes.

Everything is massed in now, it’s time to take a hard look at how things are fitting together. I see I will need to adjust the color on the boxes to harmonize more. It’s like a song, there is a high note and a low note. I have already established the warm and cool extremes, so I see some “off” notes like the orange box and the orangey red box.

The design is holding together, which is the priority, so I will go in and adjust everything with an eye on the whole, taking care to not have the big shapes fall apart.

Having a plan and limitations for each area gives me the freedom to express what’s there, it’s having no limitations that will give me brain freeze, just too many options!

As I paint some things may change, it’s always good to be open to something you never even considered.

Final painting “Her Happy Place”

Words from the Wise

I’ve just finished reading Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting for the third time in ten years and finding it as inspiring and eye opening as ever. Written by John Carlson in 1929 it’s not a flashy book, no color pictures, no flowery language, doesn’t even mention paints, color or canvas. What it does offer up is how to see and think like an artist.

Thought I would unpack three of my favorite quotes from Carlson;

“An artist must first be a dreamer, and than a sane analyzer of those dreams.”

I believe this speaks to imposing your own preferences on a subject. How can I make this subject more appealing to me? It’s letting your imagination run wild, then reining it into something that can actually be painted. Here is an example below of a reference photo and the changes that took place that transformed it into what was in my head.

The real story here is a neighbor of mine sitting in front of a window in my dining room. Not very interesting. What I’d like her to be, an Eastern European immigrant, traveling with her favorite chicken. “At The Station”

“There can be no expression without previous impression.”

This is about actually getting emotional about your subject. Look at it, really look at it, how does it make you feel? Let it filter through your heart as well as your head. If you can’t come up with anything , move along, this isn’t a good subject for you.

This subject just exploded with youth and freedom, warmth and escaping the normal world. Infusing her into a bubbling atmosphere of weightlessness, moving toward nowhere in particular was my vision for her. “Going in Circles”

“In Art, knowledge assists invention.”

As artists, we can never believe we draw well enough or understand color enough. It’s life long training that help us gain the skill and knowledge to invent within our paintings. To create something that is unique to our personal vision.

A photo of a friend’s daughter in the back, overgrown yard of a neighbor.

There happened to be a broom resting against the dilapidated porch, she grabbed it. What I saw, a mystical being, walking through the tall sun lite grass, searching for some work to do with her broom. She might physically clean something up or help someone to “clean up” a problem in their life. “Summer Spirit”

Next time you’re faced with a new subject take some time to dig deep into the possibilities.

Moving Toward the Story 3

This is the third part of Moving Toward the Story. Many times when a finished painting is framed and on the wall I see there’s more to be done. One factor is the frame. It adds two horizontals and two verticals to the design, which can affect things. This happened with Pure Americana. Below left is the original finished version and on the right the framed painting with the changes I made to it. Can you spot at least 8 things that are different?

Below is the before image with numbers and explanations on why I added or deleted something.

  • 1. The right side of her hat is not in shadow anymore, it was too severe but more importantly it pulled the eye upward, not where I wanted it to go.
  • 2. I had to get rid of the blue mountains, even though I liked them. They created a visual weight pushing down on her. This is another example of a horizontal that wasn’t working.
  • 3. Because she has little visible face I felt the need to develop a softer texture in her hair , there was too much tension in it.
  • 4. I added the lace pattern on the top of her blouse, again, I felt she needed some softness.
  • 5. I cut down the underside of her arm, another horizontal that looked a little too heavy.
  • 6. Cut down the top of the arm also.
  • 7. Got rid of the shadow on the edge of her hat, didn’t really want your eye traveling down that line.
  • 8. Made her nose a little smaller and lowered the value slightly, it was just too strong in that sea of shadow.
  • 9. Brought the sky all the way out to the edge. The red on the upper edges of the sides was leading the eye up and out of the painting.

It’s never too late to change something in a painting as long as the freshness isn’t lost.

Moving Toward the Story 2

This is a continuation of the first blog on this subject “Moving Toward the Story”.

It’s time to reevaluate what’s happening here, this is done by asking questions.

What do I like so far;

  • The subtle play of red showing through the grey
  • The big interesting shapes in the truck

What I don’t like so far;

  • The area of her face and hat in shadow are looking too harsh now
  • Still not sure about the blue behind her head
  • Areas still need more developing, but which areas?

O.K., so those were design related things, now…..how about the story? I want the young woman to have some mystery about her. What is her situation, who is she? I want to keep her upper face in total shadow so that you can add her expression. Since there won’t be information in the upper part of her face I need to explain who she is by other things; such as her stance, her clothing, even the texture of her hair.

To set the scene to fit my narrative, the truck needs to be older and in the country. At this point I’m really liking the black and grey against the background so am not going to add the subtle colors that were intended at the beginning. This is where “listening to the painting” is so important, sometimes we can steam roll right over something that is better than we originally planned.

Finished painting, Pure Americana

When color is no longer a concern, value does the heavy lifting. Just because I have all the values to work with between black and white, doesn’t mean I should use them all, in fact I want to use as few as possible. Adding more detail to a painting is really a matter of breaking the big shapes into littler ones with more values. The more an image gets broken down the weaker it becomes. The big interesting shapes become what I call “mushy”.

I also want to orchestrate the values, not following the reference image exactly, but using it only for the information I want.

Where do I want the most emphasis? In the girls face and outstretched arm, so that will be the only area that goes to total black.

What role does the truck play? Supporting cast. Really hold back on the values here. How few can I use to explain just enough, three.

And that blue passage behind her head that I wasn’t sure of at the beginning….I really like it now, adds to the Americana feel, in fact the title of the painting is “Pure Americana”.

Continued on Moving Toward the Story 3

Moving Toward the Story

My most recent painting is a perfect example of how the story I want to tell drives the entire process from sketch to finish.

It began with the photo of the girl, who was actually standing against a stuccoed wall, outside in a friend’s backyard. I began projecting who this girl could be, with her hand touching the brim of her hat. This scene could have gone in hundreds of directions, but I took it into a direction that means something to me. Ideas began to form:

  • Outside in the sun
  • In a open field
  • In a nostalgic scene
  • Searching for something in the distance

How do I convert these things into the visual language of paint?

  • Take her out of the original background, put her in a new one
  • Get the feeling of blazing sun and nostalgia by painting most of the scene like a faded photograph with the edges a warm burnout
  • Add an old rusted car to reinforce the time period and add to the story of “what is she looking for?”

Remember this is the initial frame work to get me going, during the process I will be open to things that may need to change. Design is always my first concern, the subject second, so I’m willing to “let go of” some things in the subject that may have seemed important when I started.

Image 1

After I had put on a warm wash and let it dry I went in starting at the most important area, the face and hand. I feel the start sets the stage for the whole painting, and I wasn’t liking this. This is what I call a “false start”.

What’s wrong? I wanted the painting to be made up of very muted colors, but at this point with all the very intense background wash showing I could not judge anything subtle. That background was just screaming too loud!

So what are my options? The mistake I made here was trying to do something complex too early in the painting. The solution is to move into the simplest from of subtle color, which is black plus white for various shades of grey. At a more advanced stage I may go back and overpaint with subtle colors, or not, I’m leaving the possibilities open.

Image 2

Image 2 above; I’ve worked the same areas with the black plus grey mixtures and I’m liking it. Notice how her face is the same black value as her hat, this is part of simplifying, letting somethings go. I may separate these at a later stage but right now I’m looking for simple design and harmony.

to be continued on the next blog post “Moving Toward the Story 2”

Developing the Idea, part 2

This is part two of Developing the Idea, view part one here.

The image on the right is after, what I call “the first pass”. Instead of looking at the subject I’m more interested in how the eye is moving through the painting. So I evaluate the shapes.

1. There are three parallel edges that make up her arm, the light falling on the arm and her dress. This is boring, I’ll get rid of one of these by using color instead of value to define the light falling on her arm.

2. This edge on the lower right of her dress is weak, am going to straighten it a bit.

3. I want to emphasis this sweeping edge so I need to push back her left arm and shirt by making them darker to move toward the background more.

4. Her hair at her forehead needs to be adjusted, directing the eye in more of a horizontal motion across her head.

After a couple days work

You can see the changes I’ve made. This is the point I stop and take a long hard look at where I am and where I want to be.

This is when it’s of great benefit to know what you like. What I’m talking about is what attracts you to other paintings? This is a very personal thing, the more you’re in tune to this the stronger your work will be.

Below are “my feelings” about this image;

She is too literal, I need more interesting hard edges to make the image bolder.

The color is too warm overall, cooler images appeal to me more.

I want more contrast, and movement, so lightening and cooling the sky is a good choice, also add more blues in the grass. Using a variety of lines; rough, smooth, long and short at the edges to get some interesting movement.

I think about the possibilities; I would love to make the bucket old and rusty …. but….I would have to sacrifice the interest of the shiny texture against the rough texture of her apron…in the end my decision is not to change it. But the idea is, to consider all the possible choices you have.

Since I’m going back to her hair, a simple sketch helps me to design her hair with the purpose of moving the eye across it in a intentional direction.

This simple sketch helps me see how I want her hair to move.

After these adjustments the image below is the final painting “Keeping’ It Real”.

In the final image notice how the original warm wash is still showing through in some areas, just enough to add a slight vibration and texture richness.

Developing the Idea

I’ve been asked how I develop the idea for a painting. Here is the process I went through in a recent one.

Finding a subject that resonates with me in my reference photos is the first stage, photo #1. I liked the gesture of her stance and the way the light is falling on the right side. I will replace the background barn and the foreground gravel, I want to tell a different story about her.

Photo #1

Than fleshing it out, how can I made this scene more of what I want to say? The photo on the left below, shows a cropped section of grass from a painting I did several years ago, (you never know when those old paintings will come in handy), which seemed a good environment for her. I’ll be omitting the barn and mountains in the back, just wanted the grass texture. Also it seemed a tractor would add to the story I want to tell, ( decided to use a red one instead of the yellow and red).

Putting them all together, it’s beginning to work. Notice how I cropped the figure in closer. A close cropping makes for bigger, bolder shapes, as well as focusing on what I feel are the most important parts.

For the first stage of this painting I decided to put a wash on the painting surface. Why? The glow of a colored wash on a white canvas can only be accomplished at the beginning. I’d like this glow to show through in small areas as the top more opaque layers of paint build up. I chose to use an orange tone under the green field area to add warmth, because green can sometimes be problematic as a raw cold color. In the area on the girl, I washed on a warm green because in real life the green in that field would be reflecting all over her. Also it creates a harmony within the painting. See the video below-

Diane, applying the initial warm wash on the canvas surface.

To be continued in part 2. . . . . . .

Evolution of a Painting

Drifting

Have you ever “finished” a painting, than weeks later , saw that you missed the original idea? That’s what happened with Drifting, the painting below.

 

I was really excited about this image, my thoughts exploded in all directions.

  • I liked the vantage point from above, wanted a – floating, drifting, sleeping feeling.
  • I liked the intense warmth, wanted to manipulate this from warm at the top to cool at the bottom.
  • Wanted her to exist in two worlds, one of reality and one of graphic design.

Any one of these would have been interesting, but all of them at once was too much. There were parts of the painting that I really liked; her face, hair, warm light, the composition. However I got lost along the way, the relaxed flowing atmosphere I had originally pictured was not there. So how did I go about bringing it back?

First deciding what needed to change.

This is a breakdown of the areas that needed the most changes.

  • #1, shows where the color transition from warm to cool needs to be fixed. Because of the way cool colors recede, she almost looks like she is bent forward at the waist. The change is too stark, some cool would be good in the lower half, but this is too much.
  • #2, the hands- the most important area after the face that will show the mood of the painting. The gesture of these hands is too tense. Don’t always accept what you are given, change anything for the good of the painting.
  • #3, the folds are too angular, they do not fit with the idea of flowing.
  • #4, the leaves are clustered in a stiff pattern, again, not the flow I had in mind.

The final version. I haven’t touched her face yet her expression looks more relaxed. You can see how I tweeted the background color and movement. Now she appears to be floating above the ground, I see the view like something out of an airplane window.

Stretched Canvas vs Wood Panels

One thing I’ve learned in my many years of painting is that “the best way” to do something is a hard term to use. There are so many ways to express yourself in paint, that only you can decide what’s “best” for you.

What I can say however, is what’s best for the way I work, and my “best surface” to paint on is definitely wood panels.

Why do I prefer them over the traditional stretched canvas?

The surface texture; you are the master of your texture from eggshell smooth to gritty rough, depending on how you prime it. I like a random brushstroke finish, which I achieve with a large brush. I’ve illustrated this process in the video below. Yes, you can purchase canvas in varying degrees of roughness, but I can decide on the fly how I want the surface for a painting to be and create it without leaving the studio.

Support structure; a panel is a very solid surface, it will stand up to techniques like heavy palette knife scrapping and sanding, which I like to do to diffuse dry areas or take down a heavy buildup. A panel stores safely and unfazed while stretched canvases can get dented and even wavy while being stored. The type of wood I use is 1/4″ MDF, which is a medium density fiber board. It has no grain like plywood, it is wood fibers fused together with adhesive to form a very sturdy sheet.

You can purchase panels from art supply stores of buy sheets from home improvement centers, but you will need a saw to cut it because the sheets are large. Most places will cut it for a price. It would be worth buying a saw to do it yourself if you like the surface.

Check out my video on priming wood panels here.

The Subject, and Your Options

At some time or another we’ve all been stuck in the rut of just trying to reproduce the subject with paint. This is what I call “literal painting”.

So why is this a bad thing? It can become stiff and lifeless, because what’s missing is you. The fact is you have options. Options to interpret the subject differently, through your eyes, emphasizing the things that are important to you.

Below is an example of a recent subject-jenBlog1

The literal;

A young attractive woman in an interesting pose with jewelry and a floral print dress. Everything is medium to high key except her hair which is dark.

How could I interpret this differently? At first this may seem daunting, after all how can I paint something that isn’t there. “I can’t just pull something out of the air”. Here’s where it gets really personal… because ten people may answer the questions below ten different ways.

  • First think about why you want to paint this subject, why did you decide on this particular one?  I like the mysterious mood, almost dangerous.
  • What parts of the image showcase this idea the most? The uplighting and the way the hands interact with her face.

So how does this translate into paint? With manipulations, yes manipulations. Taking what is already there in the subject, and pushing it in a new direction.

Color: is a big one since it can set the overall tone in a painting. What I’m looking at in the image is warm yellowish to rosy tones. Changing this to a greenish color world would change the subject to my mysterious mood. This is not as difficult as it may seem. Realizing where the dark medium and light values are, you begin pushing it all toward green. One trick that can help with this is to paint from a grey scale version of the subject. Or take the image through a photo editing program like Photoshop and push the color in another direction.

Cropping: get to the point, zero in on what’s important to you.

Value: the high key aspect of my subject is not helping my story, pushing it darker does.

Paint application: careful strokes with small brushes, explaining every element in detail is not part of my story. Large strokes, some harsh, some like transparent veils, speaks to the emotions I have about the subject.

One way to get better at seeing your options is to start looking at work by artists you admire and deconstructing their paintings. What might have they been really looking at? How have they expressed emotion through color, cropping, value and paint application.

Jennlr