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”

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

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.

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.

Having a Point of View

This is a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, especially during this time of COVID-19. Not having all the options in my day has forced me to be more focused.

Why do I spend 80% of every day painting, thinking about what I am painting or what I’m going to paint next?

Because it’s very important to express my feelings about my subjects, I just have to get it out. But am I really, getting “it” out? Are they reflecting what is inside me or just a piece of canvas with paint on it representing three dimension on a two dimensional surface.

For many years that is just what was happening…looks like the subject….yeah, good work, repeat. At some point this was very boring, wasn’t I more interesting than that, come on, can’t I make it more about me and less about the subject. This sounds a bit selfish, but I think that is exactly what good painting is about, your personal point of view.

Below is a recent painting I just complete, “Help Wanted”, and the versions that were necessary steps to help me arrive at my authentic point of view.

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The original photo. What I don’t like about it; the overall yellowish tone, Too much red in the lower section. This could take a nose dive into cuteness or sentiment. These things are fairly easy to overcome. Shift the color balance cooler and crop in the lower section. The sentimentality is going to be a conscious effort to not fall into what I’ve seen before.

Now for the really important stuff… what do I like, or why would I want to paint this, what’s my point of view? Looks like this you girl is waiting to be interviewed for a job. There is tension in her hands as she grips her purse, ( at least in one hand, I’ll have to re-gesture the other one) . Her face is tense and listless at once. Her blouse is a little too big maybe borrowed from someone, the hat sits at an awkward angle. Obviously not something she has worn much.

I’ve been there! Wearing uncomfortable “dress-up” clothes,trying to get a job, feeling in a trance because the Manager was too busy with important stuff to give me the time of day. An uneasy situation for sure.dan111

Above, exploring my options. I could give her a dark jacket and gloves, add something dark to the left. Taking the color out of it, turning it to pure value can help with design decisions. How am I going to fill the space in an interesting way?

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At this point I reconnected with my purpose and it was not working, why? The attitude of the hands and expression in the face were lost. The ground and her skirt were more interesting, not my intention. What do I do now?

Could put it in the failed paintings pile and move on to something else…or….really learn something and figure out how to turn it around.

She needs to be bigger in the story, crop in closer to really see her face and hands, Back to the light blouse and hands with no gloves, just attack it and make it behave!

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The beginning of the “right” thing over the “wrong” thing”. It’s a little confusing to just paint over something else, but makes you realize, this is about you, you can do anything you want to, that’s freeing!

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This is what I wanted to say, my point of view. There could be hundreds of others, but this one is mine.

 

Moving Away from Literal

After many, many years of painting I have found the paintings that have been the most successful are the ones where the actual subject was the spark and my imagination was the flame.

Often before starting I will sit down with paper and pen with the goal of getting to the core of why I want to paint this “thing”;

Design questions-

  • Does it exhibit any value patterns that have a wonderful rhythm?
  • What type of paint handling would make this subject really sing?
  • Is there an overall shape that is fascinating?

Emotional questions-

  • Does the subject have an expression that can be exagggerated to heighten the story?
  • What does this mean to me personally ?
  • What can I delete that is just distracting ?

When I finally arrive at my focus, I can start painting.

Dan-lr

My answers to these questions when I chose this image.

  • I’m going to take advantage of the shape of the girl and table as my interesting medium & light value pattern against everything else as dark.
  • More controlled paint handling, big smooth areas against small rough ones.
  • The shape of the girl attached to the table is the glue that holds this together.
  • There is a mood of extreme stillness, am going to use all my horizontal and vertical lines as strongly as possible.
  • This was a daughter of a friend, borrowing her mom’s wedding dress for the photo. Her personality was anything but Victorian and was feeling ill at ease in this dress. So there was a kind of tension at the time which I’d like to express.
  • Don’t like the potted plant, the murky green of the top half or the red carpet, note to self, push everything to the cool side, get rid of that plant!

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As you can see I painted this over another painting, sanded first, to remove any high spots.

The best way to start is going right for the key area, the large shape made by the girl and the table cloth. I’ve found that expressing what I want to say , ( not the literal photo reference), correctly, leads me to the next part and the next, etc.

Roughing things out loosely seems a waste of time, nothing is the right color, shape or place, how does this help? Better to get a few things nailed down, than work out from that point. After the important statement is made, you might be surprised how how little else needs to be said, I’m talking about useless details. Spend 90% of your time on 40% of the painting, it can free you up to experiment more!

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Here is the finished painting “Two Worlds”.

A Painting Critique “Aquarius”

I’ve been doing a series of stilllife paintings featuring clear water in clear vessels, thought I’d have some fun with it so I chose this subject.

I usually like to start off with a drawing, why?duck-draw

  • I can explore the subject in a simpler form, no color, no paint.
  • Helps to organize the values and see where “pushing them around” could benefit the painting.
  • Helps to imagine how I may want to exaggerate or suppress some things to make a stronger statement

Ducks-before

After about 4 hours I was at this point, 90% finished. This is a good time to get away for at least 8 hours in order to get a fresh eye on the scene.

O.K., this is when I put away the reference and go in for what I call “last looks”.

1. The color of the ducks is too cold, remember, even if this is the actual color that was in the reference, your responsibility is not to record it, but to make it what will be the aesthetic best choice. It’s also hard to see the one duck in front of the other. So…

  • Warm up the color, dull the back duck by add a small amount of background color to it.

2.The table appears too flat and disconnected to the ducks……

  • Add yellow to the table where the light hits it most (lower right corner), making it diminish as it goes to the shadows.

3. The highlight on the upper left bowl is confusing, highlight on lower left of bowl too bland. Both of these add activity to an already active area…..

  • Eliminate upper and lower highlight, try it on the left instead (where it could use some interest).

4. Yellow in ducks seems isolated, would like to see more of it in the scene…..

  • Work some yellow into the background.

5. Towel texture could be played up more…..

  • Soften the towel edge as it overlaps the bowl on lower left, as well as the far right edges against the table.

6. Edge of bowl on right and left not symmetrical…..

  • Look at it in a mirror, upside down, whatever it takes to see how I need to correct this.

Compare the before and after images of the painting below-

two-ducksducks-after

After a coat of Liquin and another hour I was able to vastly improve this image.

Next painting, take an extra hour or so to see how far you can take it!

White on White, Clear on Clear

There are numerous things in the physical world that are more difficult to paint. White on white and clear on clear are on that list. Why? looking at the other side of the spectrum may help to answer that.

What are some easier subjects to paint?

  • Red barns against blue skies in green fields
  • Bright flowers in colorful vases
  • Sunsets from photographs

 

These things share color intensity that are close to “right out of the tube”.

 

What if color is dropped to an extremely low intensity as in white objects next to white objects or clear liquid in a clear vessel? It gets real interesting.

My recent painting “Potion” shared both of these traits, I discovered something that made this challenge easier for me.

Working from both life and a photo at the same time. We know that working from life is the real deal, accurate color, values, shapes, it’s all there. However sometimes our eyes have a hard time seeing the subtlest of subtleties, that’s when the photo comes to the rescue.

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My set up above, painting on the left, real life in the middle and my image on the computer on the right.

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This is the photo of the setup. Notice the glowing area, top left in the jar. In real life it was so brilliant I could not see what shape it was and how it transitioned to the dark around it. In the photo it is very clear what is happening. However the colors in that transition are not in the photo but real life.

The long fold of fabric coming down from the jar was such a subtle difference from the flat white behind it , the photo showed me there was a slight value difference and also exaggerated the color difference. So I chose to use values and colors between both bits of information.

Many other areas were made easier by referring to both. Richer colors and textures from life, values from the photo.Potion-final-lr

 

The finished painting “Potion” can be seen at “Plunge” a group show at, Meyer Vogl Gallery in Charleston, SC, from December 7-28.

Gypsy Skirt

Why did I decide to paint this subject? Was it the simple curved composition, the cool tones plus rich reds, the quiet mood…yes, all those things. So I begin by looking at my options with a couple of small value studies. How can I push what I want to say, the feelings I have for the subject?value.studies.blog

First a little line drawing, than layout paper over it. This way I don’t have to redraw the image over and over, it’s visible through the paper, so with two pens, one black, one grey (the paper is the white), I can quickly try out different combinations.

It’s about disassembling the parts and putting it back together. In the left sketch, the  foliage, skirt, top of bench and shadows underneath are the darkest value. Everything else is medium except the light falling on her right side. Hmmmmm….this could work, but that big dark foliage kind of pushes down on her, creating a heaviness.

The sketch on the right holds the darks to her hair, skirt and the under shadows. Everything else is grey except her face, body and shirt are the light tone. Without the dark behind her head she seems taller, lifted. This is definitely the directions I want to go. Either one would work, but the one on the right is what “I” want to say about this scene. This is where getting away from being too literal can be really fun. It’s all about choices.

Next on to the color study, I already have the drawing, the one I used under the value sketches. What are the variables here; this is a scene in the shade, so there are going to be lots of cool tones. Going to want to play with some warms also or this might get too cold. An underpainting wash of warm violet and red orange would work well.

If I’m thinking about doing this in my painting, I need to do it in my color sketch, or they aren’t the same thing at all.

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The sketch with Quinacridone Magenta and Cadmium Red Light wash. I like to let my undertones dry completely, that way I can paint over them or scrape back to them.

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The small color study. Notice I’m not trying to match the values to the previous plan but I am matching the relationship of each area next to another. Squinting will help you see that the darks are the hair, skirt and shadows under the bench, the mediums are everything else except her face arms and shirt which are the lights. There are some accent darks and lights here and there but it still holds to the original plan.

The questions that I want to get answered here;

How cold should my coolest color be, and how warm should my warmest color be?

How dark is my darkest dark going to be and how light is my light?

Which colors and values work best next to each other?

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In the final painting there was lots of room to”open up” the color study, work more interest into areas. Having solved some of the bigger problems up front allowed me to have more fun and freedom in the actual painting.

Painting Words

Have you ever had a subject you went back to time and time again, but just couldn’t figure out what to do with it?

This image from a photo shoot several years ago kept surfacing. I loved the scene, although it was not dynamic enough to warrant a painting . . . until…..I approached it like a writer telling a story.

Where did this girl live, what was her day like up until this point, what would she be doing in a hour? Only after I “fleshed her out” did I start to understand what this could become.

After extrapolating this scenario it was time to rein it in, to its’ most basic core, two words that summed it up. “Dreamer” and “Earthy”. How could I, using this reference, translate these two thoughts into paint?

“Earthy”, push rough texture, use warm orange browns and greens.

“Dreamer”, exaggerate her expression and stance

Now I had something to work with! Since there were not many browns and oranges in the scene, putting a Burnt Sienna wash over the entire surface, than letting it show through as texture would be my approach.

At this point I checked back with my original plan…whoa, no violet in the interpretation I wanted, so I had the choice of pushing this area toward brown, orange or green, I chose a grey green. Sometimes being really rigid and sticking to an idea helps guide the painting toward more harmony, this was one of those cases. 

Moving along, this was the point to refine her stance and expression.

I was happy with the outcome of using words to drive my paint application.

“Waiting”, can be seen at the Meyer Vogl Gallery, 122 Meeting St., Charleston, South Carolina in early October.