What Does It Mean To Simplify A Painting?

Most artists have heard that they need to ’simplify’ when painting. We’re told that simplifying is  good! But why, what is it, and how do you go about ‘simplification’? A beginning artist, unsure exactly what simplification means, may often just go ahead and struggle to copy what they see, details and all, exactly as it is.

Why simplify?

With more experience, however, we come to understand that it’s possible and sensible to IMPROVE a painting by changing some of the components of an image. We want to share a story in our own way about what we see. Perhaps we want to emphasize parts of our picture and encourage the viewer to understand what is important to us. We don’t want to include confusing or extraneous information in our image. Sometimes a painting becomes more effective and stronger if some parts are left out completely. We want to make less be more! That is why we simplify.

What is Simplification?

The essence of simplifying is making something less complex and complicated. In painting, simplifying can mean making your painting and your message clearer, easier to understand.  Complex forms with lots of detail are REDUCED or EDITED to become fundamental shapes and including only the most important details. Copying is not simplifying, whereas painting an impression or suggestion of a scene is. 

Crocus simplified.

How to simplify? First, Establish Major Shapes.

Begin by thinking about shapes – the MAJOR SHAPES of the scene you hope to paint. (Don’t begin by focusing on details.) Look for the largest shapes, the big overall pattern. Imagine the least number of shapes necessary to make your design. In a landscape painting, the fewest number of shapes could be two – sky and land, or sky and ocean. But your image could have as many as 5-7 large shapes. A row of trees with their shadows (their shapes combined to form one) could be a shape. Or a mountain range can be a major shape. Keep in mind that ‘shapes’ are not necessarily single objects or subjects. A single barn could include several shapes – one side of the barn sunlit, the other shaded (see below).

Some of the major shapes include sunlit front of barn, shaded end of barn.

Only after noting major shapes (which form the backbone of your painting), should you consider smaller shapes, then details.

Second, Reduce The Range of Values.

Shapes in a painting can often be related to VALUE (lights and darks). Strive for simplified value contrasts and limit yourself to light, middle, and dark values as you plan your picture. Rather than trying to capture a lot of little shapes and an infinite range of values, design your painting with strong and simple shapes and a limited range of values. You will avoid confusing clutter that distracts viewers from your intended message.

Third, Use Fewer Colors.

Another way to simplify your image and create a stronger painting is to use a LIMITED PALETTE of colors. Too many colors can complicate a picture, making it appear garish, as well as make mixing of color burdensome. Fewer colors, on the other hand, can increase color harmony and balance.

Limited palette of colors used.

Fourth, Limit details.

Better artists are able to look at the vast amount of information around us and screen out extraneous details. To do that yourself, stop and ask yourself what it is about your subject that you liked. Once you have identified what interests you about the scene, think about what details are important to your message (that you might want to emphasize) and which details do not contribute (which you might be able to make less important or completely filter out of the picture). It’s sometimes a good idea to even crop out/eliminate an area that does not add value. 

You may want more detail around your center of interest to encourage a viewer to focus on this area of your painting. Soften and eliminate some details elsewhere in the picture (perhaps blurring details in the distance and shadows). 

In this barn painting, I cropped away some of the edges, simplified a bit of the fencing and barn board, and got rid of the trough in the foreground completely.

Details limited in painting.

Original Reference Photo.

Thumbnails To Help You Simplify.

Use several THUMBNAIL sketches to structure the best possible composition for a painting. Thumbnails are not finished drawings, but quick, small, simplified sketches, 2X3 inches (or perhaps 4X5 inches) that help you explore where your painting might go.  Try to keep your thumbnail sketch proportions similar to what you plan for the finished work.  Experiment with the arrangement of shapes and values. Your first thumbnail is often not the best arrangement you can come up with, so draw several thumbnails, with pencil, before choosing a final composition.

Fourth and Final Quick Thumbnail for Field Painting.
Watercolor Painting of Field

Sketching out a few thumbnails is like brainstorming, investigating options or variations on possible picture arrangements. It need only take 3 to 5 minutes. By working small, there is no room to fuss with detail. It is one of the best ways to organize and simplify a composition, and to focus on important information, while eliminating the unnecessary.

In Summary.

As an artist, strive to simplify, interpret a scene, and make it your own. Be bold. Simplifying your composition improves its focus, clarity, and power. To simplify may seem difficult at first, but less can really be more!

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My Approach To Watercolor… Step By Step.

All artists develop unique ways to create their art – there are many variations in approach to painting, not one correct way.

I prefer an interpretive realistic style much of the time. I don’t strive for a hyper-realistic or photographic reproduction of a scene, but for an image adapted from what I see – one that expresses emotion and shows strong value contrasts. To create good realistic art, you need to make it personal. Your art should reveal what you want to say and what the image means to you. See Realism: Better Than An Exact Copy, a blog post written January 22, 2019, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/01/22/realism-better-than-an-exact-copy/.

STUDY IMAGE. FINALIZE COMPOSITION.

Tris-Flowing Forward In all Directions- Acton Winter Pond

 

Template – Flowing Forward.

Initially, I just sit with the image I have chosen to paint. I look carefully, study, and analyze before beginning. (Painting Begins With Looking And Seeing” (12/18/2018), https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/12/18/painting-begins-with-looking-and-seeing/.) I’m trying to anticipate possible problems I might encounter as I paint.

I think about what attracted me emotionally and what details, therefore, will be important to include in the painting. In this way, I design a CENTER OF INTEREST to emphasize. Here, I choose the sunlit orange bushes along the far edge of the river to be my center of interest. I see this focus framed by verticals (tree trunks) and horizontals (shore line and flow of the river). I note that there is open water (where there are reflections) in addition to the hard ice toward each shore. (These differences in ice/open water are barely noticeable, yet important.) I also consider whether there are unnecessary details that detract from the effectiveness of the picture. For instance, I will simplify this image by reducing too numerous tree trunks in a busy background, and by removing distracting branches hanging near the center of interest. However, I decide to keep the broken stump in the foreground because it points like an arrow toward my center of interest.

I might explore lights and darks with VALUE STUDIES, including light, mid, and dark tones. (I want to insure that the greatest contrast of values occurs around my center of interest to draw the attention of viewers.) I like that the orange bushes are surrounded by the dark woods and white ice. I must also keep in mind, as I paint, from what direction the light is coming. I make a note of the sunlit middle ground and shaded distance and foreground. I also occasionally experiment by changing the COMPOSITION (arrangement of shapes) with small thumbnail sketches, especially if I’m combining two photographs or have added/removed some shapes. ( I Have An Image I’d Like To Paint. Now Where Do I Start? 8/21/2018), https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/08/21/i-have-an-image-id-like-to-paint-now-where-do-i-start/.) In this image, however, I like the composition as it is.

PLAN. CONSIDER TECHNIQUES AND COLORS.

More specifically, I consider my plan of attack. Where will I begin painting? Perhaps I’ll start with the background or the sky? I need to have  some idea what I want to do, but also want to be open to adapting plans as the painting proceeds. I think about what TECHNIQUES and specific steps I might try. I decide that when I complete my pencil sketch (which doesn’t include every detail shown in the template) on watercolor paper, I will mask the top edge of the orange bushes and a few tree trunks in the distant trees to protect some sunlit areas. I feel that too many details in the distance would detract from the orange bushes, so I’ll try to avoid overdoing the far trees. I won’t mask any of the ice – since open water in the middle of the river will be painted wet-in-wet, while darker hard ice in the foreground will be painted around the lighter ice areas.

As I think about beginning to paint, I think about LAYERS. Some parts of the picture are ‘in front of’ others. This suggests that one would begin painting the ‘behind’ layers or ‘underneath’ layers first. In a watercolor landscape, therefore, painting often starts in the sky or background. In this image, I will begin with the far tree line, above the shore and bushes. Further, I see several colors in the trees, which suggests that several layers will need to be applied to the trees.

But I mustn’t get ahead of myself! Before painting, I consider what pigments might be best to use. I like to create a TEST SHEET with a number of pigment possibilities before I make decisions about what colors to try in an actual painting. (If you intend to paint this image, substitute the pigments you have on hand already. You can see by looking at my test sheets that there are many suitable color combinations.) Since I want the effect of sunlight in the middle distance, I consider yellows that I could use for an underlayer. Originally, I begin with Raw Sienna, but feel it doesn’t ‘glow’, so I then investigate Gamboge and Winsor Yellow. I know I want transparent, non-staining colors for the second layers of both the distant trees and the orange bushes (because the technique I will try in both locations is to scrape the second layer of paint to reveal tree trunks and branches underneath). See the attached photos of my color experimentation for this painting.

Color test sheets – Flowing Forward.

SKETCH IMAGE, MASK, AND BEGIN PAINTING.

I transfer my image to watercolor paper ( Saunders Waterford 300 lb. rough), mask tops of orange bushes, a few distant tree trunks, a few horizontal snow strips in and among the orange bushes, and the small sunlit patch on the right-hand front tree trunk.

Flowing Forward masking

Initial sketch with masking – Flowing Forward.

When masking is dry, I scumble in tree shapes (with pale Gamboge) over the far tree line, leaving plenty of ‘sky holes’ among the trees. While this is drying, I mix Raw Umber and Ultramarine Blue to make a dark brown-gray for the next tree layer. I have my palette knife at the ready. When the yellow paint is dry, I scumble varied tree shapes (again leaving ‘sky holes’) over a small section of the yellow far trees. As the shine (of wet paint) starts to dissipate, I use the point and edge of the palette knife to scrape back some tree trunks to reveal the sunlit yellow ‘underneath’. I paint the brown-gray, in small sections, varied but darker at the bottom and lighter higher up, to insure enough time to scrape before the paint dries. (Scraping back color is effective only when the paint is damp/wet.) I finish scraping one section before painting and scraping the next section of tree line.

When the scraped tree line has dried, I dot in some sky color (very pale and juicy Cerulean mixed with Cobalt Blue) in the saved ‘sky holes’.

 

MIDDLE DISTANCE.

When the distant trees and sky paint have dried, I remove masking fluid from the bushes and far trees. With the same yellow (Gamboge) used for the tree underlayers, I paint an underlayer (with pointy tops) to cover all the middle distance bushes. I let dry. Then I mix the orange for the second layer of the middle distance bushes. I decide to try a mixture of Transparent Pyrrol Orange and Transparent Red Oxide. I’m hoping to apply orange more thinly in some sunlit layers, more richly in more shaded areas. I paint a small section at a time, as with the far tree line, and scrape with the point of my palette knife to lift numerous thin branches out of the orange to reveal the yellow below. When dry, I will be able to shadow below and in the more shaded sections of the orange bushes.

Flowing Forward background

Background painting – Flowing Forward.

WATER/ICE.

I plan to paint the wet, open water in the center of the river with a wet-in-wet technique. This area shows reflections of the sky, some distant tree trunks, and orange bushes. I create three puddles of color to be ready to paint this area. These puddles can be mixed somewhat darker than you might expect, since the color will be diluted to some degree by painting wet-in-wet. First, I combine Cerulean Blue and Cobalt Blue (sky reflection). Second, I form a puddle of Transparent Pyrrol Orange (bush reflections). Third, I mix Cobalt Blue and Transparent Red Oxide to create a blue-gray. At this point I pre-wet the paper, but only in the area where I see reflections and know there is open water (in the center of the river).

When the wet shine just leaves the paper, I pick up some sky blue paint and swoop it onto a small section with horizontal strokes. I immediately pick up some blue-gray and place it across the damp paper, leaving white space for placement of the orange paint, which I paint next. I do NOT mix these colors, but charge them (drop them) next to each other. All edges will remain soft and the colors will remain separate if not mixed on the paper. As the wet shine begins to dissipate, I use a damp thirsty flat brush to lift out a few tree trunk and small branch reflections. I let dry.

I prepare to paint the gray solid ice next. I will leave the lighter sections of foreground ice as the white of the watercolor paper for now, so I mix a medium value gray  from Cobalt Blue with just a touch of Transparent Red Oxide.

When applying paint here, I try to keep in mind there are hard edges (wet paint applied to dry paper) where I see the gray meet white ice in the foreground. As the gray ice extends into the center of the river, however, it meets the open water with a soft edge. (I apply the gray paint, adding water to thin the paint and soften the edge where it meets the already painted open water.) I don’t try to darken at the base of the tree trunks yet, although I try to vary the value of the gray as I apply it in some areas, and I also paint a bit of dry brush texture.

Flowing Forward water:ice

Water and ice underlayers painted – Flowing Forward.

GLAZING.

While planning, I have already determined that the foreground is shaded. (See above STUDY IMAGE section.) I use a GRAY SCALE to check the value (lightness/darkness) of the ‘white’ ice in the foreground – I know from past experience that eyes can play tricks. I’m also aware that the value of a shaded object is usually 40% darker than the same object in sunlight, as written by Jan Kunz (Painting Watercolor Florals That Glow (1993), p. 68), and others. When I check the value (on my template) of the sunlit ice and compare to the value of the ice in the foreground shade, in fact, the shaded ice is 40% darker in value! I realize I need to darken its value in my painting, probably by applying a GLAZE. This glazing will help highlight the sunlit center of interest, by contrast.  Read Why Should I Bother To Use A Gray Scale? (5/21/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/05/21/why-should-i-bother-to-use-a-gray-scale/, to learn more about the usefulness of a gray scale.

A glaze is a transparent wash of color using a thin application of transparent pigment. Transparent pigments are desired so that the colors below the glaze, or the white of the paper, in this case, continue to be visible through the finished glaze. Here, I combine Cobalt Blue with just a touch of Transparent Pyrrol Orange (blue-gray) in a thin, juicy mix. After testing the value, I apply a glaze over the shaded foreground with a fairly large, soft brush. I reevaluate the value of the foreground ice and compare it to the value of the sunlit ice in my painting (with the Gray Scale), when the first glaze has dried. If necessary, I will glaze again, on dry paper, until the lighter-shaded, foreground ice is about 40% darker than the sunlit ice in the middle distance. Correct relative values are one of the most important factors in creating an effective image.

FOREGROUND TREE TRUNKS, BRANCHES, FINAL DETAILS.

I combine Raw Umber and Ultramarine Blue to mix a strong blue-black. Dark foreground tree trunks are then painted darker at the bottom and lighter toward the top. Since some higher spots and the left side of the trunks are sunlit in places – I blot the color to remove some paint and provide texture there. I will add some sunlit yellow (Gamboge) only to the sunlit left sides of the trunks (when the blue-black paint is dry).

With the same paint mixture, I add smaller branches up high in the foreground trees and a few thin twigs on the foreground ice. I try to simplify to avoid busyness that would distract from my center of interest.

Then I add some final textures and shadows (with the same blue-black mixture) to the foreground ice (dry brush, dots, a few streaks, with occasional softening of edges). I now make sure to darken the area in the ice circling each foreground tree trunk to suggest depressions.

Flowing Forward Finished Painting

Finished painting – Flowing Forward.

Finally, I step back and evaluate. I ask myself if my values highlight the center of interest. Do any marks seem out of place or distracting? Are there any adjustments I feel I should make? (It is possible to correct some mistakes and improve watercolor paintings. See I Guess We’ve All Made Painting Mistakes (10/9/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/10/09/i-guess-weve-all-made-painting-mistakes/.) Sometimes, I set the picture aside for a day or two, and look again later with fresh eyes. Occasionally, a mistake needing to be fixed jumps out at me. At other times, I am satisfied that the painting is ‘finished’.

Join me and get painting tips, inspiration, the latest news about classes, new art or products for sale, sent to you in my newsletter. Subscribe here. I’ll give you a free copy of my Color Blending Tips pdf., that you can download and print.

Photos taken and copyrighted by Tristan T. Haman (https://www.instagram.com/thaman15/).

 

Busy, Busy, Busy… How Can I Make More Time To Paint?

 

Do you have too much to do and too little time? Do you ever feel overwhelmed, exhausted by chores and commitments? Do you wish you could find the time for your creative pursuits, or even just a bit of relaxation? Do you ever say “I don’t have time!” for the things you want and yearn most to do?

Our culture has raised us to believe that the more you do, and the BUSIER you are , the more valuable and worthy you are. “No sitting around daydreaming!!!”, my father used to bellow. Or at other times,“Get your nose out of that book!!!” We sometimes feel we have to do it all or we’ll be seen as lazy, less successful.

’Busyness’ can, however, also be a distraction from dealing with important issues in your life. It can be a way we NUMB ourselves and even a way we AVOID taking time to think about who we are, what we want, and what we need to change in our lives.

Lost In Time, Pepperell, MA.

Lost In Time, Pepperell, MA.

STOP DOING SO MUCH AND SET PRIORITIES.

Perhaps you are trying to do too much and need to be more selective. Are you getting the right things done?

Have you heard about the 80/20 Rule? It’s also called the Pareto Principle, named after Vilfredo Pareto, an Italian economist, who in 1896 discovered that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the population. The Pareto Principle states that 80% of consequences usually come about from only 20% of all efforts, suggesting an unequal relationship between inputs and outputs. In my art business, for instance, I have found that about 80% of my sales come from only 20% of my customers no matter how much work I put in. So, instead of marketing to the general public (who may not care about art or watercolor), my efforts are made more effective by prioritizing my relationships with that 20%.

Fenceline, Shelburne, VT.

Fence Line, Shelburne, VT.

Wouldn’t you like to use your time more efficiently? All the tasks on your ‘To-Do List’ are NOT equally important! You DON’T have to do it all! You can (and should) CHOOSE your own priorities. (No one can tell you what is a priority for you.)

Think about what works (and what doesn’t) FOR YOU. (I need to stop worrying about being a ‘good girl’ and doing what other people think I should.) What gives you the most bang for your buck? Do MORE of that and less of the nonessential. (I want to spend more time actually painting.) What gives you the best outcomes and most satisfaction? What works best with the least amount of effort? Can you stop doing some of the less important tasks? (Be honest.) Do they actually have to be done now? (Put them on your calendar to be done at a later date.) Do you even care about this task? Might it be something you’ve done for years but don’t need or want to do any longer? (I don’t need to be part of a co-op anymore.  I still use healthful foods but don’t need to invest hours placing orders, sorting goods, or writing co-op newsletters when I could be painting or working on my blog.) Can you delegate some jobs, so you can start spending more time on the activities that make a difference, or that you enjoy? (My husband does more of the cooking these days.)

Clarify what you want to learn, where you want to go, who you want to be. Prioritize, and WRITE DOWN three things to do today; ignore the rest for now.

Apples, Marlboro, VT.

Winter Apples, Marlboro, VT.

ESSENTIALS FIRST.

Often we do unimportant or low-priority tasks on our ‘To-Do List’ before we do something that would add real value or satisfaction to life, perhaps because we want to ‘get something DONE’ or ‘get warmed up’. No! Instead, START with the important or difficult job that will offer you the BIGGEST PAY-OFF.  This insures that what matters most is done first – it is a PRIORITY and should be treated as such, not left to do if you have any leftover time. Don’t work non-stop with no time reserved for relaxing, but choose to squeeze a few of the less pressing tasks in around the essential.

DO ONE THING AT A TIME AND FOCUS.

Trying to do TOO MANY things can actually be a PRODUCTIVITY KILLER! ‘Busy, busy, busy’ DOESN’T mean you’re getting more done. (This may seem counter-intuitive – some people try to multi-task, thinking they can get more done.) But when you FOCUS on one thing at a time, rather than many, you are more effective. When I’m writing a blog post, every interruption takes time away from actual writing and adds time to re-focus and recover my train of thought. Paying attention to what you’re doing can actually save time.

Keep your eyes on the MAIN GOAL you have chosen. (I will make the time to do more watercolor painting.) Establish short-term goals and sub-tasks that revolve around your big goal. (I plan to clean up and reorganize my painting area, make sure my palette is filled with paint, plan and set up my next painting, decide the time and day I plan to start. Related to my main goal is taking advantage of the online art courses that I have previously lined up.) Be intentional about how you use your time. (I will share my plans with people like my husband, who might unknowingly interrupt.)

LIMIT DISTRACTIONS. DEVELOP SELF-DISCIPLINE.

Don’t allow yourself to be sucked in by distractions. IDENTIFY what distracts YOU most and prevents you from being productive. Strive not to pay attention to things that upset you or that you don’t really want to be involved with. (No twitter for me!) Take the dog outside before you begin your work. Reduce any distracting input. Don’t watch the news on TV – watch only your favorite shows, and do it later. Stay away from your phone, stop scrolling on social media, turn notifications off, and even unsubscribe from some apps. Shut your door (or politely say “No” when people interrupt or ask questions when you’re trying to focus).

reflection-townsend-ma.

Reflections, Townsend, MA.

IN SUMMARY.

All the tasks on your ‘To-Do List’ are NOT equally important! When you know what’s important, it’s a lot easier to IGNORE what’s not. So, focus on what matters to YOU, do it first, and eliminate some of the busywork. Don’t work non-stop, but reserve some time to relax. Do less and get more done, and spend more time doing what you want to do!

Footnote: This blog addresses issues that I continue to struggle with. Some days, I’m more successful at focusing than others. Some days, life gets in the way. As in painting, we must be kind and patient with ourselves, and not expect perfection. Just don’t give up!

Join me and get painting tips, inspiration, the latest news about classes, new art or products for sale, sent to you in my newsletter. Subscribe here. I’ll give you a free copy of my Color Blending Tips pdf., that you can download and print.

Photos taken and copyrighted by Tristan T. Haman (https://www.instagram.com/thaman15/).

 

Hold Your Horses!

As you know, many artists, including me, want to get on to their painting quickly. Unfortunately, jumping right into a painting without forethought often develops into rushing and inattentiveness to important details. It can be a disaster to encounter a problem with the arrangement of shapes, or discover something in your picture you want to change, while in the midst of painting. Don’t simply copy, without thinking, all the details you see before you while emphasizing them all equally! Instead, take the time to contemplate a plan before starting to paint! Rein in your excitement, for the moment, and harness your enthusiasm. As an artist, strive to simplify, interpret a scene, and make it your own. How?

Create thumbnails.

Use several THUMBNAIL sketches to structure the best possible composition for a painting. Thumbnails are not finished drawings, but quick, small, simplified sketches, 2X3 inches (or perhaps 4X5 inches) that help you explore where your painting might go.  Try to keep your thumbnail sketch proportions similar to what you plan for the finished work.  Experiment with the arrangement of shapes and values. Your first thumbnail is often not the best arrangement you can come up with, so draw several thumbnails, with pencil, before choosing a final composition.

Sketching out a few thumbnails is like brainstorming, investigating options or variations on possible arrangements. It need only take 3 to 5 minutes. By working small, there is no room to fuss with detail. It is one of the best ways to organize and simplify a composition, and to focus on important information, while eliminating the unnecessary.

Attention to your thumbnails will save you both time and creative energy. If performed with conscious attention and thought, you will discover the strengths and weaknesses of your composition. Does your image work best in a horizontal or vertical format? Should you crop out part of your image to emphasize a terrific grouping of shapes? What will the focal point be? Where is the light coming from? Does the picture need more contrast to emphasize the center of interest? Maybe it would be better to eliminate some of the more distracting elements. What about rearranging some shapes to lead the viewer more easily into the picture?

Template-Summer Field

Recent reference photo.

Look for the BIG SHAPES and VALUES.

Thumbnail  sunny clouds.jpg

Thumbnail 1 – sunny sky, remove corner vegetation, larger tree?

Shapes are the building blocks of composition. To create a thumbnail, sketch the LARGE SHAPES first, forget about small details. Group masses of similar value shapes together. Sketch lightly at first. Identify the most important objects or parts of the scene. Notice how the smaller shapes relate to the large shapes. Try to think of possible changes in the arrangement and STRUCTURE of elements that might produce a stronger composition. You may want to rearrange some of the major shapes or change their size or profile.

Thumbnail animals

Thumbnail 2 – add animals, remove corner vegetation?

 

Refine your shapes, then start to add VALUES to your sketch. Squint to identify the darks, mediums, and lights. Each mass of shapes needs to be lighter or darker than what is next to it in order for it to appear different. Consider changing the value of an area if it improves value contrast and the composition. Stick to dark, medium, and light values in each sketch to keep it simple.

Thumbnail more sky

Thumbnail 3 – More sky, less field?

Add or rearrange to explore variations in value or even subject arrangement or EMPHASIS. If you do change values, however, realize that you have changed the light source and must also remember to check that any shadows are consistent with this new light source. Add darker lines and middle values.

Thumbnail best.jpg

Thumbnail 4 – enlarge tree, minimize/lighten left corner vegetation, darken right side trees, darken clouds behind center tree, keep fields/road light – values exaggerated!

Finish by shading in the darkest values and adjusting CONTRASTS between shapes. Remember, the greatest contrast in values (and sometimes the lightest value) is centered on the focal point.

PAINTING-Summer Field.jpg

Finished watercolor painting.

In my latest painting (shown here), I WISH I had sketched thumbnails BEFORE I painted! I know I should, but I don’t always do it. This time, I didn’t, and I struggled. I couldn’t figure out why the painting initially wasn’t working. The subject was good, but eventually I realized I had to increase the value contrasts – a lot. Nothing stood out until I lightened some areas and darkened others! So, I wrote this post and created these thumbnails after I had trouble with getting the values right while painting. I ‘shut the barn door after the horse was gone’! Maybe this article can help you realize how drawing quick thumbnails (before you paint) will help you work out possible problems ( with composition, subject, color, etc.) before you start painting. The time you spend creating thumbnails can save you some headaches.

To summarize,

With the knowledge learned from thumbnails, you can begin painting with much more confidence. It’ll be a cinch! You will have considered the main STRUCTURE, EMPHASIS, SHAPES, and CONTRASTS for the composition. You will have already worked out most of the possible issues and problems within your thumbnail sketches. You will have developed a ‘plan’ for your composition, since you understand that it is the strength of the composition NOT the subject matter that makes a painting effective. The plan may even include possible color choices. Don’t forget, however, when transferring your image to the watercolor paper, to refer back to your thumbnail, not necessarily your reference.  This would insure any changes made when creating your thumbnails are included when transferring the drawing onto paper. Save your reference for later, when you start to build up detail in the final painting.

Join me and get painting tips, inspiration, the latest news about classes, new art or products for sale, sent to you in my newsletter. Subscribe here. I’ll give you a free copy of my Color Blending Tips pdf., that you can download and print.

Let’s Get Shady!

Why are there such variations in the appearance of shade and shadows, even within a single picture? How, as artists, can we capture that variation with paint? Why do some shadows have hard edges and others appear soft? Why are some shadows darker than others? Read on…

Value.

We know that mastering light and shadow is key to successful watercolor painting. By using VALUE (light and dark) a painter can give an object shape, form, depth.  PATTERNS of light and shade are, in effect, what we are actually trying to capture in paint.

Light Source.

When beginning to paint, an artist needs to consider where the light is coming from, the LIGHT SOURCE. The way light hits an object affects how it is seen and how it will be painted. Are you painting a bright sunny day, a dark overcast day, or a gloomy interior, for example? Light affects mood, and will determine the types of shadows you need to paint. Beginning painters sometimes try to avoid painting shadows, but then wonder why their image looks flat and incomplete. Shadows create form – add shadows to a drawing of a circle and it becomes a rounded sphere. So, at the outset, analyze how and where the light strikes an object. (Keep in mind that there may even be more than one light source!)

 

Complexity!

Initially, shadows may look as if they are made up of only two values, light and dark. But look more carefully and you will see a much more complex reality.

Barn Interior

Shadow components.

Break down a shadow and you will find many components. The HIGHLIGHT is the area hit directly by the light source. There is often little or no detail visible here, as it is too bright. Paint a highlight with a very pale tone or leave the white of the paper.

The area of an object that is transitioning from the highlight to the darkest shadow area is called the HALFTONE. If the object is curved, as a sphere or rock, this transition of value is gradual, and would be painted with a soft edge.

The actual SHADOW (sometimes called a LOCAL or FORM shadow) will be in the area of the object that is hidden away from the light. It is generally the darkest area, receiving the least amount of light. Shadows are dark, but rarely black! To mix shadow color, you might mix the local color of the object with some transparent blue (sky light) and some of the local color’s complement.

Often, light can be reflected back into the shadow, illuminating it. This REFLECTED LIGHT bounces off a nearby surface and carries some of the color of that surface into the shadow. Reflected shadows would be lighter than the actual shadow, but never as bright as an area directly in the light. The amount of color reflected depends on the intensity of the light source as well as the character of the surface reflecting the light. Observe carefully how much reflected light you see in shadows and what colors are introduced there.

A CAST SHADOW is created by the object interrupting the light, and its shape relates to the shape of the object and the ANGLE of the light source. The cast shadow will follow the contour of what it falls on, for example, uneven ground. It will grow LIGHTER in value and softer-edged the farther it extends from the subject casting the shadow. The darker and harder-edged you paint cast shadows, the brighter the light will appear. Choose clear blue shadows for sunny days, whereas on overcast days, a cool gray or grayish purple would be a more appropriate choice for shadows. As the weather and quality of light in the sky changes, so do the color, value, and edge qualities of the cast shadows.

barn walshaw

 

Wet-in-wet is an ideal technique to introduce color into a still wet shadow. You might paint a base shadow wash in a lighter tone than your final desired value, then drop in additional colors, each successive color mixed to a somewhat drier consistency than the previous ones (to avoid over-wetting and creating pools of paint). Don’t overmix colors when you add them into a shadow, which would create a dull uniform gray that appears flat. You want to retain separate colors and variation of color within a shadow. Remember to use transparent colors in your shadows if your aim is to deepen and darken the shadow. On the other hand, bright opaque pigments, such as yellow ochre or raw umber, could lighten the shadow and suggest reflected light. You might also lift out patches of color to build lighter spots of dappled light, or reflected light.

Hard or soft?

Several factors affect the softness/hardness of shadow edges. We know the SOURCE of light changes the appearance of shadows. With a single bright light source, such as the sun, shadows will be strong and sharp. Diffuse light, on the other hand, such as through a window out of direct sunlight or on an overcast day, produces shadows less defined and with soft edges. In diffuse light, value contrasts will also be less strong.

Jamison's Ocean Light

So, sharp edges and details are found in well-lit areas, whereas soft or lost edges and ambiguity are located in the shadows. It doesn’t make sense, for instance, to try to paint sharp, crisp details in darkened, poorly lit room. Instead, blur or soften details in shadow, even painting shadowed areas wet-in-wet on dampened paper with a passage of mingled colors. (Remember to dampen as evenly as possible, however, to avoid puddles or pools of water. Don’t flood the area with lots of water. Pre-wetting evenly encourages a soft blend of paint.) Leave your paper dry where you want to retain details, perhaps under bright lamp light.

Also, the DISTANCE FROM THE OBJECT casting the shadow to the shadow itself also has an effect on whether shadows are hard or soft edged. Where the shadow lies close to the object, such as plants in a flowerpot casting a shadow on the ground, the shadow will tend to be crisp and dark. A tree, farther away from the ground, will cast a lighter, softer shadow, since as the distance increases, more light is able to reach the shadow.

Try to apply what you just learned in this blog post about shadows. Take a look at this Kenny Harris painting (below) and see if you can analyze and make sense of the many and varied shadows.

Turquoise window-kenny-harris.com

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