Simplify Your Watercolors By Focusing On Shapes!

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As an artist, you have the opportunity to improve a composition before you paint it! Don’t be tempted to merely copy what you see before you. Instead, change an ordinary scene into an extraordinary painting. If you just paint what you see, without thinking, evaluating, or redesigning, you may end up with a painting that has no “WOW!”

But how do you go about improving the subject you want to paint? How can you make your image better and design stronger? What should you do to create a painting with impact? Wouldn’t it just be a lot of work, especially if I don’t know how to improve my image? How do some artists create an exciting painting about a mundane, everyday subject? Copying is NOT enough! But, the answer may be, at least in part, to use interesting SHAPES!

While you may think that most artists begin their paintings by drawing LINES that represent objects to be painted, this is often NOT the first thing that they do to prepare for painting. Instead, an artist usually looks for or tries to compile a strong composition. One of the best ways to plan a composition is to reduce a scene to its essential or most basic components, to cut out distracting details, to simplify.

To help you simplify and reduce distractions, squint your eyes. Then look for the dominant shapes in the scene. Some artists SIMPLIFY by limiting the number of dominant shapes that they focus on to three, seven, or twelve, no more than fifteen. Evaluate and think about what shapes you could rearrange or emphasize, which shapes are important and which provide support for the other shapes. For instance, should the house in your painting be moved closer to or even overlap the barn? Should you remove that distracting tree? Are there too many cars in the image – they don’t add any helpful information?

Contour sketch Forsythia House.jpg

Forsythia House copy.jpg

The relationships of the interlocking shapes in a picture will determine balance and interest. Good painters make more interesting shapes!

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Try to see the world around you as made of shapes, and you will find it easier to become an arranger of shapes. Make an effort to avoid focusing on drawing or painting ‘a tree’, ‘a boat’, ‘a dog’, ‘a car’, or ‘a streetlight’. Paint what you ’see’, not what you think you see. (Check out my related blogs “Avoid Painting Lollipop Trees – Part I, II, and III”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/03/13/avoid-painting-lollipop-trees/, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/03/19/avoid-painting-lollipop-trees-part-ii/, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/03/26/avoid-painting-lollipop-trees-part-iii/, published March 13, March 19, and March 26, 2019.) Beginning painters can get so preoccupied with NAMING details (“Is this a tail?”, “Are the feet crossed?”, or “I can’t tell what this is!”) that they forget to look at shapes and their relationships to each other. You need to paint SHAPES!

Contour sketch Dog.jpg

Dog small.jpg

One way to define shapes is to think about their geometric form. Are they circles, squares, rectangles, triangles? These are simple shapes, but very static and dull. They should be improved and made more dynamic by varying their size and shape contour, connecting two or more shapes together, overlapping shapes, avoiding symmetry. A building is much more interesting when viewed from an angle, as opposed to looking at it straight-on. Don’t forget that skies, shadows and reflections are also shapes. Interesting and unusual shapes are better than regular or precise shapes!

Contour sketch sunset River.jpg

Nashua River Glow.jpg

Once you have selected your scene to paint, simplified, rearranged and refined the dominant shapes, then choose one shape to be more important than the others. This shape will be your center of interest, what you want your viewers to notice. There can only be one center of interest in a painting. Plan how you will arrange your values (lights/darks) to highlight the most important shape for more emotional impact. More impact can also be created by the skillful use of color. White paper, for instance, can be a luminous and striking unpainted shape!

Contour sketch Floating Xmas tree.jpg

Floating Xmas tree small.jpg

Then, finally, having completed your planning for the best composition, by simplifying shapes and perhaps sketching out a couple of different arrangements of shapes in a black & white thumbnail sketch, it is time to carefully draw your shapes (not merely the outlines of specific objects) onto watercolor paper in preparation for painting.

In summary, everything has a shape! We tend to want to paint shapes just as they are, without changing them or making them more interesting. This can, however, lead to busy and confusing, static, or just perhaps even dull and boring paintings. It’s important to be able to conceptualize flat shapes for your flat watercolor paper, rather than just to think about three-dimensional objects (such as “mountain” or “boat”). When you can focus on shapes, it becomes easier to change shapes to suit your painting, move shapes to improve your composition, and remove clutter (get rid of boring or poor shapes), and add different colors to highlight certain shapes. So, strive to create simple but exciting paintings by making dynamic shape combinations.

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Avoid Painting Lollipop Trees! (Part I.)

Artists new to watercolor find painting trees an endless source of frustration and difficulty.  They may have been told to look closely and study their subjects carefully before attempting to paint, but the more they look, the more details they see, and the more confused they become!

If you want to become an effective and talented painter, you have to make up your mind to simplify and see your subject in terms that watercolor can accommodate.  This simplification is especially necessary when you are trying to paint trees and foliage.  Try to look at the trees through squinted eyes: look for shapes, and disregard many of the details.  Observe groups of trees, and pick out areas of light and dark.  In other words, focus on creating the shape and character, the color and texture of trees, not on producing botanically correct or precise illustrations.

river shoes copy.jpg

Individual trees are often irregular, but you can describe most of the individuals by their general shapes.  If the shape is wrong, the tree will be a confusing blob that detracts from your picture.  Countless varieties of trees exist, each type with its own characteristics.  You need to exercise thought and care when considering how to paint your trees.  They often have a more complicated shape than other elements in a painting.  Nevertheless, you can simplify a tree (or group of trees) and suggest the shape as round-topped, thin and tall, conical (conifer), or even flat-topped.

Part of the difficulty with painting trees is each person’s tendency to take visual information and categorize it to fit with prior experiences.  The conscious mind likes to generalize, identify, and name, then move on; thus, you end up painting what you THINK a tree looks like, the generality.  Instead, to be a good artist, you need to rely on your unconscious, visual brain to actually observe and register what is before you.  You can train yourself to gather the information that is normally unconscious and to then make it conscious.  “Paint what you see, not what you think you see.”  That is, paint what you observe, not a generalized idea of what your mind tells you a tree ought to look like.  Don’t let your intellect take over the painting process if you want to avoid lollipop trees.  A young child may paint a tree as a simple green circle atop a stick, but capturing a convincing image of real trees requires a bit more sophistication.  (See my 12/18/2018 blog, “Painting Begins with Looking and Seeing.”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/12/18/painting-begins-with-looking-and-seeing/.)

Once you have noted the overall silhouette of the subject, look at the angle of the limbs (if the tree is close enough) and the character of the foliage.  Making trees look believable has a lot to do with understanding that the primary function of the trunk and limbs is to reach up and out far enough to hold their leaves in sunlight.  Each species does so in its own way, but trunk, branches, and twigs graduate in size as they get farther from the base.

Observe that the trunk grows out of the ground usually in one piece and is therefore the thickest part of the tree.  It also looks more solid and stable if you curve it out at the base.  From the trunk grow the limbs, which are thinner than the trunk but still need to be substantial since they bear the main weight of the tree.  Try to avoid making them leave the trunk directly opposite one another.  The trunk itself keeps the same thickness until a limb comes off it, whereupon it becomes less thick.  The same thing happens as each limb leaves the trunk, until finally the trunk itself splits into the last two limbs.  Limbs themselves split into branches, and the same reducing process goes on until branches split into twigs, which run out from the branch ends.

Meadow road tree.jpg

This tapering and meandering of the trunk branches is a little different in each species of tree, but most branches are not straight lines.  Young trees tend to have smoother bark surfaces, while older trees have bark that is more textured.  Try to avoid lollipop fans by painting trees with volume.  Branches should spread out in all directions and grow toward (and away from) the viewer.  Give branches coming toward the viewer stronger tone, tighter drawing, sharper marks, and foreshortened outlines to create more convincing trees.

To be continued…

Properly Using A Photograph As A Painting Reference.

Getting outdoors and painting directly from nature can be very enjoyable.  You get a feel for your surroundings – colors, smells, temperature, atmosphere, light, and so on.  Sometimes, however, you need more time to work on your painting than you have at the moment: the weather may not cooperate (it begins to rain, or the temperature dips below freezing), the light changes quickly (the sun goes down, or clouds emerge), or other circumstances change (the birds you are painting fly away, or ripples disturb the water).  For these reasons, painting with the aid of photographs is often much more convenient and can increase the amount of time you can spend painting a scene.

Christmas tree truck photo refence.jpg  image1.jpg

Christmas tree truck photo references.

Dangers do emerge, however, when you are working from photographs, particularly if you use pictures taken by someone else.  As an artist, you need to make sure that the photos on which you plan to base a painting are not copyrighted by the photographer.  Photos do belong to the picture-taker.  As a solution, you might ask the photographer for permission to use them.  Also, you might try a Google search (“Advanced Image Search”) and look in the “Usage Rights” section for content labeled either “Creative Commons” or “Public Domain.”  Alternatively, visit some internet sites that offer stock or copyright-free photos.  (I will include a list of some of these sites in next week’s blog.)

TAKE YOUR OWN PHOTOS.

Taking your own reference photos, however, is an even better approach.  You can think of your camera as a sketchbook, using it to compose pictures while you look through your viewfinder.  Each picture will belong to you, whether you combine it with a similar shot, crop and simplify the image, or make color changes as you paint.  Keep in mind, however, that photographs DO NOT reproduce an image in the same way that the eye sees it.  The camera tends to lose details in shadows and overexpose bright spots.  Photographs can also change actual colors in a scene and provide too much detail.  While your photograph can provide some excellent information (for example, architectural details, lighting conditions, and color references), the camera is simply a TOOL like any other tool (like a paintbrush or painting paper), and your eye and judgment as an artist must guide the use of any such tool.  Use photos not as ends in themselves but simply as sources of reference information.

Pepperell Relic jpg.jpg

Pepperell Relic.jpg

Watercolor “Pepperell Relic”, with photo reference.

Sometimes when you focus a lot of energy on taking photos, you may not take the time you need to study your subject and look at it with careful attention.  Sketching or drawing that subject, on the other hand, can force you to “see” what you are looking at, noticing the truly important information.

IMPROVE ON YOUR PHOTO REFERENCE.

Your goal should not be to paint an exact copy of any photograph; instead, you should simplify the scene.  Your job is to improve on a photo, adding your own personality and flair, expressing your excitement or the mystery you feel when viewing that scene.  What attracts you to the subject in the first place?  Take time before painting to look at your photo and think about what you might want to change in it.  Some elements in the photo might seem unnecessary or distracting.  You might be able to improve the composition or color.

If someone tells you that your painting looks like a photograph, don’t take that statement as a compliment.  The implication is that you have actually copied the photograph rather than using it for inspiration or information.  Do not attempt to include every detail from a photo in your painting.  Simplify; focus on your interpretation of the center of interest, and try to be creative.

You will get more out of your photographs if you use them as a starting point for your painting rather than as the desired end result.  You will often need to make some changes from the photo to turn it into a good painting.  The first type of editing of a photo is to make SIMPLE COSMETIC CHANGES while keeping the essential image intact, and many types of these cosmetic changes can improve your picture.  For instance, your photo may show dull, boring clouds that need some added drama.  You could also decide to reinterpret and brighten colors to produce an exciting or ominous mood.  You could tilt or angle your image for a somewhat different point of view.  Some artists who flip the image in the photo (as in a mirror) find that that change improves the way the viewer’s eye moves through the picture. One of the simplest changes to make is a change in season.  Another cosmetic change you could make is altering the time of day (and thus the mood) by changing the light and altering shadows.

By manipulating values, detail, and the quality of colors, you could create a warm, sunny picture or a soft, foggy image . . . or anything in between.  Similarly, you could add more shadows to add interest and visual pattern.  If a photograph does not show enough value contrast, you can create that contrast; sometimes, by simply changing the light direction, you can lighten some areas and darken others.  You can highlight important areas by making them light and by surrounding these light areas with dark colors (thereby increasing contrast around your center of interest).  You don’t have to use the colors you see in a photograph; you can increase color harmony in your painting by limiting the number of colors you use.  Alternatively, emphasize both warm and cool colors for contrast and interest.  You could make some exciting variations of color in an area that is basically one color by mingling other colors to add life.

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Watercolor “Maine coastline”, with photo reference.

Another type of edit to improve a photograph for painting is making a STRUCTURAL CHANGE to improve the composition and to build a picture that is more your own creation.  You can make changes to what is in the photo and to where things are in your picture.  First, evaluate your image to identify the most important object or the focus of attention.  Notice the big SHAPES, major LINES, and VALUES.  You’ll want to decide what to keep and what to eliminate from the photo.  Don’t keep anything that is irrelevant.  Keep in mind your knowledge of good composition (see my blog “Making a Strong Painting with Good Composition” from October 16, 2018, or review your favorite art books on the subject of composition and design).

Cropping a photo and zooming in for close-ups allow you to relocate the center of interest to a more dynamic position, thus improving your composition.  You could also highlight your center of interest by changing your format or the orientation of your paper.  For example, a landscape orientation may be appropriate for focusing on a farmstead with surrounding fields whereas a portrait orientation could highlight the magnificent tree in front of a farmhouse; on the other hand, a square format could work well with a flock of sheep grazing in a field, while an elongated format could effectively fit a vista of the mountains that provides the backdrop for the farmstead.  Exaggerating some details or colors can also improve a composition.  Similarly, you could change your point of view; try changing the level or angle from which you are viewing the subject, imagining, for instance, that you are looking down at the same scene from a plane flying overhead.  If your photo has been taken from the shore of a lake, would the painting be more majestic if you imagined the lake viewed from the edge of a cliff above it?  Use your imagination!

A third way of editing photographs for painting is making CREATIVE CHANGES; this technique can be quite dramatic.  You can add elements that are not in the photo or combine parts of several photographs to create a new image.  Birds from several photos can be put into one.  Flowers can be rearranged.  To a wintry field you can add skaters on an icy pond.  You can paint two different types of images together, combining an image of a wilderness lake with the image of a map showing how to get there.  The sizes of elements within a picture you can also alter; if the photo shows five trees of the same size, try making one the focus of attention by making it bigger while also varying the size and spacing of the others to support the dominance of the larger tree.  You can overlap images, fading one out as it joins another, and, of course, you can even produce an image that is pure fantasy.

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Watercolor “Mulpus”, with photo reference.

While you can paint from a photograph, painting on site is preferable because that way, you can view, experience, and even sketch the scene for yourself.  Using other people’s photographs involves some dangers, particularly if you don’t have permission to use them.  Furthermore, photos tend to distort and change some of the information they capture, in addition to including too much detail for a good composition.  If you take your own photo, you can use it for lighting conditions, architectural details, and further inspiration.  However, photographs can never tell you the full story, even though they can be helpful references.  You can (and should) edit a photo to improve and simplify its image.  Crop your photos, and combine them as needed to create effective, powerful paintings.

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Photo reference for future watercolor.

Painting Begins With Looking and Seeing…

Many inexperienced painters believe that to produce a good painting, all they need is mastery of technique.  However, it takes more than finely executed techniques to achieve an artistic result.  Artists need to observe closely what they intend to paint.  When you’re an artist, seeing isn’t simple.

Most of the time, we look at things with only part of our attention.  We see only what we expect to see.  We assign a label to every image.  For instance, if what we are looking at is a “tree,” we may not look closely at what is really there.  This habit of not paying close attention keeps us from actually looking at things.  In the everyday world, we quickly categorize and move on.

However, to paint or draw successfully, artists need to slow down so they can examine and study the shapes and values that make up an observed object.  Artists try to avoid labeling an object as “tree” or anything else and instead train themselves to interpret what they see in a new way.  Seeing means focusing attention, looking at shapes, values, and colors before beginning to paint.  Where is the light hitting the tree branches?  Can you see through the branches?  What is the overall shape of the tree?  Are branches straight, upturned, crooked, rough?  Is the tree lopsided or symmetrical?  Are the highlights a different color from the shadows?  What is the weather, and how does it affect the appearance of the “tree”?  By asking such questions and looking carefully, you can accurately paint what you see, NOT what you think you see.

Drawing helps you see, and seeing helps you draw.  Drawing trains the mind, hand, and eye to work together.  Many beginning artists avoid drawing altogether if they can, feeling that their drawing skills are not good.  However, you should not feel obliged to render precise drawings of what you wish to paint!  Do not let your concerns about drawing technique prevent you from trying to draw what is before you!  One of the main purposes of drawing is to train yourself to see shapes and spaces more accurately – to “see” like an artist and take note of details.  By keeping your drawing SIMPLE, just getting something down relatively quickly, you can allow yourself to see.  Look for basic shapes, and notice how they are connected.  Find larger shapes first; then fit smaller shapes into them.  More specifically, see the image as a whole; then concentrate on individual components.  Distracting details are only decoration on the surface of these shapes.  Concentrate; work slowly and intently.  Give yourself the time to observe and take in information before rushing to produce an image.  Ultimately, you should be able to perceive everything you see as totally abstract forms, values, lines, and color, as in a jigsaw puzzle.  Remember that shadows are shapes!  Reflections are shapes as well.  Backgrounds have shape and should act as frames for the subject of a painting.  Only when you can “see” in this way will you begin to be able to suggest three-dimensional reality on your flat, two-dimensional paper.

Frederick Franck, artist and philosopher, says in The Zen of Seeing/Drawing:  “I have learned that what I have not drawn I have never really seen, and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing I realize how extraordinary it is, sheer miracle . . . .”  So do not hesitate to sketch and draw what you intend to paint.  As you draw, you will notice important details and sharpen the mind/hand/eye coordination necessary to improve your painting skills.  Drawing is not something you can or cannot do; it is a skill that requires practice and time, just like any other ability (including painting).  The skills and mental processes necessary for drawing are the same as those used when painting with a brush.

Another benefit of drawing and sketching, in addition to developing necessary observational skills, is that you will learn to condense observed information into a simplified format, and this ability will come through in your painting.  With a drawing you are more likely to end up with your focal point being prominent, because you concentrate mainly on that particular feature.  Your drawing will be simplified, easier on the eye of the viewer, as you collect only the information that counts and leave out extraneous material.

Reference photos:

mulpus reference photos.jpg

Line drawing:

mulpus line drawing.jpg

Strive to “see” the world in terms of shape, pattern, color, line, and texture.  Having observed carefully, use the information to record an image skillfully.  Mastering these techniques will improve the quality of your work.  Your personal viewpoint or individual perception of the world will become apparent as you interpret what you “see” and choose what to record and include in your drawing or painting.

Your picture has your touch in it.  You can pick a subject that appeals or has special meaning to you.  You can rearrange what you’re looking at any way you like.  You can simplify or exaggerate parts of what you see.  Look beyond the normal, the everyday, the expected for your painting subjects.  Notice the negative shapes, the rhythms, the reflected lights, the colors.  Look at an object close up for a new viewpoint.  Consider a portrait approach or botanical style.  Look for varied shapes and unusual forms to add interest to your picture.  Each person sees the world in a different way.

Creating Form and Space in a Painting.

How can I create the look of a three-dimensional object or scene on a flat piece of paper? An artist creates form in a picture, in part, through the use of TONAL VALUES: lights and darks will suggest weight and mass in your painting. In other words, contrast and variation of values (lights and darks) will indicate form, space, and depth. SHADOWS appear as SHAPES lying on the surface of an object, following the contours and revealing the form of the underlying object.

LIGHT ON CURVED AND FLAT OBJECTS.

Many of the objects you paint will be a combination of CURVED and FLAT surfaces. Light interacts differently with each of these surfaces, so pay attention to value changes in order to paint a convincing illusion of three-dimensional form.

On a curved surface, darks and lights change constantly and smoothly. When painting a curved object look for a core shadow with reflected light on the dark side as well as a slight shadow on the light side. The change from light to dark on a curved object is GRADUAL across its surface. The direction of the light shining on the curved object determines where different shadows and lights will fall.

In contrast, a viewer can perceive flat surfaces because of a contrast of value between EACH of the surfaces. Each side of a cube, for instance, receives a different proportion of light. Value does NOT stay constant across each surface, but changes slightly as each side recedes.

COLOR VS. BLACK AND WHITE.

Color is made up of both HUE (the name of the pure color) and TONE. Each color (hue) has the quality of lightness or darkness. (Yellow has a lighter tone, for instance, than purple.) Differences in the tone of a color are easy to see when the colors used are not very intense (or strong). However, the brilliance or intensity of colors can interfere with your ability to isolate and focus only on the lightness/darkness of color, thus making it difficult to judge tonal values in a painting. SQUINTING your eyes can help you see the proper tone. As you squint, look only for the difference in lightness or darkness of an area.

A black/white GRAY SCALE (a card with gradations of white, gray, and black) can make it easier to judge tone in your picture. Alternatively, make a black and white copy of your reference photo, or draw a value sketch of your scene including lights, mid-values, and darks for reference while painting. In black and white you will see the tonal values of the subject ( and not the color). This new way of seeing will help you compose, simplify, and adjust values in your painting. With practice, you will be better able to recognize tones and values and to control them.

When you look at your painting subject, look for a range of tones from light to dark. However, keep in mind that TONE in a picture is always RELATIVE. Observe the strength of tone in one area of the picture in relation to all the other tones. When you squint, you will notice that highlights and darks are visible to you while non-essential details tend to blur. Try to simplify your image into at least three (no more than five) tonal values, e.g. light, dark, mid-tone. You can start your painting with pale undertones to establish the layout of your composition. Leave highlights as the white of the paper. Mid-tones are painted next, overlapping some layers to build up color. Dark tones are usually the final layer of building up color in your painting. Having the lighter layers painted, you will find it easier to evaluate just how dark you need to paint your darkest colors.

CONTRAST OF TONE/VALUE.

CONTRAST (the relative difference between light and dark areas in a painting) is one of the ways in which the brain distinguishes one thing from another. The stronger the contrast, the more it attracts attention. Contrast helps a viewer differentiate between subject and background in a painting and directs the viewer’s eye to the center of interest, especially when the center of interest is the point of greatest contrast.

Contrast is dynamic, contributing excitement, attracting attention, and relieving monotony. Contrast creates a tension between the opposing elements, a push and pull, to provide visual strength and make a forceful statement in a painting. (COUNTERCHANGE is the term used for placing light and dark tones next to each other to create impact.) Every artist wants to paint a picture that has some impact! To create a stimulating painting, include strong contrasts.

Contrast in VALUE is the most common form of contrast used by artists. Other possible types of contrast are contrast in temperature, in energy, and in purity of color (bright or muted). While painting, artists try to arrange and modify the values of various parts of a picture, depending on what they want to emphasize. Sometimes they alter values from how those values appear in reality to whatever the artists need to make a stronger composition. If you squint at your painting and certain areas blend into each other, you may need to add more contrast in your work. If you make shadows darker or lose some detail in the bright highlights, you can make your painting more dramatic. If your picture looks dull, with all areas the same tone, you may need to increase the tonal range. Make sure that darker and lighter tones alternate across the painting and that there is tonal variation WITHIN each wash for variety.

Early Morning, Early Spring.jpg

In the above watercolor painting, note the contrasts in tone and color temperature in particular. Are there soft and hard edges? What draws your attention in this picture? What techniques suggest depth and three dimensions?

EDGE VARIATION.

Since VARIATION is important in watercolor, also allow some edges (perhaps in shaded areas and highlights) to merge into areas of similar tone and to be less detailed. (This is called LOST AND FOUND, or HARD AND SOFT EDGES, or fading and disappearing edges, or broken or inferred edges.) When edges appear or disappear or are soft, they create a sense of movement in a painting, allowing the viewers to imagine or interpret what they see. In contrast, hard edges define SHAPES and hold or direct the viewers’ eye. By employing hard and soft edges, the  artist can further refine the creation of distance, depth, and form.

PERSPECTIVE.

Also use PERSPECTIVE ( a succession of spatial planes receding into the distance) to help you create believable space and form. When you place a light-toned object in front of a darker one, it appears to be positioned in front of the other spatially. Larger objects appear closer than smaller ones.

IN SUMMARY.

Tonal counterchange (light against dark) not only appeals to the eye but also creates shape and depth in a painting. Light and shadow across the surface of an object reveal the form of that object. Strong tonal contrast and a varied range of tones create the illusion of space and suggest three-dimensional form.