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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Can’t I Just Paint?

Before I paint, do I really have to plan? It’ll spoil the mood. Can’t I just paint?

So many factors seem to be pushing an artist to just get started quickly on a painting. We may feel inspired, excited, or the colors in the sky may be changing fast, or the weather may be cold or threatening rain. While there’s no reason we can’t occasionally jump right into painting without preliminary thought, doing so will almost always make failure more likely.

Time spent in thoughtful preparation, on the other hand, is usually well spent. Planning ahead and thinking about your goals for the painting do NOT in any way stifle creativity! You will still evaluate your work as you go along, as well as react and adjust to what is happening on your paper. Only when you have clearly defined your objectives will you be able to exploit developments as they take place during the painting process.

Simple white building.jpg

 

Take the time to DESIGN your picture. Don’t jump the gun. Study your subject for a while before starting to paint. Think about what it is that attracted you – that should be the primary statement or BIG IDEA in your painting. Everything else should be subordinate.

Ask yourself what is your focal point? What is your painting about? Think about what you want to say before you start! WHAT do you hope to achieve and HOW are you going to achieve it? Without some clear objectives, you probably will have difficulty creating something extraordinary. 

Stormy sky.jpg

 

So, to create a better painting , consider what you will emphasize in the picture. Eliminate anything that might compete with or distract from the ONE focal point and main idea. You shouldn’t try to include every daunting detail in a scene. Instead, it pays to NARROW your vision and SIMPLIFY your subject.

The key to simplifying the image you’re painting is doing CAREFUL PLANNING as well as understanding GOOD COMPOSITION. See these blog posts for more information about composition.  Read Designing A Strong Painting With Good Composition!, 10/16/2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/10/16/designing-a-strong-painting/. Also, check out Simplify Your Watercolors By Focusing On Shapes!, 7/16/19, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/07/16/simplify-your-watercolors-by-focusing-on-shapes/ .

MTS.jpg

 

Generally, good design includes foreground or a ‘lead-in’ to draw your viewer into the picture, a strong focus, and framing or supporting details. But sometimes surrounding details can be reduced, contrast around the center of interest can be increased, or features can be rearranged or eliminated completely to simplify and improve the picture. Cropping an image can be extremely helpful.

The SIMPLER your shapes, the more POWER your picture can have. It actually takes more effort to create a bold simple painting than to jump right into putting paint to paper, struggling to work out any problems as you go along.

Forsythia.jpg

 

Artist Bill Vrscak believes “the simplest statements mean the most.” He also says “A bold, simple statement respects the viewer’s intelligence. Do your viewers a favor: Don’t bore them with extraneous detail. Make your point and get out.” Further, he suggests LEAVING OUT tiny shapes that can cause confusion, large dark areas, insignificant details, and too much surface detail.

To improve you painting, forget about ‘reproducing’ nature. Start to REARRANGE it! Simplify to make your subject more interesting and effective than you found it.

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How Do I Develop A Personal Painting Style?

What is it that makes a painting meaningful and gives it a personal touch or style? Most artists spend a lot of time and effort practicing technical skills and learning technique. They study and practice to improve their competence.

Nevertheless, a well-executed painting, even if technically perfect, can be lifeless and without feeling. What exactly do we mean by style? How can an artist paint with feeling?

CHOOSE SUBJECT MATTER AND INTERPRET IT:

Style is more than the SUBJECT MATTER an artist chooses to paint, although it begins there. Style includes a personal INTERPRETATION of a subject. Each of us will see and describe a scene in a somewhat different way. When we paint, we hope to express our own POINT OF VIEW, our FEELINGS about the scene. By omitting or SIMPLIFYING details that seem unimportant and highlighting other details, you can focus on what is important to you. You might make an effort to limit your reliance on reference material, at least to some extent, to allow for more interpretation. Decide what touches you about a scene, rather than blindly copying (without thinking) all the details of what is before you. Do this, and you will begin to develop your ‘style.’ Tell your own story!

River Glow painting.jpg

GET TO KNOW YOUR OWN FEELINGS AND LET THEM SHOW:

It is not easy to create art that expresses your feelings and personality. You may need to get to know yourself better and begin to identify what truly interests and excites YOU. Instead of copying other artists by painting what they paint in the way they paint it, don’t be afraid to do it your way. What makes you an individual is what will give your painting style. It’s your feeling about a work that helps the viewer to connect, on an emotional level, to your picture. Strive to show an imaginative, original, unusual, perhaps even surprising, viewpoint. Experiment!

Meadow Rd painting.jpg

PAINT BOLDLY:

TIMIDITY and FEAR OF MAKING MISTAKES are two obstacles to developing your painting style. When you paint with hesitation and uncertainty, you tend to create tight, stiff, overworked images. Strive to loosen your BRUSH STROKES, painting more BOLDLY and with LARGER brushes. Small brushes make it too easy to paint minute details, leaving nothing to the imagination of the viewer. Instead, suggest and omit nonessential details, thus allowing a viewer to become involved in imagining and filling in ambiguous specifics for themselves. One technique to increase viewer connection is the use of LOST AND FOUND EDGES in painting. (For example, vary your edges by using hard edges as well as soft or disappearing edges to create interest in your picture.)

Floating Xmas painting.jpg

Polish pretzels painting.jpg

 

USE COLOR IN YOUR OWN WAY:

COLOR CHOICES can play an important part in developing your style. The paint pigments on your palette affect the feel and flavor of your paintings. The Zorn palette, for instance, created and used often by Anders Zorn, consists of primarily four colors: yellow ochre, ivory black, vermillion, and titanium white. Vincent Van Gogh, on the other hand, tended to prefer other color combinations, as did Johannes Vermeer and Claude Monet.

pumpkins painting.jpg

CAREFULLY OBSERVE AND EMPHASIZE SUBTLETIES:

Beyond the colors on your palette, style also depends on how you ’SEE’ what you choose to paint AND how you might choose to EXAGGERATE subtler colors. (For more information on ‘seeing’, check out my blog post entitled “Painting Begins With Looking and Seeing,” https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/12/18/painting-begins-with-looking-and-seeing/, published December 18, 2018.) Painting with style thus involves looking carefully and analytically at a subject, and taking the time to observe. Without careful looking, your paint colors can tend to be flat, conventional, tired, and uninteresting. We have all seen beginners who paint trees or grass an unvaried, unnatural green. Strive instead to observe subtle color variations which are almost always there to be seen. Further, use your imagination to emphasize some of the subtler, more elusive colors to suggest to your viewer WHAT YOU FEEL about your subject.

Shadows Groton.jpg

CAPTURE THE LIGHT:

Observing and capturing the QUALITY OF LIGHT in an everyday scene will help you to paint with style and feeling. Again, study your subject and really look for the nuances and subtle variations of light at different times of day and in different locations. Light affects how everything appears, whether it be the strong golden light of summer or the soft purple-gray mist of a rainy day. Shadows, whether cast or reflected, also tend to have rich and subtle color variations that you will want to get across to the viewer of your art.

Forsythia spring painting.jpg

Ball Rd painting.jpg

IN SUMMARY:

One artist will interpret a scene differently from another. In choosing the essentials and leaving out unimportant details, a painter begins to develop a personal style. Further, your selection of colors, materials, and techniques to use in painting will be unique, contributing to your style. Over time, each of us develops our own characteristic and distinctive shorthand for dealing with familiar objects; these habits can become recognizable. For instance, I often paint trees by scumbling the leaves, and I use lots of dry brush when painting rocks and stone walls. An artist’s selections, simplifications, and techniques are individual, making style a natural evolution within an artist’s work. However, to develop style fully, you must move on from simply considering materials and techniques to delving deeper and getting to know yourself and what you value. Be sure to express your feelings about a picture; be creativeRemember, your style is yours!

To delve even deeper into the subject of creativity, check out my blog posts entitled “Fostering Creativity” (9/24/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/09/24/fostering-creativity/,  and “Creativity Can Be Learned!”  (1/8/2019), https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/01/08/creativity-can-be-learned/.

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Choosing Colors For A Painting…Less Is More!

There is more than one way to choose colors for a painting. Your first impulse might be to use colors that as closely as possible approximate WHAT YOU SEE. Sometimes this approach works well.  You can learn a great deal about mixing colors by taking this path.

ESTABLISH COLOR UNITY.

However, there are dangers in striving to paint exactly what you see. Sometimes an artist will use too many unrelated colors and a picture can become disjointed and appear confused. Therefore, to create a pulled together look, try to use fewer colors in an effort to establish COLOR UNITY in a picture. Don’t use every color you own!

You could also choose colors for your paintings to reflect HOW YOU FEEL about the subject. As an artist, you probably hope to share your reaction to a scene and use color to reach a viewer on an emotional level. What is the overall feeling or mood you want in your finished picture? For instance, would warm colors (or cool colors) better establish the mood of your picture? Is it a clear, sunny and bright summer day at the beach, or a misty, damp and dark winter afternoon? ( See my related blog “Get In The Mood”, published September 4, 2018, https://leemuirhaman.com/2018/09/04/get-in-the-mood/, for more information about creating mood in a painting.)

Dusk.jpg

A third way to choose colors for a painting might be to pick a set of colors that would represent what you believe to be the BASIC CHARACTER of your subject. Let yourself think about the subject in colors totally different from what appear in reality. An unusual set of colors might better suit what you are trying to get across about your subject. You don’t need to move too far away from actual colors of an object to give it your own take. Exciting color variations can create interest in a dull, monochromatic area of your picture. Clouds are not always puffy and white, and trees are not only green.

Meadow Road.jpg

 

CONSIDER COLOR TEMPERATURE, LIGHT QUALITY, VALUE.

Regardless of the way in which you choose paint colors when planning a painting, give your picture a distinct COLOR SCHEME. Consider emphasizing a particular color combination (or temperature) for your image. Again, keep in mind the overall feeling you hope for in your finished picture. (Mood can be achieved, in part, through your choice of colors.) Start with using COLOR TEMPERATURE to charge your picture with emotion. Consider several specific colors or a range of colors making sure to include both warm and cool colors for use in your picture. It is important that ONE temperature dominates. The other temperature will contrast, counterbalance, and neutralize the dominant color for variety.

Rusty.jpg

Continue to establish the mood by considering the LIGHT QUALITY that will be in your painting. Will you use intense, pure paint colors or more dulled, diffuse colors? Keep in mind that bright sunlight is suggested by pure, bright colors. (Think of the look of a Greek landscape.) As light becomes more diffused with moisture or smoke, colors appear duller. Dulled colors hint at subdued lighting, poor visibility, less detail, and lowered value (light/dark) contrast. (You see much less detail, for instance, at night.) Remember that you can create duller colors by adding a bit of a color’s complement (it’s opposite on the color wheel).

River sunset winter.jpg

Also, always consider VALUE (light/dark) in planning the mood of your picture. Would mostly light colors (or mostly dark, or a balance of values) enhance the mood or feeling you plan to establish? (For more information about values, see my related blogs “Dusk,Evening, and Moonlight… Oh, My!”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/02/05/dusk-evening-and-moonlight-oh-my/, published February 5, 2019, and “Why Should I Bother To Use A Gray Scale?”, https://leemuirhaman.com/2019/05/21/why-should-i-bother-to-use-a-gray-scale/, published May 21, 2019.)

LIMITED PALETTE.

Reducing, or limiting the number of colors used in a painting has some distinct advantages! By creating a LIMITED PALETTE you SIMPLIFY decisions that need to be made during the painting process. It becomes easier to preserve HARMONY and COLOR UNITY. A limited palette encourages greater balance in your work. You will be able to maintain more CONTROL using fewer colors. Color mixing becomes easier and less frustrating. Painting becomes more efficient!

IMG_0128.jpg

 

Further, painting with a limited palette allows you to think less about color choices, while letting you focus more attention on other important components of painting, such as shape, value (light/dark), and warm/cool balance.

CREATE A LIMITED PALETTE OR COLOR SCHEME.

How do you choose the right color scheme? Well, there is no “right” or easy answer! There is not one perfect combination of colors. But there are many good choices. (By the way, you DO NOT have to use the exact colors recommended in a demonstration!) Still, it is important to actually CHOOSE A COLOR SCHEME while you are in the planning stage of painting. (Remember that different color combinations create different feelings or moods.) Without choosing a color scheme before beginning to paint, you will be in danger of creating a mess of unrelated colors. So, choose a color scheme that suits you!

 

A limited palette is made up of two or more colors. Your choice of colors can be as simple as Burnt Sienna with Indigo, or Brown Madder with Cobalt Blue, even Permanent Rose with Viridian, in a COMPLEMENTARY color scheme. Or create a limited palette using the three primary colors, in a TRIAD color scheme. Perhaps your choice would be New Gamboge/ Cadmium Red/ Ultramarine Blue, or Winsor Yellow/ Permanent Rose/ Cobalt Blue, or Perylene Maroon/ Indian yellow/ Phthalo Blue. You might want to expand just a bit by adding Burnt Sienna or Perylene Green or one of your favorite convenience colors to the three primaries.

Boat Float.jpg

Another common limited palette includes six colors – a warm and a cool version of each of the three primary colors. Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolors offers a very good example with their “Essentials” kit, which includes Hansa Yellow Light, New Gamboge, Quinacridone Rose, Pyrrol Scarlet, Phthalo Blue Green Shade, French Ultramarine Blue. Using these six colors can be described as using a SPLIT PRIMARY color scheme.

A few additional ways to combine colors into a color scheme include choosing several colors based on their position on the color wheel and their distance from each other. For example, in an ANALOGOUS color scheme, three or more  colors are chosen that fall next to each on the wheel, possibly yellow-green, green, blue-green, and blue. A SQUARE color scheme employs four colors evenly spaced on the color wheel, such as Permanent Mauve, Viridian, New Gamboge, and Pyrrol Red. A TETRAD color scheme uses colors whose placement on the color wheel form a rectangle, perhaps Permanent Rose, Ultramarine Blue, Light Red, and Viridian. Yet another possible scheme is a SPLIT COMPLEMENTARY scheme, made up of one color plus the two colors on either side of its complement. A possible split complimentary scheme could be Quinacridone Rose, Viridian and Green Gold.

Orange pumpkins.jpg

So many choices! To simplify, first choose a dominant, then one or several subordinate colors to give an overall mood to your painting. Decide on cool or warm dominance. Think about possible color schemes that might highlight your subject, and experiment on test paper until you find one you prefer. For color ideas, you might have a dramatic photo with an appealing color combination or a saved magazine image to use for color inspiration, or use your imagination.

Color is fun and amazing, but often less is more! Use fewer colors! Enjoy!

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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!

Contour sketch Primroses.jpg

Primroses small.jpg

 

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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