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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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.