I write this post in a hopeful spirit. As I look toward the future, I want my landscape art to convey mood and atmosphere. I want to learn to use light and shadow. I want to develop the ability to skillfully take what I see — and what I feel — and translate it onto my canvas.
It’s challenging. There are so many different things to keep in mind. If I focus on one element, I tend to forget about others. Oh, well, that’s part of the learning process, right?
My 100-day landscape project is now centering on composition, and I’ll be making simple value studies before I begin each painting. And then, even as I begin putting paint on the canvas, I’ll keep the concept of simplicity in mind. It’s essential in landscape painting, but simple isn’t always easy, at least, not for me.
Earlier, I used a specific word: translate. I deal a lot with words and languages, so the idea of translation is a familiar one — with words and languages. It’s not so familiar in the context of visual arts, so I had to ponder on it for a moment. I found the word at Mitchell Albala’s website as I searched for information on the process of simplification in landscape painting.
Here’s what he has to say about the principle:
One of the fundamental truths the artist-as-translator learns is that larger, simpler shapes and masses convey the essence of a subject better than its details. In fact, if the essential practices of landscape painting were ranked in order of importance, simplification — the ability to translate nature’s complexity into fewer and more readable shapes and patterns — would be at the top of the list.
Did you catch that last line? It’s so important, I want to repeat it: If the essential practices of landscape painting were ranked in order of importance, simplification would be at the top of the list.
Good to know, but sometimes difficult to put into practice.
Art is about shapes. One of the first basic art elements we learn — right after we learn about lines — is how to create shapes. We have a standard repertoire: squares, rectangles, circles, triangles, and as we become bolder, organic shapes that defy simple definition. Ah, there’s that word again.
Yes, shapes are simple — when we’re studying shapes. For me, though, it’s not so simple when I look at a landscape and try to view it in terms of simple shapes. My mind sees all the complexities, all the overwhelming detail, all the subtle variations in colors. How can I even begin to simplify such a scene?
Perhaps the best starting point is to think about values. Shapes in nature (or in a still life arrangement, or in portrait painting or figure painting) are defined by differences in values. This is exactly why we’re taught to reduce the number of values in our art. Working with 10 different values makes it much harder to differentiate between “simple shapes” than if we’re working with only 3 or 4 values.
Another excellent “training technique” is to convert colorful reference photos to black and white. Colors are lovely. They are also distracting when we’re learning to see values and shapes.
This morning as part of my “project time”, I did a very quick study on canvas paper. The idea here was to see the scene not as landscape elements but simply as shapes. I looked for dark shapes. I looked for light shapes. And as I made first my thumbnail sketch and then my practice painting, I thought about how these shapes converge near the center of the scene.
As I started painting, I laid the scene out with black, white, and gray, trying to establish four different values. As I’m learning to think in terms of light/dark, here is how I’m defining these values.
- Full light
- Half light
- Half dark
- Full dark
I recall an exercise I tried a few years ago when I was working with the same concept of simplification. The artist suggested turning the entire scene into a sort of jigsaw puzzle, clearly outlining each different shape.
I tried it. While it was interesting to do, it didn’t work too well for me, especially not when I tried to paint the scene. So, I put that method aside and continued looking for tips that would help me more clearly identify the basic shapes and values in a scene.
I’m still looking, and today’s practice piece was an attempt to turn a scene into simple shapes with simple values. I did this first with black, white, and two shades of gray, and then as I added color I blended the shapes a bit. Not much. I wanted to be able to look at this image and see more shape than actual landscape.
In doing this exercise, I noticed how these shapes — formed primarily by diagonal lines — all led to a specific area of the painting. I tried to emphasize this directional element.
As I sit back and look at this now, I see areas where my “full darks” and “full whites” might be adjusted a bit for a more realistic image. But I also see distinct shapes, and that’s what matters most to me right now.
So, indeed, I hope this is “the shape of things to come.” I hope that as I move forward I’ll be able to more fully understand the concepts of seeing and painting the simple shapes that make up the beautiful landscape around us.