The Shape of Things to Come

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.

  1. Full light
  2. Half light
  3. Half dark
  4. 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.






  1. To me, this lesson of simplify is to suggest the landscape rather than create a detailed record of it. I wish I had read this lesson several years ago, when I painted a landscape based on a photo I took on a vacation to Maine. Rocks, trees, ocean. My aim was to reproduce the photo in paint. Bad idea. I kept failing to get the details “just right.” After a handful of sessions at the canvas, I told myself to relax and not focus on details. I enjoyed the painting much more after that.

    Best wishes as you continue working on your art!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Yes, nature is so beautiful, it’s tempting for us to want to put in everything we see. I’m learning, though, that it’s better to “suggest” than to “show” many times. I can look at paintings I’ve done which I like, and I can see how I did simplify the scene so that the different “masses” and different values are there. It’s all definitely a learning process, so I hope as I keep practicing I’ll find some of these ideas becoming “second nature” in my approach to landscape painting.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for articulating your journey so well! I can see how this works in more open landscapes with varied terrain, but I live in a flat coastal area so the shapes would be the play of shadows and light more than physical shapes. I also dive too far into the details and end up with a painting that is neither a good representation of a scene nor an embodiment of mood nor emotion.
    I am going to print out that quote when I get to my computer today

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the kind words. In some ways, your flat coastal area might be better for “shape-seeing” than our wooded landscapes. For me learning to see the shapes of the lights and shadows is sometimes difficult because they’re moving about so much as the leaves of the trees sway in the breeze. I have to focus as much as possible on larger masses of values, so it’s easy for me to miss all the lights and shadows when I’m painting. “Seeing shapes” seems like such a simple concept, but it’s still difficult for me. As the weather warms up more and I can get out to the hiking trails, I want to practice “sketching shapes” more now.


      1. I also have my briary tangle of woods across the road to hike. So much detail there! We are going to attempt a short hike today, on my bad knee and my husband’s bad ankle. It’s too lovely a day to stay indoors. I will probably sit for a while and sketch. Let’s see

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    1. I agree that Claude Lorraine was most definitely an influence on Wilson, and Wilson, in turn seems to have influence many of the artists whose works I’m studying now. I’ll be dropping by to read your posts!


  3. I enjoy reading your blog. Photographers often envy painters because painters seem to have the freedom to add only what matters to their frame, whereas us photographers can only do two things: change the point of view and exclude from the composition. Not easy. Reading about the complication of values has been an eye-opener for me because I have no formal education in the arts and I never formalized the thought on my own. I have problems taking in colors, and for that reason I do most of my work in black and white on the outlook for shapes. Although approaching the landscape in this way is extremely difficult, I can exclude a very great number of visual distractions by doing so. Nice blog I’m happy I have found it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts. I’d never thought about “artistic freedom” (or lack thereof) from a photographer’s point of view. That could be frustrating, indeed. I love black and white photography. Color can sometimes be distracting and/or overwhelming. The values are so clear in black and white photos. It makes for stunning art!


      1. “I wish I could paint this instead” photographers say it all the time. The illusion of being able to control things better. I know it’s not that easy, but it seems that way to us. Conversely, if I was given a blank canvas, to start from, I think i would simply run away 😉

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      2. I like photography a lot. It was a hobby for a while — before I started learning to draw. Now I usually take photos only to use as references. You should grab a blank canvas sometime and a few inexpensive oil paints. You might be surprised at what you can do!

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