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Organizing Chaos

The human eye is an amazing instrument. When you think of its capabilities, it’s a bit overwhelming. It’s like our own personal camera, on steroids. It gathers in light bouncing off all objects, from the expansive sky down to the smallest detail. It is the artist’s most indispensable tool.

Conversely, as we all know, it can also be an impediment to us artists, as we attempt to synthesize all the elements of our subject down to the bare essentials.

We set up in front of a vase of flowers, and we see all the petals, leaves, stamens, pistils and stems. Or maybe it’s forest, with all the foliage, branches and twigs; or a harbor full of boats and masts and
the reflections in the shimmering water; or an ever-evolving market, with scores of people, colors and shapes in constant flux. It can be enough to make a grown artist cry.

So what’s an artist to do?

Well, with a lot of hard work, and trial and error, we gradually learn to take all of that confusion and sort out the unnecessary details, synthesizing the subject down to its fundamental essentials. We learn to paint only what is vitally important to our intended statement. We learn to see and paint the large shapes, and masses, and select just enough details to sell the message.

So how do I simplify?

Here are a couple of techniques that I use that might be of help:

 When I’m painting on location, I’ve learned to lightly squint at the subject. This eliminates most of the non-essential detail. If I can’t see it when I’m squinting, then it doesn’t go in the painting. This also helps to clarify the larger masses. If I can capture those masses accurately, and interestingly, the rest of the painting seems to take care of itself.

If I’m working from a photo, in the studio, I like to put the photo far enough away from me so that all the small details in the photo are no longer a distraction. This also helps to simplify the large, obvious shapes. If it’s a particularly complicated subject (harbor or market scene), I frequently turn the photo upside down and paint about seventy percent of the painting from the inverted photo. This keeps me more involved with rendering shapes, rather than particular objects. It makes it much easier to see large shapes and edges (see Sept. 2007 newsletter “Contours and Shapes”).

It is important to remember that, as artists, it is not our job to tell people what they already know. We have cameras for that purpose. It’s our duty to interpret a scene and allow the viewers to be a participant, and derive their own experience from our painting.

A brick wall is a good example of how to understate detail. We know that we could paint every single brick. Folks would marvel at our ability to render detail. But what’s the point? It’s so much more poignant to render a few bricks and allow the viewer to complete the rest of the wall in their head. Furthermore, we are expressing an impression of a subject. This should be experiential, not cerebral.

Here’s a demonstration of this type of shorthand. In step one, I render three basic masses. The middle one is my stone wall. It is a simple gray value mass, with some warm and cool pigment charged in.


Now I know I could render every single stone in the wall, however, I elect to detail just the center part of the wall. This is enough to sell the entire shape as “stone wall”, saves me a bunch of time, varies the edges contained in the wall and allows a bit of mystery for the viewer.

Here’s something else to note: each painting is comprised of a main actor and some supporting actors. If you squint at the passages of trees in the background and grass in the foreground, you can see that they also read as basic value masses, with just enough suggestion of detail to make them believable, without competing for interest with my stone wall.


Forests can present similar problems, with all the trunks, branches, leaves etc. So I like to treat forests as big masses, with one dominant tree form and a few loose shapes, and suggestions, which the viewer can subconsciously interpret as “forest stuff”. In the following demonstration, I’ve painted a large, wet into wet mass, cutting around my main tree, and a few of its branches. All this is done in one step. With a few scratches and some out-of-focus interest in the wet passage, I’ve created some supporting actors and some nice, soft edges to contrast with the main tree trunk. Because the main tree has some faux detail, and some hard, contrasting edges, it captures your attention, and becomes the standard bearer for that non-descriptive mass that surrounds it.


I was recently hiking along the side of a hill, up on La Veta Pass, at about ten thousand feet, when I saw this old Ponderosa Pine spotlighted. I knew this light effect wouldn’t last long, so I quickly massed in the foreground and the background (wet into wet) cutting around the tree and the rocks. Once again, there is just enough interest in the background forest and the foreground grasses to explain what they are, but not compete with the center of interest.


When I’m traveling in more developed countries, my interests seem to lie more in the landscape and architecture. However, in third world countries, I’m drawn more often to the economy of life – the people, markets and bazaars. Painting groups of people, who are generally in motion, can be daunting. So I go back to my “brick wall” approach, and I know that if I do a fairly accurate rendering of a few of the people in the painting, that some general suggestion may be all I need for the rest of the crowd.

I’ve fabricated a small café scene that might help illustrate this point:

When I’m on-location, faced with a scene like this, I do a simple pencil rendering. This one is actually more complicate than I would spend time doing on sight. I wouldn’t bother with the folks in shadow, under the awning, but I wanted to indicate to you that there was some action going on in the background. Normally, I let the paint find those shapes.


I begin by massing over my shadow folks with a blue/gray wash, charging in various warms and cools (much like the stone wall demo), while cutting around the foreground figures. This greatly simplifies the painting, and gives me a good beginning to my middle ground activity. I tint the light-struck awning with a slightly lighter tone of yellow.

Now I go into the painting with my darkest tones (ultramarine blue and burnt sienna). Working wet-into-wet, I establish the shadow from the awning, and I carve around my initial blue/gray shadow, being careful not to cover it all. At this juncture, the painting reads clearly, and I could pretty much pack it in a finish it elsewhere. This is about fifteen minutes of painting time.


Now, with some faux detail and color indications, I suggest figures and indistinct shapes that explain and lend action to the scene. Some stripes on the awning, and I have a nice little café sketch, capturing a moment in time. Including the initial pencil sketch, the total elapsed time is about thirty minutes. With a plein air sketch, like this, and a couple of photos, you have more than enough information to go back to the studio and create a larger, more finished version.


Here’s a sketch from the market in the village of Tlocolula, in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. It seems complicated and busy. But, if you study it carefully, you will see that I basically handled this painting just like the café scene.

This next demo was painted on a dark, socked in, gray day. I photographed the steps in the available light from my studio windows. The photographic quality is not the best, but I think it will work for our general purpose.

Here is a photo from Mevagissey, one of my favorite harbors in the whole world. It lies along the southern part of the Cornwall coast, near Devonshire. One could paint there for weeks and never run out of subject matter. Faced with all that overwhelming information (boats, masts, buildings, reflections etc.), it becomes imperative that I find a way to simplify all that chaos.


I begin with a simple pencil drawing, correctly placing some of the major elements in the scene.


I decide early on that I want the boats in the lower middle ground to be the main attraction. So I put a light wash over the upper half, once again charging in combinations of warm and cool colors.


I paint in the sky with a gray/blue wash (cobalt blue and cadmium red). I take some of that same wash and cut out shapes in the middle ground (even around some masts), and apply it to the boats parked in the foreground. For the most part, those middle ground shapes are random. I’ll define them more with successive washes.


Now I go in with a middle dark wash (mostly light red and ultramarine blue), and I paint the upper hill and the sea wall, cutting out objects and being careful to leave bits of my gray washes from steps 1 and 2.


I begin to finish off the buildings, establishing some shadow patterns. I do a little bit of finishing work on the main boats, and, with a variety of colors, I put more faux finish on the distant middle ground. It’s really a jumble of nothing, made up of random shapes and colors. However, because of the two, more defined, boats in the middle ground, and the plethora of masts, we just naturally assume that they are boats. Once again, this is the similar handling and concept that we saw demonstrated in the stone wall, the forest and the café demos. You will note that I still haven’t painted my water. As I mentioned in last month’s newsletter (Oct. 2009 – “Saving the Best for Last”), I prefer to paint my water and reflections after I paint the objects being reflected. It helps me to minimize errors in value, color and placement.


 Now I finish off everything in the lower third of the painting: the main boat, the two foreground boats and the water. This area contains almost all of my darkest passages. I think this lends necessary weight to foreground. Be careful not to make the value of your water too light. I see this mistake repeatedly, and it compromises the solidity of the painting.

Find ways to simplify your subject matter. Determine your leading actor, and your supporting actors. Squint, look for masses, and paint those masses broadly and interestingly. Don’t be afraid to let the paint show you the way. Remember, you are making a painting. You are the director and the producer. You don’t need to render the whiskers on the kitty. Leave some mystery for the viewer. Jump in, have fun and don’t fret about the outcome. It’s just paper and pigment.

Happy painting!