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September - Contours and Shapes, Part One

Where does that “outline” thing come from anyway? As children, we begin drawing stick figures, and as we graduate to more complicated subjects, we concentrate, almost exclusively, on their outlines. What is it that makes us see outlines? Maybe it’s those first coloring books with their subjects in deep, black contour lines. Remember how we carefully struggled to “stay within the lines”? And when we did, we would receive accolades from our significant others. Our efforts built character and fortitude, but pretty much squelched creative expression.

Well, for me, anyway, the ensuing years proved to be a continuation of that early process. My drawing improved, but my approach remained essentially unchanged. I would take out my pencil or charcoal and evaluate my subject in terms of its contour lines. For me, and most of my peers, it seemed the logical and normal way to draw. All that would change in 1989.

In the Fall of that year, I was fortunate to land a spot in a one-week workshop with Richard Schmid. I had always admired Richard’s painting, and I was eager to devour whatever crumbs he could throw my way.

Early in the workshop, Schmid was talking about the painters Sargent and Zorn (two of my favorites). He said something to the effect of “…they weren’t necessarily the best draftsmen of their time, but they were among the best measurers.” I was, at the time, a bit mystified by such an odd statement. After all, I had considered Sargent’s and Zorn’s drawing skills to be virtually impeccable. So what was this “measuring” stuff?

On the fourth day of the workshop, Richard painted a portrait of one the local women. The canvas was blank, except for some light toning and scumbling. He began the painting with one very small, almost square shape (it ultimately was a shadowed spot between the bridge of the nose and the eye). Then he put another small shape (slightly adjusted mixture) adjacent to the first shape, and adjusted the edge between the two. And so the painting went – one shape building off another - like the assembly of a mosaic. I watched in awe as the features of the face emerged from the tapestry of carefully calculated brushstrokes.

Then all the bells went off, the dawn broke, the rooster crowed, and I suddenly understood his statement about “measuring”. Schmid had crafted a breathing, likeness of the sitter without once indicating a contour line of the head, or any of its component parts. He had recognized a simple, comprehensible shape, and, after rendering it correctly, used that shape to measure a subsequent shape, and so forth. He had built his painting out of masses instead of lines.

I began to understand the wisdom of this approach, and I was determined to incorporate this principle in my work. However, as they say, “Experience is knowledge; understanding is the booby prize”. I first had to empty my cup and undo a lifetime of virtually indelible habits. For six months, my painting took a nosedive. But gradually, by practicing using a light squint, I learned to reduce the intricacies of my subjects to basic shapes and values. Sometimes the simplest shapes were found in the negative space between two objects. I began looking for relationships, rather than outlines.

I started doing lots of drawings in darkened cafes and bars, where the subdued lightning obscured the outlines, and reduced the masses to simple shapes. I would fill pages with drawings of entire rooms, without ever once being conscious of whether I was drawing a person or a bottle of beer. I drew what was easily recognizable, whether it was the square of someone’s pocket, or the negative shape between two heads. I began to see the world as a series of relationships between shapes and masses. It was liberating. I no longer had to stay between the lines.

I’ve included a couple of field sketches in both color and black and white. I slightly darkened the black and white photos because I wanted to emphasize the shapes of the general masses. Neither painting had much pencil drawing on them when I began to paint. Most pencil marks were placement indications. I was confident that if I could paint the large masses correctly, the final product would have a semblance of reality.

Because of the capricious nature of watercolor, the immediacy that it requires, and the fact that I’m painting a lot of the shapes negatively, you will notice an irregularity in some of the edges. That never bothers me. In fact, I don’t really like clean, straight lines. I enjoy seeing the hand of the artist in a painting.

You might experiment painting from old black and white photographs. They tend to be a bit overexposed and the general masses are easily recognizable. I like grabbing some ivory black and doing value studies from old photographs. I try to paint them with no pencil sketch. I just concentrate on the larger shapes.

In next month’s newsletter (October), I will present a demonstration painting that may help explain some of the principles that were discussed in this newsletter.

Paint on!


October - Contures and Shapes Part Two

Last month we discussed ways of expanding our drawing skills. While we all learn to draw by following the contours and outlines of our subjects, we often fail to recognize that the simple shapes and masses contained within and without our subjects can be utilized as measurements in our quest for accuracy.

While our right brain yearns for freedom and artistic expression, our left brain labels, categorizes and urges us to “stay within the lines”. The left brain wants us to render what we know, not what we see. Take the example of a young child drawing a cup. Generally, he will start out with a round circle for the opening on top. Why not? The child’s left brain has informed him that the opening on top of a cup is round; the child is comfortable with that knowledge and reacts accordingly. Any ovals, or variations thereof, just don’t fit his preconceived notions.

These kinds of preconceived notions carry over into our adult lives as well. I occasionally have students who, faced with the task of painting a forest, can’t help but attempt to render each tree, one at a time. Even with coaching, they seem unable to grasp that the concept that the forest is a mass, with a certain shape, value and color.

Learning to escape the dictates of our conditioning is always a difficult proposition. However, unless we can throw off the shackles of our conditioning, our drawing will always be at affect to what we know, as opposed to what we really see.

I’d like to share a technique I’ve utilized over the years that has been particularly helpful in liberating me from my own self-imposed constraints. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s great aid in learning to recognize shapes and values. I use this often when I’m painting a complicated subject, like market or harbor scenes, from photos. I actually turn the photo upside down and paint about 90% of the painting from the upside down photo. So while I’m painting the painting, I have no idea whether I’m painting a boat, house, tent, figure or anything. I’m just painting shapes with colors, values and edges. My left brain’s only job is to tell me what shape, color or value something is. I’m confident that if I do a good job rendering these abstract shapes, when I turn the painting over it will be a relatively accurate rendering of my subject. Plus, it’s inevitably a much freer, artistic rendering than if I had identified each of the objects in the photo and tried to duplicate them one at a time.

Now, it would be great if I could learn to stand on my head when I’m painting on-location.

Here’s something you can try to get you moving this direction. Take an old black and white photo, turn it upside down and see if you can recognize the major shapes and values. I like old photos because they’re usually a little over-exposed and the masses are easier to identify. If necessary, identify and draw the large shapes, and then paint your painting with ivory black, paying special attention to the values of each mass. When you feel like you are about 90% done, turn the painting and the photo over and observe the results. You may be surprised to find out that only a small amount of calligraphy is required to finish off the painting. Remember, it may take some practice divorcing yourself from wanting to render “things”. So don’t be discouraged if your first attempts are a little awkward.  With some practice, you will be more able to see the relationships between shapes even when you are working from life.


The following demonstration may help to clarify some of these principles. I found an old black and white photo that had some easily identifiable shapes. 


I turned it upside down, and spent a little time studying the relationships on the inverted photo.


Normally, on something this simple, I would dispense with the pencil drawing and start right in painting. However, I thought it would be useful for you to see the major shapes as I saw them. The drawing is a little scribbly, as I didn’t draw dark enough the first time and had to restate the lines.


I selected ultramarine blue and burnt sienna because they are capable of making rich darks and some beautiful warm and cool grays. The combination is a little more interesting than plain black.

I scumbled in some general tones, not paying much attention to the lines of my shapes. Even though these would be my lightest areas at the completion of the painting, I wanted to add some interest to those areas.



Now I begin selecting the most obvious shapes in the upside down photo and paint them in, going right for the local value.


I continue to the 90% point, until I’ve established all of the recognizable shapes in their correct values.


(click image to view larger)


Now I flip the painting and the photo over to look at them upright.

Even at this stage, the painting could almost stand by itself as a completed piece.


(click image to view larger)

Here’s the tricky part. I have to ask myself exactly how much detail I need to enhance what I have without overdoing it. I think more paintings get ruined in the last few minutes than at any other stage. You know the old question: How many painters does it take to paint a painting? Answer: Three. One to paint the painting and two to hit him over the head and drag him away before he overdoes it and ruins it. Anyway, I choose to put in a few windows and a couple of branches and leave it at that. Although it’s no masterpiece, I like the little irregularities that result from not being to concerned with contours of the individual objects. It adds some character to the painting that might have been eliminated if I had painted the photo right side up. 


(click image to view larger)


November 2008 - Contours and Shapes   Part: 3 

As a final installment in this series on contours and shapes, I thought it might be interesting to do a small color demonstration. So I selected a cropped section from a previously completed painting. I chose this area of the painting because the shapes and masses were fairly easy to recognize.

As we learned earlier, shapes, masses and values are much more discernable in black and white photos. However, when nature adds color into the mix, the problems of identifying shapes and values can become quite complex. I have found that, if I lightly squint at my subject, the extraneous detail and confusion disappears, and I’m more clearly able to discern the obvious shapes and their specific values.

Let it be said here that the process of squinting takes some practice. You have to remember that you are only squinting at your subject, not the painting. And you do have to open your eyes to get the correct local color. But it’s worth the effort, and, once you become confident with your “squint”, you will be amazed how much more easy it is to simplify your painting subjects.

Here is the sketch that I’m using as this month’s model. Try lightly squinting at the sketch. This should eliminate some of the unnecessary detail and make the obvious shapes more apparent.   

Now that I can clearly see the obvious shapes, I execute a simple, straightforward pencil drawing. Note that I have only indicated the large, readily apparent masses. I’m going to allow the details to be handled as the painting unfolds.



I scumble in some color that will set the general tone for my crumbling architecture. Some of this will show through in the final painting, and add character to otherwise flat passages.




Now I address some of those obvious shapes, giving them color strength and interest. In the process, I’ve established the bridge, its railing and the door frame using negative shapes. They have much more character than if I had carefully drawn them in with pencil and filled in the blanks with color.



With some good shapes for guidelines, and some solid darks to measure my future values, I can now freely address all that negative area in between. Notice that I’m adding posts, curving windows, window frames and odds and ends in by painting around them negatively. I can only guess how much more staid this painting would have been had I planned for every little eventuality.



Hmm. As I look at this now, this is a bit of a quantum leap from the last step. I probably should have taken a photo between these two steps. Quite frankly, I’m not particularly fond of taking photos in the middle of paintings. It kind of ruins the tempo, and eliminates some crucial soft edges. Nonetheless, I will attempt to explain some of what has been completed in this step.


To the wall at the upper left, I added some red tones, cutting out the window frames. To suggest more texture, I did a little over painting on the lower half of the same wall, and knocked the doorframes down a bit, lowering their contrast. I put a little more definition in and around the bridge, including the shadow on the right hand side. I put a middle value green tone over the entire water area, cutting around that boat moored near the building and the one in the lower right foreground. When this passage was dry, I painted the reflections, leaving some of those untouched horizontal areas to give my water a surface. As a little side note, the famous watercolorist, John Pike, never painted his reflections until he had painted the objects to be reflected. I have found that to be sound advice during my own painting career.



This is the finishing stage. I put more texture on all the walls and the bridge. I add some very distinct shadows around the doors, windows and foliage, giving weight to those masses, and establishing a light source. I add some calligraphy to the doors and decide to call it quits.


I hope that these last three newsletters will get you thinking about masses, shapes and their relationships when analyzing your painting subjects. Look first for the large, definite shapes, measure carefully and rely on contours and lines as a last resort, and I think you may find your painting technique becoming freer and more expressive.