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October 2008

Back to the Basics: Simplifying the Masses

The human eye is an amazing instrument. It allows us to see and interpret the shapes, colors, and dimensions of objects in the world by processing the light they reflect or emit. It is the artist’s greatest tool and, sometimes, the greatest hindrance.

When we stare out at a landscape, we not only see the sky, mountains, trees and foreground, we also see the clouds, leaves, branches, twigs, grass, rocks and everything else that comes screaming into our eyes at 186,000 miles per second. So, when I say to a student, “simplify the landscape into its basic masses”, I often get a “Say what?” look in return. It’s not a question of teaching the student to paint it simply, but more along the lines of helping them to see it simply. If we can see it simply, we will paint it simply.

I thought this might be a good time to talk about what’s going on out there in the landscape, and some suggestions about synthesizing its elements into a more comprehensible form. But first it’s necessary to have some understanding of the planes of a landscape and how light affects each plane.

 I’m going to talk a lot about “values”. These are basically the “steps”, or “differing degrees” from light to dark, and they include the darks, half-tones, lights and the semi-lights. The relationships of these values generally determine the success or failure of any painting.

 Any landscape painting is basically an arrangement of three or four large masses. If these masses are arranged in an interesting way, and their value relationship is correct, the painting will have a strong foundation, and a better than even chance of success. Any details, embellishments and highlights placed on these masses will be subordinate to the masses themselves.

 It is important to remember that the sky is our light source, and it will be casting its light on all of the masses in our landscape. The angle of these masses to the sky will determine how much light they receive and their relative value in the landscape.

We will take an average landscape (flat ground, trees and mountains), on an average sunny day at around 11 AM.

The unobstructed flat ground lies most exposed to our light source, and, therefore, receives the most light from the sky. Consequently, it will be darker than the sky, but the lightest element in our landscape. After that, the upright mountain, with its sloping sides, will receive somewhat less light, and will be some darker value than the flat ground. Lastly, the vertical forest, standing virtually erect, will receive even less light and be the darkest element in our landscape.

If we were to paint these masses in a posterized way, it might look something like this:



Here is the same image in black and white:


Even without details or highlights, the value relationships between these simple masses tell the story of the landscape. When painting on location, a slight squint can help determine the large masses and their value relationship to one another.


As we continue to finish painting our landscape, it is important that each mass retain its integrity. Avoid introducing values from one mass area into another. Each mass has a light, middle and dark value that is peculiar to itself only, and won’t be shared by the other masses (this does not include one or two selected highlights to be used later as a point of interest in the painting). If you keep the value changes and details of a mass within the range of its general value, the area will have solidity.


I put some finishing work on my painting as an example:




Note that there are value changes in each of my masses, but that those changes remain within the general value range of each mass.

Here is the same image in black and white:



Just for the heck of it, I placed a dab of foreground color on the left side of my tree mass.


Notice how it seems to float on the surface of the canvas? The same would be true if I took a blob of color, the value of my tree mass, and placed it in the foreground. Except it would look like a hole in the canvas.

Now, highlights are an exception. I put a couple of semi-darks, and whitish dots in the clump at the lower right of the painting. This was to add a small amount of interest for the viewer. Any highlights, like these, must have a purpose and be used very sparingly. 

I know that this painting is only a demonstration of a principle and lacks any artistic design. But, that is our job when we go out to paint: to take the major masses and organize them in an interesting way. Also, this is one particular landscape at a particular time of day. Nature has thousands of variations and no principle can hold true in every situation.

In the morning, when the sun first comes up over the mountain to the east of me, the distant forests are brightly lit, while the foreground is still in deep shadow. Or, in the winter, the snow on the ground will be lighter than the sky – and on and on. It’s still our ongoing task to determine the main masses, what their value is, and then to organize them into a meaningful artistic statement.

Happy painting!