"A painting built on a boring design is like a house built on sand, destined to fall apart." Dan McCaw.
There is no doubt that artists who understand and utilize their knowledge of shape create the most effective designs. When you look at a subject you want to paint you have to look past the details and see what lies before you in terms of shapes not objects. Squinting is your best option for decreasing the amount of detail perceived and reducing the subject to dark and light masses. Another approach is to step back far enough to see only the contours of what you are focused on.
The big shapes that you reduce your subject to are the backbone of a strong painting. Train your eye to see no more than 3 or 4 big shapes in the subject and hang on to these through the whole painting, especially when you start adding detail. Aim for variety in the shapes: large, medium and small, simple and complex, positive and negative, light and dark, active and passive.
Suppose your subject isn't co-operative and there are many discrete shapes, uninteresting shapes or irritating shapes. This is where you get to practice "artistic license". Tom Lynch in Watercolour Secrets: A master painter reveals his dynamic strategies for success suggests changing "bad" shapes by:
1) altering the shape slightly; this is an easy one and artists do it all the time
2) connecting one shape to another; this can be achieved by moving objects closer to each other or connecting them into one shape by using cast shadows; if you have several elements of almost similar value you can unify them into one larger shape later by softening the edges or painting them in similar values.
3) adding something to camouflage the shape or cutting it out; adding in new information to make an original shape more interesting or to bulk it up to increase the size is easy to do, but even easier and often more essential is cutting information. Simplify and eliminate clutter is my mantra.
4) abstracting or stylizing it. This is not one I've used much myself, but there are times when you can solve a problem by abstracting most of the formal information and letting the shape prevail.
Dan McCaw in A Proven Strategy for Creating Great Art recommends making quick thumbnails of the initial organization of shapes using white paper and a pencil for the dark/shadowed areas. Two values are all you need if you have a good structure of shapes. Keep changing different aspects of the shapes until you have a pleasing design . When you finally settle on your shapes it is then a good idea to develop at least a four value study- white, 2 mid values and dark. Assign one of the four values to each large mass of your painting. Value and shape are your most important tools to hold a painting together.
From personal experience it is no good to have a shape value sketch and not use it! It's meant to be a useful tool not an academic exercise. I know many artists who create beautifully rendered value sketches for their finished paintings. Every last detail is worked out. I can't go there. I did try, but I lost interest in the subject as a result. If I figure out the minimum with shapes and values (4) I can add the rest as I go along.
An additional element to using shapes to strengthen your design is the importance of interlocking shapes like puzzle pieces which is addressed in detail in How to see underlying shapes in a painting by Deborah Christensen Secor at Wet Cavas. This is a very comprehensive overview of all aspects of shape with excellent illustrations.
In my next post I will return to my previous landscape and consider the information from this post with what my readers have supplied to see how Summer Fire might be improved. Until then here is a grayscale of the painting. It tells quite a bit about the "bones" of the painting.