Friday, November 20, 2009

Compose: The answer is shape

"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.


Kathy said...

Good discussion on the importance of a value study, Margaret! Here's a technique that's a little easier on squinting eyes: Artist Susan Webb Tregay taught me to take the painting into a very dimly lit room or closet with the door slightly ajar. That way, there isn't enough light to see the colors, but there is just enough light to see the values. It really works! I always work from value studies. It's the only way I can formulate a strong composition. I once took a workshop from Donna Zagotta who uses a method very similar to the one you describe. It's a great method. Can't wait to see your next post about this!

hwfarber said...

I sometimes set the digital camera to b&w and look at the painting through the viewfinder (learned that from a Caroline Jasper workshop). When I'm almost finished I actually take a photo, load it onto the computer and check it in b&w; at that time I look at a print preview in various sizes. Did not know about the dark room or closet--good idea.

-Don said...

You have posted some great information here on shapes. It's interesting to see these things broken down to the basics like this. They were all hammered into my head long ago in college but had become such an intuitive part of my working process since that I hadn't given them much thought. Thank you for bringing them back to the forefront of my mind.

One way to get a different perspective of your shape structure and the overall quality of your composition is to look at it in a mirror. Every canvas and I make several trips into our downstairs bathroom with its huge wall mirror. I usually go in while the lights are off, get the painting situated, and then turn on the lights. I get an instant "snapshot" in reverse which tells me volumes.

Your grayscale photo does indeed tell quite the story about this work. I appreciate your willingness to share your learning process with us. Both Kathy and HW have great suggestions which I'll be putting to use in the future.


Kathy said...

Don - I'm glad you mentioned the mirror. I do the same thing! Another good tool is the reducing lens, which Renaissance artists used and is still sold today. These days, however, I lean heavily on PhotoShop Pro where I can use grayscale and flip the image to mirror itself or even turn it upside down. The different orientations in grayscale reveal all the problems.

Margaret Ryall said...

Hi all,
There are great suggestions in your responses. I've used a mirror before and it does work well. I don't know why I didn't include it as a suggestion in my post. I'm still a fan of squinting! I am going to try the darkened room - I have the perfect spot downstairs. Setting your camera to black and white- woe, i didn't know you could do that hw. I'm not looking like the shiniest apple in the barrel am I? I could see how this would work well. I find the reduction to black and white is the most helpful for me because I am such a colour person. I can convince myself it is going well if the colours are working. My landscape is an example of this.

I know there is a way to change a photo into black and white on the computer, (I have Adobe Photoshop 6 on the computer but know very little about it (she said with a red face). My was is to put my photo on the scanner and scan it in grayscale.

And I have another one... I have red transparent plastic that I look through and it pretty much reduces everything to a grayscale. Forgot about that one too until everyone started with the ideas.

I"ll work all these into my next post somehow. I'm taking a pigment stick workshop this weekend so I am short on time.

hwfarber said...

Your red plastic might make any reds in your painting disappear and make your greens appear darker.

I like Don's "snapshot" method. My reducing lens has been missing for a couple of months--a useful tool.

-Don said...

Hi Margaret,

To turn your image grayscale in Photoshop 6:

-Open the image.
-Click on "Image" on the top bar.
-Scroll down to "Mode".
-Scroll down to "Grayscale".

To work with grayscale and color in the same layered document:

-Open the image.
-Duplicate the layer. (click on "Layer" at the top and scroll down to "Duplicate Layer").
-Make sure the "Background Copy" layer is selected.
-Click on "Image" at the top.
-Scroll down to "Adjustments".
-Scroll down to "Desaturate".
-You now have a grayscale layer and a full color layer. Turn the little layer "eye" on and off to go back and forth between full color and B/W.

I hope this helps.

Please feel free to contact me ANYTIME with Photoshop questions. I've used it for 15 years on a daily basis so I have a pretty good grasp on how it works... and I would love to help. That goes for everyone reading this.


Margaret Ryall said...

Thanks for the info. I decided after I read Kathy's post that I could figure this out and I did! Need is a powerful motivator. I now have the layers information to add to that learning. I find the grayscale extremely helpful.

Ann Buckner said...


First, thank you for stopping by my blog. I appreciate it.

I've been reading your and Katharine's blogs and am overwhelmed with the information you are sharing. Love the info in the comments too.

One of the things I do after taking a photo and converting it to b&w is to put the contrast all the way up. This reduces it to black and white and gives a good idea of light/dark ratio, rather like a Notan. This info came from Rhonda Carpenter.

layers said...

Great discussion on shapes-- a gray scale is a good way to see if the shapes connect or move the eye through the painting.

Margaret Ryall said...

Thanks for yet another tip to add to the growing collection about shape and value in painting. I'm learning so much from these responses.

you are so right about grayscale. It's the best thing since sliced scale. Now that I figured out how to make it work, I've been checking out a lot of my paintings. Some are lacking but they are long gone from my hands.

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