How I Simplify Forms

Making simple shapes and adding details last has been a hard lesson to learn. But after forcing myself to learn how to simplify a landscape, I’ve been happier with more paintings than not.

Below is a photograph of the scene I painted with another fellow plein air painter. He opted to show the curve and the tree to the left, as well as details of the open studs in the side of the old barn.

But for me, it was the light and atmosphere of the gray clouds and shapes of the trees I saw when I squinted down to see only subtle forms. I wanted to increase the contrast of the light peeking through the two treelines and the shape of the highlight on the front edge of the barn.

As you can see from the photo I had to make a lot of editing decisions. I'm finding charcoal works well for my notans -- I get just enough middle tone that I can visualize how I want to handle the light, darks and middle tones.

The first problem to solve made me realize I needed to raise the background trees up and make sure I angled the front edge of the barn so I could keep the concept that the barn was built into a hill. As you can see, the painting does a better job of reading as a hill than the sketches. But without the sketches, I would not have realized that and ended up with less of a hill setting.

The various thumbnail sketches let me zoom in and out, go vertical and horizontal. The top left sketch was the third sketch after the two horizontal sketches. The top left is the one I used as a guide for the painting. The fourth sketch, or bottom left, had too many scattered elements and not enough dark and light.

The composition selection

The composition focuses on the "U" shaped dark masses with the use of thirds to break up the canvas into unequal parts. The barn is off center and the large tree on the right is a dark shape that is of a different size than the large dark mass of trees on the left. Both are a different shape and size than the foreground and sky.

What I Learned

  • The details of the barn studs were left out. My artist friends know I often won't put in windows or doors anymore unless they are of particular interest with a reflection, or interesting interior or help the design.

  • I find I must stop and think about what draws me to a subject. Until I do that I am just copying what I see. Paint what I feel, not what I see.

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