Keeping It Simple

Simple isn’t easy. It can be remarkably difficult to simplify a subject when we’re tempted to include every detail of an appealing scene.

I’m often tempted to jump into a painting too quickly, incorporating details that I want to be sure to capture in the finished piece. But that’s not necessarily the best approach. Once the details are in, it’s difficult to do justice to the rest.

131204a Gondolieri

In fact, it’s easier to get the overall image right if I begin with flat colors, focusing on accuracy of major value changes more than on form or even hue. It’s a truth I have to remind myself of with every painting I undertake.

If I begin with the values, I can then indicate flat shapes within those values with a change of hue, and from there adjust the saturation to suggest depth and form.

This approach is easier to use when painting with opaque media, such as oils or acrylics. These media permit over-painting to adjust colors, add lighter details, and refine edges.

Transparent watercolor, on the other hand, demands more careful preplanning to reserve smaller areas of high value within the lower-value masses. The transparency precludes much over-painting, beyond judicious glazing to intentionally layer colors. (Injudicious layering too frequently merely leads to the age-old bugaboo, “mud.”)

I used this approach when I painted “Gondolieri” (#131204, above), first in acrylic and then in watercolor (#131205, below).

131205w Gondolieri

In neither version did I take the detail far enough to clearly depict features within the subjects’ faces or to include the clutter of unnecessary detail behind or around them. The intent was not to portray specific people but to show the overall gesture of their stances and their relationship to each other. As you would expect, details do vary slightly between the two paintings. Though they are obviously based on the same photograph, the image for each was drawn freehand, and I treated each painting individually, working with it according to what it suggested to me as it developed.

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