Posts Tagged ‘simplification’

En Plein Air — Washington D.C.

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

Last time I wrote about my first plein air travel experience in Key West.  Another recent trip, this time to Washington D.C., provided additional impetus to try breaking away from working only in my studio.

I knew that the Japanese Cherry trees encircling the Tidal Basin had long since bloomed and lost their blush by the time we arrived in late April, but many other trees and shrubs were in glorious bloom.  Magnolia, dogwood, redbud, other fruit trees, wisteria, azaleas, and of course many spring bulbs provided an entire spectrum of springtime hues.  As I considered the various delicate colors scattered in hazy clusters across the landscape, I continually asked myself how I would mix this hue or that, how I could suggest a similar texture on paper, and how this subject or that should be effectively addressed.  But the paints remained only in my mind.

Springtime in DC

Springtime in DC

Segway and bus tours provided an interesting and informative overview of some of the prime sites in the city but offered limited time to take reference photos, and none for painting enroute.  Metros were efficient in getting us to where we wanted to go, but didn’t inspire me much with their views of their underground network—the station tunnels calling to mind a sterile shuttle bay on the fabled Starship Enterprise.

I did take the opportunity to enjoy the museums on my wish list—the  National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery of Art (with a special exhibit of portraits by Cezanne), the Freer Gallery, and some of the other Smithsonian collections along the Mall—while my husband breezed through other museums of particular interest to him.  But beyond making a few quick pencil sketches, I’m sorry to admit that I didn’t accomplish much of my own work at all, either indoors or out.

View of 6th Street from the National Gallery of Art West

View of 6th Street from the National Gallery of Art West

Although I prefer to really absorb smaller, focused areas of interest, my husband likes to cover a lot of ground quickly, to see as much as possible in our limited time.  Guided tours, which he favors, don’t slow down to wait for much emotional or artistic contemplation—or sometimes even reference photos.  And they didn’t leave a lot of time for plein air painting until I was too exhausted to tackle it.   The experience taught me that if I truly want to paint, sometimes I will have to aggressively claim that time by foregoing other options or overriding others’ desire for my participation in their preferred activities.

The hectic pace did force me to sketch quickly, concentrating on a focal area with minimal detail, and building around that as time permitted.  I’ve found that simplification is the key to quick sketching, capturing line, gesture, balance, and a suggestion of key impressions.

Smithsonian Castle Skyline

Smithsonian Castle Skyline

So I’m making an effort to quickly visualize my compositions in terms of a limited focal area while eliminating or minimizing all but the critical balancing elements to create something of a vignette or silhouette as I sketch.  It’s a difficult transition to make from my more extended studio paintings, but I find that my early exposure to sumi-e has provided a valuable foundation for this approach.

Keeping It Simple

Wednesday, January 15th, 2014

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.

A Concise Suggestion

Tuesday, October 15th, 2013

One of the lessons I learned this year through my quick watercolor sketch exercises was simplification. Many of my morning walks were taken through a nature preserve, which provided innumerable subjects, textures, and painting opportunities. Unfortunately, I wasn’t the only creature to enjoy the area. If I stood still to paint for any length of time, I provided breakfast for an apparently famished mosquito population. So I soon learned to keep my quick-sketch stops extremely quick.

Sketch stops that, earlier in the year, would have been completed in about half an hour, were cut down to a scant five minutes. I learned that any necessary refinement, such as background or value contrasts, could be completed later, in the studio.

130724 Summer Cattails

As the wildlife became more populous through the unusually wet summer, I managed to reduce even that abbreviated working window to an even shorter timeframe. I learned to make just a few key strokes tell the story.

130813 Cattail

And in the process, I was surprised to realize how soon many of the studio revisions became virtually unnecessary, as well. Although the old adage might be claimed, that necessity is the mother of invention, it better exemplified to me the principle that practice develops confidence, and confidence permits concision.