Getting into Shape

Have you ever painted a subject, maybe a landscape or still life, and were disappointed at how all the elements in the painting felt somehow disjointed – as if the composition didn’t quite flow as well as you had planned? It’s a common problem, and perhaps, sometimes one the artist doesn’t even realize is the source of their frustration. There are a few solutions to this dilemma. However, one of the most effective strategies is to simplify shapes. This doesn’t mean that a square should be reduced to a circle! It means that adjacent forms should be combined when possible to create cohesion and simplicity in an otherwise complex subject. This technique is also known as massing.

Take for example, the serene painting above, by T. Allen Lawson. I can’t help but relish in the middle grouping of pines. In truth, it is one shape. Each tree blends into its neighbor, leaving one solid form. The effect this has on the viewer can hardly be overstated. The simplification of this landscape is not only easier on the eyes but helps to distill the essence of the artist’s expression. This isn’t a painting about trees; it’s a story of a blissful, natural harmony. The viewer knows that there are trees in the forest. We don’t need to show them every needle and pinecone. In fact, the eye prefers not to be shown all the details. Furthermore, our mind is thrilled to fill in the details itself! We struggle as artists to please as many types of viewers as possible, but why do all the heavy-lifting when you can let the viewers do the job themselves? By reducing shapes and form, each viewer will read between the lines and see what he or she wants to see, engaging their own imagination, subconsciously dreaming up more exciting details than you or I could probably produce ourselves.

There are many important tools in a painter’s reserve but massing is one of the most effective. You may have noticed that this technique is closely related to edges – in particular, lost edges, which I wrote about in the last post. Essentially, the simplification of shapes is achieved through omitting edges or removing details altogether.

An understanding and mastery of simplifying edges is especially essential to the watercolorist. I’ll leave you with a painting by one of my favorites, Joseph Zbukvic. Talk about massing! The interconnected shadows and horses in this painting were all done in nearly one flowing wash.

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