What Makes This Painting Beautiful?

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

-Anton Chekhov

Have you ever told a joke and the punchline was so clear that you couldn’t bear to say it, because if you did, the joke wouldn’t be half as funny?

Some things are better left unsaid!

Our brains get a thrill by filling in the gaps—the missing pieces of a puzzle. This is as true in comedy as it is in art, music, and just about every other creative form of expression.

With this in mind, take a moment and consider what makes the above watercolor painting by Joseph Zbukvic so intriguing.

This is a great example of leaving things unsaid. Notice how little of the buildings or cars is actually rendered in this painting; most of the work is left up to the viewer to imagine.

Aside from the excitement the mind gets from completing the visual story on its own, there is another motivation for leaving certain details out of a painting: Zbukvic’s work is a story about the atmosphere of a rainy Parisian day, not one about cars and buildings. We are not interested in how many bricks fill each facade or in reading the bumper stickers on a passing Peugeot. We want to experience the heavy air and play of light that defines such a specific time and place. By leaving out extraneous details, Zbukvic helps the viewer see what he wants us to see and experience a specific moment, and one can almost hear the muffled echos of traffic and wet pattering of tires along the road.

If you’ve ever struggled with elevating your own artwork to something more than a simple copy of your subject, consider omitting the details. Show only that which is relevant. What are the essentials? What parts of your subject strike you the most? Why did you want to depict it in the first place?

I’ll conclude with a few more examples of Zbukvic’s tactful omission—but the details, I’ll leave up to you…

Getting into Shape | Painting Tutorial

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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