Seeing Shapes, Values & Colors

Painting in Terms of What You see

The title here says it all. If an artist can distill visual realities down to a few simple shapes of value and color he/she will finally begin to understand the painting process.

Try this sometime (at first it will feel a little strange and a little unsettling, but the rewards of this approach to painting will pay big dividends in the long run): start by just looking at your subject in terms of colors, values and shapes. Look for positive and negative shapes as well and put them down on canvas in their approximate locations. When in doubt of an exact color just assign an approximation; exactness in color is not as important as overall color harmony anyway. The most important thing to remember is not to view the subject as the object you are depicting, but instead, just a series of abstract shapes, colors and values. Resist the temptation to paint “things” for as long as possible and only think in terms of what the object is toward the end of the painting process.

This type of painting will not only improve your work in oils, but will improve your drawing skills as well.

Forcing yourself to ignore “what you know” and paint in terms of “what you see” (the visual reality) will be the biggest breakthrough in painting that you have ever experienced. One really good way of starting out would be to paint something simple at first with few objects, such as a still life. As you get proficient at this, you can add objects and then move on to the chaos of the natural world. You might consider doing a series of 5x7s on a daily basis and execute these quickly. Working small will have the added benefit of helping you to loosen up, thereby creating a painterly representation.

Don’t get bogged down in the details of the subject. Only the big shapes and relationships between the positive and negative spaces in the painting matter. At first, don’t try to rearrange things in the painting to improve on the composition, just paint what you see — it’s just a study. After a while, when you feel comfortable with this approach you can start to think about orchestrating your compositions so that they are visually exciting as a design.

When that time comes, try to make each shape different to avoid a static representation. This also goes for the spaces between objects and the direction of angles (composition and design is a big subject though, one I addressed in the February edition).

Experimenting numerous times with shapes, values, and colors in this way will do more to improve your work than anything I know. Until next time, keep working at it, it’s the only way to improve — which is the topic for a future issue.

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