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Lessons from Cezanne

Cézanne mastered the simplification of his subjects to their basic shapes: he wanted to "treat nature in terms of the cylinder, the sphere and the cone" (a tree trunk may be conceived of as a cylinder, an apple or orange a sphere, for example).

Cezanne is considered a bridge between Impressionism and Cubism because he was able to look at his subjects and simplify them. That means he could take a complicated still life like this one, and reduce it to it's simplest shapes like this.

So his beginning sketch on the canvas may have looked something like this:

Artists are complex and complicated people. It is hard sometimes for us to grasp the simplest concept because we tend to overcomplicate things. The beauty of Cezanne is the simplicity of his forms. His still lifes tended to be very complex with multiple objects and focal points, but his forms were short and sweet.

He was able to understand the way light wrapped around an object based on it's form (light logic) so he reduced all of his subjects to their simplest forms and painted them that way.

See how the values change based on the forms?

Simplifying the still life into basic shapes helped him to paint the forms Impressionistically-with short, overlapping brush strokes that feathered colors together and created the impression of form.

The more we are able to complex forms into simple shapes, the better we are able to see the values and forms as well. This is good practice. Take a complicated form, and see how many simple shapes it takes to make it. For example:

This flamingo (which I stole off the web) is a complicated form made up of simple shapes. You can see how they hold together to form the basic shape of the flamingo. Once you have the sketch, it's a simple matter of catching the play of light and dark on the forms.

In my "Classical Training for Artists" class, we will be taking a typical Cezanne-style still life and simplifying it into basic forms. We will be sketching it on canvas and using our color wheels to create "pop" by laying colors side-by-side to create forms and optical mixing, much the way Impressionists painted.

Cezanne's work laid the foundation for future artists like the Cubists and the Tonalists who began to break down forms even more, and use artistic license to rearrange them. Starting with this simple concept of basic shape, then moving to form, is the basis of many colorist painters like Henri, Sargent, Sorolla and modern masters as well.

Next week I'll take this one step further with color temperature and tonalism and how to describe form through the work of Hensche.

1 Comment

Wowser! This is an AHA MOMENT for me! I know you’re always saying to keep the forms simple then add the values but somehow, this explanation is sinking in more! Can’t wait to go sketch something with all this yummy information in mind! Thanks for sharing your knowledge and helping so many along the way! Ali 💜

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