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Simplifying Your Subject Into Blocks of Value and Color

One of the hardest things for me to do is to keep it simple.

I'm a complicated person. I can complicated my way out of a paper bag! I figure most of us are pretty complicated or we probably wouldn't be artists. This complication makes me overthink everything. I jump into the details too early, I fuss over little things, and overwork.

Years ago, an artist friend taught me to start by "blocking in" the values in big abstract shapes. then to work the painting up gradually with medium shapes then smaller shapes, saving tiny details for last.

This made sense, and every time I start this way, I have greater success. The principle is simple and can be applied to any subject.

For example, here's a landscape...

I love the light in this view and how it cools the shadowy buildings and warms the palms and sky. I make a quick Notan which shows me just the pattern of darks (hence the composition)

This shows me that my composition will be horizontal, and the orientation will be landscape. It also shows me how important the birds and palms are-this will be the focal point.

Next, I start blocking in the large simple shapes. I look for 7-10 large shapes and treat each one as a different color and value. I paint the whole shape the same color/value, and then refine it later as needed.

Once the abstracted shapes get blocked in, then I start refining the smaller shapes like the individual slats in the fence and shadow, the grass clumps, etc. This is when the painting moves from abstraction to realism.

If you stopped at this phase, you would have a beautiful tonalist landscape. As you can see, I never stop at this phase because I have very little self control! I wasn't able to stop at this phase long enough to take a photo of this painting. I meant to, but I get swept away in the process and next thing I know is I'm starting to overwork it!

Now applying the same concept to a human face.

I start by simplifying all the values into shapes and getting those shapes down on the surface. Here's the darkest shape and the next darkest shapes.

Then I add the medium shapes of the lips, cheeks, chin, remembering that I am just blocking in and not getting caught up in the details yet.

Then I add the lighter layers of the skin tones and highlights, now I can start refining the shapes and adding details.

While I haven't finished this one yet, you already see benefit of blocking in. This whole process took less than an hour or so. Refining it will take another hour or so, but the main shapes are there.

I often practice making simple shapes of the subject by using a marker on a black and white photo copy. this makes it easier for me to see the shapes and focus on them first...

Simplifying the landscape, or any subject, is a challenge, but the more you do it, the easier it is to paint. Try it, just once, and see if you like it.

The more we can break things down to blocks of value and color, the better we can organize them into a beautiful painting.

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