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  • Writer's pictureShawn Dell Joyce artist

Starting off with Blocks of Value and Color

One of the ways plein air painters capture a scene so quickly is to reduce it to blocks of color and value. This is very challenging to beginners who see things so literally-and must get every detail!

Simplifying a motif is like pixelating an image. You break it down into abstract shapes of color and value. Instead of painting "sunflowers" you are now painting shapes of different colors. This objectification helps you to REALLY see what you are looking at and paint it-not what you THINK you see!

This is crucial because the mind plays tricks on you, and as soon as you name it; "sunflower" you mind substitutes a stored, memorized symbol for sunflower and that's what you paint. This concept is from Betty Edward's "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain." A ground-breaking book that combines neural science with creativity.

When you simplify an image, you have no vocabulary to substitute for blocks of color and value and it forces you to paint what you actually see.

Here's a reference photo my friend Karim shot and I used for a demo in class...


photo by Karim

Now a painter looks at this photo and breaks it down to simple shapes of color and value. This is what we see...


When I paint, I paint it EXACTLY like that with blocks of color and value. This is the underpainting for my finished piece...




It really doesn't look like much-just tonal interpretations of the shapes and colors in the still life. This abstracted version is the underpainting. I then look at the actual photo reference and refine a few edges to create a beautiful painting...

"VIncent's Boquet" Pastel 11x14 $600

This is one of those skills that you build by doing it a few times. I use an app on my phone to pixelate images and see the patterns of values. I try to paint from that pixelated image first. Get the big shapes and value patterns in place then refine a few edges that are important to me (not to the camera).


Try this. Its VERY important that you not try to name or identify what shapes you are painting because then your mind will play tricks on you and you will be caught up in the fact that you are doing something difficult and stumble over it. Instead, keep it simple! Paint just the areas of dark and light like this...


If you stick to the big shapes and patterns you will get a rough in like this.





When you have totally covered the canvas with paint and have all the shapes in place, then you can start to refine edges by looking at the original reference photo...


Now polish up the painting by adding the edges that you think are important. I followed the Madonna's gaze to the baby's head cradled in the crook of the arm. This is the area where the lightest light meets the darkest dark, otherwise known as the focal edge. Focal point is the baby's crown.


Here's my finished painting...




Don't take my word for it. Try it yourself with the above images and send me what you do. I'd love to see it!

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