The real voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. - Marcel Proust

Saturday, April 3, 2010

How to Simplify Landscapes, part 2

"It is easy to paint a thousand points of light with a thousand brushstrokes. It is much more difficult-- and infinitely more eloquent -- to paint a thousand points of light with only one hundred strokes."  Mitchell Albala

True to my penchant for making lists, here's a list of ways to simplify details in a landscape painting. Some are suggestions that we'll have to assume how to accomplish with blobs of paint. Others are more practical.

1. Use big brushes. "Well, duh" was my first reaction to that bit of advice. Yes, it works. However, the true detail-aholic will learn how to turn that brush every which way to suggest detail.  Example: the following quick study. It's about 6"x9", done with a half-inch brush.
2. Only paint large shapes or masses. Kevin MacPherson, in his book, Fill Your Oil Paintings with Light and Color, has a chapter just on simplifying details. This is one of his recommendations. Start with the large shapes in flat color, then work down toward the details. Details are really just smaller shapes. Laurel Daniel has a very easy-to-understand demo of this on her blog here:

3. Squint. While some people recommend this for estimating values, it also works for identifying large shapes. You can use a photo editing program to blur a photo to hide those details from your detail-fiend. I love what Richard Schmid has to say about squinting in his Alla Prima book.
Non-artists watching you squint might think you are angry, in pain, or have eye trouble, but pay no attention to them because it works and that is all that counts ...Properly means closing your eyes down far enough to reduce the subject to a few shapes -- yet not so far that *all* form is lost. The idea is merely to make things simple, not make them disappear in a blur of fuzzy darks -- so don't shut your eyes down *too* far.
4. Paint in values, without worrying about detail. Similar to the "paint only shapes" suggestion. Simplify everything into three or four values.

5. Leave the details to the center of interest (and do that last, so you are not tempted by detail too early).

Summary: think in shapes of color, not trees or grass. Concentrate on getting the large shapes the right value and the right color with the right edges. Gosh, that sounds so easy.

"Learning how to simplify, however, is not a simple thing." Mitchell Albala


  1. Monica, simplifying is best described by the last quote in your post by Mitchell Albala, "Learning to simplify, however, is not a simple thing." So many times a painter will quickly go into adding detail or adding too much...something I'm always dealing with.

    I think an artists drawing background is a hindrance here. Having a strong drawing background is what tends to make most artists go into the details too early in a painting. It makes sense I think.

    Keeping the initial stages of a painting simple is always something to work on...keeping the composition just as simple is another goal to keep in mind.

    Good post here with great suggestions.

  2. Hey Ron, good to see you! Yes, I think you are right about the drawing. I know I have to fight my pen-and-ink draw-everything background constantly. It is definitely a different way of thinking.

    Thanks so much for the tips!