Getting Into Shape
We don't see shapes; we see things -boats and barns and someone that looks amazingly like Uncle Mert. We don't think about any of these things as shapes-rectangles or circles or triangles. Instead, our minds form complicated images of these objects based on past experiences and associations. However, translating these images into shapes-two-dimensional forms- and arranging these forms in a harmonious design is essential to painting. It isn't easy To reduce an object to its basic form requires great mental discipline. We have to learn to ignore the lettering on the back of the boat and Uncle Mert's rather large nose and see only the simple outline or silhouette of the object. This takes practice and the ability to suspend your natural interest in detail. Squinting helps. If we reduce an object to a flat silhouette, we can more easily judge its size, its placement, and how interesting or varied its shape is. In short, we can begin to design our painting.
Texas artist Polly Hammett works almost entirely in flat, "primary" shapes in her paintings. She depicts her subjects in simplified silhouettes that emphasize their shape and placement in a skillfully designed composition. She is not interested in the three-dimensionality or form of her subjects and avoids interior shadow shapes. To animate her design she employs flat, interior patterns. She finds new and interesting design possibilities by making adjoining shapes similar in value (as I have indicated in black in the above illustration).
How the untrained eye sees "things"
The untrained eye sees this old Federalist house (borrowed from a painting by Skip) not as a solid shape or form but as a collection of unrelated visual facts-"things." In this illustration I have recorded, just as the untrained eye does, as many interior details as I could fit in- the doorbell, the house number, shingles, bricks, branches, and twigs. I could have added more but the result would have been the same: a cluttered and confusing image of an appealing subject. I have not clearly defined the outside boundaries of the objects in my painting.
When viewing the model from the front or when the model is wearing loose clothing, you may find it difficult to see the angle of his back or centerline. For example, in the painting above I chose a high, frontal viewpoint that makes the exact angle of the model's gesture hard to see. In the sketch to the left I took a side and eye-level viewpoint that reveals how far forward the model is actually leaning.
Describing primary shapes
As artists, we must suspend our natural interest in the interior details of a subject until we have described it's basic form. Here I've reduced a complicated structure to a simple silhouette. Like so many things that look simple, this process is not as easy as it appears and requires great concentration. You have to leave out the bricks on the chimney and the pickets on the fence (tempting as they may be) and see your subject as a "whole." Remember Leonardo Da Vinci's advice, "first you paint the dog, then you paint the fleas."
Describing the secondary or shadow shapes
Even greater concentration is required to see the secondary or shadow shape as a whole, uninterrupted silhouette. The inexperienced painter will want to paint the shadow in separate pieces-first, the shadow on the roof, then the shadow on the wall, then the shadow on the porch, and so on. By seeing and painting the shadow as a single, connected shape, you simplify and unify the disparate elements of your subject.
If you've reduced your subject to simple primary and secondary shapes and still have an uncontrollable urge to include small details (such as in the first illustration), you can do so now. However, it may look fussy.
In this painting I've allowed some of the primary shape of the figures to be "lost" in the background and have emphasized instead the secondary or shadow shapes (indicated with black and white in the illustration to the left). These more active and complicated areas animate the painting's design and create focus.
Polly Hammett's painting depends on primary shapes. My painting depends on secondary shapes. Neither painting depends on minute interior detail. So, the next time you start a painting, look for the shapes, not "things."
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