This exercise, so critical to the success or failure of painting, is also important because it stresses the beauty inherent in all objects.
|Prom shoes, 6×8, oil on canvas, Carol L. Douglas, $348 unframed
A major part of learning to paint is learning to see, and in the process, learning to draw. Part of this is not getting caught up in the details, but perceiving the big shapes and how they fit together. This is fundamental to how painting has been done since the middle of the 19th century.
This means we stop thinking of the object we’re looking at as things we can identify, and start to see it as a series of shapes, or more accurately, a light pattern. That’s very difficult at first. That’s why my students have studied draperiesand reflectionsover the past few weeks. They’re tough subjects, because they’re ever-changing. There’s no cheating with prior knowledge.
|A rude little notan I did of my own house.
A few years ago, my student Sheryl drew the lobster-boat Becca & Meagan, which is moored year-round at Rockport Harbor. It’s painted a signature red, and I have painted and drawn it many times. Sheryl measured and drew, and I patiently corrected her. This went on for most of the class, until Sheryl finally insisted that I sit down and take measurements with her.
Whoops! It wasn’t Becca & Meagan at all. Its owner had launched a new boat, Hemingway. She was painted the same red and moored at the same buoy, but with her own unique configuration—“flat, wide, and deep on the keel,” as her builder said. I was so used to seeing Becca & Meagan that I had stopped really seeing at all. I was looking straight at one boat and seeing another.
|Another rough notan of my house. That was back before my painter mislaid half our shutters.
Likewise, if I set a teacup in front of a student, he’s guided in part by what he knows about teacups—they’re rounded, squat and hollow. That gives him some checks on his drawing, but it also allows him to assume measurements and values. That can be very misleading.
He has to stop seeing a teacup and start seeing an array of shapes, planes and values. For most of us, that takes time. First, we must do a drawing to figure out what we’re looking at. Then, we need to ruthlessly simplify our drawing into a series of values. When we catch ourselves thinking “window” or “door” or “boat” or “tree”, we must stop and force ourselves to relabel those objects as merely light or dark shapes.
|Yep, that’s a carrot, a lemon and an empty box. You can make an interesting painting out of anything, if you start with the simple shapes.
All objects can be reduced to a certain, limited number of shapes, which build on each other to make a whole. When you see things as abstract shapes, you expand your possible subject matter. A plastic pencil case is not, inherently, much different in shape from a shed. A shed, in turn has the same, simplified, forms as a house. If you start with a shed, you can ramp yourself up to Windsor Castle in no time.
Dow wrote the definitive 20th century book on composition, which sets down fundamental principles still used today. He taught his students to restrict the infinite range of tonal values in the visible spectrum to specific values—perhaps black, white and one grey. He wanted students see all compositions as structures of light and dark shapes. The success or failure of a painting rests on whether those shapes are beautiful.