Paint Shapes, Not “Things”

Tiny fourth layer—the darkest shadows at the base of the pears and the stem on the pear in front.

Want your paintings to look unified? It helps to combine “things” into larger shapes, and then use smaller shapes to (partially) separate them. Here’s an exercise to help you practice.

First, set up a still life with a couple of simple objects. Avoid anything that has a lot of pattern, texture, reflections or complicated edges—you want to be able to capture the overall silhouette fairly easily. A couple of pieces of fruit or simple vegetables work well. Or a couple of eggs or smooth stones.

If you like more geometric shapes, you could include things like a simple mug or bowl, or a little box. Try to stay away from anything that will tempt you to get caught up in details or worries over getting the right proportions, so you can stay focused on the main point of the exercise.

Use a desk lamp or a sunny window to set up your still life with a single strong light source, so you have some definite shadows.

Our setup: two simple objects, set up with a strong light to cast clear shadows.
Our setup: two simple objects, set up with a strong light to cast clear shadows.

 

Next, using a graphite pencil or watercolor pencil, whichever you prefer, lightly draw the outer silhouette only of the objects and their shadows. Most people find it quite difficult to draw just the outer silhouette, so alternately, you could draw everything, and then erase all the interior lines. In the example below, I’ve drawn the lines in ink so they’ll show up in the photo, but you’ll want to make faint pencil lines, just dark enough for you to see where to put your first wash.

Draw ONLY the outer silhouette of the objects PLUS their shadows. I've used ink, so the drawing will show up in the photo, but you should just make light pencil lines.
Draw ONLY the outer silhouette of the objects PLUS their shadows. I’ve used ink, so the drawing will show up in the photo, but you should just make light pencil lines.

Next, fill in the entire silhouette with ONE wash. By “one wash” I mean that you DO NOT stop at the “edge” of any of the objects! Just keep right on going. The entire area should be wet all at the same time.

However, you can change value and color as you go. If you have objects of two different colors, the colors will bleed into one another, but that will actually work to your advantage. By the same token, the color of the objects will bleed into the shadow areas, and that also is a good thing. (To see a more dramatic example of how this works in multiple colors, you might want to watch the Bowl and Lemons demo from my Watercolor Jumpstart class.)

I switched to darker, greyer color as I got to the shadow areas, but as you can see, it bled into the still wet area of the pears. It turns out that is a good thing, so don't try to prevent it.
I switched to darker, greyer color as I got to the shadow areas, but as you can see, it bled into the still wet area of the pears. It turns out that is a good thing. It will actually help us suggest reflected light, and the overall lighting in the scene, so don’t try to prevent it.

If you haven’t done the Bowl and Lemons exercise, you might find it helpful to paint along with me on that exercise before trying this one. In the Bowl and Lemons exercise, I have made the decisions about what shapes to paint for you. In this exercise, it will be up to you to find the smaller shapes to layer over your first wash to help the viewer distinguish individual “things”.

Next, I’ve chosen to paint the “shadow side” of both pears as one shape. To help me see the overall “shapes” that make up these “things” I use the standard artist trick of squinting until all the detail is lost and all I can see are the larger shapes that make up my setup.

I also lifted a little color on the pear in back to suggest the small highlight. And, because I was hurrying a bit, the shadow under the pear in front was still wet, so my new shape bled into that area. I didn’t worry about that, because I know that I will be layering another shape on top to make the shadows on the table, so that little bleed will get covered up.

As I add new shapes, I keep reminding myself to leave at least some of the previous layer untouched. Doing this helps me resist the temptation to endlessly “fix” stuff by going over the entire first wash and keeps the painting looking fresher.

The new shape layered over the first wash.
The new shape layered over the first wash.
Second layer—The shadow side of both pears.
Second layer—The shadow side of both pears.

Next, I painted another layer over the cast shadows on the table, (plus darkening the stem on the pear in back and adding the little blossom end on the pear in front).

Notice I only needed a small shape to make it possible for the viewer to see the separation between the two pears. Make it a goal to use as little as possible to “separate” two objects. Most of us want to do WAY more than necessary!

The shapes I added in the third layer.
The shapes I added in the third layer.
Third layer—The cast shadows, and a small shape to "separate" the two pears.
Third layer—The cast shadows, and a small shape to “separate” the two pears.

Finally, I darkened the shadow side of the pear in front, added the small, dark shadows directly below each pear, and the dark stem on the pear in front.

Fourth layer—the shadow side of the pear in front, small shadows below each pear, and the stem of the pear in front.
Fourth layer—the shadow side of the pear in front, small shadows below each pear, and the stem of the pear in front.

Done! At this point we can see the two pears as two separate “things” sitting on a surface, casting shadows, but we did it by painting shapes, not things!

Tiny fourth layer—the darkest shadows at the base of the pears and the stem on the pear in front.
Done! At this point, you can see the pears as two separate “things” with cast shadows, but we did it by painting shapes, not things!

It’s quite a challenge to learn to see this way, so don’t be discouraged if you have a hard time with this exercise at first. Instead of laboring over each layer, and going back to “fix” your work, give yourself a short time limit—say 5 minutes—to complete each attempt, and then change things around and try again.

Remember, the goal here is to practice the technique, not “make a painting”. You don’t have to show these to anyone, so push yourself to see just how little you can do to suggest things by layering smaller and smaller shapes. Try hard not to ever entirely cover up a previous shape!

Don’t make this a chore! Use it as a warm-up, or when you only have a few minutes to paint. Set a timer, and when the timer goes off, give yourself permission to be done with it.

The more you do this, the more you’ll tune in to this way of looking at the world while planning your paintings. And you’ll also be gaining confidence in the power of a few small shapes to dramatically change how your paintings look, which will help you relax and paint more freely and boldly. And who doesn’t want that? 🙂

 

 

New Watercolor Mandala Template

One example of using the mandala template in this article.

I know some of you enjoy using the templates I create for my Watercolor Prayer/Meditation Mandala Mini-Retreats. I created a new one that was very popular at the last mini-retreat, so I decided to share it with you here. This one has some larger open areas for you to add shapes, lettering or images of your own.

One example of using the mandala template in this article.
One example of using the mandala template in this article.

The first image below is the full design, intended for a 16×16″ sheet of watercolor paper or board. The template is for one quarter of the overall design. You can either print out 4 copies and tape them together before tracing the entire design, or you can trace one quarter of the design at a time, until you have traced all 4 corners.

The second image is just the center portion of the larger design, which works well on its own on a smaller sheet of paper (say 8×8″ to 12×12″). There is a download link under each image, to download the template as a PDF file. (If you’re reading this in an email, you will need to click on the article’s title to go to my website in order to be able to make the download links work.)

Enjoy! (Love to see images of your completed mandala—please share images in the comments section!)

4-fold spiral
Download template for the large 4-fold spiral mandala.

 

 

4-fold spiral mandala (center only). This version is best for 8" diameter and smaller.
4-fold spiral mandala (center only). This version is best for 8″ diameter and smaller.
Download template for the small 4-fold spiral mandala.

Another New Watercolor Jumpstart Video—Bowl and Lemons

Bowl and lemons demo painting.

Here’s another little project from the Watercolor Jumpstart class. The main purpose of this exercise is to practice connecting “things” into larger shapes using washes that connect several shapes into one larger shape even when the shapes are different colors!

In this activity, we practice painting one large wash over the entire silhouette of the bowl, the two lemons and their shadows, allowing the colors to mingle where the shapes overlap. Rather than being the disaster you might think, allowing this mingling actually helps create a sense of reflected light and works to our advantage. We use smaller washes layered on top of our overall wash to show parts of the edges of objects and help separate them and create a sense of depth.

In this project, you will also get a chance to practice softening edges (both while they are wet and after they dry) and lifting soft highlights (thirsty brush, blotting with towel and after the wash is dry).

>h4>Connecting “Things” Into Larger Shapes with Multi-Colored Washes (The Bowl and Lemons Project)

Download Reference Photo for Bowl and Lemons Project

New Beginning Watercolor Videos–Intro to Washes and Glazing

I’ve added a few new videos to the Watercolor Jumpstart Series.

To make it easier to find them later, they’re also available on the new “How-To Videos” page, which you can find in the menu bar at the top of my website, and on the Watercolor Jumpstart class page under the “Classes” link in the menu bar at the top of my website.

 

Watercolor Jumpstart 7—Laying a Flat Wash and a Graduated Wash (2 methods)

Watercolor Jumpstart 8—Glazing Over a Previous Wash to Darken or Modify It

Watercolor Jumpstart 9—A Monochrome “Silhouette” Painting (The Kayaker Project)


Download Reference Photo for Kayaker Project

Watercolor How-To Videos

Hummingbird watercolor brush drawing

To make it easier for you to find my various how-to videos and other how-to information, I’ve collected the videos in this post, and added a “How-to” link to the top menu of my website where you can find how-to articles on topics such as caring for your watercolor brushes, presenting your watercolors without glass or frames, tips for sketching on location, some ideas for learning to “loosen up” and paint more expressively and other watermedia info.

Some watercolor exercises from my Watercolor Jumpstart and Watercolor Skill-Builder classes.

Tearing Watercolor Paper

Stretching Watercolor Paper

Exploring Brushmarks


Download Completed Brushmarks Demo Image for Reference

Brush Drawing (Bee & Coneflower)


Download Completed Bee and Coneflower Demo Image for Reference

Brush Drawing (Hummingbird)


Download Completed Hummingbird Demo Image for Reference

Brush Drawing (Dragonfly)


Download Completed Dragonfly Demo Image for Reference

Exploring Watercolor Pigment Properties


Download Completed Mass Tones & Tints Demo Image for Reference
Download Completed Transparent/Opaque Demo Image for Reference

Transferring a Drawing


Download Color Wheel Template

Color Wheel: Primaries, Secondaries, Tertiaries

Small Example Paintings to Try Yourself

Cloudy Winter Sunrise

More Technical How-To

Presenting Watercolors Without Frames or Glass

Note: Please see the companion article for more information about this process, including the products I use and where to buy them.

Behind-the-scenes videos about the creation of a large triptych in my Currents and Eddies series.

How I Start Painting in this Series (and most of my paintings)

Timelapse of the Development of this Painting

Colorful Thoughts

Color swatching for the series I'm working on.
Color swatching for the series I'm working on.
Color swatching for the new dragonfly series I’m working on.

Having recently accepted an invitation to fill a last-minute gap in the show calendar at Hudson Hospital, I’m in the “final countdown” phase of prepping for a show. No matter how diligent and organized I am, I seem to always require a final frenzy of activity to bring everything together in the last 3-4 weeks before a show.

This time, because there are only about 6 weeks from the time I accepted the invitation to when I have to deliver the work, I’m simultaneously in the “start-up and exploration” phase (the few months of a new body of work). It’s a challenge to stay open to where the work is telling me it wants to go with a looming deadline!

For me, one way to keep from being overwhelmed—and to make sure the work hangs together well—is to select a limited collection of pigment combinations that I use throughout the series. Borrowing a term from fiber artists, I call these my “colorways” for the series.

Each color way includes what I think of as my “primary triad” for the colorway and possibly a fourth or (very rarely) a fifth color. The notion of “primary” really gets stretched here. For example, one colorway that I’m working with now consists of quinacridone deep gold as my “yellow”, phthalo turquoise as my “blue” and permanent violet dark as my “red”. Typically, there is enough overlap in the 3 or 4 colorways within a show that I’m using about 7-8 pigments for the entire series.

For me, the process of choosing these colors takes some experimentation—for most of the decisions I have to make about a painting, I just don’t know how I feel about it until I see it on the page! If you saw my earlier post on this series, you know there were a lot of duds in that first week!

Then I got smart and settled down to do some “swatching”. Actually playing with the pigments—wet-in-wet, premixed on the palette, dropping color into partially dry washes—seems to be an essential step for me. You know how I’m always advising you to “deal with one difficulty at a time”. Yeah. I have to give myself that advice, too.

For me, there’s no substitute for messing around with the actual pigments, but it also helps a lot to read about pigments and color theory.

While I’m immersed in show prep, I thought perhaps you’d enjoy checking out a few of the resources on pigments and color that I find myself returning to again and again.

(And, of course, the best resource of all—your brushes and paints! If you haven’t allowed yourself to just play with color for a while, why not haul out your paints and do a little color exploration of your own!)

History of Color and Pigments

Color: A Natural History of the Palette, Virginia Finlay.

Finlay has also recently released a newer book on color with a lot of color plates and examples. The new book is visually appealing, but I think this one is more readable.

Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, Phillip Ball.

Absolutely fascinating chronicle of the interaction between art movements, art personalities, commercial uses of color (especially dyestuffs), politics, color chemistry and culture. Hands-down my favorite book about color in art.

Practical Information and Learning Activities for Painters on Using Color Effectively

Making Color Sing (25th Anniversary Edition), Jean Dobie, or click here for used copies of the original hardcover on Amazon.

Probably the gentlest introduction to the practical application of color theory in watercolor, with plenty of exercises you can try with your own paints to understand the concepts.

Color Choices, Stephen Quiller

A great introduction to the most common way of discussing color combinations (complementary/split-complementary/monochrome/analogous). Quiller also markets a palette (and recommended colors for it) arranged in a color wheel (with special wells for primaries) to help students learn to mix and understand colors. If you find yourself struggling to mix your own greys or mute color with complements, this book (and perhaps the palette) can be very helpful.

Online and Interactive Color Tools (Just for Fun!)

Color theory: handprint.com  This whole site is a cornucopia of information about color, pigments, color theory, color vision (and much more). The site’s author, Bruce McEvoy says, accurately “Here is the most comprehensive discussion for artists of color perception, color psychology, “color theory” and color mixing available online, and one of the most comprehensive available anywhere in any format.”

If you’re an iPad user, you can buy one of the classic texts on color theory, Josef Albers’  Interaction of Color made interactive as an iPad app. The entire text of the book is embedded in the app (paid version), and the app allows you to explore his color theory ideas by doing the various exercises and experiments on the iPad as you read the book. (There is a “free” version, but it’s really more of a sample version. The full version seems rather pricey for an app until you realize you’re actually buying a book with added interactivity.)

Golden’s online virtual paint mixer

Test out how various Golden acrylic colors will mix without buying them. Since color is represented very differently on a computer monitor than the way actual paint behaves, this is a more sophisticated piece of software than you might realize at first.

Fun way to “try before you buy”, but also a way to explore the mixing of a lot more pigments than most of us would want to purchase just to practice with. Although there are some differences between the color lines for watercolor and acrylics, much of what you learn here will transfer to watercolors.

X-rite online color perception challenge

Want to find out how good you are at distinguishing different colors? Try this online color perception challenge.

The quality of the monitor you’re using and the lighting in the room can affect your score somewhat, so don’t be dismayed if you don’t score quite as high as you expect. Try again in a darker room or on a high-quality monitor. I’m betting most of you will score quite high on this challenge!

One More Tidbit

Just today, I ran across an article reporting on recent research that suggests our perception of color changes with the seasons. (Yay! Now we have a scientific excuse for constantly messing around with the colors on our palettes.)

 

Do you have a favorite color resource? Share it in the comments!