Painting Beyond Chaos - Simplification and Massing

How to simplify your subject to produce a better painting.

Painting Beyond Chaos - Simplification and Massing - Doug Swinton

The busier the scene the easier it is to paint.

I know this sounds odd but a chaotic scene has a way of being easier to paint than something overly simple. Large empty/flat areas with little information can be hard to handle because there aren’t enough visual clues to glean ideas from.

Your subject (nature, photo reference, still-life, figure) can sometimes seem to have so much complex information that it becomes hard to decide what it is you want to paint, but at least there is something to work with. It’s just a matter of learning to read beyond the chaos and find the story that lies within. Here is how:


The tendency to start painting every detail right from the get go will produce a painting that is busy and confusing. The answer is to read between the lines and simplify. But how does one do that? 

My process is to begin by breaking the picture down into more manageable bites. Grouping similar masses will help you decode the structure of what it is you’re trying to paint.

Massing Groups:

  • Similar shapes
  • Similar values
  • Similar colours
  • Similar temperatures

Start by breaking it down into some simple large shapes. Try not to have more than 5 major shapes in a painting. Any more and it gets confusing. 3-5 makes it easy for you to paint and for the viewer to understand. 

Example:

This photo of winter trees is just oozing with information.

Let's break it down into manageable chunks:

1. Divide the image into 3 shapes, making them different in size to ensure an engaging composition.

01-simplification

2. Divide those 3 shapes into smaller shapes. Doing so lets me get to the heart of the picture.

Note: You do not need to draw every tree and branch! You only need to place a few choice trees and make sure you have identifiable tree bits at the tops. Placing the rest in a similar value block will make it read as trees.

02-simplification

3. Divide the tree chassis into light and dark families.

Here is where I get to use my artistic savvy and amp up the composition even further. By splitting the light side and dark side into unequal parts I will get one to dominate over the other and also make it easier to paint.

I also divide the light side and the dark side into warm and cool, further establishing the look of the painting.

03-simplification

Dividing the scene into manageable morsels will help you handle the paint application with more confidence and your painting will look looser and more accurate.

Your friend in art,

Doug

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