Design Your Paintings With Simplicity

While good composition and design are essential aspects of good painting, we want the freedom to create in our own expressive way. We want to stay in touch with our emotions, the “why” we stopped, looked and reacted to the subject. This is especially relevant when painting outdoors where the environment dictates how long we can loiter. The same goes for studio painting where we should try to keep things brief and not over-worked.

One of the main challenges is to not let what we see get in the way of strong design. There can and should be a difference between what the actual scene is and what is painted. Since painting outdoors is most often a race against shifting light and temperatures it is far better to use the scene for reference yet paint a lot from imagination.

The painting “Alert Bay Floats” is typical of an attempt to paint a sense of reality yet if you look closer there are areas of abstract design. Let’s review the “Keep it Simple” approach:

  • See the values first before thinking about colour
  • Link shapes of values
  • Reduce clutter and remove smaller shapes, details
  • Plan centre of interest
  • Keep the main thing the main thing: what is the piece about? light? colour? drama? mood?

The last point is so important. You want to stay in touch with the reaction that you want the viewer to have. People respond instinctively to being engaged, pulled in, awakened. Do you want to play with the mood? Simply stated images have a positive response. Outdoor references have way too much distracting detail so we need to come up with a simple game plan. Thus the value of the thumbnail sketch. A simple little 3 to 6 inch rough study of lights, middle tones and darks is your road-map to a strong painting. Link values, alter sizes of shapes, reduce clutter – make it a strong little design before you start painting.

So what about design? First, what are the ​principles of design? Contrast, harmony, balance, repetition, dominance, gradation, unity. Consider them to be the list of things we can do with the elements of design: line, shape, tone, texture, direction, size.
For example, let’s evaluate the painting by considering the element of colour:

Is there a repetition of colour? Is there colour gradation? Is there a colour dominance? Is there harmony in colour? Is there colour balance – changes of warm to cool? Intense hue and neutralized, subdued? Is there colour contrast? Is there colour unity?

And so it goes, down the list of elements. Check in on these during the painting process and in your final evaluation. Putting this into practice builds confidence and enjoyment. Happy painting!

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