Thinking About Art: Simplification

Mongol Wrestler oil 12x12" 900
“Mongol Wrestler” oil 12×12″ $950 (Salmagundi Club Summer Exhibition, Certificate of Merit)

I’ve always remembered one of the first things my Illustration II teacher at the Academy of Art told us, which is that “the simpler statement is the stronger statement”. Easy to say, surprisingly hard to do. It’s easy to just accept what’s in front of you and put it in your painting or drawing, whether it’s individual the leaves on a tree or every hair of a coat of fur. It’s much more challenging (and ultimately rewarding) to edit and leave things out. That, however, is a judgement call and the possibility exists that one will make the wrong choice. Scary! Actually, it’s inevitable. But that’s ok as long as one is honest about it and is willing to keep trying. While a good teacher or experienced artist friend can help, ultimately you have to decide what to do based on your vision (you DO have a vision of where you want to end up, right?) of where and how to simplify. In future posts I’ll be discussing a variety of ways to approach simplifying your image.

Example: here’s a 12×12″ oil I did of a Mongolian wrestler. I started by deciding that the painting would be about his pose and the light/shadow pattern. Also the positive shape of the pose and the negative shapes that were then created in the background. I cropped the figure VERY carefully, taking into account the overlap of the frame. When I shot the reference photo kinds of stuff were going on around him on the event field, none of which I needed and which would just get in the way. The gutsy move for me was the golden yellow background. I had to control both color and value so that the subject would still pop out, but keep that sun-drenched feeling. It worked. But if it hadn’t I would have painted over it with something else, most likely still letting a bit of it show through. “Mongol Wrestler” was awarded a Certificate of Merit in the Salmagundi Club’s Members Show in 2017.

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8 Things An Artist Should Never Do

Cape Buffalo Head Study (collection of the artist)- done in about two hours from an ok photo with constant interruptions at an art festival. You just never know...

1, Don’t be too happy with your work. Too much self-satisfaction will stop your ability to improve and learn.

2. Don’t be too discouraged with your work. Being too down on yourself makes it impossible to evaluate your work objectively.

3. Don’t think that detail=quality. It doesn’t, despite what too many people believe. Less really is more most of the time. It takes much more work and experience to see large shapes and masses than to paint blades of grass. That’s easy. Saying “grass” in two values with a large brush is, by comparison, hard because it requires abstract instead of literal thinking.

4. Don’t excuse bad drawing by saying it’s an “interpretation” or it’s “expressive” or it’s “impressionistic’. You can fool yourself, but you can’t fool others. Use a mirror, show your work to another artist, anything it takes to get the drawing right.

5. Don’t reject criticism by telling yourself that “it’s all subjective”. It’s not, especially if you are a representational painter. There are principles of the craft which have been well-established over time. Professional accomplished artists all share a body of knowledge that is not in dispute.

6. Don’t believe that if it’s in the photo it must be true and you must paint it that way. Photos lie, flatten, distort. Cameras “see” in a particular way which is different than how the human eye sees. Use YOUR eyes.

7. Don’t start a painting without knowing why you are doing it. And there must be one idea only. All other elements must be subordinate to that idea. If you get into trouble, ask yourself if getting away from the idea is the problem. Be ruthless, wipe/scrape/remove anything that distracts no matter how great it is by itself. You have to be willing to kill the thing you love.

8. Don’t “practice”. Do or not do. There is no “practice”. However, one might choose to do “studies” to work on specific things. But the same focus and attention is still desirable. Everything you do is “real”.

Next week: 8 Things An Artist Should Always Do