Painting successfully from life or from photos is largely a process of deciding what not to include. Whatever your subject, when you set up to paint there is far more information in front of you than you should try to put into the picture. Our eyes can detect an infinitely subtle range of value, color and texture, but to include even half of all we can see would result in an over-painted image that leaves nothing for the viewer to do.
The paintings I admire most employ a real economy of means. They let me feel the presence of the subject without being overly specific. If a picture shows me more than I need to know I begin to feel excluded, as if I might not be part of that artist’s intended audience. In the best work there is a partnership between the artist, the medium, and the viewer that relies on our shared experience as visually sensitive people. I assume that my hypothetical audience feels the same, so I try to give them the kind of experience I look for myself.
Simplify by focusing on essential elements
Just because I can see something doesn’t mean I have to put it in the painting. Too much information tends to subvert the illusion of space in a painting. The task is to find ways to simplify the flood of information, especially in areas of the image that are not meant to draw the viewer’s eye. Looking directly at the source of the image (the photo or the actual view) is not the same as looking at a painting. As your eye moves from place to place in the source, you can often see plenty of detail wherever you look. Bright whites and very dark darks may be visible far into the distance, but painting the full value range in the background would give that part of the scene as much visual importance as the intended focal point. The background would come forward in the picture plane, confusing the sense of space.
How, then, do we choose what to show specifically and what to merely infer? Finding the essential elements of a subject depends, of course, on the individual artist’s preferences, but for the sake of generalization, let’s assume we want to display a convincing sense of the substance of the subject, an illusion of real space, and a coherent feeling of light.
Value: the most important variable
Of all the variables at work in the process of painting a realist image, the most important by far is value. Your use of color can be fanciful or moody and your drawing can wander far from accuracy, but as long as the value relationships are true the image will be solid. Starting out with a five value monochrome sketch of the subject is a good way to discover the basic structure of the painting. Limiting the image to white, light gray, medium gray, dark gray, and black forces me to simplify the flood of information. I chose Carbazole Violet for the sketch of “Blue Doors”—a color that can get dark enough to represent black. Simple as it is, the quick sketch serves as a reference point for decisions about where more subtlety might be needed and where a very general treatment is sufficient.
Reviewing this sketch, several things become clear. First of all, this is a crowded image. Almost all the activity happens within a relatively shallow space. The array of rectangles, ovals, lines and cylinders float about separately on the surface of the page, held together by the matrix of the wall. For that reason, I won’t focus on the complicated texture of the wall itself—there’s already enough going on in that plane. I’ll find a way to suggest the richness of the texture without competing with the clarity of the main shapes.
Next, the darkest darks are sparse, but very important. Just a few slim strokes distributed across the surface provide significant depth and solidity. Since they are so potent I know I will be tempted to make lots of them. It would be easy to overdo it. When I’m painting the final layer I usually have to remind myself to step back after the first few strokes and ask if that’s enough.
A convincing image in five values
It is always fascinating to discover that just five values of a single color can go so far toward realizing a convincing image. In this case, there are only a few places where I feel the need to be more subtle or specific. The doors, which attracted me to the scene in the first place, want greater depth and substance. Here, I painted the central door with just three layers: medium gray, dark gray and black. The final version would benefit from a first layer of the light value, with a few areas left as “holes” in the medium second layer. The doors should also be a bit darker relative to the wall to accentuate what little space there is in the picture.
The horizontal bands of sky and road can serve as a kind of frame for the whole image. They will contain all those separate forms, especially since the sides of the image are cropped in an offhand way. The sky is wide enough to hold its own, but that narrow ribbon of road along the bottom will need to be more obviously horizontal. I must remember to let the loose strokes that define it stay nice and flat.
Light to dark, general to specific
The fluid, transparent nature of watercolor suggests a logical painting progression that moves from light to dark and from general to specific. Before I begin the final painting I try to understand the subject as a series of layers that conform to this progression. I imagine a succession of transparent films that will add up to the full complexity of the image. Each layer has unpainted areas, or “holes,” that let the previous layer show through unchanged. Once again, the five-value sketch serves to guide my choices of what to do first.
A few basic questions help plan the painting
1. What is the lightest large area of the painting? In this case it’s clearly the wall, so I’ll start there.
2. Is there a single color I can lay down over that whole area? The warm buff tone of the stucco underlies most of the middle of the painting, but before I lay down that wash I need to ask another question.
3. Is there anything I need to paint around? I’m looking for places within the large form that shouldn’t have that buff as a first layer. The few whites identified in the value sketch must be retained. I also want to leave a highlight on the inset tile, so I’ll paint around that whole oval for now. I want to preserve the clarity of the blue in the doors, so even though they will be much darker than the wall I’ll leave them white, too. I mixed yellow ochre with buff titanium and laid it on quite wet, to give myself time to consider the next question.
4. Is there anything I should do while it’s still wet? Here’s my chance to suggest the complex texture of the wall without making the surface too busy. Touching other high value, nearly neutral colors into the first wash adds all the variety I need, and the soft edges ensure that it will not compete with the more distinct door and shadow shapes that will come later. In general, it is a good idea to put overall texture and complexity into the first layer, while it is still wet. The stains and spots on the stucco wall are a good example. Later, when a more specific layer, like the shadows of the signs, is laid on top of that general information, it serves to pull it all together.
I recommend putting down the first layer everywhere in the painting before moving on to second and third layers anywhere in particular. Blocking in the entire image early in the process helps keep the whole picture tied together. I confess this is where I break my own rules most often, since I sometimes can’t resist seeing how the part I’m painting right now will look with the next layer on. Painting the shadows around the doors before the doors themselves have a first layer, for example, makes it very hard to feel the depth of the space within the scene. As soon as the first layer of blue is laid down, however, the wall begins to feel continuous and solid.
Once you have identified the relative importance of the different parts of your image you can decide how many layers should be used for each one. Distant mountains, for example, might need only a single light wash, while a building in the middle distance might need the full four-layer value range.Since the doors are the most complex part of this painting, let’s consider the progression of layers that created them. Before each layer is applied I ask my basic questions again. Looking at the door on the right you can see the lightest blue first layer (1, 2). Note that I have painted around the four rectangles that could not have blue as a base (3). Within that first wash there are also a few places where I chose to add color while it was still wet (4).
In the next image that same door now has a second, somewhat darker layer of blue. Here I wanted to preserve those four rectangles again, plus a bit of the first layer around them that will become the edges of the raised panels. Notice that this layer is smaller and more specific than the previous one. The brushstrokes that comprise it are all connected, but the wash is beginning to break into separate strokes.
Looking at the same area in the finished painting two more layers are visible. The cast shadow of the overhang corresponds to the dark gray in the value study. I have also added a few very specific strokes to represent the shaded sides of the raised panels.
As soon as I see that the current layer involves small, separate strokes I know I am approaching the right place to stop. Recognizing this moment may be the most important skill of all. It involves being able to look at your own painting as if someone else had painted it. Remember, it is better to err on the side of too little information than too much. After some time has passed and you can be more detached from the work you can always add the strokes that are missing.
Blue Doors by Tom Hoffmann
Now look at the door on the right in the finished painting and try seeing this process in reverse. I count four layers, each one smaller and darker than the one before.
Learn by looking
It is helpful to take an analytical look at paintings you admire to see how many layers are involved. See if you can tell what was done first, then next and next again. You may be surprised to find that it seldom takes more than four or five layers to reach a very convincing density and light. Many of Sargent’s seemingly detailed images are made up of only three layers. Much of his remarkably complex and fluid water is realized with only a first layer of vertical washes crossed by a second of horizontal strokes.
There will, of course, be some subjects that refuse to resolve into a simple series of layers, but as a general approach to simplifying your painting process it is an effective place to start. Onward and upward!