Learning to see the large shapes in Nature as opposed to all the little details is an essential skill in painting and particularly in landscape painting where Nature presents us with, as John Carlson calls it, “an overloaded property room”. Unless we are able to reduce the visual clutter we see to big simple shapes, we cannot be successful in translating nature into a work of art. As Carlson says, we cannot “copy tone for tone.” And we wouldn’t want to! Part of the unique vision of each landscape painter is how they make that translation.
We want to give the viewer enough information to make the painting “read” but we don’t have to include a lot of detail to do that. And in fact, when we are learning to paint, its much more important to learn to “see in shapes”.
Seeing these shapes also goes hand and hand with value, that is seeing big shapes of value or tone. So Carlson’s Theory of Angles is an excellent place to begin to see the planes in the landscape- sky, ground plane, slanted and uprights – as shapes of value. But, often, shapes will encompass parts of several planes.
Here are several paintings by the 19th c. Russian landscape painter Isaac Levitan. The main shapes are outlined in white. This isn’t an exact science, and you may see the shapes as being somewhat different. But, these examples demonstrate how shapes including areas of different planes might be grouped together by similar value or by other compositional imperatives, like movement or proximity. The main point though is that these large shapes, absent any of the detail within them, carry the structure of the painting.
And here are these three paintings reduced to grey scale and 6 values, which reveals the utter simplicity of design and the coherence of the big shapes of value.
P.S. Our annual six week online “boot camp” The Strong Start begins April 12th! This class is designed to get you outside and painting the landscape with confidence. Learning to see in shapes is just one of the many techniques and strategies you will learn to significantly improve your landscape paintings. Join us!