Paint Schoodic

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Monday, October 15, 2018

Monday Morning Art School: seeing abstract shapes

If you start with a shed, you can ramp yourself up to Windsor Castle in no time.

It all comes down to abstract shapes.
This week I gave my painting class the assignment of doing three thumbnail sketches of their own home or the view from it. This is an assignment with two goals:
  1. To see beauty in the everyday;
  2. To learn how to draw better thumbnails.
Most of us, including me, think we live in uninspiring houses. My first reaction when I started these drawings was that the shrubberies at the front of my house really need attention. I also realized that I have only a vague sense of what my house looks like from the outside. And it’s nothing special, just an old house that also needs its shutters painted.

My house, shivering in the first frost of the season.
Ultimately, though, everything comes down to a pattern of light and shadow. Will my viewers know I have vinyl siding and replacement windows, and that my house is located on busy Route 1? Or will they see it in its bones, as an old Maine farmhouse at the top of a hill? Unless I’m remarkably picayune with the details, it’s the essence that shows.

I think I like this view better. It's what I used for the drawing at top.
A big part of learning to paint is learning to see. In my class we don’t use viewfinders. I also discourage doing thumbnails in pre-drawn boxes. That means creating a bounding box in the same aspect ratio as the final painting, and then drawing your thumbnail inside it. (If you don’t know what aspect ratio is, see here.)

Those devices defeat the purpose of the thumbnail, which is exploration.  A good thumbnail sprawls without boundaries, even though it’s quite small. When it’s finished, you can figure out how you want to crop it. Or, as in my example below, you may find that you need to crop it more than once to get it right.

First, figure out which border is critical. In my example, it’s the top; I don’t want that much tree. What’s the next most-important border? Since I want a little light sneaking into the background, it’s the right side. The bottom crop is at a natural point, below (but not too close to) the shed. After that, I approximated where the left line went to make the drawing fit a 12X16 canvas.

You may take a ruler to my drawing and determine that it’s not exactly the right aspect ratio. That doesn’t matter; it’s easy enough to make fix that on the fly. 

That wasn't too hard, was it?
Let’s build on this exercise and do marker sketches of the same three views. By doing so, we start to see them as abstract shapes. That’s actually tricky to do, but it’s the key to all good drawing.

You must force yourself to stop thinking of the object you’re looking at as “my shed” and start to see it as a series of shapes. First, draw a series of pencil lines to indicate the overall shape. Then, using a pen or marker, doodle in the dark values. If you catch yourself thinking “window,” or “door,” stop and force yourself to relabel your object as merely a light or dark shape. Your brain will catch on, I promise.

If I painted my house from this angle, it would be about the shadows of the tree, which I didn't even notice when I was drawing the thumbnail.
All objects can be reduced to a certain, limited number of shapes, which build on each other to make a whole. When you see things as abstract shapes, you expand your possible subject matter. A plastic pencil case is not inherently much different from a shed, which in turn has the same, simplified, forms as a house. If you start with a shed, you can ramp yourself up to Windsor Castle in no time.

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Linda Gomeau said...

Thank you for this post! I would love to see you take this through the entire process to a finished painting.

Carol Douglas said...

While I didn't take it through to the end today, I did work BACKWARDS from a finished painting. See:

I like that idea, though. I will work on it.