10 Ways to Kickstart Your Art – #2: See the Abstract!

In four weeks I will be holding my 5-Day "Kickstart Your Art: Oil Painting Bootcamp" here in Bozeman Montana and I will soon be launching an online version, so to lead up to both workshops I'm writing a 10-part blog series! (See Post #1 if You Missed it Last Week) These are ten of the things that have helped my own work the most, and that I see make the biggest improvements to my students' work. The actual workshops will cover a lot more than these ten things of course, so join us in August or sign up for my workshop newsletter to learn more about my online class.

This Week: See the Abstract

We often get so focused on the subjects and objects in our painting that we forget to see the entire composition objectively. It can be very useful to learn to see our painting abstractly, as shapes or puddles of painting held together by similar colors, values, and saturation.

We See Abstractly:

Whether we realize it or not, we see the world abstractly and only "name" the objects and subjects that matter to us at the moment. When we're walking through a park, do we notice every dandelion and clover, or do they blend into a general "grass mass"? Do we notice all of the upper leaves of the tree, or is everything above our eye level categorized as "sky"? If we noticed every object and detail, we wouldn't be able to be anywhere more complicated than a white room without going crazy!

Making Sense of Chaos:

When we're confronted with a painting full of unconnected values and colors that don't seem to relate to each other in any meaningful way, we get frustrated and wander to the next painting without knowing why. By organizing all of the million possible colors and values in your painting into a few main shapes of similar color and value - or a mass - you give the viewer a much more pleasant world to explore. An easy way to think abstractly is to visualize taking a pair of scissors to your painting and cutting it into around 3 to 7 puzzle pieces of interlocking masses. Does this mean you can only have around five things in your painting? Absolutely not! But all of the elements of your painting should fall into a handful of masses held together by similar value, color, or intensity - even if they're different objects. Can you mass the dark part of your vase with the darks in your foliage? Can the herd of cows in your background blend into one mass? If you can't arrange everything into a few general masses, you might have too much going on in your painting!
Even paintings full of multiple subjects or detail - or both - group into just a few main masses. (Arrows show main transitions between masses) Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons*

Even paintings full of multiple subjects or detail - or both! - group into just a few main masses. Red arrows show the main transitions between masses. (Painting Images Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons*)


The Places Between:

The place where two masses meet is the edge, which can be soft or hard, geometric or organic, feathered or smooth, etc. The amount of difference between masses is contrast, which can be in color, value, stroke direction, size of shapes, hard or soft, round or square, busy or calm, and the list goes on! You lead the viewer's eye around your masses by controlling the contrast of your edges. If all your edges are too soft we'll float right out of your painting, and if all the edges are hash we'll rattle around like pinballs and miss your story entirely.

The Positives of Negative Space:

We start to focus so much on our subject masses that we forget that the negative space around them is also a mass that needs attention and design. By switching focus back and forth between the negative and positive spaces, we can paint the shape of the background mass and use it to redefine our subject mass without hyper-focusing on edges (resulting in the dreaded cardboard-cutout look). It can help us to see shapes and angles we missed in our subjects, and by seeing the negative space as a mass with its own color, value, and saturation we can make sure the entire composition is balanced and beautiful.
Negative space can be used for narrative effect - grouping the closest figure's silhouette with the negative space of the night adds drama to the painting. Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons*

Negative space can be used for narrative effect - massing the closest figure's silhouette with the negative space of the night adds drama to the painting. (Painting Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons*)

Variety is the Spice of Life:

Structure doesn't have to be boring! I can take the same flour, butter and eggs and make a cookie, a muffin, and a soufflé. Composing your masses of similar values, color, saturation, and brush strokes creates structure and unity. Keeping your masses different shapes and sizes and using variety in edges and contrast creates interest and lets the viewer see what's important.
Two examples of a similarly busy photo reference of a similar subject, treated with very different styles. Notice how in both the negative space is designed to add contrast to the head, and create transition with the gear. (Photos and paintings C Whitney Hall)

Two examples of a similarly busy photo reference of a similar subject, treated with very different styles. Notice how in both, the negative space is designed to add contrast to the head and create transitions within the gear. (Photos and paintings © Whitney Hall)

With Great Contrast Comes Great Responsibility:

Contrast guides the viewer's eye. If you've got contrast where your center of interest is, perfect! If you've got a bright spot in a dark mass and it has nothing to do with your painting's story, you're pulling attention to something that isn't important and you'll confuse the viewer. If someone shouts in a library, they'd better be announcing a fire or we'll have to make them leave.


Viewing at your painting abstractly helps you see ways to simplify your reference into interesting shapes and once you begin to see this way, you'll be on your way to stronger compositions! Have you tackled a complicated scene before? Would organizing it into abstract shapes have helped? Please comment with your story!

Similar values are one of the best ways to start composing masses! If you want a version of the value scale I use in my own studio, Join My Art Education Mailing List and Get a Free Download of My 5-value Scale!


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*Artists and Paintings from top to bottom, left to right: "Breezing Up (A Fair Wind)" by Winslow Homer, 1873-76; "Chioggia Boats" by Edgar Alwyn Payne, -1947; "The Lady of Shalott" by John William Waterhouse, 1888; "Shotgun Hospitality" by Frederick Remington, 1908. Original images Courtesy of Wikimedia, overlay edits for educational purposes © Whitney Hall.

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