99 – 4 Ways to Simplify a Scene

The visual world offers up infinite variety and challenges to the representational artist. Our imaginations pale next to natures’ variety! We have to choose, edit and compare. Before you can even put pen to paper, brush to canvas you have to be able to simplify a subject down to something you can paint. That is unless you intend to create a photorealistic version of a scene, copying every leaf or blade of grass! Most of us are just not going to do that nor is it desirable for most of us.

Most art instruction says that we should simplify; see things simply and paint them simply. But how do we begin to see things in simple terms? This is easier said than done. Usually, it’s the details that grab us and fascinate us. This makes total sense. Think about focal points. They’re focal points because they attract our attention. It’s hard to see the forest for the trees!

When it comes to tackling a painting of something complicated, it’s not that you shouldn’t include some of the details that attract you, it’s just that if you start with the detail and work out from there, it’s usually not fruitful!

Start with the overarching arrangement of shapes and value and work towards the detail.

I recently did a workshop in Leesburg, Florida. I did a demonstration for their wonderful pastel society, Pastel Society of Central Florida. I decided to do a cityscape of Florence, Italy since all my other demos had been landscape oriented. As I was preparing, I realized how very simple the seemingly complicated reference photo I chose was. Here’s why.


My busy Italian street scene (A) seems overwhelming at first. But if I think about what is in shadow and what is in light, I can reduce it down to (B). After that, it’s a whole lot easier to find my way to (C). Then I sketch my scene on my final canvas that is the same proportion and I’m off and running. I can add as much or as little detail as I want, knowing I have a strong design that anchors my painting.

How do you get to “B”? We first have to see our subject simply before we attempt to paint it simply. There is much discussion about how to do this. Making thumbnails and or notans to create strong designs is often recommended. The idea is to see the arrangement of the large shapes and eliminate any detail. It takes some practice and even a bit of mind-bending to really get the hang of simplifying.

Once you start to see things in terms of overarching design, even the most complicated scenes with buildings, people and cars can become amazingly simple to paint! It can start to be like a game.

Obviously, you aren’t going to paint something with just two or three values. You could but then you’d be making a more graphic representation. You are going to need a whole range of values to paint representationally and to depict the illusion of light and depth. The fact of the matter is that you will need more tools than being able to simplify but simplifying is the first step in being able to make sense of a subject. Simplifying lets’ you in, let’s you start.

Here are four sure fired ways to help you to see things simply. There are plenty of other strategies, but in the interest of simplicity, I’ll keep it to four!

1. Just Black and White

Get out your mega sharpie and reduce your scene down to black and white. Try to connect as many of the shapes together, so you have large blocks of shapes. Ideally, you want only 2 to 4 shapes total that are either black or white. You can also think of it, as shapes in light and shapes relegated to shadow. Once you’ve established the big pattern, you can begin to distinguish between more subtle shifts in value. You’ll know big differences in value when there is lots of contrast between shapes (hard edges). You know values are closer when there is less contrast (soft edges). Group together close values. Separate ones with lots of contrast.
Once you can see the big pattern, it’s much easier to add more subtle value shifts and detail.
A couple more examples:

2. Cut Paper

Make a simple cut paper diagram of your subject. Sure you can use photoshop to do this for you, but the physical act of cutting out the shapes will cement it in your brain! Focus on the biggest, easiest shapes, eliminating all the unwanted details. Choose a simple piece of landscape/tree reference. Preferably something with strong shapes and obvious value differences.
  1. First create a very simple drawing from your reference. You may need to do several versions until you are able to hone it down to 4 to 5 shapes. Keep it small. Mine were about 5” x 7”, the same size as the cut paper studies.
  2. Trace the drawing to make with a sharpie.
  1. Cut each shape out of the traced drawing from a piece of construction paper that corresponds to the value you’re going to assign to it. I had 4 values of construction paper.
  2. Assemble your composition. Try two or more pieces of reference until you get the hang of this and start to see the landscape in these simple terms easily.

3. Look at the Negatives

This is sort of like #1 but for some people, it’s not! For some people, it’s the needed shift from left brain to right brain and makes all the difference. For more on this technique look at Betty Edwards classic book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

It is not only the positive space (the objects themselves) that is important in a composition, but also the negative space (the space surrounding the objects). The edges of the paper or the canvas create a border around a picture. Shapes form between the edges and the objects in the painting (the red area). This is one of the reasons I always start with a bounding box when painting on pastel paper, rather than painting right to the edge.

For practice, find a photo with a simple grouping of elements, turn it upside down and draw it, concentrating on the negative shapes. You’ll be surprised at how well you can draw it!

For practice, find a photo with a simple grouping of elements, turn it upside down and draw it, concentrating on the negative shapes. You’ll be surprised at how well you can draw it!

4. Notanizer and Posterize

Notanizer app for The App is available for Mac and Android operating systems.

This app will let you take a photo or upload one and set the levels (number of values) so you can see the arrangement of values. Notanizer can convert photos into two, three, or four levels. Not every subject translates well into just black and white (strict notan), so having a 3-level and 4-level option lets you find the distribution of shapes and values that is optimal for that particular subject. This is a good tool but I recommend using it to practice and then see if you can get the hang of it without it.

Now I’m not saying this is for wimps or is in any way “cheating” because I don’t believe there is any cheating in art, other than outright plagiarism! I think we should do whatever works for us and use all the tools we have at our disposal, that’s why this is on this short list! This app will let you take a photo or upload one and set the levels (number of values) so you can see the arrangement of values. You can also view your scene in black and white or color. You can download the app here

You can also use the posterize option in Photoshop to do the same thing which of course is not very convenient for plein air painting, but a good option since many apps don’t stay around forever while Photoshop is probably here to stay.

Choose Black & White from the drop-down, click “Ok”
Go back to Adjustments and pick Posterize from the drop-down
A dialog box with a levels slider will appear. Choose 2 to 4 depending on how many values you want to see.
Here are some of my reference photos that I’ve posterized.
Whatever method or combination of methods you use to see your subjects simply, it is the most important skill you can acquire as a painter. Remember that color gets the glory but value does the work!

As always,

Happy Painting!!


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