It’s time to break out your pocket watch and your paint brushes for this episode of 10 Minutes to Better Painting I’m your host — Marco Bucci Each episode will be structured as follows Part 1 will be a short lesson that gets us into the subject with some visual examples. Part 2 will feature a full painting demo where I will show you how to apply the episode’s lesson to your work. and Part 3 will be a final wrap-up of the episode with some closing thoughts. Richard Schmid said once that painters don’t see more information than other people do. They actually see less. This episode is about merging shapes. You know that old painting maxim that advises you to simplify? Well, merging shapes is one of the many possible ways to do it. I love these etchings by Anders Zorn. They contain such a strong statement of light and character and mood and composition. And yet the medium is so primitive: It’s just a bunch of chicken scratch lines on paper. Now, Zorn was a master of simplification and merging shapes. And that’s exactly the tool he used to get such a high degree of quality here. Let me show you what I mean with a very simple example. Let’s put four simple objects on this frame. And these objects will be lit by light, which means they also cast shadow. We just painted a picture! But it’s not all that exciting right? I mean it looks computer-generated and boring; it certainly doesn’t look like light. But why? Let’s count the number of shapes in it: there’s one two three four five six seven eight nine. I had to make nine shapes just to paint that? Geez that’s gluttony! Let’s see if we can simplify this by merging some shapes together. I’ll start by duplicating the painting; now watch as it slowly fades into a simplified version. The same picture, but with the shapes merged together. Let’s count the shapes in this version. One shape for all of that. Two, three and four! I just reduced the shapes by more than half. Merging shapes means a reduction of information. I’ve given up the silhouette of every one of those little objects in favor of a larger silhouette. Fewer things to look at. A more simplified, effective statement. The reason we simplify is to allow the mood to come through. And mood — that’s where art lives. Take a look at this beautiful painting by Dean Cornwell which I’m showing you in black and white for the purposes of this lesson. Specifically, look at this area here. And I’d like you to appreciate for a moment how much information Cornwell has opted to lose by means of merging those shapes together. That’s like half the picture reduced to one shape. We’re not seeing pants or belt buckles or buttons. We’re just seeing a big dark shape. What that subliminally confers to the viewer is [that] this area is not important. Rather, look up to where the guy’s face is because that’s where all the juicy mood and character lies. And even when we look at the face, sure there is more information here but Cornwell is pulling the same kind of design idea. The lower two-thirds of the head, as well as the neck and the shirt are merged into one shape. Merging shapes enhances the element of mystery as well which coincides perfectly with how we feel about this guy. Look at this Breathtaker by Walter Everett. I think a lot of people would say that there’s a lot of detail here which in painters’ speak means a lot of shapes. But I actually don’t think that there is. Looking at it with this simple filter applied we can see it’s actually a carefully manicured path of dark and light shapes merged together that lead us through the picture. I feel like everything this red line touches is an unbroken shape of dark comprising the very backbone of this picture. And of course you can merge shapes together in light too. For example, this large shape made up of the women’s veils and faces. So Richard Schmidt is right: through merged shapes a painter does see less than what’s actually there. But what he didn’t say was that painting less is actually harder because it requires us to do something that largely goes against our nature that is to express something not by being literal about it, but instead to reduce it to an essential design. This is the finished painting. I’ll be demoing for you in just a second. Now I chose this particular subject for its complexity. There are six or seven boats in the painting water, reflections, buildings, figures, atmospheric perspective — the whole nine yards. If our little example in a moment ago had nine shapes Imagine how many thousands of shapes you’ll have to deal with in a picture like this. As I build this painting, pay specific attention to areas of shadow and areas of light in order to see which shapes are sacrificed in favor of a clearer design. So right away, I want to point out that I actually designed my pictures with shape merging in mind. Even though I know there’s going to be boats and figures and houses I first want to block in overall areas of light and shadow as you see me doing right now. I’m committing myself to a kind of abstract design the way that this picture is going to read. I know that in these big areas of light and shadow that is where I will play with merging my shapes. So you see subject matter is actually secondary. And I’m a firm believer that even the most realistic rendered painting is still an abstract piece of art first because the painter always has to deal with these shapes that are divorced from reality, but that’s what makes art fun! It’s a reaction to something. It’s not me literally trying to show you every window on every house and every figure. I want to imply that stuff and I want you to be part of that experience that is, I want you to fill in the shapes that I merge. So I’m kind of curating you through this picture. I’m stimulating your imagination, I guess through means of merging these shapes and arriving at kind of an abstract design. Now see that texture I’m putting down? I think it’s really helpful to work underneath texture, at least for me. It helps me escape that literal mindset and get into the abstract design mindset. And that’s where you want to be especially if you’re painting out of imagination like I am here. So right now you can see the boats coming into the foreground and you notice already where the boat meets the reflection in the water — those shapes are lost ; they’re merged together. Even the boats themselves are kind of merging into the houses. If you look at that boat about a third up from the bottom it’s kind of merging into the house. That, to me, is interesting you know. I don’t need to show you where the tip of every boat is for you to understand it. The human brain is remarkable. We fill in shapes all the time even in real life. In fact, my conviction in this kind of approach is bolstered by the fact that this is actually rooted in human psychology. When you’re walking around the street, you aren’t seeing everything. In fact, you’re barely seeing anything. You’re only seeing the information directly in front of you. Your brain fills in the other stuff left and right. It happens all the time, every minute of every day. So the visual equivalent of that, to me, is merging shapes and actually showing less in your picture like I explained in the lesson. By showing less, we can actually communicate more. Let me expand on that. If I were to show you every literal shape that actually would exist in this picture I would lose the feeling of this location. It wouldn’t capture it. It would be like reading a textbook whereas if I’m doing it like I am here with merging shapes and try to mimic visually how I feel about this scene. I’m essentially sacrificing one thing that is the amount of shapes in order to gain something else, which is the feeling that is going to allow this picture to resonate with viewers. Now, this is where painting gets very creative because I’m the one who gets to choose which of these thousands of shapes get merged? and I just threw a posterized filter over it to evaluate my progress. The posterized filter helps me see kind of the trends of my lights and darks to see if I’m on the right track. So that’s something you can use if you work digitally. Even if you work traditionally, you can scan your stuff, bring it into Photoshop, and check it out. So I’m on the right track here. I like where this is going. I like how the posts are merging into the water, merging into the boats, which are merging into the houses. There’s even an indication of figures there, kind of ghosting in and out of lights and darks. Now, you do want to choose the key areas where your silhouette is very clear. Look at the third boat up from the bottom, this area here. You notice that that boat is silhouetting over the light shape. because we need something to latch on to as a viewer. So that is a very clear area of silhouette where there is absolutely no shape merging going on. It essentially tells your brain “This is a boat”. And then it gives context to all the other stuff that’s lost and merged So I’m halfway through the painting here which by the way took me about an hour and a half of real time to do. And the thing I love about this idea of merging shapes and coming up with big areas of light and dark is that it gives you a structure that you can depend upon for the entirety of the painting process You know I don’t feel like I’m guessing now as I’m working on this I feel confident that the picture as an abstract design works! And that leads to conviction and confidence that anything I do within that structure is also likely to work. You know, I think the real hard part of the painting is actually at the beginning when you’re first making these big decisions that are going to dictate the rest of the process. but at the same time if you fail to make those big decisions early on you will certainly run into the problem of so many shapes creeping into your painting none of them seeming to have any purpose behind them and you’ll go back and forth and back and forth. And it’ll just be a really frustrating experience for you. So again knowing which shapes I’m likely to merge as I work and knowing how that contributes to an overall structure of the picture’s design it gives me the confidence to kind of freely create because I know that so long as I adhere to the structure I set out for myself I’m likely to have a successful picture by the end and because merging shapes means you paint fewer shapes you can actually get a piece of work like this done quite quickly which is actually very important, especially if you’re a concept artist or something So here’s another way to think of shapes. Think of them as being like annoying maybe crying children in a daycare all clamoring for your attention all at the same time and you want some peace and quiet yet you only have the capacity to satisfy three of the children. So what do you do to the rest of them? Well you… Yeah, you get the idea!