This blog entry is about a class demonstration that inspired a painting.

The classes in painting I teach every Friday afternoon in Puerto Vallarta tend to focus on what I call “seeing the big shapes.” In a nutshell, this means ignoring the details of the image you’re trying to draw or paint, and just looking for the big shapes—the large patterns of light and dark.

This is not something that’s easy to do for most non-artists. Most people tend to focus on details and have a hard time seeing the big picture. In order to help my students get better at seeing what I’m talking about I’ve come up with several exercises. One of my favorites is “Twenty Lines.”

I call it that because the goal is to take an image and reduce it to its biggest shapes, using only 20 straight lines. This is a big challenge when you’re looking at a photograph and seeing lots of details. Before I ask my students to do this, I do a demonstration so they can see that it is possible.

I have a big pile of 8.5×11 printouts of various images which my students use as references for drawing and painting exercises. On the day in question, I just grabbed the printout that happened to be on top. It was a photograph of my family taken at Christmastime a few years ago (two of my sisters are in the background; in the foreground my father, my mother, and the baby is my niece Rachel, who is now a teenager).

Below are the two drawings I did to demonstrate the process to my students

Hopefully you can look at the source photo and the 2 sketches and get a sense of how I did it. I’m looking at the big shapes, at light and dark areas—not at heads or hands or bodies. When you’re simplifying a complicated image like this you have to ignore the ‘stuff’ of it and just look at patterns.

The two demo sketches are fairly different, which illustrates another important point: the way you reduce the complexity of the image to simple shapes is not a cut-and-dried formula. There are dozens, or maybe even hundreds or thousands, of ways to do it. This exercise forces you to make decisions about what’s important and what’s not. To simplify a complex image to this degree forces you to be ruthless about eliminating details. You also have to be willing to have your image look nothing like what you started with. Yet this method can help you arrive at a deeper truth.

As I was doing the demo for my students, I found myself thinking, hey! This could make an interesting painting. So a couple of days later, when I had a chance, I did some more drawings.

In the sketch above I went back to a slightly more literal interpretation of the photo image. I didn’t like it as it was but it gave me some ideas, which I took further in the next drawing.

In the final rough sketch for the painting, I added some energy by tilting more of the shapes toward each other so there was a bit more visual drama. I also added some lines that weren’t so much suggested by the source image as by what was happening in the drawing itself as it grew and changed. I liked this sketch enough that I decided it was time to transfer it to canvas and start the painting.

As you can see I continued making changes as I drew lines onto the canvas. When I had everything the way I wanted it in pencil, I went over the lines with black paint.

I laid in the colors pretty quickly, using a lot of water along with the acrylic paint, since I just wanted to get a sense of how the colors (and the lights vs. darks) were working.

I liked it right away, and of course it’s always great when that happens. Then it was just a matter of continuing to add paint, trying different colors/lights and darks here and there, constantly moving back and squinting to see how small changes impacted the whole.

All told, I spent about a week on this one, and I’m happy with the results. It looks a bit Cubist, but it comes from a very different place than the Cubists came from, so I’ll just call it an Expressionist work. I’ve titled it “Christmas at Jerri’s.” (You can see the work on my website here.)

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