Painting In Oils And Simplifying Complexity

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When begin painting in oils a major problem can center on the complexity of various subjects. This obviously depends to some degree on what kind of approach you take to painting and the extent to which, say, a more realistic or traditional approach matters, as opposed to an impressionistic one. Inevitably, even in the former case, the majority of paintings leave something out. At least in the early stages, it is advisable to omit some parts of a potential image. For instance, a group of flowers may look very attractive, but when one gets down to the detail of recording individual flowers, their stalks and leaves, the picture can become incredibly complex. Consider the oil painting called Ducks In Mist where there is very little detail.

Certainly, in a quite complex subject one can choose to leave certain things out and simplify others. There is a good deal of skill and judgment involved in selecting what to include and exclude. Make the wrong choices and the painting may look unbalanced or unconvincing. Do not be worried if you make mistakes in this respect — we probable learn more from paintings we throw away than those we keep! So again, it is better to start with a simple composition and even exclude elements of that before trying to reduce complexity in an intricate subject.

Take a landscape oil painting for example. It may be advantageous at first not to include details of trees, bushes, fields, etc. Instead, start by drawing a line for the horizon. Then try to represent a cloudy sky: include some quite light blue but then clouds of varying degrees of darkness. When that looks something like, try to produce an area of land, which is no more than grass or heath. Do not divide the picture exactly in two. Some really excellent paintings have been accomplished where there is almost nothing but sky.

One of the easier aspects in which to reduce complexity is in the background. Photographers often do this by selecting speeds and aperture values, at which to shoot which will sharpen the focal area of a picture while blurring the background — sometimes to a degree where it is impossible to see what the background consists of. In a painting, the same is accomplished by selecting colours and tones for a particular background, which enhance the subject matter we are really interested in. An example is given by my painting Mountain Sunsetwhere the background is simplified. Indeed, the whole picture is a simplification.

Colour and tone may be all the background consists of, nothing actual. A white flower, for example, may be placed against a very dark background of deep reds and/or browns, according to ones choice. Complexity in itself is not a necessary condition for a quality painting, so start by keeping everything simple.

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