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Years ago I attended a slide show and lecture given by Richard Schmid. He told a story of one of his still life paintings which included a salt or pepper shaker. He was so focused on painting the shapes and colors within the shaker’s reflection that it wasn’t until after he finished painting it that he realized that he had just painted his self portrait. He had disconnected himself from the object, and only saw shapes and colors. (Hmmm…I just about typed that he disconnected himself from a reflection of himself. How would that work?)
Many great artists and art teachers have counseled us to paint shapes not things. Don’t paint a tree, rather observe the shapes of color that make up the tree. Paint those shapes and you will find that it will resemble a tree, perhaps better than if you thought in terms of it being a tree. Don’t paint a face, rather, paint the shapes of color that make up a face. Don’t paint the flowers, paint the shapes. You get the point. You must disconnect yourself from your subject.
Literally, every subject is made up of shapes of color like interlocking jigsaw pieces. Remember those paint by number sets you did when you were younger? Any subject can (and should) be reduced to the abstract shapes of color.
So where do you start if you can’t seem to get your mind to separate the ‘thing’ from the shapes? It does take a lot of practice to learn to see as an artist. Here are some exercises that can aid in the learning.
A friend of mine, Michael Bingham, would occasionally have his students do the following exercise:
Before class he cut out an image from a magazine. He took the image and cut it into 1 or 1 ½ inch square pieces. He then gave each student one square to paint from. The assignment was to paint the shapes and colors as closely as possible onto an 8 x 8 inch canvas. When each student was done, their painting would be arranged together to reveal the subject – a portrait.
It was fascinating to see how well the paintings came together. If I recall, the students could tell that it was a portrait from the squares, but they were cut in such a way that they didn’t have any single facial feature in its entirety. There was no piece that had an entire nose or eye or mouth, etc. This enabled the students to see the shapes instead of seeing the ‘things’. By disconnecting themselves from the subject they could focus on the shapes of color.
Additionally, by knowing that their square needed to fit with the others, the students were more careful in making sure their lines and shapes were accurate. It caused them to study their square more closely.
Despite the fact that each student had a unique style, the image came together because the pieces of the puzzle were accurately painted.
This is a great exercise for you to try. Regardless of what style you paint in or at what level you are at, much can be learned from this exercise. It will help you see shapes and colors. It will help you see the puzzle pieces. It will help you study your subject more closely. As a side note, he chose an image that had easily distinguished abstract shapes. Choose a simple image. The more complex the image, the more difficulty you will have in the beginning.
Disconnect yourself one step further by having someone else choose and cut up the image.
Another fun exercise is turning a photo upside down and painting from that. It, like the previous one, forces a closer examination and enables you to see shapes instead of things. There is something about seeing things in a different way that enables you to disconnect with your preconceived ideas. You can more clearly see reality.
PS “Maybe all I need…is a new metaphor for reality” (From the song “Disconnected” by Queensryche).
Today's post is an updated version from a few years ago, but we're republishing it again today because it's still a timely and a very relevant message. Enjoy!
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