Sunday, July 10, 2016

Get in Shape

This is not the best composition but hopefully it will work for the explanation of looking for shapes. Looking for the shapes in your subject probably doesn't come easy for most. When you were a kid it was super easy. We were given toys that were made in basic shapes and we built things with them and fit them inside other things and shapes just made sense.  
The biggest problem for beginning plein air painters is what to paint. After you get all the fun gear and pack up to go out and paint you must then decide what to paint. I covered a solution to that problem in a previous post. After you decide on what to paint the problems really start to mount. The light changes, your subject moves, you dropped your paintbrush in the river, so on and so forth. Since you're going to have these obstacles up against you don't want to add the painting experience into the pile of misery. (Honestly, if you've dropped your box of pastels or had your oil painting face plant into a pile of weeds as many times as I have you'll know it's just best to laugh and not be miserable.) 

Solution two to the perils of plein air painting: getting things into shape. This is what I do, may not work for everyone but if you find it helpful that's great. I look at my subject like I'm going to pack it up and ship it UPS. John Preston likes to refer to it as putting the instrument in its case. I used to work in a music store and most days I did both, put instruments in cases and then had to find very creative ways to package them up and ship them out. Imagine if someone asked you to paint a row of guitars, it seems pretty overwhelming at first but if you can see, in your mind's eye, the rectangular box that it was shipped in around it you start to notice things. I tried to demonstrate on this lazy goat. It seems like an overwhelming subject, there's a lot going on here. Once you box him up to get ready to ship out you start to notice the relationships of the head to the body, the legs to the head, etc. This will help you get the proportions right too. You can see, after boxing him up, his head is about 1/3 the length of his body. Seeing the box around the figure also helps you see the smaller negative spaces. Now the bales of hay on the right are a different way of getting in shape. Sometimes you just have to look for the shape, you just want to find the obvious shape and get the perspective and angle correct. Consider how a child would draw a house. Most of them draw a rectangle and put a triangle for the roof. It's helpful if you can still do that sort of thing, but if you're going for realism you still have work to do. The hay seems like a duh moment, they're just rectangles, but until you actually stop and look at them you may not notice that they're going in different directions. If it helps to lightly draw in the basic shapes first go ahead and do it, you should have no shame in your game. We all have different ways of working. There's no law or commandment that says we all have to draw/paint the same way. If you're having a hard time wrapping your head around how to find these shapes here's a link that may be very helpful. There are three pages so make sure to look at all of them, although the first page does a great job of illustrating what I was trying to with this goat. It shows how to "site size" and this is very effective. This is basically how I find those shapes to box the goat up in.
Again, there are many ways to go about this so try things out and adopt whatever method helps you get the job done.


  1. Nice handling of the scene and a good lesson.

    1. Thank you. I'm not sure I explained it very well. Probably a video would show it better. Maybe I'll get ambitious and try making one.