I recently spent a night at the beautiful Secrets on the Lake in Queensland, Australia with my partner, Chontele. We stayed in a secluded lodge, nestled amongst the dense rainforest.
I used this trip as a chance to test out some of my new plein air painting equipment. But, despite the stunning nature which surrounded us at Secrets, it was surprisingly difficult to find a subject to paint.
I was confronted with an unthinkable number of colors, shapes, lines, shadows, and highlights which made up the dense nature. Since I was painting on location, it was not an option to do a grand and detailed forest painting, much like Ivan Shishan's painting below:
I needed to try and simplify all the "noise" down to something more concise which I could paint within a relatively short period of time. To add to the challenge, I needed to deal with changes in light and the environment.
After exploring around the lodge and surrounding areas, I narrowed down on this location from an area on the balcony:
Some of the aspects which interested me were:
- The lake and mountain which you can see through the trees in the distance.
- The repetition of the tall tree trunks.
- The dappled light hitting the trees.
Plus the added convenience of being able to paint from the balcony.
However, as a whole, this scene was still far too complex to paint on location. The most likely outcome would have been a mess of color and one frustrated artist.
The solution was to crop out much of the detail and narrow down on an area which captures the essence of the scene clearly and concisely. Below is what I came up with:
Notice how, even though I have cropped out most of the "noise", this cropped version still captures the fundamental essence of the scene:
- You can still see the lake and the mountain through the trees. If anything, they appear more prominent in this cropped version.
- You still get a sense of repetition from the tall tree trunks.
- You can still see dappled light hitting the trees. Again, it seems to play an even stronger role in this cropped version.
To me, this is what simplifying a complex scene is all about—narrowing down on the essence of the scene and cutting out the rest. Much like a great writer uses fewer words to say more, whilst amateur writers try to overwhelm you with words.
Below are some more photos from the trip, starting with a photo of the blank canvas before I started painting. It was just after sunrise and fog filled the air; I could not even see through the trees to the lake or mountain the distance. But I assumed that by the time I had done a brief sketch, the fog would have cleared.
By the time the fog cleared, I was ready to start blocking-in some of the basic color shapes.
I had to work quickly, as the light was constantly changing. Towards the end of the painting, I needed to start working from memory because the shadows and colors had changed so significantly.
The end result is a rough study and a beautiful way to remember the trip. That is one of the key benefits of painting; you get a chance to document your life in a truly personal and creative way. Photos a great, but painting gives you a chance to capture how you see the scene.
Tip: The idea with these quick-studies done on location is not to capture a finely rendered version of what you are seeing. You only have time to capture the basics. But you can then use these studies along with photos to create a more detailed version back in the studio.
Next time you are surrounded by dense nature or some other complex scene, see if you can simplify the "noise" down to a clear and concise subject to paint. This is a great exercise in composition which will help you see like an artist.
General Tips for Simplifying the Complex
- Try to see in terms of the visual elements, being color, shape, line, etc. This will help you see the beauty in an otherwise bland area.
- Look for dramatic contrasts, such as light against dark, saturated against dull or rigid against organic.
- Try to narrow down on the essence of the scene by cutting out most of the "noise".
- Use your hands to frame potential compositions.
- Be open-minded. On first glance, a scene might not look much, but further investigation might reveal, for example, a beautiful design created by the shadows.
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