Strength in Simplicity

Painting from life always adds freshness and immediacy to a painting, and Ruth Moses’ Floral in White Vase (oil, 20×16) is no exception. Her still life has a wonderful energy to it that would have been difficult to convey without real-life inspiration. To set up the scene, Moses put the flowers against a colorful batik fabric. While this was a bold and beautiful choice, a background this complex can present problems. Still, I commend Moses for her decision: I believe if you create an interesting problem, you’ll create an interesting solution.

Areas to Work On
Moses’ original inspiration for her painting was the bouquet and she created a composition that essentially emphasizes the flowers. Considering the original intent, all of the choices made should continue to bring focus to the flowers. However, she could have done more to better emphasize her focal point. Anything that becomes more important or takes too much attention from the flowers should be carefully judged against the original intention. Keeping this thought in mind, Moses could make some minor adjustments to the composition, along with tweaking some values in both the foreground and the background.

I’ve found that it’s always helpful to take a “first look” at your painting after you’ve been working awhile. Walk away, get some fresh air, or take a brief rest. Then try to look at your painting as if you were seeing it for the first time and ask: What do I see first? Does something strike me that’s not a part of my original goal? When I first looked at Floral in White Vase, my eyes weren’t immediately drawn to the flowers. The shadow shapes are so sharp that they steal some of the emphasis from the flowers. And the background also competes with the bouquet for attention. But making just a few minor adjustments to these areas will help draw the viewer’s complete attention to the arrangement.

Art Principles at Work
Simplifying value and color. A painting’s background can be as strong as you like, as long as the foreground is significantly stronger. Thus, the first step to help the foreground defeat the power of the background is to simplify and strengthen the flowers and other foreground elements.

For instance, the shapes within this bouquet of flowers are separated and have almost equal emphasis. Moses’ composition would be better if she were to identify the most important flowers and make them more prominent than the rest. By its very nature, red is a dominant color, so I used that as the color of the central flowers in my reworked version of the painting above, right. I also dropped some of these flowers into shadow and pulled one forward. This helps bring focus and emphasis to that part of the painting.

To further simplify the flowers, I adjusted the color of the highlights. It’s tempting to reach for white to create lights and highlights, but I don’t recommend this with red flowers because white tends to look added on. In Moses’ painting, the highlights almost outline the flowers. To remedy this, Moses could bring out the light of a red form with another color, such as Naples yellow. In addition, the white flower next to the red should be stronger because of its position in the design. Moses could do this by simplifying the white on the light side of the flower, as well as its shadow shape.

Making the central flowers more prominent solves only half of the problem here. By further simplifying other parts of the bouquet, the red flowers will have even more dominance. For instance, the yellow group of flowers on the right could be treated as one shape. In my version, I glazed over the flowers with cadmium orange and burnt sienna to decrease the importance of each individual petal. After simplifying the shape and choosing a few places for the light to hit, I’d use a purer yellow—not white—such as cadmium yellow pale, for the lights.

The same idea applies to the group of white flowers on the right, or shadow, side of the composition. These could be painted just a value darker (because they’re on the shadow side of the bouquet) and massed together as simpler shapes with only reflected light on that side of the bouquet.

The greens also need simplifying. Moses could do this by using less value contrast in the leaves and simplifying their light and dark pattern. Adding a few dark greens to the right side of the composition would make the white flowers pop even more. Simplifying the light-dark pattern of the entire bouquet and making some flowers more important than others is a big step toward overcoming the competition between the foreground and background.

Simplifying composition. The table and the objects on it would also benefit from a little streamlining. For instance, the brushwork and color of the table are very similar to the background fabric. Simplifying the brushstrokes and flattening the color a bit would both solidify and bring the table forward in space.

And once the flowers in the bouquet are strengthened, the flowers on the table may not be necessary anymore. The seashell in front of the pot, however, is a wonderful continuation of the serpentine flow of the flowers. But its position is a concern because it’s “kissing”—just barely touching—the edge of the white vase. This creates tension in an otherwise peaceful scene. Overlapping the shell and vase or separating them would be a better choice to remove this conflict.

Playing down shadows and edges. The cast shadows of the vase, shells and flowers are so strong that they’ve almost become more noticeable than the flowers. Their hard edges and intense colors tempt viewers to look there first. To fix this, Moses could soften the edges of the shadow shapes and reduce the chroma (saturation of color) within the cast shadows. A shadow becomes lighter in value the farther it is from its source.

Creating overall unity. The background fabric of this painting contains beautiful colors and forms. Although it would be a shame to completely lose the elegance of this fabric, it does take too much away from the flowers. The solution is to simplify the values of the pattern. This can be done by bringing up the value of the dark area on the right and dropping down the value of the left side of the fabric just a bit, reducing the difference between the lights and darks of the pattern. Just as increasing contrast brings an object forward, reducing contrast pushes it back.

Lessons Learned
It’s important to maintain your focus throughout the entire painting process. No matter how lovely an object may be, you must put it in its proper place. A great painting isn’t democratic. Everything isn’t equal and shouldn’t be treated as such. Simplifying or unifying one area of a painting may bring the desired emphasis to another area. Emphasizing the contrast between light and dark values will bring an element forward, while decreasing contrast will push it back farther into the picture plane.

Often, the answer to a difficult problem lies not in what you do, but in what you don’t do. For instance, don’t feel that you must include every light that you see in your setup. You’re the ultimate judge and must decide the relative importance of all the elements of your painting. Be a tough judge and you’ll win over even the most complex problem.

About the Artist
“Growing up in an artistic environment instilled in me a certain way of looking at the world,” says Seagrove Beach, Florida, artist Ruth Moses. “I never take off my artistic glasses. Art for me is an ongoing and ever-deepening expression of what I am.” She majored in painting and sculpture at Hartford Art School in Connecticut. She’s represented by Fleming FineArt (Boone, North Carolina), and in her home state by Page O’Connor Fine Arts (Destin) and Collaborations (Seagrove Beach).

Cheri Christensen received her bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Washington, then continued her studies with Ron Lukas and attended demonstrations and workshops by Del Gish, Bill Reese, Ramon Kelly and Richard Schmid. Christensen is a member of several art-related organizations, including Oil Painters of America, and her paintings have garnered numerous awards. Currently based in Bainbridge Island, Washington, Christensen is represented in her home state by Howard/Mandville Gallery (Kirkland), Waterworks Gallery (Friday Harbor) and Harbor Gallery (Bainbridge Island) as well as by Trailside Gallery (Jackson, Wyoming), Contemporary Southwest Galleries (Santa Fe (New Mexico), Long Gallery (Scottsdale, Arizona), Knox Galleries (Denver, Colorado) and Robson Gallery (San Diego, California).

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