Abstract Shapes | Seeing the Bits and Pieces of Shadow, Color and Light

When learning to paint the landscape, it’s common to encounter “Subject Matter Intimidation.” This is the belief that there’s only a certain way to paint different things such as rocks, clouds, trees, etc. While these objects are very different in their physical makeup, what we ultimately do with pigment when representing them on a surface is very similar.

Painting Rocks / Painting Clouds.  I know what you’re thinking: “Richard, rocks are not clouds. There must be a different method used to paint them.” And I agree, rocks are not clouds, but what we see is not a physical rock made up of compacted minerals or moisture compressed into a cloud either. What we see is light reflected off a surface, which produces contrasting shapes, values and colors that—when configured by the human mind—represent those physical objects. It’s how sight works. Understanding this phenomenon and embracing it is paramount to painting well.


My plein air pastel, Arizona Impressions (12×12) demonstrates how an arrangement of abstract “bits and pieces” of value and color can represent rocks, brush, and mountain cliffs.

Painting Texture: When to Play It Up / When to Play It Down. Within pastel painting, there are numerous application techniques that may prove helpful in representing the textural makeup of individual objects. For example,  skies are smoother than grasses, and trees are rougher than snow. We may blend and smooth the pastel for the sky and utilize the edge of a pastel stick for the grasses. If the textural differences of these objects is overly indicated though, making these elements appear disconnected and isolated within the composition, the end result will look plastic and artificial. What is helpful is to accentuate texture in areas of direct light and play down the appearance of texture within shadow.

Seeing the Abstract Shapes. When we identify an object within a scene, we bring history and prejudice into play. We know that a pile of rocks is made up of many individual pieces having physically examined them in the past. This knowledge can greatly impede a successful portrayal of the rocks when this idea is left unchallenged. One method of challenging this prejudice is to observe the scene upside-down. When you turn your reference material upside-down, or glance into a mirror placed at your forehead and tilted so that the scene is upside-down, the abstract “bits and pieces” of shadow, light and color are not so easily associated to recognizable things. This makes it easier to see without prejudice.

If there were a secret to painting well, beyond the truth of practice, it would be the ability to identify the abstract “bits and pieces” that make up a scene. The better able we are to identify them and place them judiciously into our paintings, the more we realize that rocks are really not that different from clouds; they just have a different arrangement of abstract “bits and pieces.” We are capable of painting anything if we apply this rational.

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