trees stream, mountain painting

How to Create A Simple, Dynamic Painting

Featured Painting:  ”Reflected Light“ 16″x20″ oil © 2013 Becky Joy First published on Aug 19, 2011 on Empty Easel


I was reading a forum discussion recently about painting trees. . . it stood out to me because the artist was trying to paint each leaf. This reminded me of a time when my son was in grade school. His school had told me he really needed more art than he was getting at school, so I enrolled him in a children’s drawing class at the museum in Portland, OR.

The teacher took the kids outside to the park blocks to draw trees. When my son came home, he showed me his drawing: the tree consisted of just three leaves. He was so caught up in seeing the details of the leaves that he didn’t see the big picture—the tree! The teacher never did get the concept across to the kids about drawing the large shapes.

It was hard and frustrating for me to watch him struggling with this. When the class was over, I started a drawing class at home with my two kids and some neighbor kids. We worked on drawing large shapes, learning to see the big picture and not all the details.

My son is now a landscape architect and does very detailed drawings. But first, it starts with the large shapes. I like to tell my students that painting and drawing are like sewing or building a home. You start with the overall pattern, or design, and large shapes. It is only after you lay your foundation that you can start putting in the smaller shapes and decorations.

If you’re a painter, lay in the foundation for your painting first. Squint until you just see big blocks of light and dark. Paint those large shapes. Look at the lights and darks to determine your shapes. Be sensitive to the shapes you see and try to paint them accurately. Each shape is unique. Once you have painted your large shapes, then start decorating your painting with details.

Keep your values consistent within those large shapes when you are adding detail. Your painting will hold together if you do not break up those large shapes with inconsistent values when adding detail. This goes for everything. . . drawing, painting, sculpting or building a house, always start with large shapes. Then break it down to small shapes on top of that, your detail.

Becky Joy

Comments for this post

  1. georgia mansur March 1, 2013, 5:12 pm

    Hallelujah Becky!! This is the exact thing I have driving home to my students in my current 6 week course I am teaching in Australia~ thank you so much for putting it so nicely ~ I am going to share this with them if you don’t mind. : D Looking forward to seeing you again in Monterey~ hope we can paint together at least one day! hugs, Georgia

  2. Lori McNee March 1, 2013, 8:32 pm

    Becky Joy, the title says it all! I found your post via Georgia’s FB page and sure enough, she commented right above me!. I’d love you to share a guest post with Can you repurpose this one for my blog? (in your spare time) ;)
    See you both soon!

    1. admin March 19, 2013, 11:13 pm

      Lori, I will work on rewriting this for you. I just need to get through this show and breath. I’ll see you soon.

  3. Martin Bullivant March 3, 2013, 2:03 am

    Exactly right. In producing my own paintings I often start with a photo of the subject deliberately produced on cheap, budget office paper on an old rather tired printer. This produces a less crisp, less detailed image and also tends to overemphasise the darks and lights, which means Although I can see they are there, I have to reinvent them as tonal and colour relationships within the painting. When teaching, my students often became overly concerned with detail, at the expense of the impact of the whole.

    1. admin March 19, 2013, 11:11 pm

      It is a good idea to get rid of the details and not get caught up in them.

  4. Francine Langlais March 9, 2013, 11:28 am

    I am french so write little in english but i can read.I hope to know the technic for to inprove my color palette and simplify my subject too much details.I hope your book as soon as possible.

    1. admin March 19, 2013, 11:09 pm

      Thank you Francine, I have been working on it. I will get it out as soon as I can.

  5. Cary Dirlam March 26, 2013, 7:06 am

    You are so right, and it’s a really hard thing to do and to keep in mind. Your story is wonderful. I can do it with still life, but struggle with landscape. Its east to get bogged down with detail “the closer to me” I get. I really admire your shrubbery. I’m trying to learn by studying your execution. It appears so simple. You have a book coming out?

    1. admin March 26, 2013, 8:51 pm

      Yes Cary, I have been working on one. I will have it out some time this summer. I have a couple of big events in April and May and then will have more time to focus on it.


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