UART Tip #31: “It’s All Just Shape” with Nancy Nowak

One of the most important artistic lessons I have learned is to view objects as mere shapes. If I can forget about the label (a flower, a tree, a face, etc.) and just see it as either complex or simple shapes, I can draw it, pick out the values and choose color much more easily.

On vacation, we stopped at Butchart Gardens, up in British Columbia, Canada. It’s a beautiful oasis of the most magnificent floral gardens. I took close up photos of many flowers knowing I was going to have to paint them!

My first step is cropping until I see a composition that I like. I always do a quick value study which is just a simplified pattern of light, medium and dark shapes. This helps me figure out the composition/design, value pattern, and placement. If it makes a good abstract, I know it will make a good painting.

Using Holbein tube watercolors and a good watercolor brush, I loosely paint in the shapes of the flowers and leaves using the local color. I let my brush dance across the paper. The leaf pattern is just a flooded variety of blues, violets, greens, and browns. When I dip my brush into the paint, I keep adding a little different color but still maintain the correct value. The trick is not to get the watercolor too opaque. Notice that I am not painting individual leaves. I am also not painting the lights with the watercolor. That I will leave up to the pastels.

My watercolor underpainting set up. I work flat and let this dry before adding the next layer.

I am not trying to make a nice watercolor painting. I am just using the watercolor to establish a strong foundation and depth of color for my pastel painting. I will also do a few layers of watercolor and then let it dry in between. No need to worry about drips and mistakes. I can easily cover up anything I don’t like with pastels.

I liked all the colors in the leaf shapes, so I lightly skimmed some of the same color of harder pastels over the top. Harder pastels help keep it translucent, letting the underpainting shine through. Adding sky holes and a few stems help bring out the leaf shapes. For the flowers, I lightly skimmed some medium value pastels, matching the color underneath. I squinted to pick out the lightest shapes and painted it in with my creamy soft pastels. My mantra is, “I am not painting flowers, I am painting the light on the flowers.”

To emphasize the warm sunlight, I let the warm pink shine through the blue sky.

By breaking your scene into shapes and keeping all the shapes as interesting and dynamic as possible with lots of variety and a strong value pattern, it doesn’t matter what you paint … you can truly paint anything!

I painted 2 versions of Sunlit Flowers. The 2nd one was a demo in one of my classes.

Nancy Nowak IAPS-MC, PSA, AIS

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