Landscape Painting: Excerpt from Chapter 5: Simplification and Massing

The ability to simplify means to eliminate the unnecessary so that the necessary may speak. – Hans Hoffman

At a recent workshop, several students pointed to a cottonwood tree that was gently swaying in the breeze. “How are we going to paint all those leaves?” they asked. “Don’t paint the leaves,” I answered. “Paint the large shapes of light and dark that the leaves create.” One of the fundamental truths the artist-as-translator learns is that larger, simpler shapes and masses convey the essence of a subject better than its details. In fact, if the essential practices of landscape painting were ranked in order of importance, simplification — the ability to translate nature’s complexity into fewer and more readable shapes and patterns — would be at the top of the list. As we study the different types of scenes the landscape offers, it becomes clear that, majestic and inspirational though they may be, they can have a lot of detail and appear quite disorganized. Simplification and massing bring visual order out of chaos, and create clarity from ambiguity.

The four-value exercise in Chapter 5 uses a very limited number of values. Then, by working with flat shapes, without any blending between values, the painter is forced to see the scene in terms of its most fundamental shapes and planes. Chapter 5 also presents a two-value simplification exercise and a tree demonstration.

Simplification and massing are the ultimate perceptual exercises for the landscape painter. Painting or drawing a shape is not difficult, but seeing a shape through layers of surface detail and complexity requires a practiced shift in perception — an ability to see the forest and the trees, which is not our natural tendency. As visual translator, the artist must anticipate how all the information presented by the landscape will be compiled within the painting and perceived in the mind of the viewer. This is the most important task for the landscape painter — to reduce surface story to its lowest visual common denominator and, in doing so, actually give expression to an aesthetic that transcends detail and story.

Those new to interpreting the landscape often think they are compromising when they reduce the scene to simple components. Yet, it is through simplification and the orchestration of a few major shapes that a forceful visual message is created, not through a profusion of detail. By finding and importing basic shapes and patterns into paintings, form and structure become more apparent and the painting becomes more comprehensible to the viewer. It’s easy to paint a thousand points of light with a thousand brushstrokes. It’s much more difficult — and infinitely more eloquent — to paint a thousand points of light with only one hundred strokes.

Planes: a key to massing. An understanding of planes can help painters identify shapes and masses within the landscape. A plane is simply a flat surface. Planes are easy to see on flat ground, streets, and architecture, but they can be harder to discern within the many curvilinear and irregular forms found in nature. Fortunately, planes can be detected by observing that where a plane changes, there is also value change. As you analyze a scene, you not only evaluate value and color, but you consider how each value and each color corresponds to a plane. Look carefully and see if different areas, in part or in whole, fall within a generalized plane. Later in the chapter, several exercises are presented that will help train your eye to see planes and the simplified shapes to which they correspond.

Marc Bohne, Where The Rabbits Are, 2005, oil on panel, 20 x 18 inches. Although a landscape painting may be complex and filled with many details, it is fundamentally an arrangement of simplified shapes and masses. The impact of Where The Rabbits Are is achieved in large part by dividing the composition into a few shapes of simplified values. Smaller notes, such as the various spots of color within the trees on the right, remain subordinate to (by being contained within) the larger shapes.

Additional Resources

The Not-So-Simple Art of Simplification

See more of Marc Bohne’s work at his website.

Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice
Chapter 5: Simplification and Massing