The Not-So-Simple Art of Simplification

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

Any good landscape painting I’ve ever done was also simple. Whether it was a plein air painting that took an hour or a large studio painting that took months, I had to find a way to translate nature’s detail and complexity into a visual statement that made sense not only to me, but to the viewer.

Landscape painters, of course, don’t have an exclusive on this process. Still life, figurative or abstract painters also simplify. But because the landscape is so vast and filled with so much information — and at times terribly disorganized — the landscapist must look more deeply and then simplify in more radical ways.

Learning how to simplify is not a simple thing, however. 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. Simplification is the ultimate perceptual exercise for the landscape painter. It is a process that evolves through conscious observation and practice. It requires creative distillation, extracting the most basic elements of the landscape and organizing them into a coherent whole.

Plein air landscape painting by Mitchell Albala

Discovery Sunset by Mitchell Albala, 2001, oil on panel, 10 x 10

The painting at left demonstrates simplification in action. Complex forms, loaded with surface detail, such as the trees and grasses, are not picked over with a small brush; instead, they are reduced to their fundamental shapes and planes. Everything is rendered with an economy of brush strokes. The size of each stroke also complements the shape it is describing.

The Language of Landscape

Simplification can be likened to a special language designed for describing the landscape. Nature provides painters with so much detail and so much space that it is impossible to capture it all. The painter can never paint every leaf or blade of grass, every branch or every stone. That’s a job best left to the camera. Instead, the painter must figure out how to translate a living and complex scene into a set of simpler shapes and patterns that stand in for the original scene. We might say that landscape painters learn to “speak” and express themselves in shorter sentences and simpler phrases; perhaps even creating new words to take the place of ten others.

A painter continually searches for the lowest common denominator — the single “word” or brush stroke that will convey meaning in the most economical fashion. The symbols or marks the painter chooses can never be the actual landscape, but they can communicate the same emotion and serve as an analogy to the impression. Simplification is not just a stylistic preference, it is a visual imperative. It is not a single idea imposed at one stage of a painting, but a way of seeing the world that is fostered at every stage.

The maxim “less is more” was brought into the popular lexicon by architect Mies van der Rohe. It speaks to the integrity, beauty and soundness of a design that eliminates all but what is essential to the solution. The maxim applies just as readily to art, and particularly well to landscape painting. Landscape painting insists that artists learn to see the world in a new way — in its most basic, essential forms.

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.

Simplification is not an isolated act, but interwoven into the consciousness of landscape painting. At every step, through conception, site selection, composition, color and even technique, the landscapist’s eye is bent upon this purpose.


Additional Resources

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

Demonstration: Exploring Composition Through a Limited Focus

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About Author

Mitchell Albala is the author of Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice (Watson-Guptill, 2009). A best-seller with 37,000 copies in print, it has been called the "new classic of landscape." A respected teaching artist for more than 25 years, Mitchell currently teaches at Gage Academy of Art in Seattle, Pacific Northwest Art School, and Winslow Art Center. He has also lectured at the Seattle Art Museum and written for International Artist and Artists & Illustrators magazines.

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