Friday, September 09, 2011

To Simplify— Focus On Design

Design principles must guide every thought and mood while your subject is being smelled, tasted, touched, listened to and looked at. You paint with all 5 senses. You must be emotionally and sensually involved with your subject. —Edgar Whitney

Every time I hear someone suggest simplifying a painting, my mind goes numb. The simplify instruction is so commonly used by instructors, it's almost a mantra. It shouldn't be. It won't make you a better painter. Simplify! What does that mean!? Sim•pli•fy: make (something) simpler or easier to do or understand. Try to follow such a broad, vague instruction without knowledge of design and you'll put us all to sleep with your paintings. So what to do when you encounter this instruction? Dust off your design tools! The elements and principles of design will show you how, when, where and most importantly why to simplify. So wake up those brain cells, peeps! Get thee to designing your compositions.

We make art to visually convey our unique personal perspective. To identify that perspective, one needs to be able to call up feelings and emotions relating to the subject of the painting and express them visually. This is where your understanding of the elements and principles of design can aid and develop artistic expression. It's the interplay of design elements and principles that guides the viewers' attention to the expressive meaning of your work. Simplicity per se doesn't function well on it's own. It shows up best when partnered with detail. You need them both or you'll end up with a painting that's too uniform— in other words, a sleeper. So how will simplicity and detail interact in your composition? Will you use contrast, create rhythm, balance, repetition or harmony? Or will one so dominate that the overall unity of the composition will be destroyed?

There are so many dimensions to a painting— far more than the obvious two dimensions of the paper or canvas. Design tools open up all those other dimensions— emotional dimensions that are so difficult to express in words are magically unlocked using pattern, line, shape, value, color or size. The way we use these elements creates an emotional resonance with the viewer. The design principles themselves seem to have an emotional resonance.

As the foundation and building blocks of good art, design is a topic that deserves ongoing study and discussion. My purpose here is to point out that simplification happens very naturally when working with design principles. Simplicity is not the first law of painting. Without design as a guide, simplifying by rote dulls creative expression. Shift your focus to design and simplification will take of itself.


  1. Your work is amazing! I saw your comment on Robert Genn's "The Painters Keys' and followed to your blog. I love watercolor and yours are especially brilliant.

  2. I'm going to hang this list up on my studio wall just to remind myself of the importance of design principles. Hope it works! Many thanks.