Every good painting should be about something. And this something should be communicated to the viewer. Paintings are about communication, and we want our viewers to understand what we are trying to say. So we need a focal point – something that we home in on and that says what the picture is about.
But how can we do this when we are painting a scene from life or from a photo and we are confronted with a mass of details, shapes and colours such as the one below?
I visited an exhibition this week of watercolours by the Spanish painter Alfredo López, and he has found a way to answer this question in a powerful and yet atmospheric way.
Take a look at his handling of a similar New York street scene.
Can you see what he has done? He has simplified everything right down so that we are forced to look at his mounted police that are the subject of the painting. Everything else is just a background wash. He hasn’t attempted to put any detail whatsoever into the background because it simply isn’t important. However, by carefully creating the silhouette of the buildings, he has still let us see that this is New York. And by painting in monochrome he has avoided any temptation to overcomplicate the background with colours that might distract us.
How we see
This is very similar to the way we see. When we are in a busy scene like this we might feel that we are taking it all in and processing all the information. But in reality we are not counting the windows in the buildings, we are not seeing every person or every car in detail, we are not really seeing much at all. At any one time our focus is on one thing or one small area and that is all. Everything else is a an out of focus blur.
Try it out – look directly at something around you right now and focus your attention on it. Without moving your eye from it, take a look at what is around about. It should all be out of focus, soft edged and a bit more hazy. That is how we see the world! It’s one bit at a time.
When we come to paint the scene however we don’t choose to see in the same way. Suddenly everything is clamouring for our attention and we feel the need to put in all the details. And the result? Our painting loses it’s focus and it’s power and we fail to capture what we intended. We fail to communicate.
Less is more
So, next time you are painting, decide what your focal point is. What is the message you want to communicate? Where do you want to draw the viewer’s attention? What is your painting about?
Then paint this with more detail, more colour, and harder edges, and leave the background and the supporting elements much looser, suggestive, and soft edged. See how little you need to communicate your point.
Here are a few more watercolour paintings by Alfredo López for you to enjoy. See how he has simplified so much information, and made his paintings really speak!