Simplify Your Art To Create
Visual Surprise

Why would you want to simplify your image? Why not just paint or draw exactly what you see?

As artist and teacher Richard McKinley says, if all you ever do is try to copy exactly what you see, you may as well name every painting "That was the way it was."

When you simplify, you eliminate unnecessary detail from part or all of your image.

That does two things.

You allow yourself to use more of your creativity and imagination and you allow the viewer to use his or her imagination, as well.

Look at the drawing at left.

I established the woman's head as the star of my picture by putting my darkest darks - the most contrast - in her hair.

But look how much of her body I don't show.

I simplified and left a lot to the viewer's imagination.

As long as I show everything the right size, the right shape and in the right place, you have no trouble seeing her as a complete human being.

When I simplify and don't show you everything, I draw you into the art.

I create interest and visual surprise by doing the unexpected.

Remember that what you leave out of a painting or drawing is just as important as what you put in.

In previous blog posts I showed you the artwork of Mark English, David Grove and Robert Heindel.

Their paintings are prime examples of how simplifying and creating simple shapes can make a painting stronger and more interesting.

But, I realize their work can be both inspiring and intimidating.

So in this blog post I'm going to simplify the concept of simplifying and show you a simple drawing idea you can do at home.

The goal of this exercise is to draw or paint a few small objects with as little detail as possible...

...while still allowing the viewer to understand what they are.

The other criterion is to simplify in a way that is also interesting.

In Figure 1 are three objects.

Even though they are in silhouette, you can still probably guess at what these simple shapes are.

But, while these shapes are greatly simplified, they aren't very interesting yet.

I need to break up these shapes into an interesting arrangement of dark and light areas (values).

In Figure 2 I imagined the light coming from the right and above the objects, so I used that idea to create lighter areas where the highlights would be brightest.

Now these light areas break up the dark tone and make the shapes more interesting.

You can see how nicely the dark areas flow together to unite all the objects.

You don't really need to see all the edges of all the objects to know what they are.

While I now have interesting dark and light shapes, I can go just a little bit further to make this simple drawing idea more interesting.

In Fig. 3, rather than have one flat dark tone throughout the drawing, I can create a little variation in that tone.

The dark tone still flows through each of the objects and helps unite them, but now they've taken on more form.

They look more three-dimensional without going into much detail at all.

When I've got these shapes simplified to the point that I've created interesting dark and light values, I can use almost any harmonious color scheme I want to paint them, and it should work out just fine.

It's the interesting arrangement of dark and light values that usually matters most in a painting, not necessarily the color.

Or as Richard McKinley says, "Values do all the work and color gets all the credit."

So give this simple drawing idea a try.

It is a way to learn how to add mystery and visual surprise to your work.

In fact, I think the first person who will be surprised is you when you learn how little you need to show and still have an exciting drawing or painting.

Best Wishes,
Gary Gumble
Founder of
Without art the crudeness of reality would make the world unbearable. (George Bernard Shaw)