Design Moment: How To Simplify a Scene for Painting

This complicated scene from Cortona, Italy, demanded that I take a step back to understand and simplify. For me, this means analyzing through sketching!

Typically I go through this process when I need to simplify a subject with a lot of detail. Below is the photo reference for this work, a snapshot taken on a morning walk to the square.

Piazza and Building facades in Cortona Ital;y

Reference photo of town square in Cortona, Italy

1. Light and Dark

The first step was to see this scene in terms of Light and Dark. In my sketchbook, I used a black pen to draw the image in the simplest forms of black and white. This helps identify the big, important shapes and how the image will “read” from a distance.

In the sketch, you can see how I ignored all the little windows and incorporated them into the large dark mass of the buildings, so they diminish in importance. This puts more emphasis on the wonderfully quirky roofline in the upper part of the painting. In the lower half of the sketch, the main focal point is now clear. Positioned like a fulcrum on which the entire scene balances, the slender figure of the woman is silhouetted against the wide sunlit square.

In the sketch, you can also see I made the decision to darken the blue on the left side of the sky. This created a larger dark shape so that there would be unequal amounts of Light and Dark in this work. As a rule of thumb, you want a piece of art to be primarily either light or dark. An equal balance of light and dark creates “tension” and a lack of focus in the composition.

2. Warm and Cool

The next step was to dissect this scene in terms of Color – Warm and Cool. The sketch helped me decide to position the warmest colors toward the center of the composition. The large blue shape of the upper left sky connects to the blue of the street shadow at the bottom right with a few blue accents woven into the center of the work.

You can see I hedged a bit on the cool tones on the light clouds, above right, and the sunlit section of the street, below left. I ended up pushing both of those into a warm gray instead of a cool one as shown on the sketch. Many artists gravitate toward primarily warm or cool tones. (I find I usually swing warm – honestly, it’s just personal preference.)

3. Lines and Edges

Finally I explored the Lines and Edges in the scene. In the sketch, I found that all the jagged lines connected and led downward to the central figure. Having decided that she would be the focal point, I could see that I needed to make the sharpest “edges” in the painting lead the eye¬† to her.

In the final work, you can see that the sharpest edges drawn are those that outline the sunlight on the woman’s figure, the greenery behind her, and the two levels of roofline directly above her head. Because the shapes in the painting are many and intricate, these sharp lines attract the eye and help center and stabilize the composition.

Read more in Design Moment Part 2: How To Build a Complex Scene In Layers