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


In Part 1, How To Simplify a Scene For Painting, I showed how I “broke down” this Cortona street scene in 3 ways: Light and Dark, Warm and Cool, and Lines and Edges. I find this kind of study absolutely necessary before I can simplify the composition. How else will I know what to leave out and what to keep?

In this second tutorial, I’ll show the actual stages in the creation of the painting – how it was “built up” in a sequence of layers.

 1. Dark Underdrawing

I decide if the painting will be warm or cool. As I noted in Part 1, many artists show a preference for warm tones or cool. I tend to push to the warm range.The dark I select for this scene is a warm dark gray, on a pre-tinted pastel board.

One of the most important technical principles in working with pastel is to start with the darks. Light colored pastels are difficult to cover, so pastel paintings are layered dark to light. (This approach is the opposite of the one used my other favorite media, watercolor. Watercolor starts with the lights and works toward the darks. Keeps you on your toes to work in both : )

2. Color Tints

Here I brush in tints of color to establish the warm and cool areas. The brilliant October sky and reflective shadows on the square will be cool in blues.

I lightly sketch the large light shapes of the clouds and the sunlit piazza below: I want to see the contrast of the lone figure against the cobblestones. She is the visual fulcrum on which the entire scene balances. This step also helps me see that the shadowed streetscape of buildings must remain cohesive, so it “reads” as one large shape. Each building may have its unique warm glow – but none will stand out to disturb the harmony of the facades.


3. Choosing Details

I layer in more details, darker colors first. Cortona’s glowing golden walls and red roofs begin to join together in jigsaw shapes.  I’m working carefully at this point, choosing how much detail to include. Yes, I can add all the charming little windows – but if I do, won’t they distract from the overall scene? I already know I want the viewer’s focus on the fine highlights on the figure’s hair, and the morning sunlight edging the roofline above her head.


4. Final Focus, Sharp Edges


I build out the final reflections of the windows in the shadows, the intricate shapes of the chimneys and dormers against the sky.

The sharpest details appear in the area immediately surrounding the foreground figure. The sunlight etches a fine halo around her hair, carves a glinting line along the tiles above her head. For these details, I use pastel pencil, whose fine sharp lines capture the eye and ensure attention on the focal point.

Mastering realism is only the beginning step for an artist. After that, the real journey begins – all the decisions that make a scene one’s own.

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