Finding the Three Shapes Under Everything
By Charles Sovek
The Artist's Magazine - October, 1991
How to increase believability by reducing a subject to cubes, spheres and cones.
Have you ever considered painting an old Victorian house, a shaggy stand of pine trees or a sky full of elaborately shaped clouds only to become intimidated by the complexity Of the forms? You're not alone. Many artists are easily discouraged by seemingly difficult subjects. This need not be the case however, because beneath the gingerbread of both natural and man-made object lie three basic forms that everyone can understand.
The cube, sphere and cone have for centuries been used by artists to help simplify complex forms. Beneath the doors, windows and elaborate trim of many buildings, for example, is a basic, cube-like structure. A cloud, beach umbrella or human head is essentially a sphere. And underlying the leaves and branches of a pine tree or church steeple is a cone-like shape. Children's toys capitalize on these easily comprehended forms, and on occasion they catch the essence of a subject even better than an ambitiously detailed painting.
BACK TO BASICS
Even as you sit reading this article you're surrounded by geometric forms. Look around and notice how various sizes and shapes of cubes underlie the forms of tables, chairs, stoves, refrigerators and quite likely the room itself. Spherical forms can make up the rudiments of anything from sink basins and light bulbs to a piece of fruit or a vegetable. A cone can be the foundation for a lamp shade, plant or a pair of shoes. Look out the window and you'll find cubes at the heart of hedges, spheres forming the shape of trees and clouds, and cones incorporated into the structure of a car, boat or even a fire hydrant. An awareness of such simple forms seems basic. Yet many students tend to ignore this fundamental approach, thinking instead it's the details that make a painting come alive.
Seeing Simply - Every object can be reduced to a simple geometric form such as the cube, sphere and cone (top). For instance, a patch of foliage is first visualized as a cluster of cubes (center), then illuminated from the top. Notice the step-like quality the cubes take on as the planes move away from the light. Developing the subject with detail (bottom) simply becomes a matter of subordinating, or eliminating, any unnecessary passages.
A STEP AT A TIME
Beginning with a cube, study the demonstration on page 69 to see how a cluster of bushes can take on both weight and believability when the objects are first reduced to a series of steps built from cubes.
With light coming from directly above in this case, the top planes of the foliage will be lighter than the passages sloping away from the light. Once the blocky lay-in is established, you can then begin to develop the unique characteristics of the subject. Building on the step idea, spherical and conical shapes can likewise be incorporated to define the understructure and help portray various kinds of trees and foliage. Oaks, maples and willows, for instance, are basically roundish, while a pine or fir is more akin to a cone.
Get At the Solids - In this simplification of the finished New Mexican buildings below, you can see how I worked up from the basic shapes. I established the cube-like foundation forms (A), reduced modeling tones to a light, halftone and shadow (B), and softened edges to show the round, sphere-like quality of the form (C).
The trick is to continue refining the painting without losing the integrity of the basic forms. When crowned with the appropriate textures, the result can be a strong and convincingly solid rendition of the subject.
Architectural forms can also be approached as a series of steps. Study my painting of New Mexican buildings (below) and notice the feeling of solidity the forms convey. This is because I first considered the adobe structures in terms of cubes and spheres, the trees in terms of cones and spheres, and the clouds as a cluster of spheres. After establishing the basic forms, I developed the more superficial characteristics of the objects. When refining the clouds, for example, I softened the edges between the values to give the forms a less distinct, atmospheric quality. To show the coarser texture of the buildings, I left many of the crisp, incisive brushstrokes of the lay-in intact.
Seeing the Whole - While only a small portion of the cube-shaped building on the left and sphere-like form on the right appear in the picture, the entire form is considered to make sure each fragment shown looks solid and gives believability to Rancho de Taos (oil, 14 x 14).
MODELING WITH THREE VALUES
Another useful device in simplifying a subject is to reduce the number of possible modeling values on a given form down to three: a light, halftone and shadow. This way, you won't get bogged down trying to capture every nuance you see. Study the treatment of the architectural forms on the right side of my New Mexican painting and notice that while only a light, halftone and shadow are employed, the forms still appear to have both weight and texture.
A good exercise to help limit yourself to three modeling values is to set up a still life with three or four items, anything around the studio will suffice. For this exercise, confine yourself to a single color-burnt umber or Payne's gray, for example - and premix the three different tones on your palette before beginning to paint. It takes discipline and patience to paint a subject with this kind of Spartan simplicity, but the results are much stronger than those from a more involved approach that may capture the superficial details but miss the character of the basic forms.
SIMPLIFYING THE HUMAN FORM
Painting people involves exactly the same kind of simplification used when approaching a landscape or still life. The human head, like an egg or melon, is roundish. Shoulders are more squarish. The torso is cone-like, and so on down the figure. Study the four-step demonstration of a head below and notice how I've approached it in the exact same way as the inanimate subjects discussed earlier.
Staying Within a Sphere - The ability to visualize a head - or any other subject - as a basic form is what determines the solidity of the finished painting. In Step 1, I reduced the head to a sphere-like shape. In Steps 2 and 3, the features emerge as individual parts, but notice that each one contributes to the substance of the head as a whole. The basic form that began the piece is never compromised by the development of definition and detail.
Once the sphere-like form is established (Step 1), the secondary masses are indicated (Step 2). These, in turn, can take the shape of various other fundamental forms. Observe how the nose is block-like, the cheeks rounded, and the ear cone shaped. Using the same step device shown earlier, and limiting the modeling values to three, the forms of the head are now refined (Step 3). Throughout the procedure, the light source coming from the left guides where I place the various lights, halftones and shadows.
You can carry this approach to as detailed a finish as you choose. In my completed painting, for example, I've incorporated some highlights, accents and reflected lights. I was careful to subordinate these to the overall spherelike form of the head itself.
Keeping the Shape - The finishing touches of the eyes, nostrils and mouth are carefully integrated in the final step. Notice how these are also built on the essential shapes. Adding too much detail is an easy trapI recommend working small (9x12 to 12x16) to thwart the temptation to get too minute. When you're used to working with the larger shapes rather than the smaller pieces, you can let the size of your canvases expand.
SEEING THE BIG PICTURE
Be it a head, figure, barn or street scene, the biggest thing that undermines most student work is a preoccupation with detail. One way around this is to try working small - 9 x 12, 11 X 14 or 12 X 16 are all compact enough sizes to hamper any attempts to overwork a picture. As you develop a feeling for the total effect, you can gradually increase the size until you find the format that best suits your temperament.
Another device is to give yourself a time limit. Some students feel a picture's worth is determined by the number of hours spent working on it. If this were true, many of the works of Monet and Sargent could be bought for a song. Far more important is how you interpret what you paint. If it only takes an hour to capture the form and color of a subject, why dissipate its freshness by picking at the details for another three hours? By limiting that undermines most student your painting sessions to two work is a preoccupation with hours or so, you'll be forced to confront the essentials of a subject. As your skills develop, the time can be extended. Until then, keep the sessions short and your approach simple.
ROUNDING OUT YOUR APPROACH
Seeing and painting dimensional forms means developing an awareness of how various objects are constructed. The easiest way to do this is to paint from actual subjects. I encourage students to take real items -for example, a Ping-Pong ball, a kid's block and a cone made from rolled paper and tape -and place them beside the subject to be painted. Then, if you can't penetrate the shiny reflections of a glass vase or the wet hull of a boat, you can refer to one of the three basic forms and see how light plays over their structures. It's also not a bad idea to actually paint a cube, sphere and cone under different lighting conditions. With no surface details to hamper you, such an exercise can go a long way in developing your sensitivity to the underlying structure of most anything you'll ever paint.
A word about working from photographs. Try this experiment: Hold your hand over one eye and look at whatever objects are in front of you. Now look at the items through both eyes and notice how the feeling of dimension returns. Working from a photograph is similar to painting with one eye closed, and unless a feeling for three-dimensional form has already been developed, the results will usually be shallow.
Working from life helps build a vocabulary of visual forms that gives you a solid grounding for breathing life into the flat image of a photograph. Once the basic forms are down, you can use light, color and edges to help interpret a subject even more convincingly. But no matter how much a painting is developed, the key to stronger, more believable pictures is finding the basic volumes cubes, spheres and cones first.