Double Vision: “Seeing Simply” with Daniel Novotny (1 of 2)

Double Vision: “Seeing Simply” with Daniel Novotny (1 of 2)


Seeing Simply is a joint effort by Daniel Novotny and Russell Black. The following post was written by Daniel Novotny.

We work with the same subject from the same photograph but completely independently. This should be very interesting to see as it is going to reveal the similarities and differences of our working methods. The theme is “Seeing simply” and we want to focus on showing how we simplify the subject at hand. That is, how do you go from a photograph to a successful painting?

The article is going to be published in two parts. First is the simplification process, where we’ll focus on simplifying the scene, selecting our subject, composing the picture and getting ready to put brush to paper. We talk about the concept and resolve issues that must be addressed before we reach for our brushes. In the second part we’re going to paint the actual painting. Both I and Russell are going to provide video demonstration of the painting process – so stay tuned!

In this article we’re going to take a look at my approach to simplifying the scene. Please also check out Russell Black’s perspective here.

The Reference

Photographs are notoriously poor reference material as they’re difficult to compose in a way that leads to a good painting. On top of that, there are technological challenges that are not easily overcome. Therefore my intention when taking photographs is to capture the feel of the place, include the surroundings and provide enough information for future reference. I don’t compose my pictures in a way they should be painted. Instead I gather as much reference material as I can and afterwards “work with the photographs”, just like I work with any tool. I try and play to its strengths. Following photographs literally would be the exact opposite.

Reference Image; Photograph by Daniel Novotny

The Process

Now immediately after viewing the reference photo I can see that there are several avenues opened to me. As you can see this is a marina scene. The picture was taken on my Italy trip last year. This smaller dock offers a good few painting opportunities. When looking at our particular image, there are at least two to three ideas that pop into my head. First, of course (and the reason for my taking the photo in the first place), is a study of a boat (the boat in the middle of the picture). This would make an excellent painting most certainly. You would disregard probably around 80-90% of the picture to paint it successfully. Besides working with the idea of the boat, you could decide to capture the marina life, the people and what they do around the boats and dock. However, my first idea in this case was that I want to arrive at the boat. I want to keep part of the foreground and some buildings. I want to capture the marina with its empty barrels, railings, ropes, lifebuoys. In other words, I want to include more of the marina setting, context to where the boat is located. Once I’ve decided on what interests me, I can proceed to work toward expressing it.

Expressing our ideas is no easy feat. I will show you my final sketches but the process of compressing this picture into a cohesive and simple unit takes some doing. I fill pages with little sketches, ideas not finished, lines now drawn. And worse still, lines drawn that shouldn’t have been. There’s two to three dozens of little drawings that record my attempts at translating my idea into a set of visual marks. Even if it took you an entire sketchbook to produce one good design, the effort would be well worth it. The purpose of this activity is to get to know the subject, both conceptually and visually. Explore the subject through your sketches. At first you’ll find that you stick more to the actual scene but as you progress and acquire better understanding, you’ll start to move things around, omit what doesn’t make sense, what doesn’t add to the atmosphere of the place.

My approach in this particular case is more organic than analytical, more so than usual because I want to provide you with something that may help you with the transition from painting “things” to design-focused shapes, yet something that still resembles what we see in our reference. In other words, I tone down abstraction and stay more on the representational side of things. That being said, my process is still very shape-conscious. My ultimate goal is to make an interesting tapestry of shapes.

That is all well and good, you may say, but what is the trick? How do I look at such photo reference and choose what I want to paint? In other words, how do I simplify?

Areas of Interest

Reference and areas of interest marked in red

Here’s where I want to propose my concept of dealing with simplification through what I call Areas of Interest. These are the main focus points which are your picture’s inherent make up. Since putting this concept into a schematic like this is new to me (I’ve been doing it subconsciously thus far), I will be discussing, refining and demonstrating this concept in more detail in a separate article in near future but for now let’s just keep in mind that these areas promote certain parts of the picture while completely omitting others. In other words, they prioritize what matters to you and what doesn’t. They also prioritize what matters to the picture as a whole and teach you to look at the content of your work. It helps you focus on what you actually like about the scene and what the scene needs to be complete. For beginners I recommend keeping their number of A. O. I. as low as possible.

I have three areas of interest in this picture. The marina-themed buildings, the main player – the boat, and the foreground. Now talking about perspective, if I were to paint the proportions as shown on the photo, there would be a tiny boat in the background with a comparatively huge buildings overtaking the scene. Foreground with the buildings would overpower my idea quickly. And while I do want the foreground to be fairly prominent, I want it to serve as a sort of a filler. In other words, it shouldn’t detract but support the main subject.

If you want to achieve simplicity, the trick in working with the A. O. I. is to select a representative symbol for each area. You’ll see on my sketch that I hardly copy what is in each area, instead I draw a simple symbol that promotes the essence of the area.

Now just for fun, and to demonstrate how this A. O. I. concept works in this particular scene, here’s a picture where I only kept the three areas of interest and put them together:

Reference and areas of interest marked in red

You can see that they are out of proportion, but clearly you can see now what I actually intend on painting. And you can make much more sense out of what the picture offers. Now I can’t simply slap them on the page like you see them here because they make little sense. Firstly, they’re out of proportion and secondly, they visually don’t relate to each other (they do on conceptual level). And this is a good time to pause and recognize that every picture you try to paint as is presents you with this kind of problem: there’s no order and the relationships among parts to the whole are broken or missing. Fixing those is my next task, making sure that new relationships are invented or existing are improved so they all support the main idea.

There’s one more thing that I want to stress before proceeding and that is to look at the bigger picture. Look at the relationships, reflect on what is important in the scene (content) and literally omit all details (I mean it). Read boat, building, concrete. I work on small scale in my sketchbook, producing drawings of 2 x 3 inches which are extremely small. This forces me to use very little to no descriptive detail. What’s interesting is that I can produce full sheet paintings from the thumbnail sketches no problem. That is because the bigger picture, namely the relationships of parts to the whole are sound. Therefore, start with the large and proceed to the small, not vice versa.

As to my working procedure. I mentioned that the process of simplification happens in my sketchbook on several successive pages through several dozen sketches. One such page is shown on the image above. I always start working with line. I am not yet concerned with tonality and, at the same time, I am less and less interested in the subject as it is found in real life. After I put down a few basic shapes that are representative of my Areas of interest I play around with their placement, no longer referring to the subject.

As I said, my idea is to arrive at the boat. I look for scale contrast. That’s what captured my attention, what interested me about the scene. The boat is the main player but what I like more here is its spatial positioning on the picture plane. This means I have to create spatial movement. To build a path and dynamic spatial connection between the individual A. O. I. Dynamic spatial connection? But how? Picture a pinball machine. The principle is to create tension, in other words, rhythm among the parts of the painting, moving into space and back. In a painting, we certainly don’t want to do it by using perspective. Instead, I am going to be using overlapping. This way I can keep my shapes flat and am not dictated by perspective to distort them in a given way.

As you can see on the resulting sketch, I treat the foreground as a zig-zag movement into space. Zig-zag is rhythmic and dynamic. If you have a large empty area you better give it character and purpose. The purpose of my foreground is to bring you to the boat.

The buildings are going to play a role as you can see. Their role is going to be establishing verticality (as a contrast measure against the horizontality of the boat) and push the boat back into middle plane. The sketch is not stressing the overlap too well (only the little sign overlaps the boat) but I’m taking a mental note to do so in the painting. Notice that I added a little sign with a fish on the side of the building. This fish sign unmistakably specifies that this is indeed a marina and that there are boats, fish, buoys, water, all that good stuff. It adds to the locale.

As for the boat itself, since it’s not going to take such a prominent place within the picture, I simplified its structure. I also sacrifice the size of the boat for the sake of overall picture. From the photo you can judge that it is not a small boat. It is a larger vessel, one that in my sketch lost its massiveness but I’m ready to live with it.

This is just a thumb-sized study of the overall construction of the boat’s planes. I could put this in in its entirety but instead I want to loose the extra deck, focusing on simplicity. Refer to the previous sketch to see how I simplified it in comparison.

Other Solutions

Now let me talk again about scale a little bit. I mentioned perspective and suggested that that’s not a good way to go about working with your picture. I proposed that it would not only dictate what shapes you should use, it would also dictate the sizes and overall size relationships within the picture plane. This is a big no-no.

To emphasize and dramatize just how free (but at the same time responsible for) the sizes in your picture you really are, here’s a sketch where I reversed the sizes, disregarding foreground movement, ultimately making the space very flat. This also shows just how huge the boat is. Since in my original sketch the boat is understated for the good of the picture, here you can clearly tell that my intention was to make it as massive as it deserves to be. I also tilted the water plane by pushing the horizon line high up. These are very effective devices for producing a flat picture space.

As you can see, the Areas of Interest here are used in different ratios or proportions. The boat has the highest priority, the building is second and the foreground is the least important part. Instead, the water plane serves an important role here.

This design could potentially make a stronger painting than the one I selected. However, it is a bit of a leap for beginners to grasp this concept and that’s why I decided to do the version that I did.

This then is another idea, in which the boat and building, with all the various marine-themed symbols, connects into one fun pattern of shapes, colors, sizes and tones. Exploring this avenue may be very satisfying and fun as well, but would certainly yield a much more abstract results. There’s an acute need for introduction of strong tonal pattern here and I don’t want to deal with patterns in this demonstration.

And so we arrive at the end of the first part. We discussed how I “see” the photograph, what decisions I made in simplifying it into three basic areas of interest. In the next part I’ll show you how I balance them against each other in an actual painting.

Please note this is an article repost.
Original publish date overwritten.
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  1. Barbara Ann Masson

    Thank you so much for these articles. Extremely interesting! This is clearly opening doors for my learning! Your work is very inspiring!

    1. Hi Barbara Ann,

      My pleasure. Glad they could be of help.


  2. Francesco Gallarotti

    Reverse perspective, flat shapes instead of perspective-distorted ones, areas of interests: three things I didn’t know about, which made me understand how much freer is the composition in the design of a painting. Coming from a photography background these seems so counterintuitive concepts and yet your rendering of them is so clear and coherent.

    1. Photography is a valid discipline. Approaching painting as a photograph, however, is counterproductive and does not help in developing one’s artistic sensitivities. I’m glad to hear you are able and willing to broaden your horizons through my website. I wish you all the best on your journey.

  3. Emma

    This is really interesting – thank you for explaining your thoughts so clearly. Your article is beginning to answer some questions I didn’t know how to articulate. Looking forward to the painting!

    1. Hello Emma and welcome. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed the articles. Not many of these things are openly talked about, so I’m glad you’re enjoying what we do here. Thanks for the comments!

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