Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Simplifying - It's Not Just For Cityscapes!

We talked about simplification in the cityscape posts, right? There's nothing inherently unique about the genre, when we're talking about simplifying the myriad of visual information in front of us. The same thing can be said about any subject matter, including figures and portraiture.

I'm not into painting likenesses – it's just not as fun to focus on the physical likeness of a person as, say, just pushing paint around – but once in a while I find myself compelled to paint a model so that it actually looks like him/her.

Fortunately (or not), achieving likeness is not about painting tedious detail or smoothing out all the brushstrokes in an effort render a slick surface. It's more in the structure of skull, and the gestural quality of the various parts of the face and the figure as a whole. You can recognize a loved one walking toward you a hundred feet away, can't you? It's certainly not because you can see the individual facial features clearly. You can pick him out in a fuzzy group photo, even if you can't tell where the eye ends and the eyelashes begin.

But I digress. I just wanted to talk about the simplification ideas I used in the cityscapes applied to this painting.

First, it's designed in simple light / dark pattern. In-between values are just small variations within a larger shape.

I also linked shapes by losing edges, so I have fewer shapes. Hair against the shadow part of the skin, and the dress into the hair, etc. There are actually very few isolated shapes. Most of the dark shapes connect with one another, and most of the light shapes connect with one another too.

My colors too are very limited and simple. They are tonally structured, meaning I am primarily just modulating value, and there's very little hue shifts between light and shadow. I kept local color shifts too a minimum as well. This is not one of those figure paintings where I looked for, and accentuated, all the warms and cools and greens and oranges found in the skintones.  Just like I kept local colors to a minimum in the cityscapes, I tried to simplify by using a very narrow color range.

Background clutter. I didn't paint any. Not because there weren't any (there were), but because they weren't a part of my concept. The environment in which the model sat really didn't have anything to do with what I wanted to say about her attitude.

I'll post more "likeness sketches" (I wouldn't call them "portraits" because I was aiming for something else) soon.


  1. Terry, the information you impart on simplifying are thoughtful and well said. I learned so much from your posts on simplifying with the cityscapes, and the step-by-step photos you provided there were just what I needed to visualize the sequence. Do you think you might show a sequence with the figure, also? I know it takes extra time, but it's incredibly beneficial. By the way, a friend let me borrow her book "Almost Spring" that you authored. There again, because of the sequential photos I gleaned so much out of it. It made me plan differently, and I wasn't so overwhelmed with the "hugeness" of painting a landscape. Thank you!

  2. This is gorgeous. I love the sense of mystery and that she looks like she's about to say something. Her beauty really comes through.

  3. Thank you Carol!

    I do want to do more sequential shots for all kinds of painting. I have done a couple in the past, but at some point I'll try something more in-depth. When I'm working with a model, it's a little difficult because breaking to take photos means breaking focus and flow, and for some reason, it's more critical to maintain them in a figure work. But it's entirely different for pieces I do without the model at hand, so I may do it soon.