Simplification: Boldness In Composition

It’s more of what I leave out of a painting, than what I put in, that best expresses my emotions and intentions. Simplification is for the beginning of a work, yes, but is also a consideration for the composition as a whole. Experienced artist’s will tell you that, in painting, simplifying is necessary–you can’t put into your work every detail you find in nature. In the old axiom of good composition–“variety with unity and unity with variety”–“variety” does not mean minute detail.

I love to imply. I love to hide things in shadows, and even in the light, that the viewers mind must create for themselves. This implied reality is more dynamic than rendering the same view with much detail. There is power in this way of working, power in the resulting visual impact. This mindset expresses boldness. The finished piece boasts of its visual strength with large shapes of color and fierce construction of form. It gives the work psychological depth and mystery.

Summer Interior by Edward Hopper

Summer Interior by Edward Hopper, Whitney Museum of American Art – Hopper’s compositions are imbued with emotional impact.

Hopper’s work is like this. His deceptively simple forms are full with underlying emotion. O’Keeffe’s flowing forms are another; also deceivingly simple. Simplicity, done right, is not the result of ignorance but of intimacy with three things, that,  for the knowledgeable artist, succinctly portray and interpret the subject. They are…

  1. the subject
  2. light and shadow
  3. the elements of design

Seated Figure by MTMcClanahanA natural extension to the idea of simplicity is that of making forms live together in the same environment. In the composition forms flow in, out and through one another visually, creating harmony, balance, and movement–gestalt if you will–throughout.

I remember how pleased my college professor was with one drawing I did of a seated figure. What attracted his attention was how one leg, through simplifying it, flowed into and meshed with the background giving a feeling that the figure was within her environment and not stuck on the picture plane.

My process, sometimes even the start of it, involves using many small, impressionistic brushstrokes. This gives life to my forms. It would seem to contradict the good advice of beginning a piece with broad washes of color that reveal the general composition. But with experience you learn to see this initial step, the large shapes of color, in the mind’s-eye. But either way, whether on canvas or in the mind, the work is begun in a broad and general way.

Interior With Woman Reading by MTMcClanahanTo a certain extent leaving out detail has to do with temperament. Some artists enjoy detail and can retain emotion and feeling in the results. For me, there’s something mysterious within simplicity born of knowledge that imbues the composition with a certain kind of depth of meaning.

No amount of detail can save a painting that wasn’t begun in simplicity and boldness–who’s underlying structure is not sound. I want to keep that boldness and simplicity throughout the process. Nuance will win the day for me, not a focus on detail. Judging variations in value and color, creating a powerful, sinuous whole with one form flowing into another—this is my desire.

MT McClanahan

An artist and perpetual thinker, MT McClanahan finds inspiration through connecting ideas across a broad range of topics. He especially enjoys philosophy and how art and life interconnect. He is the founder of TPT and his paintings can be seen at

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