We spent a couple of weeks on trees, tree shapes, clouds and cloud shapes and tho' we are working with good reference material it is not like plugging the right numerals into the example math problem - that never worked for me anyway. We do not copy the reference exactly any more than we would try to paint exactly what we see in the landscape. What's to do?
It's all in the shapes. In every element of the landscape: trees, water, river, mountains, clouds - what we are practicing is good shapes. Students skimp on the design of shapes, preferring to focus on materials or exotic techniques and wonder why the outcome is so unsatisfying. Books discuss the painting process but never explain that inelegant SHAPES make for paintings of the same.
I encourage my students to be designer first; be design driven, not image driven. Principles of good design were revered by the ancients and foundational to the "old masters". A casual viewer may simply admire a painting for it's image content, but a devoted student must see beyond the image to the principles of good design that make a painting work. But I digress. . .
Our class time has not been in vain, if what we come away with is the simple idea that trees are shapes, clouds are shapes - and all elements in the landscape must be subject to the design eye.
For beginners this may sound like Greek - but start by creating beautiful shapes. To the viewer it may be a group of trees, a distant mountain, the sky, or a winding river or path - but to the painter they are carefully crafted SHAPES; beautiful for their having been designed with intent.
For every element included in your painting- stop and ask yourself:
is that shape - elegant, sophisticated, beautiful?