Foundations Friday 2017: Lesson 3 - Abstracting Shapes

January 20, 2017 | 6 Comments

Abstracting shapes
is the art concept that has changed my work more than anything else over the last few years. The ability to abstract my subject into big shapes, to see negative shapes and to map the light and dark shapes has not only made my sketches stronger and my watercolour washes better but it has also sped up my work and given me increased freedom.

Starting with shapes is something that I do 90% of the time these days when I sketch with watercolour. It gets the big shapes on the page quickly and also frees me up so I don’t worry about accuracy as much. Sometimes looking for shapes will actually help accuracy (particularly with foreshortened elements), and other times it results in quite a bit of distortion. But for some reason, shape-based distortion never seems as bad as drawn wonkiness when I am using lines. The important thing is that I fuss a lot less.

On our last morning in Auckland NZ, I started sketching this city view with a few shapes.

Here are the shapes I put down – a few blocks of the buildings, a swipe of turquoise for the sky, and the shadow shape of the Sky Tower.

I then picked up my Aquarelle Graphite pencil (that I was using in Lesson 1) and started to add a few lines. The intention was to add more colour, but I realised the sketch didn’t need much more. So this is where I left it.

Two big takeaways from this sketch:

  1. The first pass of shapes made me simplify and focus on the relationships of the big elements
  2. This sketch was completed much more quickly than a traditional ink and wash because the shapes put down did such a great job of recording the essential parts that I didn’t need to include as much detail. There is always a danger when drawing in pencil/ink first to get bogged down in the details.

This is a more advanced exercise based on the concepts shared in detail in SketchingNow Foundations Lesson 3.  There is certainly nothing wrong with drawing the lines first and then adding the colour over the top – it is the most natural way to sketch. However, if you are a seasoned sketcher and keen to loosen up or speed up your work, then I would strong recommend you try shape first. It’s so much fun!

Regardless of what level you are at, it’s extremely important that you learn to see shapes – learn to merge similar coloured shapes, to distinguish between light and dark shapes and to see negative shapes. It is a bit abstract, but once you can see this way, sketching will become much easier.

Are you working through (or revisiting) Foundations at the moment? How did you go with the content this week?

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Please note: this is a self directed course with ‘lifetime’ access so you can work at your own pace and come back to the lessons as many times as you like.


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