To differentiate one artist from another, master to apprentice, is their sense of shape. If you strip away everything else, technique, ability to mix color and put down washes, shape is the defining element that makes a master who they are. When you are painting a tree, do you study the shape of its branches and are you able to define them well in your painting? When you render a building, are you able to capture the essence of its shape to make it recognizable at first glance? That's why there’s something about the paintings by the master Joseph Zbukvic that makes them masterpiece. Next time you look at his painting, pay attention to his shape treatments. The trees, the buildings, the lamp post, even the birds he put in the sky. You will see why he is the master compare to many other artists. To me, that is an on-going learning process and a skill to master.
To paraphrase what Mr. Zbukvic said in one of his lessons. "If there's anything that sets one artist apart from another, it's the calligraphy. It cannot be taught, and shouldn't be taught." And I agree completely. This skill is developed by personal experience and taste. But there are a few things that I want to share that can set you on the right path:
1. Practice drawing - This is probably the most important thing, and it deserves its own post. But practice drawing is vital for training your sense of shape. When I say drawing I meant line drawings, without worrying too much about the shading and value. Pencil, pen, or even with brushes, it doesn't matter. The point is to capture the essence of an object by using lines. And when you draw, try not to lift your hand. How we used to draw when we were little - those fuzzy lines that are built with endless tiny strokes. That needs to go! You can't get the organic and delicate shape when you draw like that. Quirkiness in drawing is OK. As you practice you will be able to draw with more confidence and style.
2. Exaggeration - If you draw/paint everything as they appear to be, it will end up looking boring. And the reason is because when you draw something from a three-dimensional space down into a two-dimensional surface, it loses the interest of space. To compensate for it, you can exaggerate the shape to make it look more dynamic, as if it is moving. If you see a tree branch is bending, have it bend a bit more in your drawing. If you see a pointy roof top, makes it pointier. A little exaggeration goes a long way.
3. Shape that defines an object - Try to find out what shape defines the object you're looking at, and focus on that. A good painting has good shapes, but that doesn't mean it's everywhere. Have detail shapes everywhere the whole painting will be flat. The defining shape often is a small part of the object. Joseph said when painting a horse, the ears are the most important part. A small head and shoulder can give you a sense of a person without painting each hand and feet. A raising tail suggest a dog. You know it is a church when you see a cross on the rooftop. And of course, two wings stretching out is a soaring bird. Make everything you paint a visual language.
Again, these things take practice, a lot of them! And that is especially true for watercolor, because you can only define a shape in a limited amount of time. Once the paint dries, you can only put down another wash. If you fiddle around with it too much, it loses its freshness. Unlike oil or acrylic which you can simply paint over, watercolor needs to be fast and clean. That makes this a challenge for any artist. So next time if you see a master's demo, don't be fooled by the ease and speed when they paint. It is actually quite stressful and there are a lot of thinking behind that few seconds of wash.