Paint Masses Not Grasses!

Perhaps one of the more perplexing problems for new and developing landscape artists is how to effectively depict grasses. It’s easy for grasses to come out looking contrived or worse, like a bad hair transplant. I know, cuz I’ve been there, done that. Not the hair transplant, the contrived looking grasses. Here’s a workable solution for painting more natural looking grasses:

Try Painting Masses Not Grasses!

"Still Life With Watermelon" by  Sergei Bongart

“Still Life With Watermelon”
Sergei Bongart

In art, a mass is a three dimensional solid with identifiable boundaries. Big areas of grass are somewhat boxlike. That is they have sides and tops.  When painting grasses, it’s much more important to paint the sides and tops of the big irregular shaped box (mass) than it is to paint individual blades of grass.This approach draws on the Sergei Bongart: Notes on Painting as compiled by Norm Nason. The notes assert, “The hardest skill for artists to learn is to be simple. That’s because we have a natural inclination to create detail, a tendency we must overcome. The first rule is to begin big and simple, then move toward the small and complex”. Notice the operative word “toward” in that last statement. Moving toward the small and complex doesn’t mean we actually arrive at small and complex. We can stop anywhere along way.  The notes say, “The best art amazes us because of what the artist left out….any beautifully rendered detail can be strengthened by this editing process”.  I believe in the power of suggestion. So I like to stop well short of a lot of small and complex detail. There are associative properties that make the power of suggestion work. We can add a few finely painted details to a loosely painted mass of grasses and our viewers will automatically associate the entire mass with those few details. They will infer a level of detail everywhere and think you painted a lot more individual grasses than you did.  This way  your viewer becomes an active participant in your painting. They will enjoy it more. And see it anew each time they look at it. By comparison, if you paint detail everywhere, they will eventually consume it all and tire of the painting. It will become stale and seem contrived.

In my painting, Low Country Marsh, the big mass on the right has the look and feel of grass even though individual blades are not really painted. But the irregularly shaped box with it’s vertical side and horizontal top is well defined. The sides are in shadow, the tops are in light.  It’s the irregular, relatively soft juncture (edge) between tops and sides that gives the feel of grass. A little detail in the foreground mass helps the viewer infer detail in that mass, too. The same idea plays out in the background tufts of grass as well. The only detail is in the foreground and even there, it’s pretty sparse mostly suggested.


“Low Country Marsh”
Robert Simone
16″ x 20″

In short, “Painting Masses Not Grasses”, means keeping all detail subordinate to the overall mass. Your viewer’s mind will fill in what’s lacking.

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