Below you will find two images of my friend Theresa O'Neill who is one of my regular models. When looking at the coloured version of the photograph, it may be seen as rather intimidating for a beginner to reproduce it as a work of art. Even when the image lacks the distraction of colour, the photographs details are incredibly threatening to capture.

We identify images with their given names that we use on an everyday basis. We are trained to see in the language that we communicate in, when speaking and writing. We see may only see the complexion of a face, her eyes, nose, mouth, arms, the window, perhaps her earnings and the incredible detail in her scarf. We see, and we don't observe the simplicity, becoming distracted by all the colour and complex detail, failing to notice the basic foundation of the form.

Often, a newly practicing artist concentrates on the little details instead of the larger abstract forms, quickly becoming discouraged or reaching a plateau where they just don't know how to improve their skills. When copying what you observe, you must not see an image for it's given name, as it will distract you from what is actually in front of you. As an excellent practice, I will frequently have my students practice from old master copies and images like the ones below, having them draw or paint the image upside down. By doing this, it's more difficult for them to identify what they see by name, and they concentrate more on what they actually observe, instead of making up what they think it looks like in their head. There tends to be a euphoric shift in your brain and lose track of time as you work, and begin to see the shapes and not these terms we call them. Even as an accomplished artist, I still turn my paintings and drawings upside down and sideways to find errors in my work. 

Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.
— Confucius

As an artist, When I observe the images below, I have gotten into the habit of squinting to the point of having my eyes almost shut in the beginning stages of my work. By doing this, I'm flattening and simplifying the subject into abstracted shapes, virtually not allowing my eyes to see any detail. This practice also reduces the saturation and transitions in colour that distract us. Please feel free to try it, if you see any detail in the images below, your eyes need to be more closed. You will see your subjects differently, a new found beauty will be found in these massive shapes of light and shade. Another practice is to use a black mirror, which will also reduce the detail in a live subject, where you have an easier time seeing the mass tones of any well lit subject (I will be writing a future post with instructions on how to make one) 

Model - Theresa O'Neill © Daniel Anaka www.danielanaka.com

Model - Theresa O'Neill © Daniel Anaka

Now, taking things further into abstraction and the simplification of form, there is an incredible exercise that I had learned back in high school. Unfortunately my art teacher didn't explain the purpose of this exercise, so it ended up being a mundane project that I did for a few days and I moved onto what I thought was more interesting. But, now knowing it's value, I strongly suggest that it becomes a regular practice in the beginning stages of your learning or even treated a great challenge of simplicity for the more intermediate artists.

Four values in relation to each other, notice the differences in contrast where they sit next to each other 

Four values in relation to each other, notice the differences in contrast where they sit next to each other 


Find yourself an image that isn't too busy or colourful in the beginning with some really obvious light and dark aspects to the image. Any high quality image will work, but I suggest starting with a master painting as you will learn the main tonal and compositional relationships by studying it. While looking over your image with your squinted eyes, ask yourself how it can be illustrated with the minimum amount of tonal shapes.

This is not necessarily a painting or drawing exercise, I fear that you may get far too detailed in your simplistic masterpiece with the urge to mix your tonal values (I know I would). 
I recommend, cutting up four values of toned paper (similar to the tone's you see above) into the large shapes with an x-acto knife representing what you can only see easily if you squint. You can always add and subtract by using the toned paper, have fun with it, and even overlap to make adjustments in your paper painting. I created a digital version below limiting my palette into four tones using the 'Blob Brush' In Adobe Illustrator, demonstrating how I personally translated the images above when I squinted.

While doing this exercise, take notice of the tonal relationships, and how and where there is more contrast. What is the most dominant value? Is the overall piece dark, light or somewhere in-between? What is the least dominant value? Where do your eyes go first when you look at the image? Now picture the image you created without your black or white, what kind of feeling do you get from it? 

I strongly suggest choosing different kinds of images that lean towards dark or light in the beginning, later getting into more subtle references leaning towards one of the mid-tones being the dominant value with small amounts of dark and light. 

An Example of the Four Value Exercise

Simplified four value painting based on the images above using the 'Blob Brush' in Adobe Illustrator.
Model - Theresa O'Neill © Daniel Anaka