Each year companies around the world devote a good portion of their time and budget to trying to boil their message to the consumer down to a simple phrase or logo. The goal is to equate products, quality and service all at once in an instant, recognizable image. Here are some great examples below.


Mercedes Benz, McDonald’s and Nike have all successfully incorporated an instant association with their products without having to actually show the product itself.


You don’t need a billboard displaying the full menu of items that McDonald’s sells in order to get your attention as you’re driving down the highway. In fact, that would probably have the opposite effect on you. There is no time to take in that much information as your traveling 70 miles an hour down the road with a van full of kids who are reminding you how hungry they are with each passing mile. You would probably be trying to recall what the billboard said as you pass the McDonald’s exit. The message didnt achieve its intended purpose by getting you to stop at the restaurant but made things more complicated, which caused you to miss the goal altogether.

McDonald’s doesn’t need volumes of information and detail in order to get you to stop for breakfast, lunch or dinner. All they need to do is flash an image of a big yellow M in front of a red background and your taste buds go into action. It’s a simple message that people associate with Happy Meals, Big Macs, Chicken McNuggets and Ronald McDonald.

Having said all of that, how does this apply to us as painters? We can use the same concept of simplification in our own work. Instead of painting every leaf of a tree or every hair on someone’s head, we can simplify those images down to instantly recognizable shapes which tell the same story, but in a much more effective way. I like to think of painting as visual shorthand.

Part of being an artist is developing the ability to take in raw facts, much like a camera does, and then simplifying those facts down in a way which is easily recognized and understood by the viewer. When it comes to painting, much of this simplifying process takes place in the form of values. By half closing your eyes (squinting) when looking at your subject, you are eliminating the amount of light that reaches your eyes and, in turn, eliminating much of the details that are seen when your eyes are wide open. Just as we didn’t need an entire menu on a billboard, we don’t need all of those details in our painting. By painting the values that you see in your subject through squinted eyes, you are able to create a more powerful image which grabs the viewer’s attention and gives them all of the information needed in order to get your message across.

Some of my favorite painters are those who were able to convey their message with large, simple values that read well from a distance. One of these painters was Anders Zorn. He was a master at interpreting his subjects by using a minimal amount of values.


Painting by Anders Zorn


Notice the large areas that are held together by keeping the values simple.




By using large, simple values, Zorn has managed to hold the painting together in a strong, unified way and also grabbed our attention by allowing our eyes to quickly absorb those large shapes in an easy manner which readily identifies his subject. This is very similar to how we observe things in nature. Our eyes take in an incredible amount of information very quickly and we are able to identify objects by the large shapes in which we see them.

So the next time you’re tempted to add an entire menu of details in your painting, remember the “simple” lessons from Anders Zorn and “think big”.