This twenty year old picture resurfaced today, and I saw it with new eyes. But this was not one of those lucky moments when you discover that the painting is really good, you just had to forget your original intentions. Unfortunately, it is at least as bad as I thought when I painted it. The good news is that now I know why.
All these years the painting has puzzled me. If you had suggested that there were too many focal points, I would have said that the buildings in the background were very simple, with no detail, so they shouldn't be the problem. But, in fact, they are even more assertive than the ones in the foreground. They have more intense color, a wider value range, and sharper edges.
This is a perfect example of why it is often helpful to combine shapes.
Imagine if I had painted a single shape to represent all the background stuff, reserving a few hard-edged lights, and inserting a couple of accents. It might have looked something like this:
To my eye, this is a more cohesive picture. In the original version, I had to actively ignore parts that were shouting for attention. Now, instead, I can imagine them if I want to know what else is going on inside that shape, nome sain?
Here are a couple of familiar images that lend themselves to a similar treatment. Look them over, with an eye toward what can be hinted at, or left out altogether. I think it's fair to say that more than you think is actually optional information.
Many thanks to Alvaro Castagnet, whose work helped make this clear.