In life, in art, a major problem is failing to see the big picture. Individual parts may be just fine but the overall doesn’t get off the ground. Together with your individual sensitivity and your own vision, what you’re looking for is strength, pattern and character. We’re talking art here:
Go a long way back; I mean a long way — into the other room.
Small room? — look at it through binoculars — backwards.
Look at it in a mirror.
Half close your eyes and look at it.
Half close your eyes and work on it.
If you’re working from a slide — throw the projector out of focus and find the compositional faults.
If you’re working from a color photo — run it through a black and white photocopier and find the faults.
If you’re working from your head — “swatch it” by holding pieces of toned paper here and there to see improvements.
If you’re working on location — don’t let yourself be tyrannized by the scene. Keep asking, “What could be?”
If you’re working on location — look through the viewfinder of a camera — without taking the picture.
Don’t be shy about thumbnails, rough-rough-roughs, or sketches. Make your big mistakes in little ways that don’t count. Discover potential line-ups, rhythms, activations. Clarity grows with transformation.
It’s easier to get the big picture in a little picture so think of your big picture as a little picture and your big picture will fly.
PS: “The true function of art is to edit nature and so make it coherent. The artist is a sort of impassioned proofreader, blue pencilling the bad spelling of God.” (H.L. Mencken)
PPS: “The beholder’s eye, which moves like an animal grazing, follows paths prepared for it in the picture.” (Paul Klee)
Esoterica: Veteran and professional artists often report that preliminary sketching can undermine the desire to do the larger work. It’s safe to say for those who feel this, the sketch is sometimes done quite well in the head. Most artists will also admit that it was not always this way.
The following are selected responses to this letter. Thank you for writing.
Line-ups, rhythm, and activation
What do you mean by these terms? (Several writers)
(RG note) These are three of many compositional devices which you may or may not wish to use in your work. You may be already using them subconsciously. They apply to realism, abstraction, even sculpture. If you remember that quote by Paul Klee (above) about the grazing animal following a path around the picture — you will see that the idea is to guide the animal. You want to keep him grazing in your picture — rather than wandering off to graze in somebody else’s (perhaps greener) field.
Line-ups. If you take a straight-edge and extend lines out from the edges of various forms in your work you will see how they might carry on in other areas. Adjustments can then be made and other elements, if you wish, can be brought into line. This generally makes for stronger, more solid compositions. The viewer’s subconscious sensibilities pick up on these strengths and are given a feeling of “rightness.” This also works with curves.
Rhythms: Forms, shapes and motifs that echo and repeat throughout the work — larger, smaller, inverted — themes and variations — as in a symphony. Strongly repeated or as delicate grace-notes. They communicate an energy and interest that stops and fascinates even the passive eye.
Activations: Spots of color or forms that lead the eye around — generally in a curve — with the idea of controlling the eye and keeping it on a felicitous path within the picture plane. In more classical times this activation was desirable to lead the eye from the central or foreground interest to the subtleties of background and distance — in other words the eye’s exploration of perceived depth.
by “Elzire” Terri Steiner, Princeton, MA, USA
Wow, I needed this. Just talking about this very thing on Monday, with a friend who actually went to art school but who isn’t “doing” art. I never went and I am painting daily. Another way to get the big picture is to turn the canvas and references upside down and paint that way. This is particularly helpful with a difficult subject. I’ve also had to learn to stop myself to do the “step back and look.”
by D. W. Thurman, Hawaii
The word is “perspective.” You can get perspective on another person’s life by looking at what he is doing and you can often see that which he cannot himself see. That goes for his art. A doctor has perspective on ailments because he sees a variety every day and is better able to make judgements. Even when we “take a walk” we get a perspective on the day’s events, work in progress, relationships, goals. Without perspective we are merely machines, and that’s no fun.
by Joan Rieveley, Windsor, Ontario, Canada
It seems to me that every person looking at a scene sees something different. I know I can walk along a path and see countless paintings in the weeds and rocks at my feet. My companion looks and sees the litter and scruffiness of the trail. We are both having a personal reaction to our world. I feel the need to see the beauty in one little dandelion or a cluster of colourful pebbles and am driven to portray this in my paintings. They are “found treasures.” It is a wonderful thing that we all see the world so differently, that’s the beauty of it all. The job of the artist is to present these personal views to any one who will take the time to truly SEE.
Smoke and mirrors
by Warren Criswell, Benton, Arkansas, USA
I’ve used many of those tricks for getting an overall look at the painting I’m working on, and still use the mirror trick. For many years I’ve had a full length mirror installed at one end of my studio, opposite the main easel, and would not like to have to do without it. The idea is to separate yourself somehow from the work. During an intense painting session the artist sort of merges with the work, becomes a part of it. This is as it should be, but in that state I can see it only subjectively. (Even at these time, however, I’ve discovered that I rarely focus my eyes sharply on the passage I’m painting!) To see it objectively, I have to resort to tricks like those you mention — squinting the eyes or, most importantly, checking it out in the mirror. What I see in there is often startling! What looked OK on the easel may look great or god-awful in Looking Glass Land. I think that in reversing the image and doubling the distance between it and myself, I am ripping it out of myself, allowing me to see it as a separate object in the world. In this way the making of a work of art is a sort of replay of the birth of consciousness — the separation of object from subject, the world from one’s self.
But the second part of your letter — about altering nature for aesthetic reasons — is another matter. Of course we do this and must do it, but there can be a subtle tyranny hidden in this habit. In “blue pencilling the bad spelling of God,” we assume we know the correct spelling. We superimpose our own cultural aesthetics on Nature, which has no aesthetics. Following this habit of editing can lead to painting the same picture over and over, which is mannerism (small m). It may be a great picture, of course, but what started as inspired creativity after a while may smother the creative spark. Creativity is never in equilibrium. My experience is that no matter how inventive I may think I am, I can never match the amazing inventiveness of Nature. But achieving the ability to see this inventiveness requires something more subtle than smoke-and-mirror studio tricks.
Micro to macro
by Jim Rowe
I have had several big break-throughs in advancing to where I am now. One of them is to do all my sketches about 2″x 3″. This is done by taking computer paper and just dividing it up in 2″x 3″ pieces. Instead of going through piles of paper a day I can now make up to 15 sketches per page. When I finally see a sketch I want to paint I use an inexpensive photo enlarger to transform it onto canvas. I can easily make a painting 4’x 6′ with this method.
The “directional star” system
by Jurate Macnoriute, Lithuania
One can explain the fact that directions repeat with the help of rhythm. Rhythm is like the even recurrence of a tune. It follows from this that directions of lines may also reiterate. As proportional grids don’t allow picture forms near lines of grids, so picture’s lines directions cover discrete fields with not many lines. Lines of works of one period of ancient style or of one author of later epochs plotted into one point were called a “directional star.”
by Kit, Sidney B.C. Canada
I find that doing a preliminary sketch on paper spoils my desire. I’m always drawing in my head and re-arranging nature, deleting and lightening and darkening in my head, particularly with things I see around me. Then it seems that all of a sudden the timing is just right and the painting goes together almost without a hitch from beginning to end. Sometimes, however, I do a simple drawing right on the paper and begin painting. Other times I will do a complex drawing and transfer it to the painting, particularly if it’s a complex subject. Quite often these paintings become “work” before they are finished.
How good we have it
by Jack White and Mikki Senkarik
I thought our readers would like to see a typical Hong Kong art factory in operation. There is a great photo of the artists working in their cramped studio. They can produce thousands of oil paintings a month. As you may not know I spent a week over there looking at these production companies. Lots of them produce some good stuff. I went in one studio that told me they turn out 250 originals a month. This should make all of us appreciate living in a free country and never to complain about our working conditions. These painters earn very little. I was able to purchase a nice 24 x 20 for $5.00 US. An 8×10 in their “high-class” style was .80¢. Those two paintings remind me just how good we have it.
by Stephen Vizinczey, London, UK
Thank you for mentioning two of the Writer’s Ten Commandments from Truth and Lies in Literature, and especially for mentioning them in French, as the book Vérités et mensonges en littérature just came out in France with Eloge des femmes mures. (Sorry for the missing accents.) Your translation of “You should write (or paint) to please yourself” is correct, whereas the printed French version says “Pour te faire plaisir tu écriras”. (Luckily there are only about a dozen or so things like that.)
(RG note) The whole ten commandments, as transcribed for visual artists, are quoted on page 136 of “The Painter’s Keys.” I can’t tell you how many times artists have written and told me these commandments are pinned to their studio walls, wrapped around their wrists, or tatooed on their lower lips. Thanks. With regard to the French translation — I have passed this information to Sophie Marnez in Lyon, France. It’s important that we get it right. If anyone has suggestions or improvements for the translations please let us know.
What’s it all about, Harold?”
“Made up of corallitic accretions and painful increments, lit on rare occasions by bolts of revelation, and then stuffed behind the wainscoting to grope in the mouse-turd dust, art is the equivalent of athlete’s foot, at best an exquisite itch, at worst an excuse to stop walking. On the emotional side, it is either masturbation with a hockey glove or a night beneath the sliding moon that shames Eros.” (Harold Town)