When it comes to painting, kissing can be the kiss of death. Kissing is where elements in a painting come up to one another and just lightly touch or rub against one another. It can be the result of painterly timidity or a lack of informed audacity. More than anything, it’s an acquired habit that simply needs to be understood. Instructor Marion Boddy-Evans says, “Ideally, elements should be either definitely apart or definitely overlapped.”
We all do it from time to time. The best way to find examples is to cruise your own work. Accepting that your paintings are made up of various patches, note where and how these patches approach and touch one another. Here are a few typical kisses:
A background strip of land just comes up to a foreground tree. A cloud wraps itself around a hill. A tree trunk comes down the sky and sits on the edge of the land.
Minor adjustments to these aberrations will often improve compositional strength, form and depth. They neutralize that awkward, two-dimensional look that is rampant these days.
Make the distant land go behind the foreground element. Design the cloud in counterpoint to the hill. Bring the tree trunk down into the land — situate it “in” rather than “on.”
Actually, there are no real rules against kissing — only conventions. Things just look better when kissing is under control.
On the other hand, some artists actually look for opportunities to kiss, searching out pictorial elements that might be made to have mutual or tangential edges. This stylistic ploy is used to create distracting relationships and illusions beyond reality, which may be valuable in some cases.
Whatever you do, if you’re going to kiss, kiss regularly. One lone kiss generally sticks out as the blunder of an amateur. A work filled with passionate kisses can be intriguing, but a work with no kisses at all fills the viewer’s heart with love.
PS: “No kissing please, as this creates a weak, connected shape which will distract the viewer’s eye, causing a momentary pause as they puzzle it out.” (Marion Boddy-Evans)
Esoterica: Kissing is prevalent in the work of beginning artists as well as mature ones. It has something to do with our innate desire to organize and make sense of our world. Our eyes automatically reorganize elements to give us a more mechanical understanding, and our brush goes along for the ride. When this is understood, you can do something about it. Our world is actually a feast of divine chaos, but pictures are pictures, and there are sound compositional devices to handle the situation.
Hiding and disclosing
by Jason Turner, UK
There are many factors that dictate kissing. People tend to see visual elements in the same way they see products, and have a natural tendency to separate or line them up. Thus we have a need to see the whole barn instead of the barn behind the tree. The weaker mind puts the tree beside the barn so both are seen in full and fully explained and displayed. This is often the case in primitive art where elements tend to be either separated or kissing. Art is the business of hiding and disclosing.
‘Metaballs’ and ‘Skoshes’
by Peter Ciccariello, Providence, RI, USA
Artists are generally aware of the tension and visual gravitational pull of one object placed in close proximity to another, and many have spent a lifetime pondering and experimenting with the duality of that pushing and pulling of color and form (think Gottlieb, Rothko, and other Color Field Painters). My work is often in a virtual three dimensional environment where in some cases there is an object called a “metaball” that was invented by Jim Blinn in the early 1980s. The interaction between two different three-dimensional positive metaballs is such that if they “kiss too closely,” two smaller metaballs will merge into one larger object. I find this analogous to the mental merging of visual objects that may or may not be “kissing” properly.
At one time in my life I did a great deal of work with wood and a common term among carpenters and woodworkers was “skosh” which even Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines as “a small amount: bit, smidgen”. The problem then becomes how close should objects come to kissing? Perhaps a skosh or two away? Enough distance to prevent a metaball convergence? Even in typography, when you closely kern two letters or even introduce negative letter spacing by tucking (or kissing) one letter as close to the other as possible, trying to keep a simple skosh away one becomes aware of the attraction and repulsion of visual objects.
I like the idea of objects “kissing” and I definitely like your analogy hinting at a state of visual harmony that resembles “love.” When paint and pigment, form and structure, color and line align perfectly and balanced, the image is undeniably and unabashedly in love, and at that point the rest of the world slips away and you know your work is done.
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Reluctant to fix nature
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA
I’m laptopping from Denali National Park, Alaska, watching the colors and values shift across the jagged facets of an amazing mountain range as the sun almost, but never quite, sets. The clouds swirl over and around Mt. McKinley, creating amazing shadows and transparencies. What interests me, and is relevant to your letter, is how often the clouds seem to precisely parallel the mountain sky line. I’m sure there’s some kind of scientific reason for it, but lining the clouds up with the mountains just seems like a very bad composition. It’s a bit of a problem, because I believe in the value of honest observation, and I’m reluctant to ‘fix’ what I see, just to make what I think would be a better painting.
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by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
I find this happens most when artists draw the complete image beforehand. I’ve seen artists drawing a figure complete with eyes, nose, mouth down to the pupils and irises within the eye then fill in each of the sections. There is a tendency here never to back and blend these areas if at first you hit on a good application of paint or the shape was wonderfully applied. If a piece requires drawing I try and do one of two things to prevent “kissing.” One is I don’t draw beforehand. This way my “edges” blend automatically as I paint. Second, if I have to draw a complex piece, after I have filled in the local color on an object I put in the background surrounding it, then take a clean brush and go over all the edges and blend them into together. As I complete the piece I make a conscious effort to look for places I can blur or soften edges more where they are not necessary to the overall image. I am a firm believer in having several “reads” in my work. I like to move the viewer’s eye around the work and have them look at what I want them to look at first.
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Kissing like crazy
by Tom Semmes, Frederick, MD, USA
I hadn’t heard the term “kissing” before used as a compositional term. I recently saw the Giorgio Morandi exhibit at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, and realize that he was the master of conscious “kissing.” Most of his still lifes were consciously arranged so that an edge of an object would line up with the table that it rested on. In some of his paintings every object was carefully placed to just barely touch each other. The result of all this was often that you weren’t sure where objects started and stopped and that positive and negative spaces had equal weight.
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Dena’s Rule of Three
by Dena Crain, Kenya
I especially appreciated this remark: “If you’re going to kiss, kiss regularly. One lone kiss generally sticks out as the blunder of an amateur.” I regularly instruct my design students on something I call Dena’s Rule of Three. It applies to composition, color, value, embellishments and more. “Do something once, and you’ll be lucky if no one notices it. Do something twice and it will definitely look like a mistake. Do something three times and it becomes deliberate, intentionally part of the art.”
Kissing in the quilts
by Beth Ferrier, Saginaw, MI, USA
Even though I am a traditional quilter I find your painterly advice to be helpful. I would like permission to include your letter “How to control kissing” in my appliqué design class materials. I would include all contact information and encourage my students to sign up for the Twice-Weekly Letters. I find that traditional quilters are often timid about overlapping designs. Your letter perfectly describes how clumsy kissing can be.
(RG note) Thanks, Beth. I’m glad kissing applies to quilting. Actually, some of these letters apply to a lot of different disciplines. Several accountants and a lawyer asked to reprint the recent letter “What to do with Grandpa’s art,” and the letter on the self esteem craze was reproduced by dozens of bloggers, several AA members and one that offered advice on parachute packing and jumping.
Working in series
by Jennifer Noxon, Almonte, ON, Canada
I returned to painting three years ago and have just entered the gallery scene. I have found my work to run in series — each series can be quite different from the other, though the inspiration and colour/shapes carry from one painting to another. There are also compositional threads. I actually like working on more than one series at a time — I find each one feeds the other. It seems to help me bring a healthy detachment and energy to my work. In a recent solo show I embraced the exercise of producing 17 works that made up a ‘body.’ I always have two or three different ‘threads’ that I’d like to pursue but I’m concerned I will not emit ‘consistency’ or ‘a look’ or ‘style’ — and this may make it difficult to develop relationships with galleries.
I am a living, changing, breathing and mutable being — perhaps I need to have faith that there are one or two gallery owners who will understand and appreciate that… but the general vibe I get seems to be contrary to what I’m looking for. What’s your view on this?
(RG note) Thanks, Jennifer. Sticky wicket. While creative integrity requires following your nose, selecting works for shows is a matter of pure calculation. Artists with a big enough volume and variety can choose to keep shows somewhat, but not entirely, consistent. Most collectors don’t appreciate versatility as much as we might wish. My rationale is the understanding that there will always be another show.
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Working with Corel Draw
by Debra McGuire, Davie, FL, USA
Someone bought me a tablet and a Corel CD. . . (that I have never watched and should ) But through hours and hours and sleepless nights I have learned enough to just get by. To me it is easier to draw on paper than it is the tablet. Some people think the computer is doing all of the work. I get tired of showing them, by reaching for a blank piece of paper… and sketching something of their desire. Is computer drawing considered ‘cheating’?
(RG note) Thanks, Debra. Making the transition between paper and screen may be tough after years of paper, but people are doing it every day. New technology and new creativity go hand in hand. Go for it. Not cheating. Embrace.
‘Crash’ a better word
by Elizabeth Concannon, St. Louis, MO, USA
Though I am not familiar with them, there must be other references using the word “kissing” as this horrible thing described in this letter — but I think that it would be better to use a different word because kissing is something desirable and positive and the action you describe is destructive. In fact, it reminded me of one of the lessons from a teacher I admire — and he described the same event — the sometimes unfortunate coming together — as a ‘crash.’ In fact, during a critique, he was often able to admire a relatively successful painting and at the same point out the “crashes” which kept it from being exceptionally good. Maybe the lesson would be received better if we ‘avoided crashes’ instead of ‘avoiding kissing.’
Early put off
by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA
When I was 9 years old, my mother hired a painting tutor for me because, since I was already good at drawing, she thought I should try painting. Looking back, I think she was insane — especially since she couldn’t really afford it. But what stands out in my mind — besides the memory of feeling pressured to produce something masterful to prove I was worth the weekly tuition — was the robin’s egg blue lake floating above the Kelly-green hills I had painted. No matter what I tried, I couldn’t get the lake to sink down into the valley between those hills. I was so upset I rebelled and refused to touch paint again until art school, and even that was a battle. Needless to say the tutor was fired….
Out of gas
by Nancy Doyle, CO, USA
I’ve been painting for about ten years. I’ve learned a lot, painted enthusiastically, and sold some pieces. About a year ago I began to lose interest. I couldn’t think what to paint. I live in one of the most beautiful places on Earth: Colorado! Still, nothing moved me. It’s worse now. This is neither a block, nor a creative stutter; this is the wall. I don’t want to paint anymore. What’s going on? Have I simply gotten lazy, become self-indulgent, or is this a real phenomenon? If so, what have other artists done about this situation and what do I do? I have run out of gas.
(RG note) Thanks, Nancy. In every wall there is a door. Look around and you’ll find it.
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pastel painting, 16 x 16 inches
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Tepes Dracula (Sergiu Vlad) of Moldova, who wrote, “Do not explain to me what is this art of paintings.”
And also Henri DesLauriers Fonce who wrote, “You seem to know what you are talking about.”
And also Nancy Maxfield Lund of Salt Lake City, UT, USA, who wrote, “I had a college art teacher named Osral Allred that had a “kiss” philosophy. It was Keep It Simple Student (Or Stupid depending!) Thanks for the reminder!”
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