Almost everyone who reads my letters will have had this experience: You’re at work in the studio and a non-art friend drops by. Carrying a conversation with half your brain, you continue painting with the other half.
Yesterday it was Jim. He and I share a love of vintage Bentleys. His is 1936, mine’s 1938. After some carburetor talk, Jim happened to notice I was pulling the painting out of my head. “What is it you’re trying to do there?” he asked.
I consider all art questions valid, even from a guy who smells of gasoline. “I’m trying to make a full painting,” I said. When Jim left, a Scotch later, I got to thinking what I was trying to tell him:
The painting needs a foreground, middle ground and background.
It needs a strong black, white and grayscale design.
It needs gradations, large and small and interlocking patterns.
It needs attention to counterpoint and negative areas.
It needs a sense of mystery, fantasy, illusion or wonder.
It needs fresh slashes, swipes and textures.
It needs not to be overworked, laboured or boring.
It needs colour sophistication — perhaps light and shade.
It needs at least some elements to be formed up properly.
It needs one area to determine what another area will be.
It needs to reflect the joy or meaning of an occasion, whether in the present or past.
It’s a given that my priorities may not be your priorities. But these are the sort of things we need to think about when we are trying to make art. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” said Socrates. One of my much-celebrated weaknesses is that I try to analyze everything. “The unexamined painting is not worth painting.” Funnily, one can discuss carburetion while ticking off a list.
PS: “The composition is the organized sum of the interior functions of every part of the work.” (Wassily Kandinsky)
Esoterica: To make a full painting we need to prioritize and execute those nuances and stylistic tendencies that make our work unique. Some of these priorities come automatically and intuitively, others require a self-made and self-managed checklist tattooed deeply into our creative core. In the words of the late Canadian portraitist Myfanwy Pavelic: “I’d rather it took over me than I took over it.”
I was thinking about some of these things (as well as the Bentley) while painting outdoors — take a look at this restful, six-minute video:
Winners and dogs
by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA
It’s the mystery, fantasy and wonder that I’m still working on. In my recent work I attempted to paint the human figure, something I haven’t done outside a workshop or class in some years, and I think some of my figures lack mystery, or perhaps in my attempt to depict my impressions of India, I have over rendered the scene. So now I shall begin again, striving for more mystery. As far as your literal checklist to making a “full painting,” many of your points are valid, but my experience of painting is so inarticulate, so intuitive, that I can’t switch over to that part of my mind until most of the painting is finished. By then I know that I’ve either got a winner or a dog on my hands (pardon the expression) and it’s a good time to stop and do something else. Overworking a winner is just as disastrous as trying to save a loser. Working in a smaller size and trying to keep the ideas rough by using a larger brush has been a useful trick.
Another set of rules
by Richard Nelson, Maui, HI, USA
Based on the many needs you identified here, many of the great art pieces in the world would be seen lacking.
For me, the essential question of “What is the artist trying to say” needs to be asked before the “OUGHTS TO HAVE” have their arbitrary say. If we’re talking about criteria for painting a Robert Genn landscape, these rules apply. Pick up a book of contemporary art and we recognize their game is played by another set of rules. For many artists, light and shade, 3D space, etc. hold no relevance. The “Full Painting,” for me, results from more than a set of arbitrary rules which work for only those who play a particular game. Have another scotch and recall that I’m that guy who set the example of how to pontificate.
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by Solette N. Gelberg, King City, ON, Canada
I learned more from your six minute video today than I learned in the two years of Saturday morning art classes in Mrs. Bates’ basement when I was 12 – 13 years old. Mrs. Bates was a purist who taught us to draw and paint using pencil, charcoal and oil paints. She also taught us as much art history as she could shove down our throats in 10 – 15 minutes. I don’t remember seeing any of her own works. I’m not sure which is more exciting, your Bentley or your well behaved Terrier.
A composition is like poetry
by Dwayne Davis, Williams Lake, BC, Canada
Regarding Kandinsky’s quote about composition and to the question as to what is the thought process that we, as the “composer,” come to when we create a painting. I know the rules for placement, light source, perspective, contrast, colour, and continuity. Are these the sum of a composition, or is the composition only limited to the layout of the design?
I had a criticism of my composition in a mural design I had proposed, where I was asked to consider moving a building to the left and up because it was thought that my composition was too centered, the sky was too large, and needed more background trees that carried out of the top of the picture. The critical view was noted and I then explained my reasons for the composition’s being. The critic was not pleased with my interpretation, and to ease “Its” ego and mine the project took a completely different avenue of design.
To change the composition was to change everything about the design that I was going for. It may be their money, used to make this design, but I could not back down from my composition choice. The painting would have most of the same elements, but the complete visual meaning of the school building in the design would change. The composition I had created for the mural gave the “feel” that the painting needed, or at least it was the vision I intended. The composition of a painting is like the words on a page. When placed just so and with the proper font, mere words become poetry.
What was that marker?
by Sheri Farabaugh, Denver, CO, USA
The clip of you painting Forest Spirit was a joy to watch, and the painting was beautiful. It gave me a new way to approach plein air painting which has always been a struggle. Thank you so much for sharing it (and the Bentley is beautiful too). I paint in oil and I was envious of the wash you applied mid way through the painting. What a great way to unify the whole canvas… maybe I should give acrylics a try. My question is: at one point you used something that almost looked like a pencil or pen to apply small branches. Could you share what it was? It certainly looked easier than a brush for the details.
(RG note) Thanks, Sheri. It was a Number 6 sable brush.
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What was that tool?
by Wendy Gregersen, Solvang, CA, USA
I particularly enjoyed your video this morning. You made Forest Spirit look like child’s play to paint. Knowing that wasn’t the case, I was still left with hope that some day I might be able to produce a painting with depth and wonder. I was wondering if you could tell me what was the tool you used that allowed your hand to roll over the canvas so easily while not damaging the paint beneath? I haven’t had much experience with painting tools (or painting either for that matter) and this looks like something that might help keep my ‘cuffs off.’
(RG note) Thanks, Wendy — and the many others who asked this question. A mahlstick is a traditional hand rest used by a variety of workers ranging from sign painters to fine artists. These include short ones for outdoor sketches and long ones for big studio easels. Called appuie-main in French, mahlsticks traditionally had a rounded ball of leather at the top to soften damage to wet paintings and to give stability. A refinement is to put a hook on the top and hang it from the easel top or box edgein several positions across the top if required.
There are 4 comments for What was that tool? by Wendy Gregersen
In praise of pleasant distractions
by Trudy (Vintage) Bentley Rech, Naples, FL, USA
I felt as if you were speaking directly to this “vintage” Bentley in this particular letter. Some of my best paintings have been executed when half my brain has been occupied by conversing with a non painter. I often speak with a neighbor. I don’t mind the long chatty calls because I can paint talking into a headset. This pleasant distraction works in mysterious ways to help me keep from being “too” analytical. When I paint in instinct, the key principles you mention in your letter are still used, but in a more relaxed way.
Manipulating the opposing elements
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
You have to love the painting process. If this video didn’t move you, you are sunk in our trade. It’s the thrill of the visual hunt, putting down some marks and waiting and hoping for something magical to happen to lead you from point A to point B. It’s all abstract design, whether ‘realism’ or action painting. Each of us will place our marks differently, make different judgment calls, use different design principles gleaned from dozens of other painters past and present. It’s like pulling levers on a many handled slot machine. I think you did well. I liked your use of neutral colors, patterns, and the feeling of light you got from those dabs of artfully placed light values. Right now my feeling is that painting is about contrasts… light/dark, busy/calm, bright/neutral, transparent/opaque, warm/cool, etc. There is the perfect balance in each element that could be attained. Changing the balance by manipulating one of the opposing twin elements can turn a dull painting into an exciting one very easily. Of course, that is just my theory at the moment and it is the in the process of being changed daily.
Take a course
by Nikki Coulombe, Lewisville, TX, USA
I decided some interaction with other artists would be a good influence, and signed up for a watercolor course with a Texas Artist, Jo Beth Williams. I am not usually one to take classes, believing that the best way to learn anything is through effort, trial, error, and diligence practicing on our own, but there were many unanticipated learning experiences throughout the course including a refreshed attention to all the things you listed, plus an improvement of visualization skills.
Besides the informative critiques at the beginning and end of every class, I was reminded of the value of slowing down the thought process and to balance that with its opposite: intuitive confidence (as in your quote by Myfanwy Pavelic: “I’d rather it took over me than I took over it.”). I appreciate Jo Beth’s technical wisdom and sensitivity when giving critique, and her management in guiding students with a variety of skill levels learning together in one room. She helped us become more aware of carefully pre-planned compositions, a certain amount of restraint with the medium, making deliberate color choices in advance of applying them and sticking to one color theory scheme, an awareness of surface qualities in terms of textures, and using superior materials and supplies.
Working alone every day is fine, and conducive to uninterrupted concentration and production, but there’s a whole other side to creating Art that can gradually slip by when working alone — the joy of learning from others. I highly recommend taking a course in anything taught by another artist. Exchanging points of view with others in a different and casual work environment is a great source for continuing education, motivation and inspiration.
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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 Mary Susan Vaughn of Weddington, NC, USA, who wrote, “The non-artist can never see the struggle, nor appreciate all that was necessary to finish the work.”
And also Sharon Cory of Winnipeg, MB, Canada, who wrote, “The full painting is a great way to describe it. I see so many paintings hauled into my gallery, the painter full of elation at its completion. And I need to tell them that it needs more work, or more thought. More something. These guidelines may help.
And also Teresa Maria Widawski of Longmont, CO, USA, who wrote, “I love to read these letters and this one’s a doozy! I think I’ll take up drinking Scotch. Thanks for the tip.”
And also Jayne Cangemi of Oakville, ON, Canada, who wrote, “I am teaching my first ever watercolour class in January and I thought this latest email was a wonderful overview of the painting process. I would like to use the text as I have presented below to copy and give to my students. I am asking for your permission to do so.”
(RG note) Thanks, Jayne. Please use the material as you see fit. We are asked this question nearly every day — and the answer, as far as I can remember, has always been “yes.” If you think a letter — or even a part of one — can be of use in your teaching plan, blog, club newsletter, article or whatever, please feel free to use it. I’m honoured. We always appreciate being asked.
Enjoy the past comments below for The full painting…