Architectural visionary Christopher Alexander has produced a four-volume “essay” that attempts to cure architecture. The Nature of Order: the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe makes some valuable assertions. Apart from being interested in the “universals” that he thinks ought to apply to buildings, I was playing with the idea of applying his principles to art in general and painting in particular:
— A range of sizes is pleasing and beautiful.
— Good design has areas of focus and weight.
— Outlines focus attention to the center.
— Repeating elements give order and harmony.
— The background should not detract from the center.
— Simple forms create an intense, powerful center.
— Small symmetries are better than overall symmetry.
— Looping, connected elements give unity and grace.
— Unity is achieved with visible opposites.
— Texture and imperfections give uniqueness and life.
— Similarities should repeat throughout a design.
— Empty spaces offer calm and contrast.
— Use only essentials; avoid extraneous elements.
— Designs should be interconnected, not isolated.
— Scale and echo create positive emotions.
A lot of what Alexander says has to do with “getting to the center” — what painters like to call the “center of interest.” Funny to think that the treatment of an elevator block in an office-building foyer might relate to the climax area of an easel painting. Both draw you in. Both are a focus and a first impression. Paintings, like buildings, are an environment. They are either successful or unsuccessful. Some of the elements of what he calls “pattern language” may be hard-wired into our brains. Like the middle C at the end of a symphony, we need them. Though our imaginations may freely fly with all combinations possible, according to Alexander we omit these elements at our peril.
Why then do we deviate from these laws? The world is chockablock with weak, wishy-washy buildings, built down to a price. That goes for paintings too. Perhaps the human spirit is as much in love with error as it is with righteousness. Without sin there is no salvation.
PS: “These tools allow anyone, and any group of people, to create beautiful, functional, meaningful places. You can create a living world.” (Christopher Alexander)
Esoterica: Alexander, who lives in California, is the architect of hundreds of structures and landscape environments. His numerous books and papers have influenced computer science, information systems, organizations, office furniture design, domestic interiors, even Oriental carpet studies. His philosophy of nature and life has our universe as a coherent whole, encompassing feelings as well as inanimate matter. Studying Alexander invites curiosity about the gaping space between theory and practice. Like many a “Renaissance Man,” Alexander also paints.
by Michael Jorden, Langley, BC, Canada
I’m a community planning consultant and frequently participate in the design of neighbourhoods and communities. I have long been a fan of Chris Alexander’s writing and theory but until now didn’t know he was also a painter. I am increasingly finding a congruence between composition in my own paintings and the sensibilities I bring to community design, including the importance of central places as a focus and a quality some theorists call “legibility.” The latter is an inherent understanding of one’s community that can be enhanced by simple strong designs, visual elements and bold public spaces. The danger of course is too strong a reliance on design as an end in itself that can lead to a kind of fatal self-indulgence. Design and composition should always serve multiple objectives.
Design degree inspires painting
by Jan Mancey
Your letter on Christopher Alexander sums up what I’ve known to be true for many years, but not been able to articulate in words. I have a bachelor’s degree in Interior Design from the Faculty of Architecture at the University of Manitoba, but have not practiced as a designer for a very long time. I have, however, used everything that I learned at university in my work as an artist!
“Art is our one true global language. It knows no nation, it favors no race, and it acknowledges no class. It speaks to our need to reveal, heal, and transform. It transcends our ordinary lives and lets us imagine what is possible.” (Richard Kamler, artist and creator of the Seeing Peace Project)
A personal hero
by Rosemary Kralik
I’m delighted that you appreciate Christopher Alexander and his concepts. I was enthralled with the ideas he explored so thoroughly in his book. I’m anxiously awaiting his even larger (four volume) tome The Nature of Order, the subject of which has taken his lifetime.
Alexander has been a personal hero of mine from the very beginning. Much of what he discusses struck chords that resonated with beliefs and theories developed from my earliest thoughts. I wish that works like Pattern Language formed part of every child’s required studies because it works on any level as a springboard to further exploration. Even if one considers his many detractors, Alexander has opened the forum for discussion, benefiting everyone in the exercise to prove, disprove or expand on the unlimited possibilities for research that his work provides.
Another important feature of his work is that he ties elements together as opposed to the occidental approach to separate and compartmentalize everything. This fracturing of knowledge makes learning very unpleasant for children as it removes reason, importance and connection to daily life. Physics, mathematics, art, geometry, history and everything else is passionately part of everyday existence and to be blind to this robs an individual of joy that comes from the conviction that creative, innovative problem-solving is not only an integral part of our abilities but our biggest natural high.
Intention and assessment
by Dianne Harrison
I enjoyed the concise list related to design in architecture and I agree that it can easily be applied to painting. I so enjoy your letter. It is helping me transform myself from a “dabbler” to a serious painter. By that I mean doing things intentionally and assessing the outcome. I just returned from a fantastic week of painting in Maine at a workshop conducted by Charles Sovek. His work is delightful and definitely stands up to the criteria in today’s letter.
Further Alexander observations
by Larry Moore, Winter Park, FL, USA
You omitted some of Christopher Alexander’s other observations that apply:
— All designs from the ’60s & ’70s should be plowed under.
— If you can’t make it good make it big or make it red.
— Softly lit bucolic cottages should be avoided at all costs.
— Location, location, location.
— Buyer beware.
Hit the blender
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I have heard of some of these structured formulas and then some. As a painter, I believe that my work comes through me — it is a gift. We can all be better. But what I like to do with these formulas, is put them all in a blender and hit “puree,” then pour it all out on my palette and paint from there. “Paint from the heart as it is a window to your soul.” I made that one up myself.
Throw the “box” away
by Mary Madsen, Las Vegas, NV, USA
We might ridicule others because they don’t understand our art. They can’t/won’t think outside the box. (Would somebody please throw that damned box away and find a new analogy?) They are lesser than us because they haven’t reached our high level of cognition and possibility of evolution, and we nearly break our arms patting ourselves on our backs. William Goldman once said that there was always one play during the Broadway season where the silence of the audience leaving the theatre was mistaken for having just been through a profound experience. The truth was that the play was so bizarre, so totally nonsensical that nobody wanted to disgrace themselves by admitting they were the one person in the building who didn’t understand it. Snob appeal. Wanting to be part of the upper crust, the elite, the avant guard. The reality was that they’d been snookered — the play was crap.
The next Big Thing in art will happen when artists can meet the sort of guidelines Alexander suggests, but do it in a way that is so fresh and startling that the “architecture” beneath it will be momentarily lost. Your list from Alexander’s work is a description of the object from which Plato’s shadow against the cave wall is cast. Now, if we artists can step up to the challenge of that list and recreate it from the raw materials of this new world, without falling into the crap trap, we’ll shatter the illusion of the chains on that list and get things cooking again.
Fits the mold
by Leith Nance
Having just finished reading your take on Christopher Alexander’s principles I thought to myself that I might fit the mold. I decided to look at his paintings and was struck by how close he comes to realizing those principles and just how very different his work is from mine.
“Center of interest” concerns
by Jerry Waese, Toronto, ON, Canada
When a painting has integrity, it will draw the viewer in, it will attract effectively and “sustain interest” like a building sustains the business that it was built for, but it will do that even if it has no distinct center of interest. In my paintings I try to keep things simple enough that the figure and ground work is a unit, becoming in concert a single entity. I do not feature a center of attention other than the whole piece itself. Other artists have complained to me that there is no “center of interest” or that the center of interest appears to be some insignificant shape of color other than a recognizable portrayal of an object.
Just following the blueprints
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA
I’m always criticized about compositions, like teacupping, centering or overworking the canvas making it cluttered. Personally I don’t care. I don’t choose the composition, it just happens how it happens. I let the forces be the architect of how it wants to be built. My blueprints are visions as they appear in the work in progress. My construction of a painting isn’t based on a budget or a time factor deadline. I build it as long as I have blueprints to read. When they stop, I stop and sign it. Then I and the world can see what was built. I’m not to blame for its construction of faulty composition for I’m just the laborer following the blueprints.
Artist reaps the karma
by David Lincoln Brooks, Boerne, TX, USA
Recently reviewing the works of one of my favorite American realists, Edward Hopper, I see that nearly all of his important paintings are heavily invested with subliminal material. His mastery of visual perception in general, and the technique of painting in particular, have enabled him to give each of his paintings a veritable doppelganger: It’s as though there is an entirely discrete spirit or personage standing behind each painting, so prevalent are the subliminals, both miniscule and looming. To say that a Hopper canvas is “sad” or “lonely” is only scratching the surface. My heart tells me that Hopper’s use of subliminals comes from a deeply philanthropic personal conviction. Subliminals are like any great human power — they can be used for good or ill. I contend that every artist reaps the karma of the artwork he publishes.
by Antoinette Ledzian, Stonington, CT, USA
Last evening my husband and I were at a poetry open-mike where artists were encouraged to share a poem, a prose piece, a song, or talk about one’s art. The eclectic mix was exhilarating. People were exercising group senses from highs to lows, as if on an emotional roller coaster. One minute we’d be laughing and the next crying. The coordinator of the event thanked everyone for sharing such intimacies and reinforced her feeling that when artists get together, it is truly creativity in motion. I was just as happily exhausted after the evening as if I had been painting or writing intensely by myself for two hours. Aren’t we artists blessed to allow and experience this sharing and uninhibited journey called Life.
Five before noon dept.
by Chris Vietmeier
I loved your response to the woman and others that want to make a good painting the first time. I am reading Forest Lover about the painter Emily Carr. I had just got to a point in her stay in France where her teacher told her to make five paintings before noon when he was to come by and view them. It tickled me that even though she was “almost there” she was given the same advice we all must heed. Then I happened to read your letter and the message was about the same. Apparently I am to learn from this.
by Melissa DeCarlo
In your recent illustrated collection of Palette Painters, out of the ten artists shown, five were definitely holding the palettes in their right hand (possibly John Singer Sargent too, I couldn’t tell). So many southpaw painters… maybe that link between left-handedness and creativity is true! (I’m right handed. I think, from now on, that will be my excuse when my work is going poorly.)
(RG note) Don’t forget that with the use of a mirror, the self-portraitist makes himself into a lefty.
by Ron Gang, Kibbutz Urim, Israel
Your letter on palettes invites me to show you mine. This simple system allows me to come up with almost anything I want. And I’m still getting more proficient with it as the years go by. The little tube is Van Gogh Phthalocyanine Blue — use very sparingly as its tinting power is strong. The palette lends itself to plein air work where one travels light.
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, 2004.
That includes Jennifer Hendrickson of New Zealand who wrote, “Restrictions and limitations are what allow light to shine forth and creativity to be revealed.”
And also Joan Nied of Fallbrook, CA, USA who wrote, “I divide my warms and cools (oils) into two separate large pill dispensers — the type with Mon through Sun in one compartmentalized plastic container. It is easy to set up my palette since I use twelve pigments plus white. Cleanup is simple as the containers are slipped into a zip-bag and stored in the freezer where they stay fresh for the next day.”