Yesterday, Melinda Wilde of Gabriola Island, B.C., wrote, “I’m design challenged. I see the shapes and I love the shapes but, for whatever reason, I just can’t get my work to go WOW with them. I’m quite sure it’s a design problem as technically I’m not bad. Can you suggest some exercises that might help?”
Thanks, Melinda. In childhood, our first art is often in the form of line drawing. In many cultures, children begin by delineating to describe their new world. Colouring books and other childhood media lead to the early triumph of lines over shapes. Colouring goes “between the lines” and even silhouettes become edges to be traced or cut out. Would-be painters need to unlearn these programs.
Before you start painting, whether from life, reference material, or from your imagination, canvas your subject matter for evidence of shapes. As an exercise, don’t tackle motifs that lack them. Simply find ones that have them.
Find them by half-closing your eyes and reducing material to pattern. Colour and line are not important at this stage. Look for potential shapes that are not standard squares, circles or triangles. Look for irregular shapes, preferably ones that interlock or interact in some way with one another. Look for big shapes as well as small ones — shapes need not be of equal size nor equidistant from one another. While you’re looking for these shapes, look also to the potential of other shapes to fit around them. In other words, plan ahead for the advent of negative shapes.
Also, let your strokes be wide rather than narrow. Put down blocks of tone value — patches — rather than lines. Use your larger tools to block in your patches.
Further, let a shape committed in one area be echoed, reversed or mimicked in another area. In other words, go here and there as though you don’t know what you’re doing. Go back and forth from one side to the other, and up and down as well.
These early procedures go a long way toward establishing a strong composition. The ultimate test, even though the viewer may not recognize the subject matter, is that the work-in-progress also functions both upside down and sideways.
PS: “Subject matter is not nearly as important as the arrangement of the elements into a pattern. Thus, the abstraction that contains no recognizable object may be a satisfying work of art.” (Ted Kautsky)
Esoterica: Artists who work with fabrics — fibre artists, stitchers, quilters, etc. — have an advantage over brush-painters who might just happen to fall into the weak-composition trap. Fabric artists automatically work in patches. When we put our minds to it, painters can, too. I call it “Switch to swatch.” This is where the “wow” happens. It’s a mental thing. But then again, a lot of painting is.
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA
Your advice to Melinda Wilde will be helpful. But there is perhaps another aspect of design to consider in helping create that “WOW” she is looking for: the appearance and arrangement of the VISUAL composition.
When referring to composition, generally, it is usually the physical arrangement of the shapes and spaces within the picture plane that is talked about. This is important and essential of course, but the appearance or the visual order of the various shapes and tones and colors is of equal importance. This aspect gets very little mention or attention when talking about creating an interesting image. The physical can be measured by using rulers and such, the visual can only be measured by the eye.
So, how to develop the eye? There are two basic ways: Study the masters, such as Diego Velazquez’s Maids of Honor, or Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, for example; and study the appearance of the everyday visual world. The latter is the natural ordering of visual space, its appearance is whole and complete, where everything is in place. Through looking at it every day and viewing it as a composition, its structure and design will gradually become a part of our image-making process.
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Beginning to get there
by Brian Reifer, UK
I keep reading your letter, often speed reading as not everything, as you would expect, hits a nerve or strikes a chord; then once in a while there comes an ‘Aha’ moment when a little gem, a nugget of information appears. For me one appeared in answer to Melinda.
I try desperately not to paint ‘Within the lines’ — not easy when you have spent half of your working life on a drawing board designing flight trial instrumentation in the aviation industry. Late in life I think I am beginning to get there, helped to a great extent by the likes of Ken Howard, RA, Kasey Sealy, Tim Deibler, et al.
You hit the nail on the head on approach, particularly appropriate as, at the moment, I am enjoying demos on TV by Mitch Waite and here is a guy who has suddenly hit my button with everything beginning to fall into place. Your piece of advice reinforces this and to anyone who wants to go down this particular path I suggest they print it out and paste in on the wall next to their easel.
I have nothing much to show for it at present, especially if you look at my website, but over the past few weeks I feel I have definitely turned the corner and the present bunch of oils W.I.P. begin to excite me. It will be awhile before any are finished but watch this space.
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Use of line not universal
by Ngomo Ngube, Africa
People in African cultures and I think other places world wide work with face paint and colour their areas with great swatches of colour, some very nice colours too, like their houses and tribal meeting places. Except for some areas of face and back paint there is no one use of line so I don’t think we all grow up with these, sorry.
Icing on the cake
by Jennifer Woodburn, Clarksburg, ON, Canada
Interesting art is in the shapes! I realize that many other artists focus on light, texture, and various other components in their painting. Well, for me, the inspiration is in the shapes. While I don’t ignore these other elements of painting, I find what drives me to pick up brush and paint a scene is typically the interplay of various shapes interlocking and juxtaposing themselves. My favourite part? The negative space left in between; it is like the icing on the cake! Maybe I am a graphic designer trapped in an artist’s body…
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by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
A surprising way I learned about working with shapes was through sculpture. One of my sculpture professors stressed the importance of capturing the planes of a person’s face. Each plane is basically an abstract shape that interlocks with the surrounding planes of the head. If the planes of a person’s head are captured correctly in an abstract manner, then the sculpture will capture the person’s likeness, regardless of the level of detail the sculpture was taken to. I also had a drawing teacher that often said, “Now there’s a beautiful shape!” He would spend several moments talking about what made that particular shape more interesting than others. He was normally referring to a negative shape between two or more positive elements that someone was drawing. To this day, negative shapes play a huge role in much of my work.
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Basic design comes first
by B.J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA
Many artists who work with fabrics create exactly as you are describing. Then I read your Esoterica paragraph and you said it. However, there are the other challenges for artists using the flexible mediums: hard edges, tangent forms, equal shapes, balance, and of course line. So, perhaps in every medium basic design comes first looking at the whole and seeing the balance of all elements, which may mean many things and yet the same challenges to each medium.
Thank you for mentioning fiber artists in an art letter.
Parallel delights in fibre art
by Sandra Donohue, Robson, BC, Canada
Being a weaver as well as a painter, I enjoyed your reference to fibre artists. Having been a weaver for over twenty years before I started painting gave me a lot of confidence in using colour, and having some idea of design and proportion. I love weaving cloth that has blocks or squares… especially tea towels: art that you can hang and use in the kitchen!
(RG note) Thanks, Sandra. And thanks to all the fibre artists, quilters, stitchers and others who wrote to say they knew all about the situation.
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Increasing the Wow factor
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
I always ask an artist what they are trying to communicate. The global term of “half-baked” always seems to resonate with artists when it comes to what they are missing in their work. Artists need to bring people to their work and this is usually done with quality work. I would tell this woman to add layers of colour to her work. Work with different glazes and thinners to really experience the limitless boundaries colour can deliver. Maybe try starting out with a black background and make that the negative space. Then create dozens of layers and experiment with colour to show all sorts of colour emotions. Then I would tell her to work beyond what she knows, adding textures and shapes that become the inner workings of being a true artist. It shouldn’t matter if an artist is painting or doing sculpture or decoupage, it is about dialing up the quality and making their work exquisite. This will increase the “WOW” factor.
Troubles in coloring-book land
by Joseph L. Wesley, Talladega, AL, USA
I am an architect. As a small child I played with unique building blocks from my Godfather who was an antique store owner and interior decorator. My father was a veterinarian who could draw horses and other things. I learned to draw and I learned to build. My mother encouraged my art since I was sickly for my early years. Mom and dad both smoked. I wasn’t good at sports so I did craft things with mom and fished with dad.
When I started first grade I loved it. My first teacher was great. My second grade teacher though tried and broke my “bad habit.” Muffett, who teaches art now for the Alabama School for the Blind, colored perfectly. She created lovely colors without texture between the big black lines. I got barely passing marks in coloring. To me there were no thick black lines in life. Things just merged or ended against or in front of each other. Nothing was a flat shade either. Everything had various shades in it with shadow and curvature. I’d first color over the black lines with the color that the item was to be. Blue jeans I’d line with darkened blue then begin shading to create depth. Darks on sides and lights to the lighter middle usually. This made good sense to me. It looked far more realistic than Muffett’s flat colors. Hers were beautiful but more like quilting, flat to flat to flat. Mine had depth and definition and character. I was being honest with what I saw and felt was a great representation of the picture. Sometimes I’d skip the coloring book picture and draw my own, designing something that I thought was more realistic or more interesting than the coloring book.
The teacher frowned at my work. Not as much as she did towards Sonny from the orphanage who colored or scribbled black over everything. But she was not happy and let me know with bad grades and notes to my parents. Mom and dad convinced me to go along with the teacher and do it her way. Fortunately they told me they liked my way better so I kept it alive in my heart.
Years later when in college studying architecture I took “Appreciation of the Arts” and it hit me that many movements in art moved from one way of representing things to another. Pointillism especially reinforced my earlier desire to “do it my way.” I gained a lot of confidence from that course and wished I could find that teacher, find ALL teachers who teach “between the lines” art. IF they must teach that at least let kids know there are other ways too. Better still give optional ways to color so each can go in their own direction or at least know there is not just one path up the mountain. Narrow mindedness seems to want others to be as narrow minded.
I dabble with paint and water colors but can’t really get back into my own way. Too scared? I do pottery where no one has ruined me and architecture where I’ve learned many options and can enjoy making something that fulfills my understanding for good architecture with commodity, utility and delight.
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oil painting by
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 Michael Fuerst of Urbana, IL, USA, who wrote, “I would suggest Ms Wilde get a copy of the book Painting People in Watercolor by Alex Powers.”
And also Florence Apostle who wrote, “This was written for me. I just have to keep remembering it and take the time to study the motif and not rush to draw. ”
And also Melinda Wilde who wrote, “Thanks, Bob. I was delighted to see my plight in print. I’ll use your suggestions… especially the one about making sure the subjects I pick to paint have large definable shapes.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Switch to swatch…