After my last letter, “Grabbing the heart,” about people making their minds up in the blink of an eye, artists wrote to add their own take on “unusually satisfying pattern.” Many also wanted to know some of the other visual triggers on my list. Here are four:
Gradations big and small
Precious colour is only precious when it’s set off by neutral tones, mainly greys. Straight-from-the-tube garish colour doesn’t always cut it — colour needs absence of colour nearby to be truly delicious.
Gradations provide an interactive dimensional flip that teases the brain. Blends play with the sensibility of ordinary things and twist the mind to see art rather than either reality or artless play.
Something personal has to do with an artist’s unique style — the mannerist touch an artist gives his work. This trigger works for those who have prior knowledge of an artist’s style. Naming and labelling is basic to human nature — instant labelling is highly satisfying.
Something mysterious activates our sense of illusion and magic. To tell all is the key to yawns. Illusory art excites. To enable this trigger, an artist needs to stifle the natural tendency to fully disclose and describe. People suspend judgment in the presence of mystery.
The emotional brain readily and positively reads these and other indicators as they briefly but tenderly touch neural pleasure-points. There are other stimuli that quickly ring the neural bells. For example, some folks need to see detail, drama, romance or sentimentality. At the same time, others close their minds to bravura, style, non-objectivity or even certain subject matter. In the arts, as in commodity selection, decision making is a perverse combination of clear emotion and intellectual filtration. Accessing the mind at an emotional level happens in a blink of an eye and is a key to a warm glow that motivates.
PS: “There’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear.” (Buffalo Springfield)
Esoterica: Regarding “Unusually satisfying pattern,” this important trigger involves building a structure on which more mundane visual motifs play. No matter what the subject matter or lack thereof, curves, lost-and-found lines, checkerboards, lineups, offsets, counterpoints, gestalt-bleeds, spotisms, patches and activation make surfaces interesting to the emotional mind. Artists who understand this are better able to encourage viewers to linger. For some among us it’s automatic and intuitive, for others it’s something to learn.
‘So what’ paintings
by Catherine Stock, France
Your articulations about what makes a picture work are very helpful. I have worked as an illustrator and book designer all my life, but am now trying to concentrate on my own work. At the moment, I produce mostly what I refer to as “so what” paintings. They are reasonably skillfully executed, but do not always succeed in maintaining interest. I rely on the presence of an ephemeral muse who sometimes graces me with her presence.
Importance of tone values
by David R Thompson, Cambridge, UK
I have spent a lot of time trying to analyze why some paintings appeal more than others and my conclusion is that the single biggest factor is a strong and pleasing tonal pattern. Of course there are lots of other reasons, and some may be more important when it comes to influencing what people actually buy, but as for grabbing our attention when we enter a gallery and see paintings 30 yards away on the far wall, I’m sure tone is the biggest factor. I’ve found it very interesting to look at black and white reproductions of pictures and predict which ones I’ll prefer when seen in full colourthis works for even a sensitive and delicate colourist such as Whistler. When the layman says that he or she “loves the colour” they often mean without realizing it that they love the tone. The artist of course has to separate the three qualities of colour — hue, tone and chroma, whereas the spectator just sees colour. A good colourist is invariably an artist who knows how to compose in tones. I might, slightly cheekily, also suggest that’s the reason why Dar Hosta’s moons work so well, nothing mystical — just tonal contrast!
Limited palette for precious colour
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
I have learned to use a limited palette to get “Precious Color.” Harmony wins in my book. I spend a lot of time experimenting with various limited palettes, never with more than 5 or 6 colors. It’s amazing what a range you can get with such a small number. In the old days I spent a lot of time throwing a lot of color on my canvas and when I look at the old paintings I realize they had no harmony at all. Surprisingly, studying the art of NOTAN and values over the last year has taught me a lot about “Precious Color.”
Humble materials produce triggers
by B.J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA
Yesterday I visited El Anatsui’s Gawu Exhibit at the African Museum (Smithsonian in Washington, DC) and his work resonated with so many of the qualities you described in today’s letter. These huge elaborate art works and sculptures were mysterious and from a distance glowed as covered with gold or other precious metals. Unusual patterns, color, and texture drew me closer to discover what I knew was there. I had read about his tapestry-like art and was looking forward to seeing the work in the flesh. He has transformed discarded materials into objects of striking beauty and originality with a result that encompasses all the visual triggers described today. We should all, in some way, make use of our humble discarded material. In the brochure about his work, El Anatsui said, “Art grows out of each particular situation, and I believe that artists are better off working with whatever their environment throws up.”
Allowing people to watch
by Wes Giesbrecht, Mission, BC, Canada
Just moments before reading “Visual triggers,” I had a message from a new friend asking if she might witness the process whereby I create my paintings. So far no one has seen me paint and I haven’t fully divulged my methods to anyone. Those who have done a little experimenting and are well aquatinted with how acrylic behaves may look at my paintings and see quite clearly what I’ve done… and that’s fine. But do I want to divulge all the intimate details of how I create with paint to everyone who asks? When people look at my work, one of the most common responses is: “How do you do that?” I tell them a little; I try to be to be polite; but the truth is, for now anyway, I prefer that it remain a bit of a mystery. The techniques I use aren’t difficult, but they’re mine. I’ve figured them out from scratch, on my own. Intuitively, I’ve felt that I need to keep the details of my process to myself. I’m an extremely candid person by nature. I’ve never been one to keep secrets, so I find this situation very awkward. I’ve been wrestling with a way to avoid answering the question without seeming rude. Any advice would be welcome.
(RG note) Thanks, Wes. Other painters may have a different opinion, but I believe in show and tell. Somehow in sharing I learn and grow myself, and with my constantly changing methodology, I have enough confidence that I’ll keep coming up with new angles that will keep me interested and the copycats foiled. The downside to this is that a few folks have seen fit to clone my style. One time a nice guy asked if he could watch me in the studio for a day, and within a week “my work” was appearing in a nearby gallery with his name on it. Aggravating at the time, he turned out to be a one trick pony and is not around any more that I know of.
Even ‘duds’ speak to people
by Brian Simons, Victoria, BC, Canada
I’ve enjoyed the last two letters a great deal. In my own experience I have found paintings ‘speak’ to people! It may have something to do with where they are in their life, I’m not sure, but I’ve had people come to the studio to buy a painting and they walk by all the ones I consider pretty good paintings, and they fall in love with something from the ‘dud pile’ in the corner of the studio, something I was going to destroy. This happens often. I’ve tried for years to understand what motivates people to buy and with little success. I believe, though, that if the artist paints from his heart without the intention of selling, he speaks to the heart of all people and there will be someone that listens. Paintings done from the heart and with love already exist in a sense before the artist manifests them.
Importance of subject matter
by Ann Leonard, Reserve, NM, USA
I judged an art show in Lamar, Colorado. Before the judging I informed the artists who showed there that my main preferences involved subject matter. To me the subject of a painting is all important, regardless of the style, medium, colors, lines, framing, or otherwise. I think that most of us wish to purchase paintings that represent a subject we are familiar with (unless a person wants a strictly abstract painting). A case in point: A New Mexico rancher generally wants horses, cattle, cowboys, Indians, mountains, and ranch country in a painting, and will overlook such subjects as cityscapes and building interiors when perusing an art show or gallery. Subject matter is as important to many art buyers as other factors, and to me is a primary visual trigger.
by Barbara Edwards, Weaverville, CA, USA
Speaking of triggers… I had a most shocking experience over a painting I had in our local art gallery. I am the assistant to the director and I was on duty when another local artist came in to view the exhibit of this juried art show. This woman probably does not know my work so she would most likely not have made this comment as we were passing by my painting of Mount Shasta which I had received numerous compliments from many viewers. “That is absolutely hideous and I just want to slash and burn it” she blurted out. I was so stunned that I was speechless and felt like I had been hit with a truck. Later when I retold the story to various friends, they were also dumbfounded by this woman’s reaction. Something in that painting triggered a negative emotional response. Maybe it was the colors or a subconscious memory which she associated with it. The lesson that I learned from this experience was that I too must be careful of how I publicly criticize other art work. We all bring a piece of ourselves to our art and it takes courage to put it out there for all to see. Our art is our heart!
Use of complimentary colours
by Helena Tiainen, Berkeley, CA, USA
I happen to think that a better and more exciting choice than grays is a complimentary color. Not necessarily an opposite color but something that compliments and draws the best out of the next. This is what to me makes color precious. Sometimes a shade of gray may do this but many times there are richer and better choices available. When you add color to gray it is no longer called a gray but in this world of billions of shades and hues it will carry another name. Like music, color is also a universal language and triggers emotions all by itself. Coupled with appropriate form it becomes even more powerful. A true visual artist is conscious of the intention that their final color and form choices carry.
Plans for Successful Paintings
by Diane Morgan, Indian Wells, CA, USA
While taking a workshop with Elin Pendleton a few weeks ago I learned that Edgar Whitney had studied paintings that were selling. He discovered 6 value patterns that were popular for selling.
1) Small light, large dark in mid-tones.
2) A light shape against mid-tones — no darks
3) Small dark, large light in mid-tones.
4) Gradation within large shapes.
5) Large dark against mid-tones and
Apparently, certain ratios of light-to-dark sell better than others. This shows how important it is to work carefully on your composition and do a value study before starting a painting.
Unusually satisfying patterns?
by Nancy Bea Miller, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Despite today’s further explication, I am still not clear as to what you mean by “unusually satisfying patterns.” Perhaps it is something best explained visually. Is it possible for you to post a bunch of your pieces that you feel exhibit these unusually satisfying patterns? Maybe you have already done this and I just missed the link.
(RG note) Thanks, Nancy. When you look around at subject matter, and indeed at paintings themselves, you’ll notice some with more intriguing patterns than others. It’s not that compositions necessarily have to be complex, but they need to be at least interesting. Artists need to realize that we are not just depicting things as they are, or showing the basic machinations of our brains, but we are actually playing with the visual sensibilities of our viewers. Pattern is one of the ways we begin to hold their interest. Please take a look at the following notes.
Arcane terms defined
by Jamie Erfurdt, San Francisco, CA, USA
Would you define what you mean by some of the terms in the following paragraph, especially offsets, spotisms, gestalt-bleeds, patches and activation?
(RG note) Thanks, Jamie. And thanks to everyone else who asked this.
Offsets are where patches of colour or tone lie near one another in syncopation or form into an offbeat rhythm as opposed to the regularity and predictability of something like a checkerboard.
Spotisms are small dots or spots of colour, like the pimento in an olive, that draw contrast, vibration and interest to otherwise dull areas.
Gestalt-bleeds are where one pattern bleeds into another pattern — for example, the hem of a girl’s striped dress as she stands among reeds or grasses.
Painting in patches or swatches is a way to break the rigidity of linear thinking. Subjects can be held together by patches of tone or colour as opposed to using drawing or outline for a similar purpose.
Activation refers to a string of spots or strokes, often in the form of a curve, that serve to move the eye around a work in a purposeful manner. Activation facilitates eye-control. Lines of activation often lead to the intended center of interest.
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 Norman Ridenour of Prague, Czechoslovakia who wrote, “Gertrude Stein when asked how she knew a piece of art was good replied, ‘It makes me itch.’ As artists we never know where a viewer’s itchy spot is but we need to hit it. Making wood sculpture it is very often pure sensuality — believe me that scares many people.”
And also Robert Appleman of Kamuela, HI, USA who wrote, “The joy we can bring to our patrons is very nourishing.”
And also Michelle Madalena who wrote, “Thank you for sending me this letter exactly when I needed the most. Today I am going to paint and I am not going to stop painting until Tuesday. It is Friday. I appreciate your wisdom. Please continue to send me your letters as I learn so much from reading them. I have yet to try reading other people’s thoughts. I feel it is too soon. One person at a time in any of my communication is much more my speed although I do read my horoscopes and tarot readings most days which I have a weakness for.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Visual triggers…