How to control kissing


Dear Artist,

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.

Best regards,


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


original painting
by Peter Ciccariello

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.

There is 1 comment for ‘Metaballs’ and ‘Skoshes’ by Peter Ciccariello

From: Susan Connelly — May 29, 2009

I want to SMELL those gorgeous roses!!! They are beautiful.


Reluctant to fix nature
by Eleanor Blair, Gainesville, FL, USA


“Front Hall”
original painting, 40 x 30 inches
by Eleanor Blair

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.

There is 1 comment for Reluctant to fix nature by Eleanor Blair

From: Sarah Wood — May 29, 2009

Your “Front Hall” gives such pleasure–I love it.


Taking control
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA


“Greg with Tattoo”
original painting
by Rick Rotante

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.

There are 2 comments for Taking control by Rick Rotante

From: Win Dinn, Painted Turtle Gallery — May 29, 2009

Powerful painting, Rick – strength and suffering…

From: Raynald Murphy — May 29, 2009

You just brought up a good point, but I realize that you paint in oils or acrylics where the masses are laid in and modified. Watercolorists traditionally do a line drawing first and there lies the danger of kissing lines which, if unawares, don’t get modified in the painting process, watercolor being difficult to adjust.


Kissing like crazy
by Tom Semmes, Frederick, MD, USA


original painting
by Tom Semmes

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.


“Still life 1956”
original painting
by Giorgio Morandi







There is 1 comment for Kissing like crazy by Tom Semmes

From: Catherine Robertson — May 29, 2009

WOW, Tom ! Your painting of the shed and sky is just wonderful ! Morandi – eat your heart out!


Dena’s Rule of Three
by Dena Crain, Kenya


“Bubbles III”
quilted painting, 12 x 12 inches
by Dena Crain

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


“La-ti-dah Do Re Me”
quilt, 33 x 33 inches
by Beth Ferrier

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


“Vase with yellow tulips”
acrylic painting, 24 x 30 inches
by Jennifer Noxon

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.

There are 2 comments for Working in series by Jennifer Noxon

From: Marion Jean Hall — May 29, 2009
From: Ken Flitton — May 30, 2009

Hi Jennifer. I don’t often comment, but I wanted to tell you your vase of tulips was great. Bold, forthright, excellent selection of colours, etc etc. I also have had little luck with dealers, BUT I think you have to remember that they are somewhat like running a butcher shop. They see so many different lamb chops, etc every day of the year that I think their vision becomes blurred. I have often seen works on their walls that make you wonder what they were thinking and at same time some marvelous works. All you can do is your best and hang in there.


Working with Corel Draw
by Debra McGuire, Davie, FL, USA


“Pure country”
digital painting
by Debra McGuire

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


“Quiet time”
oil painting, 24 x 20 inches
by Angela Treat Lyon

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.

There are 10 comments for Out of gas by Nancy Doyle

From: PeggySu — May 28, 2009

I live near Santa Fe, NM. Just as beautiful as CO although, of course, different. I’ve always had zero interest in trying to paint NM — it simply doesn’t interest me as a subject. So you aren’t the only one; I don’t think not wanting to paint CO is the least bit surprising.

I’d suggest applying your creativity to a different outlet such as something silly like decorating cookies. Or take a workshop in something fun such as making an art journal or perhaps altered books or collage. CO is full of art workshops — ranging from a few hours to a week or more.

From: LPerrella — May 29, 2009

Keeping an art journal is an ideal way to find your way through a dry spell. My guess is that you are poised, on the cusp of the “next new thing” and some downtime is part of the compost. I have written a couple of books on art journals and give creativity workshops. (hey, even one in Colorado coming up in August!) But the main point here is…..Be gentle with yourself. Use this time to pause, and try to really inhabit the feelings you are going through. An art journal, done strictly for your own exploration and wondering, might be perfect. There is no pressure to “do it right”, and as a visual person, it might provide you with a perfect venue to express your range of feelings. I have found endless answers and insights in doing my art journals, from the simple to the divine. My work in art journals, many years ago, provided a doorway from commercial illustration to fine art collage. That “switch” also lead me on to writing books, and giving workshops — plus doing the most challenging artwork I have ever attempted. I hope this percieved

“down time” is merely the pause before a new burst of

great new energy and vision for you. Keep at it.

From: Darla — May 29, 2009

When I feel that way, the only thing that recharges me is going out and looking at other people’s art work. You will notice things you like, things you would like to try, and things you would have done differently from the artist. Sometimes looking at books and magazines is enough, but it is more fun and effective if you go out and see the actual physical work.

Don’t beat yourself up! There is always a cause for things, we just don’t always know what it is. You don’t blame yourself when you get sick, you just try to get over it as soon as possible. Mental obstacles are the same. They don’t make you a bad person! Bad feelings are just indications that there needs to be a change of direction.

From: Melissa Evangeline Keyes — May 29, 2009

Go away! Take a sketchbook, camera, and tiny paintbox, and go someplace totally different than where you are. Someplace flat. tropical, flat and tropical. Or old, like Italy.

You need a dose of freshness. Lots of artists travel, hey, Robert?

Nancy, go someplace different, even for just a weekend.

From: Raynald Murphy — May 29, 2009
From: C Putman — May 29, 2009

I read this advice from a successful painter (the name escapes me at the moment) that the best way to overcome something like this is to go to the place you normally paint, at the same time every day, and set up to paint by putting paint on your palette as you normally would — the theory being that if you get this far, you will continue along in the process and eventually your enthusiasm will return and you’ll overcome this temporary state of affairs. I have done this at times and found it helpful.

From: T Halliday — May 29, 2009

Give yourself permission to leave it alone for a while. I believe there is a time frame for every thing we do in our life and maybe you are being pointed in a different direction at this time. Give it some thought and see where it takes you.

From: John B. — May 30, 2009

Try a different medium: woodcuts, silverpoint drawing, scratchboard, anything involving a different process and, perhaps, another way of looking at things. Change your subject, join a life drawing group, something that will spark your interest and get you out of this rut.

From: Rick Rotante — May 30, 2009

This isn’t necessarily a negative reply but you may have said it in your letter. “You don’t want to paint anymore.” This could and does happen to some. Years ago I was a successful musician, one day I realized it wasn’t for me anymore for many reason. I never played my instrument again and moved back to art. It’s not a sin to realize one endeavor isn’t for you. Trust your inner voice. You can always come back. Also think on what may have happened a year ago when your art spirit waned. You may find the answer there. Good Luck.

From: Elizabeth Barry — Jun 12, 2009

You do not have to re-invent what is around you: it sounds to me as if you are ready to paint abstracts. You only need a bit of imagination and lots of quiet time alone to think your way through new ideas. There are so many ways to start but just one would be playing with shapes or colours of something, like reversing the colours, or zero-ing in on a tiny area and choosing 5 ways to do variations. To my mind these thoughts you follow bring you to your most creative and to new worlds you have not yet known. I am never alone, never watch TV because my thoughts are always racing with ideas. It is so much more exciting than illustrating or copying what I see; There are so MANY ways to do things differently once you step over the threshold of abstraction. Good luck! Elizabeth Barry




Roadside Flora

pastel painting, 16 x 16 inches
by Rodrica Tilley, PA, USA


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!”


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for How to control kissing



From: Esther J. Williams — May 26, 2009

When I first saw the title, “How to Control Kissing,” I thought you had gone off your rocker for sure. I had such a good laugh reading this article as I never heard of the term ‘kissing’ in art composition before. It really ‘paints’ a good visual in my mind of what you mean to relate in terms of placement of shapes akin to one another. But it also reminds me of my first kiss in life with a boy. It sure wasn’t a smackin’ one, pardon the pun. 40 years later, my 15 yr old daughter told me her boyfriend’s first attempt to kiss missed her mouth completely. He turned red and so did she. When she told me, I could hardly contain my laughter. Back to the world of art and how this ‘kissing’ relates: I think we all start out making hard, clumsy off centered, stiff kisses with our shapes and with experience and most of all training from a premier artist, we soften up or lighten up later in years. I have looked at my work from only 5 years ago and some of it appalled me. I am in the process of moving and so I am looking at everything as I pull it out from storage. I wondered what I was thinking? It’s just being plain old clumsy from lack of experience or formal training. I still struggle when I paint because I want to place lost and found edges which is the term I have mostly heard before, but I think it takes way from identifying that shape. So, I keep stepping back from the painting and ask myself, “Is this too much in your face, or should I make an edge disappear to add more mystery?” Then I step back into the canvas with the brush and tickle the edges with the brush to blur the lines here and there while my oil paint is wet. Or I add an interim value of color to the edge and that slowly introduces one shape into the other. I learned from looking at Renoir’s original paintings, he dulled the lines on the edges of his bathing ladies or women of means. It did not leave a stark edge against a background, they have a soft edge that almost glows. I also have learned a lot from Kevin MacPherson’s books to tickle some edges to make them blend into the background or you can introduce some of the background color into the shape to give it a little atmospheric effect. There are many ways to shake the apples from the tree on this one. I will continue to entertain this analogy now that you mention it. I bet it will improve my paintings further.

From: Andrea Harris — May 28, 2009

There is a term in bike racing called “kissing wheels.” It occurs when the person riding behind the other (drafting) is within a breath of touching the other person’s wheel. You are considered an excellent rider if you can actually touch the other rider’s wheel without crashing.

This is so true with art. there is a fine line between being subtle and breathtaking (all at once) and “crashing” with over-stimulating a painting and losing the nuances.

From: John B. — May 30, 2009

I had never heard it called “kissing” either, but now that I think about it, it seems like the rule about avoiding “tangents.” Thanks for reminding us of these visual blunders.



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