The artist and teacher Ted Smuskiewicz told his students, “Leave your strokes alone.” Apart from leaving them alone, it’s valuable to make them efficiently, characteristically and “style-on” in the first place. This may seem a bit academic, but please bear with me — I’d like to take you on a micro-tour of strokes.
A stroke is somewhere between a tip, a full-brush blob and an extended line, or all of the above. Some strokes can go from one side of a work to the other, while others are minor, sinuous, or mere wisps of non-entity. In opaque work, a stroke that’s placed directly on top of another stroke nullifies the previous effort. Ten of such strokes on top of one another will leave nine cancellations. This act leads to both practical and visual inefficiency. As an exercise to improve efficiency, nothing beats traditional watercolour. This medium requires the think and do that hones visualization, invites simplicity and promotes creative control. While disciplines like calligraphy, lettering and illustration can make monkeys out of us as well, amateur stroking often screams loudest in watercolour.
If a stroke is placed near or partly on another stroke, then some tail or nuance of the previous stroke will still be evident and continue to make its contribution. If a stroke is placed within and surrounded by a previous stroke a pimento effect is created — like the pimento in the middle of the olive. If a stroke is not contingent to others it is a free floater surrounded only by its ground. Strokes that blend or integrate with the next stroke are called contingency strokes. Like pieces of a mosaic, they tessellate into a whole. Paucity of stroke is often determined by the angle of drag. A Speedy stroke can be punctuated by a full stop.
Strokes can be lines. Multiple lines to find a line are currently popular. They seldom trump lines that are simple, sensitive and direct. Strokes, including linear strokes, may effectively contain gradations of tone or colour. Brushes are round for a purpose — paint can be rolled with a multi-coloured load. Stroking right down to the ferrule is called a push. Unlike a pen, it’s how a brush is held and operated that determines the quality of the language. Your stroking is your personal language. We all need our dialects.
PS: “The patterns, movement, rhythms and unusual harmonies within spontaneous brushstrokes are what brings a painting to life.” (Brent R. Laycock) “My hand is a seismograph that gives body to the circuits of my imagination.” (Valerio Adami)
Esoterica: Strokes are windows into the souls of artists. Laziness, avoidance, sloth, procrastination, impatience and incompetence can all be detected there. It’s also possible to see respect, integrity, elegance, joy, energy and love. It doesn’t hurt to close in and be witness to that magical moment when the tool connects, when the brush touches down. This connection may have more significance than subject matter. Exercise: Paint something, anything, and give complete focus and undivided attention to your strokes.
Manifestation of self
by Cherie Hanson, Kelowna, BC, Canada
An eminent choreographer in La La La Human Steps indicated in an interview that he had gone into dance because it was movement that was purposeless. After studying in some depth he discovered that all movement is indeed full of purpose. Every gesture, every posture — even when one is at rest — are manifestations of the soul of the inhabitant of the body. We constantly are “informing” the world about ourselves through our physicality.
That, indeed, includes using a brush or palette knife or any other extension of self. Breath, movement, intent, hesitation, stillness as a posture are all manifesting. What appears or is visible is both the flow of the movement and the result of that flow. Over-working a piece is a form of anxiety or the sense of not being heard. There is elegance when there is trust in self and in the manifestation of self that translates into the piece.
Control and spontaneity
by June Szueber, Perris, CA, USA
Strokes serve many purposes and can make or break a painting. I teach art to children in grades 1-8. I’m always trying to impress them with their use of strokes. It is so easy for them to get in a hurry and “mess up” a picture with scratchy strokes. When they get the idea about controlling their strokes their work takes on a totally different look. I strive not to over control but to educate them in methods and reasons for the things they do. Then when they do spontaneous things they are better.
Every stroke purposeful
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
I tell my students to think about the strokes they are putting to canvas. My motto is never put a stroke on unless it has a purpose. If you are randomly applying paint with no reason it is time to stop and walk away for a bit. I like to keep a clean crisp palette. Once the under painting is complete, my strokes are one at a time thoughtfully placed.
“Bap,” “Bam” and “Boom”
by Paul Taylor, Rochester, NY, USA
In teaching my workshops, I echo the words of my mentor Tony Couch. On placing paint to the paper, he says, “The stroke doesn’t have to be accurate, but it must be sure.” This he gets from the Oriental Style of Brush Painting. If we paint with confident strokes from one point to the next, the accuracy will follow.
Although you are describing paintbrush strokes only, I find that multiple lines in drawing seem to be my way of sketching. I have tried to be more efficient with a pencil as are calligraphers, cartoonists, etc., but fall back on old habits, often needing an eraser.
Reading about the analysis of brush strokes had me changing thoughts at each paragraph. The physical and emotional brush strokes you described made me want to examine various painters’ methods. How would you describe the brush strokes of the black and white paintings of Franz Kline, besides being bold?
(RG note) A big exercise, all big expression, big brush, strokes energetic and big, big and black, big strokes for the sake of big strokes — you have to admit it’s a statement — however minimal.
by Jeanine Fondacaro
Coming from a background of decorative art, where blending is at its utmost of importance, it was difficult to understand the idea of “leaving the stroke be” just as it was laid. I almost had to create a reason, or trick my mind into allowing it to stay as it was — i.e., I will get back to it later and so on. This idea was hit home last year on a trip to the Louvre to study Impressionism. When looking closely at the works, you could really see the impression that the bristle made was sheer delight in every stroke. The more accentuated the stroke, the more exciting the painting became.
Stroke it like you do me
by Dyan Law, Chalfont, PA, USA
Although I agree that interesting and succinct brushwork is vital to certain styles of painting, I personally prefer no evidence of brushwork at all in my own work… I smooth and finesse until it is as perfectly smooth as I can get it. I love working like this but from time to time I read or hear about “fantastic brushwork” and feel somehow “out of it.” Am I missing something? example of my “brushless” work…
Both methods valid
by Lin Wryghte
I watched a TV documentary on Picasso. He stood behind a glass panel facing the camera, and brush in hand, painted a single stroke on the glass. That single, clean, precise stroke left no doubt that a bull had appeared on the glass… any additional lines would have ruined the painting/drawing… and seeing it happen, supports the idea to “leave your strokes alone.”
At a workshop I watched and listened as Anne Popperwell described her technique for achieving the velvety finished look of her watercolours. In “the sensuous esthetic” she applied multiple thin layers, which seems the opposite of “leave your strokes alone.” Her strokes were repeated and repeated on top of each other, to great affect.
Both would agree with your statements, “Your stroking is your personal language.” and “amateur stroking often screams loudest in watercolour.” These 2 artists, demonstrating strokes at opposites ends of the spectrum, were/are anything but amateur. Their skill is evident. Both appear valid.
Desire for fun
by David Lussier, Woodstock, CT, USA
As a true believer in the ‘less is more’ approach to painting, I agree that the brushstroke is so important and conveys the message so to speak. Fewer brushstrokes make a bigger statement since they breathe life and energy into the work. Interestingly enough, I find that it’s the desire to have fun during the painting process that opens up the mind to producing interesting brushwork. I’d rather look twice and paint once and do it all a little faster than feels comfortable than labor over it too extensively. Good brushwork is as much about feeling as it is thought process. I believe that if I try to get the big shapes to all work together using the biggest brushes possible, then the painting is 90 percent complete. Details will take care of themselves and actually present themselves as the obvious if I’ve taken care of the ‘big picture.’ The amount of brushwork that goes on from there should be just enough to convey what I am trying to say in the painting and in a sensible way so that the viewer feels satisfied. Since I am the creator of the painting and the first real ‘viewer,’ when I feel satisfied, I put the brushes down and hope that someone else will feel satisfied too.
The tenth stroke
by Mona Youssef, Ottawa, ON, Canada
Can the tenth stroke delete the previous nine or will it add more depth and functionality and meaning? Can we say that complexity starts with simplicity and complexity is in simplicity? Can one be complete without the other! The beauty is to create from simplicity a complex object that still looks simple but powerful.
(RG note) Thanks, Mona. There are times when it takes multiple cancellations to bring the feeling of satisfaction or at least conclusion. I’ve found it valuable to look for techniques of economy to get to this point.
Lines of another medium
by Laury Ravenstein, Port Moody, BC, USA
I have struggled with finding a way to use my line. Seldom does my line show itself in a finished painting. If I start on paper and transfer the line it is no longer free. I love my line, it is full and spontaneous, sharp and smooth, curves and angles play against each other. When I get to the canvas I want to draw with my brush and allow the image to be revealed. As a semi-realist, I want to depict something but with my own line a substitute for reality. To move away from depiction and move towards a freer way of painting is my ultimate goal. Spontaneous painting lights my fire.
I need a medium that I can draw (on canvas) with, and rub out what does not work and keep drawing. Graphite is too small and both graphite and charcoal mess up the next layer of paint. Acrylic is too permanent and oil is very smelly (and I worry about health issues). Please help me to find a way to break free of the constraints of my medium.
(RG note) Thanks, Laury. This is a challenge I’ve wrestled with as well. Pastels, oil pastels, Conte, wax crayons, carpenter’s pencils, sanguine, Prismacolors and other dry markers present themselves. I’m a believer in doing the drawing — if you do drawing — right on the canvas or other final support. “Contrary” markers (say oil based) do a good job of resist when you flood on water-based colour and add the excitement of mixed media. Well watered acrylic or watercolour put on with a brush makes a nice line and is fragile enough to wipe off when it’s not right. If you like a raised line or a bead, you might consider acrylic in little squeeze bottles with cone-pointed tips. (The kind women and others use for touching up their roots) Further, there’s always a variety of jiffy and other markers on the art store shelves. Apart from the tendency for commercial slickness in these products, you have to watch out for the word “fugitive.”
No turning back
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA
So it is, lines and strokes, the power of simplicity and direct vitality. To be so present to respond effectively and profoundly with lines and then just leave them, this is the meditation of painting for me. It harkens back to the awareness of Michelangelo as he revealed the bodies already present in the marble and it is of the same intention as Zen calligraphy and painting. The outcome should strike the viewer as the Zen master’s stick is meant to strike, with a quickening of reality. I have been creating simple line paintings for a while now and I am always completely engaged and interested in the process of trust and daring to make a line that leads to other lines and a visual dialogue without the need for correction. I found myself evaluating two of my recent paintings, questioning if they were done, or should I add another color to the lines (which were all one color) to add more visual interest to the painting. I decided that if I did that it would undermine the authenticity and strength of the original lines. Sometimes adding another color is appropriate and sometimes it would just seem decorative and weaken the expression or gesture. The excitement in the making of these paintings is in being fully engaged and receptive to make the decisions that give the paintings the effect they were leading me to create. There is no turning back, only moving on.
The Heavyweights, Study
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 95 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2005.
That includes Charlotte Arnold of Florida, Pasadena and Houston, TX, USA who wrote, “I once had a workshop with a very wise man. He would say ‘paint like an angel with a feather in your hand.'”
And also Jeff Miller who wrote, “Yes yes yes — we get paid for the strokes we don’t make.”