On finding form


Dear Artist,

Up there on the scaffold we have Michelangelo shouting, “Form, form, form!” And then there’s Gustave Flaubert writing in French, “Art is nothing without form.” These commands might have you think form is everything. It is, just about. Here are a few ideas perhaps worth considering:

In portrait work, John Singer Sargent tried to find the facial form in the first few minutes and if he didn’t, he scraped it off and started over. Sometimes, for him, finding a likeness took a dozen scrapings. This effort contrasts with the more common practice of getting a face just about right, then massaging it into a better one. Trouble is, it usually goes the other way and gets worse.

Steeped in eternal mystery, this phenomenon has dogged painters throughout history, and there are probably tens of thousands being dogged by it right this very minute. Chilling thought.

Painters are well advised to render focal areas (such as faces) with high attention to form. Like Sargent, take it slowly and carefully at first. Even in the early stages of abstract work, painterly laziness is out of the question. Funnily, those Sargent faces are more the product of a scientific processing of shapes than as an exercise of born genius. “Catching” something like a likeness is gaining understanding of the distances between things rather than the lines around.

Teeth are not individual incisors and bicuspids; they are a curve of relative whiteness set in relationship to a uniquely formed facial opening.

Eyes are not eyeliner or colourful irises. They are dimensional sockets of significance in mystery and meaning.

Why all this talk about form in portraiture? Because every work we perform has a face or a focus. It’s generally called the “centre of interest.” This focus can be a tree, a Precambrian boulder, a horse, a barn or a goldfinch. Artists are well advised to determine this focal point and put some effort into its rendition.

Then, happily, even goofily, they can take a cue from Sargent and put all manner of formlessness, suggestion and illusion into the surround. Big surprise and benefit here: Form floating on formlessness takes on more form.

Best regards,


PS: “When the whole and the parts are seen at once, as mutually producing and explaining each other, as unity in multeity, there results shapeliness.” (Samuel Taylor Coleridge)

Esoterica: Now think for a minute of situations where known forms have been abstracted or otherwise manipulated. Though some of those forms may appear strange, they may lead us to believe in their possibilities. Is this not part of the artist’s job as well? “An illustrational form,” said Francis Bacon, “tells you through the intelligence immediately what the form is about, whereas a non-illustrational form works first upon sensation and then slowly leaks back into the fact.”


Intersection of the thirds
by Brenda Swenson, South Pasadena, CA, USA


“Petals to the Metal”
original painting
by Brenda Swenson

Many artists don’t know what the “centre of interest” is, in their sketch or painting. If the artist doesn’t know, neither will the viewer! The next item of concern is the placement of the center of interest. It is best to not place it in extreme corners, dead center, to high, or to low. What does this leave us with? We have a formula that has been used by artists for centuries, based on mathematical principals called “intersection of the thirds.” This simple principle creates a well balanced composition. You divide the paper into thirds, (either visually or with light pencil line), horizontally and vertically. You then locate the center of interest at or near the points where the lines intersect. The area that contains your center of interest should contain the greatest amount of contrast, color and detail. This works with all formats, landscape, portrait, square and panorama.

There are 2 comments for Intersection of the thirds by Brenda Swenson

From: Penny Collins — Nov 02, 2009

That is such excellent advice. Thank you for describing it so succinctly. It’s something I’ve been trying to get better at.

From: W. Coffey — Nov 03, 2009

Please, never jump out of the window and waste such wonderful talent!!!! Beautiful work.


What would John do?
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA


“Solar splash II”
encaustic painting by Alan Soffer

Whenever I hear that Sargent did it this way, I must stop and take it seriously. I’ve been thinking how this might apply to my abstract expressionist painting. Usually, we work in a very generalized and organic way waiting to see what the painting will tell us to do. Finally, as the work develops we begin confirming marks and shapes and revamping colors. It would be quite deadly to get too detailed on what seemed to be the main issue before the whole composition was formulated. That said, I might just give this idea a try and see where it could lead. If it’s good enough for Sargeant, it’s good enough for Soffer.

There are 2 comments for What would John do? by Alan Soffer

From: Liz — Nov 03, 2009

Great painting! What size?

From: Marty Gibson — Nov 03, 2009

Interesting painting Alan. I’ve been playing a bit with composition lately. Although I’m classicly trained I’m begining to feel paintings that are too balanced, too rule driven are a little boring. I like a more dynamic structure, shake things up bit. Your painting here is a good example of this. Center of interest is on the left edge. Exciting and definitely more challenging to accomplish.


Getting faces right
by Gregg Hangebrauck, Wildwood, IL, USA


“Eva marie”
coloured pencil by Gregg Hangebrauck

I paint more figurative and mostly all portraits, and as Robert said the dogging happens more often than not. There are times when you get it just right the first time, but most often you have to keep adjusting. Mouths are the worst for me. I have a hell of a time with them. Just one little distance, or placement of a tooth, or curve of a lip can literally make you want to jump out the studio window. It is important to be very close in reference to the model in the beginning which leaves you much freer with the periphery later on in the painting. My clients look at the faces. The rest of the painting is subordinate.

There is 1 comment for Getting faces right by Gregg Hangebrauck

From: Kelly Davie — Nov 03, 2009

What a gift to see your work this morning, like having a peek through the creator’s eyes, absolutely breathtaking!


Scraping out
by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA


oil painting
by Liz Reday

Actually, scraping out and re-painting vital areas is a good sign for me, and the more times I scrutinize the object of my desire, and ruthlessly scrape out an awkwardly proportioned limb, or chin, the better I feel about my painting as a whole. Especially in the beginning, where scraping out is effortless and virtually invisible, and mistakes in structure a faulty foundation on which to build a solid painting. But that would be in oils. Quick drying acrylic would be a more lengthy proposition. Still, I’ve had oils that had dried before I noticed something “off’ and I’ve done some major scraping and sanding.

The human figure seems to become the focal point of my recent work, but it’s interesting to attack a group of figures swirling around brightly colored objects with themselves in different colors. I haven’t used the figure in my paintings for forty years, so it’s a revelation to see how they animate a vibrant landscape. It is so exciting to try a new subject! But yes, if I get a limb too long or a chin too short, it doesn’t matter how brightly colored the robes or how large the crowd is that I’m painting, the errant limb must go!

It’s so funny you honed in on that part of the letter quoted in the last clickback from the perceptive comments of Miss Heynemann regarding Sargent because it really stood out like a jewel of knowledge. I was busy forwarding the whole letter/clickback to several artists and even printed it out myself to post next to my easel. The downside of all the scraping and sanding is that it’s still easy to overwork a painting and lose the fresh spontaneous stroke. Speed is the essence and confidence is a must, even if you don’t feel confident. Rhythm needs to be kept, in a slow swingy loose sort of way, which is why music is a must for me.


What about the divide?
by Karen R. Phinney, Halifax, NS, Canada


original painting, 24 x 36 inches
by Karen R. Phinney

I’m curious, Robert, as to what you think about the “divide” between artists and illustrators. It seems that in the not so distant past there was a tremendous divide between those who created art for strictly an aesthetic purpose, and those who created art (all sorts, even pottery, quilts, other “crafts”) for a commercial purpose. Illustrators, such as Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth, and Robert Bateman, who is a fine artist but also seen as an illustrator, are deemed to somehow not be worthy of gallery space in the nation’s high art galleries. Why? My way of looking at what they do is that they need like any artist, to plan and use imagination to create their works. They have to be inspired, heck, Norman Rockwell designed his spreads carefully, planning them, photographing the subject material and then executing them with incredible skill. Same obviously, with N.C. But somehow he wasn’t in the same league as Rothko or Jasper Johns. I don’t get it. What am I missing here?

(RG note) Thanks, Karen. Sensitive eyes have always seen quality, unsullied by influence and dreams of investment potential, tax relief and perceived immortality through public gallery placement. There will always be people with more money than taste, many of them intellectuals. Wheeler dealers in cahoots with the published critic subculture fill this void. The phenomenon keeps art on edge and open to the possibilities of the new, but has little to do with what makes many evolved artists tick.

There are 3 comments for What about the divide? by Karen R. Phinney

From: Bill Hibberd — Nov 03, 2009

Karen, The “divide” is between the elite and the masses. There are strong artists in both groups but the former is fueled by greed and love of power. Read Tom Wolfes old classic “The Painted Word”. Cruise around Youtube and listen in on the interviews with the major collectors and critics who drive that industry. The emperor has no clothes indeed and wealth doesn’t guarantee wisdom. Enjoy your life in the fields because the farm is run by lunatics.

From: Anonymous — Nov 03, 2009

Robert Bateman an illustrator? Not worthy of the nation’s top galleries? Better look again …. his work is displayed in the world’s best. Just because a work is commissioned, be it an illustration for a book or magazine, a portrait, or hotel lobby, is still a work of art. The only difference is a deadline. It takes no less skill to render one than it does the other, as compared to a manufactured piece our imagination produces.

From: Jim van Geet — Nov 03, 2009


Drawing between the fingers
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“True North Strong 2”
acrylic painting
by John Ferrie

Back when the earth was cooling and I was in Art School, I took figure drawing and anatomical drawing classes religiously. When it comes to form, there is nothing like working with the human figure and a live model. I was having a terrible time with drawing the models’ hands and one day my instructor told me to be sure to not only draw the hand, but the form between the fingers. It was interesting to suddenly see the other side of the form and work backwards from there. I always draw on that lesson when I am drawing something and trying to make it work.




Getting inspired
by Duncan Long, Manhattan, KS, USA


“The Reflecting Pool”
original painting
by Duncan Long

Since I was a child, I have had a crazy dream of getting a picture on a cover of a pulp science fiction magazine. Strange dream, I know. But after several years of being inspired by Painter’s Keys and many years of honing my craft, I finally submitted a portfolio to Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and — I’m happy to announce — have an illustration appearing on the Dec. 2009 issue. Dreams do come true. Thanks so much for the inspiration Painter’s Keys brings. You can’t imagine how much you and your contributors motivate and inspire some of who tend toward being overly cautious and insecure.


There are 3 comments for Getting inspired by Duncan Long

From: Marie B. Corso — Nov 03, 2009

Congratulations! Crazy dreams do come true with hard work. And, the painting next to your comment above is lovely.

From: Darla — Nov 03, 2009

Congratulations! This is not an easy market to crack. I’ll keep a look out for your cover.

Have you ever been to a large science fiction (not media) convention art show? If you haven’t, it’s worth seeing next time one is held in your area. There’s a lot of mediocre “fan art” with a good amount of extroardinary work. I love to see how the some of the artists who start out not very good develop their skills and eye until they are really wonderful. And you get to talk with working artists and authors and pick their brains!

From: Ken Flitton — Nov 03, 2009

What a beautiful painting!! Congratulations.


How to find the time
by Blu Rivard, Rolling Hills, CA, USA

I thank you for all that you share, inspire, and help other artists understand that they are not alone in the many compromising situations that we all face as artists. But the real reason I am writing this is to ask how you find the time to travel, paint and share these incredible experiences?

(RG note) Thanks, Blu. As an intrinsically challenged ditherer and natural-born procrastinator, I just keep pencilling in near and distant wishes, and then, for some reason, they come around and they often happen.


What is form?
by Sebastian Koh

I will be forever grateful if you will spare a few moments to explain to me what the term ‘form’ means in art. I have struggled with it for years. I do not ask for a profound philosophical discussion. (For example, in an article, Form in the History of Aesthetics, Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz stated: The history of aesthetics reveals at least five different meanings of form. None of the lengthy elaborations helped me very much.) I simply want to know what exactly did you mean by saying ‘Sargent tried to find the facial form in the first few minutes’? More generally what did Flaubert mean that art is nothing without form? Is it possible for a painting, say, to be without form? It may be aesthetically poor but can one paint without form?

I grew up in Far East. Therefore ‘chi or qi’ seems to be a very natural concept to me. In the West many are puzzled by it. Indeed, more often than not, artists poke fun of this concept. For me, form is every bit as mysterious as chi if not more puzzling.

(RG note) Thanks, Sebastian. My understanding of form is the rendering through light, shade and other devious means, to create the illusion and heft of three-dimensionality. Lots of art does not contain this, but many of the Western classicists demanded it. When placed within a picture plane, the eyes of many cultures are attracted to the illusion of form. Like the noble concept of “chi” it’s a figment of the imagination. ‘Within the first few minutes’ refers to the curious phenomenon that likeness is often found in the first few strokes and is gradually lost as another part of the artist’s brain begins to take charge and dominate over the first understanding. Flaubert had a lot of strong and somewhat rigid ideas and a penchant for exactitude. He thought there were rules for just about everything. While examples of formlessness in painting are today endemic, form is still a valuable commodity and ought to be treated with respect.

There are 2 comments for What is form? by Sebastian Koh

From: Judy Lalingo — Nov 03, 2009

I can’t seem to submit a comment in the general comment section below, so I will try here, in another simplified version of form: One way to understand form is it’s relationship to shapes. A circle is a flat shape, while a ball is a round form. The rectangle as shape becomes a form when it is made into a box. Triangles become cones, elipses evolve into eggs.

From: Nan Kritzler — Nov 03, 2009

Thank you Sebastian for your question. I was not sure of the definition of form. Thank you Judy for your simple explanation. Thank you Robert for your forum and letters. I don’t think “chi” is a concept – it just is.


Form in writing
by Jack Friesen

The poet Robert Frost said, “Let cloud shapes swarm, Let chaos storm, I wait for form.” He was using the idea of form as a way to add concrete format to an art that has the potential to wander off in all directions. Form is as much organization as it is rounding things out. Those of us who write know all too well that without form there is only chaos and that clouds of formlessness eventually obfuscate, and while the material that sort of looks like writing may be interesting for a while, it doesn’t have lasting value.




Market Day, Florence

oil painting
by Roger W. Carlson, CO, 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 Adelyn Cooper of Clear Lake Shores, TX, USA, who wrote, “Your statements, especially the one about distances between shapes instead of lines around, are what my excellent drawing instructor, Mark Greenwalt tries to get us to soak up.”

And also Christy Michalak who wrote, “It has been about one minute since you sent me your email letter, but already I find my internal art world shifting… you have illustrated why some of my portraits are successful, and others get relegated to the ‘gesso over and try again’ pile.”



Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for On finding form



From: Edna V.Hildebrandt Toronto,Ontario — Oct 31, 2009

I am not very adept at placing forms in my work. How do you rate their importance in a piece of art and what emphasis is place on them.I think I need help. Thanks,

From: Sandi McKessock — Nov 01, 2009

Thank you so much for your bi-weekly letters!!! I eagerly read them, looking for those hints and words of wisdom that will help me become a better painter. And in every letter, I find them.

From: Arlene Robbins — Nov 01, 2009

Thank you for your insight. This letter has been so helpful. I have been struggling with my figure drawing and I realize now my approach was a significant part of the problem.

From: Marti O’Brien — Nov 01, 2009

I enjoyed your letter on form immensely…thank you for giving me inspiration and valuable insight as to form in portraiture. I have been doing abstract painting for quite some time and just recently my interest in doing portraits has resurfaced. I will keep your letter and refer to it often.

From: Bert Davis — Nov 01, 2009

One of the surest ways to achieve form is to “feel” your way around the thing you are trying to depict. While this may be an illusion like the making of rushing noises while you are painting a stream or a waterfall, the same goes for really feeling the roundness of apples, the squareness of boxes, the pillar quality of trees, etc, etc, etc. “Our knowledge of shape and form remains, in general, a mixture of visual and of tactile experiences… A child learns about roundness from handling a ball far more than from looking at it. (Henry Moore)

From: P L Jacobsen — Nov 01, 2009

You have no idea of the value you have created in this letter service of yours Rob


From: Marie Bigsby — Nov 01, 2009

“Draw with the brush. Carve the form. Don’t be carried away by subtleties of modeling and nice pigmentation at the expense of losing the form.” (John Sloan) There is excellent material on form in the Resource of Art Quotations.

From: Rick Rotante — Nov 01, 2009

For Edna V.Hildebrandt – Importance of form is an individual artist’s choice but to help bring this into focus more for you, think of establishing a “read” priority.

For example, whatever the subject, establish the focal point, which with a human subject, generally is the face, the body will subordinate to the face in development and finish. Within the face there is also a priority, which many times are the eyes. Establish a priority here too by choosing one eye to develop over the other.

Sharp lines, intensity of color, size of shapes all lead to this priority. Diminish anything unimportant by subduing color, blurring edges or using equal values. The same is true of landscapes and still lifes. Good luck

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt-Toronto,Ontario — Nov 02, 2009

To: Rick Rotante -Thanks for your response to my query .I’ll bear it in mind in my work. I appreciate it very much. Edna

From: Nina Allen Freman — Nov 03, 2009

Once again, I have learned, been refreshed and energized from your letter and comments. This morning I go to teach my class armed with more information about form and new ways to explain it. Thanks!

From: Esther J. Williams — Nov 03, 2009

The concept of form and it’s importance in art is a lifelong learning curve. Just last week I struggled with a sailboat painting that was a commission, I scraped the basic oil wash rendering of it 3 times until my client and I were satisfied. It has to ‘feel’ right in proportion, perspective and character. It wasn’t fun, it was one of the harder aspects of being an artist, capturing a likeness of a form. In the end I had to embellish the shape of the boat to appear a bit longer and more slender than it actually was to please the client. I find that just painting in the most general shape or shapes of the scene to fill the substrate, then either wiping away or scraping away or painting around the shapes to sculpt them better helps to build a solid and unifying composition. All the while I have to keep the subject alive with intersections of light and shadow colors. It’s complicated at times, that’s why we need to have inner conversations with ourselves on what we are trying to communicate to the viewer and how we can create a remarkable work that speaks from across a room. If you make your subjects that are the focal point with more solidity, sharper lines or higher contrast then gradate the values, colors and lines of all else in a decreasing hierarchy, then that form of the focal point will carry across the room and draw the attention to it automatically. Sometimes the painting will develop itself rather easily when we place all the shadow shapes first and then lay in the light shapes so they connect, then go to mid values to fill the rest in. The edges of the subordinate shapes are not as sharp and there is where we need to create some magic with our brushes to fade or flicker out the hard lines. It’s still a shape or form, just not having a hard line edge that draws attention away from the focal point. The way you use your brushstrokes by pushing one edge of a shape next to another or blend it ever so slightly using blended colors is your personal stamp of your style. This creates a mood to the imagery that speaks the heart of the artist and sparks an emotive response from the viewer. I hope this helps somebody.

From: Liz Reday — Nov 03, 2009

Esther Williams explains the traditional way of creating a painting using a focal point. Artists, however, are all about creativity, and sticking to a formal set of rules might make all paintings look similar. I agree that we must master the basic rules regarding focal points and composition, but once the basics have been mastered, painters might want to let go and explore different types of mark-making, experiment with materials and throw all the rules out the window and paint from joyful intuition! The more painting starts to feel like a job, the less your average passer-by is attracted by that painting, I have found. Having said that, it’s amazing how a spontaneous sketch of a painting dashed off in the moment can have followed all the rules when examined later. I guess the point I’m making is not to make it look labored or overworked.

From: George Black — Nov 03, 2009

Actually, it’s only artists and jurors who care about “overworked” and spontaneous. Your average collector will more readily pay for a painting which is very similar to an old master’s work, than for a spontaneous painting which looks like crap (pardon the expression, no art is crap, but that’s the kind of language you will hear from gallery visitors).

From: Rick Rotante — Nov 04, 2009

I am currently teaching students new to art and I find that with form, the problem is with their lack of drawing skills. I find they don’t consider drawing as a basis and precursor of painting. True, drawing deals with line and painting with shapes, but drawing also teaches value, composition and identifying shapes. They want to paint right away. If I suggest they do value studies of the subject I usually get a disinterested response or a reluctance to do it.

So I teach color theory stressing value overall. This allows them to paint and I get them to do what is necessary in the process. When they hit a wall many times it involves lack of form along with other aspect and I go back to shaping form with value. This way they are forced to deal with form and drawing (but with a brush). Painting is learning to see and not just looking. If you don’t know what to look for you can’t see it. When they eventually see it, they realize the importance of form and how to achieve it and this makes me very happy.

From: Esther J. Williams — Nov 10, 2009

To Liz Reday, if you knew my body of work, in fact take a look at my website, www.estherjwilliams.com You will notice I am anything but repetitious or overly formal in my work. My forte’ is to be unique, passionately creative and enlightening with my fine art. Been doing it for over 50 years and have a body of work saved as a legacy to hand down to my children. Since we are probably the same age and have both had college education in art, we know there are the fundamentals of art that act as an outline to guide us to create what is called fine art. I know you know that and so does everyone else on here. Being creative and spontaneous within that realm is the joy of being an artist. Fine art and just making art are different. I am sorry that I caused you to misunderstand my advice, I never would advise any artist to be formulaic or repetitious . The last thing on earth I am is a stiff, regimented old fashioned artist. I need inspiration to make art, I have so many inspired moments and intuitive moments before and during my painting process. Even afterward I dream in colors and shapes the whole night watching a brush glide across a canvas. But I take art seriously even though I enjoy creating it. I was just describing form and focus, it is one of of the many aspects of creating readable art in today’s and yesterday’s art world. You know that all too well being highly educated. Today’s juried art exhibitions in my area of Southern California, emphasize focal point, path to focus, composition, values, color, shapes, (form), originality and presentation. That’s in both representational and abstract art. If you do not have a focal point, you will get points marked off. We all know that the focal point can be anywhere in the painting’s borders, just not in the center, although I have broken that rule recently and I know many other well known artists who break it also. Variety is the spice of life, I like that saying. Rules were made to be broken, you know that too. I also know artists that do not like focal points, it’s their personal prerogative. There are probably judges who don’t care about focal points, it’s a luck of the draw at times. The former comment I made mentioned a sailboat commission piece I did for a client that was rather boring to create at first. But later I included freely executed passes of colorful forms in the water and background besides the highly rendered details of a sail boat. To be taken seriously in the fine art world under the eyes of jurors, critics and gallery owners an artist must develop a keen sense of what they are looking for and balance that with your own inner muse. Sometimes to please myself, I paint or draw without concerning if it will be a juried piece. Those I call my ‘keepers’ and it’s just a form of expression of love for something I hold dear to me. I can critique them and say they are without a focal point, or lack somewhere else, but they are just too darn cute like the painting of my pet frog sitting on a rock. Hope to meet you someday, I am in the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association, Southern California Artist’s Association, Southern California Plein Air Painter’s Association and The San Clemente Art Association. Cheers!




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