Five skills worth learning

Dear Artist, Drawing mastery is understanding our world and understanding relationships. Contrary to popular belief, drawing doesn’t mean trailing a line around things — it means seeing and reporting the relative distances between things. Drawing is a non-literary way of looking — and the skill to put down what you see in a two-dimensional way. Drawing mastery takes time and patience. Colour mastery involves knowing the properties of pigments, both in theory and as chemicals that have certain effects on one another when juxtaposed or mixed. Colour mixes that call for opposites on the colour wheel (complementary), as well as nearby on the colour wheel (analogous), or even so closely related as to appear to be one colour (monochromatic), make for lively and sophisticated effects. Colour mastery takes time and patience. Abstract understanding doesn’t mean arbitrary sloshing and messing. Abstract art is controlled visual magic based on laws and methodology. Abstraction generally involves implication, suggestion and mystery rather that obvious description. Like a good poem, a good abstraction attacks your feelings before your understanding. Abstraction within realism adds zest and excitement to otherwise dull subject matter. Abstract understanding takes time and patience. Compositional mastery is a variety of traditional rules that beg to be broken. That’s why composition is the queen of the skills. With composition you learn to control and play with the eye and move it within the picture plane. Composition includes the golden mean, the rule of thirds, big and small, dark and light, activation, circulation, focus, pattern, stoppage and a pile of other ploys, many of them developed by you and unique to yourself. Compositional mastery also means the avoidance of lineups, homeostasis, and a jungle road of potholes too tedious and disheartening to include in a 500-word letter. Learn to compose intelligently in your own vocabulary and you can get away with murder. Compositional mastery takes time and patience. Emotional evolution means combining basic skills — such as the above — so that a unique voice and engagement occur. Finding your unique voice may not be everything, but it’s way ahead of whatever comes next. Emotional evolution takes time and patience. Best regards, Robert PS: “Skills aren’t enough on their own. Emotion has to come through. But when you’ve got the various skills sewn up, that’s one thing you don’t have to worry about.” (Zoe Benbow) Esoterica: You can choose to make unskilled art if you wish. Unskilled art has its allure. The mere act of moving paint around can produce joy. Knowing little or nothing in the “how to” department and failing to inquire about it can probably make some people happy and may even be good for the soul. But if you persist in this direction, your unskilled work will be like that of so many others — and you will begin to bore yourself. On the other hand, the skills I suggest are worth learning for their own sake — and they will stand you well no matter what you try to do. They are hard won. We value most what is hard won — and so do many others. Skills worth learning take time and patience.   Art & abstraction in a nutshell by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA  

acrylic painting, 48 x 46 inches
by Alan Soffer

How to describe our artistic adventure in one simply stated letter that is completely understandable and on target is all here in what I have re-titled, Abstraction & Art in a Nutshell. The beautiful thing is that it dovetails the abstract and the representational, which for me are really one and the same with a few minor details. Yes, just some chiaroscuro, linear elements, and perspective are those details. I remember watching a demonstration by the noted portraitist, Nelson Shanks, and the under-painting was a virtuoso performance of the abstract, color field genre. Probably no one else recognized this as much as I, the lone abstractionist in the audience. It was what separated him from the rest of the pack.   &nsp; Relative distances between things by Khalil Dadah, Gaza, Palestine  

watercolour painting
by Khalil Dadah

After reading this letter I feel that I am living in an isolated world. Your statement — “it means seeing and reporting relative distances between things” — because what I see and report in my drawings and paintings is not to the liking of the outside world.         There are 2 comments for Relative distances between things by Khalil Dadah
From: angie — Feb 17, 2012

your message is so sad but true the world can be an unlikable place outside its what is in our hearts that make a good world when the feelings have joy and love as an important component

From: Sharon Cory — Feb 17, 2012

It’s so wonderful that even in Palestine, where people are ruled by war and isolation, that Art is being produced and artists are reaching out to feel connected. Keep telling us how you feel and what you are experiencing. We want to hear it.

  Who knew how this would happen? by Terrie Christian, Plymouth, MN, USA  

watercolour painting
by Terrie Christian

At the Atelier in Minneapolis I learned good drawing foundation and I took color theory there as well as from another local teacher and eventually moved from classical realism to much more abstraction which is so much more fun for me as well as more interesting to my eye. I have lived on lakes most of my life and images of frogs, birds and other critters often get into my paintings. This is an emotional connection in my life. In this case, the frogs are done with a cut out tool and I painted the paper myself. Note that I place the copper one approaching the boat for color impact and put the all blue one next to a mostly yellow space with some dark that “disappears” the edge. I love that you use the word magic in describing abstraction, because for me it is! In addition, watercolor is magic for me. I love the way the colors can mix together and do things I don’t control. In this painting mixing the violet with the Indian yellow creates lovely mixtures, then adding in the blue and red give it zing. Now the drawing for me comes at the end, not at the beginning as with the Atelier method. Who knew?   The need to learn by Rhonda Murphy, Doha, Qatar   My husband is posted in the Middle East at present and having your letters to refer to, read and draw inspiration from has been a life saver. I have forwarded it to many friends and hope they get the same satisfaction from it. This week was especially helpful, as I have been bored with my paintings and not feeling inspired. You hit the nail on the head about the things we need to learn in order to really, I think, feel free to acquire a voice of our own through our paintings. I have found an art class here that has assisted with the drawing and composition and have several books that I will now read and study regarding color as well. Thanks for all the accompanying links, as well. It is wonderful to look at the work of the Premium Artists and view people who have learned those things you recommend and have produced such beautiful work.   The pain of blockage by Wes Giesbrecht, Mission, BC, Canada  

“Deeper than the ocean”
wood mosaic, 36 x 60 inches
by Wes Giesbrecht

Why is it that, knowing full well how great I feel, how in love with life I am when I’m doing lots of painting, I still find it so damned hard to get on with it? I work in bursts and, when I’m not painting, berate myself endlessly for not painting more, feel guilty and downright shameful for not using my time more productively. I love painting so much, and yet I have to badger myself into getting on with it. The pain that this blockage causes me is excruciating and I know that many others struggle with it just like I do. I’m sure you’ve touched on this subject many times and yes I have The Painter’s Keys and Love Letters to Art and Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit and David Bayles’ s Art and Fear and many other books but still… It’s the biggest bugaboo in my life. There are 6 comments for The pain of blockage by Wes Giesbrecht
From: wes giesbrecht — Feb 16, 2012

This letter was a question that I posed to Robert, thinking that he might consider responding to it the twice weekly letter. There was no image attached to it. I don’t really understand why it was posted here. The image, is one of my wood mosaic pieces and has nothing to do with my paintings. I did however, previously on the same evening, send an entirely different email with a response to the above newsletter that was on-topic, namely acquiring skills. It did have an image attached, of one of my paintings. Very strange.

From: Anonymous — Feb 17, 2012

I was surprised reading your comment here yet it would seem, in answer to your question, that it is relevant due to the skills mentioned for development and that they take time and patience. Also the posting of a non-painted work of art may relate to working through painting and blocks with other methods and media. Painting or any creativity is not separate from life, day to day events, moods, lethargy or life’s ups and downs. One can always shift into desirable thinking, opening up creative ideas or actions. Thinking small, berating oneself has nothing to do with pacing, needing time off to make the most of creative bursts. Opening the door to happiness however it can be achieved is an important goal at all times.

From: Suzette Fram — Feb 17, 2012

Wes, I often feel the same way. Why is it that I put off going to my studio for no apparent reason? I think there are many reasons, fear of failure, fear of success, boredom with the current work, a sense that I am not achieving what I’m after. I’ve given it a lot of thought but still don’t have the answer. Perhaps it’s time to move the work in new and exciting directions, or perhaps I just have to show up and work, and the passion and inspiration will show up later??

From: Tatjana — Feb 17, 2012

Hi Wes, I recognize all your feelings. When this block is upon me, asking myself to go make art only makes things worse. What I really need is to lose myself in the process. The part of the process that is closest to my heart is drawing and planning new paintings, so that’s what I am doing now. I am promising those new paintings to myself and loving my pencils and paper, and they seem to love me back.

From: marie lyon — Feb 17, 2012

I, too, procrastinate going to the studio and, on reading these letters, I think I know why I do this. It is not fear of failure, but I have come to the conclusion that I am so looking forward to the pleasure of painting something that pleases me so I postpone that pleasure and enjoy the anticipation of a future fulfillment. It strangely sounds like laziness but I seem to thrive on the ‘waiting’ period. It hasn’t gotten me in trouble yet.

From: Jennifer — Feb 17, 2012

I feel your pain Wes. For me, I’ve found it comes down to thoughts of “do I really deserve to be this happy?”, “who am I to think that I can simply paint all day and get paid to do it…especially if success should follow in spades!?”. If fear-based or undeserving thoughts were an impossibility, then maybe, just maybe there would nothing but creative production at the easel. I’m about ready to find out. You?

  The wisdom of age by Terry Waldron, Anaheim, CA, USA  

“Trees in Winter”
art quilt
by Terry Waldron

I’m in the midst of writing a book proposal and I was just explaining some of this to the executive editor. In my medium there is so much that is called “art” and isn’t! As a high school art teacher for many years I give you an A+++. Thank you for this. One of my professors at university once said to us that we needed to look at art for 25 years before we could truly understand it. Well, I was 19 years old, and I thought, “Good Lord! I’ll be in my 40’s then… near death!” But he was right and you are right! I’m 67 years old now, and I know!         Words on abstraction to be integrated in workshop by Lynne Cunningham, Davis, CA, USA  

“In the presence”
original painting
by Lynne Cunningham

I’ll be teaching a weekend workshop in the fall at a wonderful art center, on abstracting nature in painting. The “Five skills worth learning” letter underlines what I’ll be discussing in class and demonstrating — the mystery and suggestion that are important to abstraction, along with laying the groundwork of composition, color mastery and creating a strong individual expression in paintings. A lot to talk about. I plan to read your letter out loud as you’ve explained abstraction in the way I feel about these topics, yet your words are crafted in a different manner that will help define and emphasize my explanations. The art of having patience with oneself, and keeping up the drawing will also be part of the discussion.   Books of value to artists by Renata Spiazzi, La Jolla, CA, USA  

“1908 Mask”
digital art
by Renata Spiazzi

I have been living with these five skills all my artist’s life and, having been a teacher for many years, I have found how difficult it is to make the student understand that it is not only the aptitude we are born with and the willingness of doing it. It is a science, and it deserves to be learned before we can produce an acceptable masterpiece. One of the books that helped me a lot is Language of Vision by Gyorgy Kepes. Some people may think this is old stuff but when we are talking about human behavior there is no old stuff because it is Universal. Another book that I feel everyone should have is: The Six Orders of Art by Thomas Parker Emery, available at Amazon. It has been a bible for me and for many of my students who embraced a life in art. It has the alphabet of Line which I think is the most important thing when drawing. To discover what a line means when it is put on paper, and its relationship to all the other lines on the canvas gives you command of your image and transmits the message clearly to the viewer. There is 1 comment for Books of value to artists by Renata Spiazzi
From: Nancy McGrath — Feb 17, 2012

I always tell my students that if you wanted to become a carpenter, you would need to learn how to use the tools in the carpenter’s toolbox. Same thing goes for being an artist – you have to learn how to use the tools!

  Reposting of Twice-Weekly material by Alicia Merrett, UK  

“Seaside town”
art quilt
by Alicia Merrett

Thank you for your prompt reply and your permission to use your material. I very much enjoy reading your twice-weekly letters. I look forward to them every week, and find your insights very inspiring. I was particularly interested in your recent letters from South America, as I was born and grew up in Argentina, although I have been living in England for the last 44 years. (RG note) Thanks, Alicia. And thanks to everyone who wrote to ask permission to repost letters or parts of letters on blogs, posts, emails, catalogues or other publications — even the ones written from the wilds of Argentina. We practically always give permission when we feel that the post might just be of benefit to someone. There is 1 comment for Reposting of Twice-Weekly material by Alicia Merrett
From: Suzette Fram — Feb 17, 2012

Alicia, I love your Seaside Town quilt. It’s beautiful. Wonderful colour and abstract design.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Five skills worth learning

From: Daniela — Feb 13, 2012

Robert, Did you mean to give us such a worthy post on Valentine’s Day? I could not agree more – all those exercises and learning mean something. In Australia we have a legend called Lloyd Rees, I wish I had been of his time and gone to his art school lessons, he was a consummate artist and art teacher. He was quoted as saying to his graduating (lucky students) students: ” You have the freedom that kings and queens can only dream of.” That is what your letter, this time reminds me of and thank you.

From: L. Redmond — Feb 13, 2012

Under Compositional Mastery you wrote: Composition includes the golden mean, the rule of thirds, big and small, dark and light, activation, circulation, focus, pattern, stoppage …avoidance of homeostasis… Having a diploma in design, I understand most of this, and condense big/small, dark/light to ‘contrast’. But I’m curious and don’t understand; Will you please show some examples of what you mean by these four: ‘activation, circulation, stoppage, and homeostasis’. Perhaps I understand them as something else, or not at all. I can only imagine. (sounds kind of detailed/medical). Thanks!

From: M Louise — Feb 14, 2012

Drawing is simply visual communication. Isn’t it our job to put down what we see in a three-dimensional way (length, width, and depth), not just two-dimensional? Great letter.

From: Dwight — Feb 14, 2012

For any who teach art, private or public, this is probably Robert’s best letter yet!

From: Zac Jolie — Feb 14, 2012

Your Esoterica is priceless and should be memorized by every art student.

From: Raymond Mosier — Feb 14, 2012

Wonderful, Robert. We know what it is when we hear: “you really have talent”, or have a “gift”. No it isn’t talent or a gift, it’s skills that are taking time and patience to learn and get better.

From: Carol Hall — Feb 14, 2012
From: Faye Gordon-Lewis — Feb 14, 2012

Thanks for the concise listing of the principles of art and design. It is in a nutshell form that I can e-mail to my non-artist and some of my artist friends who would like to see it also.

From: Judith Berlinger — Feb 14, 2012
From: Linda Naughton — Feb 14, 2012

Perfect timing with today’s letter. I am recently retired and picking up my education in art and art-making from where I left off before going to work for 30 years in the offset and quick print industry. Your five skills list gives me more specific structure for self-directed study. The BFA I earned all those years ago gave me the smattering of basics that pass for education. Now I’m really hungry to study in depth. I like to work in watercolor, gouache and collage.

From: John F. Burk — Feb 14, 2012

As always, intelligent assessments beautifully articulated. Tonight, I will lift a scotch northwest-ward in a toast to you, and to time and patience yet to be expended. Thank you, friend.

From: Staci Vella Katsias — Feb 14, 2012

Just wondering: can you recommend a reference, book, or method for honing one’s skills in the area of “Abstraction”?

From: Carol Ann Cain — Feb 14, 2012

For me, this is the best letter yet, and well worth reading several times. Thanks for reaffirming my reason to keep up the work ethic.

From: Aiden Mahoney — Feb 14, 2012

I read your articles all the time and as a photographer I have learned so much from you. The article about Jamaica was a classic. Thank you.

From: Dennis Alter — Feb 14, 2012

As someone with little skill but much joy in pushing paint around, what is the best way to learn these skills? I am almost 70 and don’t have the patience (maybe time) to take a multi-year program. Any suggestions?

From: Alexanna Padilla Johnson — Feb 14, 2012

I appreciate your postings in the Twice Weekly Letters. I enjoy your thoughtful approach, no flash or bravado, just good –often deep – thoughts about art and the effect it has on us, artists and non-artists alike. You take a “quieter” approach and I like that.

From: Tom Henderson Smith — Feb 14, 2012

These are very useful and clear definitions I feel. Thank you. This is definitely one that I’ll be keeping on file.

From: Gabriella Morrison — Feb 14, 2012

I don’t believe there is such a thing as “dull subject matter”, merely dulled sensibility.

From: Rick Rotante — Feb 14, 2012

I recently saw a BBC program on James McNeil Whistler, particularly his Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother This, to me, embodies exactly all you are saying. Minimal color, abstraction, drawing and composition all in one masterly painting. Though this work has been bastardized and commercialized, with this one work Whistler managed to include all the pertinent aspects of art. There are few artists today working in this manner and is the reason for the lack of lasting immortality in art.

From: Susan — Feb 15, 2012
From: Susan Kellogg, Austin, TX — Feb 15, 2012

How about this: The art brain is not linear, lines are just part of its tool kit. Drawing is a distillation of more than one skill applied to more than one task, practiced simultaneously…the art brain multitasks as it distills. Amazing!

From: Esther J. Williams — Feb 15, 2012
From: Cindy wider — Feb 15, 2012

Thanks Robert for yet another valuable article. Your devotion to these letters is admirable. Well said, Composition certainly is the Queen, alongside emotion, poetry mystery and humor. its the constant challenge that I live for with my art practice and in the art course that I designed I treat this area as the epitomy of the course where I go into great detail. With regards to composing art, I love the thrill of the chase, especially when creating semi abstract art…the process of solving problems seeking balance, drama, excitement while at the same time having the courage and open mind to accept those surprising accidents as subconcious successes that could only possibly come to us after years of hard work, practice and perseverance. To anyone seeking to study these five areas, you might like to try online art tuition, there are loads of great courses available,you just need to find the right one for you. Cheers cindy wider

From: Claire Remsberg — Feb 16, 2012
From: Bob Raglandl — Feb 16, 2012

It wouldn’t hurt to learn some business skills. The nuts and bolts of surviving as an artist is very important. In Denver, there’s a wealth of artists who, are making a good living from their effort. I am one of them. I am a working class, blue collar artist. I am also a NON- starving artist!!!!!! I make masterpiece business every day, art not so much. I eat and heat from my art effort.

From: Adaline O’Gorman — Feb 16, 2012

Thank you for the summary of ‘it ALL” and the reminder of the time and the patience required to get somewhere near “There”

From: Briar Emond — Feb 16, 2012

I enjoy reading all your letters but this one, on this day, was just the right spark to set me into motion. Thank you. Hope you have a wonderful day. I better get to work .

From: Deb Townsend — Feb 16, 2012

Thank you for your recent post. What resources would you recommend to improve my abstract understanding.

From: Polonca Kocjancic — Feb 16, 2012

Dear Robert, precise and concise! Keep up the good work.

From: Tom Relth — Feb 16, 2012

Robert, Wow. and thanks from Morocco. I will post this in my HS classroom today. (with your credit of course) I appreciate you! Keep up the great writing.

From: Esther J. Williams — Feb 16, 2012
From: B J Adams — Feb 16, 2012

Robert, That is a wonderfully clear explanation of the many facets everyone should learn for a balanced view of almost everything we look at each day. Studying each subject and absorbing what is necessary is a lifetime learning process. I’ve been living, creating art, often innately, in various mediums all my life and after 80 years I still feel I need to learn and understand more.”Learn to compose intelligently in your own vocabulary and you can get away with murder.” That sentence gave me encouragement to appreciate some of my work I thought poorly composed but I happened to like it anyway. Thank you for the thoughtful list of skills.

From: H Margret — Feb 16, 2012

For most artists, including masters, these five skills take a lifetime.

From: Gillian Redwood — Feb 16, 2012

I was interested in your letter concerning drawing skills. I’ve always been fascinated with drawing, and experiment with different types of charcoals, pencils, pens, pastels and lumps of this or that. It seems to me that each drawing medium has a story of its own, and depending on the kind of story — charcoal being drama and intrigue, pencil sharply descriptive, Chinese brushes stylish and dramatic and pastels seductive — I am drawn to some media rather than others. I also find that every line tells its own story, even the very tentative ones. Bold illustrative strokes sparkle with feeling …. Its hard to fake emotion behind the hand that draws. When eye and hand become friends, then drawing takes on a life of its own.

From: Jackie Knott — Feb 16, 2012

Five skills *worth* learning?! They are essentials, fundamentals, requisites, and the building blocks of of artistic endeavor. One can spend a lifetime trying to master each and every one, and I’ve never heard an artist who claims to have done so. We may be more skilled than before but will we never master them … there is always more to learn.

From: Marcie Maynard — Feb 28, 2012

Do you have a favorite book(s) that specifically addresses each of the “Five Skills Worth Learning”? Perhaps there’s one that addresses color and another that addresses composition, or one that addresses several of the skills in a focused and succinct way. It would be a great support.

     Featured Workshop: Jerry Markham
021712_robert-genn Jerry Markham workshops   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 

Under His Wing

acrylic painting, 48 x 48 inches by Rose-Marie Goodwin, Vancouver, BC, Canada

  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 Vivian Anderson of Facebook who wrote, “Congratulations and thanks for your Five Skills topic, Robert… this really says it like it is, and a great help for those struggling with good intentions and not enough skills that need to be learned first.” And also Judi Birnberg of Sherman Oaks, CA, USA, who wrote, “I agree. But then I think of children, who know nothing of rules and theory and yet often produce stunning original art. What happens between childhood and adulthood that causes that spontaneity to evaporate and turn messing around in the studio to become the progenitor of worthless results?” And also Polonca Kocjancic of Slovenia, who wrote, “Precise and concise!”    

Robert and Sara Genn Twice-Weekly Letters

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