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.
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
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.
Relative distances between things
by Khalil Dadah, Gaza, Palestine
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.
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Who knew how this would happen?
by Terrie Christian, Plymouth, MN, USA
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
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.
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The wisdom of age
by Terry Waldron, Anaheim, CA, USA
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
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
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.
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Reposting of Twice-Weekly material
by Alicia Merrett, UK
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.
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Enjoy the past comments below for Five skills worth learning…
Under His Wing
acrylic painting, 48 x 48 inches
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!”