Form them up


Dear Artist,

In the good old days, students in art schools were provided with simple plaster forms. The sphere, pyramid and cube were the basics. Subjected to various types of light, simple drawing skills were tested and developed, the subtleties of light and shade, cast shadows, core areas and reflected light began to be understood. It was not a bad idea. Nowadays these objects often gather dust in forgotten cupboards. The avant-garde doesn’t demand them, the naive don’t think they need them.

Speaking of the naive, there were some remarkable responses to the previous letter “The naive choice.” We’ve made a special edition out of many of them at The naive choice.

In the beginning there was drawing. But drawing can be as awkward as stretching a coat-hanger around the edges of a form. While drawing can be beautiful and expressive in itself, the trouble with drawing is that it’s time consuming and it doesn’t tell you much. This is where an understanding of form comes in. It has to do with light, halftone and dark — patches of tone that when properly placed give a convincing idea of volume and shape. Here are a few ideas:

For many artists, form comes easier when it’s not too well drawn — or not drawn at all. Form is “found.” It’s found by looking at the work in progress (often with half closed eyes) and patching together swatches of tone that go together to describe what you want to see. At my easel I often think of the old sculptor’s advice: “Just chip away everything that doesn’t look like a horse.” Trying to draw out complex and repetitious forms such as piles of boulders tumbling down a Rocky Mountain slope can send you in for a lobotomy. Right now I’m using a broad, big-brush suggestion of the general area. For most of us, this is a better place to start. In a minute your eyes, working perhaps in collusion with your reference material, either at hand or canned, let you see what can be made out of this and that. Light, halftone, dark. Halftone, dark, light. Like magic, form materializes. There’s nary a line in sight. And when it can’t be realized, leave it, eat your bagels, come back later.

Best regards,


PS: “Lines as edges kill a sense of form.” (Paul Brandford) “There are forms that can only be seen when you are near a painting, others only appear when you are far away.” (Robert Henri) “Form, form, form.” (Joe Blodgett)

Esoterica: Look for a moment at the forms in your current work. If, in your opinion, more form would be desirable, try to “form them up” from the greatest of all reference — your mind’s eye. It’s a matter of finding out what you already know. Great things can happen when you know your spheres, pyramids and cubes. Then you can truly say: “I can wing it.”


Drawing and form at new school
Priscilla Baldwin

I have started a school of natural history art at the Desert Museum in Tucson, Arizona. We speak directly to the fact that drawing and form are not being taught in a large number of schools. We do teach both of these skills and they are requirements for all subsequent classes. The goal of the school is to have the students study and render realistically life in the natural world. By doing so the student hopefully becomes involved in a specific discipline and is led from there to the inter-connectedness of nature. We then will have not only a perceptive artist, but a conservationist.

(RG note) The bird painter Fen Lansdowne and I well remember visiting the Desert Museum in its early days. Information on the Art Institute can be found by going to the Desert Museum web page and clicking on the Art Institute. Robert Bateman, John Seery-Lester and Frans Lanting are participating in the new school.


Defining art work
by Jan Zawadzki


painting by Jan Zawadzki

One can argue what exactly defines a work of art. From a technical painter’s perspective the inclination is to define the absolute in form whereas a stylist reduces form to its principal elements. It is colour which confines the totality of this elemental work. As Picasso did away with background so the stylist does away with detail. This liberalizes abstraction as an appropriation of form but y’gotta get there first. At this point one can argue what is the work of a talented artist as opposed to a gifted one.


Where does art come from?
by Faith Puelston, Wetter, Germany

In German the word for “art” is Kunst and derives from the verb können. There is an old adage which goes Kunst kommt vom Können which translates to “Art comes from Artisanship.” I’ve just written that saying into google and come up with all sorts of comments including (I translate for ease) “Art comes from compulsion,” “Art comes from doing” and the most often heard comment which is a pun in German: “…not from wishful thinking” (…und nicht vom wollen, denn das gibt nur Wulst!)


The greatest foundation
by Pat Jaster


painting by Pat Jaster

The simple chore of learning to produce that sphere, cube and cylinder through ‘values’ alone, using one single light source, shadow and cast shadow, establishes a far greater foundation than ignoring the basic rules. Once learned, never forgotten, but, a refreshing new freedom is given to the creative mind. Everything in nature can be brought down to one or the other of these simple geometric shapes, whether it be objective or subjective. So, if that’s your forte, go for it, it’s not as hard as you think! Create your own sensational version, and above all the secret is to persevere.


On form
by Janet Warrick, Chicago, IL, USA

I think which school one is from determines how they feel about form and how to render it. The tonal school renders form through gradations of values, the Impressionist school through color variations. Monet determined that color expressing the light key was the first ingredient in painting, not drawing. That the way we see an object is by color first, then by shape, and finally by edge. And Hawthorne who said “Let color make form — do not make form and color it in.” If you want to paint the truth of nature, you have to get the color spots down accurately. If this is not accomplished, no amount of drawing will fix it.


Form and line
by Martine Gourbault


painting by Martine Gourbault

You don’t mean it about drawing being time consuming, do you? Isn’t art-making in general time consuming? Eating potato chips, walking the dog? LIFE is time consuming! If we have time to do anything, we have time to draw. Pencil, charcoal, brush, a stick with Indian ink, a finger dragged in the dust. Human folk have been drawing since those early cave days so we understand the language of line. We can figure out what forms are inside it without a translator. We know there is the roundness of a woman in that Matisse contour drawing. Sheer sensual delight. I know what you’re saying about form. It certainly applies to some painting styles but not all, and to claim that “drawing doesn’t tell you much”? You’re just saying that to tease!

(RG note) Yes, I was talking about efficiency in certain painting styles. Many artists find that painting without benefit of drawing and paying full attention to form — speeds the process and in the long run produces better work. No one will ever take away the sheer joy of of a languid, sensual line on a hot summer day.


Stand-alone studio
by Jim Webb

I’m accomplishing more now than ever. I might be a little long of tooth but I’m mentally twenty. I started out some fifty years ago at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art but was drafted into the US Army and wound up going over the side of a troop ship at Inchon, Korea. I experienced and survived the little police action that was going on. I returned to fine art in tough economic times. I do art fairs along the Atlantic seaboard and the sales are still very slow. What I have done as an artist is to gain a foothold in the marketplace and become a stand-alone studio. I’m able to do a painting, digitize and do prints all under one roof. Tony VanHasselt put me onto your twice-weekly letter.


A mystery
by Anonymous

As one of Mowry Baden’s students I’d appreciate if you left my name out of this. It seems to me that the main thing that jams in everybody’s craw about his proposed sculpture for the Memorial Arena in Victoria, BC, Canada, are the credentials of the artist. To my knowledge no one walks into a current art gallery and actually purchases one of Baden’s works. His work does not seem to appear in auctions — even for charities. To my knowledge, his only recent, significant show was at Pomona College in California — his Alma Mater — which was reviewed favorably by others similar to himself. Showing work like his in university and public galleries for the curious public to come and look at is one thing, but choosing one for unavoidable public notice is another. Baden’s main value has been as communicator and advocate. While he is political, verbal and to some degree whimsical, in many ways art is a mystery to him.


Mowry Baden and a model of his proposed “Pavillion, Rock and Shell” which has been selected from several submitted designs for the New Victoria Memorial Arena, in Victoria, B. C., Canada. Photo: Bruce Stotesbury, Victoria Times Colonist

(RG note) Thank you to all who continue to write regarding Mowry Baden’s proposed work (shown above). The collection is at A Mutt decision.


Demeaning to real artists
by Ron Stacy


painting by Ron Stacy

As I struggle to become an artist, learning about colour, composition, technique and the proper way to use my materials, I often feel like a fake or an amateur. I ask myself if I’m able to actually make art? or am I just making another picture?

Then I look at the work done by others (often educated to the point of BFA) and I ask myself, “Is this art? And if so, why?” Sometimes it looks bad to me. Is there ever some point at which a person involved with making art says, “I guess I’m just no damn good at this; perhaps I should change my field.”? Apparently not.

It seems that the arena of art-making is content to support people who refuse to learn the skills, like no other arena can. Can you imagine someone in the furniture building business who refused to become proficient in wood joinery? How about a doctor of medicine who preferred to remain naive about anatomy or chemistry? Would you feel confident putting your life in the hands of a lawyer who felt that actual knowledge of the law hindered his free spirit? Perhaps these aren’t considered ‘creative’ fields. OK, what about musicians then? What if they refused to learn to tune their instruments, or thought that learning scales and fingering was a waste of their time? Would you rush out to their concerts? What about authors who thought that learning how to create a plotline was stifling their creativity? Not very likely! Why then do we allow these naive or primitive people into the world of serious art?

I’m tired of the intellectual jargon-speaking snobs who, by virtue of learning politics and networking in university instead of learning the disciplines necessary as a foundation to producing art, control the institutions that make or break the reputations of others who are talented and quite serious about becoming truly creative and knowledgeable artists. In the halls of higher education they sneer at people who want to improve their skills as mere technicians. I guess they take their cue from Plato, who figured that concept was sufficient. If you actually put it to use, you were a mere tradesman, and that would be demeaning.

(RG note) But artists who buckle down and get good, get the last laugh. Through the proliferation of their work they are loved and appreciated by a range of people who have little or no prejudice or pedagogy.


Re-entering the naive world
by Karen Phinney

How I have been enjoying the twice-weekly letters and the “clickbacks” lately! Though always interesting, it is so much fun and joy to read that others’ musings and thoughts are quite in sync — the struggle, but the necessity of being true to oneself, come through. We artists are often riddled with a bewildering contradiction of self-doubt and confidence, or a “need to get out” what it is we paint! But will the world like it? Aw, who cares… “oh, you like that? Wonderful!” At least that has been my experience, and I sense in many ways it is others’ too. I have, I realize now, re-entered the “naive world” after years of trying a mixture of styles and effects (and I think that will continue anyway). But, I am painting in a flat, Matisse-like way with bright colours, and I love it. I rediscovered oils (water-based) and love those, although I still do watercolours, and experiment with non-objective, textured stuff. Naive, indeed! A gallery owner’s nightmare (no easy category).


Feels a drastic turn
by Moncy Barbour, Lynchburg, VA, USA

Speaking of drawing, I am now going to go further with the almost non-objective choice of such — influenced still by the grip of Peter Max. However I do plan a return to classical drawing soon. Also I am working with paper relief sculpture. I created one such sculpture with one of my embossing prints of a butterfly included on the paper plate. I feel a drastic turn in the road of my art coming soon.


The prepared mind
by Bobbie Kilpatrick, Texas, USA


painting by Bobbie Kilpatrick

Creativity is expressing one’s own heart and mind. A hundred years from now the powers that be will decide whether our work is art — no matter our status while alive. If we are true to ourselves it doesn’t matter what we do or how we do it. An accomplished artist may paint naive paintings because the expression comes from a naive heart. The primitive artists, without formal training, have had to improvise with ways and materials, learning as they go. All ways are valid. Artists choose their way and their goals. I tell my students not to compare their work or themselves with their fellow classmates. Everyone is at a different level in knowledge, skill, experience, and life. I also believe education and training are worthwhile to be able, with the least amount of struggle, to set forth our ideas, say our say, sing our song. Knowledge is something to be learned and then forgotten so it becomes unnecessary to consciously think of “how to” while painting. All will surface as needed while in the “zone” of creative expression. Personally, I want everything to flow smoothly while I am painting…materials, feeling, idea, enthusiasm, time…everything needs to be at hand. It is a detriment to the creative flow to have to stop, put out paint, answer the phone, or to possess limited knowledge or skills to express our ideas. While at the easel a prepared mind is ready for the next breakthrough on its creative journey.


Questionable dealer
by Anonymous

A few years ago I sent an original, personalized photo-art card, signed, with my copyright © to a “new” friend who owned an art gallery in Rhode Island. She was so enthralled with the card that she proceeded to frame it — which was an honor to me!

Two weeks ago, while my husband and I were attending an opening, I noticed my piece hanging on the wall upstairs in their “art boutique” with my name beside the piece and a price of $145. I was pretty shocked as I hadn’t been informed this was going to happen. I was excited to see it, but the butterflies in my stomach were dancing to a different tune. I waited ’til the artist’s party after the show to approach the owner (friend?) …didn’t quite know what to say, as I didn’t want to point fingers or make assumptions, ’til I had time to process it all. So I merely said, “Oh, I was surprised to see my piece hanging in your gallery.” And, the reply was, “Oh, I just want to try it out to see if it sells.” Again… shock… speechless! My husband and I talked about it and decided to wait to see what happened… assuming, of course, she would reimburse me something, just as she gives commissions to other artists she represents.

On Saturday night we returned for another opening. As I was talking with my framer’s wife, the owner motioned to me that the piece had sold! Again, the butterflies … when everyone had left, I went up to the owner and said, “So … what’s next?” Her reply was, “How much do I owe you for the card?”

At that point the butterflies were fighting to be released…the owner’s husband realized I was quite upset and we all tried to talk about the situation. I reinforced that I was still “processing” my feelings but just didn’t think this was legal. The owner went on to say she does this a lot… if an artist sends her an original card, she feels free to frame it and resell.

She also told me the people who bought my piece were asking questions about me… I didn’t understand why she didn’t come up to me and introduce me to the new owners. Can you help me here?

PS: Everyone’s feedback has been 100% consistent in that this was a very unethical, low-class thing to do… but, I want to know, was it illegal?

(RG note) Ignorant, dishonourable and illegal. She should have first asked your permission to attempt to sell your gift to her. However, there’s the “small peanuts theory,” that if you simply cool down and look the other way — the minor theft may end up having a positive outcome — sales of your originals through this gallery for more exciting prices. You have just bought this person — lock, stock and soul for a measly $145. Try to be philosophic. It’s her problem, not yours. Unfortunately, in any further dealings you might have, she has to be monitored. Incidentally, when you deduct the cost of the frame, double it, which the dealer does, there is probably a pretty low figure on the actual photo-art. Your percentage might amount to $10. Small peanuts. Good-will is what’s eventually important.







Adrian Gottlieb, Vermont, USA


“Dutch Sculptress”
by Adrian Gottlieb, Vermont, 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, 2003.

That includes Cora Glasser who wrote, “So many of the responses were indeed, as you said, remarkable. Incarnation …hmmm. Not much faith in what can be learned and accomplished in a lifetime. I think of reincarnation as a generational thing, and art as a way of passing along vision and knowledge to those whose lives come after ours. Michelangelo is reincarnated every time someone looks at his work.”


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