Picasso’s handicap


Dear Artist,

Last weekend I gave a two-day acrylic workshop. I don’t advertise these events because they fill up immediately, and there are always many on the wait-list. It’s not that I’m so brilliant at workshops, it’s just that I do them infrequently. Of the twenty-four painters in this group, many were well-advanced. Some of them were wizards. Workshops, as every instructor knows, are a learning curve for instructors. I kept asking myself how it is that we are all so different — and what makes us tick?

Snooping over shoulders, I tried to isolate and analyze both the strengths and weaknesses of the participants. There are the brushers, the drawers, the patterners, the detailers, the audacious and the timid. There are also those who see values and those who see colours. This time I was paying special attention to the value-colour conundrum. Neurobiologist Margaret Livingstone in Vision and Art: The Biology of Seeing, makes some interesting assertions about the disparity. Apparently the perception of colour and the perception of value take place in vastly different parts of the brain. Just as in left/right brain function, some folks have one faculty developed and the other not. Great variations exist throughout the animal kingdom — many animals do not see colour at all. It starts with the rods and cones — the receptors within our eyes. The cone-info (colour) goes to one part of the brain — the rod-info (value) goes to another.

In my observation, value painters are likely to have patterns happening early on in their paintings — often within a few minutes or even seconds. Colourists, on the other hand, often start out in a wishy-washy way. These color specialists often end up with what I call “equal-intensity laybys” — handsome effects, often in warm and cool. This (sometimes automatic) “razzle-dazzle” was not really practiced until the beginning of Impressionism. One sees that the picture-making process and appreciation are undergoing evolution — in many different directions. Also, different artist’s brains are wired differently. And some of us may be handicapped.

I’ve always thought that colour ought to be arbitrary — but that may be my handicap. When looking at the work of others, particularly in the context of a workshop, one tends to see success where luminescence (relative darkness and lightness) is in play. But that also may be my handicap.

Best regards,


PS: “The most basic, primitive and necessary visual information is found in luminance variations. The parts of our brains that analyze a scene are colourblind.” (Margaret Livingstone)

Esoterica: Picasso noted that “Reality is to be found in lightness and darkness.” But this comes from a painter who rarely thought in terms of colour. A shimmering orange sun razzle-dazzling within an equal-intensity grey-blue sky was not his style. You could call this Picasso’s handicap. Many a fine style has evolved from a decent handicap.


Acrylic workshop with RG. This time they’re snooping over his shoulder.


Pushing the balance
by Brian L. Jones, Cortaro, AZ, USA


“Mi Tierra”
oil painting, 8 x 10 inches
by Brian L. Jones

Many of my students exhibit this phenomenon as well. Most classically trained painters master value first before being allowed color. Impressionism could be seen as a historical righting of the balances. Today we possess the opportunity to master both and push the balance as we see fit. I find that color is more emotionally responsive. My handicap?




Generous in spirit
by Roger Cummiskey, Eire


oil painting, 9 x 12 inches
by Roger Cummiskey

Picasso’s star continues to rise exponentially. I wonder what he thought when he did workshops like Robert and looked over the shoulders of the hopeful attendies. Was he as generous in spirit? Or did he say, “These guys are giving painting a bad name!” But then, there might have been some looking over his shoulder and thinking the same thing!





Masters’ handicaps
by Roberta Faulhaber, France

I’ve noticed that some of the so-called “great” painters, especially in the 19th and 20th century, actually did have some major handicap to overcome. Looking at their early work, one can often devise why they went where they did. Example: Picasso. His early work shows an inability to do, say, a figure, and have the head, hand, feet, and body in the same space (Poussin had the same problem). Well, we know where he went with that. Cezanne was also unable to create a single point of view perspective. Même combat, as the French say.


Painters diverse in ‘getting’ values
by Paul deMarrais

I also teach workshops occasionally and have wondered why artists who understand values intellectually do not effectively use the concept in their paintings. When beginning artists understand and use values for the first time, there is usually a quantum leap in the quality of their painting. It was certainly that way with me. I have never thought of it as a color vs. value process. Why can’t these two go hand in glove? The left/right brain type situation may explain why some artists don’t “get it” easily as far as values in painting. It is amazing how diverse the paintings are in a group of artists!


Value plan en plein air
by Jacqueline Baldini, Niagara Falls, ON, Canada


“Niagara American Mist”
acrylic on canvas, 31 x 38 x 3 inches
by Jacqueline Baldini

In my experience instructing painting workshops en plein air, value is ‘of great value.’ Students get the strongest composition dealing with what can sometimes appear to them as chaos. Establishing light and dark quickly helps them refrain from ‘following the sun’ and constantly adjusting their shadow pattern when a more interesting one appears. I have seen experienced studio painters struggle when painting en plein air, when all they needed to do was make a simple value plan. It may well be my weakness also but, in a workshop situation, a value plan is my strongest teaching tool.


A painting is a painting
by Melinda Collins, Redwood City, CA, USA


“The Blue Door”
oil on canvas, 12 x 16 inches
by Melinda Collins

I am often confused and somewhat dismayed by the school of plein-air painters enjoying great popularity right now. Their instruction is often directed at the importance of observing exactly what happens in nature and transferring that color to the canvas. Yet most have individual color characteristics. My feeling is that a painting is a painting, not simply a part of nature. A painting is an intellectual and emotional response to the meeting of the external visual world and the inner world of the artist. This cannot always be expressed by simply imitating natural color. We often carry away impressions of a scene in our mind that are more vivid than reality. What would be the point of painting if we are just recreating something nature has already done better? If the values underlying the color are right, it seems to me our individual color responses have a scaffolding to hang on that makes them something many viewers can relate to, whether the color is exaggerated or “true to life.”


Co-ordination of left and right brain
by Donna Pierce-Clark, North Hampton, OH, USA

In children who do not do well in school, it is often found that these children did not “crawl,” but instead walked first, thus, they didn’t have both left and right brains working in tandem. So, to help these little guys learn more easily and to coordinate the brains, they are given exercises to bring both parts together. One such exercise is to teach the child how to climb a ladder (using all fours — left hand with right foot, etc.) and placing “carrots” at each level to entice them to “crawl” up the ladder and, as well, placing index cards with letters of the alphabet to recognize on the rungs to reach for as they progress up the ladder. I would be interested in hearing ideas of how we as artists could develop our right/left brains as to specifically coordinate values and color. Because I am one who does well with values, not colors, I feel this strange thing going on inside of me when I try to mix the two.


Good visual design not just luck
by Stormy Bailey, Memphis, TN, USA

I’m also intrigued by the value-colour conundrum. I’ve often used principles of color theory in the professional arena to explain to clients why something “works” and something doesn’t, especially in product labeling for consumer use. I had to actually go the limit with a client who wanted yellow type on a white background, because he simply could not believe that yellow type on anything would be hard to read. It’s definitely soothing to the ego to bounce these principles out in front of those who treat me dismissively. I explain that visual art often relies heavily on science, and that frequently education is required to understand that. Eventually they come to see that good visual design, like good cooking, is not just luck.


Clients of the same persuasion
by Wendy Powell, Calgary, AB, Canada


“Trying to be just like Dad”
watercolour on paper
5 x 4.5 inches
by Wendy Powell

Try living with someone who is colour blind for reds and greens. He sees my art more with his rods than with his cones. He therefore comments on my tones, where I focus on colour. When we both see “balance” in my art, I know I have hit the painting right. I often ask for his comment before I submit a painting to a gallery. The only time we run into arguments — when colour alone is the selling point of the piece. But, at this point, one must consider the market. Just as there are artists who are either tone or colour sensitive, there are also clients who are of the same persuasion. As long as the gallery pulls in both types of clientele, there should be no problem selling the painting.


Marvels of colour blindness
by Jill Warland, North Vancouver, BC, Canada

I’ve been marvelling over the work of a 14-year old student in my class who produced the most marvellous paintings and pastel or pencil crayoned projects in spite of being severely colour-blind. When I asked him how he chose his colours, he just shrugged and replied that he picked out colours that looked “okay” together and hoped they worked. When I now look back at his work, I see that he chooses a wide range of dark, medium and light tones, carefully distributed over his paper, balancing the composition and drawing the viewer’s eye to specific details or shapes, points of light or dark. As random as the colours appear, they somehow work.

I, too, have never felt a strong connection to use of colour in my work, generally resorting to muted and muddy tones in a wide scale of dark to light, or a limited palette of one or two colours. I adore tonal drawings, working in conte, charcoal or pencil where I only have to consider composition in monochromatic terms. Aha! I can see that I’ve enjoyed this “colour blindness” too!


Handicaps bring diversity
by Chantell Van Erbe, NJ, USA


colored pencil on board, 30 x 30 inches
by Chantell Van Erbe

“Picasso’s handicap” directly relates to several debates I’ve had with acquaintances over similar topics. In my opinion, a creation is a roadmap into the character and genetic makeup of an artist. For this very reason I am terrible at judging juried art shows. When moderating a show, a work of art is generally examined on its own merit without considering the artist in the final analysis. When I view any creation, aside from method I am also considering the person behind the work. Strengths, weaknesses and all. Because their technique was a direct result of their personal “handicap.”

The wonders of genetics. Your letter comes at an extremely appropriate time, what with the entire hullabaloo over DNA that has saturated every media market in the country. The observations of you, Ms. Livingstone and Picasso only instill within me the confounding belief that we as humans are physiologically equal yet tremendously unique. It is this distinctiveness that brings diversity and beauty to our culture.


Brain damaged artists
by Peter William Brown, Oakland, CA, USA


“The Hair Club for Men”
oil painting on wood
by Peter William Brown

For further reading, Dr. Oliver Sacks in An Anthropologist on Mars relates several case histories of artists who have suffered different sorts of brain trauma resulting in some loss of perception. In one case, a painter “Mr. I.” lost his ability to see color while retaining his ability to see light and dark. He continued to paint, and the whole story is most fascinating. The book includes reproductions of the artist’s work.





Seeing values in stone
by Ian Massey, Scotland


original sculpture
by Ian Massey

At the moment I’m a 2nd year student doing my BA at college and am working towards being a sculptor. This being so seems in my experience, at the moment at least, not a worry with anything towards color — or am I kidding myself. Well I mean I like working in stone so you don’t get much choice with color there except with regards to what type of stone one chooses, i.e., sandstone, granite, marble, etc. I feel we all have not one handicap but many and whether we find one or all doesn’t necessarily matter. Its how we use it (if we choose) to help us in our own path and as long as we find our personal medium that we feel comfortable with. For me its carving or welding and maybe both, but only time and experience will tell me if any one of these is a handicap or something else that I haven’t become aware of yet. Watch my space.


Work ethic equalizer
by Joy Hanser, Vancouver, BC, Canada


Joy Hanser

It’s important for us artists to develop and maintain a “work ethic” similar to anyone else. It is a great equalizer, and a good antidote to the guilt of being in the perceived privileged position of basically “playing all day.” There is often a factor of envy in people who perhaps have secret, unfulfilled yearnings for creative expression and have been held back from this kind of play. This is a serious loss, which can however be regained with determination and a bit of luck. My experience of the artist’s life is far from all play. There are sufficient bumps in the road for most of us, and while I personally do not subscribe to “artist as martyr,” there are definitely dues of various sorts to pay, some less pleasant than others.


Recognize artistic handicaps
by Mary L. Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA


“Quiet Light”
oil on panel, 30 x 40 inches
by Mary L. Moquin

Artistic handicaps or pre-dispositions are fine as long as we recognize them. I feel it is like the 4 blind men trying to describe what an elephant looks like by the area they have touched. Art is like the elephant, larger than any of us can see totally with our limited human faculties. We are all striving, searching, developing, trying to understand the part we have begun to grasp. But, I believe the danger comes when we think we have figured it out and go on to profess what we have discovered as the only truth. Then we close ourselves off to future discovery, then the different artistic groups clash — is it about color, value, line, no line, expression, observation, realism, impressionism, expressionism, etc., etc.? I fall back on “the more I know, the less I know, the more I need to know.” That is what keeps me honest as an artist. Ralph Waldo Emerson said something like, “Speak your truth today and tomorrow speak your truth again even if it contradicts what you said yesterday: Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” You are not handicapped anymore, because you recognize that you may be. You have grasped a bit more of the elephant and what you have felt perhaps contradicts what you originally had surmised. What an exciting opportunity for growth!


Demos and paint-outs for growth
by Len Sodenkamp, Boise, ID, USA


Len Sodenkamp on the Salmon River

The energy that develops when you put twenty painters in a room is worth the experience alone. However, one most likely takes a workshop because one is drawn to the host artist’s technique and style. I really enjoy watching the host artist paint — rare treat. I watch myself paint every day. The best workshops I have taken are the ones where the host artist does two or three demos each day. If I glean one new brush stroke or observe one enlightening method that I can incorporate into my work then it has been well worth the time and expense. Now on the other hand “Paint-outs” have become my favorite learning opportunity. I am a member of a group of plein-air painters. About six times a year we get together for three or four days and paint as a group. I highly recommend this type of interaction with other artists. My growth as a painter comes in spurts but I have noticed it usually occurs during or after a workshop or a paint-out.


Seeing in values
by Cyd Madsen, Henderson, NV, USA


“Sports Illustrated Swimsuit 2001”
manipulated photograph
by James Porto

I just got back from an exhausting seven days in NYC and had the opportunity to spend some time with photographers. It was a building on 67th near the waterfront and filled with studios of all sorts. Quite a lesson in what it takes to surrender to a passion. James Porto and I worked with two ballet dancers, one Flamenco dancer, and one ain’t-I-pretty model. James used Wi-Fi to immediately send his shots to his computer. We had a chance to evaluate what he got, if the exposure was right, and to witness his incredible eye at work as he scanned each image for details only an eye with years of practice and dedication can see. Even the dancer wasn’t able to identify the small nuances that made one photo stand out from a series of shots. Talk about seeing in values, but his color work is also dynamic.


(RG note) Thanks Cyd. James Porto has his remarkable angels at JamesPorto.com





Harbour Isles, West Coast Quadra Island, B.C.

acrylic painting
by Shawn A. Jackson, Vancouver, BC, Canada


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.

That includes Alicia of Hinton, AB, Canada who wrote, “I have been working on a fun acrylic piece as a result of joining the Red Hat Society and my mother’s 86th birthday. Because red hatters wear red hats and their clothing is red or purple and their hats are usually very decorative, these ladies all have such happy outlooks.”

And also Christine Montague of Ontario, Canada who wrote, “An Ontario College of Art and Design instructor recounts how a past student painted exceptionally but the work had the oddest colours. It wasn’t until later that he discovered this student was colour blind. Her paintings, although unusually coloured, “read” successfully because of her excellent interpretation of value.”

And also Linda Blazonis of Westbrook, ME, USA who wrote, “The tonalist may speak to my mind’s eye but the colorist speaks directly to my soul. Long live the fauves!”

And also Denise Champion who wrote, “Value is the skeleton of a painting, but color puts the magic in it.”




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