Rocks in the head


Dear Artist,

The rapid turnover and point-of-sale nature of the greeting card business lends itself to the analysis of visual appeal. One of Hallmark’s top selling son-daughter cards shows a stark image of a large tree with a smaller one nearby. Secretly videotaping shoppers in a variety of stores, Hallmark sleuths noted the card being thoughtfully selected by elderly and middle-aged women. Company psychologists speculated that these women were getting a message of nurture, sheltering and protection. They may have identified themselves with the taller tree, and related the smaller one to the subject of their gift — their offspring.

I’ve always been interested in the underlying meanings that might exist — intentionally or not — in works of art. Recently, while painting stream-bound rocks, I was wondering again. I was also looking at the variety of ways the rocks might be related to each other in a design sense, and how compositionally satisfactory — or unsatisfactory — these various ways might be. This arcane science also applies to any number of repeated pictorial elements — trees, buildings, crowds of people, etc. I’m not aware that this stuff is in any of the art books. “For good reason,” you may say.

Two rocks, for example, can be composed together as contrasting, impinging, incongruous, tangential, shrouding, obscurant or amorphous — as well as variations and combinations. From a design point of view, each combo has unique visual challenges — a feeling of rightness or wrongness — as well as those underlying psychological values artists are sometimes looking for.

Take “impinging.” I invite you to look around in your own compositions and note how elements impinge on each other. Something that merely touches or “points at” another can set up an abstract tension that may or may not be what the artist has in mind. On the other hand, a line that impinges at the exact turning of another line asks the viewer to see the passage in a two dimensional way. This event also goes a long way toward cancelling any calculated sense of form. Also, tangential impingements can set up a discomforting illusion that interferes with the surrounding space. Otherwise fine compositions can lose eye-appeal with a few poorly composed impingements.

Best regards,


PS: “Even in front of nature one must compose.” (Edgar Degas)

Esoterica: And what does this all mean? “Only connect,” said E. M. Forster. These connections mean more than we commonly think. A rock that shrouds another rock protects it. One that stays away from another is alienated from it. One that touches another may be kissing it — or shoving it — depending on your point of view and what’s going on in your life. Ordinary, every-day rocks can dominate, submit, invite, integrate, flirt, play, bother, annoy, snub and kick out. There, now you know. I’ve got rocks in my head.

Rocks in the head


Thinking about rocky relationships. The potential variations seem limitless.











Impingement at a turning line


Tangential impingement






Impinging: Design intersects uncomfortably. Invites confusion and sense of levitation.
Impingement at a turning line: Secondary design emerges. Two dimensional look.
Tangential impingement: Confused and awkward, this juxtaposition gives a sense of unease.
Shroudant: With the dominant behind, there may be a sense of protection and guardianship.





Repetition of shape








Incongruous: Sense of independence or isolation, perhaps separation or even alienation.
Incongruous with repetition of shape: Twinning adds either interest or boredom to isolation.
Obscurant: Dominant in front partly hides, makes more mysterious and masters the hidden one.
Amorphous: Poorly designed potato like forms are indecisive, self cancelling, and don’t need each other.


A sculptor’s sensibility
by John Burk, Timonium, MD, USA

Interesting, Robert, that a composition of rocks (or trees, or buildings) can imply a deliberate or involuntary emotional response between the objects and, empathetically, with the viewer. I paint rocks frequently, seaside or huge desert ones. What compels me is something akin to a sculptor’s sensibility: Hugeness. Hue. Solidity. Grace. Weight. Power. Modeling. Relationship with one another — but as inert shapes.

Acrylic paintings by John Burk


Whale bone




Council rocks






Happy accidents
by Paul Foxton, United Kingdom

Whilst I don’t look for the connection you mention, I’ve noticed it happening of its own accord. The way the stalks of the strawberries almost, but not quite, touch lends the painting something it would not have otherwise. Quite what that is I haven’t decided yet, but it gave me a chuckle when it brought to mind Michelangelo’s God and Adam section of the Sistine Chapel. On the other hand the grapefruit and the lemon are obviously good friends. In fact I think they might be lovers. These things were not compositional devices, but happened subconsciously during the set-up stage of these two small still life paintings. I didn’t notice them until well after the paintings were done. But it’s precisely these “happy accidents” which I believe it pays to be alert to. Whether it should remain subconscious or become an ‘element of style’ is largely personal preference, but there’s no doubt in my mind that proximity and relationships between elements in paintings can have a great effect on the success or otherwise of the piece.


“Two Strawberries”
oil painting
by Paul Foxton


“Pink Grapefruit and Lemon”
oil painting
by Paul Foxton






Figurative elements as metaphors
by Roberta Faulhaber, Paris, France

I always feel that the figurative elements in my paintings are metaphors for all sorts of things. In my “cosmic fruit” series I used juxtaposition, groupings, isolation, and crowding in ways that can suggest forces between heavenly bodies, or relationships… pushing, evading, avoiding, hiding, leaning, protecting, separating… group dynamics, in other words. Now I’m trying to do the same thing with bodies of people. Somewhat more complex! I believe you’re right about this not being in art books. But perhaps Rudolph Arnheim may have discussed this issue in his books on visual gestalt.

(RG note) Thanks, Roberta. Rudolf Arnheim (b. 1904) was a German-born author, art and film theorist, and perceptual psychologist. His major books are Art and Visual Perception (1954), Visual Thinking (1969), and The Power of the Center (1982), but it is Art and Visual Perception for which he is most widely known.






Peach and yellow plums




Patience of the water
by Reba Wauford, Nashville, TN, USA

While on location at Elkmont painting from the river, my observation was about the water as it flowed downstream and puddled awaiting its turn to go over the falls and on down the river. It had to go between the rocks. I was amused at the patience of the water, like other things in life, people etc., waiting their turn to go out, on, or wherever. It allowed me to study the formation of water and movement as I watched the seemingly patient water meander down the river. Thank you for the opportunity to share this. You know how most people would react to this type of conversation.


Editing and rearranging nature
by Roger Mordhorst, Boulder, CO, USA


watercolour painting
by Roger Mordhorst

I was demonstrating for my watercolor plein air class a week ago at Eldorado Springs, Colorado. Because of a record breaking number of days over 90 degrees, the water was high. The lesson for the day was how to paint white water and rocks convincingly. Many of the rocks were obscured by the roiling water. I imagined the water to be less than it was so that I could depict the violence of the waterfalls contrasting with the imagined calm of the pools. I reduced the number of rocks to just a few and varied their size and shape. Emphasis was placed on making the rocks primarily angular with hard edges, played against the rough edges, with a little softness of the white water. Since this is transparent watercolor, the white of the paper serves as the white water. There were no logs in the water, but a few could be seen up the steep slope of the hill opposite. I brought those down in my imagination and they were placed strategically in the composition. The result was not a replication of the scene, but a representation of my reaction to it — an abstract of elements present at the location, but arranged by design. It was a successful day. I came away with a deep appreciation for nature — but with the knowledge that it must be edited and rearranged to make a work of art.


Messages sent in brushstrokes
by Suzanne Clark, Dallas, TX, USA

If rocks can be seen as bottles, I can relate. A while back when painting still life, I remember telling my teacher that I was concerned that my bottles were beginning to look like a group of people to me. I started to see various relationships among them and a story line forming in my head. Each bottle or object was developing its own personality. I thought maybe I needed to get out more, that I was getting a little wacky. He said, “Oh no! — that means you are on to something.”

We work hard to create rich compositions and probably are not aware sometimes of the “messages” we might be sending on other levels. Robert Henri says in The Art Spirit: “Every line, area, tone, value, texture, in fact every effect produced in any way, including even the pressure of the brush, should be considered as a compositional or constructive element.” He also says that what we are thinking and feeling at the time we make the brushstroke is registered in the stroke and felt by the viewer.


Face in the rocks
by Winston Seeney, Belmont Lake, ON, Canada


“Sad face in the rock”
by Winston Seeney

My wife and I were driving across Canada and during my time as passenger, I would set up my paints, and hastily paint visual snapshots of landscape panoramas and scenery. On one occasion, at a rock cut, the lady with a stop sign, brought us to a stop. During that hiatus, I quickly painted the sight before me. About a month later, I discovered that we weren’t alone at that time. My wife and I had been living through a distressing family situation, and I had been secretly bearing a burden of depression. As I looked back at that picture, I found etched into the crevasses, splits, lines and shades of the rock cut, a forlorn face, staring down at us in the car. I put my perception to the test when I gave my picture to friends to see if they could find the sad face in the rocks. Some saw it, some didn’t. But when I isolated it by hand, it was instantly observable to everyone who looked at it.



Assembling perspective
by William McAllister, Bath, UK


“Piazza San Marco”
watercolour painting
by William McAllister

My own key to building groups of human figures is to assemble sketches of figures and then develop groups of people by drawing them at a variety of scales, while keeping the heads at a common level. Since the basis of perspective drawing is the horizon (or eye-level), the figures on the right side of my painting of the Piazza San Marco are four or five inches high. Others are a couple of inches high, while the smallest, on the left side of the image, are drawn at less than an inch high. By keeping all the heads on the same level, they group themselves into foreground, mid-ground and background. This provides a perfect sense of perspective and gives depth to your work.


A wonderful mind
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“South Beach, Savary Island”
oil painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

I have always seen and analyzed patterns in everything. As a child I used to solve various letter puzzles for hours. As an adult I am always seeing relationships and patterns between objects and connecting them with emotions, especially as you described — assigning significant scenarios to patterns of objects. I used to think that this was just a wonderful gift, and then I watched the movie A Beautiful Mind and realized that this can also be a sign of an illness gone overboard. Extracting patterns from the random world and composing them into scenarios, makes still objects become alive in our mind. I can see how this concept is valuable to make the viewer see, recognize or reconstruct life from a painting.


Subconscious preference
by John Stuart Pryce, Sunderland, ON, Canada


“The Saugeen”
oil painting
by John Stuart Pryce

I find it fascinating that we react to certain colours, shapes and composition of shapes either positively or negatively. As I drive in my car and glance at the surrounding landscape I see many great compositions, and as I move, even better ones developing as the light and shapes slowly change. I would love to understand why we are attracted to certain shapes and repulsed by others. It must lie deep in our subconscious and I can only suggest that we should simply go with our instinct and paint what we are emotionally attracted to, rather than trying too hard to understand why. Don’t waste time trying to find that perfect composition for that picture postcard painting. Remember life is short, and while contemplating the wonderful texture and taste of that ice cream cone, and why you prefer one flavour over another… “Your ice cream cone is melting.” Just go for it and let your creative instincts guide you.


Glacial erratics at Keji
by Karen R. Phinney, Halifax, NS, Canada

Last summer I had the privilege of seeing April Gornik’s work at the Nova Scotia Art Gallery. It was an incredible show. Her work is landscapes, yes, but some of the most powerful and moving work I’ve ever seen. She paints weather, and she paints rocks. There are several where she has 2 rocks rising out of the water like sentinels, or lions guarding an entrance. They are spaced a distance apart, and there is a tension because of that. There is something very compelling about these paintings. The rocks that she has rising out of the water are large, and my first thought was that these look like the glacial erratics at Keji, the beautiful National Park here in Nova Scotia. We canoe it every fall, and stay at a remote campsite, enjoying nature and silence. The erratics are everywhere and some are monsters like mini mountains. You have to watch the canoe doesn’t get stuck on top of those under the surface. I wonder if April, who lives in California but studied at NSCAD here in Halifax years back, at some point made a visit to Keji. Her works are often imaginary, based on some real elements, obviously, but I can’t help thinking she must have been to Keji and was touched by it.


Layers of appeal in art
by Jo Scott-B, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“Scented flight”
acrylic painting on board
by Jo Scott-B

I am spending six months in Britain, back in Suffolk where I spent many weeks at a time during my art school days in London. Suffolk is renowned for its churches. The symbolism in religious art is a fascinating journey, dating back centuries. Originally drawn to these subjects by their sheer superficial beauty, I too am finding that the power of art lies in the continual discovery of more and more to feed our intellect. All the arts have these multiple layers of appeal. A musician once described his compositions as tunes the audience might hum later whilst a few understood the more intricate sides of the music. But if one person truly understood exactly what the music was all about in all its complexities then that piece was a success.


Fun to discover symbolism
by Dianne Harrison, Atlanta, GA, USA


“Tea at Rosemary’s House”
oil painting
by Dianne Harrison

You described so succinctly the experience I have had more than once in my painting life. Once I “thought” I was painting a simple still life with a cream pitcher, a soup ladle and a small white pitcher seen through the rungs of a chair. It turns out it was a family portrait of a dynamic relationship between a defiant teenager who felt “jailed,” a round protective mother and a towering authoritative father. The three people involved all instantly recognized the symbolism and today it hangs in a happy, well-adjusted 27-year-old’s dining room reminding us all of “the good old days.” Another time I thought I was painting a memory of a mountain in the distance with a meandering path. That turned out to be my one and only self-portrait which I use to remind me of my inner strength when times are challenging. Ultimately it doesn’t matter if others can read the meaning, but it is fun to discover your own psyche tapping you on the shoulder.


Request for help with hobby
by Jörg Knappe, Wittichenau, Germany

Here’s writing Jörg from Saxony/Germany. Since round three years I collect the signatures of artists (painters, drawers, illustrators, graphiker, digital artists, sculptors, ceramists, photographers, performers, designers) from all over the world. A very interesting hobby full of mostly positive reactions. Would you please be so kind as to send me one autographed photograph or art postcard of your work and/or a autographed visiting card for my collection. I’m afraid I can’t writing any longer letter in English to you. My English writing is very faulty. I hope you can fulfill my request all the same and answer me sooner or later from your home. This would make me very happy. Jörg Knappe, Am Bahnhof 12, D-02997 Wittichenau, Germany

(RG note) Thanks Jörg. Think of it — the language of art is universal. Requiring few words and seldom misunderstood, art is an empire with no frontiers. Further, the exercise and sharing of creative connectivity binds together our brotherhood and sisterhood. Let’s find a stamp and send Jorg a signed card. Maybe he’ll send us one back.






oil painting on panel
by Cyn McCurry, Ft. Worth, TX, USA


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 Marvin Petal of Oxnard, CA, USA who wrote, “You are familiar with the Meoto Iwa husband and wife rocks of Japan, a large natural rock and a smaller rock jutting up from the ocean off the coast of Futami. The rocks are linked by a decorative man-made shimenewa ‘wedding rope’ symbolically tying the rocks together in holy matrimony.”


“Meoto Iwa”
the wedded rocks, Japan

And also Claudia-Marie Person of Sacramento, CA, USA who wrote, “I think I have drawn and painted enough amorphous rocks — of the potato variety — to cover Idaho! I learned much from this letter.”

And also Barbara Loyd who wrote, “During a critique, a professor noted that I used three chairs consistently and asked if I was aware of this. He asked how many children were in my family and when I said three he smiled knowingly. Rocks in the head or not, you may be on to something.”

And also C. J. Constable-Carpenter of North Fork, CA, USA who wrote, “I use your material to agitate my students and provoke thought. This article will be shared in ourPlein Aire Tuesday at the Highland waterfalls near Pitlochry, Scotland, when we live for a week at Black Craig Castle.”

And also Rodney Pygoya Chang of Honolulu, Hawaii, USA who wrote, “Yup, the nurturing larger tree. There’s potential in the concept.”

And also Linda Saccoccio of Santa Barbara, CA, USA who wrote, “Where are the meanderings of my inner being going, and what do they look like?”




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