Aspects of order


Dear Artist,

While it’s possible to create interesting work without attention to order, for most of us it’s difficult. Consciously or unconsciously, our personal sense of order is vital to both style and creative satisfaction. For example, painting from foreground to background rather than background to foreground creates differing effects. While practical logic might suggest one, creative logic might suggest the other. Thus, as artists, we are all different.

Human nature also leans toward working from the easy to the difficult. On the other hand, wisdom and experience might suggest getting more difficult areas out of the way first. Any close observer of studio activity will know of the importance of habits — good and bad. Take brush order. While logic might suggest large to small, the reverse can be habitually engaged to jiggle the muse.

One thing suggests another. It’s often in a state of “backwardosis” where new connections are made. Last Saturday, we put together a very short (53 second) figurative video that demos the development of a visual idea through the use of reverse order.

Regarding order by size, small field sketches and studio thumbnails have traditionally preceded larger, more ambitious work. A valuable exercise is to make sketches as postscripts to majors. This second look, perhaps an inconsequential toss-off, rethinks previous commitments and becomes its own unique personality. Funnily, afterthoughts are often superior to the main thought.

Another concern of order has to do with colour. Choosing earth pigments and building toward cadmiums and quinacridones is the tried and true order. Working the other way around sets up another kind of energy. Even the early introduction of crudity in colour and flourish of application can be useful — in the full knowledge that things can be modified later.

“Fat over lean” and “tone before colour” may be order concerns that are germane to many creative processes. In today’s free-for-all, people often do what they want without benefit of traditional order. But out there, in the great consciousness, order still exists. It’s there for the taking.

Best regards,


PS: “Great art is deeply ordered. Even if within the order there may be enormously instinctive and accidental things, nevertheless they come out of a desire for ordering and for returning fact onto the nervous system in a more violent way.” (Francis Bacon)

Esoterica: Artists do well to supplement trial and error by relearning and rethinking the time-honoured order of the masters. The good books are everywhere. The mere expedient of change and variation can transform chronic mediocrity to unique accomplishment. Apart from the artistic values of disobedience and intransigence, art thrives on “backwards thinking.” These days, “beauty” is an unappreciated word, but it’s in an understanding of order that beauty is often rooted out and exposed. “Order is the shape upon which beauty depends.” (Pearl S. Buck)



Nature mirrors human form
by Cathie Harrison, Roswell, GA, USA


“Pemaquid Point”
oil on canvas, 18 x 18 inches
by Cathie Harrison

Although I don’t find figurative work particularly inspiring, I was amazed at the improvement in my landscape and still life work when I was doing a regular life drawing class each week. I could always see how every form in nature is mirrored in the human form or is it vice versa? The incredibly complex forms make a perfect exercise for the understanding of all form in space. Another reason it is so helpful to all areas of painting is that the human body is something we all KNOW on many levels and we can take that knowledge and apply it to the unfamiliar when we find ourselves in a new place seeing new forms. Just observing the negative shapes made by the human form will inspire me on those days when inspiring subjects have disappeared.


Lose concentration and create
by Jane Alcorn, Australia

Regarding The Nude as Landscape, I have found, when participating in life drawing sessions and unable to make a finished product, I am inclined to lose concentration and do something completely different. I have made more and more abstract drawings of the model until I am left with what could only be described as a landscape. I have a number of drawings that I call “human landscape” and they are very interesting. I have also ended up with what I call my “Matisse” drawings… abstracted nudes of portraits that look like those line drawings of Matisse, though I’d never had any intention of doing that at all.


A mixed-up approach
by Louise Corke, Australia


original painting, 33 x 23 cm
by Louise Corke

It is so much fun to create in whatever order possesses you in that moment. To dive in and spill colour across the page with unabashed passion is a wonderful way to pass the time of day. With the mileage of many paintings in the log book an artist can reap results that are acceptable, sometimes brilliant. Just being absorbed by your subject and responding to it without thought to process is almost the ultimate exhilaration. A mixed up approach can lead to fascinating discoveries.

As a school teacher I loved being able to organize the day’s timetable according to how we all felt on that day… I taught at a one-teacher school so was free to do this sort of thing. However newbies to the game of art may fail miserably without the structure of some sort of process. I advocate experiencing as many different approaches as possible and then amalgamating or abandoning them all to create your own system of sorts. It may be that your system is to have no system. If the way you work doesn’t bring the results you want… then try another approach. Do the tonal underpaintings, creep up on colour, lavish colour, do thumbnails, kill thumbnails, take your time, paint like a pig eats (Richard Schmid), meditate etc. Learn the order of things so you can unlearn the order of things and fly free.


Order is a male role
by Nikolay Semyonov, Rostov-na-Donu, Russia

In this dual world, every notion has its opposite. For “order” it should be “disorder” or “chaos.” Presumably, the order is the period between two disorders, like the day is between two nights. There’s no ending to it. Looking deeper, disorder/chaos has its own order, which is much harder to find or enjoy, hence it’s just a matter of time or habit. What is order for one may be disorder for another, and in every sense. I feel the male role of culture is to give a more or less unified system of cultural values, which is another kind of order, to as many people as possible…


The magical voyage
by Margie Murray, Encino, CA, USA


“The Yellow Rose”
oil on canvas, 54 x 42 inches
by Margie Murray

For The Yellow Rose I had photographed the model in a normal studio setting, then did two small color compositions. One composition in red and gold color scheme and the other in blue and yellow colors. I sketched the composition on the canvas and chose the blue and yellow color scheme for my painting. Late one night while gazing at the painting, I envisioned a full moon with moon-lit mountains in the background. So, one of my favorite paintings was done in the reverse order of the norm. As artists, I believe that we should allow ourselves to fully open up to the creative process and enjoy the magical voyage of the artistic mind and soul.




Order, then wander
by Tina Mammoser, Greenwich, London


“Early Tide”
acrylic on canvas, 100 x 70 cm
by Tina Mammoser

Your letter just made me smile. I work colour to tone, always. It’s a chosen approach that I’ve practiced over time to achieve the end result I’m after, and one that definitely is ‘backwards’ from what I was taught (and I had an excellent teacher). The actual knowing of why it’s backwards is the reason it works, or at least the reason I can make it work (most of the time) — it would be random chaos if I hadn’t learned how to paint tone then colour.

As for studies, I’ve even done 1-meter high canvas studies! Friends thought I was mad. I needed to experiment with a new idea on a large scale to get a feel for how it might work. I usually do small-scale studies on board and tiny canvases but sometimes if you want to work big you need to know exactly how a technique will feel or look big; the small studies simply can’t achieve that. I still like knowing why the order is there, to emphasize why I choose a different one at times.


Are we becoming lazy?
by Jackie Brennan, Australia

I’m an award winning accomplished artist and live in a small fishing village (420 permanent residents) on the Australian Queensland Central Coast; no traffic lights, no mail delivery, the beach is 100 yards from our house and my studio is surrounded by state forest. I spent 3 years as Director of Maryborough’s Old Warehouse Gallery and President of our nearest city’s art society. I have recently been appointed resident teacher for Hervey Bay Regional Art Society.

When tutoring a class of students (from beginners to professionals), I am finding that students have a fear of the unexposed. Is this a sign of the times? Students are so pre-programmed to copy a picture from a magazine, travel brochure or advertisement, they find it difficult to create their foundation from plein-air, static still life composition, or even a fragment of conceptual inspiration.

Is this a generational phenomenon? It can’t be … my students’ ages range from 24 to 82. As artists, are we becoming lazy? I’ve heard it said that an artist should be permitted to apply any medium available to achieve their desired effect. Tracing, photocopying … excuse me, isn’t this just another form of plagiarism? As an art judge, I see so much of this reproductive swill. Technology is a wondrous thing, but surely not to be pillaged by today’s students. How can I encourage my students to remain unique individuals when there is so much influence and assistance provided through the media at the mere push of a button?


Ugly moments of an artist
by Sergej Jakovlev, Gothenberg, Sweden


“The Apple”
original painting
by Sergej Jakovlev

I would be happy to watch even dreams like yours… I have never met art-dealer or gallery-man on my planet… I think my story is similar to the life-stories of many artists who are living on the planet Earth. Independently of all circumstances and against them I always was trying to be an artist. That was on edge always. Possibilities to paint were coming to me, sometimes by miracles. I have never had the luck to show my art. Everybody knows that system of free art-shows is absent in many countries. Only random opportunities of different kinds have saved me. To be not isolated from the world, from the people is essential human necessity. The artists are not like aliens here on the planet too. It is true that art is for people, for the world, for life. But, sometimes I felt myself such as ugly insect described in the novel The Metamorphoses by Franz Kafka. My art closed in different dark cellars for a keeping seemed to me ugly. In such moments I thought: am I ugly, is my art ugly?

(RG note) Thanks, Sergi. Sergi Jakovlev is the founder and president of the International Society of Artists, an organization with about 250 artists who attempt to work together to empower themselves and others.


Working in order with Gamblin paints
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA


Self-portrait mid-stream of being painted
20 x 15 inches, Jan. 2008
Coulter Watt

Aspects of order is about control. I start paintings with earth tones as is the tradition, the Tried & True method of alchemy. It has other advantages: Starting with mineral pigmented paint is good because they dry very quickly on their own, then progressing to top layers of organic colors, if you have to use them. Organic colors dry very slowly. One can alter this process by adding Gamblin’s Galkyd oil which will speed the drying. Later in the process you can add Gamblin Poppy Oil to slow the drying process. Another advantage of starting with mineral pigments first is that the pigment has “tooth,” its porous shape gives the next layer of paint something to grip on to. Organic colors are made chemically and lack tooth. This is all part of the Fat over Lean method of painting. But, once you add mineral spirits to a fat paint you are leaning it out and when you add oil mediums to lean paint you are fattening them up. One should keep in mind that by leaning out a paint with mineral spirits or turpentine you are diluting the oil, the glue that binds the pigment to the canvas.

Extremely slow drying colors can be mixed by using organic pigmented paint and toning with Flake White or Zinc White causing them to dry even more slowly. Then, to make the paint dry at a glacial rate add Poppy Oil to that mixture. Gamblin Artist’s Colors brochures and his wonderful website will show you all this information.


Dunes led to nude
by Marty Gibson, Scottsdale, AZ, USA


mixed media, 36 x 36 inches
by Marty Gibson

In college our head of the painting department was a small elderly fellow who painted huge works of sand dunes. We peered into his studio at the steady succession of these giant landscapes that never seemed to vary much. One day a giggling fellow student said “You’ve got to come see this!” Sneaking a peek around his door I was amazed to see a huge nude painting that had all the composition and coloration of his favorite subject matter — DUNES! The old fellow had been leading up to this all along.




Gallery owners showing their own work
by San Merideth, Santa Fe, NM, USA


“Isn’t it Odd”
acrylic painting, 24 x 48 inches
by San Merideth

I am really annoyed that Robert’s very limited wisdom has declared galleries that show the work of the owners as substandard. I have owned the Convergence Gallery since 1985. I have weathered extremely tough times, along with my husband. We started it with our savings. All odds were against us. Three years ago we began showing our own art as well as the other artists we represent. And it has made a tremendous difference to our bottom line. At this moment, I can count at least five other Santa Fe galleries who’ve been around for more than twenty years, exquisite galleries who show the work of the owners as well as other fine artists. Some people have business acumen as well as artistic ability. In the past I have contributed to Painter’s Keys, but won’t in the future. Artists like Mr. Genn shouldn’t author letters to promote themselves and in the process, bite the hands of those who contribute.

(RG note) Thanks, San. You didn’t mention how the changeover helped the bottom line of the other artists you show in your gallery. It may be a personal prejudice of mine, but I’ve found the most effective and believable art sales environments require two separate entities — artist and dealer.


Goals and resolutions
by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA


“Elysian River Bottom”
oil painting, 14 x 11 inches
by Liz Reday

My goal is to “transform chronic mediocrity to unique accomplishment.” My order? State goals and priorities to achieve this transformation: Paint from nature outside twice a week. Paint from still life set-up or live model inside more often — say once a week at first, then more when “the teacher appears.” This student is ready! Order for plein air: Don’t forget all the stuff, but I have that into a mindless routine now and can transition from studio work/palette to outside set-up in 5 minutes. Where outside? Get a theme, work a series, plot at night with the help of art books and DVDs. Make a map of possible locations linked by theme, taking into account the weather which here in SoCal is wonderful in winter, even when it rains.

After a morning outside, I return to the studio and look at work in progress. Thumbnails or small “after” paintings when a big studio work is at impasse (which is most of the time) are great — I agree with the “tossed off” careless work, they’re the best. How to get that feeling with a larger canvas? Pick up large brushes and go for broke. Or get out the studies, the photo references and the pencil sketches. Note to self: do more pencil sketches outside — before painting small studies??? Lost momentum? Go back to studio and paint from memory for fun? Read more art books on Bonnard and Vuillard. Change brush/paint application. Try as I can to start thin and loose and get those big shapes, I rebel and impasto my lights first, gleefully breaking rules. We have all this “order” so that we can enjoy our artistic transgressions. Disorderly conduct!!

I think of order as a set of sequences which can be shuffled and mix and matched until something works. If nothing works, then go back to the conventional tradition of thin loose darkish large shapes and a focal point containing darkest and lightest. Compositional perfection without resorting to chronic mediocrity. Keep it simple.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Aspects of order



From: Chris Everest — Jan 08, 2008

Order out of disorder…. This is a common problem of mine. I would be given a subject to paint or an essay to write and I would begin conscientiously. However after a while this used to give me other ideas clearly related to the central theme but not (as was so often pointed out to me) strictly relevant. My sketch books recorded these digressions and some interesting works came out of them. In an essay of course, with a severe penalty for going over the word limit, it meant red marks and strange looks but I always felt my digressions were more interesting. In a world where we are taught to tow the line and obey instructions the times where we stray over and disobey tend to bring their own rewards. Poorer marks but more satisfaction. To find order out of disorder is magic but to find disorder within order is to know how the world really works.

From: Valerie Norberry — Jan 08, 2008

Funnily, Robert? You sound like our doctors, plantarly they say, and we “give it to them”. As a transcriptionist it is my job to take paragraphs and make subheadings in the assessment. Also to recast sentences that say “throw mother over the fence the old bag” or “Throw mother down the stairs some clothes”, in broken English grammar-type sentences. So it is with color. I believe in starting with a mood, and emotion and going from there, before the grounds or the forms are laid in. Who is this to? Is it for comfort? Rebuke? Rebellion? Pure fame and praise? Are we proving that we can draw? Are we capturing a moment in time? I really do enjoy plein air sketches and the looseness of momentary caricatures of happenings. But evoking an emotion and making a point is often my motive, and then the thing moves on from there.

From: Tatjana M-P — Jan 08, 2008

When I was a child in the elementary school I had a teacher who would get carried away and spend the entire class talking on a tangent. The children would stop listening and go about their personal business. I would doodle, some would write and pass around messages, some would read comics and some just daydream. Those are some of my best memories from school, and possibly the most productive.

From: Peter Eedy — Jan 11, 2008

Hello Robert I am an occasional artist (pencil, water colour and pastel) but a regular reader of your letters. I subscribe to a number of newsletters about a wide range of subjects, but the one I really look forward to in my inbox is yours. I was astounded to read the negative comments by San Merideth regarding “Gallery owners showing their own work” and particularly by her comments about your “limited wisdom”. I demur … your letters are brimming, not only with wisdom, but with wit, creativity, information and passion. Keep up the great work … please continue to “author letters”! Regards Peter Eedy Brisbane Australia

From: Tommy Thompson — Jan 11, 2008

I think it is wrong for gallery owners to sell their own work in a gallery; they are competing with their artists. It is inevitable that they are going to promote their own work first. We have even found a gallery owner who sells her own work for much less than the artists are able to. This is bad business as far as I am concerned. Tommy Thompson,

From: Faith Puleston — Jan 11, 2008

I quite agree, Peter. And anyway, who the …. is San Meredith, that she is in a position to make judgments about intelligence and wisdom? Doesn’t she know that it takes intelligence and wisdom to keep us readers with our wide spectrum of passions and pursuits reading. It certainly takes all kinds of wisdom to print the destructive and unhelpful comments tendered by the likes of Ms Meredith. What is more, it would be naive to believe that artists who use their own gallery to display and promote their own work are going to tell their clients to buy someone else’s unless that is the only chance of making a sale. Surely they can’t be that dumb…….

From: Brenda Wright — Jan 11, 2008

I’ve been receiving your letters for about six months now and always enjoy reading them and seeing all the wonderful paintings by fellow artists. They are a ‘twice-weekly’ blessing. You, Robert, are not only a fantastic painter but you are a thoughtful, witty writer and humourist! Keep them coming. I wondered whether you may have compiled your letter material in one volume and if they are available in print? I often print them out but it becomes a lot of loose paper to store. Just wondering …..

From: Mary Champion — Jan 11, 2008

Jackie Brennan’s comment “are we lazy?” re: use of technology and second hand reference for our art, made me think of how many people experience their lives via computers (here we all are typing away when we should be at our easels), televisions, cell phones, ipods, etc. A snake eating its own tail comes to mind….

From: Tina Steele Lindsey — Jan 11, 2008

Mary Champion, oh how I love your words (here we all are typing away when we should be at our easels.) I hear that in my own head every day. Thanks for the reminder.

From: Dar Hosta — Jan 11, 2008

Did I miss a letter? Where is the limited wisdom that Ms. Meredith is so mad about? I thought this clickback was in response to the order we paint in… I’m confused about when Ms. Meredith became upset. And, frankly, if you are an artist who doesn’t want to compete with the art work of a gallery owner, don’t.

From: Cay Denise — Jan 11, 2008

I like your ‘Purple’ piece. Is this one the painting you did after the acupuncture treatment that you didn’t like?

From: Linden Morris — Jan 11, 2008

I have always wondered about treatments (acupuncture for example) that make claims on curing “so” many things. That is not to say that I have not used it (usually in desperation and with limited results)

From: Linda Nease — Jan 11, 2008

Your ‘Girl with Purple’ is very beautiful. The acupuncture did take you to a slightly different place, it seems. I might try it.

From: Julie — Jan 11, 2008

The smart gallery owner who sells their own work alongside others goes out of their way to promote the other artists…otherwise, who would stay?

From: Gaye Adams — Jan 11, 2008

Hey San, Probably none of my business, but don’t you think it’s possible that Robert speaks from a place of his own experience, and that everyone should be allowed to voice their opinion. As you can see by him publishing your letter, he has certainly given you a chance to voice yours. I have been in a gallery for a number of years where the owner also was a painter. His work, although in many ways inferior to the work of other artists in the gallery, always seemed to sell first. Robert may have a point. I am happy that your situation has worked well for you. I can see already from the comments posted that your letter has raised the ire of many. My intention is not to do that. I am just hoping that perhaps you can understand that in a forum such as Robert provides (and it is very valuable to most of us), his opinion is important and bears a listening to. So does yours, but save some of that energy for painting. Happy painting, Gaye Adams

From: Anonymous — Jan 11, 2008

I show in a gallery where the owners also display their own work (photography). They also have a framing shop attached, but allow artists to show unframed in ‘paint-finished gallery wrapped’ canvases. Do I like them showing their work? No – but, having no other gallery to accept my work, I shut my mouth. I even shut my mouth when the owners who, of course, take a commission on the painting sold, will reduce that by 5% as they previously framed the piece. My math says they already made a profit on the framing and are double-dipping! Since I want to show and do not want to participate in the ‘rip-off’ I try, as much as possible, not to have my pieces framed. I know many paintings look better set off in appropriate frames, but I can’t price my work too high as yet, to make up for the finances. Recently a large piece of mine, framed, sold. After paying the framing previously, and the commission at sale I realized $10 to cover canvas, paint and time! I just pity the watercolorists and pastel artists who display at the gallery. They have no recourse but to frame.

From: Suzette Fram — Jan 11, 2008

Regarding the controversy over gallery owners selling their own work, I don’t see what the problem is. Buyers will buy what they like, not what the gallery owner tells them to buy. Adding herself as an artist selling in the gallery is no worse than adding another other artist. Yes, it is competition for the other artists, but so what? If I had the means, I would love to open a gallery. I would love to show the works of artists whose work I admire, but I would certainly want to sell my own work as well. As an artist, that would be one of the reasons why I would want to have a gallery, so I could show my own work. I really don’t see what the problem is. To each his own. If some artists don’t want to show in a gallery where the owner is also showing her own work, then no problem, go to a different gallery. Different strokes for different folks. No problem.

From: Anonymous — Jan 11, 2008

The problem is that the buyers do buy what the gallery owners push, since most of the buyers don’t know what they want. This goes hand in hand with the problem that the artists/gallery owners who believe that they make the same effort selling art of others as their own are lying to themselves and/or others. That would be the gist and it needed to be said so that inexperienced artists are enabled to make an educated choice.

From: Joyce — Jan 11, 2008

Dear Robert, I thought your painting to be lovely but I missed the “almond shaped eyes” as it suggests an oriental lady. Sincerely, Joyce

From: Linda Mallery — Jan 11, 2008

I think your “girl with purple” is enchanting. I would consider getting “punctured” if I could paint like that.

From: Gayle Gerson — Jan 14, 2008

I loved your purple-accoutremented lady. Your landscapes are great because you are a master of color. But this figure is wonderful! Could she be a shadow of Ms. Chang? My advice: get more acupuncture.

From: S. Renee Prasil — Jan 15, 2008

Re:”Are We Lazy” from Jackie Brennan- I know many artists who use techniques such as painting over photographs, projection, etc. and do not disclose this to the public at large (or to the galleries where they exhibit) because they state they are simply “utilizing a ‘tool'”. The general public views their work as ‘excellent quality’, ‘highly talented’, etc., and these same artists will expound upon their ‘creativity’ without disclosing their techniques. This allows them some commercial success. Because of the awards, acknowledgements, monies (that might or might not occur without the practices) and articles which tout the use of such tools, I believe many artists/students are encouraged to think this is not only fully acceptable, but is preferable to their ‘raw’ works. My question(s): Should we (artists/galleries) require that these practices be revealed in the label/accompanying literature/brochure, etc? If so, how can we encourage our fellow artists to be forthcoming about these practices? Do we have a duty to reveal these practices (if known) of other artists, and if so, how to do so without it appearing to be munching ‘sour grapes’? Without delving into the propriety of the methods themselves, I liken this ‘non-disclosure’ to be somewhat akin to that of galleries selling ‘original’ art from mostly foreign suppliers in that the general public believes they are buying original, i.e. one of a kind, art, rather than a merely decorative handpainted canvas. Not fully informing the general public what they are buying, places the artist who creates ‘from scratch’ at an undeserved disadvantage. What do you think?







Red and Yellow

copper etching
by Gail Taylor, La Quinta, CA, USA


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