Dear Artist,

After days of working en plein air, I’m realizing once more the compositional problems inherent in the real world. Vacillating, as most of us do, between the truth of reality and the compositional needs of the painting, in the field one tends to go for the truth.

Yosemite October Watercolour 21 X 29 inches by Jane R. Hoffstetter (b. 1938)

Yosemite October
21 X 29 inches
by Jane R. Hoffstetter (b. 1938)

That’s where a few days back in the studio can really pay off. The images developed on location are still fresh in the mind, but something else begins to happen. Composition improves.

One of the main problems in location work is the failure of pattern. Jane R. Hofstetter’s “Seven Keys to Great Paintings” starts right off emphasizing the early need for pattern. “If the basic shapes of a painting are not well designed and exciting,” she writes, “there is little purpose in continuing.”

She Walks in Beauty Watercolour 21 x 29 inches by Jane R. Hoffstetter

She Walks in Beauty
21 x 29 inches
by Jane R. Hoffstetter

Some things to think about:

It’s best to plan your pattern first, not after the fact.

Don’t be afraid to use thumbnail value plans as starters.

Think of the pattern as a structure that moves the eye.

The eye moves first to the simpler, larger shapes.

The overall pattern is best when it’s irregular and varied.

Avoid predictable shapes — blocks, circles, rectangles.

Avoid equality, kissing shapes and homeostatic effects.

Patterns should move beyond the periphery of the work.

The focal area can be more active, with smaller, sharper shapes.

Viewers’ eyes ask to be entertained — pattern is the opening act.

Patterns thrive in lights, darks, and plenty of middle tones.

Add mystery — shapes can be muzzy and obscure.

Yin and yang your pattern — alternate dark and light activity.

Squint at your work, invert it, or look at it in a mirror.

Your work should “read” from across the room.

Shore Shapes Watercolour 21.5 x 29 inches by Jane R. Hoffstetter

Shore Shapes
21.5 x 29 inches
by Jane R. Hoffstetter

If, in the early stages, your work is not turning out to have enough pattern, face it against the wall, or bury it and come back later. Very often the simple passage of time will give fresh keys to pattern improvement. As Don Quixote said to Sancho Panza after a particularly vexing passage: “Tomorrow will be another day.”

Best regards,


PS: “As you start your work
These words you’ll recall,
Make a pattern of shapes
Big, medium and small.” (Jane R. Hofstetter)

Esoterica: Canned reference is practically always loaded with problems. Photos, for example, contrive to kill imagination and stifle the natural development of creative patterns. While “ready-mades” do show up from time to time, they are rare. Art need not be what is seen — but what is to be seen. “Nature,” said James McNeill Whistler, “is usually wrong.”

Wind Sculpture Watercolour 22 x 30 inches by Jane R. Hoffstetter

Wind Sculpture
22 x 30 inches
by Jane R. Hoffstetter

This letter was originally published as “Patterns” on June 23, 2009.

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“Seeing abstract value patterns, not just the literal subject, is one of the first and most difficult things for a growing artist to learn.” (Jane R. Hofstetter)



  1. Seeing abstract pattern is so important in painting but in landscape the challenge is to do this and also acknowledge space and distance and light.. and to capture the mood too. So a limited palette seems the way : no more than two primaries earth colours and white focus. But oh I have left out the marks.. make them varied
    All recipes in providing ingredients and the route from start to finish don’t usually include the character of the cook .. there lies magic

  2. I recall long ago reading that everything in Nature is beautiful but isn’t always put it in the right place.

  3. I recall, when this letter was originally published, a reader responded angrily to the quote about nature usually being wrong, asserting that it is always perfect and the writer is simply arrogant to think otherwise. I often thought about that response and how the responder didn’t get the point. Nature just is. The artist has the difficult task of rendering it in a compelling way within the confines of the picture plane.

  4. Hofstetter’s excellent book really changed the way I think about designing a painting. And I have never forgotten the words of the master watercolorist Frank Webb during a workshop: “Remember, God did not attend art school.” It’s up to us as artists to improve on reality. Otherwise, we’re just cameras.

  5. I just took up watercolor after fifty years of painting in oils, acrylic, goache and printmaking. Wow, what a technically complex medium to master while still maintaining the inherent transparency and lightness of its essence! I’m finding preliminary sketching is invaluable, but not so much preplanned composition that the painting loses its originality and spontaneity. Not much dark either, so nowhere to hide. The artist who I’ve always loved in this medium is Lucy Willis, who has been painting watercolors for over forty years plein air all over the world and has many books of her work. She has the best advice and instruction since David Hockney taught me back in 1968 and said to go to art school in London.

    Robert’s words about putting down the stroke and “leaving it there” (and not touching it!) really came back to me in my first mawkish attempts at watercolors. There are no “do overs”. I’m up to three smallish paintings a day, just practice, practice, practice.
    “The birds they sing at break of day
    begin again
    I hear them say”
    ——Leonard Cohen.

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