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.

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.”

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.

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.”


Perfect jigsaw puzzle
by Jim McVicker, Loleta, CA, USA

I truly believe Whistler was wrong, nature is usually right. It’s how we see it and quite often how we see ourselves and our own importance that blinds us to the truth and beauty of nature. In the big picture, nature will always be of the highest importance. Patterns are everywhere; it’s like one big and perfect jigsaw puzzle.


Patterns in Berlin
by Gabe Shaughnessy


“Berlin Solsticess”
digital painting
by Andrew Jones

My friend Andrew Jones just sent out a painting he did for the solstice sunrise. He painted this en plein air in Berlin, using digital painting tools. You can see that he is using pre-determined shapes and patterns to create a unique image on location.

There is 1 comment for Patterns in Berlin by Gabe Shaughnessy

From: Win Dinn, Painted Turtle Gallery — Jun 26, 2009

This painting hit me eviscerally, after spending years attempting to get to the patterns ‘beneath the visible’. Many thanks, Andrew….


Learning to see the essence
by Alfonso Tejada, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“Giardino, Bardini, Firenze, Italy”
watercolour painting
by Alfonso Tejada

Although nature can be wrong to the artist sophistication, the real value of nature when painting en plein air is the limitation of intellectual strategies, as the essence of a place is revealed to the artist eye. Plein air is a basic response to reality and the beauty of it is that, when we paint outdoors, we face the basic skills we have developed as our primary core. Plein air is elemental and sometimes shows too much reality as is but in order for the artists to create, the artist needs first to learn to see, feel and absorb what reality is in its true nature. Once this is achieved the intellect comes into action and strategizes a personal interpretation of reality as he has experienced but with the signature of his or hers personal transformation. The old tradition of painting outdoors is the crib of imagination as light, contrast, colour, mood and reality become the foundations of creativity. If composition and patterns are not part of the first impression of a place when painting en plein air, I believe the reason may be that the mind takes time to select and structure nature versus opening your senses and absorb and do as you feel and see.


When to stop looking
by Raynald Murphy, Montreal, Canada


“White patterns”
watercolour painting
by Raynald Murphy

One favourite strategy I introduce in my plein air workshops is to finish the painting with one’s back turned away from the scene. This forces them to stop looking at reality, which is pattern-flawed at times, and to develop linked patterns from the work in progress. Another option is to finish the painting in a nearby spot, or back in the studio soon after. Finally, I insist on the one hour rule, which is the maximum allotted time spent in front of an onsite composition. A shorter amount of time is even better. Not only is one’s energy depleted by then but one starts looking too closely at nature by then and adds unnecessary details instead of staying with the initial design/compositional idea.

There are 3 comments for When to stop looking by Raynald Murphy

From: Nina Allen Freeman — Jun 26, 2009

I couldn’t agree with you more! I tell my students to let the painting tell you what it needs. Put the photo and reference sketches away and study the painting, preferably from across the room.

From: D Ludlow – Singapore — Jun 27, 2009

Loved the freshness of your painting. I’m an enthusiastic amateur of watercolour (25years.) I love plein air painting, and your suggestions are nothing short of brilliant!!!! Why didn’t I see that before?? Thank you.

From: Catherine Robertson — Jun 27, 2009

I also love the freshness of your painting. It energizes me ! Nice work!!


Design structure has to be there
by Jill Wagner, Saline, MI, USA


“Cooke’s fountain”
watercolour painting
by Jill Wagner

I am a plein air painter who sometimes becomes completely overwhelmed with the staggering amount of information before me when I paint an outdoor scene. Sometimes it helps to just sit and contemplate what is in front of you. Figure out exactly what attracts you to the view. But in the end, some type of “design structure” has to be there. I never thought of it as “pattern” per se, but I think you are exactly right. Whether the pattern comes from repeated shapes, colors, light/dark passages, etc., there has to be something to pull you through the painting. I like to think of it as a puzzle to solve before I get to the fun part!




Multiple visits to fine tune
by Ron Gang, Kibbutz Urim, Israel


“Cloud Head”
oil painting
by Ron Gang

As almost all my work is plein air, the tension between “truth” and composition is well felt. Happy is the painting that when brought back to the studio does not seem to need fine tuning. The work is always multi-sessional, returning back to the same spot as much as needed or is possible. By the way, I leave marks in the ground so that easel returns to the exact spot, and use a spirit level or make sure that the canvas is level with the horizon, to keep the variables from session to session at a minimum. Yet we must know when to disconnect from the location and within the confines of the studio evaluate what has transpired on the canvas. Sometimes it takes a long while to be able to put my finger on the right place that needs to be tweaked to bring everything into tune. I feel it best to consider carefully, and change as little as possible so as not to detract from the freshness, vitality and magic that plein air gives.


Powerful patterns
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA


“Militarized/ Demilitarized”
encaustic painting
by Alan Soffer

The idea of retreating to the studio is so very high on my list. It forces you to look inside and stretch. Working from staged settings, photos, or even nature can be limiting. The infinite, limitless potential of the mind and spirit are so much greater than the concrete images that surround us. Obviously, the reality can stimulate thought and inward investigation. Also, the idea of patterns is so powerful. All the masters seem to have taken that to heart and used it effectively. I have spent several years dealing with that as my main concept, thinking about Mondrian, Klee, and others. It is always paramount in my teaching.


Seven keys to great paintings
by Jane Hofstetter

Thanks so much for your kind quotes and words in the Twice-Weekly Letter. I’m also so glad we see patterns and design as such important tools for the artist. I’ve long been a fan of yours, and tell my regular master class, as well as various workshops I teach around the U.S., what a good deal they would get in your excellent letters each week. You can expect more readers from a class I just taught at the Triton Museum of Art, in California this week. Keep up all the great “info” and toss some in for the watercolorists from time to time.

(RG note) Thanks, Jane. I’ve been recommending your book to beginners and pros alike.


Detail is like crack cocaine
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA


“Janice garden”
pastel painting
by Paul deMarrais

One of my favorite painters is Carl Peters and there is a wonderful interview with Charles Movalli in an old December 1977 American Artist magazine that is entitled ‘Looking for Patterns.’ This article remains very influential to me. Carl drew little pencil thumbnails of squiggles on location and rigged up many of these in the studio. He looked for weights, rhythms, balance and patterns in these little sketches. I have given up on plein air myself. It’s a great way to learn but the pressures of time etc. conspired to make me formulaic and repetitive. I could rarely relax enough to do the kind of job I wanted to do. I always had to “settle’ for what I could get down in an hour and a half. Plein air made me a fast painter. I take tons of digital photos now as a modern form of ‘sketching.’ I try and keep my plein air brain working. Lately I am drawn to late evening light with raking shadows creating mystery and pattern. I’m an art teacher now, so I find myself thinking alot more about what I am doing and what I am looking for in my painting. I’m after light and dark patterns…. not DETAIL! I joke with beginning students that detail is like crack cocaine to artists. Immediately they become hooked on it and things go downhill. Patterns give a painting a strong foundation. Every painting needs a foundation to hang a bit of detail on. A bit is all that is needed. Whistler was way ahead of his time. We are not duplicating nature. We are simply designers.

There is 1 comment for Detail is like crack cocaine by Paul deMarrais

From: Patrick — Jun 28, 2009

Every painting needs a strong foundation upon which to hang a bit of detail. That’s my “take away” from what you had to say and I thank you for saying it.


Untangling nature’s patterns
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada


“Saltspring Gold”
original painting
by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

Patterns are one of my obsessions. I find a lot of pleasure from dissecting images into patterns, tucking some unruly elements in or out, omitting others — but for the most part nature fits amazingly well into the patterns — you just need to find the right pattern for the image. The old rules of thirds and golden mean are just the beginner’s stuff. The way I like to look at this is to ask myself — in which way did the nature construct this scene so that it is so pleasing to my eye? Most often the elements of the pattern are very subtle and need intensive looking, and in some cases they have to be imagined (which is not just as satisfying as finding the real things). Sometimes a fleeting suggestion of a cloud or a crest on a wave, or an aura of a reflected light is just the thing you need to complete your pattern. Maybe this is an illness of a sort that makes me indulge in untangling patterns in the nature, but I am sure that I am not the only one — books have been written on the subject and designers, architects and other professionals whose job is to please their eyes are in the same camp.

I would add one more to your list of suggestions — please do not use the same pattern all over again, there are endless possibilities and it is thrilling to see a painting composed in an original way. I have witnessed artists who delight in a new painting and feel that they made a breakthrough but are not sure how it happened or why the following paintings don’t delight them as much as that one. Sometime the answer is that they keep using the same pattern (or ignore pattern altogether) and for that one time they had a happy accident of stumbling into a new and exciting pattern.

I think that you know very well what I am talking about, but some people may be thinking that we should increase our medication. Pattern or no pattern, artists find ways to create something new and beautiful every day — our happy “asylum” is full of all sorts of creative characters. We, the pattern maniacs, are just one bunch in the courtyard under the watchful eye of the art critics.

There is 1 comment for Untangling nature’s patterns by Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki

From: Louise Lemayre: — Jun 26, 2009

re: Patterns – Fractals anyone?





original painting
by Georges Dumitresco, Switzerland


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, 2013.

That includes Carole Munshi, who wrote, “This ‘problem’ of organizing patterns in a composition is one that has been overcome completely once the student becomes the professional artist. Good patterning is now effortless and the focus is expressing the emotion within.”


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Patterns



From: Gene Martin — Jun 23, 2009

Words of wisdom. Absolutely.

From: Hector Williams — Jun 24, 2009

The pattern within a painting is an inscrutable and mysterious sub plot that carries or does not carry the work of art. People automatically respond to pattern when they see it in the real world or in art. If it does not exist in the real world it needs to be put into the art that describes it. On the other hand, nature, in her manifest detail — bracts, stamens, dactyls, is loaded with pattern, and this gives a clue to the painter of the most mundane of landscapes.

From: Pippin — Jun 25, 2009

When my paintings fail, which is more often than I’m comfortable admitting, it is composition that brings them down. The untrained eye of my partner sees this. Drawing is good, color is good, contrast and line are generally good, but overall the composition fails. Why I cannot see this early on in the work, with the sketch, laying in the darks, I don’t know. Reading the how-to books in the library, concentrating on the sections on composition, hasn’t seemed to help. I’m beginning to think I need a checklist of compositional consideration taped to my french easel and go through them as a commercial pilot does when he prepares for take off.

I seem to have an issue with verticals, among other things. A landscape painter myself, I ran across the paintings of Daniel Garber who uses verticals — usually trees — in an unusual way, and not terribly differently from what I’m doing. However, I think his work, while mine do not.

I’m not color blind, but I might be composition blind. I’m thinking composition might be my Waterloo.

From: Vivian A. Anderson — Jun 25, 2009
From: Darla — Jun 26, 2009

The thing about pattern is that often the simpler, the better! You can pile detail on top of it if you keep the pattern. The artist’s job is to simplify abundant, chaotic nature so that the viewer can focus on a part of it. That’s the hard part for me – figuring out what out of all that gorgeous detail to keep and what to leave out.

From: Pat Weekley — Jun 26, 2009

Well, Robert, you lost me on the… “TM.” I am almost 70 years old now and perhaps a little set in my ways… joke. I know I am!! I will admit that what works for one is foreign to others and let it go at that. I did however, enjoy the letter concerning patterns. I have saved a portion and printed it to take to my studio and hopefully I can refer to it often. Thanks for writing your letters. I do find them helpful… most of the time. Pat in New Mexico

P. S. I hope you are able to ‘come down’ before the next edition.

From: Bill — Jun 26, 2009

Carole Munshi – I disagree. The professional artist that you describe as having overcome development of new patterns is only an artist who has settled into a few “comfortable” designs which are constantly being repeated, thus robbing the artist’s work of excitement. Don’t fall in that, very common, trap of mediocrity.

From: DM — Jun 26, 2009

I find that working plein air whether it be drawing or painting helps with working in the studio. Plein Air builds up the memory banks giving me information I can use in my studio. I also have found that without working outdoors you can become trapped by lack of fresh insight. Painting abstracts is another matter entirely. Regarding landscape painting whether the percentage is 90/10 or 50/50 working in the studio w/o being in the field can produce some stale paintings. Only by working outddors can one really see what is there and then take from that what is needed for studio paintings.

I find the art of putting the painting together is one of the more enjoyable aspects of painting. Looking through my paintings and drawings it is interesting how certain compositional designs keep coming up.

From: Bob — Jun 26, 2009

Pippin, get the Dynamic Symetry book by Jay Hambidge.

From: Bob — Jun 26, 2009

Pippin understands. The whole point here is composition. The arrangement of patterns ( shapes ) is one way of acheiving it, so is the arrangement of lines. Volumes have been written about composition by the likes of Dunstan, Parramon and Sternberg but few painters ever learn more about it than the ‘ rule of thirds ‘. Without learning the rules of composition, getting a good one is pure luck. When they’ve been learned, then they can be broken. A master like John Blockley could put his focal point in the middle of the painting and he could still make it work. How can you plan ahead if you haven’t learned the rules? ( I know using the word ‘ rules ‘ will cause much moaning, wailing and gnashing of teeth ).

From: Russ Hogger — Jun 27, 2009



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