Six exercises in magic

Dear Artist, Artists need to be constantly on the prowl for ways to make their work more visually exciting. Art needs magic bullets beyond mere subject matter. Fact is, perfectly dull subjects can be made more interesting with a little extra thought and effort. You may already be applying some of these ideas, but if my request seems more like a tough order, perhaps these exercises will be all the more important for you. We’ll be happy to post a few of your examples in the next clickback. Take a small card or canvas and divide it into six areas. The first on my list is an easy one. 1. Paint a smooth gradation from warm to cool or cool to warm. 2. Using a red, a yellow and a blue, or a green, a purple and an orange, paint three equal-intensity colours side by side. When you half close your eyes, they should all be about the same value. 3. Without showing any form, paint something that appears to protrude from something that appears to recede. 4. Paint some patches of tone or colour in alternation along a partly disclosed curved line and try to “hold” the line by implying it. Still with me? 5. Paint a “transformer” — that is, some subject or motif that looks like or becomes something else. Think of a praying mantis that could be a truck, or an owl that could be Uncle Fred. 6. Paint a simple motif or subject from life, then cover part of it up by further painting up to and past it so that the motif or subject is now only partly disclosed. Always learning, always questioning, we see exercises like these as experiments — even when they come from some dude in a computer. “The true method of knowledge is experiment,” said William Blake. “Life,” said Ray Bradbury, “is trying things to see if they work.” Exercises like these have the distinct tendency to wander into your regular work and add mystery, interest and appeal. Displacing the commonplace, they show your artist’s hand. Best regards, Robert PS: “All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make the better.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson) Esoterica: Of course you can do these sorts of experiments in and about your regular work. Those you make up yourself will be the most valuable. Those who search, find. The idea is to make the business of exercise and experimentation habitual. Just as a tinkerer can go on and on in his shop, missing meals and important appointments, the artist stays glued to the unfolding of experiments. I call it magic — you can call it anything you want. You may not be able to put your finger on exactly what the magic is, nor will you be able to put it into words, but magic will be in the air.   ‘Directly from Source’ by Aleta Pippin, Santa Fe, NM, USA  

“Directly From Source”
original painting
by Aleta Pippin

This painting is entitled Directly from Source. I feel that it has passages that “protrude from something that appears to recede.”             Taking people with you by Michael Fuerst, Urbana, IL, USA   An excellent book that takes one along similar paths is Keys to Drawing with Imagination by Bert Dodson, sample pages of which can be read here.

“Art 223”
digital painting
by Michael Fuerst

A day will come when you are able to read my lips, comprehend my thoughts, one day… you will feel my mood, live my world, one night… be a part of my tradition, my story, and know who I am… one day, one night.   Escape to private magic by Ann Price, North Little Rock, AR, USA  

“Primaries in the Dark”
original painting
by Ann Price

Here’s a doodle painting that fits with #3. I’m headed off on a solitary painting weekend, for the first time ever. Books, paints and myself in a cabin in the woods. I am terrified, exhilarated and free. I will paint and draw, then look at it later.         There are 2 comments for Escape to private magic by Ann Price
From: Liz Reday — Sep 21, 2010

Love the painting. Medium? Bon Voyage on your painting trip, sounds exciting, and as you say, exhilarating and free-ing. You may not complete anything you love at the moment of execution, but the experience will open a door to a whole new direction in the weeks and months to come. Like jumping off a cliff (but with a happy landing).

From: Ann Price — Dec 20, 2010

It is a digital sketch, dashed off in a moment of boredom. Turned out okay for the origins. =)

  Through the eyes of other artists by Angela Treat Lyon, Kailua, Hawaii, USA  

“The Village and the Sea”
acrylic painting
by Angela Treat Lyon

I’m on #50 now of my 100-painting quest, and I have to say I’ve learned so much I’ve had to take a mid-point break just to sit back and assess it all. One of the coolest things I’ve played with has been to try to paint like masters. I intentionally didn’t imitate to copy, but just to get the feel — I really enjoyed it. I tried playing with the idea of that new laughing Rembrandt that was found recently — just to play with trying to get those incredible dark greenish and reddish browns — wow, the man could PAINT. Understatement….For fun, I replaced Rembrandt’s head with a funky version of my own with a badly seated hat, but it was so great to try to paint like him. I loved the strong line he had going from chin to shoulder, and if there is any line I’m proud of in the one I did, it’s that one — I got it! The hat and head — nah — but that line and the browns — woohoo! And here is where your exercise comes in — The other was Chagall — I was struck by what a story-teller he was, and how he placed his story elements so perfectly within the realm of the canvas. I changed a couple of his symbols — most notably cow became fish — and the non-defined curve of the circle behind it was smooched into allusion and carried on by the gills. What fun to imitate and see through their eyes! Great exercises — I’ll be trying them this next batch.   Paint it black? by Brian Smith, ON, Canada  

“Violet daze”
mixed media on paper
by Brian Smith

As a faithful daily reader and oft-time collector of your notes, I from time to time read one of your letters to a student who has asked about a specific issue that you brought up that very morning. However, “Six exercises in magic” won’t be quoted as it seems to me to have a very large flaw in the middle. Exercise #2 states: “Using a red, a yellow and a blue, or a green, a purple and an orange, paint three equal-intensity colours side by side. When you half close your eyes they should all be about the same value.” Every colour on the colour wheel has an inherent value (that is the lightness or darkness of the colour shown most clearly if you were to take a black and white photo of the colour). Yellow, for example, is the lightest value on the colour wheel and its complement, violet, is the darkest. If I paint the three primary colours at the SAME INTENSITY, there is no way they will be the SAME VALUE. The yellow will always be lighter in value than the others. In order to make the yellow as dark a VALUE as the others, I would need to add either some other darker colour to the yellow (thereby making it not a yellow anymore), or make it a tone by adding grey, or a shade by adding black. By making the yellow a tone or a shade, I immediately lower its intensity or purity, so the three primaries are no longer of equal intensity. The only way I can see to make them the same intensity AND the same value would be to make them all very, very dark SHADES of their respective colours and therefore also very, very low intensity as well. In fact, they would all be …well, black. There are 6 comments for Paint it black? by Brian Smith
From: Doug Mays — Sep 20, 2010

Hi Brian, This too caught my eye and it didn’t register. I defer to others wiser than I to explain how one can get equal tonal values from these combinations.

From: Anonymous — Sep 21, 2010

Re-read the instructions, you will see that it is up to you to choose three colors and MAKE them the same intensity. “Using a red, a yellow and a blue, or a green, a purple and an orange, paint three equal-intensity colours side by side. When you half close your eyes, they should all be about the same value. If yellow is one of the three then you will have to add lots of white to the other two choices.

From: Anonymous 2 — Sep 21, 2010

Anonymous, perhaps you should re-read the instructions as well, it didn’t say to MAKE them the ‘same’ value by adding white, it said to make them ‘equal’ intensity (that is, the pureness level of each hue should be equal), there is a subtle difference.

From: Penny Collins — Sep 22, 2010

Perhaps Robert means to select red, yellow and blue, and from these colours create three OTHER colours. He says ‘Using a red, a yellow and a blue… paint three equal-intensity colours side by side’. I take this to mean that you should mix the colours as you see fit.

From: Dayle Ann Stratton — Sep 28, 2010

I took Robert’s words the same way Penny did. Sometimes I think we get caught up in picky arguments about terms and miss the intent. Okay, maybe Robert could have written a set of instructions thick with the terminology of color theory (the meaning of which even color theorists can’t agree on), but what for? The point I took was to experiment and see what happens. Then show it to a critic, who can provide all the fine words, but can’t explain what the “meaning” is in terms of what I learned from the experience.

From: Randall Cogburn — Oct 09, 2010

Just add some white to lower there intensity some to get the values about the same. Thats what I got out of it. ~Kirby

  The magic of transformers by Forwarded by Roman Skotnicki, Vancouver, BC, Canada  

James Corbett and his sculptures

This creative man converts parts of scrapped cars into sculptures worth thousands of dollars. The Australian artist, James Corbett, 46, creates these sculptures using salvaged car parts from junked 1950 and 1960 automobiles. One of the pieces, a ram made of spark plugs sold for a whopping $23,000. His sculptures are made of gears, spark plugs, exhaust, radiators, anything that the artist chooses. After spending weeks locating suitable pieces, James meticulously cleans every part and welds them together. “After a period of time, people began to become more and more interested in what I was doing and now what do I in life is a dream come reality,” says Corbett. There is 1 comment for The magic of transformers by Forwarded by Roman Skotnicki
From: Linda Mallery — Sep 21, 2010

Wow! Those are amazing and beautiful.


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Six exercises in magic

From: Faith — Sep 16, 2010

I think you should have illustrated all that for those who know nothing about the golden mean, temperature, perspective and the other things you don’t mention by name! I wonder how many who will read your instructions are actually in that unfortunate situation? Not that I don’t agree with going back to basics……..

From: Thierry — Sep 17, 2010

Faith sounds as if she is a member of the Wailing Wall. Go find out yourself what temperature etc. means. If you don’t have the fortitude to do this, you will never become a decent painter. On the net alone, you can do this. Soon you will want ‘someone to chew your food’ for you, Faith . . . this is an expression in the poor African country I am working in. There is such poverty that many will be happy to chew for you. To read your request for an artistic nanny is pitiful.

From: Edna Hildebrandt — Sep 17, 2010

Thank you for those exercises and I will certainly try to do them. I have a question; some of my colleagues said that try to avoid using black or white to achieve dark or light areas. So what color combination would you recommend to achieve the effects and what is the proportion of each color used? It is great to get some exercises like these once in while for me as an amateur I am struggling in mixing colors.

From: Tamarind Rossetti — Sep 17, 2010

I love this letter on magic. Thank you for writing it and sending it out to us.

From: Susan Barnes — Sep 20, 2010

I loved this topic and the suggestions to improve painting skills. Please post more ideas and show us the results that other readers have created and submitted as well.

From: Paula Timpson — Sep 20, 2010

Experiments…. A land of Milk & Honey flows… across the art world into pure silence of morning- Experiment, always in hope of a better world Acceptance as artists, simply creating and true realization that , leaving art behind is fulfillment, enough…Love, Paula

From: Asta Dale — Sep 21, 2010

Robert, could you please explain ‘copacetic’ to me. I looked it up in the dictionary and was not quite sure what you meant by it. The dictionary talks about ‘coparcenary’ or ‘coparcener’ meaning joint ownwership – so what is ‘copacetic’? Participating?

From: Lorraine Khachatourians — Sep 21, 2010

For Edna, Stapleton Kearns just put up a good clear review about colour and mixing on his blog. Here is the link Just put out some colours. I used phthalo blue, ultramarine blue, quinacridone rose, cadmium red light, hansa yellow light, cadmium yellow medium and burnt sienna, plus titanium white if using oils) and play with them. For watercolour, white is the white of the paper that you preserve when planning your painting. Have fun mixing away.

From: Lorraine Khachatourians — Sep 21, 2010

I just had another thought, something that I learned from the best instructors. Only use the best quality paints, ie artist quality, not student quality, or paints that say ‘hue’. Student quality paints have much less pigment, and often had white or fillers added. You can never get the intensity you want with them and mud is very easy to achieve so it is hard to get anywhere other than frustrated with them.

From: Carole — Sep 21, 2010

‘Copacetic’, that under-utilized, uber-cool word means that everything or everybody is getting along well together, and groovin’ just fine, as I understand it!!

From: Faith — Sep 22, 2010

Ah Thierry – it’s all in the mind. I did not state that I myself know nothing about the golden mean or the other elements and I am certainly not a wailing wall. On the contrary, I’m overjoyed about all this stuff. But I do have a point because not everyone who reads such a list (and actually sets about obeying it) is a fully fledged visual artist. The fact that some have responded with a degree of puzzlement does rather prove my point…… You could read some of my other letters here or look at my quotes to get a better idea of how I “tick”. As a judge of character, you really are a non-starter.

From: Penny Collins — Sep 22, 2010

For Edna, to make a dark colour without black, I always mix pthalo blue and burnt sienna. It makes a beautiful dark.

From: Miriam — Sep 23, 2010

If you have to have something demonstrated to you, you are too lazy to work it out for yourself. Seeing demos does not build skills. Working on your own, privately, is the key to progress.

From: Artsynova — Sep 26, 2010

Thierry, Mirriam, what happen to people lately, why are you being offensive, did you forget your humble beginnings? If this is the road this blog will take: it’s doommed! …and you are also being offensive toward Robert! Art is supposed to be shared, nurtured. Let others be themselves!!

From: Kodo — Sep 27, 2010

You can feed the hungry, but you can’t fix stupid. You can recognize stupid – they always search for someone stupider than themselves.

From: Henry Carroll — Sep 27, 2010

The good far outweighs the bad, and, in a way, it is good to hear ugly opinions. They convince you that there is much good in our world.

From: Melanie Herbst — Sep 27, 2010
From: Dayle Ann Stratton — Sep 28, 2010

Those of us who are readers of James Lee Burke’s fine mystery novels know instinctively what “copacetic” means. But I looked it up in my ancient Webster’s New Collegiate to see what it said. According to the dictionary, it means “very satisfactory”, though I prefer Carole’s more poetically stated definition. As Burke’s character Clete Purcell would say, “Everything’s copacetic, mon, stay cool.” Good return, Faith.

From: Barbara Ettles — Oct 12, 2010

copacetic means ok – fine – everything is as it should be. If your dictionary doesn’t have it, maybe it is time for a new dictionary. It’s a word that was used a lot in the ’70’s. That dates me.

     Featured Workshop: Painting in the Bugaboos with Robert Genn
091610_robert-genn Painting in the Bugaboos with Robert Genn The date for next year’s Bugaboo Helipainting trip has been set for September 7 to 10, 2011. To obtain more information or to be kept up to date, please call Audrey Frey at 1 800 661 0252.   The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. 


oil painting by Cindy Revell, AB, Canada

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