Switch to swatch


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Melinda Wilde of Gabriola Island, B.C., wrote, “I’m design challenged. I see the shapes and I love the shapes but, for whatever reason, I just can’t get my work to go WOW with them. I’m quite sure it’s a design problem as technically I’m not bad. Can you suggest some exercises that might help?”

Thanks, Melinda. In childhood, our first art is often in the form of line drawing. In many cultures, children begin by delineating to describe their new world. Colouring books and other childhood media lead to the early triumph of lines over shapes. Colouring goes “between the lines” and even silhouettes become edges to be traced or cut out. Would-be painters need to unlearn these programs.

Before you start painting, whether from life, reference material, or from your imagination, canvas your subject matter for evidence of shapes. As an exercise, don’t tackle motifs that lack them. Simply find ones that have them.

Find them by half-closing your eyes and reducing material to pattern. Colour and line are not important at this stage. Look for potential shapes that are not standard squares, circles or triangles. Look for irregular shapes, preferably ones that interlock or interact in some way with one another. Look for big shapes as well as small ones — shapes need not be of equal size nor equidistant from one another. While you’re looking for these shapes, look also to the potential of other shapes to fit around them. In other words, plan ahead for the advent of negative shapes.

Also, let your strokes be wide rather than narrow. Put down blocks of tone value — patches — rather than lines. Use your larger tools to block in your patches.

Further, let a shape committed in one area be echoed, reversed or mimicked in another area. In other words, go here and there as though you don’t know what you’re doing. Go back and forth from one side to the other, and up and down as well.

These early procedures go a long way toward establishing a strong composition. The ultimate test, even though the viewer may not recognize the subject matter, is that the work-in-progress also functions both upside down and sideways.

Best regards,


PS: “Subject matter is not nearly as important as the arrangement of the elements into a pattern. Thus, the abstraction that contains no recognizable object may be a satisfying work of art.” (Ted Kautsky)

Esoterica: Artists who work with fabrics — fibre artists, stitchers, quilters, etc. — have an advantage over brush-painters who might just happen to fall into the weak-composition trap. Fabric artists automatically work in patches. When we put our minds to it, painters can, too. I call it “Switch to swatch.” This is where the “wow” happens. It’s a mental thing. But then again, a lot of painting is.


Design Challenged
by Tiit Raid, Fall Creek, Wisconsin, USA


“Highway 12 Bridge” 2006
acrylic painting
by Tiit Raid

Your advice to Melinda Wilde will be helpful. But there is perhaps another aspect of design to consider in helping create that “WOW” she is looking for: the appearance and arrangement of the VISUAL composition.

When referring to composition, generally, it is usually the physical arrangement of the shapes and spaces within the picture plane that is talked about. This is important and essential of course, but the appearance or the visual order of the various shapes and tones and colors is of equal importance. This aspect gets very little mention or attention when talking about creating an interesting image. The physical can be measured by using rulers and such, the visual can only be measured by the eye.

So, how to develop the eye? There are two basic ways: Study the masters, such as Diego Velazquez’s Maids of Honor, or Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, for example; and study the appearance of the everyday visual world. The latter is the natural ordering of visual space, its appearance is whole and complete, where everything is in place. Through looking at it every day and viewing it as a composition, its structure and design will gradually become a part of our image-making process.

There is 1 comment for Design Challenged by Tiit Raid

From: Lise King — Oct 12, 2009

Titanium white or white oxide (PW6) is a bright, intense, warm white and is useful to cover something up because of its opacity and is great for creating tints, while zinc white is great to create mist or flesh tone; because of its semi- transparency it does not make flesh look pasty.

Quotes About This Pigment:

“Titanium dioxide, or titania, has twice the covering power of lead white and is extremely stable. Once the manufacturing difficulties were resolved, titania quickly became the dominant white pigment: by 1945 it accounted for 80 per cent of the market. … Today most white paint of any sort is ‘titanium white’.” — Philip Ball, Bright Earth, p382.

Titanium white (PW6) is a bright, intense, warm white and is useful to cover something up, because of its opacity and is great for creating tints, while zinc white is great to create mist or flesh tone; because of its semi- transparency it does not make flesh look pasty.

Titanium white is great to cover something up or create tints, while zink white is great to create mist or flesh tone; because of its semi- transparency it does not make flesh look pasty. So a little zink white with a translucent colour won’t turn it opaque if that helps…

I found this under www.wetpaintart.com that may be of interest?

Titanium white is most opaque. and not toxic.

First developed around 1916, titanium white is by far the most popular of whites. Made from titanium dioxide (which in its pure form reflects 97.2% of incident light), it is also the most brilliant and most opaque white. Titanium white is non-toxic and seen as a replacement for lead white.

Zinc white is least opaque and very slow drying.

and creamy.

Zinc white, made from zinc oxide, has long been used in place of lead white. Zinc white is the least opaque white — thus, most transparent — creamy in texture, cool in tone, and slightly blue in cast. It’s ideal for glazing and scumbling. Zinc white is also the slowest drying white, which is an advantage to the painter who likes to work wet-into-wet.

Lead white (flake white) is the oldest. and most toxic.

Lead white (flake white) is the oldest of the artist’s white paint, believed to have been discovered by the Egyptians. Its strengths include its great opacity and its buttery, “ropy” consistency. It is warmer in tone than titanium white. It is generally known as flake white or Cremnitz white.

Because of its lead content, flake white is toxic, which has led manufacturers to develop white paint similar in its positive attributes to lead white, but without its toxicity. Gamblin Oil Colors, for instance, has created flake white replacement, which has moderate tinting strength and maintains the working properties of flake white.

Essentially, when you see the words “flake white” or “Cremnitz white” on a tube, you should be aware of the health risks involved and to take reasonable care when working with it.


In the search to isolate positive properties of each type of white paint and combine them into a single paint, different combinations have resulted. For instance, a certain formula blending titanium and zinc whites may bring together the brilliance of titanium with the creaminess of zinc. Other mixes may result in faster-drying whites, or different levels of coolness or warmth.

Happy trails,

Lise King



Beginning to get there
by Brian Reifer, UK

I keep reading your letter, often speed reading as not everything, as you would expect, hits a nerve or strikes a chord; then once in a while there comes an ‘Aha’ moment when a little gem, a nugget of information appears. For me one appeared in answer to Melinda.

I try desperately not to paint ‘Within the lines’ — not easy when you have spent half of your working life on a drawing board designing flight trial instrumentation in the aviation industry. Late in life I think I am beginning to get there, helped to a great extent by the likes of Ken Howard, RA, Kasey Sealy, Tim Deibler, et al.

You hit the nail on the head on approach, particularly appropriate as, at the moment, I am enjoying demos on TV by Mitch Waite and here is a guy who has suddenly hit my button with everything beginning to fall into place. Your piece of advice reinforces this and to anyone who wants to go down this particular path I suggest they print it out and paste in on the wall next to their easel.

I have nothing much to show for it at present, especially if you look at my website, but over the past few weeks I feel I have definitely turned the corner and the present bunch of oils W.I.P. begin to excite me. It will be awhile before any are finished but watch this space.

There are 2 comments for Beginning to get there by Brian Reifer

From: L.Lemay — Oct 12, 2009

Thank you for the reference to Mitch Waite. Did not know him. Many videos on UTube.

From: Brian Reifer — Oct 16, 2009

In answer to L.Lemay, I do not know Mitch Waite personally and am not a frequenter of UTube. I know of him only through his TV demos of Atelier Interactive paints. I believe he has a painting holiday setup somewhere on the Continent. Chroma inform me that a DVD is being produced of the TV series and will be available through the SAA Organisation in the UK.


Use of line not universal
by Ngomo Ngube, Africa

People in African cultures and I think other places world wide work with face paint and colour their areas with great swatches of colour, some very nice colours too, like their houses and tribal meeting places. Except for some areas of face and back paint there is no one use of line so I don’t think we all grow up with these, sorry.


Icing on the cake
by Jennifer Woodburn, Clarksburg, ON, Canada


“They all fall down”
acrylic painting
60 x 36 inches
by Jennifer Woodburn

Interesting art is in the shapes! I realize that many other artists focus on light, texture, and various other components in their painting. Well, for me, the inspiration is in the shapes. While I don’t ignore these other elements of painting, I find what drives me to pick up brush and paint a scene is typically the interplay of various shapes interlocking and juxtaposing themselves. My favourite part? The negative space left in between; it is like the icing on the cake! Maybe I am a graphic designer trapped in an artist’s body…




There are 6 comments for Icing on the cake by Jennifer Woodburn

From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Oct 09, 2009

Jennifer — you are so right about those negative spaces. I absolutely love painting in those spaces, watching the painting come to life because of them. It is like magic!

From: Patricia — Oct 09, 2009

Your painting is beautiful!

From: Kendra — Oct 09, 2009

I’m surprised you don’t have a website. I love your painting. I would love to see more of your work.

From: linda mallery — Oct 09, 2009

Really lovely! A stunning piece.

From: John — Oct 10, 2009


From: Jennifer Woodburn — Oct 13, 2009

Thanks for the comments. I do have a website www.jenniferwoodburn.com


Interesting shapes
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA


“Morning Glow”
original painting
by Diane Overmyer

A surprising way I learned about working with shapes was through sculpture. One of my sculpture professors stressed the importance of capturing the planes of a person’s face. Each plane is basically an abstract shape that interlocks with the surrounding planes of the head. If the planes of a person’s head are captured correctly in an abstract manner, then the sculpture will capture the person’s likeness, regardless of the level of detail the sculpture was taken to. I also had a drawing teacher that often said, “Now there’s a beautiful shape!” He would spend several moments talking about what made that particular shape more interesting than others. He was normally referring to a negative shape between two or more positive elements that someone was drawing. To this day, negative shapes play a huge role in much of my work.

There are 4 comments for Interesting shapes by Diane Overmyer

From: linda mallery — Oct 09, 2009

Very nice piece. I feel as if I am there in the meadow.

From: Anonymous — Oct 09, 2009

Great painting! Is it acrylic or oil? What size?

From: Pen Slade, CA — Oct 09, 2009

I really like this painting for its composition, shape and color of the sky, except, for the too hardedged tree in the center middle ground. I think softer edges would push it back and not detract from the overall peaceful, dusk-time beauty.

From: Diane Overmyer — Oct 11, 2009

Thanks for the comments. This is a plein air oil painting (14 x 11)I did about five years ago. I have always loved the hues and the negative shaped area of the sky. I agree with Pen’s comments about softer edges.


Basic design comes first
by B.J. Adams, Washington, DC, USA


“Bungy Attitude”
mixed media
by B.J. Adams

Many artists who work with fabrics create exactly as you are describing. Then I read your Esoterica paragraph and you said it. However, there are the other challenges for artists using the flexible mediums: hard edges, tangent forms, equal shapes, balance, and of course line. So, perhaps in every medium basic design comes first… looking at the whole and seeing the balance of all elements, which may mean many things and yet the same challenges to each medium.

Thank you for mentioning fiber artists in an art letter.




Parallel delights in fibre art
by Sandra Donohue, Robson, BC, Canada


handwoven tea towels
by Sandra Donohue

Being a weaver as well as a painter, I enjoyed your reference to fibre artists. Having been a weaver for over twenty years before I started painting gave me a lot of confidence in using colour, and having some idea of design and proportion. I love weaving cloth that has blocks or squares… especially tea towels: art that you can hang and use in the kitchen!

(RG note) Thanks, Sandra. And thanks to all the fibre artists, quilters, stitchers and others who wrote to say they knew all about the situation.



There are 4 comments for Parallel delights in fibre art by Sandra Donohue

From: Kay Christopher — Oct 08, 2009

Wow, Sandra. Your hand woven tea towels are incredibly beautiful!!! Am sure they must feel wonderful to the touch, as well. Lovely colors and design.

From: linda mallery — Oct 09, 2009

They are a delight! What a lovely thing to have and use. Do you seel them?

From: linda mallery — Oct 09, 2009

OK that was do you sell them? typo sorry!

From: Sandra Donohue — Oct 09, 2009

Thank you Kay and Linda for your lovely coments about the tea towels. I do sell them where I live in the Kootenays, in B.C. However, I have had to avoid weaving since the spring due to knee injuries. Happily, thanks to physiotherapy, I’m on the mend and will be getting back into it soon. Also, since taking up painting, weaving has taken a back seat, but I still have it in my blood and feel great when I’m at the loom!


Increasing the Wow factor
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“Luminaries 1”
acrylic painting
by John Ferrie

I always ask an artist what they are trying to communicate. The global term of “half-baked” always seems to resonate with artists when it comes to what they are missing in their work. Artists need to bring people to their work and this is usually done with quality work. I would tell this woman to add layers of colour to her work. Work with different glazes and thinners to really experience the limitless boundaries colour can deliver. Maybe try starting out with a black background and make that the negative space. Then create dozens of layers and experiment with colour to show all sorts of colour emotions. Then I would tell her to work beyond what she knows, adding textures and shapes that become the inner workings of being a true artist. It shouldn’t matter if an artist is painting or doing sculpture or decoupage, it is about dialing up the quality and making their work exquisite. This will increase the “WOW” factor.


Troubles in coloring-book land
by Joseph L. Wesley, Talladega, AL, USA

I am an architect. As a small child I played with unique building blocks from my Godfather who was an antique store owner and interior decorator. My father was a veterinarian who could draw horses and other things. I learned to draw and I learned to build. My mother encouraged my art since I was sickly for my early years. Mom and dad both smoked. I wasn’t good at sports so I did craft things with mom and fished with dad.

When I started first grade I loved it. My first teacher was great. My second grade teacher though tried and broke my “bad habit.” Muffett, who teaches art now for the Alabama School for the Blind, colored perfectly. She created lovely colors without texture between the big black lines. I got barely passing marks in coloring. To me there were no thick black lines in life. Things just merged or ended against or in front of each other. Nothing was a flat shade either. Everything had various shades in it with shadow and curvature. I’d first color over the black lines with the color that the item was to be. Blue jeans I’d line with darkened blue then begin shading to create depth. Darks on sides and lights to the lighter middle usually. This made good sense to me. It looked far more realistic than Muffett’s flat colors. Hers were beautiful but more like quilting, flat to flat to flat. Mine had depth and definition and character. I was being honest with what I saw and felt was a great representation of the picture. Sometimes I’d skip the coloring book picture and draw my own, designing something that I thought was more realistic or more interesting than the coloring book.

The teacher frowned at my work. Not as much as she did towards Sonny from the orphanage who colored or scribbled black over everything. But she was not happy and let me know with bad grades and notes to my parents. Mom and dad convinced me to go along with the teacher and do it her way. Fortunately they told me they liked my way better so I kept it alive in my heart.

Years later when in college studying architecture I took “Appreciation of the Arts” and it hit me that many movements in art moved from one way of representing things to another. Pointillism especially reinforced my earlier desire to “do it my way.” I gained a lot of confidence from that course and wished I could find that teacher, find ALL teachers who teach “between the lines” art. IF they must teach that at least let kids know there are other ways too. Better still give optional ways to color so each can go in their own direction or at least know there is not just one path up the mountain. Narrow mindedness seems to want others to be as narrow minded.

I dabble with paint and water colors but can’t really get back into my own way. Too scared? I do pottery where no one has ruined me and architecture where I’ve learned many options and can enjoy making something that fulfills my understanding for good architecture with commodity, utility and delight.

There are 4 comments for Troubles in coloring-book land by Joseph L. Wesley

From: LKP — Oct 09, 2009

Perhaps it is time to stop keeping score, and start enjoying the art process? I think you are letting the subjective comments of others control you. With so much (percieved) outside “pressure”, how can you ever hear your own inner voices? I give creativity workshops (mixed media) and I know for sure that no one can “ruin you”, unless you give them your permission. Please don’t postpone your authentic creativity any longer — You sound like someone who has had a lifelong yearning to express yourself in a unique distinctive way. Start today. (and, by the way, I am talking about exploring and working without any big pressure to create something “to hang over the sofa”) Work for the joy of it, and please SAVOR the process.

From: Jackie Knott — Oct 09, 2009

LKP, superb advise.

From: Maxine Price — Oct 09, 2009

I understand where Joseph is coming from. Teaschers should be aware that what they say to a child can stay with them forever. In my case a kindergarten teacher praised a drawing I did to the class. I never forgot it and it caused me to draw all of my like. A second grade teacher told me I would nver be able to write and I practiced writing so many different ways that I still do not have a distinctive handwriting — it goes everywhich way. But in sopomore year in college a teacher suggested that I should change majors and it just made me mad. I buckled down and made an A in his class the next time around. So, Joseph, I agree with LKP and recommend that let all that old stuff go and enjoy the creative process. You might surprise yourself.

From: Liz — Oct 10, 2009

Be strong. Be directed. Know that you were born for this. There’s a million artists out there and only the strong (and the deaf to criticism) survive. Creativity is self fulfilling, the joy is its own reward. Once you get into it, nobody can stop you cause it feels so good to be making art no matter how much we struggle and try to keep afloat in this especially gruesome financial downturn. If you can survive this, you’ll be a stronger, better artist for it.




Balancing Act

oil painting
by Sandy B. Donn, FL, USA


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 Michael Fuerst of Urbana, IL, USA, who wrote, “I would suggest Ms Wilde get a copy of the book Painting People in Watercolor by Alex Powers.”

And also Florence Apostle who wrote, “This was written for me. I just have to keep remembering it and take the time to study the motif and not rush to draw. ”

And also Melinda Wilde who wrote, “Thanks, Bob. I was delighted to see my plight in print. I’ll use your suggestions… especially the one about making sure the subjects I pick to paint have large definable shapes.”



Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Switch to swatch



From: Penny Collins — Oct 06, 2009

This is such excellent, practical, inspiring advice. Thank you!

From: Rene Wojcik — Oct 07, 2009

I can’t agree more with learning to identify shapes. In nature, instead of looking at trees or boats look for shapes, value and colors. Instead of looking at “things” you practice looking at colors, shadow shapes, negative shapes, interesting patterns of interlocking shapes. Look for interlocking patterns of colors in a scene. Look for the light and dark part of a scene. You can quickly capture the essence of your subject by making several thumbnail sketches on 4″ by 6″ cards or in a sketchbook. This becomes your guide to your larger studio painting. No detail is required. Just have fun.

From: David Young — Oct 07, 2009

Swatching is a learned habit that, when acquired, overtakes the awkward business of sticking to edges. It is faster, more effective, and more professional for painters to think in this manner.

From: Walt Houston — Oct 07, 2009

As a painting collector, not an artist, I find that blocky paintings attract my eyes more. It is often too easy to find fault with lines and bad drawing, for me, is often what turns me, on close examination, against a work. Blocks give the idea of a subject. Lines lead me away from it.

From: Norman Trent — Oct 07, 2009

Drawing is a thing unto itself. Good drawings are a delight to those who like good drawings. There are still some of those around.

From: Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki — Oct 07, 2009

I love lines – just not those lines which outline objects. Lines are just another tool/toy which can be used to strengthen a composition. One can use lines in unexpected and creative ways – just the same as using shapes, values and colors. They are all basics which need to be learned by a well rounded artist. However using just two is probably a good start for beginners or an interesting method when used with intention.

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Oct 08, 2009

We did not have those programs or coloring books in school.We learned from nature and drew what we saw. We also learned to write in script not only printing. We used line pad paper and learned to write letter O in a continuous line and in uniform shape and size. We had to fill the whole page writing the letter “O” in this manner. The effect was rhythmic and it produced a beautiful pattern on the paper. Rhythm can add to the composition of a painting. Contrast in sizes of leaves and shapes of trees can also add to the design of the composition of an artwork. Sometimes in my work I try to have overlapping shapes like leaves by having darker greens under light greens, smaller leaves over larger leaves.Would this help in creating the “Wow”in an art work?Thank you for the valuable lesson I learned from this letter.


From: Julie Roberts — Oct 08, 2009

Colouring books aren’t all bad. They can be a starting point for children who have had almost no drawing experience. As a retired teacher and volunteer, I counsel parents of pre schoolers to provide lots of paper and colouring tools for drawing on a regular basis because children are asked to draw almost every day in school. To get the drawing skills started for reluctant ones, children can add to the simple pictures in dollar store colouring books. Draw bugs, snakes, and birds, under leaves, on flowers, behind a rock, or in the sky. Add trees, vehicles and airplanes to the picture, or items on people such as backpacks, hats, or clothing logos; and for houses make surrounding shrubs or people looking out of windows. Show children that you often need a reference picture (easy to find on Google images) to remember how things look.

In grade one I remember being very proud of colouring a typical cotton ball shaped tree and making it more real by using several different greens from the crayon box and actually making leaf splotches.

In other words, you can teach children to be creative with a colouring page. It all works best, of course, if you sit beside them and join in the creativity.

From: Bela Fidel — Oct 08, 2009

This question was, coincidentally, very timely, as I have been staring at some of my older oil paintings and wondering if I should re-use the 40×36 canvases. The paintings are not necessarily bad, but I’ve moved on and am doing different work now; some would say, better. I like to paint over older paintings because all kinds of happy accidents happen and the old peeks through into the new and creates richness, texture, surprises. I’ve never repainted an old painting that did not give me these delightful little peeks of surprises that fit right in. It is hard to say goodbye, but let’s call it not death, rather a reincarnation.

From: Marsha Hamby Savage — Oct 09, 2009

Thanks Robert, this letter is very timely. I teach students about the masses, the shapes, but have a difficult time getting them to quit looking at what the object is. They have trouble forgetting where one object ends and another one begins when they are the same value. Squinting is a good answer, but getting them to do it is another problem altogether! Thanks, I will be using this letter in my classes.

From: ted openshaw — Oct 09, 2009

i remember i used to stay in the lines in the coloring book outlining the various colors darker with the same color [bearing down hard].

now sometimes when painting i dont see it necessary to stay at all in the lines and i use big brushes…sometimes i ‘draw’ the entire painting with black and fill in the color within the line….each color ‘drawn

From: linda mallery — Oct 09, 2009

My Watercolor teacher sometimes has us do our sketch upside down, to forget about “what it is” and grasp the shapes, darks and lights. Very effective.

From: Doug MacBean — Oct 09, 2009

In the recent discovery of problems with Zinc oxide in white oil paint, how does one decipher the labels on oil paint tubes? Just one of my tubes from Rowney indicates Titanium Oxide (PW6).

Zinc Dioxide (PW4).

What is a Dioxide as opposed to oxide? And what do the letters mean (PW1-6)?

I’m very confused.


From: ted openshaw — Oct 09, 2009

i forget what all the numbers are…it should be on a manufacturers website though….i do know though that titanium white is opaque and zink white is translucent…it doesnt cover well…a little titanium white with any translucent color will cause the color to be opaque…for what thats all worth

From: Liz Reday — Oct 10, 2009

I find that the older duds are terrific for painting over, preferably upside down so that the painting about to be obliterated is only abstract shapes and color. From there, your method of laying in large intense chunks of color shapes becomes urgent so that you don’t notice the stuff behind. It feels so free because your not even wasting a pristine new canvas, and if this one fails too, well no big deal. Something about laying in a whole new pattern of shapes over the old one makes your mind think out of the box, plus the juxtaposition of the new colors with the old ones already there creates some sublime color contradictions that you never would have thought of before. So I say, use up the old ones with shape pattern exercises and be surprised!



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