Monday, January 1, 2018

When you are “in the groove”, stay there!

After a very long hiatus of almost 2 years away from art making, the new house is almost done, the old house has been sold, we have moved, my “art room” is almost back together, and for the past couple of days, or evenings, I’ve been getting back into painting.  First an abstract for Jill for the bathroom.  Not much thought. (sorry) And it didn’t really do much for my soul but it was a start/restart to painting.

Between arranging my supplies, hanging up some old favorites, and a little painting, I was back in my old habit of reading blogs, and articles about art and making art, and art education when I came across an article on recovery from artists block.  It offered simple advice: make a list.

Make a list of the art things you should be working on.  So I did.  About 10 small items to start with.  Before I even started on it I added 6 more.  Then the list took over. I was making art and enjoying the process.  So much so, I forgot to update the list for several days.  When I finally checked, big surprise.  I had to cross 7 items off the list as completed!

Reading WetCanvas: Café Guerbois: someone had asked about ‘Resolutions’.  I’m making a list and checking often, and revising it for completed items and adding new one.  Well at least for the time being.  It really helped be get over a reluctance to step up the drawing table and start painting.

So what has this to do with being in the grove?  My art making block is in the past. The make a “to do” art list, works for me and I am happy to say, that this morning, I was back in the grove or was for at least a couple of hours while I tackled the start of a new painting.  Then I decided to take a break and order some art supplies.  In retrospect this was a bad decision.

Googled my way to two different online suppliers both whom I have used in the past.  I need some new matboard to re-frame some paintings for the new house. I easily found what I needed, added a couple of items to being the total up to the free shipping level and applied a discount coupon I had recently received.  “Sorry, but discount XYZZY cannot be applied to your items”.

Alright, Internet chat with someone to find out why.  It seems that the major items I wanted to purchase were already “on sale’ and no further discounts were possible. All this took 20 minutes of back and forth and left me in a bad frame of mind.  I was angry at the retailer about the discount and similar events from previous purchases.  So much for being “in the grove’.  All thoughts of making art were gone.

If you are ‘in the grove’ and making art, don’t stop unless the house is burning down around you, or some other life changing event is happening or about to happen.  Keep making art.  After the grove concludes naturally, or you exhaust yourself, or some external event ends the session, then is the time to pick up those mundane task like ordering art supplies, but not while you have that “I must make art” mindset and tempo.  It’s hard enough to get there with the distractions of the day so don’t voluntarily end a productive session for any trivial, trite, tasks that can wait until later.  YMMV

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Painter's Block

I have got Painter’s Block and I need help.  It’s my own fault; a self-inflicted injury. I stopped painting to study design of composition.  Then when I finally had a personal breakthrough, finding a compositional framework that worked for me, I found that I had difficulty in painting.  Not from lack of ideas but the actual act of painting.  I’ve had this blocked for a couple of years now.  I still paint, but nowhere as often or anywhere in the number of finished pieces I use to produce.

A number of changes in personal circumstance attenuated my Painter’s block. As Spring approached, I decided to find out if I could solve this problem and regain my mojo for painting. I Googled ‘painters block’ and uncovered some hints that helped me.

Robert Genn in “Fighting Painter’s block” said; “you have to try to figure out which species of block is getting to you”.  He described a number of different types of blocks you may encounter.

fear of failure after previous success: This one doesn’t appear to apply to me. The little I do paint is as good or better than previous paintings.  No fear of failure there.  Jill, my SO, agrees, particularly my use of colour which she thinks I have a totally new take on it.

fear of success due to a sense of unworthiness: This may be close in regards to unworthiness but it’s not on target regarding fear of success.  Elsewhere on the Internet I found a discussion of unworthiness in regards to self-doubt.  The suggestion was to write down one's self-doubts and feelings of unworthiness. Did that help?  In my case, it did.  Exploring Painter’s Block and writing about my own experiences of my own block helped to get me painting again.  If you have an artistic block of any sort, try writing about it and analyse your own blocking agents.  It helped me. Writing about your block can/may help you.

lack of potential venue: What?  I’m not worried about displaying the few paintings I have recently painted.  I just want to paint again.

jaded attitude:  Yes! It’s an attitude problem, but I don’t think I’m jaded but then...
jaded  adjective:  tired, bored, or lacking enthusiasm, typically after having had too much of something.  Lacking enthusiasm to paint.  Yes that is close to the point but not from having had too much painting.  I’ve had far too little.

crisis of confidence:  No!  From the little I paint, I’ve still know how and can produce if I can get started.  Getting started is part of my problem.  Even the mechanics of starting a painting is a problem for me and most of my materials are out and ready to hand.  I just have to walk into my study, pick them up and start.

evidence of persistent poor quality:  No also to this block!  People like what I paint. I like what I paint.  Quality may not be show-winner but is a damn site better than the average hobby painter from what I have seen locally at a number of different venues and online forums.

lackadaisical motivation:  lacking enthusiasm and determination; carelessly lazy.  Yes, lacking enthusiasm to paint and determination to get back and create and I guess I am lazy. No cancel that.  I am lazy.  Note to self:  You are not getting any younger.  Just get on and paint!

common everyday shortage of ideas: No problem here as I have far too many ideas to paint all of them in this lifetime.  My imagination has always exceeded my grasp and ability to execute.  I can recall trying to paint a tile-hot plate for my mother when I was 5 or so. I think it was Kindergarden but it may have been First grade.  I recall wanting to paint a sailboat, a cutter, under full sail.  What i painted was a child’s boat with sails and a smoke stack. A horrible mess that finally got lost in one of the many house moves we experienced before I finished high school. Never had a lack of ideas of things to draw or paint.

over intellectualizing:  We know so much and have learned so much but it doesn't come off the brush.  I have my doubts as to this being the root of my problems.  When I decide I need to apply my compositional framework and development methods it works.  My chances of success are better than any previous methods I have used but the passion comes from the application of paint.

Personal problems.  Creativity demands focus and it’s hard to concentrate if you’re getting divorced, dealing with toddlers, battling an addiction, falling out with your best friend, grieving someone special, moving house, locked in a dispute with a neighbor.

Yes! A 3 year legal battle for my SO to gain access to her grandson.  Emotional stress of coping with my SO’s son and his demands and rants.  House hunting and then I have the problem with SO being a negative muse.  There!  I’ve said it. Having said it, just today, she asked me to dig through some of my old paintings. I can’t remember why.  She found one of my failures and wants it framed! Not only framed, but she specified the colour of the mat! Then she saw #1 of my tree series; the Skeleton Tree and also wants it framed.  This negative-positive muse is going to be tough to work with and I realize that I am going to have to work with my SO as there doesn’t seem to be an alternative solution.

Along with all my stress related problems, there is one I didn’t mention.  I’m an Internet Addict. I need a 12 point plan to temper my addiction.  I managed it with alcohol.  Not reason I can’t control my Internet Addiction.

I’m not just talking about money, although a lack of cash is a perennial problem for creatives. You could also be time-poor, knowledge-poor, have a threadbare network, or be short of equipment or other things you need to get the job done.

I’m time poor and I have a non-existent Artists network.  Maybe it’s time to join a local arts society and attend their monthly meetings.

This one has two possible solutions: either save up the time/money/or other resources you need; or make a virtue of necessity and set yourself the creative challenge of achieving as much as possible within the constraints you have.

Saving up time?  You must be kidding.  That’s impossible.  Once the hour is past, there is no going back a re-living it.  It’s gone forever.  This made me realize that I was going to need to change my painting schedule.  When ms SO was still teaching, I had a 6-8 hour window each day to do as I pleased with zero distractions.  I’m not going to get that back.  I will have to work-paint within the constraints I have, and that may be doing the design and layout work on the kitchen peninsula downstairs and not in my ‘study’ or painting small passages where I can break off after a couple of minutes if necessary.

Overwhelm.Sometimes a block comes from having too much, not too little. You have too many great ideas.  … If you suffer from information overload, start blocking off downtime or focused work time in your schedule.

My creative vision and always exceed my ability to portray it.  I may be over intellectualizing but the alternative to having too many ideas seems to be an artistic dead end that should be avoided at all costs.  It only becomes a problem if I let it be the reason I’m not painting.  I don’t think it would be healthy to try and block or in anyway limit one’s creative vision.  It’s a distraction that I’m happy to live with.

Ignore uninformed feedback. Not everyone is equally qualified to serve as a judge of your work. Carefully select a knowledgeable instructor, a sensitive and experienced art appreciator, or another artist who shares your artistic viewpoint. The list won’t always include your spouse or best friend!

In the case of my SO, a single utterance can pronounce a death sentence on one of my paintings that is under development.  Even when she likes what she sees, her comments are not always helpful: “You should more of colour XYZZY in that painting”.  If I did, it wouldn’t be the painting I wanted to paint.  I just have to take the hit, pause for the pain to recede, and carry on painting my vision.

Limiting who you choose to take advice and criticism from may sound self-serving in that you only pick people who say kind things about art.  Not!  You are looking for critical advice to help grow.  Sugar coated comments will not help in this endeavour.  Then again overtly harsh comments art not beneficial.  Critical comments that point out weaknesses in your painting show where you have to improve and praise from the same source strengthen your resolve to continue painting.

One piece of advice that known to work is persistence.  Once you start to paint again, you feel that you can continue to paint.  Look for a visit by the dual muses, Passion and Excitement.  The more you paint the more you want to paint. Nothing succeeds like success.  This is where the magic of persistence kicks in. Nether reading about painting, thinking about painting, talking about painting nor staring at a blank canvas can overcome Painter’s Block.  You have to pick up a brush and paint. Painting will rekindle the Excitement and Passion you had about painting.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Concept or Image: Which comes first?

Over on WetCanvas, One of the more prolific contributors asked; "Which comes first for you: the image or the concept?  Do you begin with an idea or concept that you wish to express or communicate and develop your imagery to that end? Or do you begin with an image... perhaps not even knowing what the painting is about until it develops?".

Usually, I first have a concept in mind and develop the image from that concept.  This process works for me and I had usefulness reinforced in a it humorously but somewhat sad incident at an ‘Oil and Acrylic’ course at the local community centre I recently attended.  It has it been many years since I used Acrylics felt that these painting sessions might help me with this medium.  From past experience with the instructor and her classes, I didn’t expect much formal instruction but it was an opportunity to get out of the studio and talk to other painters and view their work.

I wasn’t disappointed with the instruction.  It follows the format of previous courses I attended with this instructor, in which she is circulating from student to student, mixing colours and painting passages for each ‘student’.  The subject of the painting being left to the student: usually a copy of a colour photograph from a magazine.  Most of her students accept and are happy with process and will stop and wait for her attention to a particular passage before proceeding to paint on their own  This is not instruction in my book, but at least she has the nounce to not try to paint my paintings for me.

At the time, I was working on my fifth painting in my Bardo series.  So far I have had four utter failures, of these “never show to anyone” class of painting but this had given me ample opportunity to become familiar with my subject material.  I was determined to succeed this time and was working my way through notan thumbnail compositions and a the occasional larger rough sketch of my latest concept.  Carol stopped to see what I was working on, but as I had not yet put brush to paper, she only had a salty comment that implied I did too much planning and would not finish my painting before the class was over in three months.

Her negativity didn’t distract me and I continued with my sketches. The image and the composition develops from rough sketches and notan.  In these I am looking to locate the major shapes, their placement on the picture plane, an interesting division of space and the format I will use.  I never spend more than a minute or so on any individual thumbnail notan. I try to see what works, including that in the next notan, and what doesn’t and leave that out.  Eventually I got to an acceptable composition and then did a larger and more detailed sketch.

Throughout this process, I am aware of how my sketches and notan relate to and refine my original concept.  If I have strayed too far from my original concept but have developed an interesting composition, I will usually stick with this new redefined concept-composition and paint a finished image from it.  Most likely the original idea was weak or flawed in some manner.

In this particular instance, I had, in my opinion, a workable composition that was in sync with my original concept.  I scaled it up to 15x22 inches and started with the first wash while in the class room.  I finished the background in watercolour in my studio and had only to paint the main building and some foreground trees with acrylics in the next class.  While I was painting these passages in the classroom, one of my fellow students came over and made some encouraging remarks on the colour and composition and asked, “Where’s the picture?”.

I showed her my preliminary notans and intermediate B/W sketches. “I could never paint without a picture”.  This lady was one of the more talented students with in my opinion good painting skills.  Sadly, from my perspective, this lady will limit herself to painting copies of photographs and never consider asking herself “Why am I attracted to this photograph so much I want to paint a copy of it?”.  Until she asks herself this question or is exposed to others who are doing their own composition inspired by their own concept, she will be limited to painting copies that someone else has composed.

Your concept is much more important than the image.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

More Thoughts on a Notan Design Process

Notans are for exploring visual design and composition.  They are fun, easy, and quick to do.  That makes it fun, easy and quick to try out a number of different compositions.  Forget about details for now.  You are trying to find an eye catching design, to use as a guide, to creating your eye catching painting.

Use your notan sketches to see the big important shapes in your subject.  Work from large to small, leaving out all details.  The details are not important at this point of picture development.  Try to identify the major shape.  Can any of the small shapes be moved or joined to other shapes?  If a shape prevents you from creating an interesting larger shape, consider eliminating it.  You don’t have to paint everything you see in front of you!  Use only what you need.  Edit your subject.  Just because something is in front in your still life or landscape doesn’t mean that you must copy that reality. You are the conductor.  Make your subject ‘play the tune’ in the tempo and key you choosing.  

A series of notans enables you to compare designs and choose one that best suits the story you want to tell.  Doing a single notan will not help much with the design process.  A series gives you time to learn more about you subject.  A series gives you time to see.  You have an opportunity to explore your ideas about how you want to present the subject.  Use the series to try out different motif, patterns, or themes.  This where you generate new visual ideas and test and refine them.  Let your drawings do your thinking.  Don’t stop to judge them.  Get your your ideas down on paper.  The good-great ones will obvious.

Don’t be concerned about making a mistake.  There is no great investment in materials for your notan sketches.  Just draw another frame and start on a new sketch.  If you are not happy with a particular design, start a new one with different shapes, distribution of values, or a different proportion of height to width.  Change your point of view.

Conversely, if you like a particular sketch, build on it by trying variations. Accentuate the strongest aspects of your design while de-emphasizing or eliminating the weaker aspects.

Make notes in the margins of your sketches.  direction of light, tone-mode of scene, smell and sights and sound  how do i feel  what feeling do I want to convey?  thoughts on titles!

I mentioned this previously.  I use a piece of mat with a rectangular hole in it to allow me to quickly draw a new frame for the next notan.  I have one small set that range in proportion from a square to a over long rectangle of 3:1 ratio.  In your explorations of composition, you might consider changing the layout proportions and-or the orientation: landscape or portrait.

I titled this section A Notan Design Process.  It isn’t The notan process.  The Notan Process, is the one that works for you.  It’s the one that you develop for yourself, retaining the useful and practical ideas while discarding the less appealing aspects.

Advice on advice:  Always feel free to accept, reject, ignore, and or modify any and all advice received to suit your own working process.  

Sometimes Notan doesn’t work!

There are two patterns in which Notan will not work. The gradient and the all over pattern or checkerboard.  Neither have a dominant underlying pattern. Also, Notan does not work well for low contrast or foggy-misty scenes.  Notan design can be elusive to artists who habitually over-think the details.

If two value notan doesn’t work or is found to not be working for a particular scene, try 3 value, then 4 or 5.  Then stop.  The scene may not make a good painting if you can’t find the abstract shape. Alternative thoughts:  The scene may still be good to paint but not a good fit any hierarchical format or abstract armature; a’la Jason Pollock, Jasper James, or even Frank Webb.  It may be a checkerboard-all over pattern, a Webb favorite or no pattern at all.

A Notan Checklist

  • A quick sketch of the dominant features of a scene.
    • Use a tool that makes bold marks. It encourages bold thinking.
    • 30 seconds to 5 minutes
    • quicker and bolder will be more likely to capture the essence of your subject
  • Small
    • your marks will be bolder and more direct
    • 2x3 inches is a good starting size
    • 3x5 if it works for you
    • Bigger if you must, but it takes more time and tempts you into too much detail
    • Draw in the same format as your support
      • try other formats
      • try out a ‘wrong’ orientation
  • 2 or 3 values  
    • Work with as few values as you are comfortable with.
    • If associating just dark and light is too confusing but try to limit yourself to no more than three values: a dark, middle and light
    • no more that 5 values max, otherwise you are into value sketches and not Notan
  • Do a series
    • build on the strengths of the previous sketch
    • eliminate or de-emphasis weakness
    • edit reality
  • Felt tip pens or brush pens work well
    • Use a pencil if you must, but don’t erase
  • critical to developing a strong painting
  • identify the most dominant shape
    • try to make it interesting
    • 5 to 9 shapes should be sufficient
  • identify the dominant value, the one that occupies more than 50%: light, mid, or dark
  • check balance of darks and lights
  • saves time before wasting paint on a weakly structured painting
  • Always prepare a notan study when assessing the viability of a scene

In closing, remember that Nōtan for Painters may not work for you.  It works for me, but I’m not you.  Take anything from this that works for you and leave behind anything that doesn’t.  It’s no use saddling yourself with a technique that doesn’t work for you, but give it a fair chance.

Challenge:  50 minutes to better compositions

Here is a challenge.  I want 50 minutes of your time.  Pick your subject.  Do one notan now. Tomorrow, do another, and the next day another.  Take only 60 seconds to make the sketch.  Think time is extra.  Continue with this process for 50 days making 50 sketches in total.  Each one based on the identical subject. You should a remarkable improvement in your design and compositions. Please let us know how you get on with the challenge.

All the best and enjoy the journey.


other references

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Notan for Painters

Arthur Wesley Dow’s book, ‘Composition: Understanding Line, Notan and Color’ defines Notan:

The term NOTAN, a Japanese word meaning “dark, light,” refers to the quantity of light reflected, or the massing of tones of different values. Notan-beauty means the harmony resulting from the combination of dark and light spaces—whether colored or not—whether in buildings, in pictures, or in nature. Careful distinction should be made between NOTAN, an element of universal beauty, and LIGHT AND SHADOW, a single fact of external nature.

So we have a Japanese art term meaning dark-light, massing of different values, in a beautiful, harmonious combination.  Notan for painters has its roots in this classical Japanese notan.  We create our notan sketches-thumbnails in darks and lights.  We also try to create a harmonious balance between the dark and light values, but there are differences when we use notan for the development of a painting.
  • Notan for painters a simplified version of Japanese notan used in the design and composition of a painting.
  • You are allowed to, even encouraged to, use more than just black and white.
  • Generally, in traditional Japanese notan, there is an equal balance between darks and lights. This is neither necessary nor desirable when using notan to develop a painting.
  • Many classical notan images contain symmetry or partial symmetry which is not usually useful nor helpful when designing a painting.
  • Notan for painters also adds consideration for the balance positive and negative shapes and the division of space in the picture plane.
  • Notan for painters is just the first step rather than an end result, although the notan design sketch may be a picture in itself.
A notan sketch is quick to produce.  It only takes a minute or so to do one and you can quickly explore a number of different compositions with them.

Two Value Notan
Two value notan, black and white, is notan in it’s simplest form.  Just two values may make this form of notan the most difficult to master.  This two value limitation makes it necessary for you to consider your composition in terms of its most basic shapes and patterns.  It simplifies the value range of your subject into black and white shapes.  With no mid-tone shapes, you must collect all the shapes into either the light or the dark family shapes.  It is important that the shapes inside each family are linked together.  This is also referred to as massing. This linking of shapes will unify your composition.  If they cannot be linked you need to insure that they form a pleasing and eye catching pattern.  

"If any shape cannot be connected to another shape of similar value it's better to eliminate it.”  --Carl Purcell

Two value notan sketches excel at helping you discover the underlying abstract design of the scene before you.  “Abstract!”, I hear you say.  “I paint landscapes/still life/portraits/name YOUR favorite genre. I don’t paint Abstracts!”.  In reply, I ask you, “Do you paint the shadows of the trees/pots/planes of the face?”  Draw or paint the shadows without the casting object and you have an abstract shape.  Even the most photorealist painters uses abstract shapes.

Thanks to the kind permission of Marcos Mateu-Mestre, I am able to include three of his notans which I believe are some of the finest and demonstrate the quality that can be achieved in two value notan. 

This first sketch and notan introduces the subject: a train

The notan rendering of the train is distilled into just a few shapes.  The train itself and the rails on which it is running.  The remainder is either background or foreground.

As the train moves closer, it dominates the scene.

Just 4 simple shapes convey the strength and power of the train, sky and other elements of this scene.

The final viewpoint is an extreme closeup of the train engine.

This notan is about the energy and power we feel as the train speeds past.

Framed Ink-copyright: Marcos Mateu-Mestre available from Design Studio Press:
Notan vs Value Sketches
You can easily see the difference between Notan and a Value sketch.  Here is a value sketch of a sphere.

...and a Notan of the same.

Notan, distills the scene into its basic elements, their relation to each other, and their position on the picture plane: the simple structure of your painting.  Essentially, its composition.  In this respect, notan is much more than a value sketch with a limited number of values.  Even though notan uses values, and these values may be related to the light or dark areas of your subject, the object of your notan sketches is to create a powerful but simple design that will attract the eye from across the room. 

More than just black and white
It is not possible to accurately record the actual value relationships of a scene using two value notan.  Three value notan, black, white, and grey is almost as good at locating the armature/structure as  two value notan.  Three value notan also allows you a greater fluency of values.  You may be thinking, “If I can get greater fluency with three values, maybe I should try 4 or more values?”  Do what works for you, but here is a caution.  The more values you use, the more you depart for the core strengths of notan and the more you are entering into the realms of value sketches.  Use value sketches if that is what works for you but recognise that value sketches may disguise or hide the underlying structure and hinder your efforts to create an interesting abstract framework and consequently weaken your composition.
  • If two value notans don’t work for you try three value notans: black, white and mid-grey.
  • If three value notans don’t work for you try four value notan: black, white, light grey, and dark grey.
  • If four value notans don’t work for you try five value notan: black, white, light grey, mid-grey, dark grey.
  • If five value notans don’t work for you, STOP!  Notan is not for you, or is not for the particular subject you have chosen. 
A Notan Design Process
Let go of the idea that your Notan will be a representational drawing.  Details and representational value sketches will come later.  First you want to find that abstract shape and interesting balance of light and dark that will catch the eye from across the room. This is where Notan excels.  It doesn’t matter what you choose for a subject nor the values, colours, nor details that you will add later.  If you base your painting on a strong and balanced Notan design you will paint a strong and balanced painting.

I prefer do my notan sketches using felt tip pens, a black and a mid-grey on white paper.  You can use almost anything that can make a bold broad mark.  Broad stroke making tools makes you think about the larger shapes.  I suggest you avoid fine line markers and thin pencils.  They can  encourage linear thinking and/or a digression into detail, neither of which is desirable when creating compositional studies.  

By limiting myself to just two pens, I only have to decide if a shape is white, black, or something else.  I don’t get caught up in wondering whether to use a light grey, mid-grey, or dark grey for a particular shape.  If it not black nor white, it’s grey.  The big chisel end of the pen discourages adventures in detail while allowing you a variety of different strokes depending on which edge is used.  Yes, you could use a broad, soft pencil, but you might be tempted to erase. Don’t erase.  Just draw another frame and build on the previous drawing.  Keep the best bits and try to improve them.

One word of advice if you decide to use felt tip pens: For the midtone choose a lighter value grey, otherwise you notan will appear too dark.  

Start by drawing a frame, a border, that has the same proportion as your chosen support.  Give pause as to whether a Portrait or Landscape orientation should be used. Try both!  I cut a rectangular hole, about 2 inches by 3 inches, in piece of mat board.  It’s about the same ratio as a ¼ sheet or full sheet of watercolour paper.  It serves two purposes; a) I can quickly trace a new frame for my next notan and b) it can be used as a viewfinder.

When first starting out with notan, you may find it easier to begin with a simple line drawing of your subject and then selectively fill in the grey or black shapes where appropriate.  As you become familiar with notan drawing, try to directly shade in the dark shapes.  Your notan should contain 5 to 9 shapes.  Try to complete your first notan in 5 minutes or less.

Draw a second frame in the same orientation and size as your first.  Consider:
  • Do I have a dominant shape?
  • Are my shapes interesting?
  • Do I have a dominant value?
  • Do I have an unequal division of space?
Pick one of the above that you consider missing or weak in your first notan, and correct this in your second sketch.  Work small and do a series of notans.  It’s difficult (impossible) to settle on a particular design-composition on the basis of just one sketch.  You need at least two, so you have something to compare your chosen sketch against.  It’s even easier to pick the ‘best’ notan from a group of sketches.  Notans do not cost much in time or materials, so repeat as often as necessary.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Thoughts on Visual Design and Composition

The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. `Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?' he asked. `Begin at the beginning,' the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.'   -- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

If The White Rabbit were discussing painting composition: where to begin?  How to begin?

For the past couple of years, I've been searching for guidelines/rules/suggestions/NYFCN(Name Your Favourite Composition Noun) on how to compose a painting. I found and studied the 7 elements and the 8 principles, centres of interest, Fibonacci, golden ratio/rectangle/spot, the rule of thirds, value studies, and various composition checklists.  I located more than 100 websites with design or visual composition information.  Some very good; others not so good.  I don’t know how many art books I read in addition to the 30 or so books I purchased.  In all these resources, I never found a visual compositional framework until I obtained a copy of Ian Roberts' Mastering Composition, via my local library.

Early in his book, Ian introduces The Foundation of the Painting, and illustrations that contains the five planes of a picture.
  1. The Dynamics of the Picture Plane. Each proportion and scale of every painting-square, vertical or horizontal-has a special dynamic that affects and is affected by every mark or shape you put on it. The edges of your picture plane are the four most important lines in your composition since they, in the most basic sense, define the foundation you are starting with.
  2. Armature. The fundamental lines of direction or flow that connects the man compositional movement to the picture plane.  
  3. Abstract Shapes. The building blocks of the painting. Each shape is interacting with every other shape. This really is where the success or failure of the painting lies.
  4. Subjects. Bottles, mountains, kids on the beaches/
  5. Details. Highlights, wrought-iron street lamps and almost anything else painted with a little pointed brush.
Ian comments on picture plane 1-3: "This is where the real artistic thinking has to occur before you start to paint", and on points 4-5: "This is often where inexperienced painters focus their attention. The result is a lack of artistic clarity and drama in their paintings".

This is where I first started to understand visual composition. These five bullet points present a nearly complete visual design framework.  When I went back and reviewed Whitney, Brandt, Webb, Wade, Couch and others, I could see they were saying much the same thing, but with the clarity nor as concisely as Ian states it. This was a major learning event for me.  I knew I now had a framework for composition that I understood and could apply to my paintings. The proverbial light bulb was lit. Decide the format and size (Plane 1), select and apply an abstract armature (Plane 2), block in the major abstract shapes (Plane 3), refine these shapes into subjects (Plane 4) and add the details (Plane 5). Absolutely Fantastic! Five steps. Big steps no doubt, but a framework I understood and one I could work inside of.

Just as there is a spectrum of techniques and materials to make art, there exists a spectrum of composition methodologies and design tools.  This is one that works for me.  To the next person, this may appear as so much dross.  As they say in the promo ads “Your mileage may very” (YMMV).