"ART is a word which summarizes THE QUALITY OF COMMUNICATION. "
L. Ron Hubbard

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Chapter 3: form

Here is the rough beginning of the next chapter of my proposed workbook. Any comments, suggestions, questions are appreciated. I will be out of town for a few weeks soon, and probably will not be able to start the chapter on color until my return.

Value is the primary way we perceive form. In fact, some teachers will tell you that the “focal point” of a painting is the spot of greatest contrast. Through form, line and value, we begin to perceive depth on the flat plane. Color with its attributes is another aspect that I will discuss later.

Often, our perception of form in the world around us is not a “cut-and-dried” thing. It is a matter of closure. We perceive something that signals a “form” and we apprehend it (comprehend it) as a car, or a jar or a tree. Closure is the ability of the mind to complete a pattern or picture where only suggestion exists.

But your “trained” perception can lead you astray as a creative artist. When you were a child, you may have been taught by adults “how to draw a house or an apple.” Thereafter, you have established a mental symbol for house or apple to work from. That leads you to assume that, when you are looking at an apple, etc., you should supply the symbol. But I am asking you to look for yourself, look newly. If you understand that concept of closure, you can use it as needed without being restrained by past symbols.

There’s a great example of a mis-represented form in the book The Little Prince by Saint-ExupĂ©ry. The little prince draws a picture. It looks like a hat – one of the kind that men used to wear in the thirties. But actually, it is a picture of a snake who has swallowed an elephant.

“I showed my masterpiece to the grown-ups, and asked them whether the drawing frightened them.

But they answered: "Frighten? Why should any one be frightened by a hat?"

My drawing was not a picture of a hat. It was a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. But since the grown-ups were not able to understand it, I made another drawing: I drew the inside of a boa constrictor, so that the grown-ups could see it clearly. They always need to have things explained.”

Friday, January 30, 2009

Mixing two colors to get gray

At this point, I would like you to explore the use of two colors and white to mix your grey tones. Select burnt Sienna, ultramarine and titanium white. Burnt sienna and ultramarine blue, mixed in proper proportions, make a good dark color—a black. Mixed with varying amounts of white, this mixture makes all the intermediate grays. I’d like you to use this mixture for the remaining exercises in value and, subsequently, form, because it gets you used to mixing color and away from the use of black paint.

Please understand, that I have nothing against black. It is useful, when the object you are painting is in fact black. But too often, the beginning student uses black to darken color. In this workbook, I want you to discover other ways to darken color while not dulling it.

In this exercise, you begin mixing color to produce grey. You should have white, ultramarine blue, and burnt sienna on your palette. If you mix the blue and the sienna in the right proportions, you get a good black. Combining with white will produce all your intermediate gray tones. Set up a simple still life with good directional lighting. Concentrate on translating it as a drawing using only 3 values, a dark, a medium and a light tone. Mix the three tones on the palette, using the palette knife in order to restrict yourself.

To get a good distribution of values throughout the painting from very light to very dark values, it is useful to start with a medium-toned ground. If working with oils, I recommend mixing a medium grey and covering the canvas evenly and letting it fry a sufficient amount of time. (Hint: if you want to do this, raw umber mixed with flake white or underpainting white gives you the fastest drying time and a nice warm gray. I know, I know, I didn’t include these colors on the supply list. Get over it.) An alternative is to use gray gesso or black gesso mixed with white gesso. Most canvases are prepared these days using white gesso. Try to get a gray that is midway between black and white.

The reason it is useful to work on a toned ground is that, if you start to apply values to a white canvas, the white of the canvas acts as part of the tonal composition and you are liable to find yourself working too dark or too light overall.

Alternate exercise:
If you want to practice working on a medium toned ground, You can start with a medium grey paper and use black and white chalks.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Value is relative

NOTE: In this post, I continue the discussion on value with some exercises included. I am having to post the putative "book" backwards, since the blog scrolls down. You may want to go back to prior posts and review from the beginning.

I have said that value is relative. This is a point that you should give some importance to. Since your ability to perceive or depict differences of value may be limited, you may have to exaggerate the differences in tone in two adjoining forms or spaces.

Set up a simple still life with strong directional lighting. Concentrate on translating it as a drawing using only 3 flat values, a dark, a medium and a light tone. For this exercise, you may want to mix the three values on the palette, using the palette knife. I don't usually encourage use of the palette knife, and I’ll explain why in the Chapter on color. However, for this exercise, it comes in handy to have three distinct values. You can also do this exercise using a soft lead pencil, ink washes or other media that will give three distinct values. Or, you can use torn paper again, using white, black and medium grey.

Many successful landscape painters train themselves to visualize the landscape in four broad tones: dark, light and 2 middle grays.

As an exercise, limiting yourself to just 4 tones, do an interpretation of a landscape (or still life if it’s winter). For quick sketching, you may want to look into purchasing a set of grey markers. These can be found at any good art supply store on on-line art supply store. They even come in “warm” and “cool” grays.

Once, when I was a student, I was given the skull of a very small animal and told to spend the semester doing a rendition of the tones I saw on a piece of paper that covered one wall of the studio. I was allowed to use warm and cool grays and given some discretion as to how flat I made the forms. A copy of it follows and I have reproduced it in both its warm and cool grays and reduced to just gray scale.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Value, Continued

It is often asserted that value is the most important design element in a painting. To “demonstrate” this for yourself, notice that, if you take a black and white print of a “good” painting and a black and white print of a “so-so” or bad painting, you will see, usually, that the “good” painting has sharp differentiation of light and dark areas. This high contrast creates impact. You can even test this out with your own work. Take a photo of something you’ve worked on and get it reproduced in black and white. Does it have contrast? What could you do to improve it?

On the other hand, an artist can “break” this rule and effectively use “high key” or “low key” painting to create a mood. Key refers to the overall value of a painting. A high key painting is mostly pale, such as paintings of misty coastlines. Monet frequently painted in mostly pale colors. On the other hand, Ryder often painted night paintings which were mostly somber. This is called a low key painting. A painting can be low-key and high contrast or high-key and high contrast. For example, Ryder’s night paintings of the sea containing a moon were low key but high contrast.

The most limited tonal exercise (and fun to do), is to take black construction paper and tear it up into pieces of different sizes and shapes. Position these on a piece of white paper until you have something that is pleasing to you. (Don’t worry about this, please.) You can glue the pieces down with white glue or an acid-free glue stick (available from Office Depot.)

Look around for a landscape or still life and do a painting or drawing that is high-key and low contrast. Observe what you are doing to achieve this and write it down.

Monday, January 26, 2009


The word value is interesting. It’s origin is Latin, and its basic meaning is strength or worth. In art, value is the relationship of one part of a composition to another in terms of lightness or darkness. Color has value. We’ll deal first with just the value of light and dark as shades of grey.

Value is often also referred to in art as tone. However, the word tone has more varied meanings and can be confusing.

It’s important to note that, while value ranges from brightest white to darkest black in a continuous scale in nature, the artist has maybe 9 or 10 easily distinguishable shades between white and black. Because of that, the artist actually has to “lie” in painting to establish relationships in value. Value, in other words, is relative. (Here, by the way, is where color comes in handy. It can be effective to use color to distinguish an edge where the value of tangential fields is the same.)

To discover this for yourself, do a value scale, using any media—pencil, charcoal, ink, paint—in a series of 9 distinct steps from black to white. Start by delineating 5 steps: white, light grey, medium grey, dark grey and black. Now try to delineate at least 9 steps.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Types of line drawing exercise

The following are some ideas for exercises that I would want students to do as part of the chapter on Line in the book Art Basics (working title.)

Maybe you have some more ideas.

Outline drawing:
Using any drawing implement, do a simple outline drawings of an object, a cup, a profile, an animal. Notice how the line defines the edge of the object. Use of line as simple outline has limitations. Some outlines aren’t descriptive. You need to “go into” or explore the form. For instance, while you can easily get the idea of a horse running by his outline, the outline of a head of hair doesn’t describe the face.

Contour drawing:
Do a "contour drawing" of an object or face. (This can also be a "blind contour drawing") You are familiar with contour maps. Treat the object you decide to draw as if it were geographical, and your drawing instrument a moving point (perhaps an ant) on the surface of that object. The effect can be quite interesting.

A blind contour drawing is done by putting the drawing implement on the page and then, looking at the model or object and not the page, moving the line around as if it were touching the surface of the model.

Reverse outline:
Any type of drawing media will work for this exercise. Try setting up a still life with clearly defined objects or locate a space in your house where there is a grouping of objects. Now, instead of drawing the objects, draw the space around the objects. Make it interesting. (Note: it, too, may contain objects and you can draw those, or it may be empty, in which case, just draw the outline. But leave the OBJECTS blank. The purpose of this exercise is to increase your awareness of the negative space in a composition.)

Calligraphic line drawing
Line is often a sort of “shorthand” for identifying an object. In this sense, it replaces value (which we discuss in the next chapter. Since it describes an edge of form, it may need to be flexible. In other words, a line drawn with a technical pen (which has an invariable width) doesn’t convey the softness and hardness of edge. The Japanese and Chinese have used calligraphic drawing to good effect. When you paint, you can incorporate the use of line as a calligraphic element. Drawing with a nib pen or brush and ink also gives you a flexible line. If you can get the idea that a bold broad line gives a strong edge and a slim or light line indicates a “weak” edge, you can use line to good effect. For example, a strong line under an object sitting on a surface increases the sense of weight. A weak line or thin line between two objects allowsthe eye to move from one to the other (much as similar values allow the eye to “escape” from one to the other object. I’ll discuss the questions of “edges” further in the chapter on value.

Use a brush with ink or paint to “draw” an object or objects, making the line vary in width and strength.

In teaching the beginning student, I often make the student avoid the use of line at first. This is not because line is an undesirable element in painting, but because the student has gotten so used to using line to describe the form that he doesn’t fully appreciate the importance of value. And that is the subject of the next chapter.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Using line as a visual element

The simplest element for defining space on the flat surface is line. Line, the simple line, is how we sketch. It is the basis of calligraphy. Egyptian hieroglyphics and early drawings on Greek pottery used line as their primary tool. Line is very much linked to communication of language. Line is an element that is vital to the artist, and it is too often ignored. We want to get on to the richness of color. But line can be an important descriptive element in a composition. You should get used to sketching. Carry a sketchbook with you. The book The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron advised writers to “journal” at least 6 pages each day. I would advise visual artists to sketch at least 15 minute a day.

In this workbook, (the one that I am writing, I hope) I am not going to speak of how you should hold the brush or pen, how to stretch paper, how to sit or stand, or methods of translating the dimensions of what you see onto the paper. There are books that do that and that do a good job of it. What I’d like to teach you is to LOOK. There is a value to looking at what is in front of you and putting marks on a surface. There is also a value to achieving accuracy, but it can be over-rated. I’ve noticed that many of today’s watercolorists use overhead projectors to cast an exact image of a still life or landscape onto a surface and then carefully “stay within the lines.” To me (and this is personal philosophy) there is a value in the distortions that a painter may add to a painting. If you want a representation of what the camera shows you, use a camera.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The “Basics” of Art

If I had to break art down into its “basics,” its abstract elements, I would say they consist of line, value (lightness and darkness), form, color, depth, and composition. I plan to address each of these in the workbook I am working on. And then I will include some words on “beyond the basics.”

As students have again and again expressed to me that they felt that they lacked “the basics,” the intent of my workbook will be to help them get oriented. Georgia O’Keefe said "It is surprising to me to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract. Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or a tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree. It is line and colors put together so that they say something."

There are many worthwhile how-to books available on the market. I plan to include a bibliography of some I am familiar with.

But this will be primarily a book intended to break down the basics so that you can practice them with suggested exercises that I hope you will use to improve your skill.

If you have not previously painted, you will need some supplies. I will include suggested supply lists for acrylic painters and oil painters in the appendix. I will also reference some websites of art supply companies.

Monday, January 19, 2009


I mentioned communication in my post on Control and Creativity. I think that’s a factor in doing art. You want to communicate something to someone. We went through a period when the teachers and critics advocated “art for art’s sake.” But art is a communication. It either communicates well or badly. I will say that there are two aspects to painting: 1) the process and 2) the product. The process is important to you. There is a joy to just the process of putting paint to paper and seeing the result. There’s also, sometimes, a fear: “am I going to ruin this?” or “What ever possessed me to think that I was an artist?” The product is the “finished” work. But, in actuality, even the product is not a “finished” work. Each time a viewer looks at it, he or she contributes his experience to that painting. You might say that it is an ongoing communication between you and the audience. The viewer contributes to the art.

Your purpose in painting may be affected by your idea of what art IS. Deciding that art IS only this or that limits your ability to paint. Students get ideas that they can’t create because of some difficulty with the basics (“I can’t draw,” or “I don’t understand how to mix color” or “I don’t understand composition,” “or simply “I don’t know what to paint.”

As an exercise, you might want to go to the library (or bookstore) and look at books on the history of art. Notice many different examples of art. Or, go to an Art Museum and, emptying your mind of preconceived ideas, look at some kinds of art that you normally wouldn’t consider art.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Saying what you have to say

On my last post, David King (fellow Blogger) commented "You're done when you've communicated it, but that's the bit you do not know!"

I think his comment is very valid. I will think on how to communicate that to potential readers of my book without getting too complex. I’m trying, mainly, to provide a book that will get people “doing” their art, not worrying too much—at first—about the product. So it focuses on the process, which is more directed at the “do-er.”

Monday, January 12, 2009

Control and Creativity

The following is part of the intro to my upcoming art basics book. (Copyright by me).

There is no limitation on creating. The artist belies the physical scientist's manifesto on the conservation of matter and energy with its implicit idea that nothing is ever really created or destroyed. On the contrary, take three artists and direct them to paint the same still life and you will get three different still lifes. Put pen, paint or crayon to paper and you have created something. So all is potential. From that as a starting point, you can work on professionalism and the quality of communication.

To understand creativity, you need to understand control. Control is the ability to start, change or stop something. While it may seem that creativity is most linked to starting, in fact, all three points of control involve creation. If you start a work of art, you must continue to create and finish it in order to have a product. For many artists, Stop is the most difficult factor. They don’t know when to stop, and will go on painting and painting, hoping that the teacher will tell them when they’re done. I have a practical solution to this problem. You’re done when you’ve said what you wanted to say. That’s your product.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Talent and Competence

The following is part of the introduction to the book I'm writing. (copyright etc.)

For some reason, many people have a sort of mystical belief that, in the field of visual arts, either they have talent or they might as well pack it up. Yet these same people will admit that they wouldn’t expect to sit down at a piano or pick up a guitar and immediately know how to play it. The musician, the singer, the professional in any field, knows that it requires development of one’s skills to gain competence.

Competence is, to my mind, more important than innate talent. You have the ability to develop your skill. And you develop that skill by looking for yourself, learning what you need to know (the basics of art) and practicing routinely. (You can learn more about this in Chapter 17 of The Way to Happiness. Write me and I will send you a copy. )

The word skill is interesting, because its original use denoted not a physical accomplishment but the mental capacity to make distinctions. It was borrowed from the old Norse word, skil, meaning distinction, discernment, knowledge. And indeed, when you have an understanding of the tools, materials and components of visual art, you can use or break the “rules” to create the effects you want.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Part of the introduction to my upcoming book

The Parable of the Talents

Talent is today defined as natural ability or aptitude. People throw the word around: “He has talent,” “I have no talent.” The origin of the word is important. In Biblical times, a talent was a weight or monetary unit—money, in other words. And what is money? Money is a medium of exchange.

Talent apparently came to mean ability or aptitude because of the Parable of the Talents, a story attributed to Jesus in the Bible (Matthew 25:14-30.) It’s a fascinating story. A man left three servants with differing amounts of money (talents) when he went on a trip. One buried it, but two invested it and had more talents. He rewarded the two who doubled their talents and threw the third into the street.

So be warned: if talent is a word standing for natural ability, it is still up to you to develop that ability you have.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Update to start the new year

I just wanted to give you an update on what I am up to. I felt, with the economic downturn, that I needed to develop some low-cost products that could be offered to friends, former buyers and students. I discovered a wonderful "Print-on-demand" website, lulu.com.

One item is a 12-month calendar for 2009 with one of my pictures (beautifully produced) matching each month ($20). It's a flip-down calendar so that each month displays the calender on a separate 8.5 x 11 page below a full page photo of a painting.

The other product is a 40-page coloring book (32 illustrations in black and white, $15) of a poem by Dean called "The Doll's Journey." The poem, in blank verse, tells of a little girl who lost her doll. Only a man she meets tells her the doll is not actually lost but just on a trip. The man proceeds to write her letters. There is a wonderful surprise ending. The idea for the poem came from a footnote in a biography of that great writer of children's stories, Franz Kafka. What the mysterious young man in this poem does, Kafka is said to have done in 1923 in Berlin toward the end of his being Kafka.

We are now working on a perfect bound volume of Dean's poetry letter called "Deanotations," issues 1-20. It will be approximately 125 8.5 by 11 pages. Should be finished and published later this month. This poetry letter was produced from 1984 to 2004 and consisted of a total of 110 issues containing Dean's poetry and my illustrations.

In the longer term, I am working on a book of Art Basics and Exercises intended for my students and others who either have been mystified by some aspect of the art process ("I just don't understand color") or just want a sort of workbook that they can use to improve their skills. This book will be in Black and White (unfortunately) because it would be prohibitively expensive to produce in color. My solution is to produce a computer-readable version on CD that a buyer can ask for and have sent for just the cost of a small production fee and mailing cost. Or—alternatively—I could post the color version on the web for download. What do you think?

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