Welcome to Compose. There's lots of stuff here, all about composing paintings.

Consider this blog a resource and feel free to browse its contents through the Subjects and Archives categories in the left column.

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Saturday, May 21, 2016

Avoiding Visual Cacophony

We know it when we hear it, but what do our eyes do when we see it? Cacophony!  Vocabulary.com says this: "A cacophony is a jarring, discordant mix of sounds that have no business being played together. When the orchestra tunes up before a show, it sounds like a cacophony because each musician is playing a completely different tune, at different times, and at different volumes."  

Although each of our senses has a unique function, they communicate in concert so it is not out of line to apply one sense's definition to another.  Here's an example of visual cacophony that might fit very well with vocabulary.com's definition.
From an artist's viewpoint, if our resource is in clutter, it has visual cacophony. That doesn't mean it is unusable, but it does require some clearing out of junk before selecting and placing images we want to work with.  In other words, rather than use everything we see, we'd do better to decide what needs to be left out.  

This image is visual cacophony.  The llamas might be the subject or the tree or the house, but the scene with all these images from this point of view is cluttered.  

We can begin by taking out everything except the llamas, the front fence and the upper parts of the big trees.  Already, it feels like we can breathe.  The cacophony is gone and instead, we have visual clarity.  We have cleared the clutter.
The key to avoiding visual cacophony is to make an intuitive decision about what is important, then be willing to leave out anything that doesn't in some way help give clarity to the subject without sacrificing interest.  It's a kind of visual purging of the resource.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

That Fascinating Golden Ratio

The Golden Ratio was used by the Greeks beginning around 400 B.C and it is suspected that the Egyptians used the principle to design the pyramids long before that.  It is a proportion ratio from length to width of 1 to 1.618.  It can be found in growth patterns within plants, sea creatures, the human body, microscopic cells and the entire universe.  It is so effective that in addition to the visual arts, it is used in music, in science, in mathematics, and even in industry.

It is an incredible mathematical ratio that in some mysterious way seems to harmonize with the human psyche. The Golden Rectangle is built on this ratio. In fact, this shape is so aesthetically charged that architects and other artisans have depended upon it to design their constructions and painters have relied upon it for their image placement ever since it was discovered.


Volumes have been written about the Golden Ratio.  But what is important for us to understand is how we can use it in placing our images.  Artists over the centuries have discovered that placing according to two principles--rabatment and rule of thirds--can give a close approximation to the same aesthetic balance achieved when using the Golden Ratio.

I am exploring these two methods in our new series of video tutorials, Selecting & Placing.  Lesson one shows how to use rabatment, lesson 2 shows aligning images with the intersections of rule of thirds, lesson 3 uses rabatment for helping clear clutter and lesson four aligns with the verticals and horizontals of rule of thirds for finding hidden compositions.   Rather than follow these as rules, I prefer using them as tools for expanding our creative choices.  

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Thinking with a Color Wheel

Learning to think with a color wheel can take a lot of guess work out of getting the right color while painting.  First, we train ourselves to call colors we see by their hues rather than common names. For example, some might name the color of these stacked rocks beige, but what hues do we see?

If identifying the hues eludes you, hold up a color wheel next to the subject.  Close your eyes for a few seconds then, open your eyes and without thinking, name the wheel's hues that feel closest to the subject's hue.  Don't allow yourself to THINK about it.  Just respond.

Test It
     Rarely do we see hues at their fullest saturation, so we might need to make some adjustments.  If we don't have a tube color of the intensity we need, our next move is to reduce the saturation with a complement.  Here are the steps I suggest for testing out the hues you named.
Step 1:  Find a tube color closest to hue.
Step 2:  If it is darker than the subject, adjust its value with white.
Step 3:  Find a tube color closest to its complement.  If you don't have that color, mix it.  
Step 4:  If the mixture is darker than the subject's hue, raise its value with white.
Step 5:  Gradually bring the complement mixed in Step 4 into the value adjusted mix in Step 2.  That should tell you if your correctly named the hue.

color wheel  

After a series of experiences like this, we can automatically read a color by the wheel.  The payoff is that while painting, when we see a color about which we are uncertain, we can "think with the color wheel" and easily find it.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Setting Up a Limited Palette

Let's play with color.  The photo below has in it a number of colors.  Coming up with a limited palette scheme for this can take us on an enlightening adventure.  

A limited palette that follows a scheme has inherent harmonizing potential.  But knowing how to find that scheme can be challenging.  Here's a four-step process I use:

1.  Identify visible hues
The major hues I see (top to bottom) are blue, yellow-green, yellow and orange.

2.  Begin with one or two hues you see.  I'm choosing two--blue and yellow that I can combine for a third hue I see, yellow-green.
Blue + yellow=green, giving me a range from yellow to yellow green to green to blue green to blue.

So it looks like both Ultramarine Blue and Hansa Yellow Light could be candidates to yield at least three hues I see--blue, yellow and yellow-green.  

3. Find these chosen hue's complements
The complement of blue is orange, so I can add to the palette
Quinacridone Burnt Orange (a good candidate because mixed with hansa yellow light, it will produce the oranges I see plus provide a range of darks)
The complement of yellow is purple, possibly Dioxozine Purple. (This will give a range from yellow to yellow ochre to brownish purple to purple as well as a good range of values).

4.  Test the scheme
     By doing these steps, I've come up with a possible limit palette scheme of blue, orange, yellow and purple--two sets of complements that, when I plot them on the color wheel, show up as a double split complementary scheme.  JOILĂ€!

A double split complementary scheme is any two sets of complements formed from colors on either side of a single set of complements.
Mixing with these complements plus white, I can get the lower intensity hues I see, especially in the vase and on the rock window casing.
    Just to be sure, I squeeze out onto the palette these choices along with white and explore all the possible hue, value and intensity mixes I can come up with from various combinations of Ultramarine Blue, Hansa Yellow Light, Quinacridone Burnt Orange, Dioxazine Purple and Titanium White.  THERE'S where I begin to see potential.

   If you'd like to learn more about ways to work with color schemes, take a look at Series 10, four video tutorials on Transposing Color found HERE.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Why Notan?

Let's take a little journey with notan.
Using this photo as our subject without doing a notan study, we might ignore some key shadow patterns that unite the composition.  Because we know there is white on both horses and a light colored fence behind them, we might not notice that the majority of the fence is in shadow and that portions of the white of the horses also are in shadow just as portions of their dark colors are in light.  Neither might we see that terrible tangent where the top of the horses' backs mesh with the bottom fence line back of the pasture.
Any strategy that causes us to refocus our attention enables us to discover things that otherwise we might not see.  By switching our focus from horses to shadow shapes, not allowing ourselves to see the images themselves, we discover an inner-connectedness within the fields of light and the fields of shadow.

Notice how the upper field of light merges into one shape when we get rid of the tangent by lowering the edge of the pasture shape.  And notice the pattern of not-in-shadow that emerges when we acknowledge the light on the dark colors of the frontal horse.
Notice how the upper field of light merges into one shape when we get rid of the tangent by lowering the edge of the pasture shape.  And notice the pattern of not-in-shadow that emerges when we acknowledge the light on the dark colors of the frontal horse.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Translating Notan Excerpts

Notan: A Creative Journey

The subject is Herefords grazing.  One cow is looking out at the audience while the other three go about their business.  Light coming from the left joins with shadows entering from the bottom and upper right to create the context within which we see these subjects in their environment.  This interrelating of shadow and light creates the Notan of the scene. 


Notan is a Japanese word meaning dark-light.  Its original visual use was to create two-dimensional designs in black and white, the purest and most ancient we know being the yin yang symbol.

The Notan concept relating to visual thinking didn't enter western art until the 19th century when we believe it was introduced by Oriental art scholar, Ernest F. Fenollosa.  In the early 1920s, American artist and teacher, Arthur Wesley Dow, a colleague of Fenollosa, was the first to apply Notan as a principle to Western art in his book, Composition.  In this text he attempts to blend the Eastern concept of dark/light with the Western approach to negative/positive.

But Dow was handicapped by the mainstream trend of his time.  Consequently, his efforts could not transcend that attitude beyond abstraction.  With that era's concern being two-dimensional space rather than a translation of images within space, shadow as a construct of light was not a consideration.  He took the idea of Notan as far as he could within the context of his time.  We sometimes forget that during the Abstraction Expressionist era, shadow and light gave way to negative-positive shapes and value relationships.  

What Dow did though was to introduce an idea that has become a valuable tool for realistic painters today.  Even though he could not quite see the Notan construct in the natural world, subsequent artists have seen it clearly.  Like any discovery, this one began with an insight that eventually became a working tool.  Today we understand it as a principle with which we can comprehend shadow and light and one we can use to undergird the composing process.

Winter Morning on the Tallulah   Oil on Canvas
For several decades, my personal work has been based on Notan. It is the basis for all our instructional videos.  Our newest series digs deep into the Notan process, showing how we capture and create Notan, how we can find variations with in it and how we can creatively translate it into a painting.  We hope you will find within these tutorials a breakthrough that will burst your creative stream wide open.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Tracing Debate

One of the hottest controversies in the painting world revolves around tracing projected photos onto the painting surface versus setting up a preliminary drawing free hand.  Many painting teachers actually teach students to trace projections rather than showing them how to do a preliminary drawing.  Students follow the practice innocently without realizing the limitations tracing puts on their work as well as their artistic growth.


Here are my thoughts about this practice: 
  1. Tracing projections deceives the artist into thinking he/she is a more accomplished artist than they really are.  
  2. Tracing denies the artist the exhilaration of making visual discoveries during the process of setting up the preliminary drawing as well as during the painting process.. 
  3. Tracing deceives the viewer into thinking the artist actually shaped the images.
  4. Tracing blocks opportunity for growth.  It creates a dependency.  
  5. Tracing inhibits making open-ended composing decisions.
  6. Tracing creates a fear of learning to draw.
  7.  And most important, I think:  tracing blocks individual expression.
I know of nothing more freeing than feeling confident about drawing.  I suspect, though, that the practice of tracing began because of shaky drawing skills or at least an insecurity about drawing.  But five decades of teaching drawing have proven to me that anybody who wants to can learn to draw. I've seen it happen again and again.  And with the right teacher, it can be easy to learn and a joyful experience.  

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Creating Your Style

(Note:  Henceforth, content from each Composing & Drawing Tip Newsletter will appear here each Saturday morning.  If you are subscribed to both, feel free to unsubscribe from one of them to prevent duplicates arriving via email.)

During the twenty-four years of our private art school, we held a student show at the end of each twelve-week session.  Amid these, responses to student work that delighted me most were people asking how many teachers we had.  Folks couldn't believe that the diversity of styles had emerged under the same teacher.  Even the first quarter drawing students' work was already showing a unique style.


What I have noticed among all performers, whether artists or athletes, is that those who excel and reach greatness have a unique style, unlike any other.  An example is evident in baseball pitchers.  Craig Kimbrell, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz each have baffled one hitter after another, yet each stance and pitch is totally different from the other.


There are three kinds of styles:  the imitated style, the evolved style and the hybrid style.  The imitated style comes from the performer's intentional adapting a style of someone else.  The evolved style is often called "self-taught" because it is one that comes naturally to a person without any conscious influence.  The hybrid style mixes all that comes naturally mixed with influences by what one sees in or is taught by others.  What we notice is that the style of our greatest performers is most often hybrid.

To the question of how does one find one's style, the real answer is by not trying.  Those who do try eventually lose their natural expression to mechanical imitation, but those who focus their attention of developing the skills required for masterful performance will evolve their unique style without trying. 

We are not to worry about whether our style gets influenced because whatever we identify with in another's skill set is inherently ours to begin with, otherwise we would not recognize it nor desire it. A skill is universal, it is how something gets done.  It is not a talent, but an ability.  In the long run, when our focus is on developing and practicing our skills, each of them will become our own.  We will grow our own signature use of it.  And out of that our style emerges.  

Monday, March 14, 2016

An Inner Reveal

Today I'm sharing with you glimpse of my private world, the life of my sketchbooks.  Over the seven decades of being an artist and teacher of art, I have filled dozens.  Not all have survived.  Two of my favorites were stolen, but none of that matters today.  What's important is that these thousands of pages reflect moments of presence, moments when I explored with drawing, painting and writing reflections of my inner world.

A lot of the time, it's within the sketchbook that I work out ideas for a painting...


...or for teaching a lesson.


At other times, I explore with notans  scenes I see around me.  (You can sit in one spot and find dozens of paintings!)

Or I write notes to myself or find solutions to some dilemma.  I often hide poetry within these pages.

I  love baseball, so often I'll do gesture drawing of the players while I'm watching a game.

And I do many, many quick studies.

My sketchbooks are my home.  They are where I live the most intimate moments of my art.  While with them, there is no censorship, rather only the most authentic moments of my artistic life.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Dianne Is Doing Instructional Videos

If you enjoy these composing tutorials, you might enjoy the video lessons Dianne is doing.  Check them out HERE.  Also,  check out her YouTube channel HERE.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Newsletter Now In Progress

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Archives of the Newsletters are HERE.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Breaking Out of Prison

One reason some artists avoid drawing the nude human figure is that, more than any other subject, every mark counts.  Not only is the drawing's success dependent upon the artist's seeing things in the right place, it also demands the artist's confidence in wielding the drawing tool.  A mark intended to define a shadow in the lower back can translate to a wrongly placed hip.  A drag of the finger smudged with charcoal can result in the appearance of a misplaced nose.  A slightly misaligned buttock can cause an onlooker to accuse the artist of imitating Picasso.  So many things can go amiss that too many avoid the intimidation rather than face the challenge.

Avoiding intimidation never solved a single problem.  Rather it imprisons us, causing us to place ourselves in a box where we feel safe and surround ourselves with excuses for being there. The only way to find freedom--to break down the walls of that box--is to enter into the place where the intimidating starts and act.

Being unsure of the drawing materials is quickly corrected by daily practice with the materials, becoming conscious that pencils, charcoal, contĂ© or pen are tools, not mark makers.  Doing studies from master artists' work by attempting to make your tool replicate the marks made by the master artist rather than trying to replicate the image will do wonders towards building your tool's vocabulary.  The Michelangelo drawings I've included below are excellent ones from which to build this skill.
(Michelangelo drawings from The British Museum)

A combination of quick (gesture) and slow (contour) drawings--where your intent it following what your eye is seeing--is an excellent way to gain confidence drawing the figure itself.   To begin with make your focus to capture only the movement--what the figure is doing, rather than the shape.  That's the gesture.  When doing the slower contour drawing, make your intent ONLY to follow your eye along the edge of each shape, inside and outside.   Aim for only one thing at a time and above all, avoid trying to make your drawing look like the subject:  keep your intent on the process.  If it's gesture you're studying, then focus only on the movement; if it's contour, focus only on the edges of the shape.  Just that and nothing else. It's all about controlling where your attention is.

Michelangelo gesture studies
Michelangelo contour studies
For exercises aimed to build your confidence, using photo references is a good way to go and, in spite of what the purists say, if it's helpful towards building your skills, then do it.  If you don't have good photos, the website Pose Space has excellent photos created especially for artists to study from.

If the intimidation comes from either the drawing tool or the subject, I have just shown you a way to enter that place of intimidation and break through it.  Once it's broken, you will have gained a freedom within which your drawing tool can go wherever you want it to go.


Friday, January 25, 2013

Moving Forward Towards Freedom to Create

What we do reflects what we know as well as what we don't know.  Knowledge is not static nor is it finite nor is it limited to study from what others have learned.  Rather knowledge comes with freeing ourselves to learn:  the freer our minds, the more open we are to discovering what there is to be learned.

In my college teaching days, I encountered a student who rebelled against taking the required drawing courses because, in his words, he already knew how to draw.  His mind was blocked to what these courses might open up to him, to the depth and breadth the experience itself might provide for his artistic growth.  He saw himself as possessing a singular skill with which he was satisfied, an attitude that imprisoned him from recognizing a possibility for further growth.

Similar attitudes prevail about composing paintings.  Many artists develop their technical skills, but ignore composing skills, concluding that to focus on composition is to constrain their creativity.  Such attitudes can block avenues within the creative process, causing the results of one's efforts to be contained within technical exploration alone, no matter how rich one's experiences might be.


Friday, May 11, 2012

In Praise of Gesture

Gesture drawing is our most direct tool for absorbing the essence of what we see.  Simply defined a gesture drawing captures the movement the artist feels within the subject.  It is the artist's rapid response to what the subject is doing, not how it appears.

Artists have been doing gesture drawing for centuries, but not until the early 20th century did it get its label, thanks to Kimon Nicolaides who left for us a comprehensive study program in his book, The Natural Way to Draw.  (First published in 1941 and available free in a PDF file HERE.)

We are accustomed to contour drawing where the shapes' edges are meticulously followed, our more deliberate or cognitive approach.  Gesture drawing does just the opposite, following the movement of the subject--a more intuitive approach.  Nicolaides taught that both are necessary, each balancing the other.

Here's how he introduces the comparison:

Below, from Nicolaides' book, student drawings illustrate the power of gesture drawing to express what the subject is doing.

Three of our historical masters--Rembrandt, Leonardo and Michelangelo-- each left us volumes of drawings with copious gesture studies among them.  Most often these would be quick studies, responding to something that caught their eye or towards an upcoming painting, but sometimes they would flesh out the gesture drawing with values, as Rembrandt does with his lion sketch.

Rembrandt van Rijn  "Lion Resting"    c. 1650
At other times, we get to see the pure gesture itself, exampled in these Rembrandt studies of a baby nursing and "St Jerome Reading to a Lion".

Rembrandt van Rijn   Study:  Baby Nursing      c.1635
Rembrandt van Rijn   Study for St. Jerome Reading    c. 1652

And among the hundreds of Leonardo da Vinci's scientific and analytical drawings are many gesture drawings.

Leonardo da Vinci   Study for the Trivulzio Monument, c. 1508
 Leonardo da Vincin     Study for the Sforza Monument, c. 1488-9 

Even among the many beautifully formed drawings of Michelangelo are his gesture studies.

Michelangelo Buonarroti   Sketches for two separate projects    c.1503

My favorite drawing of all times is Michelangelo's study of Madonna and Child where we see all the gestural lines and restatements along with his beginning to flesh out the form within the gesture drawing itself.
Michelangelo Buonarroti  Madonna and Child Study  c. 1525
One of the most intriguing and exciting uses of gesture I've seen lately is that of artist Omar Rayyan.  His paintings begin with a gesture drawing.  (You may click on any of these to get a larger view.)

Within this drawing, Rayyan searches for the image and begins to develop it in paint.

He continues by refining the drawing and adding more paint as the piece develops.

This process continue until the piece finds its conclusion.

 Omar Rayyan   "The Duel"   Watercolor, 11x17      2011 

Gesture drawing is the closest thing to meditation an artist can experience:  it is drawing without thought, responding with the senses without making judgments.  It is the purest form of observation, taking the artist directly to the essence of the subject. It requires letting go and taking in the world as it is without any intention other than experiencing the subject.  It is fun, relaxing and gives the artist a refreshed sense of renewal.