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

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Saturday, October 1, 2016

Fall Colors in Shadow

Try this.  Looking at this photo, squint your eyes so that all the details go away, stare and hold it for a few seconds. 
Notice that within those luscious colors, what you are seeing is mostly in shadow?.  
Even though the colors are striking, the brightness we see is mostly pieces of sky visible through the foliage.   All the shadowed areas are easier to discern if we take away the color.  
 If you compare the mid-to-dark areas of the value scale to the blurred monotone photo, it become obvious how minimal the light is in the scene.  At the same time, if we pluck any one of those leaves and look at individually, it would appear something like this.
Here's a closeup view of one of the sections. Notice the difference in the color of the leaf above not in shadow and the leaves below in shadow.
Once we recognize that an area of color is in shadow, we know immediately that regardless of how brilliant it seems to us, the only way we can interpret it accurately is to reduce the value and intensity of hues we recognize.  Here are some suggested combinations for you to play with to make that discovery. 

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Magic of Gradations

Gradation is a seamless transition between opposites.  Light changes slowly to dark, repeated images continuously become larger or smaller, one color gently unfolds into another. It all appears to change before our eyes, to become something different from what we "know" images to be.
Actually, nothing changes at all.  The mechanics of our eyes cause us to see these things happening.  We know a tree trunk to be a tree trunk, but we see its characteristics according to how we perceive light's behavior from our unique viewpoint.  Examine how Colin Page interpreted his perception of value gradation caused by the light and shadow within his painting, Growing Tall.
When we squint our eyes at his painting, we see a gradation of light flooding over a field of tall grasses, but if he had been positioned to the right or left, he would have shown us something entirely different.  Add to that, within Colin's value gradation creating distance, but there are smaller value gradations within that shadowed area in front.  Without these, his painting would be a lot less energetic. 
It is within those internal smaller gradations found in the overall big ones where we can create the most magic within our paintings.   We just have to look beyond the obvious to find them.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Our Creative Current

When we are fully immersed in the act of creating, there is a space within us where all that we are and all that we know come together into a oneness. We become so completely absorbed in what we are doing that we lose awareness of time and place.  When we stay present there, not allowing ourselves to be distracted or to resist what is happening, we create freely and from wholeness. Here, we lose all self-consciousness: we are totally engaged in the act of doing.  I call this experience our creative current.  It is the place within us from which we are free to create and, therefore, from which we grow and evolve. (From my book, Finding Freedom to Create, p. 5)
The creative current doesn't discriminate.  It worked for Michelangelo 600 years ago the same way it worked for Tom Glavine just twenty years ago.  All that it requires is focus and attention.  That's it.
Michelangelo Buonarroti     Studies for The Libyan Sibyl       Red Chalk on Paper

Hall of Fame, Former Atlanta Braves Pitcher-Tom Glavine 
The neat thing about the current is that we can use it for tiny steps of learning or practicing as well as being deeply involved in large projects. For example, if you want to learn to do notan drawing, you can choose a subject, focus on just shadows in a subject and give full attention to only shadow without noticing what the subject is and before you know it you're in the current.  You WILL do a notan drawing.  You won't be able to avoid doing so.  
Like an electrical current whose voltage flows across a wire, the creative current flows across an intuitive path that we access when we are totally focused within the act of creating, whether practicing, performing,  composing, or constructing.  We all have access to it.  Using it is a matter of letting go of any fear or rational questioning or doubt.   
Whatever the endeaver--whether practicing exercises from my composing lessons, learning a new brushstroke, honing a new technique or simply responding directly to a plein air landscape, to allow yourself to enter and stay in your creative current will create growth and confidence like nothing else.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Why Does SCALE Matter?

Not long ago, a student asked me how to decide what size to make an image in a painting. For today's composing tip, I want to share with you the answer I gave.  The size we make our images strongly effect how they communicate to their audience.  Let's explore that idea by looking at what some other artists have done with size.
Below are six paintings, each showing the human subject in a different scale as it relates to the format and surrounding images. Notice how each puts you, the viewer, at a unique distance from the person depicted in the painting. That distance helps determine how you relate to the subject in the painting.
Feel how far you are from the people in painting 1 as compared with the people in painting 4. Sense how close you are to the subject in painting 3 as compared with 6. In painting 2, notice the extent to which the environment is important to the person portrayed as compared with painting 5. 
These comparisons show that each of the above painting places a different kind of emotional and relational emphasis on subject. Whereas painting 6 brings us right into the little girl's thoughts, painting 2 is as much about the market and street as about the person making a selection at the market.  Painting 3 makes us feel more like an observer from the street whereas in painting 5, we could be conversing with the subject.
So, when we compose, the closer we want our audience to be to the subject, the larger the image of the subject becomes in our painting. The more important we want the surroundings to be to the subject, the smaller the subject becomes as compared to other things in the painting.  Think about the subject's relationship with the audience, how you want the audience to feel about the subject, and that will clue you in on the size the subject should be.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Keeping Colors and Values Clean

Many emerging painters complain about their values not being “clean” and most are at a loss as to what to do about it.  If you’ve never heard this particular term before, having “clean values” is simply artspeak for a work of art with convincing colors and strong, visually meaningful values like in this little forest scene painting by James Gurney.
Gurney’s darks, midtones and lights each play a role in defining something specific about the forest. His shadows and lights describe the position of the light source as well as its effect upon the subject, so there’s no doubt about what’s going on.  Let's take a closer look at some of the mechanics at work here.
1.  Meaningful Focal Point
Notice how clearly defined are the lights on the tree and the deep dark shadow shapes contrasting on either side of it.  

2.  Clearly Rendered Shadows
Look at the value, hue and intensity modulation in Gurney's moderate and shallow shadows, and how easy our eyes transition from the shallow shadows in the upper tree foliage to the deep shadows near the ground. 

3.  Readable Angles of Light
We have no trouble discerning the angle of the sunlight nor reading the scene as being lit from a single light source. 
These composition considerations go a long way towards yielding clean values and colors, but they must go hand in hand with a few technical practices.  Here are four I suggest:

1. Constantly clean your brush
Make a habit of holding a brush in one hand and a paper towel in the other. Any time you switch colors, rinse and wipe the brush by squeezing it out with the paper towel.
2. Don’t skimp on paint—cover the surface
Too little paint often results in weak color. Use adequate amounts of paint to cover the surface and avoid trying to stretch your paint by spreading it so thin that the texture of the surface comes through.
3. Avoid over-stroking and over-blending
Start thinking of your brush as a tool to shape the paint, not just as an applicator of paint. This means slow down. Be deliberate with each stroke and avoid repeating a stroke in the same spot.
4. Find the right hue to lighten your colors
Do you reach for white each time you want to make a color lighter? Well stop.
Adding white changes the color temperature AND the value, making the color look dramatically different. Rather than automatically reaching for white, try to find another color that will give you the value change you need without neutralizing the original hue. (Watercolor painters will know to use the water for making a value lighter.)

Saturday, August 6, 2016

A Way to Choose Colors for Modulation

To modulate is to make a gradual change within whatever is being modulated. In music, a single chord can modulate to another key just by passing through a chord both keys have in common.  In painting, one way we can modulate color is to use this same principle--move from one color to another THROUGH a hue each has in common.
Within this image of a fall tree, we can see greens reflecting onto the orange leaves. 
One way to modulate this in paint is to use the hue both green and orange have in common:  yellow.  We'll take our color from the small sample I have circled.
 In the example above, I've modulated in a high intensity.  If we change the intensity, the modulation looks more realistic for the shadowed areas.
But the one thing we've not yet mentioned is VALUE.  For modulation of hues and intensities to be successful, it works better for colors being modulated to be in the same value range.  Give it a try.    

P. S. This principle of modulating with a hue both colors have in common is perfect for any two colors that are not both primary colors.  If you want to modulate two primary colors, simply mix one into the other at the SAME value and intensity.  You'll be modulating through their secondary hue.  

Our August Series of Video Tutorials
If you feel like you're in a wrestling match when working with color, this new series of video tutorials might be just what you are looking for.  I've focused the series on two of our most difficult colors with which artists work:  greens and yellows.  This week's lesson Tacking Greens hones in on how to modulate greens by varying their intensity and hue within local value areas.
What You Can Expect When You Become My Student
When we're filming the video tutorials, I have you in mind.  I have learned to think of the camera as my classroom filled with students eager to learn the concepts with which I'm working while giving that particular lesson. Those decades of teaching college and in my own art school prepared me for this.

When you purchase a video lesson, you become my student, but you become a member of a virtual classroom as well.  We have set up the Forum on Facebook for you to interact with others as well as get reinforcement from me. Today's technology allows me to talk directly to you via video on Facebook, a free service included when you purchase any video lesson, whether download or DVD.  

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Getting Shadow Values Correct on a White Image

Of all the visual elements we work with, value seems the most challenging, especially when an image is white.  Let's take a look at that.  

What happens to us is that we allow our thoughts to be about what the image is rather than what we see within it.  For example, when we look at a white horse do we see a white horse or variations of values?  If we look for values with intention and without thinking "white horse", chances are we will be surprised at just how dark shadows on a white horse can be.

White horse seen as a white horse
White horse seen with not thinking "white horse", rather thinking variations of values
There's an easy way to get this value relationship right:  learn to ask yourself, "What's in shadow?"  Shadows, no matter the color onto which they are cast, range from shallow to deep. If we practice seeing them this way, we can force ourselves to make our colors dark enough to indicate what kind of shadow we're observing.  

Here's an analysis of the deep and shallow shadows I see in this photo of a white horse.


Here's a video critique I did for Stella Messina, addressing the topic of this post--shadows on a white image, among a few other little things. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Five Pivotal Questions for Composing Paintings

What causes us to begin a painting or a drawing?  My guess is that our answers will vary, but let's take ourselves to the times when a subject catches our attention and pulls us towards it.  Chances are something will be there that's junk, not useful to the composing of the painting.  On the other hand, the subject as is might need some rearranging to pull together a sound composition.

Here's a subject that got my attention a few years ago.  For the first time ever, each member of my bed of bearded irises sprang forth into full bloom.  One section caught my eye and pulled me towards it.

Without some selecting and placing as well as editing, it's a jumbled mess, but the way the light was striking those center flowers excited me.  That brought me to five pivotal questions: What to use? What to ignore or leave out? What to emphasize? What to subdue? What to change?

Using the the rule of thirds option from the Selecting and Placing principle, I found a beginning of What to Use. Finding what to change,  I spotted the flower on the upper right that I could move to the left a bit and another mid-left that I could scoot inward.  And rather than use the withered blossom in front, I chose another (not in the photo) to use.
Within this rough crop, I  chose to ignore the azaleas and tool building in the background, to subdue some of the textural details, to emphasize the light pattern and  the shadow area of the foliage.  This reinforced what caught my attention in the first place:  the light.

Here's the resulting oil painting, "Irises in Light".​​​​​​​
Asking these questions--What to use?  What to ignore or leave out? What to emphasize?  What to subdue?  What to change?--can help us more closely scrutinize possibilities and make more aesthetically sound decisions while composing our paintings and other art works. 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Using Contrast as a Tool

What do a hammer and value contrast have in common?  
Answer:  Both are tools that we learn how to use and both can do a single task, but towards a number of intentions.  
One of the reasons people tire of dealing with composition principles is that they seem so academic and restricting.  That's why in Finding Freedom to Create I changed the nomenclature, calling them generators, a word with all that baggage.  I call one group of these Results and another group, Workers.

Among the Workers is contrasting and value is an element with which contrasting works.  The painting below is dull and uninteresting because value contrast is not doing its job.

But if we go back into the same painting and put value contrast to work, we can achieve visual clarity.  The painting becomes more dynamic, more life.  . 
We can use degrees of contrasting value to control where the eye goes in a painting or how fast the eye moves within the piece. We can pull the eye to a focal point by setting a strong contrast then lead the eye towards that area using reduced degrees of contrast.

It's a fun thing to work with and is what I'm doing in this week's video lesson in which I take the study from Lesson 3 of Series 16, Focus with Value to a finish by using value contrast as a tool to do just this.  

Saturday, May 28, 2016

To Look at or To See

Our eyes scan thousands of images every day.  Many of them go unnoticed, some get a momentary glance, but how much do we really see?  And how do we know if we're merely looking at something or actually seeing?

(Read slowly here) Observe. Scrutinize. Recognize. Pay attention to. Contemplate. Discover.  The English language contains an array of words describing ways of seeing.  (Slow down again) Glimpse. Glance. Gaze. Survey. Regard. Review.  The "look at" words have a different flavor, a passing by rather than sinking in.

Scrutinize this scene.

How many compositions do you discover?  Did you recognize this one?

Or this one?

What about this one?
One way to see a potential composition is to observe through a rule of thirds grid, finding horizontals and/or verticals that align with those in the grid, or to align potential focal points with the grid's intersections.  What a super tool for taking us beyond looking at to really seeing.

You can build your own adjustable rule of thirds grid. 

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.