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Everything is perfect. Not the idyllic “perfect” of poets and dreamers, but “perfect” in the sense that, as a result of all the events, thoughts and actions since the beginning of creation, the present is exactly the way it should be, and it couldn’t be any different. Through the inescapable rule of “cause and effect”, we find the current state of existence exactly as it should be. The only way it could be. If you want to cast blame for the current state of affairs, you’re going to have to go back to the beginning of time, and follow the string of events that have led us to where we are today.

Skeptical? Try this:

All the billions of decisions you have made since birth (eating that ice cream cone, dirtying your diapers, crossing your legs etc.etc.etc.) have led you to be sitting in front of your computer reading this newsletter, and I can prove it - because here you are reading this newsletter. This is the current “effect” of all your life’s “causes”.

I’m not trying to be profound, flip or obtuse. There is a point here that is germane to painting. But first, let me present one more example:

Speaking simplistically, and avoiding a whole bunch of complicated physics, one could say that the waves on the ocean are comprised basically of troughs and crests, with each wave having a crest and sharing troughs with the contiguous waves. So, in a manner of speaking, each wave is defined by the adjacent waves, and on and on ad nauseam. So in effect all the waves in the world’s oceans are responsible for the dimensions of all the other waves in all the oceans around the world.
Occasionally we read about some large “rogue” wave that rises up and swamps some vessel in the Pacific Ocean. We’re horrified. We want to call the rogue wave “bad” or “evil” or something. But, in fact, because of the interconnectedness of all the waves in all the oceans, some innocuous wave in the English Channel, minding its own business, is equally responsible for sinking that boat.

This event is a microcosm for the way things are.

In Nature all things are continually relating to and affecting all other things. The interconnectedness is inescapable.

The artist, painting from life, is in a unique position to experience this verity first hand. After all, every object that we paint is inexorably influenced by everything in its surroundings. It’s unavoidable.

A newsletter is hardly sufficient for a subject as complex as this. A book would be more appropriate. So let’s cut to the chase.

Maybe we can gather some insight into “interconnectedness” by talking about “form”.

As tiny infants, we experience the world as a miasma of shapes, colors, motions and sounds. We process it all on a non-verbal level, as if we were a part of it all.

As we grow older, we’re taught the names of things, and we identify them as separate and distinct from ourselves and other objects. Soon we pick up pencils, or crayons, and we draw them with simple, basic outlines. This is further reinforced by coloring books, where each object is delineated by thick, black outlines, and we get rewarded for how well we stay within the lines. This “outline” approach is further reinforced by our grade school art teacher, and
ultimately becomes indelible.


But, now that we are grown up painters, we can begin to see our subjects, not as only as individual items, but as a part of a greater whole. We begin to see the objects we paint as mere elements in the larger tapestry of life. How is that tree we are working on connected to the entire landscape? Does it have boundaries of its own, or is it defined by everything that is “not tree”? We see the interconnectedness of our shapes, and we begin to think of them both “positively” and “negatively”. We move beyond the simple rendering of one thing and then another (paint by number approach), and join the dance of the interconnected.

Let’s start by talking about that “tree” I just mentioned. I’m going to do a little watercolor demonstration to illustrate some of what I was referring to above. This one involves creating the tree by first rendering everything that is “not tree”. In other words, I’m drawing the tree “negatively”. In virtually every painting that I do, some objects are painted directly (positively), and indirectly (negatively – finding them by painting the adjacent shapes first). This has become an integral part of my painting technique. It allows for spontaneity, and discovery as the painting unfolds. 

Tree Demonstration:

Since I’m doing no preliminary drawing, and I’m discovering the painting as I go along, I elect to work with a simple palette (three primaries): Ultramarine Blue, New Gamboge and Venetian Red.

Step One:

With a large flat brush, and a mixture of Venetian Red and New Gamoge, I scumble in the foreground – dragging some of the color into the upper part of the paper. This area is complete, and will remain untouched for the rest of the painting.

Step Two:

I jump right into the upper section with the same mixture, painting around my main subject. While this area is wet, I start charging in a richer version of the original mixture, with the addition of some Ultramarine Blue. As the mixture gets darker, I begin to find the suggestion of tree trunks in the forest. So, just as I did with the main subject, I begin to paint around those subtle trunks, and their varying degrees of finish give an illusion of depth. When I’m satisfied that I’ve worked the area sufficiently, I leave it alone, and let it dry.

In two quick steps, I’ve made my statement, and the painting is essentially done. The colors in the trunk are a result of the paint I dragged up from the first step. There is a certain irregularity to the contour of the tree (and the ones in the forest) that I like. It has personality and it shows the artist’s hand. Note that during this step I softened the right edge of the tree trunk. This was accomplished with a damp, clean brush. That soft edge gives the tree form. Otherwise, it would look pretty flat.

At this juncture, everything in the painting has been discovered “negatively”. The forest has defined the foreground. The main tree is defined by the forest, and the forest canopy (which itself is defined by the dark recesses of the forest). The dark trees in the forest are defined by the even darker passages.

Step Three:

I finish off the tree with some shadows from the forest canopy, and a few vertical strokes, and, “Voila!”, I have my twenty-five minute tree portrait.

One of the complaints that I hear most frequently from students is “I can’t seem to loosen up”. This is generally a result of working myopically. They don’t see the whole scene, and how the shapes of objects relate to one another and how they form each other. They tend to only recognize a bunch of individual objects, with outlines, that need to be rendered one at a time, in a “paint by number” approach. 

I’m going to offer you an exercise that will not only help you to loosen up, but will also give you an opportunity to work both “positively” and “negatively” in finding shapes and objects in your paintings. It should offer an element of discovery, and help you to better understand the relationships between the various objects in your paintings. It’s a bit like working without a net, but it’s a lot of fun.

I took a recent trip to Mexico. The area where I stayed had a lot of structures with white stucco walls and thatched roofs. The following is a sketch one of the local buildings. I’m going to use this a springboard for the two demonstrations.

Demonstration – House in watercolor

I’m going to use my sketch as a model, but I’m not going to do any drawing on the paper. I don’t want any outlines to constrict the development of the painting. I’m also not going to go through identifying each pigment combination. It’s not that important to this exercise.

Step One:

I begin by putting some roof color, and other general colors, on the paper. Since there are no outlines on the paper, I don’t have to worry about size or the shapes of my color areas. I’m going to find their shapes, and let them find their boundaries working outside in.

Step Two:

I start forming my house with shadows under the eaves, and darks on the shadowed sides of the structures. I start to get a sense of some kind of wall below the house, so I put some shadows from undefined objects along the wall.

Step Three:

Using the shadows as a cue, I begin putting in some middle value foliage along the wall and bring some of it into my foreground. While those passages are wet, I charge in some reds for punctuation.

Step Four:

Working negatively, I cut out my house with some dark, tropical-like foliage. I throw in a few warm tones to echo those warm red tones in the foreground. With the same mixture, I strengthen the shadows under the bushes along the wall.

Step Five:

To finish up, I put in a couple of windows, some faux lattice work on the wall, some detail on the thatched roof, and some darks on the shadowed sides of the structure.

I’m aware that this is a vignette, and has a sketchy feel to it, but the format is sound, and the techniques employed are ones that I utilize in more finished works.

Demonstration – House in Oil:

I’m using the same sketch as a model for the oil. In truth, I’m sorry that I didn’t choose another sketch, because I’m now predisposed to doing roughly the same thing. Anyway, the procedure should be instructive.

Step One:

With thin paint, I mass in some foreground color. Using a thin grey/blue mixture, I tone the upper part of the canvas.

Step Two:

I mass a warm, white mixture over the light-struck areas of the house and the wall. There are no outlines to follow, so I do this broadly, with a large flat brush. I put some roof tones, right over that, and you can see where they blend. This is good because it relates the two planes. Then I put in some bright color notes that can later be used as clumps of flowers, or color accents to give the painting some punch.

Step Three:

Still using fairly thin paint, I put in some cool shadow tones that begin to describe the roof line and the shadows from the bushes. I make a few rough indications on the shadowed sides of the structure. I take some of the foreground mixture and make a few strokes on the wall and in the upper background. I want to make sure that all the color areas of the painting relate.

Step Four:

Now I sculpt my house negatively, with a dark green mixture of warm and cool components. I like where the top of the roof on the upper left has some of the original sky color in it. I couldn’t have planned that.

Step Five:

With a middle value green, I describe the top of the wall and the base of the wall.

Step Six:

I finish up with some last minute details: a harder shadow line under the eaves, some darks on the shadowed side of the structure, a window indication, some impasto strokes on the light side of the building and some impasto strokes of bright color in the foreground.


It’s important to remember that this is just an exercise, and not a definitive approach to painting. But doing some studies like this can heighten one’s awareness of how all the shapes and colors interlock and influence one another.

Good painting requires thought and planning. However, during the execution of a painting, the artist must be able to see the interconnectedness of the “whole”. The artist must be able to think both “positively” and “negatively”, so that there can be an element of spontaneity and discovery, and the artist’s “hand” and individuality can shine through.

Getting things right is certainly important, but not at the expense of breathing life into the finished work.

Learn to treat the objects in your painting, not as individual items, but as parts of a larger tapestry.

My words are really quite inadequate to express something that actually needs to be experienced.

There’s a Buddhist saying:

“The finger pointing to the moon is not the moon”

The truth is not in my words. They’re merely signposts.

Jump in. Have some fun, and let the art muse guide you.

Happy painting!