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Craftsmanship - January 2009

When I was just a little kid, my grandmother would constantly remind me to not waste time, because, as you get older, it will only go faster and faster. Of course, I was young, immortal and those three-month summer vacations seemed to last forever, and I was, quite naturally, immune to her admonitions. How right she was! Another year has slipped by, and the blank pages of a new one are ready to be filled in. So, Happy New Year!

When I was an undergraduate, majoring in Art, I ended up with about eighteen hours of Art History. It was my first exposure to some of the great works of art. The overly cerebral professors spent a tremendous amount of time dissecting each painting, and often ruined my initial unadulterated, emotional response to these masterpieces.

Nonetheless, I gradually began to realize that these master painters were doing more than deftly manipulating paint on their canvasses. These masters painted with intent. There was reason behind each painting endeavor, and they carefully crafted their works to communicate their intentions to the viewer. Besides impeccable technical skills, careful planning and cautious attention to design were essential in order for these masterful painters to communicate their aims.

No artists were more aware of this than the illustrators of the 20th century, whose sole job was to enhance the content of stories and articles with images designed to impart the greatest visual impact.

I still marvel at their ingenuity and knowledge of design. (See “The Golden Age of Illustration” January and February 2008 newletterws)

One natural consequence of pursuing painting for a long time is the development of better painting skills: brushwork, drawing, color mixtures etc. Although essential to painting, they often become an end in themselves, as opposed to a means to an end. I know plenty of artists who can apply paint like an angel, but who have nothing to say to the viewer except, “ See how clever I am with paint?”

They forget to ask some of the most important questions an artist can ask, like: “What drew me to this subject?”, “What am I trying to say to the viewer?”, “What do I want the viewer to experience?” and “How can I best organize the elements in my painting to convey my message to the viewer?” All of this goes to “purpose”, and how best to design our painting to transmit that “purpose”.

I’m not going to go into a diatribe on design. There are hundreds of books available that can express the subject much more glibly than I can. You can take courses on design, and even obtain degrees in design. But, there are some common sense principles that might be worth discussing.

In any painting, the design options are endless. So, let’s begin with some basic questions: “What is my focal point, and what’s the best way to achieve it?” (Highest contrast point, sharpest edges, most detail, brightest color etc.) “Do the lines in my painting lead to that focal point?” “ Is the viewer stuck there, or did I leave an egress into the rest of the painting?” “Are there counter balances within the painting to move the viewer’s eye around?” “Are the lines of my painting generally diagonal, to give the painting motion, or are they mostly vertical and horizon for a quieter, more serene feel?”

“Are my dark, light and middle values arranged in a way that gives the painting solidity and interest?”

The list of questions and options is inexhaustible. But, as a starting point, let’s use the last question about the arrangement of values.

Often the success, or failure, of a representational painting will hinge on whether the foundation (abstract design) is solid, or not. How we orchestrate the arrangement of our light, middle and dark masses can often make that determination.

The other day, I stumbled across a couple of paintings in my studio that might help illustrate this point.

The following painting was completed several years ago, on a painting trip to the Pacific coast. The landscape provided a natural design, with clear masses and a strong diagonal dropping directly to my focal point – the breaking wave. Despite some decent brushwork, the whole thing turned out pretty weak. I totally missed an opportunity to establish strong, distinct masses, and ended up with milk toast. It feels a bit like a moonlight painting. I wish it were.


It’s even more obvious when viewed in black and white. That potentially strong mass of rocks, on the left side, runs together with the ocean and sky. The whole thing shot guns apart.


Here’s a crop that works a little better, but not much. I might be able to use it as springboard for a future piece.


The following piece was painted on a subsequent trip to the same area. Although I painted it at another location, the landscape offered strikingly similar features to the above painting. I’m the first to admit that it’s no award winner, however, I’m pleased with the handling of the large masses. Everything reads well, and the painting feels solid. It’s the strong, abstract foundation that holds the painting together.



Here’s the same piece in black and white:



Here are three examples of paintings that further emphasize this principle:


This is a painting by Andrew Wyeth called “Border Patrol”. Notice, when you squint, the masses are large, simple and form a strong abstract design that can be easily read, even from a distance.


Another good example is “A Flower Market”, by J.W. Waterhouse. I’ve included a black and white reproduction as well.


               watercolor  ...  watercolor


The painting “El Jaleo” by John Singer Sargent is so well constructed that we could do a whole newsletter on it. For brevity’s sake, we’ll just concentrate on the beautiful arrangement of darks and lights. This dynamic abstract design cements together all the figures, action and items scattered throughout the painting.

  watercolor . watercolor


I don’t want to intimate from these example that it’s always necessary to have dramatic darks and lights to drive home your message. It just works well for the sake of this discussion, and to point out the importance of a strong, underlying abstract design. There are multiple considerations that any artist must undergo before launching in to a painting: how to establish a focal point, the directions of the lines within the work, counterbalances etc.

We’ll tackle more of these elements in the next newsletter.


Happy Painting!