Archive for February, 2008

Becoming famous

February 26, 2008

I answered a comment on the Napkin post and then thought it might make an interesting discussion in itself which might get missed if readers were not into looking through all comments:
People have an innate ability to create which is crushed early in development by people who have equally have had their natural abilities repressed in their early stages of development. In the past (and even now with amateur teachers of art) we present rules of operation in the teaching of art that are too limiting.

When a child dares to represent a rabbit in the manner in which he is capable of drawing, using his own eyes to determine its form and shape, and an adult comes along and says, “Oh no! That’s not what a rabbit looks like”, and then draws two round circles one on top of another with two elongated triangles for ears, and then says “Here’s how you draw a rabbit,” the child is well on his way to knowing that anything he draws is wrong and he can’t do it. The child, however, knows full well that the two circle, two triangle version of the rabbit doesn’t look like a rabbit either. A far cry from it! How confusing! The poor child reverts to colouring books where he is no longer responsible for making the drawing. His only responsibility is for colouring within the lines.

Colouring within the lines is an excellent exercise for developing fine motor control in children’s hands, but it ain’t art. As a positive way to end this, one of my favourite diatribes, here is a good way to respond to children’s offerings:

“Isn’t that great! Tell me about your drawing.” An open ended question like this will elicit lots of detail and you will be surprised by some of the answers. Do not, please do not, tell the child that he’s wrong. The child will eventually work his way around to getting something more representative as he develops freely. Anyway, representational art isn’t the ultimate goal, necessarily. Lots of art and design is purely abstract and/or non-representational.

When I taught composition, I liked to tell about all of the rules that I knew about and then let the students determine which ones they thought suited them best. Once they had some basis to form their compositional ideas on, I then encouraged them to create their own rules of engagement.
All the artists that we honor today are ones that created their own rules and stepped away from the stultifying, stuffy confines of their era. Examples? Courbet, the realist (a breakaway from the previous movement where all successful artists were doing Greek and Roman mythological paintings; the Impressionists who challenged the chocolate box style Pompiers artists and eventually were considered miles better than those sugary sweet other painters; Gaugin and the Post Impressionist Fauve movements who decided that symbolism and feeling were more important than strict representation; Braque and Picasso with their Cubism movement who codified the world in geometric ways; Piet Mondrian and his Neo-Plasticist movement who simlified even more; et cetera.

Every generation, new ways of thinking emerge. It takes a long time for the population to catch up with the vision of free thinking artists.
Do you know the work of Christo, the artist who wraps whole buildings? he who made art with the landscape as his “canvas”? We had a hard time accepting his vision, and now we still snicker about it as if it were absurdly crazy. It maybe is, but it has been validated and accepted to the point that a major city allowed him (and paid all the costs) to have the Reichstag in Berlin covered in cloth and wrapped with ropes. He’s goofy but famous and his preparatory drawings are worth mega bucks. So it’s worth thinking outside of the norms. It takes vision.

As a person who was reviled and mocked for the ugliness of his work, there is van Gogh. Last time one of his paintings sold, how many millions did you say that went for?


Napkin sketch 2 – More on composition

February 16, 2008


I was still with my young friend in a cafe who was asking about my drawings and this was a second one I did. Darned if I can remember what it was now, but it looks like a fish coming into to shore. What else could it be?

Here it is rotated 180 degrees:


Either upside or downside, it works compositionally.

Here’s the theory.

It’s what I call a child’s theory of composition.

I derive my personal theories on children’s art principally from Rhoda Kellog’s work Analyzing Children’s Art which I read in the 1960’s. If you are truly interested in composition, this is a wonderful compendium for understanding children’s art.

We, the human race as children, teach ourselves to draw before the age of six.

We do so in a manner that is so consistent world-wide that I infer from it that humans need to draw and that there are inherent patternings in us, congenital, archetypal patterns if you will, that guide that process of self-teaching ourselves to draw. After the age of six, adult interference in the learning/self-teaching process thwarts the natural process and it can no longer be quantified as universal or archetypal. Adult guidance brings adult rationality to the process and child is drawn off the natural path of artistic development.

I’ve tried to think of any other animal that draws as part of its normal activity and cannot identify one. Drawing and image making is one of the key characteristics of humankind that separates it from the remainder of the animal world.

So, back to children’s composition.

At first, children engage in mark making. The first efforts we call scribbling. Soon you will find a young child trying to make circles. They are open ended in the early stages. Then they try quite diligently (picture the tip of the tongue sliding from side to side over the upper lip in concentration) to close the circle up. This is quite an effort for newly developing motor skills!

Next the child becomes fascinated with circles containing radial spokes. Adults impose their rationality upon these and call them suns, but ask the child and they may not think they are anything! Eventually, these radial designs morph into stick people and later again, acquiring basic articles of clothing.

Near the age of five or six, if I remember rightly, children start to tell stories with their drawings, often at the encouragement of their elders. While all of the previous stages are interesting in themselves, especially for those who are interested in abstract art and non-representational image making, I’m going to concentrate on this story telling stage to make a point.


In the progression of the child teaching itself to draw, we may never know when the child begins representing the world of people, animals and objects. Too often, adults superimpose their interpretation on the child.

Is this a drawing of Mummy?”

No, you idiot big person. It’s my sister’s rabbit. But you’re bigger than I am and I depend on you for food and clothing and a warm bed, so I’ll say anything you want. Next time, I’m going to draw Godzilla and if you say it’s Mummy, I will still nod inanely and grin at your ineptitude in seeing what I most clearly am drawing for you!”

I had to say that in preamble to the explaining the fourth illustration which spans the transition from absolutely non representational mark making to representational imagery.

The first box in the green illustration above has an image that is placed seemingly at an arbitrary place on the picture page (or picture plane). The second has two figures. The third has two figures and some story telling elements.

In the first, our eye has no where to go. We are not engaged in the composition for any length of time, and an adult may hand thousands of these creations back to a child with variations of this commentary: “That’s, lovely dear. Is that Mummy?”

In the adult world, there is still place for this kind of composition. It is often used in botanical illustration, for instance, where no anecdotal background is wanted. The figure, the plant specimen, is the only thing we want the viewer to see. The interest in the drawing is maintained by the complication in the details of the specimen used for a model.

Southwest American Indian sand circles and Eastern religions’ mandalas use this type of composition also. While normally the eye does not favour a single focus composition, in these type of works the intricate details are what hold the eye. A more modern reference for this compositional type would be Joseph Stella’s geometric Optical Art works.
In the second stage, the two figures might be many things. It could be adult and child. It could be child and a pet. It could be two people of the same height, one person close at hand and the other far away. There are other no references to ground the observer. The figures float on the picture plane. Maybe, are they astronauts? Only the creator of the drawing can tell you. Many indigenous people’s drawings, aboriginal drawings, are made with this compositional model. There is no need for a page or a picture plane. The drawing could be made in the sand or on a rock. The Lascaux cave drawings are beautiful examples of this type of composition as are the Southwest American Indian sand circles and the Australian aboriginal dream images. Paper in a rectangular format has only become a readily available support for drawings for the masses in the last century.

In the third stage, the child draws things that they know. The top line traversing the picture indicates sky up above. The line traversing at the bottom represents the ground. There is no perspective of the sort that we are taught in schools. The figure’s feet are on the ground. The child knows that feet touch the ground. In his logic, he knows that they don’t go below it, or if they do they are stuck in mud or quicksand and his figure wouldn’t be able to walk. Equally, the figure does not meld with the sky or the weight of it would make it impossible to be active. In his logic, the child cannot touch the sky, so the figure would not touch it either.

The radial figure beside the human figure in this drawing could be any four legged creature. Again there is no perspective. The child has figured out that it has four legs and informs you of that fact by giving each one of them equal importance.

In the third drawing of this series the child includes more information. In a park, there is a pond or swimming pool that has a fence around it. Perspective of the pond is immaterial. It is round and the child tells you so. There is a tree of indiscriminate species. There is the ground and the sky. There are mountains that you can see behind the figure.

What is beginning to happen here is that the child is breaking up the picture plane with various objects that are of importance to him in the story he is telling. I can’t say whether or not the child is consciously starting to be concerned with an imposed compositional pattern. I tend to think not. However, these simplified drawings are good examples of what happens to our eye engagement after we learn to read.

In the European and American continents, the major reading convention is from left to right. We start at the top of the page and read down to the bottom. Chinese and other oriental writing conventions read from right to left and so when you become familiar with their drawing conventions, the compositional structure starts from the right, not from the left. As these two cultures meet and meld in a massive way, as they have in the last fifty years with Globalization, who knows what will come out of it.

This last type of composition is the one most of us are familiar with.

The eye attaches to the first line or object on the right hand side and “reads” across the picture. If there is no object to stop they eye along this line, the eye will go right out of the picture. If the observer is persistent, his eye will return to the left hand side and read the next line of the image. In the childlike drawing given above, that will be the line for the mountain.

Observe how the human figure blocks the path to the right. It forces the eye to look at the vertical imagery and then will find the next available line, or maybe a continuation of the same line, to travel to the right and pick up the next blocking image that invites the observer to come back into the picture. In this image, that will be the tree.

The image has a composition that will entertain the eye to go back and forth over the more important story telling objects in the picture – the human figure, the tree the mountain and the pond. They eye will feel more comfortable in remaining in this picture.

Just a note on the pond: The child does not deal in adult, Renaissance style perspective (the vanishing point type of perspective). The child knows the pond is round and draws it round. The fence goes all around and is flattened around it because the child is responding to what they know rather than what they see. We need to be trained to see in what we call draftsman-like or realistic drawing. Ask any traditionally trained artist about their lessons in Perspective class! You will be met by much groaning and protestation.

Here’s a traditional English-style watercolour that makes use of this third convention for composition:


Note how there are several shapes going horizontally across the picture plane. At each tree trunk, the eye is invited to explore the vertical imagery and to circle back into the picture. The pale green bushes in the distance make one shape going horizontally. So does the blue sky at the top; the pale blue mist below it; the dark green of the foliage; and the lighter green that makes up the foreground. The trees are the obvious vertical eye-stoppers, but the pale yellow sun about three-quarters of the way across makes a focal point that prevents the eye from slipping too easily out the right hand side.

Look at the image for a good thirty seconds and note how easily you can stay in the image. Then cover the left hand side of the image up to and including the sun. Now when you concentrate on the sliver that is left, you will see that your eye can easily slip out the right hand side.

This next is a chalk pastel of a translucent lime green vase. Note how the eye’s first entry line is through the green eucalyptus foliage and that is really the only entry on the left hand side. The white stacked patio chairs are too light to really provide an entry point, or at least, it’s a subtle entry point because the value of the blue and white are so similar.

The red tulips are the predominant force in the picture and they carry the eye to the right. There is a wall panel that gives the eye a vertical force to rest on and move down. The tulip stems in darker green act this way as do the sides of the vase .

The two glass shelves give another horizontal force to complete the journey to the right.


Commercial artists are very familiar with this mode of picture reading and use it shamelessly to focus your attention on the most important thing they want you to see – the object that they want you to desire enough to purchase. Just try flipping through a magazine and look at the pictures that are used for advertising.

Well, that’s enough for today. Just one last word:

I started off with that little sketch that I made on a napkin. Whether it’s upside down or right side up, those simple lines have created an image that is easy to look at and to wonder about. I’ve thrown out the napkin. The paper is too flimsy and fragile. But you never know. I’ve got the reference in photo and I may enjoy doing some abstract piece from it!

I invite you to look at your own images and see if this mode of composition applies to your drawings. Does your eye stay interested in the image? Have you got vertical and horizontal forces to keep you there.

And a caution: It’s only one mode of image making. Those childlike drawings that we make and chuck out when we are young; and struggle so hard to overcome? Those drawings are delightful. If you ever achieve that seemingly pinnacle goal of drawing realistically, it is so very hard to return to the childlike, imaginative and delightfully illogical children’s drawings. So this is not gospel. It’s just one way. It behooves us to learn many ways and then choose for ourselves the modes of drawing that best communicate our visual imagery.

Go forth and make drawings (or photos, or paintings, or images)!

Napkin drawings – searching the subconsious

February 16, 2008


When all else fails, any piece of paper will do. One of my friends was asking about composition and how I came up with some of my more abstract explorations.

I had been in an absolute rut, an artist’s block of major dimensions. Everything I did seemed to be stale, stilted and worthless. Then I observed several classes by Tom Hudson, a fabulous teacher. He was holding a master class prior to filming his series for the Emily Carr College of Art and Design that became one of the Open Learning Institute courses on Drawing. I was to be a tutor for the course, along with several other instructors, for the College (now and Institute).

His first course dealt with taking a simple mark and continuing an exploration with it. I took this idea home with me and made countless drawings of simple variations on geometric shapes – the square, the circle and the triangle. However, being of a relatively lazy nature, I did these freehand. I was not interested in precision, just interested in where my subconscious would take me if I continued to limit my mark-making to these relatively simple shapes.

At first, I found the exercise a bit boring; but as I continued to persevere, I found that I was bending the self imposed rules and creating games for myself with them; and these eventually resulted in some interesting imagery that are very personal to me.

In meetings when I could function with only a half ear listening, I would set out a grid of dots on any scrap of paper. Where grids are used, that blue lined graph paper is quite nice to use.

I’d set out the dots and then connect them with lines with the choices being either horizontal, vertical or slanted. I tried not to repeat. For instance horizontal could follow vertical or slanted but not horizontal. I did one row after another.

On the second stage of the drawing, I’d connect two of the marks together which ended up giving some zigzag form and then continue on throughout the grid. On the third stage, I would enclose some form on each of the preceding zigzags, whether it be a triangle, square or circle (and later, half circles because they fit better). On the fourth stage, I would practice that spatial relationship exercise that I described previously, choosing three of the enclosed forms and filling in the shape with black ink, then three more forms, but filled in with red, for example, and then a third time a this, with blue ink, always being conscious of the effect that the different colour was creating to carry the eye around the grid.

Eventually, I found it interesting to provide eyes and feet to some of these resulting shapes. I found names for them afterwards. Some looked like stick figures doing exercises or other activities. Others like mechanical objects, like goofy kitchen gadgets. Others took on animal forms.

There are boundless possibilities in drawings of this sort. The image changes with the choice of material for support (canvas, paper, cardboard) and the material for coloration – inks, watercolour, oils, acrylics, oil pastels, etc, etc. The possibilities change with the size of the image; the textures used, the mark making, the precision or lack thereof.

So in this little napkin drawing that Ive shown above, you can see what results from drawing in this first stage of this “game plan” in the lower right hand corner. And in the upper corner, you can see something that looks like dancing ice cream cones – quite a whimsical and frivolous activity don’t you think, that has resulted with the added drawing stages.

Now this is not a profound drawing, but it has given me some quite unexpected results and I’ve done a drawing that is completely different from the earlier, largely figurative work, that I had gotten “stuck” in.

I consider this drawing an exercise, like piano scales but in mark making. The more sustained drawings that resulted from this kind of activity look like this:




Eventually, I started using the hieroglyphics that resulted in my larger drawings and though it seems a far cry from the original hypothesis that was set out, I discovered some personal iconography that has worked for me and jolted me out of my drawing doldrums.




Give it a try! Set your own rules and then stick by them. Keep them simple. Repeat them over and over until your mind takes over and does some of the creating from the subconscious rather than it being ruled by your conscious state. You may be pleasantly surprised by the results.

Drapery and observation

February 13, 2008

I was reading:

on drapery and it brought to mind this response:

An older friend of mine, a former art director of a New York Ad agency, told me that when he was at art school, they had one full four hour class per week just to deal with drapery, its texture, its look, how it folds and shapes. Sergeant was a master at representing cloth in his paintings.
We don’t do that much any more in our art education as if realism were a dirty word. Yet, the observation that is required to represent fabric is as much a challenge to the artist as is figure drawing. It’s a pity that the current style of art education is so heavily weighted on the idea end of art and ignores the observational requirements for artistic growth.

Have a look at and enjoy the reflections of this fine artist. She’s an inspiration for ideas.


Today’s offering

February 9, 2008

I was out and about today. I had to go into Vancouver which is an hour plus drive. It wasn’t raining and our snow is just about gone which is a good thing for the driving part of it, but it was overcast and there wasn’t much in the way of landscape to photograph. It was far too gloomy a day.

On the way back, I stopped in at a big box warehouse grocery store to pick up some stuff and found my photo for the day; well, three actually.

I have this thing for grocery carts. I really like the pattern the metal mesh of it makes and I love it when they have cast shadows repeating the mesh on the ground. I also like the restrained colour of chrome and its shadows, topped off with some zingy red on the handles and the child seat baskets.

Today, I had to make do with a reflection that repeated. There was only a very tardy appearance of the sun. It was close to 5 p.m.
Folks, the sun is rotating back to the Northern Hemisphere. The day are getting longer and that, for me, is a joyful thing. At 5 p.m., I still had enough light to take this photo.


I tried cropping the picture to see if I could improve on the composition. First I cropped off the left hand side, taking off all the yellow of the post. When I did that, the photo composition became flat and uninteresting. The yellow was acting as the agent that drew one’s eye around the picture. I undid the crop editing and went back to the original picture.

I thought about cropping closer on the top and bottom, but then I’d lose some of the reflection or some of the warming red colour. I came to the conclusion that I’d done fairly well at the composition aspect of this photo. I still could see some possibilities though.

If you go back to my discussion on realism versus abstraction, then you may appreciate that I was quite happy with this next photo. It’s just the reflection on the wet tarmac minus the shopping carts.


Someone was getting out of the car as I did this and came over to me quite puzzled.

“What are you photographing?” she said.

“You can’t see it from there. ” I replied. “You have to see it from here. I like to look for beauty in everything and I’ve found it here in a reflection of the shopping carts, but if you aren’t this far back, you don’t see the reflection at all.”

“Angle is important in these photos. You can change the composition and the strength of reflections just by moving left or right or back or forwards a bit and every compositional relationship changes.”

“Wow! That’s interesting!” she said. Her husband came over and looked too and they both went away with a quirky smile on their faces. I hope I made them happy instead of just making them think I was crazy.

I wasn’t quite finished. The second row of carts actually still were catching a late day bit of sun.


This photo conforms more on a geometric method of composition. The planes of the two dimensional picture are cut up by flat areas of colour – the large white area at the bottom right balances off the darker and textured areas. There’s lots of texture/pattern movement going on at ground level which is free and random in contrast to the more rigid, repetitive and organized patterns created by the piling up of the shopping carts.

There are three yellow points in the picture that serve to establish spatial relationships that carry one’s eye comfortably around the image. The dark greys do it as well.

I learned various methods of composition quite early in my visual arts training. I’ve often asked myself a chicken and egg kind of question as to whether I pick out images from the landscape (or still life, or other imagery) or crop people portraits because they conform to a compositional method that I’ve learned and ingrained in my mind so well that it now comes naturally. Or do I notice them because they are inherently pleasing and then I compose them (or crop them) so that they conform to my compositional beliefs.

In the early days of the Impressionists (with whom we are all now so familiar) every artist was trained in a rigid formula for composition. As the Impressionists and then the Fauves who followed them broke away from the norms of acceptable subject matter, they also broke away and invented new ways of composing pictures. And yet, when I look at so many of the Impressionist paintings, there is still this strong compositional ideal underlying their work. They could not totally throw away learned patterns from their early classical training that had been ingrained and imbedded in their subconscious.

It’s what brought the artists like Emile Borduas, Jean-Paul Riopelle and fourteen other artists to formulate Le Global Refus (the Total Refusal) . They wanted to toss out any and all rules about painting and art and start all over. It was an anarchic approach to art. No rules!

In fact, they created their own new rules. But some of their early training crept back into their work as they progressed in their artistic careers. If you are interested, look them up in Wikipedia. You will see that their work was radically different.

We sometimes like to think that we are creating something totally new, but it’s hard to do. Even the radically different approaches to art and the avant garde work of any generation, builds upon work that occurred in the previous generation or some anterior generation. We don’t live in a vacuum and our ideas are influenced by our times and our surroundings. We feel uncomfortable with new ideas and take time to absorb them.

However, look how mainstream and loved the Impressionist work is today. We aren’t shocked by it at all! But some of the newer work that is being done we think is awful, stupid, and the “why would someone bother doing that kind of work” kind of artwork. It takes us time to understand a new way of seeing.

I’ve drifted off course here. To bring us back to composition, let me finish by saying that if we know the language of visual communication and can discuss it, then not only can we choose to use or not use the conventions that have preceded us. We also can build on them and create new conventions. If we understand the visual conventions in use, we can critique ourselves; we can explain our work to others; we can benefit from a far greater understanding of other artists’ work. That is, it enriches us. We see better in our everyday lives and can enjoy our visual surroundings. We know why things are beautiful.

Oh here I go again. I’ve gotten pedantic on you.

Please go and enjoy where ever you are and find things of beauty in the world around you.


February 8, 2008


I’ve seen some stunning black and white work lately. It inspired me to share one of mine.

At the altar of art – a visit to the art gallery

February 7, 2008

Did I ever tell you about my esteemed colleague at work (not in the art business) whom I took to the Art Gallery to see the Fred Varley show?

This man is brilliant. He has a steel trap memory; he’s tremendously smart; but he doesn’t have a diplomatic bone in his body. My other colleagues have often wondered about this person because he is penurious to the nth degree. At the end of all conferences, he will pick up any pop or juice cans and keep them so he can return them for the money.

I understand from others that he is a millionaire a few times over from his day trading which he did from the office – on his own time, I should hope. We all had travel allowances when we were away on company business. He was no exception. We never had to account for our per diem for meals. It was a lump sum we were entitled to, around fifty dollars a day.

It was rumoured that he always took his own lunch rather than buy one so that he could put the extra money aside for his investing hobby. He was equally frugal about dinner, and critical of others who were not so economically minded. The accumulation of this careful husbanding of coin was what started him on his way to wealth.

This man, besides not being particularly diplomatic, had a voice that would do honour to any theatre. You could hear him from afar and he could often be heard in dispute with someone.

Now, you may think I am criticising, but really, I spend my life in observation. That was what I was trained to do as an artist; it overlaps into my penchant for writing, and I make no judgments. I assume that others make critical observations (critical, not in the negative sense, in the sharp observation sense) of me. I may not agree with others, but they are entitled to their opinion.

His colleagues were very thankful for his prodigious memory. If you wanted to know a policy or a rule or a standard of practice, not only did he know it off the top of his head, but he also could find the reference for you and give it to you within minutes if not within seconds. It was most helpful for a person like me who was so overloaded in my job that my brain acted like a sieve. It was a real boon to young new members of staff whom he was only to delighted to train in the norms of our work.

I rarely saw him at my office door since he was confident that all he did was correct. He occasionally, very occasionally, reported something I would need to know – a form of keeping me in the loop. More often, he would inform me of things through e-mail. It saved any messy discussions. It also helped one’s case if your point of view was in print. It made things somehow more official.

One day, Herman was standing at my office door hopping from foot to foot, waiting for me to finish with a phone call. When he did, he said in his characteristic strong voice, “I’ve come to ask a favor of you. I’ve come to pick your brain.”
If ever there was an expression I hated, it was that one! I could see my brain being extracted fluffy bit of feathers by fluffy bit. One day there would be no more stuffing up there and I wouldn’t remember anything!

“There’s something I don’t understand and I think you can answer it for me. When you need help with something, you should go to an expert, and you are it!” He grinned broadly as if he had caught me in a net and I couldn’t get out of it. It put me on the spot.

That a bit of buttering up made me very nervous. What possibly could be coming?

He was claiming that I was clever in something and that if I couldn’t explain it to him, somehow I was letting down my own self image. I squirmed as I waited for the ending to his plea.

Normally we were somewhat leery of each other; we were often at loggerheads when I would ask him to complete something for me and he had an altogether too slippery a way of delegating the task back up to me or refusing to do it. What possibly could be next?

“What’s on your mind, Herman? ” I asked rather too assertively, all the invisible shields going on red alert.

“It’s about art.” There was a pause.
“You’ve seen my picture of Vera at my workstation. I really am attracted to her, but I don’t understand about art. ” Another pause laden with I didn’t know what. I wasn’t quite sure who Vera was until he went back to his desk and returned with an eleven by fourteen coloured laser print that he’d downloaded from the Vancouver Art Gallery web site. Later I noticed that he had co-opted the same image for his screen saver.

“I was down at the library and took out every book about Varley that I could find. I’ve read them all and I don’t understand what makes his work Art. I don’t understand why one painting becomes identified by a gallery as a work of art and another piece doesn’t.”

Truly, he had come to the right person. I think of my real purpose in life as being an art missionary. His plea struck an addicted chord in me that I couldn’t resist. Here was a man asking for help and I could provide it. Perhaps I could open up his eyes to the marvels of Art. Perhaps I could convert this crusty individual into an avid appreciator of Art. Who knew, with a suspected millionaire like this, maybe I could push him over the brink into an Investing in Art mode! Miracles could happen if you only had faith.

I asked him if he had seen the Varley show at the Art Gallery. The answer was negative. It cost twenty dollars to get in. Rather, he had tried to absorb the show through his (free) library research.

Like the Salvation Army seeing a soul to be rescued, Art Missionary moved in for the rescue.

“I’ve got free tickets to the Gallery, ” I proposed, all caution to the wind.”I’ll go with you on a lunch hour.” I had calculated that a free ticket would be far too tempting an offer for Herman’s frugal sensitivities to refuse.

On Thursday, we left the office about eleven thirty to miss the lunch time crowd. He brought me up to date on his readings as we walked the two blocks to the Gallery.

With my membership card and his free entry ticket, we barreled into the Gallery without even having to stand in line and made straight for the Varley exhibit. In theory, we were only supposed to be away for half an hour at lunchtime; but we both worked diligently and often did unpaid overtime. If we went over limit today, neither one of us would feel very guilty.

The exhibition was ordered somewhat chronologically. Beside each painting was a blurb explanation of what the picture represented. It gave the artist’s name, the medium that the work was created in, the dimensions of the painting and some background information that would help explain the image.

So what’s so good about this painting,” he said in his theatrical voice; and we looked at an early Varley painting with a simple image of a wide open window looking far down from the escarpment to the beach below. It wasn’t one of Varley’s most pleasant pictures, but it represented a beginning of his departure from the established norms of the day.

I explained about the context of the work; the composition; the choice of colours. I explained that sometimes good art was not necessarily pretty work; rather it described a reality, an essence of a location; and sometimes the gallery was more interested in exhibiting the sequence in the development of the artist than in necessarily showing their final and quintessential production. In other words, how the artist arrived at his imagery was as important as the imagery itself.

Herman continued, “And how did his life in 1905 influence the kind of work that is represented in this painting?

I looked around me to see how many people were trying to absorb the exhibition. Fortunately, I thought, there are only a few. I wondered if a guard would come and tell us to shut up. I wasn’t going to whisper in reply to his loud voice, but I wasn’t going to match it either.

But this question had given me a whole new insight into this man. He really had absorbed what he had read out of the various tomes he had been able to find at the library. As if by photographic transfer, he had memorized Varley’s major life events – his marriage to Maud, his children, his marriage break-up leaving his wife for Vera; his teaching at the Vancouver School of Art; his eventual poverty; his death in Ontario.

But with all the items of life he might have remembered, he could not correlate them to the paintings; did not know what made something Art or not.

I answered that I hadn’t memorized his chronology. Perhaps if he knew, he could remind me and I might be able to bring some insights to the work? He did so for every painting until we had to go.

Bit by bit, there were hangers on following after us until we had twenty people following, listening as he provided some of Varley’s life context and some very pertinent questions for those uninitiated in Art theory and practice. They were interested too, as I grappled with answers that I hoped would illuminate for him what he was looking at.

I remember telling him that you don’t have to like every painting you see in an art gallery; that all art is not just pretty pictures. You enhance the appreciation of the work if you know the context of it and if you know the artist’s intentions.

I remember telling him very briefly about the Group of Seven and his place in that illustrious group. I remember telling him that the work that Varley was doing was in many ways a breakthrough from traditional ways of painting and that in itself was a special thing.

What I never had the courage to tell him, neither there while we were in the gallery nor when we got out of it, was that an Art Gallery, these mausoleums of paintings past, are somewhat like Cathedrals, like churches. That there is a hush and quietness as each visitor is careful to speak quietly, if at all, not to disturb the essentially visual experience of their fellow art worshipers.

I have no idea if I helped him on his way to his own art epiphany. I do know that he spoke more kindly to me, in general, in our day to day work relations and we had no more office rows. Until the day I retired from those corporate halls of industry, he remained faithful to his Vera by Varley, not only the paper photocopy pinned to his work station cloth divider but also on his screen saver.

I wonder if he has ever bought an original piece of art work.

At the art gallery

February 6, 2008

So I must have bored you to death with the last post. People have stopped looking. My blog stats are at an all time low. But it’s too early in the morning to be clever and write something, so here’s a sketch to see if I can’t tempt you back:


I’m always running out of paper to draw on, even though normally I carry a moleskine book with me to jot visual notes down on. This sketch is on a napkin. I did it in the Vancouver Art Gallery café, of a young man eating alone, sitting beside this huge bouquet of gorgeous tulips in a translucent lime green vase.

When I got back to the office, I filled in the colours as best as I could remember, with red pen and fluorescent highlighter pens. Of course the drawing wasn’t going to last, so I scanned it for posterity.

I ended up doing a watercolour and a chalk pastel from it.


I most often find that sketches done on the spot from life are far more lively than the extended-time compositions that I end up with when working in the studio. They are two different things really. One is done in haste and carries that spontenaeity right into the drawing. The other is more meditative, since one has more time to think about composition, placement, spacial dynamics, texture, tonal et cetera.

Sorry, but  I don’t have a photo of the watercolour, so that will have to wait for another time.

Snow photos – compositional notes

February 3, 2008

This is not a great photo – I was housebound due to an foot injury because of a fall on icy ground. It was still pretty icy out and the ground uneven, so my photos were taken from an upstairs window through double paned glass.

Since I take photos as reference for paintings or illustrations, I don’t mind so much if the precision and clarity is not there in photos taken with that purpose in mind. The importance for me on this image was the idea of this goofy snowman. He had eyes and mouth that lit up in the dark; he leans precariously like the tower of Pisa and only remains standing because of his two props – the rake and the shovel. He won’t lose his Starbucks gift-card mittens because they are tied together by a red string. For the discussion that ensues, note that, behind the blade of the shovel, there is a small undefined red object.


I have several compositional theories that I adhere to. I didn’t make them up; they are classical theories from different periods that try to grasp with concepts of imagery that draws the eye in an aesthetic way,

This image meets my spatial relationship concept which I have not seen codified elsewhere and so consider my own. It leans on Paul Klee’s theories of Taking a line for a walk, so it’s an outgrowth of that.

Try this for yourself.

1. Take a normal 8.5 x 11 paper and fold it as if you were going to put it in a business envelope so that you create 3 separate and equal areas.
2. Draw three rectangles 2 inches by 3 inches, one on each of the areas you have created by folding.

3. Inside the first rectangle (A) place a quarter inch dot. Just one.

4. Inside the second rectangle (B) place two dots, not too close together

5. Inside the third (C), place three dots, fairly well dispersed.

You will get something like this:


Now look at each one of these separately and think about it with me:

In A:


Your eye has nowhere to go. You tire quickly of concentrating on this one dot. You don’t really see any point in staying to look at this image.

Now in Rectangle B:


Your eye is drawn between the two points as if there was a line between them. You are caught in the picture, but your eyes become bored fairly quickly of traveling back and forth on the same path. It’s an improvement on A, but your eyes can easily get stuck in the back and forth motion and they want to escape to a more natural activity.


Now consider Rectangle C:


Your eyes move more easily around the page. You are engaged in the greater part of the composition. You are not stuck on one point nor shifting back and forth to each of the dots. Your eye feels comfortable because it can travel around to each dot or go back and forth, shift position, or roam within the picture plane.


Now go back to the snowman:


See the red mittens and the hat, how they form this triangular relationship and keep you pleasantly engaged in the image. Put your thumb over the hat and see how the composition would not have worked as well without it. Or over one of the mittens. Same effect.

Note at the bottom that there is a little bit of red something. It doesn’t affect the three strong red areas in the picture, but it does give a little more on the red circuit to be taken in and so the eye is comfortable in exploring these points. The face ornamentation also serves as a quiet transition for these three focal points.

In a secondary way (since the black is receding to the red in importance), there are the rake, the shovel blade and the black pen (or is it a flashlight); or if you are willing, the rake, the shovel blade and the very dark and slender tree trunk on the right hand side. These make up another spatial relationship that carries your eye.

This is only one way of looking at composition. There are plenty of other compositional ideas that have become fashionable rules from time to time. They are all abstract ideas on the aesthetics of two dimensional image making meant to give the viewer an easier time of enjoying the image. Trouble is, when a rule gets established and the establishment insist on it, it’s time to break the rules. But if you don’t know the rules, you don’t break them effectively.

Now, you might say, “My image and what I’m trying to say is more important than anything. I don’t need these rules. I just draw.”

Yeah, right!

If you want to keep your viewers looking at your pictures and coming back to them, you need to understand the underlying abstract concepts of image making. They are tools in your arsenal for making a better picture, for engaging your eyeballing audience. This is only one of them; and you need to have them working for you all at once – form, shape, composition, tonal balance, texture, colour.

If you want to explore my ideas on spatial relationships, stay posted. I’m going to try to expand on this one and explain a few other ones. I ask your indulgence though. I’m surprised at the time it takes to draw the pictures in Paint and then modify them in Adobe, then upload them one by one in WordPress with the text. I don’t always have the time and concentration, so just give me a bit of slack, please, and I will deliver.