Archive for the ‘chalk pastel’ Category

Elements of Design

September 28, 2008

After my years of study, I kept many of my text books. Although I had read them in University under duress during that time, I recognized that at some time in the distant future, they might make interesting reading. I’ve had a lifetime of work in between, not necessarily at art making which I love, but at mundane activities. Now that I have quit working, I have time to indulge in reading activity and recently came to this book called “Elements of Design” by Donald M Anderson.

Even if I had read it then, I would not have understood his concepts well. It has taken a lifetime of drawing and painting to fully ingest some of these principles and I’m still gathering them in and growing greater understanding of them, like a plant that has been growing and developing very well, thank you very much, putting out a few beautiful flowers, and then being watered by fertilizer rich liquid and blossoming heartily.

I have been meditating on some of his thoughts in the first few pages and stopped at this one, which describes the two dimensional mode of designing as compared to the three dimensional

Those who design in two dimension, … must master the various devices used to create the illusion of space. The consistent application and control of these devices is of the greatest importance in designing on flat surfaces. Here we have no real dimension of depth. Depth is an illusion. It is faked.

In my early twenties, I wanted desperately to be able to draw “realistically”. I worked and worked at trying to master representations of hands and feet, of figures and objects. I wanted to capture what I found interesting onto paper or canvas for others to marvel at. I suppose, had I ever been able to accomplish this feat,  I might have become one of those Realists of the Seventies that painted giant canvases of cabbages and fruit, or I might have become an illustrator. My abilities never reached those heights and I was forced along the way to come to terms with my inabilities, and to find another way of representing and making believable or readable, what I found worthy of drawing and painting.

With years and years of study and practice, I’ve come to embrace all kinds of art and to recognize the underlying principles of design are what hold me to appreciate a work whether abstract, representational or non-representational. I can love a Mark Rothko painting for his sheer love of colour and its rapport with another colour, as I can love a skillful illustrative and draftsman-like drawing of Andrew Wyeth. I can appreciate the wild angry expressiveness of Basquiat and the wild sensuousness of Wilhelm de Koonig. I can enjoy the chocolate box sweetness of the Pompiers in France and the Impressionists. I can work in a Post Modernist style or a Conceptual style for my own pleasure and then wonder how anyone else might find this kind of work valuable when it’s so personal and non representational.

During my second year in Rheims , France where I had the privilege of studying art in my late twenties I had an art epiphany. After a year of working at that which I had already learned in Canada in my art teaching courses, I finally realized that I had all the information and many techniques. I just had to integrate them and internalize them.

Of course I was learning new things as I went on, but the time I had to sort things out in my slow working brain was the critical turning point in learning assurance in my craft.

Internalizing, finally, that two dimensions can only ever represent an object and never can be an object, liberated me. Since I never was going to be able to reproduce what I saw, I might as well play with it.

I looked at a representational drawing in a new light. I asked myself the question each time I started a new painting or got stuck in working on one.

“Why was painting this picture important to me?”
“What is it about this image that makes it interesting – the texture, the shape, the composition, or the contrast of light and dark; the rhythm of the shapes or lines and forms, or the visual joke; the interrelationship of colours? Which of these elements needed to be emphasized in order to recreate the soul of the image?

If I couldn’t answer these questions, perhaps it wasn’t worth doing the painting. Sometimes I could be interested in more than one aspect of the image. For instance I could be highly interested in the composition and the tonal balance that helped created it, and at the same time interested in the colour relationships.

Once the important elements had been isolated and identified, it was much easier to organize how to state it in two dimensional form.

Take, for instance, a landscape where green trees and green grass are the primary subjects. I realized now that I don’t have to match the colours with nature in order to express the luminosity of the subject. As long as I have a limited range of greens to represent light, medium and dark tones, and use warm and cool colours to mix with the basic greens, I have the building blocks of the colour ranges and all the tonal values that I need.

I found that the more I simplified and found the elements, the better the piece succeeded. I found, too, that my paintings became more about the abstract qualities in them than about the image itself.

It was kind of a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” scenario. I still haven’t decided if I look for subjects that fit into my understanding of composition and design or whether I take an image and fit it to that understanding.


White rock photo

April 15, 2008

I took this photo in White Rock. The sun was glaring and I could hardly see the screen display to know what I was getting. When finally I got it home, it was one that I felt really quite thrilled with for a number of reasons. A happy accident. I didn’t even have to crop it.

First of all, I love subtlety and for that reason, I rather like the reduced palette of greys with only small amounts of subdued blues to heighten it. The balance between light and dark is sufficient to make the picture work. And then, despite many of the compositional rules that I generally go by, this one defies them or plays with them in an elliptical way (in the sense of omitting parts while still providing the meaning – I hope that Elliptical is the adverbial form of elide – to abridge, to omit ).

If you use the rule of thirds, the vertical left hand third and the vertical right hand third have activity going on in them but the center one has none. Already that trangresses the geometric compositional rule of putting something in the critical centre square.

Horizontally, the top two bands form a third; the middle, the major sandbar, forms the second and is enhanced by the small sandbar the two right hand figures are standing on. The bottom third is composed of the pool of water broken up by reflections echoing the figures.

If you follow the compositional rule of reading the picture like you would read a book, there is a strong entry point on the left hand side that is just, and only very minutely so, interrupted by the camera man’s head so that the eye can connect to the downward force to take its journey into the picture and thence again to the right. All the other horizontal lines are interrupted with vertical images, helping the viewer stay in the picture. Even if the directional force is strongly moving to the right, it’s always comfortable to shift down into the image and work your eye around the various figures.

Each of the figures acts as a vertical force that stops the eye from going out of the picture, and yet, because the reflection elides the figure shape, there is no continuous line, just one that is constructed by the eye of the viewer; and yet it reads as a continuous vertical “stopper” in the picture. That is, the viewer has to do some work to connect things together and this is a good thing – the image becomes interactive.

The small sandbar on the right edge acts as an arrow that is a strong counterweight to all the horizontal lines driving rightwards. It volleys the eye back to the left of the image. So, although there is nothing going on in the center, the eye comfortably can undertake a tennis match in the image, going back and forth, back and forth.

There are good contrasts – light and dark; texture and smooth; and activity and stasis. That being said, this might not be as captivating a photo without the adult form on the left who is taking photographs. His posture with the camera and his flapping coat make him the most interesting figure and his activity assists in pushing your eye to the right; and yet, your eye wants to keep going back to him. In this way he is perfectly positioned as a counterweight.

II superimposed a geometric grid on the picture plane and discovered it is not a Golden Rectangle. To my surprise, I realized that digital cameras have a new standard – it’s the 8.5 x 11 inch format that is standard to computer office paper. It’s not the 4 x 6 inches of standard non-digital photography. If it were, the closest would be 8 x12. It’s not far off, but it makes a difference. Of course, with the programs we have now for modifying digital photos, it would be very easy to stretch out or squish the picture to fit a Golden Rectangle proportion and hardly anyone would ever notice the difference

Using the geometric principle of composition, I drew a square on the left using the smaller side as the length of the square and then did the same on the other; then proceeded to make some critical center lines, major diagonals and then connected intersecting points. I came with this:


It’s a photo not a drawing. You get what you get, although when you zoom, when you frame things up before taking the photo, you have some control over composition of your image. So was it by hazard that I got a good approximation of a geometric composition? I think not. I think that the amount of time I’ve spent analyzing this kind of composition helps me to select and frame up images that are already approximately fitting the Geometric composition grid.

There is some good correspondence with the grid to the image – water meeting sand lines in the horizontal direction. a good diagonal on the right side; the figures hovering around a principal vertical on the left side and the figures on the right contained in a major right hand rectangle. The reflections are pretty close to being in the lower third. If I were to plan a painting using the geometric method of composition, it would take very little to adapt this picture to the grid to reinforce its geometric harmony.

Now look at this image again from the Spatial Relationship theory of composition:

The figures act as focal points. I’ve simplified the picture to show how they draw your eye around the image. I’ve traded the denim, (the mid-tone blue) for orange for illustration purposes only; and black as the dark tone. If you cover over the left hand figures you will see that your eye no longer is interested in travelling back and forth over the image. Or vice versa, cover over the right hand figures, the same thing happens. The picture becomes boring and ill-balanced. Also note here that when I modified the picture to make the principal focal points stand out, I lost the horizontal lines of the sea meeting the sand. This modified version of the photo now lacks any horizontal driving force except those lines from the grid itself!

Mostly only artists and photographers are interested in the underpinnings of the picture. They are like the compulsory figures of the figure skater. When they are doing their long skate, you’d never know they spent hours on the compulsories, practicing, practicing, practicing. If I were doing a painting from this picture, I would be searching out the harmonies and balances all the time, at the same time as I was painting the figures with some degree of representational form. Both need to be there – the form and the composition. I would move figures over a bit to make the composition work even better. I might even cut out a shape of one of the figures in paper of approximately the right colour or tone, then move it around the picture and consider where it would best be placed in order to give harmony to the whole.

Good artists understand these rules and regs. They are conscious of what’s going on in their drawings and how they are keeping the eye of the viewer engaged, seemingly effortlessly.

My last comment on this picture has nothing to do with composition. It has to do with subject.

I like this picture because it caught people doing what they like to do, not posed, not stiff. They are enjoying themselves. It’s idyllic.

I hope you’ve enjoyed it too.

If some of this seems esoteric to you and it’s the first time you’ve visited the site, then go back through some of my recent posts. I’ve been writing about composition.

Happy painting!

Divine proportions

April 10, 2008

The golden rectangle

I’ve been cruising a few sites to see what I could suggest as good examples of Art using the Golden Mean, or the Golden Rectangle, also known as the Divine Proportion. In my current avoidance and procrastination mood, I’m looking for a way out of drawing a template myself, but I haven’t found what I wanted. There are several rather dry explanations from a mathematical point of view.

Actually, the recurrence of the Golden Rectangle and the Golden Ratio in nature is quite frequent as is the Fibonacci series (1 plus 1 is 2, 2 plus 1 is 3, 2 plus 3 is 5, 3 plus 5 is 8, 5 plus 8 is 13; that is 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, ad infinitum . It’s best to look in Wikipedia if you want a good mathematical explanation of it. My eyes glaze over when I see it. I find it amazing, but I don’t want to do the math. (More avoidance?) I can check my grocery bills and balance my cheque book and determine what my change should be in a financial transaction at the supermarket; but further than that, I have little interest in geometric and algebraic calculations.

In my former day job, I managed several millions of dollars per year in a major contract, but I had people who were better at numbers than I, checking where we were with the budget. If I used a computer, I could generally understand what had happened to all the dollars spent and talk about how much was left over; or talk to the purse string holders and explain where we expected to spend all the money in the next year. But Please, Please don’t ask me to explain the mathematical aspects of the Golden Rectangle to you. There are several people much better at it and if you just Google these terms, you will find some mathematical explanations if you should so desire.

The question that is important to me is, how does it apply to art? Why is it important to even think about these complicated mathematical relationships when all we really want to do is draw? Why would we go to a lot of trouble to create a grid underneath our images in order to artificially bend a composition into it?

First of all, it’s been used as a principle of structuring, both in two dimensional and three dimensional art and in architecture, for thousands of years. It behooves us to at least be aware of it and understand that it’s not too bad a way to go about designing things. It has been declared universally pleasing in many different cultures which makes me wonder if it isn’t also a part of our own make up – an archetypal pattern in the Jungian sense of a inherited pattern or thought or symbolic imagery derived from the past collective experience and living in the present unconscious .

Secondly, during the Renaissance in the 14th and 15th Century, Greek geometry texts were rediscovered and using the Golden Mean for proportions became a leading-edge art fad. The heightened interest led to its being used in a formulaic way in the structuring of all paintings. By the Nineteenth Century, it was considered the only way to compose pictures and became a confining, imprisoning idea and all other forms of composition were mocked as primitive or decorative. However, the idea of geometric composition is still taught in Art History to explain Renaissance and Neo-Classic Artist methodology. Some modern day artists are again finding the concept a useful one for compositional balance.

In the photographers’ or artists’ life, most of the standard sizes of photographs (i.e. 4 x 6) and the manufactured canvases, frames, artist’s watercolour blocks and drawing pads conform to the Golden Rectangle proportion. As a result of starting with a Golden Rectangle in photography, it is evident that the Rule of Thirds also complies to the Golden Ratio principle.

If you go back to my post titled “Today’s Offering” I’ve already talked about some of the periods of art where the slavish attention to this principle of composition was rejected by artists who wanted to free their thinking and find new, fresh ways of making images. In the Twentieth Century, there was an enormous upheaval in society engendered chiefly by two horrendous, cataclysmic wars. The forefront of the art world reflected these upheavals by challenging all the rules and eventually, there were Art movements that chose to toss out all the previously cherished formulas for art.

By the time I was studying Art in the late ‘Sixties, our professors were still teaching drawing and painting, but there were lots of forms of Art or trends that didn’t seem like Art at all. Some artists challenged the notion that art was for museums and for homes. Longevity of art was not deemed desirable nor necessary. It was felt that Art should be brought to the streets and the masses.

One of the performances that I remember entailed the artist erecting a platform on which his piano was placed. After a rather wild and agitated performance of some non-harmonic piano bashing and much gyrating and ranting on the part of the artist, he turned from the audience and attacked his piano, beating it into smithereens. A strong sense of Anihilism reigned as the North American populace struggled with the futility of American involvement in Viet Nam. A whole generation of brave and intelligent young men were being conscripted off to a war that few Americans believed in. Art of the time reflected a disaffection with society in some creative and also some destructive manners.

One of Vancouver’s artists took reels and reels of discarded film and knit it into an amorphous pile that surrounded her in the Vancouver Art Gallery. Her artwork was this pile of knitted film. Another built a low wall of bricks that snaked through one room of the the Art Gallery. One installation had lines of various kinds of string and other tangible, touchable items hanging inside a built passageway that the “observer” to the gallery, was invited to walk through, encouraging the gallery’s guest to think of art as a sensation as much as a visual experience. Installation Art, as this mode of expression became named, has not run it’s course still – fifty years after.

In my early years while I was studying at University, we still were taught drawing and painting, basics of design, sculpture and ceramics. Our professors were trained in the first half of the Twentieth Century and many were still products of the Nineteenth century teaching philosophy and training, for which I am eternally grateful. But they were reaching out to understand and incorporate the modern trends that were exploding around us in a maelstrom of creativity and reaction to the political atmosphere of the time. I am equally thankful for that exposure to Found Art, Op Art, Pop Art and other leading edge forms of that time.

Ten years after I finished University and my art teaching degree, I was frustrated with my own abilities to draw and I sold everything I had so that I could go to Art school for a year. It turned into four years, thankfully, because that period of concentrated learning and discovery made the difference in me becoming a good artist instead of a really bad wannabe. Amongst other things, I had time to focus on different means of composition and internalize them.

I got caught up on the principles of the Golden Rectangle which I had only heard of briefly in a Math class in Grade 10 or 11. I thought it might be the magic answer for composing landscapes that people would have an inherent connection to, whether they realized it or not. The compositions would be familiar to them because of the underlying structure. They would then fall in love with my pictures and want to buy them. It was a little naive, and spurious at the same time. Of course, any time I’ve tried to make pictures with make-money-quick as the end goal, I’ve always failed miserably. I still have them all stored in my basement. It may work for some people, but it doesn’t work for me.

Nevertheless, I got quite apt at planning out pictures with this classical method as the underpinning for composition. I gained a much better understanding of all the Renaissance, Classical and Baroque Art. Even the Impressionists were steeped in the use of geometrically designed compositions. While they were breaking away in colour and subject, they just couldn’t shake their early classical training in composition. Once learned, you start noticing it everywhere. It’s hard to dismiss it and it is hard to erase it from your compositions. Certainly, you will begin to realize which artists use it as a formula in their work and those who don’t.

Here’s how it works:

Step One

4 x 6 inch golden rectangleI

I’m using a 4 x 6 watercolour block, the kind one does post cards for this illustration.

You will see that I have divided it into three equal rectangles. The two on the left, combined, make square. The two on the right when combined also make a square.


Now I’ve used a black line to put a large diagonal cross in black on the two left rectangles. The intersecting point halves the common side of these two rectangles. I’ve done the same on the two right-hand rectangles but in red so that you can see the difference. I filled in the resulting square with a pale blue so that you could take special notice of it.

In classic composition, the subject of the painting should be focused in some way in this important square. If someone’s arms come through this space, they should align with one of the side of the square; or if there is a head that is important, it should be placed fitting in this area. If it doesn’t, according to this geometric method of composition, you change your composition so that it does fit. You bend your images to fall on important lines and this square is the key focal point that needs to have something interesting going on in it.

Step Two

Stage 2i

Now I’ve reinforced the Step One lines in black. For Step Two, using red, I’ve drawn a vertical line between intersecting points and carried them on to top and bottom of the picture surface (the picture plane); then I’ve done this horizontally as well. In yellow, I’ve drawn lines from corner to corner. If you are completely accurate in your drawing, then you have defined dead centre, smack dab in the middle.

Step Three

I have changed all of those Step 2 lines to black so that you will be able to see what happens next.

Step Three defines more diagonals, creating more intersecting points.


In Step Three, I’ve taken diagonals from the midpoints of each side and drawn them down to the corners, shown in red. Then I looked for intersecting points and connected them, continuing the lines out to the sides. There are vertical and horizontal ones. And then more intersections occur and more connections can be made ad infinitum until you have a real (but very geometrical) spider web of lines.

I’ve done this in a variety of colours so that you could distinguish the progression of connections, but in a preparation drawing for composition, this would most likely be done in light pencil, or on a canvas, in sanguine chalk or willow charcoal that would easily erase or blend in with the paint as you start to add in pigments.

Step 4

Next, I’ve drawn a rather primitive drawing on top of the geometric grid. I’ve done this all with the mouse in cyberspace (no pencil or paper), so enjoy the directness of it. It’s rather rough. You’ll wonder what I was doing all those years in art school!

For some reason that I wasn’t willing to spend a lot of time on, the computer wouldn’t let me fill in colours in enclosed shapes today. In order to add colour to this drawing, I ended up doing a lot of switching between Adobe Photoshop and the Accessories program that comes with every PC called Paint. It has made for some interesting textures and colour choices that I found rather interesting.


You can see that I’ve chosen the grid lines to define the couch mattress, I’ve chosen a right hand vertical to prop the pillow against; the breasts lie on either side of one wall of the middle square; the knees are at strategic points as are the hands. The window with trees outside is a rectangle that is bordered on vertical and horizontal lines provided in the grid; I tried to get the centre of the body, the torso, into the important middle square. It didn’t quite fit that way, but with this drawing it was too hard to go back and change it.

Now here’s the same drawing developed a little more. Particularly, I’ve tried to erase the grid lines as much as possible while still leaving a trace of them underneath (for demonstration purposes only).


Despite the inaccuracies of form, despite the roughness of this mouse-drawn sketch, you can see that the composition is pleasant. There is a balance to it. There are sufficient directional changes to make things interesting.

That’s the end of this demonstration on geometric composition using Divine Proportions.

If you would like to explore this further, I suggest that you take a look at some Renaissance paintings – Leonardo da Vinci; Michelangelo; or some from the Neo-Classical period – Jacques-Louis David (The Death of Marat;The oath of the Horatii). Some other artists clearly using geometric compositions are Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, John Constable, Dominique Ingres, Jean-Honore Fragonard and Nicholas Poussin. These are some of the artists who embraced this compositional method during a time when it was still a fresh idea, not an overused and restricting one. The structure of their images is easily seen when you know that this geometric grid is responsible for the placement of figures and objects within them.

You might try printing this grid and making drawings right on it so that you can try fitting compositional elements into it. Or you might photocopy some famous Renaissance and Classical art works, then draw the grid on top to see what objects and figures align with the principle shapes of the grid.

A last word:

I enjoyed working with this type of composition for a long period of time. Later, though I decided to explore many different types of composition, I would often come back to this principle. I no longer had to draw the grid to know good placements for the picture elements of my drawings.

I find that, looking at art, the Divine Proportion pervades all European painting prior to Twentieth Century. Knowing that someone has taken such care over his composition makes me marvel at the final result; and equally, for such a structured method, I’m always awed at how much variety there is in composing with it. It’s much like a musician uses a Sonata form or a Concerto to structure their creations but there are thousands of different ones.

Rules are made to be broken so feel free to go ahead and break rules. The only caveat? You need to know the rules first in order to work with them and then bend them to your will.

Edward Abbey commenting on art

April 7, 2008

I’ve been reading a chronicle by Edward Abbey (1927 – 1989) who wrote about his experiences in the Arches country or southeastern Utah while he was a park ranger. He lived a very solitary life while there and shared his reflections on his time in Desert Solitaire, A season in the Wilderness. It’s a very powerful, sparely written book. I’m enjoying it immensely.

If you are looking for it in the Library or the Book store, it’s a Touchstone book published by Simon & Schuster in 1968.

I was especially interested in this passage which discusses petroglyphs and pictograms. The first are carved into rock (petro- Greek for rock, glyph – a drawing) and pictograms are painted on rock. The discussion in the book is a few pages long, but it was this item that I thought worthy of sharing with you:

Whether crude or elegant , representational or abstract, very old or relatively new, all of the work was done in a manner pleasing to contemporary taste, with its vogue for the stylized and primitive. The ancient canyon art of Utah belongs in that same international museum without walls which makes African sculpture, Melanesian masks, and the junkyards of New Jersey equally interesting – those voices of silence which speak to us in the first world language. As for the technical competence of the artists, its measure is apparent in the fact that these pictographs and petroglyphs though exposed to the attack of wind, sand, rain, heat, cold and sunlight for centuries still survive vivid and clear. How much of the painting and sculpture being done in America today will last – in the physical sense – for even half a century.

His commentary on the durability of art is an idea to spend some good time thinking about.

He goes on to say.

The pictures (to substitute one term for the petroglyph-pictogram combination) are found on flat surfaces along the canyon walls, often at heights now inaccessible to a man on foot. (Because of erosion.) They usually appear in crowded clusters, with figures of a later date sometimes superimposed on those of an earlier time. There is no indication that the men who carved and painted the figures made any attempt to compose them into coherent murals; the endless variety of style, subject and scale suggests the work of many individuals from different times and places who for one reason or another came by, stopped, camped for days or weeks and left a sign of their passing on the rock….

They could be the merest doodling – that is an easy first impression. Yet there’s quite a difference between scribbling on paper and on sandstone. As anyone know who has tried to carve his name in rock, the task requires persistence, patience,determination and skill. Imagine the effort required to inscribe, say, the figure of a dancer, with no tool but a flint chisel and in such a way as to make it last five hundred years.

It’s on page 101 in the chapter called Cowboys and Indians Part II in the copy I’m reading if you should wish to look up the book and read more. I don’t know if I’ve properly credited him in this blog to avoid copyright issues, but I don’t think any publisher would complain about such a short excerpt being reprinted in an laudatory manner to encourage others to read his work.

The passage made me think about the longevity of some art forms. Various types of stone and metals seem to offer centuries, even millenniums worth of durability. Fresco seems more durable than other painting mediums although works in fresco often run into difficulty if there is a problem of humidity. Oil paintings are quite durable in smaller forms, and on wooden, especially mahogany, panels. Oils on canvas are more fragile both to the elements and to damaging. The jury is still out on acrylics. By some, it’s hailed as the miracle discovery for painting of this century; but only time will tell. Anyway, some of the problems of acrylic on canvas are the same as for oils by reason of the support – the canvas is affected by humidity levels and is easily torn. Watercolour and pastels are fragile, only being supported by paper grounds.

Since much of art production throughout the ages has not been cast in stone, I’m very grateful for the museums of the world. They provide an optimal environmental condition with controlled humidity and temperature to preserve the collection of all ages of art work. I’ve spent countless hours of my spare time haunting their halls and absorbing art work that was produced before (and after) I was born.

There are petroglyphs and pictograms in many regions of the world. I’ve never seen any in real life, just through books, but I marvel at the ability of the artists to produce such interesting imagery. It reminds me of Rhoda Kellog’s research on children teaching themselves to draw (without the interference of adults telling them what to do). The similarity of man’s drawing, of man’s need to draw, of the archetypal patternings we use are all subjects of interest to me. It is, I have decided, one of the main things that distinguishes man from the other animals in the Animal Kingdom. We feel compelled to draw. As far as I know, there is no other animal that does that.

What do you think?

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)!

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.

Some images aren’t meant to be painted

November 9, 2007


I remember walking along the banks of the Englishman River on Vancouver Island with my friend and art mentor, Paul Kuzma. He is a fabulous watercolourist and illustrator working in the school of Realism. We hadn’t intended to go sketching, so we were without our art gear. He pulled out an envelope already marked up with notes to remember and drew a general rectangle to make a thumbnail sketch of what had caught his eye.

A shaft of brilliant blue sky came zig zagging through the clouds, acting as a bolt of lightning, an arrow, drawing the eye into the centre of the image. His thumbnail sketch was dynamic and balanced at the same time.

He counselled me that if the sky did not work in a painting, you might as well give it up and start over. They sky was what made the painting exciting. I started looking at sky, then, and noticing the clouds. I watched how, without any linear references, the perspective of the sky was formed, with tonal changes from light to dark. Or with clouds receding.

We stopped by some shallow pools in the gravelly edges of the pool and were swept away by the awesome visual impact of the reflective pools where you could see what was on top of the water as well as a reflection and the underneath of it, below the water, as well. I eagerly thought how wonderful it would be to have the skills to express the multiplicity of this watery image but when I mentioned it, he said “Not everything is meant to be painted. ”  That was a long time ago, and I’ve painted a good twenty five years since. It took me a long time to understand how true that was.

“How could I preserve that moment, that particular image, if painting was not the means?” I wondered. But now I understand. One can never, never capture the wonder of nature exactly as it is, especially in painting. Even the most “Realist” of paintings will not capture that. Every painting, no matter how “Realist” has been interpreted by the artist’s eye. Any painting that needs that very special talent of precise painting as if done under a microscope becomes tawdry and awkward with the hand of a painter given to even the slightest degree of impressionism. Painted by an amateur, it becomes clumsy and defeats the purpose. Photography is now our best resource for capturing such complicated, detailed and subtle images.

That is not to say that painting is dead nor that we can all turn in our paint brushes. Rather, I feel that when one has a particularly complicated image best suited to photography, then chose that as the means of capturing the image.

It is much better to paint expressively and surely than to copy nature slavishly. For me, I find that each image I desire to paint is best expressed by a particular medium. Some adapt or are better expressed by the transparencies of watercolour. Other images will be better represented through the opacity of oils or acrylics. Some need the layers of glazing that is offered in oil techniques. Others are more matte in nature and cry out to be expressed in chalk or oil pastels.

All that, to say that, this morning as the rains abated and the last of the autumn leaves clung to the branches of the Japanese Maple just outside my front door, I stopped to photograph the star-like leaves in reds and oranges. The branches still kept rain droplets hanging tenaciously on the delicate fingers of the twigs. I found it exquisitely charming and was happy to know that my camera would preserve the image for me to enjoy again and again, but I knew for sure that any attempt I made to paint it would end in destruction of a dismal piece of art work. I was not meant to paint it. But photograph it? Yes!



Japanese butterfly

October 4, 2007


Japanese butterfly Chalk Pastel 50 x 65 cm

A positive spin on Kristin Krimmel’s work is that it very diverse, from realism right down to some goofy conceptual collages of banal household stuff sandwiched in plastic. It ranges through oils, watercolours, chalk pastels, collages and photography.

The down side is of her work is that it lacks “consistency” in the gallery definition of the word. That is, if you see one work of the artist, you should be able to recognize all of the work of that artist. It’s a principle near and dear to the hearts of gallery directors.

In my career,I was counselled by one of these directors that if they took on my work, I would have to continue producing in that vein of design on demand if I were to be taken on by the gallery. There would be no shift in style or subject if I wanted to remain in the “stable” of artists presented in the gallery.

I did not conclude an agreement to work with that gallery. I hold dear my liberty to paint what concerns me, what I think needs to be said in imagery, whether it is

  • This is beautiful and needs to be recorded (flowers, still life work, landscapes, sunlight blessing something with it’s presence)
  • This is something that often goes unnoticed (women’s work, construction, electrical and telephone wires dividing up the sky)
  • A commentary on or recording society and it’s foibles (the sandwiching of common household and office paraphernalia between archival plastic; freeze frame capturing human activity in one’s community)
  • A political commentary (cartoons)
  • An exploration of materials and some aspect of the abstract or non representational visual context that results in an abstract design.

If we, as artists, give up our right to express our feelings, our insights, our vision to a commercial demand for visual wallpaper, we become lackeys to commercial interests.

I balance that with: some of the work represented in commercial galleries is excellent work, has vision, meaning and integrity. But when an artist has spent his entire life reproducing the same imagery one of two things happens – it gets stale and meaningless, or the in-depth exploration of a single narrow vision blossoms into something richer.

It’s why I like Lucien Freud’s work. Or Edgar Degas.

What do you think, as an artist? Where are you going? What is the light that guides your path?

How do you prepare to paint?

September 16, 2007


All my furniture and belongings have finally been delivered after a two month wait. Now it all has to be put away.

I haven’t done any art work for months, years really. I’ve finally rearranged things in a small balcony come entry come sun room at the back door of the house so that there is room for my easel and a chair, a small table that can hold paints and accoutrements. There are two plants – a Christmas cactus and a prayer plant that provide a bit of greenery. I’m planning on a small rug to keep my feet warm and to hide the imperfections of the wooden flooring.

I need to get all the boxes of supplies and materials away so that there can be some peace in my mind, which brings me to the subject I wanted to explore:

How do you prepare to paint?

I need a quiet place with no interruptions. I can’t paint and talk at the same time. I need to know where materials are when I need to reach for them. So that means my studio effects need to be in place – put away in a logical fashion.

I need for there to be little distractions. Once I’m in the swing of creation, I can listen to music but not while figuring out what I’m trying to do. The music has to be inobtrusive, low volume, soothing unless I’m in an abstract mood, ready to play with imagery and paint.

Sometimes these requirements for a start mean that I will do house cleaning the day before. I prepare to paint and find that I can’t do it before the dishes are done, or a window cleaned. Once I can get past the house stuff, I may find that I’m cleaning a palette, or making sure the brushes are in a container that I can reach easily if I have to get a fresh, clean one; or I clean off the studio workbench and put things away so that as I move collage bits or reference images around, I have space enough to play with them.

With my more imaginative work, I need to centre myself. I stand still, close my eyes, take stock of how I feel, take my emotional temperature and try to feel what colours I want to work with.


With a work that is more representational, a recording sketch of something I’ve seen, I check the composition; I crop the image in different ways to get the best one. I make some decisions as to how to start – for watercolour, a watercolour pencil drawing on the paper or a graphite one, for reference points and composition. For oils, I might start with a burnt sienna wash to explore the light-dark tonal arrangements and figure out their impact from far across the room, then check that proportions are in place.

Do you have rituals? What form do they take? Please share and leave a comment.

Art in the museum… or in the basement

September 1, 2007


Desert flower. Chalk Pastel

I’ve been carrying on a blog conversation with Chris Miller at in which he made an interesting comment that ”
if a work of art has no place in the history of art, it ends up in the basement.”
I almost completed my move to my new house in the burbs, personally carrying almost every piece of my vast collection of basement art (my own production for some thirty plus years) in an effort to avoid having to place a thousand pieces in mirror boxes.

When I was a starving artist, which I tried on as a work profession for some ten years with dismal failure, I made my food and rent money at minimum wage activities that hardly allowed for art materials or studio space. Later, I taught temporarily at the local Art Institute which paid me handsomely for the time I worked, but it would never become permanent and I was getting long enough in the tooth to begin wondering if I could survive my cadmium yellow years without some kind of pension or at least some substantial savings.

One of those minimum wage type jobs was as receptionist in a government agency. I looked around me and decided if I put my mind to it, I could do some of those higher paid jobs. After all, I had a teaching degree and many transferable skills. To keep this short, I decided to stay in the government agency, get a pension, get the best hourly wage I could muster and do my own art work in my spare time with the luxury of being able to buy materials.

In the process, I ended up with a pretty substantial job (and stressful) that allowed me not only the art materials and pension that I was after, but some disposable income to buy other people’s work. I became addicted to acquiring art. I have very eclectic tastes and I’ve made many a local artist happy with a sale. So, I’ve purchased from friends, artists and flea markets (yes, wonderful original art sometimes gets chucked to the Sally Ann, thrift store or garage sales) and even at exorbitant price (for me), from galleries.

When I was carrying all of this vast collection (maybe a thousand pieces of art or more, about half of them framed with glass), I had half a mind to set a match to the whole works. It’s the doing that’s really important. If it were all gone, I could start fresh filling up that new basement of mine.

But Chris’ comment got me thinking.

Our era that has been war free for the vast majority of us on the North American continent, and richly prosperous and abundant in a way that few other nations or generations have experienced, has spawned an incredible number of people who consider themselves artists, unlike any other period in time.

After great consideration of this phenomenon, I’ve come to terms that they are all artists upon a continuum journey of exploring art and every person’s search for expression is valid. Some have a wonderful talent of expressing themselves better than the rest of us, and some are taking baby steps at it – the resulting work may be awful, even – but the effort and the search is laudable.

I’ve known many a person who started the quest in their later years – their fifties or sixties – to explore on their own, to take workshops or to plunge into a formal training forum of University or Art Institute. The result has been phenomenal. It’s never too late to start getting serious about this business of expressing oneself visually.

I got side tracked in that rant…

First of all, I wanted to say that there as many purposes for doing art as there are people doing it. Many, especially beginners, want simply to record what they are seeing, to preserve something they think is interesting or awesome. Some simply want to master techniques so that they can do this in better and better means of expression.

Some artists are painting to sell and they learn formulas to do so. Funny enough, these formulas work wonderfully, but the art, in my books seldom reaches the quality that museums look for.

Other artists aim for the “serious art” trade, seeking to be shown in museums and Municipal Art collections. Equally, they may be striving to be the chosen one for a Biennale with world recognition in the iconic museums like the Museum of Modern Art in New York or the Guggenheim. To most ordinary citizens without some formal training in the elements of design, these are mysterious and often offensive works. They are esoteric and hugely expensive. “For what? I don’t get it!” you will hear someone say, when a major museum pays an outrageous number of millions for a piece of work by a dead abstractionist.

For the majority of artists seeking to express themselves, if they are prolific, the basement is the only place for storage. An occasional piece donated to the local hospital to decorate their walls, or the few pieces that one has sent out as gifts to willing or unwilling sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles (not to forget ever-accepting mothers who may actually be providing the basement) doesn’t make a dent in the artist’s own collection of his own work.

So Chris’ comment raised this question for me. If we artists are bypassed in our own generation, does this mean that we have been bypassed by history? What about van Gogh? He only sold one picture in his lifetime, so legend has it. It’s amazing that his large body of work survived, since it was so mistakenly mistrusted in the era that he did it. Most artists struggle to survive on sales of their own work. There are some lucky ones that make money, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee one a position in the history continuum. Some who are famous in their own era, like the Pompiers, sold well and were loved by collectors of the time, but have been denigrated since. And then re-evaluated and almost, sort of, reinstated as rather alright after all, maybe.

There is a push and pull between various schools of art. Often in one era, there will be two opposing views that will throw mud at each other. Witness the Art Deco style that was lean and mean, angular and geometric. They shuddered at the Art Nouveau style that was of the same era – flowery, flowing, feeling and romantic. The argument exists to this day, yet both schools of art have survived with strong proponents for either side still criticizing the other. The Bauhaus movement that sprang up afterwards went to the far extremes of austerity, while the Expressionists took up the extremes of the emotional side of art.

Who is to say, in the future, which of those basement loads of work will be assigned to the auction houses for sale (“good riddance!” say the beneficiaries of the estate) only to find that some astute art dealer has purchased the lot at a bargain basement price. Is that where the term came from? He then spends the time advertising, cultivating his collector-clientele to appreciate the exceptional qualities that he lauds in this forgotten work. One collector buys, another sees it in collector number one’s home; collector two buys. They’ve paid a handsome price for it. They talk it up to others. They leave it to a museum when they die. It becomes part of a museum collection. The auctioneer sells the next pieces at a higher price. The prices rise like bubbles to the top. All of a sudden, van Gogh looks pretty good (after all) .

I could blather on, but I rest my case. We may not sell prolifically in our own time, but who knows how we will fare against the commercial junk that is out there, in the long run. Who will be remembered? Who will be forgotten? Who will burn an artist’s production because they don’t understand it (correct me if I’m wrong – wasn’t it Whistler’s mother who burnt all of his figure drawings after he died because they were immoral?). Will we survive? Will we be fortunate enough to have a dealer discover and promote us? Or will we like most artists, still make the rounds of commercial galleries seeking to find someone to represent us? Or submit a thousand proposals to Civic and National galleries for a show that gives us prestige, but no sales?

It’s a tough life if an artist counts on the money that comes back from his or her art work. But it’s a magnificent life, if the art work has given the artist the pleasure and satisfaction of expressing a thought or a feeling; or has the esteem of one’s peers; and has the privilege of viewing the world through eyes that see life and one’s surroundings through the very special eyes of an artist.