Wednesday, 14 January 2015


I recently tried to help someone with a painting.  The artist had complained  that the painting had brought forth no nice comments from people who had seen it, and he thought that perhaps he should have handled it differently.

I pointed out to him some of the reasons why I felt that the painting had perhaps not been as successful as others he had done.  I explained why I felt that the composition of the painting was rather weakened by certain elements,  - most of my reasons were based on the "geometry" underlying the image.

This clearly did not go down very well.  The response I received was "well, that is far too complicated ,  I cannot see myself ever thinking about echoes, horizontals, diagonals and stuff like that".

A classic bit of inflexible thinking.  While I can understand that some concepts are tricky to comprehend, and perhaps "see" at first glance, nevertheless surely it is worth trying rather than dismissing the whole idea instantly?

I do get it that people like to paint something that excites them.  It is the subject-matter that hits their conscious mind, first and foremost.  But there are times when what appears to be super subject-matter, turns into a rather boring painting.   And then, it is necessary to search for reasons why. 
I personally believe that often, the reason why that painting disappoints is because many of the underlying important elements of "what makes a painting work" have been ignored, misunderstood, or simply overlooked.   

Painting isn't just about accurately portraying a glorious sunset....or a cute-looking dog ....or an interesting building.

Painting is about all of those things, PLUS loads of other things......amongst them things like this:

  • Pattern - the arrangement of light and dark shapes within your rectangle
  • Directing the eye - the path of the viewer's eye, which depends upon visual connections
  • The Focal Area - a centre of interest
  • Colour - creating colour relationships, using colour theory concepts
  • Design - the basics of an attractive "layout" for your image
  • Shapes and Edges - thinking about how to create rhythm, balance, emphasis where needed
  • Key - thinking about the mood you want to create, and how this can be achieved
Not one of these things will show you how to paint a tree, a background, a portrait.  But without at least taking on board the fact that all of these things, and more,  are part of learning to paint, and having an open mind about TRYING, gradually, to learn something about these powerful tools which help to build a good, strong image,  your paintings will simply be an attempt to reproduce reality, without any of the underlying, secret messages which make a painting good enough to stop a viewer in his or her tracks.

OK I will get off my soapbox now.

Here are some images which were painted by a favourite artist of mine - Tony Allain.    His work always stops ME in my tracks.  And the reason it does, is nothing to do with the subject matter.  I love the energy of these images, the confidence of the big shapes, the dynamism, the surprising, exciting colour. I wish I could be half so bold and brave.     If you like these, do take a look at more of his works.




  1. I love this post! this is one of those concepts that are very difficult for a beginning artist to grasp, often coming at art with a lot of preset ideas few of which work out in practice! art is not about making something that looks like something else. It's about interpreting and showing and just inviting your viewer in to explore. When I teach art to adults, often beginners, I like to point out the strengths in their work, so that they can realize that they have in fact done some good things even without analyzing what or why. That helps build

    But wouldbe painters who are unwilling to see how very difficult, and engrossing, and wonderful, it is to paint or make any artform are hard to get through to. I've noticed that a lot of students think it's easy because they've watched a skilled artist at work and assume not much is going on in their minds, when in fact they're ablaze with intent and planning and deciding!

  2. Oh well said Boud, what a delightful reply.

  3. Jackie, this is fantastic! I so often have to tell a student they are not a copy machine! Getting them to understand the time it takes to make one step at a time to learn. The need to build upon each previous lesson is so hard to get across to them.

    Many times I have painted something thinking I know so much about composition, color theory, value, etc. to find the painting is not working, or I finish it, frame and show... and then a couple of years later can't quite figure out why it is still in my inventory! It is those times I realize I painted without a real purpose, and did not use the things I know. I was carried away by the image and that was not enough to create a true "painting" not a copy.

    Thank you for your insights... they are always "spot on!" And, I got that saying from you many years ago! I'll be sharing this one to my page ... it is soooo good!

  4. Love this post and your blog. Your blog has helped me to take the leap to learn pastel. It should be a great journey. Thanks for taking the time to post so much helpful information.

  5. jackie, it IS over the head of early stage painters. I was curious about all these topics when I was early stage. I can't tell you how many "teachers" told me not to worry about that stuff. "Here, just paint it and sign it and we'll get it framed". (Teachers who are also framers on the side).

    I came to realize it was all about making pretty pictures (?) and while they could repeat their one skill (say, an oversized flower) over and over, they couldn't do anything else. I went on to find classically trained tutors who believed students should learn the foundations of painting FIRST, with color theory coming later.

    I wanted an atelier training...but did what I could with self study and modern masters. The foundation skills are MOST important.

  6. glad this one struck a few chords. thanks for commenting!

  7. You are right about these concepts being over the heads of early stage painters. I too had tutors who had no ability to explain these ideas to me properly. However, I had curiosity, knew there were gaps in my knowledge, and went about trying to fill those gaps, slowly, slowly. I learned loads from books, more than I learned from tutors. This post is about needing to have a mind flexible enough to realise that even if you feel that what I am saying is WAY outside of your comfort zone, nevertheless, there might be something to all this stuff which feels initially so foreign. And what's more, it is fun finding out about it!


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