Something Every Artist Needs

In my last post, I made the case for why one should look at ‘bad’ art (including one’s own failed works!) as a useful exercise in reinforcing one’s own skills. Despite its merits, spending time with uninspiring artwork is hardly enjoyable! It’s something like eating those healthy vegetables than no one is particularly fond of; boring but worth the investment every now and then.

This post is about something much more thrilling, a treat you can enjoy every day, and the complete opposite advice of the above.

I’m talking about surrounding yourself with inspiring art.

It might seem obvious and is probably something you already do to an extent, but being in an environment of stimulating artwork is one of the most important things an artist can do, in my opinion.

My studio walls are covered in reproductions of my favorite paintings from artists new and old. These images make it as easy as possible to study a technique or composition with as little effort as possible. Perhaps more than that, at any odd moment, I will find myself unintentionally staring off into one of those works, and on a subconscious level, I seem to absorb the style of each painting over time.

This notion of ‘passive absorption’ is important. Most art that we find impressive comes from some technique that we don’t quite fully comprehend. Naturally, if we did truly understood the skill involved, we would do it ourselves! While some techniques can be best learned by focused study, other techniques or stylistic effects require a more holistic appreciation. It is for these types of features that passive absorption can be very effective. Research has even shown that being briefly exposed to artwork can increase one’s creativity, so clearly, something is getting through whether you realize it or not!

It’s easy to find high resolution images online, but if you’re not sure what you want, I suggest joining a group on social media where like-minded artists share hi-res works. Scrolling through lower resolution art on Instagram, Pinterest, or similar sites is also useful, but I feel that being physically surrounded by art in real-life is particularly valuable. That being said, having a desktop or phone background that cycles through a folder of images is also a great way to keep fresh artwork coming your way.

Curiously, over time, I’ve found that the displayed paintings that I used to hold up in complete awe become much more accessible.

I start to think to myself, “I could do that.”

Getting into Shape | Painting Tutorial

Have you ever painted a subject, maybe a landscape or still life, and were disappointed at how all the elements in the painting felt somehow disjointed – as if the composition didn’t quite flow as well as you had planned? It’s a common problem, and perhaps, sometimes one the artist doesn’t even realize is the source of their frustration. There are a few solutions to this dilemma. However, one of the most effective strategies is to simplify shapes. This doesn’t mean that a square should be reduced to a circle! It means that adjacent forms should be combined when possible to create cohesion and simplicity in an otherwise complex subject. This technique is also known as massing.

Take for example, the serene painting above, by T. Allen Lawson. I can’t help but relish in the middle grouping of pines. In truth, it is one shape. Each tree blends into its neighbor, leaving one solid form. The effect this has on the viewer can hardly be overstated. The simplification of this landscape is not only easier on the eyes but helps to distill the essence of the artist’s expression. This isn’t a painting about trees; it’s a story of a blissful, natural harmony. The viewer knows that there are trees in the forest. We don’t need to show them every needle and pinecone. In fact, the eye prefers not to be shown all the details. Furthermore, our mind is thrilled to fill in the details itself! We struggle as artists to please as many types of viewers as possible, but why do all the heavy-lifting when you can let the viewers do the job themselves? By reducing shapes and form, each viewer will read between the lines and see what he or she wants to see, engaging their own imagination, subconsciously dreaming up more exciting details than you or I could probably produce ourselves.

There are many important tools in a painter’s reserve but massing is one of the most effective. You may have noticed that this technique is closely related to edges – in particular, lost edges, which I wrote about in the last post. Essentially, the simplification of shapes is achieved through omitting edges or removing details altogether.

An understanding and mastery of simplifying edges is especially essential to the watercolorist. I’ll leave you with a painting by one of my favorites, Joseph Zbukvic. Talk about massing! The interconnected shadows and horses in this painting were all done in nearly one flowing wash.


On the Edge


One of the most exciting aspects of a good painting tends also to be one of the most overlooked: edges. The majority of painters seem to be well aware of the importance of good draftsmanship, composition, sense of color and perhaps value. However, the concept of edges too often seems the forgotten virtue. But a painting without a consideration for edges is like a cake without icing or a bride without jewelry. In fact, a painting without carefully planned edges is perhaps less than these things; in addition to a beautiful feature, edges can aid in storytelling and composition — directing the viewers’ eyes to the salient aspects of an image and sharing the artist’s vision in a magical way.

In the above painting, by Zhao Ming Wu, notice the contrast of hard and soft edges to the woman’s figure. Follow the contour of the form and observe what are called lost-and-found edges — edges which come and go. Make note of how the hard edges draw your attention. The human eye is specially designed to hone in on hard, well-defined edges, particularly when those edges denote a sharp transition in value. A painter can use the four types of edges — hard, soft, lost, and found — to her advantage, by choosing to save those hard edges for the focal points of the image.

At first, giving up on uniformly hard edges can be more challenging than one might expect. After all, many realist painters spend a great deal of time practicing their ability to faithfully copy their subject. But after some practice, one starts to notice which edges can be softened or lost altogether. For example, in the above painting, the contour of the knee and thigh is completely missing. The only clue to the leg’s form is the shift in color temperature from the bed sheets to the body. If that contour had instead been painted with a hard edge, it would have been a distraction, pulling the eye from the more interesting parts of the image. With these soft, missing edges, we find our eyes dancing around the painting — the shoulder, the rear, the hand, and feet. How would it feel if painted any other way?

A Choreographed Chaos


In this gripping landscape, by Alexey Alpatov, a fusion of realism and abstraction is masterfully achieved. Between a sweeping palette knife and bold brushwork, a series of shapes seems to give way to recognizable form – as if the cliff were growing out from the chaos of paint. How was this effect achieved? This is the result of a marriage between vision and technique.

When I look at this painting, I see both hemispheres of Alpatov’s brain hard at work. First and foremost, there is evidence of a clear understanding of form, value, color, and edge – aspects of the painting that give it its sense of realism by accurately emulating the physics of light, and that serve the ‘readability’ of the painting through composition and the general design. Secondly, there is a strong sense of vision – the emotion felt by the painter, which informs the choice of style and breathes life into the image.

These two tools, vision and technique, are required to achieve such a painting. Make no mistake: realistic paintings such as this one, which feature bold brushstrokes and bravura, may suggest a devil-may-care approach to execution, but nothing could be further from the truth. This is a highly choreographed chaos. Notice the subtle color temperature shifts in the cliff face – how the surface color saturates with warm light as the stone reflects upon itself. It all looks like an accident but its realistic accuracy reveals its secret. This was a very carefully constructed painting.

More details on how to achieve these effects in coming posts.

For a high resolution image of the painting, click this link.