Old Iron - Value Study

Free Value Exercises

If you believe you can improve your art through regular practice, I want to help you do that.

Of the many problems people email me about, by far the most common is value. If you want to paint realistically, good values will help your pictures come to life.

Enter your email address below and I'll send you three free value exercises. After that, I'll also send you regular updates from this site to (I hope) help you with your artistic growth.

A stilllife designed around the golden section.

Beautiful composition affects you, even when you don't know how it’s been done.

I'm going to describe for you a very practical technique for improving your compositions that you can start applying right away. Today, if you want.

And I believe it's relevant to you no matter what kind of art you create, wether your interest is in intricate, highly realistic still life or abstract compositions.

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A section of Happy Union by Veronese, showing use of repeat shapes in the composition.

Whether you like Veronese's pictures or not, there's no arguing with the fact that he designed beautiful compositions.

I think you can feel that compositional beauty, even if you're not aware of how it's been created. I think you feel beauty in your soul. You resonate with it.

And in a sense, it doesn't matter if you know why a particular picture design is beautiful - unless, of course, you want to tap into some of that beauty yourself and breathe it into your own drawings and paintings.

Because actually, one of the compositional devices that Veronese used, the one I'm going to show you today, isn't very obvious at all. You could spend a long time looking at one of his pictures and not see it, or be only dimly aware of it.

Despite that, it's one of the compositional devices most responsible for creating that subtle beauty that pervades his work. It affects you even if you don’t know it’s there.

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Hollyhock drawing, cropped to show negative and positive space.

Picture design is perhaps one of the most difficult skills to teach yourself. There’s plenty of vague, not particularly useful information about it online. Thankfully, I found an extremely useful source of information on picture design some time ago, and have been working with it ever since.

Over the next three blog posts I’m going to describe, in detail, the three most useful of the exercises I’ve evolved to help me develop my skill with picture design.

In this post, I take you step by step through an exercise designed to help you stretch your sensitivity to positive and negative space in composition, in a simple and enjoyable way.

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The Internet scares me.

Through it, I’ve reached and connected with a larger group of people like me, of artists working to improve their skills, than I could have ever thought possible.

I’ve learned a huge amount about art and approaches to practice that I would have struggled to learn otherwise.

But the Internet still scares me.

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I’m teaching our five-year old son, Luc, to ride his new bike (a Christmas present from his grandma and granddad).

Here’s how we approach it: We begin at the top of a steep hill. He climbs on, and I give him a hard push. He has to hang on and try not to fall off. He has to learn how to use the brakes to stop himself at the bottom, or crash into a fence. If he falls off and hurts himself, he has to get straight back on again at the top of the hill and go again.

If Luc doesn’t learn fast, he’ll fall and hurt himself more often. Because the best way to learn something is to throw yourself in at the deep end, sink or swim. Pain is the best teacher.

Except that it isn’t.

And actually that’s not at all how I’m teaching Luc to ride his new bike.

This is how we’re really doing it:

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Leo Babauta

A few days ago I had the priviledge of firing a few questions at Leo Babauta of Zen Habits. For several years, Leo has been writing one of the most useful blogs on the Internet (for my money) about habit change.

In this interview, Leo talks about habit change with specific reference to artists and creators.

He gives some very practical strategies for overcoming the resistance we all feel to getting started with our creative work, and for dealing with inevitable failure positively.

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Vermeer, the Milkmaid.

Composition can make the difference between a technically skilled piece of work and a beautiful one.

Design and composition is what allows us to take our visual impressions and make them into art.

Composition is where you create, where your personality comes through the most clearly in your work.

So why is good composition so rare these days?

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Childrens building blocks

One of the most common things I hear from people is that they want a structure to their practice.

They feel that they're just thrashing around aimlessly without learning anything.

It's a good question:

Which building blocks do you need? And how do you need to combine them?

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Belfast Drawing Workshop

A couple of weeks ago, I was involved in Julie Douglas' Draw-In in Belfast, a symposium celebrating drawing.

Getting together with artists is always really rewarding, but this was special.

Special because Julie, art teacher and the organiser of the event is special; special because all the artists that gave workshops and presentations were special; special to me personally because it was the first time I've given a live workshop.

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An Enso, brush and ink

Japanese calligraphy (called Shodo) exists somewhere between art and meditation.

In Shodo, the lines between drawing and writing are also blurred. The word Sho can mean to write, to draw or to paint.

There is perhaps little real difference between them.

The part of the word Shodo that interests me most, though, is the second part - do, meaning the way

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Jamine leaf drawing

At what point during a flower's life does it achieve perfection?

Is it when it's still a seed, filled with potential?

Or is it when the green shoot first breaks the surface of the soil and reaches the light of day?

Is it when the first bud appears?

Is it when the flower opens fully, or is it when the flower dies and goes back to the soil, to become food for other plants, giving itself to create new life?

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Breathing Lines Exercise

For a lot of people, practice is frustrating.

After all, you know where you want to be; you want to be drawing and painting really well. At least, better than you do now.

You might even have particular artists in mind whose level of accomplishment you'd like to be able to emulate.

It's just that boring part of doing all the practice you could do without. Wouldn't it be great if you could just skip to where you want to be without having to go round the houses first?

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Mondrian tree.

Artists see differently.

Someone who sees in this special way that artists see can look at a collection of buildings and see a design, become entranced by a pattern of light and shadow.

The greater your ability to see in this way, the more you will be able to look at something and see a picture. The better your ideas for pictures will be. And your life will be enriched with the simple pleasure of seeing.

Honestly, it's worth it just for that.

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Bamboo painting, destail - Okubo Shibutsu.

Debbie is walking past her living room. She is struck suddenly by the shadow of a plant, cast on a glass door.

She stands enraptured for a moment, then rushes to find pencil and a sketch pad, so she can catch this fleeting moment that has impressed its beauty on her consciousness.

What is it about Debbie that privileges her with this wonderful moment in her day?

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A negative space design based on a drawing of lily buds.

Ultimately, I believe we all teach ourselves.

Taking classes can be helpful because it can help motivate you and give you a structure, removing barriers to practice. But you need to be actively engaged. Just turning up doesn't guarantee you'll make any progress.

How effective a class is will also depend on how well it meets the criteria for effective learning.

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draw more

It's that time again - New Year's resolution time.

That time of year when we get to sacrifice our self esteem on the altar of failed commitments.

All You've really managed is to create a stronger barrier to achieving your artistic goals. Hardly the point. Let's try not to let that happen this year.

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What is it about birthdays that makes us reflective? Or is that just me?

Here's my thoughts today on art education, and why so many of us have been failed.

And perhaps, too, what we might do to turn that sad state of affairs around.

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