I want you to become the artist you dream of being.
I want that for you because if you’re more confident, happier and more at peace with yourself, so will the world be.
I want it for you because the world needs more beauty, and you have it within you to create it. We all do.
But there are some things that hold us back, that stop us making as much progress as we might. Unfortunately, the things that hold us back the most are often invisible to us.
What are they? They’re our assumptions. Received wisdom. Unexamined truisms that pervade the art world, repeated too often without thought and rarely tested.
It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so – Mark Twain
I don’t want to see you mired in assumptions, losing precious hours spinning your wheels when you should be growing wings.
So please take this post in the spirit in which it is intended. Some of these myths you have heard yourself. You may have believed them, laboured under them, posted them on forums or blogs.
I know I have.
Four myths, the damage they do, and how to avoid them
For each of these, I’ve tried to present a better approach, practical steps you can take to diffuse them.
Myth 1: Over-modelling.
Honestly, there’s no such thing. There are only value mistakes.
Unless you know what you’re doing with value, unless you can reliably judge relationships between values, and translate those relationships into different keys, you’ll struggle with value.
The myth of over-modelling has come about because if you’re not good with values, the longer you work on something the more errors you’ll introduce. Those errors will mount up until the thing just looks wrong. And more, and more and more wrong.
It’s very easy to think that you’ve worked on something for too long, because it looked better at the start. Generally, at the start you have less values (i.e. a more simplified picture), so less relationships between them so less opportunity for error.
The longer you work on something, the worse it gets.
What to do instead
The answer isn’t to stop sooner (although that will mean less errors!) The answer is to practise with value until you can accurately judge relationships. And not just judge them, but transpose them, translate them into the narrower range you have to play with on your canvas.
If you can do this well, you’ll never struggle with value again.
You can work on something as long as you like without messing it up, because you won’t be adding errors. You’ll be adding refinement. Just look at all those amazing cast drawings that are turned out by students at modern ateliers. They can take weeks. But they don’t look over-modelled.
I think a great way to learn about value is to practise it in a very focused way. Here’s how:
- First, make some value scales.
- Then get some wooden blocks, and paint each a local value from your scale.
- Now stick them in a shadow box and do paintings of them.
That’s an effective way to practice values because it isolates the particular area you want to learn about. You get instant feedback: Your block will look real, or it won’t. If it doesn’t, paint it again. Paint some spheres as well, that will help you learn to model form.
Once you’ve done some of that, get a real object, like a piece of fruit, and paint a block and sphere the same local value as the object.
Now paint them together one by one, starting with the cube and finishing with the object. The cube will show you clearly the range of values you need to use. The sphere is an opportunity to practise modelling form with those values.
All you have to do at the end is add the detail.
Here’s a lemon:
And a green pepper:
Here’s a post that describes how I practised my values using this method some time ago. I learned more from those experiments than from everything I’ve ever read about value.
Myth 2: Leading the eye.
I’m sorry to bring this one up, because so much has been written about it. I’ve even contributed some of it myself in the past.
Let me say this as clearly as I can: There’s no such thing as leading the eye.
If you need more convincing, please read this PDF on eye tracking experiments done with Russian painter Yarbus’ work. If you don’t have the patience to read it, I’m afraid there’s not much more I can do to help you free yourself of this pernicious myth.
But you might want to have a look at James Gurney’s excellent posts on the subject:
Please don’t waste your time trying to guide your viewer’s eye around your picture. Because your time is so precious, and your viewers won’t follow your carefully orchestrated plan.
What to do instead
If you want to improve your compositions, I’d recommend that you develop your sensitivity to spacing and proportion. If you do, your enhanced sense of design will come out in everything you do, even little sketches.
Yes, it takes lots of practice for that to happen. That’s the only way to build skill. There is no other way.
The good news is that the practice is interesting, enjoyable and way more effective than anything else you might try.
Here’s one way you can do it: Get hold of the free PDF of Composition by Arthur Wesley Dow and work through the exercises in that book. It will take you at least a year to do it well. But I promise you, apply yourself and you will be surprised at how far it will take you.
Myth 3: The golden mean
Ah, our old friend the golden mean, mentioned at least once in just about every art history lecture, ever.
I must admit, I reserve special rancour for this particular myth. Why? Well, it wastes your time, that’s pretty mean. And the only thing golden about it is the false dream that it’ll make your pictures better.
If it was so effective and so widespread, you’d think there’s be plenty of examples in artists’ writings of how they used the golden mean. If you do know of one please, please, add it in the comments. And no, I don’t want to see any more silly geometrical overlays. I want to see documented evidence in an old master’s own writings of its use – and more, its use in making a truly beautiful picture. And I want to see more than one, I want to see a lot of them.
That would convince me. I’m very happy to be proved wrong by authoritative sources.
What to do instead
Develop your sensitivity to spacing and proportion (again). Run through the exercises in the Dow book on composition I’ve linked above. That’s really golden. As in, it will help you make better pictures, I guarantee it. Unfortunately it’s not a magic bullet so it gets less column inches.
Myth 4: Never use black
I’m not actually sure where this one came from, but I think it may have been partly from the impressionists.
In my art college, they went so far as to take away all the black paint!
I think I have an idea why: In the hands of the inexperienced, black is often used as a way to darken colours, to make shadows. So it is responsible for ruining many, many pictures. Why? Because light and colour don’t work like that. Add black to make a shadow and it will look wrong.
All things being equal (i.e. no coloured reflected light or coloured direct light) colours tend to change in value and chroma as their surface moves from light to shadow, but not hue. So if you have a red cube, and you darken the local with black to make the shadow, you’re changing the hue by making it more purple, because black is actually a low value, low chroma blue. Imagine what will happen if you’re painting a lemon and you make the shadow green.
But black doesn’t deserve it’s bad rep! It’s just another colour. There are times to use it, and times not to use it.
What to do instead
Find your own answers about colour: Learn how colour changes across a form, and how to mix the colours you need to replicate it – including black, when you need to.
Here’s a way you can do it: Get some more little wooden blocks and spheres, and paint them various colours.
Get yourself a little colour isolator (a piece of card with a small hole in) and match the colours you see. It’s really not too hard to do. Here’s an example, using Munsell chips to match the colours of an orange sphere:
In the above pic, I’ve selected Munsell chips to match the local colour of the sphere and value of the background:
In this pic, I’m using a Munsell chip to match the colour of a small patch of the sphere. Now I can mix the right colour for that part of the sphere. I’m using the grey chip to compare to the background, making sure that my chips are always at the same angle to the light. It has to be consistent for this to work. The Munsell chips help, but you don’t need them to do this.
Here, I’m finding the colour of the shadow. The point about this is that I’m finding out what the actual colours are, not guessing. I’m finding my own answers through experimentation.
Use the same process on a real world object, and you get natural, believable colour. You get form. You also get the experience of mixing those colours. I guarantee, some of them will surprise you.
They don’t even have to be oranges! Here’s an olive with garlic in it!
If you learn for yourself how light changes a local colour, you free yourself from colour dogma, from assumptions and from truisms. You find your own answers.
How much do you know about fish?
There’s an excellent story about a postgraduate student who was given a sunfish to study by biologist Louis Agassiz. That’s Agassiz over there. Nice sideburns. Dig the suit.
Agassiz asked his student to study the fish, without damaging it, then get back to him. The student diligently worked on it for an hour or so. But his teacher didn’t come back to check his work, not all that day, or the next.
There’s a great description of this on James Clear’s blog:
After nearly one hundred hours of study, the student began to notice finer details that had escaped his vision previously: how the scales of the fish were shaped and the patterns they made, the placement of the teeth, the shape of each individual tooth, and so on. When his teacher finally returned and the student explained all that he had learned, Agassiz replied, “That’s not right.” And walked out of the room.
Eventually, the student knuckled down and looked deeper. He studied the fish for another 100 hours, at which point teach let him off. He’d done some original work
Agassiz’s student said this about what he had learned: “I had learned the art of comparing objects.”
Find your own answers
We can learn a lot from this. I once heard a portrait artist say that painting is the act of comparison. There’s something in that.
We may not be scientists, but we’re prey to many myths and assumptions. Unless we question them, we’ll never really learn about the sunfish. We’ll make a painting of a sunfish that looks like everybody else’s sunfish. With the same mistakes.
So please, I’m begging you (yes, really, I am). Don’t shout at me and get angry if I’ve called out any of your sacred cows. There’s a better way: Do some learning of your own. Ask hard questions. Then grab your brushes and use them to answer those questions. Don’t just accept what you hear. You’re capable of so much more. We all are.
[bctt tweet=”Ask hard questions. Then grab your brushes and use them to answer those questions.”]
Look deeper. Learn to see. If you do, you may learn to see a little more of the truth.
I think you’ll find that the truth is beautiful.
I’d be really interested to hear about any myths that get your goat. Please add them in the comments (but do keep it civil please! Tread lightly, for you tread on peoples’ dreams.)
Best wishes, and thanks for reading,
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