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On Composing, Designing & Being Deliberately Abstract

I painted this 6” x 8” demonstration piece in my late afternoon, seasonal weekly coastal class. It was an overcast day with a mixture of fog and clouds. When it was nearing 4 pm, the scene was lit with a magical ambient glow. I saw varying color shifts leaning toward red within the entire view (the light's quality in a scene’s entirety is what can be referred to as the “envelope of light”). I was attracted to the glimmer of light bouncing off the distant objects across the bay and the coolness, yet relative brightness, of the water in the distance. I saw an opportunity to use the natural shapes in the bay to move the viewer’s eye toward the glint of reflected lights off in the distance. I spent a few minutes deciding on my design with a quick sketch while noticing that I could further illustrate the cools shapes against the warm shapes in the same design.

Cloudy days commonly bring out cool lights and warm shadows. Nature gave me a perfect scene to demonstrate how the cools can play against the warms in such a pleasing way. I was careful not to have equal proportions of light to dark and warm to cool in my initial sketch. With a bit of “visual pruning” to the foreground bushes, I tried to create a composition that wasn’t 50-50.

“Light and dark, warm and cool color in equal proportions produce a static neutrality, balancing each other right out of the picture, one will destroy the other.”

- American painter Harvey Dunn (1884-1952)


I always try to paint related masses as one larger mass to simplify the composition to its basic parts. As in written language, a short statement delivers its intent much stronger than a long-winded sentence.

In my workshop, "Abstracting the Landscape," one of my main intents is to impart a little bit of wisdom that "less is indeed more." Paint related masses together as one large mass. It will simplify the composition and give more weight to the message you’re trying to deliver. Paint these big masses in first. Starting with the darks will show you right from the start whether you’re off to a strong design or if your painting is falling short.

So many times, we fall into the trap of placing too much emphasis on parts of our painting that are relatively unimportant to the whole – meaning it’s not where you want your viewer to be spending all of their time. Don’t spend too much time working on one area of your painting before getting spots of color down throughout your entire canvas. Your painting should start as deliberately abstract.

“You don’t emphasize the wrong word if you want to be understood. Neither should you emphasize the unimportant in painting.”

- Harvey Dunn


Many artists have proportioned their works to approximate the golden ratio or the golden rectangle. The longer side ratio to the shorter is the golden ratio—believing this proportion to be aesthetically pleasing. Using a Fibonacci caliper out in the field, we can quickly discern if our composition has pleasing proportions.

I did not design this composition with the golden ratio in mind. Still, I find it interesting that when superimposing the golden rectangle over my painting in multiple arrangements, I find many of the exact lines of the golden ratio match my compositional lines. I think the more we work at our art form, whichever that may be, our intuitive senses for pleasing shapes and good design become stronger. It would be an interesting experiment to superimpose the golden rectangle on several works over a period of years to determine if one's works were gradually falling into these beautiful patterns. Check out all of the combinations of the golden ratio that seem to work on this particular painting.

"In mathematics, he should go just as far as he can, for proportion is his means of expression. Ability to copy lines, shapes, tones, amounts to little. Ability to correlate lines, shapes, tones, is the rare necessary quality of the artist. ... "
"All good art is composition".

- Robert Henri

"I wish we didn't work so hard. We're too conscientious; we all act as though we're duty bound. There's no duty about art. Isn't Robert Henri's definition of art: 'a man's expression of the joy he takes in life?' Is there any duty about that? It should be an abundant overflowing."

- Harvey Dunn

The images above are from a demo done for my class at Depot Park in Sonoma.

The first painting was to work out a simple 3-value plan using three random colors. This plan was also designed to not only establish values but composition as well. When starting with your darkest note of color, you can quickly see if your composition is pleasing. In this stage, shapes can be easily seen and adjusted so that no shape is like any others. You can also see right away if you have a nice proportion of darks to light. As many of us know, it's all too common to create static 50/50 designs. I'm always striving to reach that one-third to a two-thirds ratio of lights to darks. I continually checked my value study in my color version to see if I was keeping honest with my design. Here, I tried to keep my values within a narrow range of the main 3 values I started with. It's a great exercise that I adapted from my early days painting with Peggi Kroll Roberts, and one I encourage my students to do regularly.


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