Breaking rules

True to a degree, these rules should be taken with a grain of salt.

Cotopaxi, 1862, Frederic Edwin Church, courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts

Objects in the distance are cooler, blurrier, and lighter than objects in the foreground

That is atmospheric perspective in a nutshell, and in most cases, it’s true. But when an artist suspends that rule, we know we’re in for a major freak show. Frederic Edwin Church’s Cotopaxi (1862), is a great example of atmospherics being tossed to the wind. How else would we have known that we were in the presence of a world-changing event?

Bill’s Yellow (with Admiration), 2005, Cornelia Foss, Houston Museum of Fine Art

Never center your composition.

Artwork Essential’s viewfinder is based on the Rule of Thirds. I was taught to divide canvases using the Golden Mean. Later, I learned about Dynamic Symmetry. All of these are good working systems, and all of them are based on mathematics.

The human mind, in receiving mode, likes to tarry on puzzles. That’s why we use these complex mathematical systems to compose our paintings. In sending and processing mode, however, the mind ruthlessly regularizes thoughts. If you’ve ever tried to paint a screen of branches or flowers, you know how true this is. You must fight to keep them honest. Left to its own devices, your subconscious mind will line repeating objects up like little soldiers.

We “know” compositional rules, and then we see a painting like Cornelia Foss’ Bill’s Yellow (with Admiration) and we realize that all such rules can be set on their heads. This wouldn’t have been nearly the painting it is, had she offset the brush and tree in a conventional manner. Centering them makes them monumental.

Lemon Series #4, Dennis Wojtkiewicz, courtesy of the artist. 


Hyperrealism has its roots in what Jean Baudrillard called, “the simulation of something which never really existed.” It could not have happened in its current form without the advent of computers and digital photography. They have created a false reality, an illusion of something more perfect than what is actually here. Digital images are, generally, created very quickly. To mimic them in paint requires time and advanced painting skills, including flat, accurate paint handling, modeling, and draftsmanship.

You don’t get to that level of skill overnight. Dennis Wojtkiewicz is one of these masters of the meticulous, best known for large-scale paintings of fruit and flowers. He earned his MFA in 1981, and has taught at Bowling Green State University since 1988.

Michael Simpson, 2007, by Paul Emsley, courtesy Redfern Gallery

Don’t use black.

This myth of modern painting is based on the Impressionists’ avoidance of blacks for shadows. But modern painting can and does use black, which is the basis of shades and tones.

Paul Emsley’s portrait of fellow painter Michael Simpson, above, was painted with just two colors—Mars Violet and blue-black—plus white. “The variety comes from how much the colour is diluted, the extent of the overlaid colour, and the proportions of colours used in the mixes. In my experience, the fewer colours you use, the more shocking are the reactions when you do make subtle changes. Until you begin to experiment, you don’t fully realise how much variety can be achieved with just two colours!”

Wilma, 1932, Albert Carel Willink 

Paint loose.

Magical realism is an art genre that comments on the real world through the addition of magical elements. In highbrow literature think of Haruki Murakami or Salman Rushdie. Much current pop literature, including JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series, could also be described as magical realism.

In some ways, William Blake was the progenitor of Magical Realism painting, because he commented on morality and theology through a fictional universe. I admire him tremendously, but my own efforts in that direction have been failures. My painting style is too loose for subtle expression. To tell a convincing lie, you must have detail.