Monday Morning Art School: the number one problem with your painting

Seafoam, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed includes shipping in continental US

On Monday, I posted Let’s Paint Some Duds! After about the hundredth person told me they have no trouble whatsoever painting duds, I realized my hook was lousy. It tapped into fear of failure instead of challenging people to be more questing and adventuresome.

I’ve had many emerging artists tell me that half or more of their paintings are duds. That’s shocking; it’s way too high a failure rate, especially when it comes in the learning phase. For that matter, there are other painters who fail just as often but don’t even realize it. (And far be it from me to wreck their happy illusions.)

Duds are a particular problem in plein air painting, so much so that my pal Brad Marshall coined a term for the process of making them: flailing around.

Cypresses and Sunlight, 11X14, Carol L. Douglas, $1087 includes shipping in continental US

Why so many?

I also get frequent emails and texts that read, “I’m stuck! What’s going wrong here?” That’s why I periodically teach an online critique class; you’ll advance more quickly when you can answer that question for yourself.

But the answer almost always comes down to bad composition. Either the darks are not organized, or the focal points are not clear, or there’s not a clear and compelling armature. Figuring that out in advance, with a value drawing or notan, saves tons of time and effort.

Composition organizes the design elements of a painting. It provides structure and balance, guides the viewer’s eye, and determines where a painting falls on the all-important scale of harmony-to-tension. Composition controls the visual appeal of a painting, but it also controls its emotional power.

Stone Wall, Salt Marshes, 14×18, $1594 framed includes shipping in continental US

A weak composition is still a composition.

The same student who kvetches about flailing and failing often resists the idea of studying formal composition. “I want to be spontaneous and natural,” he will say. Well, composition, like puberty, is going to happen whether you take a hand in guiding it or not.

Weak compositions impede the very message that the supposedly-spontaneous artist wants to convey. Conversely, strong compositions guide viewers through the content. By strategically placing focal points, controlling movement, and using visual cues, you influence not just what your viewers see, but what they think and feel. And isn’t that the point of communication?

Then there’s the question of balance and emphasis. Just as the cannonades in Tchaikovsky‘s 1812 Overture are carefully placed to emphasize the point of Russia’s victory over the French, your focal points must fall in sweet spots. They must be reinforced with contrast and line. When it works flawlessly, we see a painting that is beautiful individual, and stylish-without overburdening our minds too much about how it happened.

Ketch and Schooner, 8X10 in a solid silver leaf frame, includes shipping in the continental US

How do I learn to be a better composer?

I’ve written extensively on this blog on the subject of composition, which of course you can access for free. Above all, there’s my cardinal rule of painting: don’t be boring. I can’t restate that often enough.

If you really want to give up flailing and failing, I invite you to also take my online course, The Correct Composition, which I just released on Friday. Give yourself a lot of time to do the exercises and take the quizzes; you’ll get far more out of it than you will by just skimming the videos.

My 2023 workshop schedule can be found here. That includes September aboard schooner American Eagle, mountain vistas in the Berkshires, and our ever-popular Sea & Sky at Schoodic in Acadia National Park. New, in October, an immersive, in-person workshop in Rockport, ME. In 2024, we’ll be in Sedona and Austin in March. Why not register today?

Why not a two-day workshop?

I like nothing more than sitting at Schoodic Point discussing watercolor with my old pal Becky, who has come back year after year for more of my malarkey.

A fellow teacher told me recently that she’s been asked to compress a four-week beginner course into two days. “I think it's a disservice,” she said. “That's a lot of information to compress into a much shorter time. So, either it's a very shallow dive or there's so much information compressed so tightly that half of it gets lost.”

I am asked about two-day workshops as well. They fit neatly into a weekend and the cost is lower, so they’re easier for arts organizations to sell. If they’re subject-based, like ‘painting sunsets,’ they can work because these workshops are inherently shallow. They’re also intended for artists who already know the mechanics of painting.

But two days are insufficient when it’s a question of really developing style, color fluency, composition and form. And if you understand these concepts, you don’t need a special workshop on sunsets or water; you have the tools to paint anything you want.

Students cavorting during a workshop in the Adirondacks.

What can go wrong? A lot.

Basic protocols for watercolor and oils run to about seven discrete steps, depending on how you break them down. Here are the steps for oil painting:

  1. Set up your palette with all colors out, organized in a useful manner.
  2. Do a value drawing.
  3. Crop your drawing and identify and strengthen big shapes and movements.
  4. Transfer the drawing to canvas with paint as a monochromatic grisaille.
  5. Underpaint big shapes making sure value, chroma and hue are correct.
  6. Divide big shapes and develop details.
  7. Add highlights, detail and impasto as desired.

Students in my watercolor workshop aboard schooner American Eagle.

Let’s just consider #2. It’s almost useless for me to just tell you to do a sketch—in fact, if I did that, you’d have to wonder why you didn’t just draw on the canvas instead. You need insight into what you’re looking for, what makes a good composition, and different ways to do that preparatory composition.

I can (and sometimes do) rattle off a lecture on these points, but that is the just the start of the process of discovery. Unfortunately, in a two-day workshop, that’s about all the time we’d have for the step many artists consider most crucial to the development of a good painting. You, the student, then go home and consult your notes. They become a slavish list of dos-and-don’ts, rather than a framework for a deeper understanding.

It's far better that I start with an exercise that allows you to build understanding of composition on your own. That, in a nutshell, is the difference between a book or video and interactive teaching. It’s why people take workshops in the first place.

That kind of teaching takes time.

Arthur Wesley Dow, the popularizer of Notan, had his students work for weeks on line before they eventually graduated to masses and then finally to greyscale and color. His students included Georgia O'KeeffeCharles SheelerCharles Burchfield, and other 20th century art luminaries, so he was definitely onto something.

Linda DeLorey, another old friend, painting in beautiful Pecos.

And now for something fun

Here’s a quiz for you to discover the kind of workshop that suits you best. There’s no obligation, of course; it’s all in fun.

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