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Old 02-21-2012, 06:38 PM
Keene Keene is offline
Join Date: Jun 2010
Posts: 61
Design - Notes for the Advanced Artist

Like many an artist, I’ve read a good many books, viewed many a video and studied with a quite a few experts. My initial idea was to read anything that I thought would be useful, but after I had read about 30 books and taken a few classes I was more confused than ever. So about ten years ago I decided to get organized, take careful notes (in my own words except as otherwise noted) and compile them into a single document so that I could compare what one expert said with what others said.

The resulting document was so helpful, that I have continued to edit, delete and reorganize my notes ever since. Art is so extensive that every book and every instructor has to focus, but my notes could be more wide-ranging, especially as I limited them to bullet points. Anyway, I thought others might find them useful.

The notes were for my own use, so I tried to avoid taking notes on something I already knew. Consequently, the neophyte should look elsewhere for instruction, but I think the advanced artist will find them quite helpful. They are, currently, organized into eight categories: color, composition, design, drawing, figure painting, landscape painting, still life painting, and vision and light. What follows is the section on design.

Keene Wilson


Design - Instruction, Notes and a Tutorial for the Advanced Artist

Key Points

Design your painting in terms of silhouettes; dark on light, rich on grey, warm on cool, etc. As you design your painting, always keep in mind that the viewer's eye moves from the area of greatest to least contrast. – Sergei Bongart
Scanning is from top left to bottom right and off the page. This can be counteracted with either strong vertical barriers to left-right diagonal scanning or by placing a barrier in the lower right corner that prevents the eye from slipping off the page.
Whenever lines or shapes touch the edge of a design they may function as pointers leading the viewer’s eye away from the work. One way to counteract is to use shapes or lines that touch the edge but do not extend very far into the center and hence read as pointers from the outside in. Another technique is to portray actual inward movement.
The letter “Y” is always a good design no matter what you do with it
Take viewers into little known positions
Works that pull people close give a sense of intimacy; works that hold them away inspire awe
Good design springs form a marriage of intellect and intuition
Gestalt of a work – so unified that its properties cannot be determined by analyzing the parts in isolation
Light, brightly colored, detailed areas draw attention and have more visual weight than dark, dull and less complex areas
The less an artist shows the more viewers have to bring to a design to give it meaning.
Great technicians always know their limits and work within them


Make masses as interesting as possible by varying their size, shape and position
Keep the masses simple and interconnected
Think in masses with a simple organization of the main areas
In placing masses, think more in terms of mass and form than lines – Therefore loose or disguise line and edges


Key points:
Law of fine shapes – a dynamic oblique with different measures and interlocking edges (“incidents”)
Shapes can be either gathered into masses or separated into pattern
Think big [in back], medium, small throughout painting [foreground, middle ground, background; objects within areas; clouds] The idea is not to repeat shapes or have shapes of the same size. “In front of …, behind …, not next to … though little one off to side is OK] ”
If you’re going to put it behind, put it really behind.
Think of a painting as a mosaic of large and small interlocking shapes. Design each major shape differently.
Design is what brings the viewer to the painting, but it needs to have a payoff.
One of the best things to do is break the silhouette. The only separations we should see in the first reading are: foreground/background and light/shadow (but break the silhouette)
Reduce elements to the fewest, most basic shapes
Create the shapes first, then decide the objects that belong, not the other way around – Will Weston
Rabatment – cutting a rectangle into a square and another rectangle
Add details only if necessary
Working with negative shapes makes it easier to create positive shapes
Negative shapes critical to bringing light side of figure into focus.
Visual scanning of shapes with complicated edges is slower than scanning of those with straight edges
Shapes should move you through the picture plane from one shape to the next.
Values make shapes and where you place them makes your design.
Interiors lend themselves to geometrical composition because of their many straight lines and divisions of space
Simplify subject to 10 – 15 shapes
Vary forms.
Use shapes as the building blocks for composing
Use value (by squinting) to simplify all the elements into three to five big shapes
Strive for variety of shapes, consider variety of spaces
Play active against passive, light against dark, etc. and let one dominate
Tie different colored objects into a single mass by using roughly the same value. Alternatively, soften edges, allowing little bits of paint from each element to drift into the others.
Design is not limited to the flat surface.
Figure-ground reversals tend to occur when there is less white area than black, because white tends to expand while black contracts. If you present a large light area as a figure against a dark ground, you must be aware of the viewer’s tendency to see such designs the other way around
Pointed shapes direct the viewer’s eye like an arrow
Draw only the negative unfilled areas to create an illusion of implied forms
Adding detail detracts from the impact of the shapes

Color relationships

“Mostly, some and a bit” is the basic formula for pleasing color schemes.
The dominant color should differ in value from the secondary color.
The accent color is also known as the “spice” color or “discord” and should contrast with both the primary and secondary color.


Identify texture at the edges
Texture can be either rough, hard or soft

Theme and variation

Key point:
Vary shape direction and position; dramatize; allow all points to be sharper, large areas immense, small areas tiny, etc.
“Theme and variation” is more versatile, than either contrast or gradation
The more the basic theme of a picture deals with the common experience of humanity, that is core feelings and experiences, the better. The cliché to worry about is the visual cliché.
Anything that you notice in a painting (shape, value, hue, etc.) must be related (repeated) to another part of the painting (preferably obliquely, possibly horizontally, but not vertically)
If the shapes are different, the colors should be similar; if the shapes are similar, the colors should be different (for a theme)
A theme must be recognizable in each variation so the viewer feels clever; if he loses the connection, the result is chaos
Within a theme, repeat with as much variation as you can think of (including varying the distance between repeats)
The minimum number of variations is three (do it 3 times and make it slightly different each time)


Key point:
If you stress the negatives the entire picture becomes interesting
Emphasize the abstract arrangement of lights and darks
Typically, compositions constructed upon light-dark contrast employ a small number of hues and the picture is organized into tonal planes (p58 “The Art of Color” by Johannes Itten)
Consider flow, including within figure
Think pattern first, then drawing, then color. … If you wind up with a good pattern, you’ve got a successful painting. – Ed Whitney
A light merging into a light creates pathways for the eye


Test with Photoshop
If you crop the top of an object let the bottom float and vice versa
Radical cropping forces the design aspects

Contradictions – look for and embrace opposites

Key points:
Embrace opposing ideas – clarity vs. ambiguity, simplicity vs. complexity, active/passive, flat/modeled, straight/curved, warm/cool, vertical/horizontal, color/complement, bright/dull, repetition and variation, dark and light, straight and curved, smooth and textured, hard and soft edges, one hand open the other closed, one side active/curved/detailed – the other passive/straight/simple, conscious/subconscious, abstract/realistic (and let one dominate)
Create illusions while reminding viewers they are looking at a drawing
Contrast should be limited to only four or five elements or confusion results, gradation is nearly unlimited in its ability to unify
Compositions should be one thing or another, mass or form, in balance or off, strong or weak, leveled or sharpened, contrasted or harmonious and juxtaposed against their opposite to clearly convey the meaning
Simultaneous contrast
Sharpening = an increase or exaggeration (contrast); leveling = weakening or toning down (harmony)
Reversal of light and dark
It’s a marriage, not one killing the other
Objects partially obscured, distorted, or suggested require viewer participation. Art happens somewhere between clarity and ambiguity, concept and intuition, thought and intuition. Make something clear and recognizable, then tantalize with something left to interpretation
One end of a gradation line is typically more interesting than the other


Even numbered objects
Leading the eye out of picture or into corner
Cutting off limbs


Key points:
Overlap the background with a shape in the foreground to help separate the two
When the eye wanders to the background, it should discover something of interest
Never fill in a figure and paint background as an isolated afterthought.
“Whenever I do backgrounds, I first establish the shapes and then decide what they should be” Kinstler in “Painting Portraits”
Nothing is more important to the focal point than the background
Tie figure and background together in a common shape that is neither and both at the same time
Without adhering to the subject you actually see, it is often effective to strike a bold line through a background area to stir it. The eye can be directed by areas of color or light and dark raised or lowered so that they touch or cross this line
Keep the background patterns well massed so that they do not jump out and come forward, disrupting the foreground-background relationship
Mix paint one brushstroke at a time for livelier color


Key point:
Have a general direction in mind, but don’t try to have all the answers before touching the paper. Put down a color value and shape and step back to judge whether it works.
"When you are young, you study the masters for their techniques and style. But when you are older, you study them for their emotion, feeling." (Chiang Chao-Shen)
Before subject or composition, before values, shapes, or color, before you pick up a brush you must first have an idea. (ideas such as shape, color, texture, mood)
"When you see a fish you don't think of its scales, do you? You think of its speed, its floating, flashing body seen through the water... If I made fins and eyes and scales, I would arrest its movement, give a pattern or shape of reality. I want just the flash of its spirit." (Constantin Brancusi)
Lay paint on canvas in a way that will create in a viewer the feeling I have for the subject/image
Respond to the painting.
If my goal is technical correctness, I will probably paint tightly. Set goals such as “paint quality”, “light”, “exciting color and shape organization” to allow for a more creative approach (as in gesture drawing).


Key point:
Just as there is one area with precise edges and strong value contrast (the “effect” or focal point), there must be another with compatible values and lost edges (the “blur”).
Confine detail to the edges of shapes or to the contours of the grouped shapes.
Tight edges – bones, sharp turns, loose edges = form turning
Pick out a few hard edges at points where you want the viewer to concentrate and soften the edges elsewhere
Squint for edges too – those that disappear first are softest
Edges in the shadows are generally softer than in the light.
The closer the form is to you, the viewer, the harder the edge. The farther away, the softer, looser, and more blurred. Sometimes have to soften edges much more than you see to suggest distance
The brighter the light source, the harder the edge.
Edges perpendicular to the light tend to be sharper.
Glancing light will leave a soft edge.
Edges: hard, soft or lost. Variations of soft = 3-step (darker to fainter in steps), jagged, broken, line redefining edge
If a shape is enclosed with sharp edges, the eye is trapped. One or more blurred edges will alleviate the problem.
Color, value, edge, relationship of shape to adjacent shape is important design consideration
Determine the edge scale right at the start: Softest edge, hardest edge, big blur or lost edge. All other edges that fall in between
Big Blur - the largest area where values on the model and background are similar and where edges between are just as frequently on the light side as on the shadow side.
Try to blend or mass adjacent light and dark areas together, eliminating any lines between them wherever possible: a unifying effect. This does not have to mean the elimination of lines around the form, if wanted for delineation or for a decorative effect.
Paint edges as they appear, regardless of anything else you know (Schmid)
If you look only for shapes and delineation, that's all you'll see. You should also look for softness, merging tones, etc.
Soft edges tie areas to together, hard edges accentuate

Posted by: Keene Wilson (Notes covering color, composition, design, drawing, figure painting, landscape painting, still life painting, and vision and light may be viewed in the appropriate forums on WetCanvas
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Old 02-22-2012, 10:45 AM
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claude j greengrass claude j greengrass is offline
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Re: Design - Notes for the Advanced Artist

I'm not meaning to discourage your excellent input but expect some negative feedback from the "rules detractors" and the "too much knowledge" contingent.

Rules!? What rules? There are no rules to paintings.
How do you ever manage to paint anything while thinking about all these rules.

ps. rules = guidelines= notes = checklist ...
It is only on a basis of knowledge that we can become free to compose naturally. -- Bernard Dunstan
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Old 02-22-2012, 01:49 PM
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mudcat3 mudcat3 is offline
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Re: Design - Notes for the Advanced Artist

I think this is a good compilation of what works for a particular artist and some of it is what I do too! It takes years of making pictures to get to this point of understanding the process. For my planned work a lot of thought goes into composition, color and approach to the subject. I didn't always do this and end up dissatisfied. And sometimes I just do a small drawing without much consideration of all that, but they are just that, small.
There are rules, no matter how much you read and study, only time and practice will make it all understandable. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't read and study.
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Old 02-23-2012, 03:31 AM
Keene Keene is offline
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Re: Design - Notes for the Advanced Artist

Thanks for your comments. Believe me I don’t think about all of this as I paint. I find it helps to just read it over once in a while and absorb the ideas. Some I apply, some I don’t.

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Old 02-24-2012, 07:26 PM
dhonegger dhonegger is offline
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Re: Design - Notes for the Advanced Artist

Originally Posted by Keene
Thanks for your comments. Believe me I don’t think about all of this as I paint. I find it helps to just read it over once in a while and absorb the ideas. Some I apply, some I don’t.


I, too, have made notes from the extensive library of books and videos I have. I will add your notes as I think they are very good and, for me, all tips and reminders are valuable. Like you, I review them regularly, especially when working on challenging pieces and I use them also as a checklist after a painting is "completed". I find the more I review my notes, the more internalized the information becomes and the more naturally the ideas and concepts flow from my brush. Thanks for sharing all of these with us/me.

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Old 02-26-2012, 08:46 PM
Keene Keene is offline
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Re: Design - Notes for the Advanced Artist

Glad you found them useful. For me, the exercise of organizing them was particularly helpful since many useful insights on design, for example, weren't presented under the topic "design".

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Old 02-27-2012, 12:48 AM
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ArtWench ArtWench is offline
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Re: Design - Notes for the Advanced Artist

Thank you so much for your post, Keene! I truly appreciate all the time and effort you put into this!

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Old 03-02-2012, 06:23 AM
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Ferlian Ferlian is offline
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Re: Design - Notes for the Advanced Artist

I find this really helpful. Yes, I guess very few people will keep a checklist next to their work during the process. Rather, it helps me put a finger on why I like some of my works and some just dont ...work.

Thank you for speeding up my learning curve

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Old 07-17-2012, 11:24 AM
Keene Keene is offline
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Re: Design - Notes for the Advanced Artist

For those who are interested, I have posted on Pinterest 20 paintings by various artists emphasizing composition. I add and delete paintings as I see fit, but maintain the number at 20. I also have posted 20 by contemporary artists, 20 showcasing color, 20 by masters and 20 of mine. (http://pinterest.com/keenedeb/)

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Old 07-26-2012, 04:16 AM
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Janeeyre48 Janeeyre48 is offline
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Re: Design - Notes for the Advanced Artist

Thank you so much for this comprehensive article. I'm going to share it with my monthly crit club. It helped me work out some problems I've had with a recent painting. Brilliant!
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Old 08-02-2012, 12:55 PM
Keene Keene is offline
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Re: Design - Notes for the Advanced Artist

Thanks for the nice comment. If you haven't already done so, you might also want to check out my notes on composition.

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Old 08-06-2012, 09:53 AM
ryansumo ryansumo is offline
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Re: Design - Notes for the Advanced Artist

Thanks for sharing this Keene. I find that it's always good to have some sort of rules to. Otherwise I'm just making random shapes. I think the most important thing I've learned so far with creating artwork is what kinds of questions to ask myself. Prior to that I felt so lost while looking at my work, wondering whether or not it was good. Sometimes I'd stumble into something great, but I'd never replicate it because I didn't know exactly how I go there, and it was very frustrating.

I hope you don't mind if I share some tutorials I've made on my art blog. I'm no expert, but I put up the art blog so people could learn with me as I try to improve my artwork.
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Old 08-09-2012, 02:13 AM
Keene Keene is offline
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Re: Design - Notes for the Advanced Artist

No problem with adding your tutorials.

Also, the questions artists ask themselves as they paint virtually determine their results. Painting requires multi-tasking, but no artist can think of everything at once, so what they do think about is critical. Its an important question to ask any instructor/mentor because sometimes what the artist is thinking about is not at all what you might expect. For example, colorists may not be thinking "What color do I see?" but "What temperature relationship conveys what I see?" Value painters may not be asking themselves "What value do I see?" but "What value fits within the design I want?"

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