"The Secret of

All works of art have a visual concept or idea.  Paintings that do not have a visual concept are usually not art or are studies.  What are some concepts painters have used?  Concepts or ideas Revealed.

"For the painter nature is like a piano keyboard. A few notes well chosen make a beautiful chord." Robert Bissett

Let's focus on the little understood and often omitted preliminary steps that have to happen before you put brush to paper for the final painting.  It takes a little time and can save a huge amount of frustration and disappointment.  Fail to plan, plan to fail.  Does it stifle creativity?  Not at all, it puts part of it in the first steps of the process where it can be examined and easily modified.  Once it becomes second nature you might do this in your head, but you still do it.

You will be making important decisions that will reveal the inner you and insure a unique painting.  The idea is to use the tools of art to move beyond just copying a picture or documenting the scene before you.  It is essential to see abstractly...shapes interacting with shapes, colors relating to colors, values relating to values, lines interacting with lines; and everything relating to everything else.  Trees, clouds, mountains, apple, table, wall have no meaning in this way of seeing. 

Because I said "abstract" a certain number of people are thinking that none of this applies to them since they do representational art...realism.  This is exactly the point that few understand, but must be understood to make a first class painting.  All paintings are abstract.  Some abstract paintings also have pictorial representation or narrative content, but in essence they are first and foremost abstract because we have only paint on a flat surface.  When you come to grips with this secret you will be on your way to making better paintings. 

Quotes about Abstraction

"The abstract painter considers the realist painter to be the abstract painter and himself the realist because he deals realistically with the paint and does not try to transform it into something that it is not." (Jimmy Leuders)

"Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they may say something." (Georgia O'Keeffe)

"The painter can and must abstract from many details in creating his painting. Every good composition is above all a work of abstraction. All good painters know this. But the painter cannot dispense with subjects altogether without his work suffering impoverishment." (Diego Rivera)

"A conscious decision to eliminate certain details and include selective bits of personal experiences or perceptual nuances, gives the painting more of a multi-dimension than when it is done directly as a visual recording. This results in a kind of abstraction... and thus avoids the pitfalls of mere decoration." (Wayne Thiebaud)

     Get out your mental sketch book and paints.  Visualize a tree on the paper.  This is something you've been doing since you were a small child.  Your trees have gotten more elaborate and detailed, no doubt, over the years.  Very few would deny that you have indeed made a tree.  This is a useful short hand way of thinking and talking we were introduced to as children.  No one actually believes you have somehow made a tree on the paper with paint.  Yet a fascinating world is closed to those who see only the tree.  You must stop seeing "tree" and see the shapes, values, colors, lines and so on that suggest or symbolize a tree.  Once you do your horizons will be suddenly broadened.  Have you heard artist use the terms earth form, cloud form, tree form?  This is a way of acknowledging that we are dealing with 2D shapes, abstractions.

An Example

This stunning little clip art comes with Microsoft Office.  It's exciting in the way we want our paintings to be exciting.  No matter what size you make this picture it will still be exciting.  It is useful for learning because it lacks the detail a full sized painting might have.  What is your initial reaction?  A feeling of calm, peaceful, restful. 

What is the main geometric motif?  The sun disk is the place to start.  The orange ring repeats the circle shape. The cloud curves are related to the circles.  The palm fronds are jagged and irregular, but the overall shape is circular for each tree.  The dominant geometric motif is the circle, the secondary motif is horizontal lines.  Should you consciously include geometric motifs in your bag of artist tools?  Yes, it's important.

Let's look at it as lines.

Notice the tree forms.  Focus on the trunks and the spaces between the trunks.  If the design where music what is the rhythm?  Booom...Boooom...Baa Ba Boom.  None of the spaces are the same.  This is one of the tools of art.  Can you use this idea in your paintings?  Yes...

More analysis soon...

Here's another ocean sunset handled very differently.  And another that's very similar.

1.  Pencil sketch
2.  Painted sketch
3.  Painting
4.  Evaluate, revise
5.  Repeat

1.  Pencil sketch.  In this step the idea is not to just copy your subject matter, but to go beyond it.   Here are some questions you should answer with a series of pencil sketches:

A.  What excites you about this subject?  How will you emphasis that in your composition?  If you can't show it at this stage then you won't be able to do it with paint.  Write the answer to this question in your sketchbook and then show it in your sketch. 

B.  Will you show the excitement with the interaction of positive and negative space;

C.  the use of line and overlapping forms;

D.  repetition of geometric motifs. 

E.  How will you balance your composition? 

F.  Where will you make use of rhythm, texture, value, and color? 

G.  Even though this is pencil you should start thinking about color. 

H.   What format?  Portrait or landscape, square, medium, long.

I.  If your small sketch is not exciting then don't proceed.  Do another one, and another until you have made an exciting little sketch.

"The beginning painter is focused on learning technique with the goal of accurate detail.  Then, comes the realization that composition and design are more important.  In time, if there are to be good paintings, an underlying visual concept guides the application of paint.  Finally, the occasional artist discovers how to breath live into the canvas and the painting sings with a pure voice." Robert Bissett

"In love and war, in food and art, the quick, intuitive decision, without verbiage, is the one worth heeding. The French call it "coup d'oeil" (power of the glance)."  Robert Genn  (n : a quick look [syn: glance, glimpse])

Learn watching others work...

John Lovett - highly recommend his painting lessons

Step by Step - Irises

The anatomy of a commission
“Facing West”, by Robert Genn, Acrylic, 80x48"
From first sketches to final painting


"Ramparts" by Robert Genn, Acrylic, 60x60"
An excellent demo by a master of waternedia


CGNetwork's Challenge entry by Dumont

Design a Cover, Before and After Magazine, design insights.

CGNetwork's Reader Project:  Castle Dracula Matte, 7 March 2005 by Brenton Cottman  Very informative description of the process used to create a moonlit scene form first sketches to finished product.  Computer art, but the principles are the same.

Here's another one:
Making Undersea Romance, Jason Chan, 3 March 2005

Back to Top


Basic Composition  
Written by Leo Winstead  
Thursday, 12 February 2004
Before I begin, I should say that the following information is by no means complete.  It is merely my attempt to address one issue that I believe many artists contend with:  namely, composition.

When dealing with composition in painting, particularly informal composition where elements from left to right or top to bottom vary significantly, it is important to keep in mind that the entire image and not just the focus of the image has to be taken into account.  Also, certain types of composition convey certain ideas.  An image that has lots of diagonals conveys dynamism.  A triangular composition conveys strength and resolve.  A circular composition is often used to convey the idea of unity and wholeness.  If you wanted to illustrate, say, a princess holding her infant son with a dragon emblem behind them, one way you could approach it would be to compose the image as a circle within a circle, with the mother and child at the center and the emblem swirling around them.  Below is an abbreviated list of composition types and the emotion/theme they best convey:

Compositional Type/Shape Emotion/Theme
Horizontal Peace, Quiet, Aftermath, Death
Diagonal Action, Opposition, Energy
Circular Love, Unity, Perfection, Completeness
Vertical Hope, Fear, Growth, Rise and Descent
Triangle Strength, Assimilation, Power
Square Balance, Order, Resolve

To give you an example, I will use my painting "Skull Mountain" to explain how composition in your work can heighten and enhance the theme or themes you want to convey.  My initial idea was to create an image in the spirit of Frazetta, which conveyed a sense of victory in the face of impending doom. 

Compositional Technique in Art
By Tan Ruixiang William

I have to say 'Artists are people with a precious gift from God- the ability to imagine'. It is with the ability to imagine that a multitude of ideas, form, shapes and creative thinking take place.

However, most beginning artists will agree that it is hard to take what we have imagined in our minds and place it onto our drawing paper. Most newcomers lack the ability to organize the chaotic mind into a system of order so that the final art work is a by product of a systematic thought process.

This thought process is known as composition. Composition is the integration of many different kinds of art techniques and philosophies with one' s technique and style in painting. Composition technique is never easy and should be studied in great detail for anyone interested in the study of Art.

Compositional technique can be easier to master if one ask himself/herself these questions when painting. What is the 'spirit' of the object that you are trying to capture in your painting? What is the most interesting aspect of the object that you will want to focus on?

Yes, the keyword is focus! If there is no focal point, then you will not be able to capture the emotion of the subject and express it on paper in a way that will maximize the impression you hope to achieve. And always remember that the selection of the colour and tone is critical to bring out the mood of the painting. Every decision you make as the artist should have a primary reason behind it. Composition in art is about how you react to a subject and introduce your personal quality through your drawing.


William Tan is a writer and artist from William Tan Art Studio which specializes in art investment, art therapy and art techniques. If you have any questions relating to Art, do contact at williamtanstudio@gmail.com or visit http://www.william-tan.com today!

Let's Learn to Critique
These are not the most helpful critiques.  Will look for better ones.

Critique of picture,  try to ignore the subject matter...

To me the biggest problem is values.  See what you think.

These are superficial critiques.  This pictures has major design problems which limit its potential. 

A shaded drawing, not a real painting.


conception/execution - Conception is the birth process of an artistic idea, from the initial creative impulse through aesthetic refinement, problem-solving, and visualization/realization. Execution is the second half of the creative process: the actual carrying out of the idea, in terms of method and materials, which often involves compromises and alterations of the initial conception. Artists often see the initial conception as the guiding force for their aesthetic decisions, in terms of formal elements of design, and in terms of the expressive content desired. Contemporary conceptual artists place more emphasis on the first part of the creative process; traditional artists are somewhat more concerned with the techniques and methods involved in producing the artwork. The painter Henri Matisse advised, in his essay On Painting, that artists should keep their initial impulse in the front of their minds when working on a painting, to make the best expressive and formal decisions.

Read about the creative process.

From importanceofphilosphy.com


Painting is the selective recreation of reality through the use of a two-dimensional drawing. It is a category of art that includes drawings, paintings, and sketches. Its purpose is to clarify particular concepts by making them directly perceivable. By bringing a concept to the level of perception, it makes it possible to contemplate the subject in essentials with visual clarity.

Making a concept visually perceivable is achieved through a process of creating a visual integration. Since concepts are formed by selecting essential criteria, and abstracting away any non-essential characteristic, the resulting mental unit consists of only the important features. Similarly, a visual integration is possible. By abstracting away the non-essential visual features, the painting is left with a visual equivalent of a concept. If done correctly and well, the painting will portray the essential characteristics of an object.

The result of such a visual integration is that the subject will look not only real, but will appear to be the perfect representation of an object. This in spite of the fact that one may never have seen an object that looked quite like it. It will look like the subject should look, and not what it does look like.


What is Esthetics?

Esthetics is the study of art. It includes what art consists of, as well as the purpose behind it. Does art consist of music, literature, and painting? Or does it include a good engineering solution, or a beautiful sunset? These are the questions that are aimed at in esthetics. It also studies methods of evaluating art, and allows judgments of the art. Is art in the eye of the beholder? Does anything that appeals to you fit under the umbrella of art? Or does it have a specific nature? Does it accomplish a goal?

Why is Esthetics important?

Art has existed through all of recorded human history. It is unique to humans because of our unique form of thinking. Its importance is based on this nature, specifically, man's ability to abstract. Art is a little understood tool of man to bring meaning to abstract concept. Esthetics is important because it delves into the reason why art has always existed, the burning need of mankind through the ages to see the world in a different, clear way. It further evaluates art by the standard of human life, and whether it accomplishes the job of satisfying man's intellectual needs, or whether it tends to hurt or make worse those needs.

What are the key elements of a proper Esthetics?

Art is a selective recreation of reality. It's purpose is to concretize an abstraction to bring an idea or emotion within the grasp of the observer. It is a selective recreation, with the selection process depending on the value judgments of the creator. These value judgments can be observed and evaluated via the field of ethics.


Art satisfies an important need for men. It brings complex abstractions closer to the perceptual level, enabling men to more fully grasp them. Art accomplishes this through a process of embodying the abstraction in the form of a concrete.

Art does not just concretize the abstraction by merely creating an instance of it. Art attempts to embody the abstraction. It creates a single instance, but the instance is based on the essential nature of the concept. When we form a concept, we omit all of the non-essential qualities. The abstraction that remains is based only on essential characteristics. It is these characteristics that art tries to produce in a single concrete form.

The result really is an embodiment of the abstraction. The product retains only what the artist deems important. Since it consists of just the essential aspects of the abstraction, and contains all of the essentials, it allows the abstraction to be grasped directly as an entity.

The importance of this tool of cognition is incalculable. By portraying the abstraction in this way, it gains the immediacy of a perceivable concrete. It magnifies the usefulness of the concept by allowing a more thorough integration and understanding of it. Instead of trying to understand things in term of an abstraction of many entities, the single concrete embodiment serves as a perfect example of the abstraction.

To bring the abstraction into clarity, it needs to be created in its essential form. To be meaningful, it needs to be created in a recognizable form. To this end, art is a selective re-creation of reality.

Art is selective. The artist must pick not only the form in which he intends to create the art, but he must pick a subject. This subject is not random. It is picked by the artist for some significance it has for him. The choice of the subject is based on the artist's philosophy. Importance to the artist is based on his world-view. The subject is that which the artist believes has a wide-reaching importance to himself. The content is based on his sense of life. His emotional evaluation of the aspects of reality he finds important.

Art is a re-creation. It is created in order to grasp clearly an aspect of the artist's world view. If the concretization of the idea happened naturally, one would not have a problem of bringing the abstraction to a perceivable form. It would already be done. Art is an attempt to fill a gap. It is an act of creation to bring into the world a clear representation of an aspect of one's world-view.

Art is a re-creation of reality. Its purpose is to embody an idea, showing that it can exist in reality. If the creation required non-real qualities in order to be able to embody the idea, it could not be convincing. If an artist, in trying to show that man should live a life devoid of 'materialism', had to resort to describing an imaginary being that required no food, protection from the elements, or any other human need, it would rob the creation of the ability to concretize an abstraction in order to achieve further understanding or efficacy.

An artist does need to create that which doesn't exist already, or in a sufficiently consistent form. To this end, the artist isn't replicating reality. Fiction is a form of art that doesn't mirror reality. But the artist, in order to convey the message, must not only show what the message is, but how it can exist in reality. If he fails in the second half, it will undermine the first. To this end, the imaginary or impossible can supplement the art, but cannot serve as its foundation. This is why art needs to be a selective recreation of reality.

Why Men Need Art

The word "art" is used so often and so loosely, it seems it can be applied to anything at all. A word that can be used to describe anything, though, is a word that has no meaning. To derive the meaning of the word, we must first explore what human need it fulfills.

Man is a conceptual being. He thinks not only in specifics, but in abstracts. To gain further knowledge of the world, he builds abstracts on top of abstracts. Each step higher brings him a wider grasp of reality.

Each step also takes him farther from the clarity that comes from direct perception. This is not to say that his abstractions are false. If his use of reason is vigorous enough, the abstractions will correspond to reality. The difficulty is in then using the abstractions for further reasoning.

Concepts are integrations of particulars. They can be formed through integration of perceptions directly, or they can be formed through abstractions of other concepts. The second route, while producing valid concepts, does not require the perception of the particulars. They are induced, but need not have been directly perceived.

This brings us to the crux of the problem. Many abstracts lack the immediacy of those based on perception. The higher the level of abstraction, the more difficult it is to fully grasp it. Art is the tool that makes it possible to grasp complex abstractions.




More Painting Secrets:

The Secret of Values New
The Secret of Emotion

The Secret of Critiquing
The Secret of Composition

The Secret of Visual Idea
The Secret of Borrowing
The Secret of Tonalism 
The Secret of Style
The Secret of Maxfield Parrish

The Secret of Plein Air
The Secret of No Solvents
The Secret of Water Mixable Oils

The Secret of Thumbnails
The Secret of the Process
The Secret of Knife Painting


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 Dick Blick Art Materials

Please read and digest the material in the left column that I have assembled from all over the place.  Read and digest.  It's a little disorganized and not finished, but worth the time to study it.  I think you will find it very interesting and instructive.

Email me with any questions, comments or suggestions.

Recommended Books

These are the best books on my shelf.  Some are more advanced.  No particular order.  These links will take you to Amazon.com, but you might check your local library...ask about interlibrary loans, or a used book store.

 Art Fundamentals:  Theory and Practice

Don't have a degree in art? Want to fill in those gaps in your knowledge? Follow the link above for a used copy or new. I was lucky to find a used 9th edition with the Core Concepts CD unopened. Email the seller to make sure the CD is there and it works. 10th edition is out now and available from the publisher.

Plus: website content for this book: Quizzes, crossword puzzles, key terms, flashcards, etc. Think you know all the answers? This is not easy! Highly recommend. 

 Tom Lynch 100 Watercolor Workshop Lesson Charts
If you could only choose one book this is it.  His major theme is "think like an artist".  He makes that point from every angle imaginable in an entertaining way.  Great paintings, colorful, inspirational, clear.  Intended for watercolor, but very useful for any medium.










How to "Read" a Painting

Elements of Visual Design Explained

Watercolor Sunflowers on Yupo Paper a demo

Artist's Toolkit

The Elements of Art - good

Elements of Art

Painting Critique Checklist

How to Critique a Painting

Mr. Picasso Head

Cybernetic art program - amazing

Dip 'n Daub - abstract art generator 358k

Cityscapes - artificial creativity, good one

Generative Art - program <300k

“There are mighty few people who think what they think they think.” So wrote Robert Henri, author of The Art Spirit, 3 speaking of the various answers to the question, What do I do when I paint?    Beginners in art usually think of themselves as “painting that ” – say, a landscape.     So they include every visible cow, barn, tree, and cloud.    In reality, their first artistic impulse sprung from a rather quick glance, which is something far different from a photographic visualization of everything stimulating their retinas.   What attracted them to notice this landscape was the massive, quiet dignity of a weathered-red barn surrounded by wind-shook acres of grain.    In their original glimpse, they never saw the cows, they didn’t notice the clouds, and they barely registered the trees.    Later, upon reflection, they think they did, and that mistake in thinking accounts for many an ineffective painting.

Accomplished artists do not think of themselves as painting the total landscape seen after inspection.   Rather they feel moved by some image, and they lay paint on canvas in a way that they hope will create a similar reaction in a viewer.   They will leave out the cows and rearrange the clouds to enhance the impression of the majesty of that barn rising from those fields.   They often remind themselves, “I am not painting that – a visible figure over there.    I am painting this – a melange of paint that expresses my disposition when I see that and promises to evoke the same disposition in someone else.”    This image may be something in nature, a sitting model, the memory of several experiences, or even the pure image of colors in a pattern.

...the specific symbol most significant to us is the human face.    Infants, in their earliest differentiations of consciousness, learn to notice faces.   I am always amazed how they spontaneously look at our looking organs – not our ears extending out from the sides, not our noses sticking out in front, not our lips that sing them lullabies and smooch them with kisses -- but our eyes.    They “read” a frown far earlier than they understand a word.    This image of the face and eyes is loaded with feeling and remains at the core of their sensibilities for the rest of their lives.


Achieve a Sense of Light

"Bokeh" is a corruption of the Japanese word Boke, which means
"blur." Backgrounds, particularly, are often rendered out of
focus. You may be familiar with what are called "circles of
confusion," those round spots of light that occur in photos.
Photographers spend some effort to get "good bokeh" as opposed
to "bad bokeh." Bad bokeh draws attention to
itself--particularly "donut bokeh" with hollow centers that
result from the use of mirror lenses. Painting Bokeh in the
negative area--Swiss Cheese variety is commonplace these
days--I do it myself. I've asked Andrew to put up a few
annotated examples at the top of the current clickback. See URL

"Fringing" is the fringes of light and colour around objects.
In photography it's often due to extreme magnification and the
inability of some lenses to focus all colours of light on the
same spot. This colour or light intrusion, when painted, can be
arbitrary but is often a complementary of a local colour.
Fringing adds a welcome and mysterious interest.

"Auras" are those intensified glows that form around and within
objects--particularly when seen against the light. Bright red
tree branches against a sunset are an example we are all
familiar with. The nice thing about auras is that they operate
in predictable, somewhat scientific ways. The tree aura
mentioned above, for example, generally picks up its colour by
sliding down the colour wheel from the colour of the light
behind it. Thus an orange sky would yield a red aura.

"Dazzle" is the common state where light simply etches out
detail. Difficult to do in traditional film photography,
digital does it better by looking around and opening up to
shadow areas. Painters can always add "truth" to their work by
putting details into shadow rather than the lighter spots.
Combining dazzle and aura requires the softening of transition

Simple blending goes a long way toward the painterly
illusion of light. As always it's a case of "commit and
correct." I've never met a painter who got the balance
perfectly in the first go.

From Robert Genn Newsletter, Oct. 21, 05:  Playing with Light