Monthly Archives: February 2014


Here are some design patterns that I have sometimes used in composing my paintings.  I found these examples in an art magazine a few years ago and made a copy of them in my sketchbook.  As Harley Brown writes in his book,  Harley Brown’s Eternal Truths for Every Artist,Composition, not content, grabs your attention.”

The cruciform pattern is one that is used most effectively in non-objective compositions, and the strata, high and low horizons,   S curve, mass, diagonals and L shapes work really well in landscapes.  Why not make a copy of these in your sketchbook, and start using some of these in planning your compositions?  You’ll soon notice how much better they are.

design patterns



Sometimes we find ourselves at a hiatus.  We’ve run out of ideas and have not been creating for a spell.  This is the time to explore fresh experiences in art– use new and different materials, use new and different subject matter, and look at our subjects from different angles. What subjects have you never tried before?  Interior scenes, fish, old people, old family photos, gnarled hands,  rock patterns, fabrics, toys, masks, crowds, death and dying, roots, nightmares, trees that look like people, mothers and children, Bible stories. The list could be endless.  Pick one thing and draw different versions in your sketchbook every day until you find something that excites you. 

What different angles and formats have you not tried before?  Looking down, looking up, upside down or from the top– something from the back, a vignette, a silhouette, a panoramic view, or a detailed closeup.

What fresh materials could you try?  Encaustic painting seems to be popular right now.  I’m interested in trying silverpoint drawing.  I’ve spent a lot of time with colored pencil and pen and ink lately.  At one time, I made several collages.  Maybe I’d like to do some printmaking one of these days, and ceramics has always interested me!  “So much to do and so little time!”

One other thing you could try is to place new subjects in unrelated settings. Take four subjects and four settings, and cross-match them.  For instance, apples and oranges on a theater stage, peppers on a beach, animals at a card game, books scattered all over the lawn! So try some of these ideas when you have “artist’s block.”  You’ll get all creative and excited about doing art again.



Balance is one of the principles of design that requires further elucidation.  Balance, or stability, is indispensable to human life.  For every breath we inhale, we must exhale as well. Our days of work must be balanced by nights of rest.  Disease is an upset of blance, either by germs or the action of our environment. Proper medication or living style will restore our balance. In nature, the rough bark of a tree is balanced by t he smoothness of its leaves, and sometimes the smallest flowers have the strongest fragrance, while bright, show flowers have no noticeable scent. This, too, is balance.

In art, balance is the distribution of physical properties to suggest stability. There are three kinds of balance:

a. Formal or symmetrical:  if you draw a line exactly down the middle of a picture, elements on opposite sides will be identical or very similar.  Seen from the front, the human face is an example of formal balance.  Medieval and Byzantine artists often used formal balance to denote spirituality: the design was static and comforting in the hope of an afterlife.  Here is an example of symmetrical balance:

Mirrored Corn Plants

b.  Informal or asymmetrical balance:  In this type of balance, unequal elements are balanced by visual weight (form, value, color, or contrast).  This is a more dynamic design and more often used by modern artists.  An example of informal balance would be a tall, skinny tree seen next to a short, squat one.  Here is one of my examples:

Yellow Callas

c.  Radial balance is balance radiating from the center, like spokes in a wheel.  This type of balance is seen most often in primitive and folk art, and in geometric designs, particularly the mandala.  An example in nature is the petals of a daisy.  Here is my example:



Believe it or not, it’s important not to just go off willy-nilly with your compositions, even if they are non-objective.  Sure you’re creative, and have all sorts of ideas, but sooner or later, you need to analyze what you are doing.  The best time to do this is before you start, and during the process.  Here are some tips:


1.  What appeals to me about the subject I am going to represent?

2.  What emotion grabs me when I look at it?  How can I express these feeling through my work?  In other words, what is my goal?

3.  What part of the subject should be emphasized to maximize the impression I want to achieve?

4.  What colors and key (light, middle, or dark) best suit the mood I want to impart?

5.  What will identify this work as clearly and uniquely my own?


1. Have I achieved my goal?

2.  What is the shape of the overall format? L-shape, triangular, cruciform, horizontal bands, serpentine, etc.

3.  Are the objects connected and flowing from one shape to another?

4.  Is there variety in value, color, texture, or shape?

5.  Where are the hard edges? the soft edges?

6.  What is the dominant color or temperature?

7.  Where is the darkest area? the lightest area?

8.  Where is the center of interest, and how did I lead the eye into it?  Can the eye move around all over the painting, or is it stopped in certain places?

9.  Is the painting balanced – either symmetrical or asymmetrical?

10.  What did I do well? What needs more work?

11. What have I learned from this painting?


Here are some more tips on composition and design.  Design is the plan; composition is the process.

Composition, design, and content are the basic creative qualities of a painting. Value, shape, and color are the most important elements; also edges and transitions.  The first thing a viewer looks for in a painting is signs of life and cultural elements.  Human references are first, then man-made objects, then man-made unfamiliar objects.

SHAPES should be interesting – not predictable, with negative shapes just as important as positive. The circle is the least interesting shape – make directional changes to your shapes to give the eye something to look at. Intervals should not be equal. Viewers need surprises.  Use the  Papa Bear, Mama Bear, and Baby Bear concept (large, medium,and small shapes). Decide on the understructure first. Interlock modify, eliminate shapes to make composition work. Vary all four corners.

EYE MOVEMENT usually enters from the lower left hand corner and moves from left to right, as we read.  The area with the darkest dark or lightest light captures the attention. If diagonals lead the eye out of the painting, tone down values in those shapes. Trees going out the top of the painting should be close in value to the areas surrounding them.

COLOR AND VALUE are important. Choose a “mother” color to dominate the painting.  Light or dark areas move the eye through the painting. Make sure that the painting is either warm (yellows and reds) or cool (blues and greens) predominate. If your composition is busy, use analogous or monochromatic color schemes. For a contemplative mood, use darker values. Reduce bull’s eyes (dark circles that cry out for attention) by glazing over or changing adjacent colors to match. Use a large range of darks. Grays can give beautiful passages.

RHYTHM AND REPETITION should be considered, but too much can destroy a design.  Think about curvilinear, vertical, triangular, diagonal, circular, or rectangular shapes for rhythm.  Let the mood be your guide.

TEXTURE is an attention grabber, but don’t go overboard with it.