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farmlandWell, I’m going to teach an art class again — thought I was finished with that, but guess it’s in my “blood.”  Beginning September 15 (Thursday) from 1:30 – 3:30, I will be teaching a class on how to compose a work of art at the Maumelle Senior Wellness Center in Maumelle.  This is a seven week class, and will include examples, critiques, information, exercises, and perhaps occasional homework.  Students will use their own materials, as well as materials provided by the instructor.  I’ve had many years of experience teaching this subject, both in high school art classes, children’s classes, and adult classes.  A lot of the lessons will be based on the blogs I’ve shared on this site.  Cost is $45, and there is a maximum of eight students so call MSWC as soon as possible, if you want to register  (501- 851-4344).   I’m looking forward to seeing you and sharing my understanding of composition and design principles.



Knowing about the basic proportions of the head is fine, but what happens when the artist doesn’t have a frontal view, or the head is tilted causing foreshortening?  A bigger problem, of course.  Actually, a profile view is easiest of all to draw because you have the negative space to help, and maybe because you only have one eye, one ear, one nostril, one-half of the lip to draw! At any rate, most people would not like to have their portrait done head on – like a wanted poster.  The best view for portraits is a 3/4 view.

And if the head is tilted upward, or downward, the basic proportions of 1/3, or 1/2 no longer work.  If the head tilts upward, you see more of the chin, neck, nostrils, etc. and less of the forehead.  The proportional ‘thirds” diminish near the top of the head, and the nose appears above the lower part of the ear.  If the head tilts downward, you will see more of the hair, the forehead and less of the eyes, lips and nose.  The top “third” seems to be larger and the nose is below the lower part of the ear.  Always remember to find the center line and the slant of the head.  Notice the curves in the vertical and horizontal center lines.  Here are some examples.  Although not the best drawings in the world, you can see what happens in each case.



Trees are diverse — their trunks, limbs and branches, foliage are all dependent on their type.  The best way to learn how to draw trees is to draw trees, especially bare trees in the winter.  Learn the skeletons first.  It takes a lot of observation and practice.  Begin to examine how branches grow out of the trunks. Where is the widest part of the trunk? The trunk of a tree is not straight up and down; many are distorted by the wind and natural elements.  It’s much more interesting when the shape of the trunk changes direction.  Trunks are not always larger at the base either, unless they are cypress trees.  Roots serve to pull in food and give support. They get thinner as the tree grows taller and leaves congregate toward the outside air and light. But they don’t get thinner until they begin to branch.  the branches follow the same pattern.  Each year is a different growth spurt, so branches and limbs grow at angles and not as ribbons or curves.

It’s useful to use varied pressures while drawing tree trunks with a pencil.  Use the pencil on point and on the edge to simulate the rough texture of the bark.  Start from the ground up and “grow” the tree. Watch the direction of the light. Use light limbs against dark foliage and vice versa. Always look for the sky holes.  The value of the sky is darker inside the sky holes than the rest of the sky behind the tree.  It’s a good idea to draw/paint a branch or limb inside the sky holes — it says “tree” effectively.

Think in terms of gesture drawing. What is the action of the tree? This is the axis.  If it has leaves, think of it as a solid shape.  Which side of the tree is the darkest? As a solid object, it has form and value.  It’s darker where you can see through to the trunk, and the trunk darkens as it moves up.  The most important detail is the negative space.

For foliage, always think in terms of masses.  TDo not, I repeat, do not start with little leaf-life strokes before you’ve defined the clumps of foliage.  IF YOU CAN’T COUNT THE LEAVES, DON’T DRAW THEM INDIVIDUALLY.  SUGGEST THEM INSTEAD.    Always place some foliage in front of the trunk, not always behind.  The only places that you can suggest leaf shapes are on the edge of the tree facing the light, or in the negative spaces of the sky holes.

Warm light bounces from the ground to the underneath planes of the tree.  Trunks are cooler where they face a clearing and warmer when they reflect a forest bed. Use yellows and pale greens for sun-struck foliage and vary the hues in the foliage shadows.

Summer on the Lake



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.


These are some creative ideas I’ve collected over the years, but never tried myself.  So, unfortunately, I don’t have images to show you.  However, I’m sure with your own creative juices flowing now that we’re in a New Year, you will want to try a few of these.  Please let me know which ones you like!  In posts to come, I’ll add to this list.

1.  Set a still life in the middle of a landscape, as per Wallace Steven’s poem “I Set a Jar in Tennessee.”  Make it believable.

2.  On a large sheet of paper, make a whole object and several detail studies to understand unique characteristics of the object — compose with a visual flow — flower, gourd, skull, seed pods, corn husk, etc.

3.  Hang fabrics from a clothesline connecting some together and letting some drape on the floor. Turn on a spotlight and turn off overhead lights. Draw the shadows on the floor as well as other forms.  Use a viewfinder, and draw only what you see.

4.  Make a viewfinder with 1:4 or 1:5 relationship.  Look at your world through this – both vertically and horizontally. What subject would seem most appropriate in this way?

5.  Tell a story in 4-5 consecutive views.  Use the medium of your choice.





Mirrored Corn Plants

This is an idea from one of Selma Blackburn’s watercolor classes.  We were told to make reverse images of an object on a large sheet of watercolor paper — where the images meet in the center will most likely turn out to be the center of interest (breaking one of the principles of composition)!  There is a lot of movement in this composition, and the direction of the cast shadows in the lower left and right corners lead the eye toward the center of the painting.  This was a fun painting! If you notice, the warm hues predominate.  There are also lots of negative shapes in the composition, adding to the fun of painting it.


When I teach drawing techniques, I always stress these rules.  I received this advice from several sources, and it helped me make better drawings and paintings.  It works not only for still life, but landscapes and figures as well, so I’m passing it on to you: 

1.  If the large shape is right, the painting will be right, so think in terms of the largest shape first and draw  it, then  go to the smaller shapes within.

2.  Look for enrichment shapes, including highlights, shadows, reflections, patterns, and textures.

3.  Tie the shapes together — this may be by overlapping or cast shadows, or by similar values/colors adjacent to each other.

4.  When you see negative shapes, draw them.  Negative shapes often help us correctly draw the positive ones. The negative shapes are the spaces around the positive shapes.  (More on this later.)

5.  The sequence of drawing objects:   the shape is first, then the form (placing values to make a 3-dimensional illusion), then the object (the details that make the viewer understand what is being drawn.

If you keep these rules in mind, you will greatly simplify your task of representational depiction.


I have lots more suggestions for sketchbook drawings, but alas, I never drew them. Hopefully, you will take some of these suggestions and try them yourself in your sketchbooks. If you do, and want to send me some images, I will be happy to post these on my blog.

Idea No. 1: Make a list of five objects. Make a list of five locations or environments. Combine one from each list into a drawing, such as: a fish in a forest, an alligator on the kitchen table, a lamp in a cloudy sky. Make it outrageous!

Idea No. 2: Draw a still life of reflective and transparent objects — use three different surface qualities. Use a viewfinder to isolate an area of the still life with a wide range of values and elements. Turn this area into a larger drawing either abstract or representational.

Idea No. 3: Tell a story in 4-5 consecutive views on separate sheets of your sketchbook. Use the medium of your choice.

Idea No. 4: Make a drawing depicting an emotion without a figure. How can you do this through space, life, and perspective? For example: space = bedroom, elevator; light = a single bare bulb or candle; perspective = looking upward or downward.

Idea No. 5: An alphabetical landscape: use a short but profound word like WAR and draw a wide, horizontal rectangle on a sketchbook page. Put capital letters in this field. Break up the space in a dynamic way and use negative space to provide the environment. Use perspective and color on the letters.

More to come later…


Cast Shadow



This idea comes from a sketchbook workshop I took from David Paul Cook. It is his own creation. He had us draw the same image in our sketchbook the same size 4 times, choosing from eight different ways to draw the subject: 1. Use contour lines or outlines, 2. Draw the negative spaces around the objects, 3. Use thicker lines in the foreground and thinner lines in the distance, 4. Wavy lines, no outlines, 5. straight lines, no outlines, 6. shaded with hatching and cross-hatching, 7. positive in black and white only, 8. reverse – negative in black and white.

I chose to do a landscape with two cows in the middle ground in these 4 ways: 1. Straight lines, no outlines; 2. Negative shapes only; 3. Black and white positive; and 4. Scribble lines. This was a fun exercise and taught me some other ways of drawing.