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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.



There is a great deal of difference in how you make a detailed drawing in graphite pencil.  You can’t lay your pencil on the side and scumble back and forth for the proper value.  That doesn’t look too good. No, you must keep your pencil tip sharp and use it at a more upward angle.  If you want a drawing that is finely “rendered,” as opposed to just “sketching,” I recommend the following procedure.

The first step is an accurate drawing.  Not only are the positive shapes drawn correctly, but the shadows and highlights are also “mapped” out — which means their shapes are drawn as well.  Be sure that your objects are connected either by overlapping or cast shadows.  Here’s my example:

010 (2)The reason for the many cast shadows in this is because I have light sources in my set up – not a wise decision!  You notice that I have used a center line to make sure my objects are symmetrical, and that I have mapped out the reflections in the silver goblet.


My second example shows that I have layered a light value over all the shapes in my drawing.  I did this with a 2H pencil and covered up all the white paper.  I made sure not to lose the highlight and shadow shapes.

009In this final example, I have darkened the values with 2B-4B-6B pencils, and erased with an electric eraser where the highlights are.  The silver goblet now looks shiny.  This is a good way to depict texture in a drawing:  overall layering with a light pencil, darkening with softer pencils for the shadows, and erasing the highlights.  Try it on your next drawing.


For those pastel painters who like a step-by-step method to painting an artwork, this is for you.  I think I got this from Larry Blovits, my first workshop teacher, but I probably added to it over the years.  Some useful information is included.


1. SELECT A BALANCED COMPOSITION: Is there a center of interest? A variety of shapes? Forms? Colors? Values? Sizes? Movements? Does your eye lead you from one area of interest to another? Are there clues of depth? Is there a statement to be made?

2. DECIDE ON YOUR GOAL FOR THE PAINTING: What do you want to emphasize? The illusion of depth? The contrast of light against dark? A shape or pattern that is repeated throughout? An emotional feeling? Set a goal and stick to it.

3. DECIDE WHETHER THE FORMAT IS VERTICAL OR HORIZONTAL: Decide on the major divisions of the picture plane – where will the main objects be situated? You may want to lightly sketch in this composition, using a NuPastel stick. Or you may plan by doing a thumbnail sketch or two. If using paper, pad underneath with several other sheets.

4. DRAW THE MAJOR SHAPES OF THE COMPOSITION AS ACCURATELY AS POSSIBLE: Keeping shapes simple at first, work on creating proper proportion of the first shape you put into your picture plane and then measure every other shape’s height and width in proportion to this first shape.

5. MASS IN LOCAL COLOR VALUES: Mass in the foundation colors with hard pastel as close to the value as possible. The colors should be darker and more intense to begin with as they really are. Work from dark to light. Don’t put in any highlights at this point. Working with a darker, more intense color creates a stronger foundation of color as well as providing contrast for modeling with lighter colors without bleaching or “chalking out” the color.

Some artists put a hint of their lightest and their darkest values in at this point so that the range of values can be adjusted. Begin to solve basic color problems. Work on the whole picture. You can always dull an intense color, but not vice-versa. You can also lighten the dark, but not vice-versa.

6. ADD SHADE AND SHADOW: Establish the dark values – look for purples and blues in the shadow areas. Use black if your colors are not dark enough, but always layer a red, green, blue or purple dark over it so that it doesn’t look so dead. Squint your eyes or take off your glasses so that you can see the values. Think in terms of pattern, shape, and value at first.

7. REWORK AS NEEDED TO INCLUDE LIGHT, VOLUME, TEXTURES, AND DEPTH: You may want to use fixative spray between layers of pastel. Use hard and semi-hard pastels at this point. DO NOT WORK ON THE DETAILS AS YET; THIS IS THE LAST STEP IN DEVELOPING THE ARTISTIC STATEMENT. Take your time. Avoid blending – you can use a hard pastel to glaze or blend over colors. Glazing with a complement makes the colors vibrate.

8. REDUCE CONTRAST IN THE BACKGROUND, INCREASE CONTRAST IN THE FOREGROUND. Contrast should be strong in the foreground and weak in the background for the illusion of space (Aerial Perspective).   If the light is warm, the shadows should be cool, and vice versa. Have little contrast where you want the objects to recede. You only want one focus, so some things need to be unclear of hard to see (Refraction). Play with lost and found edges, soft and hard edges.

9. RESTATE ELEMENTS FOR FURTHER CLARITY: Add color accents where needed, and add foreground detail. Leave some calligraphic strokes, and arbitrary colors for pizzazz!

10. ELIMINATE MISTAKES AT ANY TIME: Cover over a color with its complement, and then change the color. You can also remove layers of pastel with a stiff brush.

11. ABOVE ALL – take your time. Don’t try to put in the excitement too early. Speed is not important; focus and perseverance is.


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



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.



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.


Draw a shiny object in graphite pencil.  Use strong contrast to show highlights and reflections.  Then draw a rough, textured, or dull object in graphite pencil.  Try to show the roughness or texture in the item.  Notice the amount of contrast — is there more on the shiny object than there is on the textured?

shiny rough