It is entirely typical of my existence that I go through my e-mail, and selling the giant stone wang piece is followed immediately by selling A-B-C prints for a nursery.

I was thinking about art instruction the other day. I was reading the memoirs of Richard Feynman, the physicist, and he was talking about taking art classes, and how odd it was. I’m paraphrase badly, but his basic point was that an art teacher can’t make many outright pronouncements about how to do something, like “Don’t use thick lines for this” or “Don’t use those colors to do figures,” because somebody somewhere has probably made a painting work like that. There’s no absolute laws, like there are in math, so a teacher can’t really teach that this is so and this isn’t, they just have to hope that the students pick stuff up by osmosis.

This is both absolutely true and rather false.

It’s true in that that’s largely how art classes I’ve taken have been, certainly. Classes focused on getting you to render something specifically may be different, but most of the art classes I’ve taken were basically “Do stuff, and let the rest of us tell you what did or didn’t work, and if we know why, we’ll say so.” (Half the time you don’t know why.) But there was no technical skill being taught. You just got thrown at the drawing board, and either you managed or you didn’t. Even pottery was wildly different–there really IS a correct way (or a couple of ways) and an incorrect way to throw a pot, defined by “Will this sucker explode in the kiln or not?”–but the art classes I took had a distinct muddle-through quality that was often frustrating.

The false bit was that there actually are, if not unbreakable rules, at least pretty good guidelines. But I had to find almost all of them outside of class, and like other artists before and since, a lot of them I re-invented in the studio on my own. Occasionally, I’ll trip over one in an art book or something, and it will cement the notion down to a sort of postulate. But what strikes me is how HARD these are to find written down, and how they never came up in an art class. I wonder if a lot of artists know these, but never wrap words around them, or what.

This was brought out rather strikingly for me t’other day when a co-worker of my husband’s asked me to critique a piece. For the skill level he’s at, it wasn’t bad at all, and I spent about half an hour going over the various bits that I could see, which involved rehashing a couple of these basic guidelines, and nobody had ever told him ANY of them.

This shouldn’t have surprised me, I guess. Only a handful were ever told to me, and all of those by my mother. Without having an MFA on the phone, I’d have had to work them all out or glean them from books or tutorials myself. I suspect a lot of ’em are incredibly basic, but once we know them, we assume guiltily that everybody else has always known them, and because they sound so inane, and we are terrified of being exposed as the fakers we are,* we don’t go around to other artists and say “Hey, look at this cool thing I just learned!”

Well, and seriously, when artists get together, they talk about weird fans and how sales are and where to get art supplies and the behavior of X media on X surface, and how we took it up the ass for taxes last year, not basic rules of composition.

Then I thought “Man, I bet a lot of my readers don’t know these either.”

So, without further ado–many of my readers doubt know these already, having teased them out for themselves, but for anybody starting out, Things I Have Learned About Art, mostly composition and color.

Don’t have a line going off the exact corner of the page. This activates the corner visually–it hauls the eye down and right off the page, and they may never come back. Doesn’t have to be a straight line, either. Likewise, if you’ve got a large shape going off the corner, handle it carefully–if it’s perfectly balanced in the corner, the center axis will sometimes act like a line, even if it’s not drawn in.

If something is nearly touching something else, but not quite, it activates the space between them. If you have a tree branch that’s almost–but not quite–touching the line of the mountains, people are going to be staring at that little gap. Since there is probably nothing to see in that little gap, you probably don’t want that.

Corollary 1: The eye goes to stuff that’s crossing. If you have stuff crossing other stuff, the eye will get dragged to where they cross. This can be used to your advantage.

Corollary 2: X marks the spot. If you have stuff–tree branches, arms, mountains, whatever, form an exact right angle cross, the eye goes there and STOPS. For whatever reason, a right-angle X is like a brake. People will stare at it. Can be great if it’s on your main figure! Not so great if it’s a couple of blades of grass in the foreground. X’s, for whatever reason, will haul in the eye.

Don’t block movement. I think it was John Seery-Lester who wrote this one, and I’ve found him to often be correct. If you have a figure moving, don’t put stuff in their way. ANY stuff. A wolf running across the painting is halted just as easily by a bright blade of grass from the foreground extending into his path as by a brick wall. Obviously you have to make some judgement calls on this one, but if you’re going for a sense of motion, don’t put in a visual obstacle course.

People look at faces. In most paintings, all else being equal, the eye is drawn immediately to faces. This is good! You want people to look at your figure! Also, according to Michael Whelan anyway, again, all else being equal, a book cover with a large face does better on the newsstand. Couldn’t speak to that one myself.

Corollary: They look at boobs, too.

The eye goes to contrast. The point where the darkest darks cross the lightest lights is seriously intense, and the eye will go there. This can be used to your advantage, but if you have three or four evenly spaced areas of high contrast, the eye will wander around, get confused, miss your main figure, and the viewer will get bored and get a headache. (This one’s hard to spot in practice, so don’t sweat too much. If you’ve got a piece that isn’t working, though, consider whether this may be the problem, and punch up the contrast on your main point of interest.)

Figure out what color your light source is, and dump the complimentary color in the shadows. This depends on your color scheme, but seriously, a little purple in the shadows cast by the yellow sun of the the earth can really jazz up a piece.

Corollary: Gray looks purple if you stick it next to yellow, etc. This isn’t either good or bad, just something to be aware of.

The eye follows lines. If you have a strong line running most of the length of the painting, have it go somewhere interesting. If it winds up nowhere in particular–if you’ve got a dais or platform with a strong line at the top, say, and there’s nothing interesting to either side–then break it up–a leg, a fold of cloth, a torch, whatever–so that the eye can get off that hard line. It’s like a monorail. You gotta give ’em a station to get off, or they’ll just go back and forth and eventually jump, and god knows where they’ll wind up.

Corollary 1: The eye will follow lines TO stuff, too. Have your hard line lead to somebody’s face, and wham, you know the viewer’s gonna see that face. Have the line of a mountain lead to your mountain lion, or whatever.

Corollary 2: Hard lines that divide your painting in half (or a third, or whatever) are tricky. See, they split the painting HARD, and there’s a good chance the viewer will not actually register half the painting. It isolates each half of the painting. Great if you’re doing a light-and-dark shot of the same area or something–the visual similiarities will tie them together. Not so great if you just wanted to put a table there. The hard line acts as a wall. You gotta give ’em some kind of break to get through the wall. A mountain or a tree breaking up the horizon line might be all you need.

Bright colors come forward, dark colors recede. But you can fake ’em out with contrast and saturation.

Certain color combos have associations that trump your painting every time. Okay, this is totally subjective, but bear in mind that if you use dark green and saturated red together, it’s Christmas, and red, white, and navy blue are more trouble than they’re worth. You may be able to make ’em work, people certainly do, but you’re working against an entire culture’s programming on this one.

Corollary 1: Red, blue, and yellow in equal amounts gets really cluttered. Again, it can be made to work–my icon, for example, is from a painting where I used all three–but all those primaries can be awfully busy if you’re not careful. The platypus painting was seriously minimalist and stylized, which I think is why it worked, assuming it did and I’m not delusional.

Corollary 2: Fear the rainbow. Don’t ask me why, but if you have a complete rainbow spectrum, it just takes over the image. Not neccessarily bad, but approach with caution.

Corollary 3: Warning colors draw the eye. Since we evolved to associate bright colored animals with danger, like bees and poison frogs and whatnot, the specific combinations of black and red and especially black and yellow haul the eye in like no other. Black and yellow is much more powerful than black and white.

Symmetry is powerful, or powerfully boring. Strict, formal symmetry can make for a very imposing, dramatic painting, or it can send you to sleep. There’s a trick to it. If I ever figure out what it is, you’ll be the first to know.

Corollary: Odd numbers are good. I am told this works in landscaping, too–two of anything cancel each other out. One is an interesting specimen, three is a good dynamic grouping. It works with higher numbers too. Odd numbers add drama, even numbers balance one another. Once you get to the point where you can’t count the things, don’t worry about it.

Any collection of three dark roundish bits is a face. Learn to live with it. If you have a face take over a painting, however, you can usually fix it by taking out one of the “eyes.”

Same value, different hue, vibrates like hell. Okay, this is hard to explain, but if you have two colors that are the same brightness, even if it’s a red and a green or something, and you stick them together, the fact that they’re the same light/dark value gives them this freaky visual wiggle, as they both fight for dominance. You can use this to your advantage, but more likely, it’ll give your viewer a migraine. Decide which color you want to win and punch it up a few notches.

Anything can be any color, as long as you get the shape right. Especially true of skin tones, as long as it’s internally consistent, people will assume that it’s due to weird lighting, or they won’t even notice. Jerry Rudquist, my painting teacher, art rest his soul, told me this, and I have been proving him right for the rest of my life.

Corollary: Bright yellow is brighter than white. Heh, go figure. White is usually the brightest part of a painting, but occasionally you find a painting where yellow trumps it. I don’t know what causes that to happen, but it’s interesting.

Okay, that’s all I can think of right at the moment. If you’re like me, you probably absorbed maybe the first one or two. That’s fine. Don’t worry about it. Trying to hold all of these in your mind simultaneously would make you crazy. Lists like this is more handy as a checklist when you know a painting ISN’T working and need to figure out why. A lot of them you do instinctively anyway.

And break any and all of ’em if you think it’ll look neat, obviously. That’s where art has the advantage over physics. You can break all the rules of art and NOT get an explosion.

If anybody has random guidelines of their own that they have learned and want to share, particularly about color or composition, please speak up! It doesn’t matter how basic or stupid it sounds, it’s certainly possible that people won’t know ’em, and even if you can’t reduce it to a pithy statement, talk around it, and somebody can probably find a way to phrase it.

Edit: Added a clarification and a corollary about black and yellow.

*In case you’re still at this point, let me assure you that I am also faking it, and I suspect every other artist on earth probably is, too.

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