Main Create Perfect Paintings: An Artist’s Guide to Visual Thinking

Create Perfect Paintings: An Artist’s Guide to Visual Thinking

The Ultimate Resource and Reference Guide for Artists!

Discover an innovative self-critique method that will empower you to answer the artist's most common questions, Now What? and Is it Finished? as you learn to identify and overcome painting issues faced by artists regardless of medium or style. With hundreds of insights, tips, illustrated techniques and ideas, Create Perfect Paintings shows you how to push your work to the next level by strengthening your perception, technical skills and visual thinking.

Exercises and examples illustrate how to critique your own creations and then evaluate them step by step for further improvement. You will compare illustrations, and learn to identify and modify artistic choices--from negative space and color ratio to controlling eye movement, depth and contrast--to see their impact and help you use them to the best effect in your work. What you'll find inside:

  • Section 1: Essentials--Reviews and defines artistic terms and concepts.
  • Section 2: Play Phase--Shows you how to tap into your right brain. Learn to challenge the process and break habits to free your spirit and inspire variety in your art; also covers materials, tools and surfaces
  • Section 3: Critique Phase--Introduces a groundbreaking method of contemporary critique called The Viewing Game a comprehensive, systematic and fun way to analyze, edit and enhance your paintings.
  • Sections 4 and 5--Bonus sections explore how to resolve creative blocks, convey artistic messages, boost your personal style, display your work and turn painting into a career.

"May this book increase your productivity, add ease and flow to your creative process, clarify your ideas, add nuance to your personal style, and most importantly, add joy to the miraculous act of painting." --Nancy Reyner

Categories: Art\\Graphic Arts
Year: 2017
Publisher: North Light Books
Language: english
ISBN 13: 9781440344237
File: EPUB, 28.21 MB
Download (epub, 28.21 MB)

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An Artist’s Guide to Visual Thinking






In this section, become familiar with the art terms and definitions frequently used in the book to enhance comprehension.

Concept 1: Understanding Painting

Concept 2: Left vs. Right Brain Thinking

Concept 3: Visual Tension

Concept 4: Meet Your Audience

Concept 5: Opposites Attract

Concept 6: The 80:20 Rule

Concept 7: Realism and Abstraction

Concept 8: Painting Processes


Starting a painting involves a broad range of considerations. This section covers these and more to assist you in making optimal choices to maximize results right from the start.

Controlled Processes

Flexible Processes

Choosing the Right Medium

Choosing the Right Surface

How to Maximize Variety

Painting with the Right Brain


The heart of the book, this section presents The Viewing Game, a comprehensive and systematic critique method for artists to evaluate paintings for further improvement and enhancement.

The Viewing Game

Inquiry 1: The Big Three

Inquiry 2: Tactile Surface Quality

Inquiry 3: Flip 4

Inquiry 4: Entrances and Exits

Inquiry 5: Zones and Quadrants

Inquiry 6: Focal Points

Inquiry 7: Design and Movement

Inquiry 8: Spatial Depth

Inquiry 9: Hot Spots

Inquiry 10: Is It Finished?


This section offers solutions for resolving common painting issues with an extensive exploration into color. The first three solutions offer shortcuts for streamlining The Viewing Game analysis from Section 3.

Solution 1: The 4-Step Critique Shortcut

Solution 2: Critique Quick List

Solution 3: Pairs of Opposites

Solution 4: Mixing the Perfect Color

Solution 5: Conveying Your Painting’s Message


Additional advice for artists on career aspects and overcoming creative blocks as well as how to display your work, clarify ideas and think outside the box for new inspiration.

Topic 1: Viewing, Display and Framing

Topic 2: Freeing a Creative Block

Topic 3: Discovering New Ideas

Topic 4: Critique Examples

Topic 5: Critique Groups

Topic 6: Painting as a Career

About the Author



Pieter Brueghel the Elder, page 23

Nancy Reyner, page 35

Vicki Teague-Cooper, page 80

Nancy Reyner, page 139

Henri Matisse, page 113

E-FIELD WITH OCEAN / Nancy Reyner / Acrylic on panel / 23" × 19" (58cm × 48cm)



To painters everywhere who persevere with creativity and energy, who continue to believe in the positive power of images, and by expanding their work, also push the current boundaries of painting.


Making art is exhilarating and also challenging. A work of art can be vital or lifeless, illuminating or confusing. Like humanity and our universe, it is a bundle of oppositions. As artists, we often have to fight to make room in our busy lives for making art. For those of us willing to take on the battle it can be very fulfilling, adding rich meaning to our lives. As painters we can enjoy the sensuous feel of applying paint, experience a thrill as an image emerges or get excited over happy accidents that seem to appear like magic.

Yet what about those times when playful fun starts to fade and frustration sets in? The ease and flow of painting comes to a halt. What to do? This is the all too frequent moment in a painter’s process that gave birth to this book. When the “play phase” is ready to move into a “critique phase,” having a set of guidelines can help push the image to better clarity and a more powerful effect. Starting on page 46, these guidelines are detailed as a complete critique method I call “The Viewing Game.”

Critique is a way to analyze and edit your paintings to enhance the visual experience for those viewing your work. Editing your paintings also strengthens your eye-viewing muscles and enhances your ability to paint what you envision. Artists, in general, usually want to communicate something to others through their work. This desire brings about two goals. The first is to bring a viewer’s attention to the painting. The second is to keep the viewer’s attention on the work long enough for a quality viewing experience. Analyzing and editing the work is critical to reaching these goals.

The difference between professional artists and amateurs lies not so much in the quantity of technique acquired as in the ability to see in a certain way. The power to see an image deeply, to analyze it for its viewing effects and to make revisions and corrections as needed is key. After all, painting is really about choreographing eye movement. The Viewing Game’s guidelines offer ways to strengthen your perception skills as well as new ways to self-critique and self-evaluate your work. Even though these guidelines spotlight painting as a discipline, the core concepts can be easily transferred to other disciplines as well. All painting techniques described here are broad in scope and can be utilized by any painting medium.

Oil, acrylic, watercolor, pastel—whatever your passion—this book offers abundant ideas to enhance your images. The scope is not limited to any particular style or to any level of experience. Art educators can easily add this vital content into curriculum materials. Additional sections offer help with material selection, process, exhibiting and even career aspects. From realists to minimal abstractionists, from pros to beginners, all are invited to read on and find new inspiration and tools to serve your artistic needs.

May this book increase your productivity, add ease and flow to your creative process, clarify your ideas, add nuance to your personal style, and most importantly, add joy to the miraculous act of painting.

Here’s to your creative spirit!

BOSQUE DEL APACHE / Nancy Reyner / Acrylic on canvas / 40" × 30" (102cm × 76cm)



This book makes references to many well-used art terms and art concepts. For better comprehension, I have defined the terms right in the beginning to avoid possible confusion later when used in different contexts. For example, commonly used terms such as realistic or abstract may seem obvious at first but can mean different things to each of us. This section explores these terms and more with a broad lens and is divided into eight chapters, each focusing on a specific terminology or concept. Some chapters tackle more controversial notions such as what is good or bad art. By understanding these terms up front, you’ll find that the remaining sections of the book can then be read with more clarity as we establish common semantic ground.

Concept 1: Understanding Painting

Concept 2: Left vs. Right Brain Thinking

Concept 3: Visual Tension

Concept 4: Meet Your Audience

Concept 5: Opposites Attract

Concept 6: The 80:20 Rule

Concept 7: Realism and Abstraction

Concept 8: Painting Processes

CUBA RUM / Rick Garcia / Acrylic on canvas / 40" × 30" (102cm × 76cm)


PLAYA GORDITA / Nancy Reyner / Oil on five wood panels / 90" × 240" (229cm × 610cm)

Let’s begin our discussion on painting by looking at art in general. Definitions of beauty are often used as a way to judge art; however, definitions of beauty are subject to change. What was once considered good art later may be seen as bad. In his book Bad Art, English art historian Quentin Bell raises the point that tastes and styles change over time, going in and out of favor. Judgments that rely on current taste may be more about economics and politics than art. Bell writes, “The dealer has to satisfy a clientele which, unlike that of eighty years ago, is not frightened by incomprehensible ‘modernity’—indeed, this is what it wants. The dealer therefore may look for some young man or woman who may or may not have talent but certainly has a gimmick, some amusing novelty which will please the elite.” He continues, “But as our young artist grows older, he or she may not be able to find a new gimmick …. This is hard on the artists, but this is what the market is like.”

Is judgment of a work of art then, impossible? Is beauty truly in the eye of the beholder? Can standards of beauty exist for artwork? Bell writes that good art is made from “significant form and plastic harmonies.” John Ruskin, a leading English art critic of the Victorian era, wrote that the difference between great art and average art lies not in methods of handling, styles of representation or choices of subject, but in the “nobleness of the end” to which the effort of the painter is addressed.

But how can we obtain what Bell describes as “significant form and plastic harmonies”? How can we evaluate Ruskin’s “nobleness of the end”? In this book I tackle how form and plastic or spatial harmony can be defined and handled. And as for Ruskin, I agree that an artist will get better results not by attempting to work from current trends, sales or popularity, but instead by aiming for more authenticity, revealing their unique self through the work. Art offers a means to communicate some message from artist to viewer. A work of art conveys the artist’s message through three means: the idea, the artist’s spirit or personality, and the voice of the medium. By making appropriate choices in all three areas, an artist has the potential to produce a work that is unique in idea, distinctive in personality, and expressive of the medium, and perhaps has never existed before.

From a wide variety of art forms, an artist can choose the one that best suits their intent. Painting, sculpture, video or performance—each offers its own unique qualities. Over time, painters continue to push the limits and the definition of painting. Contemporary painting has developed a variety of offshoot disciplines that go beyond the classic idea of painting. Contemporary art institutions and museums now include installations, temporal paintings (using fleeting materials like ice, wind, etc.) and new technologies incorporating computers and video.

For this book, I narrow the scope by focusing on the classic definition of painting: an image painted on a 2-D surface. This may seem an unusual choice for a contemporary book, but narrowing the field allows for a deeper exploration of concepts.

The classic or conventional notion of painting has a unique quality. It can play illusionary tricks with our eyes. On a two-dimensional (2-D) flat surface, we are deceived into an experience of three-dimensional (3-D) physical space. Here a painter can manipulate dimensionality, enticing the viewer’s eyes to move back into spatial depths, dart across the front surface, or flicker back and forth between depth and surface. With this illusionary experience of space, a painter may point out something that already exists in such a skillful manner that the viewer sees it in a brand-new way. Thus, painting can alter the viewer’s perception, launching them into an exploration of their own thoughts and beliefs.

Too often painters will impulsively label their own work as bad or unworthy and discard it, only to find the same issues crop up in the next painting. I believe every painting can be improved if time is taken to examine the work with a critical eye. To serve this purpose, painters need tangible ways to problem solve and self-analyze the work for potential improvement. The Viewing Game in Section 3 offers ways to objectively assess your work, identify possible issues and then resolve them, all without wasting time and energy by using ineffective judgments of good or bad. Create Perfect Paintings is about finding ways to make your painting perfect for you.

FIELD OF POPPIES / Vezna Gottwald / Oil on canvas / 60" × 48" (152cm × 122cm)


The two hemispheres of our brain—left and right—offer different perspectives in thought, capability and action. The left brain directs our critical and analytical thinking in tasks such as reading, speaking, writing, labeling, editing and judging. Our right brain is creative, spatial and timeless, giving us those “in the zone” moments.

The left side is mainly concerned with our safety. It sources from our earliest survival experiences, stored in the oldest part of our brain, and thinks like a dinosaur. It keeps us from lingering in activities that it might deem dangerous, encouraging minimal activity in tasks so that we can stay alert and are not distracted for any length of time. The left brain makes fast, on the spot decisions, allowing just enough time to label a situation as safe in order to quickly move on. As we walk down a garden path, for instance, tall and graceful trees lining the path are quickly labeled by the left brain as all straight. Our left side assesses that none of the trees are likely to fall on us and that we are safe to continue walking. Our right side, though, enjoys the variety and personality of the trees, and indulges in metaphors, making each one a beautiful dancer waving in the wind. Turning things into generalities is the left side’s job; peering deeply at life’s quirks and individuality is the job of the right side. In general we can call the left side our analyzer and the right our creator.

It’s a popular notion that we need to create art from our right side. This makes sense, as the right is more observant to visual detail, movement, drama and the unusual. Painting from the left will ensure all the trees are painted straight and that objects are safely lined up and, unfortunately, boring. Our right side is also the better half for meditation techniques to subdue the “monkey mind”—continuous chatter of the left brain—bringing about a desired calm. In The Natural Way to Draw, Kimon Nicolaïdes notes that art made with our right side dominant allows for more creativity and less judgment. There are plenty of other books that focus on creating with our right side. Two of note are Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards and Life, Paint and Passion by Michele Cassou.

The Shift from Left to Right

Most of our daily activities are directed by the left. The left side likes control, so it will inevitably begin all tasks. The right side takes over when the left gets too frustrated to complete a particular task. As a painter, this means that when you first start painting, actions are initiated with the left. Remember, the left side is not happy about painting, and its dinosaur mentality perceives this as a dangerous activity. The left wants you to finish quickly and tries all kinds of manipulations and maneuvers to get you to stop painting. So when we paint, it’s good to be aware that a shift from left brain to right will happen early on in our painting process. This shift usually occurs naturally, especially for experienced painters, but sometimes presents a challenge to beginners.


This drawing of an eye was created using the left brain, which uses general symbols and stereotypes as a substitute for engaged observation.

Creative blocks may occur during this shift from left to right as all kinds of unhelpful thoughts roll in: Am I using too much paint? I have more important things to do! I’m not good at this, and so on. As we gain experience, we learn to ignore this left brain attempt to stop us from painting. When you simply continue to paint, your left side will gradually realize that quitting is futile and will allow the right to take over. You have successfully allowed the shift!

While you continue to paint, the left side will intermittently check in to make sure you are not in danger. Once you’re painting and on a roll, the side switching will have less of an impact on your ability to create. When you move between brain hemispheres, try to identify your left brain’s fancy tricks. For more on maintaining right side dominance while painting, check out my tips on right brain painting starting on page 43.

Making the shift from left brain to right is not only important to artists in the act of painting but is equally important for the viewing audience. Viewers will gain a more meaningful gazing experience when they are encouraged to shift from their left side to right while viewing your work. This concept is at the heart of this book, forming the backbone of the process for evaluating and critiquing your images. By putting ourselves in the viewer’s shoes (or eyes, in this case) we can employ the methods here to encourage the viewer to make the brain switch.


Painting and drawing an eye from our right brain results in images with more detail and personality as shown in these painting details. On the left, William Blake; on the right, Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun.


Learning How to Focus

This simple exercise demonstrates how our left and right brain hemispheres affect how we see. Read the instructions for steps 1 and 2 in full before beginning.

1 Stare at the picture of a hand on a colored background for about ten seconds. The left brain begins its standard task of applying a generalized descriptive label to the image in hope of a “quick exit” to keep your eyes on the move. The left brain will focus on the hand, while ignoring the background. Once labeled as a hand, the left brain will attempt to move your gaze elsewhere. See if you can become aware of any frustration that occurs when you force yourself to stare for the full ten seconds, longer than the left side wants you to.

2 Gently turn your focus from the fingers (the positive spaces or forms) to the areas in between the fingers (the negative spaces or background). To keep focused on the negative spaces, ask yourself questions like “Which of the spaces is longest?” or “Which spaces are wider, narrower or more interesting in shape?” The left side is not so willing to label ambiguous forms such as negative spaces, and therefore allows the shift from left brain to right. You may feel an ease or release as your brain shifts.


Forms are quickly defined with our left brain, while negative spaces are easily perceived by our right. Here the hand is isolated from the background, simulating what you might see while viewing with your left brain.


Your right brain is more adept at viewing less identifiable shapes like these green background pieces.

Original Painting

Altered Version

IDEALIZED PORTRAIT OF A LADY (PORTRAIT OF SIMONETTA VESPUCCI AS NYMPH), ca 1475 / Sandro Botticelli / Tempera on wood (poplar) / 32" × 21" (82cm × 53cm) / Collection of Städel Museum


Compare the original Botticelli painting with the altered version that has an expanded background. In the original, notice the black shapes around the portrait. These background areas, or negative spaces, have been intentionally crafted, creating interesting shapes and adding a feeling of strength and importance to the woman. The expanded background, on the other hand, doesn’t relate to the woman very much. It overwhelms her, making her seem small and insignificant.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to see from both sides of our brain at the same time. Generally, one side is always dominant. Try taking a new look at the picture of the hand on the green background. Switch your gaze from fingers to spaces, then back again, giving at least ten seconds to focus before each shift. Notice how it feels while shifting. Even though one side takes precedence over the other depending on the task, keep in mind that both sides of our brain are continually engaged for all activities.

The Importance of Negative Space

Negative spaces are key to adding emotional and aesthetic support to the positive forms. For best results in both creating and critiquing your paintings, it is important to be able to view forms and spaces in your work separately, using the appropriate brain hemispheres.


There are three aspects to consider when evaluating a painting: style preference, design issues and visual tension. To better understand these aspects, let’s use the analogy of watching a movie.

Style Preference

Let’s say your favorite film genre is the romantic comedy; this is your style preference. Style preference indicates what kind of subject matter or content you prefer. In painting, if you like the color blue, you are naturally attracted to blue paintings. Or maybe at an exhibition you gravitate to paintings that look super real or find yourself making a beeline toward minimal color field paintings. There’s no need to discuss style preference in the course of evaluating paintings. You paint what you paint, attracting an audience with similar preferences to your chosen style.

Style preference can be problematic when mistakenly used for judgment. If you paint nature scenes but show your work to a gallery director who prefers geometric hard-edge abstraction, the director may reject your work based on differing style preference, which would not reflect the true quality and value of your work. If you are interested in shifting your painting style or genre, my book Acrylic Innovation is all about that topic.

Design Issues

Now let’s look at design issues, still using the movie analogy. You find a movie to watch, but while watching you notice some technical difficulties. Too much static appears on the screen or the format won’t show properly on your device. Design issues are built-in technical flaws that prevent you from watching the film (or viewing the painting) altogether. Design issues are fixable repairs that represent the main source for this book’s painting critique. These problems, once identified and resolved, allow the painting to be viewed more fully. Section 3, starting on page 46, is devoted to design issues and their solutions.


Visual Tension

To watch a movie you search for your style preference, the romantic comedy category, find one and start watching. If the movie you pick follows a common plot you’ve seen way too many times before, you’ll stop watching to search for another with more of a plot twist. With no surprise element to anticipate, the level of visual tension of the first selection is too low to hold your interest. Visual tension is directly related to viewer expectations. The amount of surprise in an image determines the highs and lows of visual tension. The more variety and the more unexpected in a painting, the higher the tension. The more elements that match a viewer’s expectations, the lower the visual tension. Low visual tension can therefore occur with images that have been overexposed to the public, for example, the Mona Lisa, or Warhol’s soup cans.

Each of our five senses contains a natural attraction toward the unexpected. Surprise elements in hearing and taste are what make music and food more interesting. It’s the same with our eyes. Carl Jung once said, “The greater the tension, the greater the potential.” Visual tension is what engages viewers, enticing them to stay and view the work longer.

Look at a painting that attracts you and encompasses your style preference. How does it feel while you view it? This is visual tension. Are you relaxed and enjoying the image, or does it make you feel uncomfortable? If uncomfortable, are you compelled to stop viewing the work or does it entice you to look more deeply? These questions can shed some light on your own preferences for visual tension.

Being able to manipulate visual tension in a painting is a painter’s number one tool for bringing attention to the work, and keeping the attention focused there to create a more meaningful experience for the viewer. Allow time to gaze at your own work. Keep looking until you are aware of how it makes you feel, to help determine its current level of tension. Then determine if the level will enhance the viewing experience or detract from it. It is important to understand that there is no fixed or correct level of visual tension for a painting. Preferred levels of visual tension comprise a range or window that differs for each of us based on the amount of time and experience viewing art and on our individual preferences.


A painting is an image on a flat surface, sharing the same definition as wallpaper. Wallpaper designs are purposely created with low visual tension to avoid attracting attention, while the goal of the painter is the opposite for their work—to attract a viewer’s attention and create the desired viewing experience.

Courtesy of Brewster Home Fashions


Symmetric and repeated patterning in this fine example of wallpaper make this design well suited for a home environment, adding a touch of beauty and interest, while a low visual tension allows it to be peripheral to the furniture and art.

Courtesy of Brewster Home Fashions


Even a bold and varied pattern such as this one, when repeated on the wall, lowers the visual tension, allowing it to remain appropriate for its function and peripheral to the interior furnishings. High visual tension wallpaper may create discomfort if you are staying in the room for long lengths of time.

Develop Your Viewing Skills

Our eyes are in actuality “viewing muscles.” In the same way we exercise our other muscles at the local gym, we can strengthen our eye muscles by viewing art more frequently.

The more we look at art, the more we increase our eyes’ viewing muscle capacity, and the more visual tension we crave. Low visual tension can feel too safe and easy like elevator music, while visual tension that is too high can feel irritating like noisy, scratchy sounds. It is a quality we can control to give the right amount of edge to the work, attracting a viewing audience with windows of visual tension similar to our own.

To be appealing to a particular viewer, an image will have the appropriate style preference, a matching level of visual tension and no design issues. Levels of visual tension are not predetermined by any particular style. Both abstract or realistic paintings can contain high or low levels of visual tension. The determining factors depend on how much surprise or variety is present in an image for the viewer. Extreme levels of visual tension (too low or too high) as well as any design issues will instigate a quick exit from viewing. When a painting connects with a viewer, however, it will draw them in, and more importantly, keep their attention focused on the work.

GARDEN OF THE KEYS / Nancy Reyner / Acrylic on canvas / 46" × 60" (117cm × 152cm)


When using patterns in a painting, allow enough repetition while also including enough variation to raise visual tension.

PORTRAIT OF ADELE, CA 1907 / Gustav Klimt / Oil, silver and gold on canvas / 54" × 54" (137cm × 137cm)


Position nonpatterned areas next to patterned areas for contrast, to add variety and to increase visual tension. In Gustav Klimt’s painting, notice how the smoothly painted nonpatterned areas in the woman’s face, hair, neck and hands, and the solid green in the bottom left provide an interesting contrast with the patterning in the gold leaf.

OLYMPIA (DETAIL), CA 1863 / Édouard Manet / Oil on canvas / 51" × 75" (131cm × 190cm) / Collection of Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Visual tension is also influenced by cultural tastes. Édouard Manet created an outrage at the 1865 Paris Salon with his painting Olympia depicting a nude woman in a confrontational gaze directed out toward the viewer. For its time, Olympia contained high visual tension and therefore created a scandal. In the twenty-first century, the visual tension of this same image might feel quite low to a contemporary museum goer, but high for someone with conservative ideas about nudity. Remember that visual tension is not fixed for any particular work of art but instead relies on the viewer’s expectations and preferences.

THE BURNING OF THE HOUSES OF LORDS AND COMMONS, CA 1835 / J.M.W. Turner / Oil on canvas / 36" × 48" (91cm × 122cm)


As English Romanticist landscape painter J.M.W. Turner’s style evolved, his landscapes became moodier and more abstract, almost like color fields. These abstract works had a visual tension that was too high for most of his audience, and he received unfavorable criticism as a result. This did not keep Turner from painting this way, and perhaps it is the reason he has become somewhat of an artists’ hero. It is easy to succumb to popular demand, yet important for artists to maintain their vision even when their work is not widely accepted.


Artists paint for an audience. It could be an audience of one—yourself! Or a larger audience of people you have never met, perhaps only connected by your art. Private or public, it’s an artist’s choice. Painting for yourself is similar to writing in a diary. You write to express yourself, to clarify your thinking or just for the pure pleasure. Your diary is not meant for others to read, so why edit for readability? For public writing, however, you would reread, rewrite, edit and proof your text. Similarly, a painter who wishes for the work to be seen by others will want to view, review, edit, tweak and repaint areas. Edit your painting to add “readability” and to clarify your intent in the work.

Your ideal viewing audience will have a matching or overlapping range of visual tension to yours. Understanding the connection between visual tension levels and your audience will make it easier to handle criticism and rejection, a natural part of any artistic pursuit. If you like to create edgy contemporary work and show it to a friend or relative who has minimal art experience, you are not likely to get a positive response. A rejection of your work may be due to differing windows of visual tension rather than a reflection of the inherent quality and value of the work. When you exhibit and market your work, knowing who your audience is will boost your efforts. Like Turner and Manet, referred to in Concept 3, paint the paintings you want to make rather than compromise your work for others. Make yourself happy first and always! Then the work will naturally find its appropriate audience.

Photo by Ryan McGuire


In Section 3, I introduce The Viewing Game, a method of critique that can benefit artists painting for either private or public viewing. Critique is an editing tool for painters. Editing your painting strengthens your eye-viewing muscles and enhances your ability to paint what you envision. Artists who intend for others to view their work will naturally want to communicate something through their work. This leads to two goals: to bring a viewer’s attention to the painting and then to keep the viewer’s attention on the work long enough for a quality viewing experience. Analyzing and editing the work is critical to reaching these goals.


In The Book of Tea, Kakuzo Okakura writes, “Truth can be reached only through the comprehension of opposites.” Our brains are hardwired to seek out pairs of opposites. When we see light, our eyes then search for dark. In a crowded room we seek empty space. Tasting something sweet, we crave something salty. The importance of opposites, and how they play a significant role in visual attraction, is used throughout this book and is the basis for critical analysis. To fully comprehend the extent of the role that opposites play in our vision and perception, try the following Red Square Game. It takes just 30 seconds, and the results may surprise you.

Paint with the Right Side, Critique with the Left

Our left brain balances sets of opposites to make things feel safe. When you paint dominantly with your left brain, it will result in safe, symmetrical, neutral images with low visual tension. For better results, paint primarily using your right brain and save your left side for the critique process.


Red Square Game

Read the following instructions before proceeding. Cover this page with white paper so that only the white box and red square are visible. Set a timer for 30 seconds (or plan to count to thirty slowly on your own). Fix your gaze on the red square pictured here. Do not change your gaze for a full 30 seconds. You can blink, swallow and breathe, but do not look away or let your eyes wander. After 30 seconds, look immediately at the blank white space to the right of the red square and blink lightly a few times. Notice what happens. Were you surprised? A green square should have magically appeared on the white of the page. If you did not get this result, repeat the process, keeping your eyes more focused. Try not to let your eyes wander while staring at the red.

What Happened?

The natural reaction after staring at red for so long is for our eyes to seek out something green. By forcing our eyes to move immediately from red to white and stay there, the brain is forced instead to create green where it doesn’t exist. Why did this happen? Red and green are color opposites, positioned across from each other on a standard color wheel. Mix them together in paint and the result is neutral or brown. Our left brain is primed to keep us safe and out of danger. It equates neutral, symmetrical and equal as safe, while any overstimulation is perceived as dangerous. So when you force yourself to stare at red longer than a normal glance, the retina becomes oversaturated and alerts the left brain to neutralize with green.


Successful painting relies on pairs of opposites such as light and dark, bright and dull, space and form. But how to best use them in paintings? Let’s start by viewing the relationship between one element and its opposite as a ratio. For instance, if a painting contains a lot of red with no green at all, that is a 100:0 ratio (red to green), and a viewer will leave the painting very quickly to find green elsewhere.

To avoid these quick viewing exits, both parts of a pair must be present in the painting. However, if both are present in equal amounts (a 50:50 ratio), it will create boringly low visual tension as in wallpaper. The real secret to powerful painting lies in the use of unequal ratios, such as 80:20. Uneven ratios create more interest and higher levels of visual tension. Why is this?

Let’s look at a typical art viewing experience. A viewer gets interested in a painting and goes in for a closer look. As is the norm, their left brain begins the viewing task looking for ways to cut viewing short. Remember, our left brain perceives deep concentration as dangerous to our safety. Equality (a pair of opposites in a 50:50 ratio) is interpreted by the brain as safe, and if present in a painting will encourage the viewer to move on. If, however, enough pairs of opposites are presented in unequal ratios (80:20), the left brain will keep searching for a way to determine or label the viewing experience as safe, and when unable to do so, will eventually transfer the viewing task to the right brain. Success! Our viewer is now enticed into a longer gazing session with the possibility of a more meaningful viewing experience using their right brain to view.

MER KA BAH / Marcia McCoy / Monoprint from Sacred Geometry series / 40" × 26" (102cm × 66cm)


Let your intent for your work guide how you use the principles in this book. There are always exceptions to the rules. For example, in this minimalist painting the artist intended to use only one color, yellow, for the work to have specific meditative qualities. Using the 80:20 rule as hard and fast would mean adding 20% of yellow’s opposite, violet, into the image, therefore overriding the artist’s intent. Instead, the artist could add violet outside the painting in a matte frame or paint the wall behind it violet to minimize any quick exits and enhance the viewer experience (see page 123 for an example of this). Remember to consider the 80:20 concept with an open mind, using it to your advantage without the need to compromise the work.

Original Painting

LANDSCAPE WITH FALL OF ICARUS, CA 1560s / Pieter Brueghel the Elder / Oil on canvas / 29" × 44" (74cm × 112cm) / Collection of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium


This painting’s green to red ratio is about 80:20 or maybe even 90:10, directing the focus swiftly toward the central red shirt and warm browns. An unequal relationship for a pair of opposites adds powerful attraction to the image.

Altered Version 1

Photographically altering to remove all red (100:0 ratio green to red) creates an overly green experience, forcing eyes into a quick exit to search elsewhere outside the painting for red.

Altered Version 2

Photographically altering to remove all green (100:0 ratio red to green) creates the same viewing issue and quick exit. When only one of a pair of opposites is present, the image is unappealing. Avoid ratios of 100:0 with any pair of opposites in a painting.

Altered Version 3

In this altered version, more red was added to the image to create a 50:50 green-to-red ratio. Avoid using both components of a pair of opposites in equal amounts. It can create too many focal points, adding confusion rather than more interest, or create an overall feeling like wallpaper.


Defining the well-used terms realism and abstraction can be a challenge. Numerous definitions are posted online and in art books, yet no absolute consensus seems to exist. The 1960s’ painter Ad Reinhardt is best known for his minimalist black paintings. Art professor and author Irving Sandler felt these works of Reinhardt induced a contemplative state. One painting in particular, measuring five-foot (1.5 meters) square and all black, was divided into nine separate sections. Each section differed only slightly from the next using subtle changes of black coloring and brushwork texture. Reinhardt believed that any references to elements outside of a painting, including artists’ emotions and feelings, detracted from the art. He said, “The only and one way to say what abstract art is, is to say what it is not…. Abstraction presents art as art, pure and emptier, more absolute, non-objective, non-representational, non-figurative, non-imagist, non-subjective, non-expressionist.”

Abstraction includes, and often relies on, a viewer’s personal interpretation. We like to interpret the world around us by our own experience. How many times do we look up at the sky and reinterpret the clouds into familiar shapes? This is one of abstraction’s main appeals to its audience. The less detail, the more it becomes open to the viewer to add their own interpretation. In The Book of Tea, Kakuzo Okakura writes, “In leaving something unsaid, the beholder is given a chance to complete the idea and thus a great masterpiece irresistibly rivets your attention until you seem to become actually a part of it.” This idea of viewer participation is one of the founding principles of modern and contemporary art.

EVENING RAILYARDS / Bruce Cody / Oil on linen / 24" × 44" (61cm × 112cm) / Private collection


Most viewers would define this painting as realistic. Realism strives to describe or reflect the world as it is. Realism often presents an objective view rather than a subjective one.

MORNING COFFEE / Bonnie Teitelbaum / Acrylic on panel / 15" × 15" (38cm × 38cm)


Most would define this as abstract. Commonly accepted qualities for abstraction are little or no horizon line, less detail, forms less recognizable and more ambiguous, and an emphasis on negative space and other atmospheric qualities.

PORTRAIT OF MADAME MATISSE (GREEN STRIPE), CA 1905 / Henri Matisse / Oil on canvas / 16" × 13" (41cm × 33cm)


Recognizable imagery in a painting does not automatically qualify it as realistic. A face is easy to recognize in this Matisse portrait, yet exaggerated colors and simplified shapes give it the feeling of abstraction. When an artist intends to leave interpretation open to the viewer, often by eliminating a certain amount of realistic detail, the work can be considered more abstract than realistic.

MRS. FISKE WARREN (GRETCHEN OSGOOD) AND HER DAUGHTER RACHEL, CA 1903 / John Singer Sargent / Oil on canvas / 60" × 40" (152cm × 102cm)


The definitions of realism and abstraction are not always cut and dry. This above detail from an Old Master style painting could be viewed by itself as a contemporary abstract painting. This detail is from the bottom portion of the central figure’s white skirt in the foreground.

Horizon Lines

A horizontal line in a painting that goes from one side of the image to the other, whether continuous or broken, is often interpreted as a horizon line. A horizon line is where land (or sea) and sky meet. In painting, the horizon line can be invisible and implied or visible and obvious, especially in landscape paintings. Horizon lines can be included in any painting, whether realistic or abstract, and they can be intentionally omitted to create a different type of spatial quality.

Choices to include or exclude horizon lines can significantly manipulate the image toward realism or abstraction. A painting with a distinct horizon line can be viewed with a certain amount of “safety” by dividing the image into what is perceived as “sky” and “ground.” A viewer naturally transfers their innate experiences of being in the physical world, such as gravity, onto an image. A horizon line validates these expectations. When horizon lines are eliminated, it can often be interpreted as color field, and a viewer who prefers a lower or safer visual tension may feel disoriented. A more sophisticated viewer looks for the “edge” or added tension that may be enhanced by eliminating any hint of a horizon line.

NYMPHÉAS (WATERLILIES), CA 1917 / Claude Monet / Oil on canvas / 71" × 79" (180cm × 201cm)


Monet has completely eliminated any indication of a horizon line, making the image even more abstract like a modern color field painting.

THE CLIFFS AT ÉTRETAT, CA 1885 / Claude Monet / Oil on canvas / 26" × 32" (66cm × 81cm)


In this painting the horizon line visibly appears far in the distance, separating the sea from the sky.

SAILBOATS BEHIND THE NEEDLE AT ÉTRETAT, 1885 / Claude Monet / Oil on canvas


Monet paints the same view with a subtle horizon line that all but disappears, appearing almost as a color field background. The treatment of the horizon line dramatically changes the feeling of the two compositions.


There are many ways to produce a painting. In this book I have divided the painting process into two distinct stages or phases.

Painting usually begins with a “play phase,” which encompasses a variety of ways to start and to get an idea fleshed out. This phase is usually about having fun, using intuition, letting ideas flow and getting a variety of visual material initially onto the canvas. It’s a great time to collaborate with materials and allow surprises. Critical thinking is best avoided during this phase.

The second phase is the “critique phase.” This is the time for analysis to enhance the work, to better communicate ideas and to clarify the desired viewing experience for your particular audience.

While actively painting in the play phase, design issues are not always visible but they become more obvious during the critique phase, when brushes are put aside in favor of giving the work a good, hard look. Both phases require very different thinking, and use differing processes and techniques.

For this reason the two phases are handled separately in this book, comprising Sections 2 and 3, respectively. It is advisable to carry out each phase at separate times. It’s not always easy to switch from one phase to the other in the same day. Each day tends to put forward a particular energy or focus better suited for one phase over the other.

Pay attention to how you feel just before starting to paint to decide which phase you prefer to work with that day. Choose to start new paintings when you feel in a playful mood, or continue on a work in progress while in a more intellectual mood. Choosing the phase that best matches your energy will enhance productivity and outcome. It helps when you are willing to have more than one painting in process at the same time. Paint at a time during the day when your energy and focus are at their highest. If your best energy is in the morning, get up early to paint before attending to other activities. If you are a night owl, save some energy for a work session later in the day.

RECLINING WITH CAT / Gigi Mills / Oil on panel / 9" × 13" (23cm × 33cm)



This book divides the painting process into two distinct phases: the play phase explored in this section and the critique phase covered in the next section. Here you will find abundant ideas to keep the play phase as inventive as you like. Whether your paintings are humorous or serious, realistic or abstract, large or small, the creative act of playing is essential in the painting process. During play creative juices are fully active, and new ideas come bubbling up. Without play your work (and your spirit) can get dry, burnt out or bored.

Today’s painters are fortunate to have numerous choices of readymade ingredients and materials. Paint comes in portable tubes, canvases are prestretched and even primed. With all the available choices, there’s still a tendency for artists to fall into the habit of using the same materials over and over. We lay out our favorite paint colors on our usual size and type of surface. We have a routine to get our ideas onto the canvas. Habits are helpful, as familiar territory can get us moving quickly. However, there are times when those same habits can work against us, turning play into routine.

How do you choose your tools, materials, techniques and processes? What we select in the beginning can significantly affect the end result. Before the first brushstroke is even made, an emotional “content” is already added. The next time you start a painting, take time to ponder the ideas offered in this section. My hope is that you find something to shift your habits and perk up your process.

Controlled Processes

Flexible Processes

Choosing the Right Medium

Choosing the Right Surface

How to Maximize Variety

Painting with the Right Brain

THE TALISMAN, CA 1888 / Paul Sérusier / Oil on wood / 69" × 55" (175cm × 140cm) / Collection of the Musée d’Orsay, Paris


We are unique beings, and therefore we can find infinite ways to work through a painting from start to finish. In general, most painting processes fall into two categories based on the desired end result: control or surprise. If you have a specific vision in mind as to how your completed painting will appear, then the best process will be the one that offers methods of control. If you want more surprise, then flexibility is key for your process. Either way is valid. Acknowledging your choice in the beginning will cause less frustration later. Keep in mind that the choice of medium plays a big part in process decisions. For instance, watercolor is more well-suited for a controlled process, since changes needed mid-process may be limited.

Working from Models and References

Artists working with clients on custom commissions often need to submit proposals with multiple ideas. Making several small-scale, rough image layouts or models is one way to do this. Models can be made with mediums and surfaces that might differ from the final work. Images can be made from reference materials you find from your own archives or elsewhere. References can be photos, drawings, collages, postcards, or prints found in magazines, on artists’ websites or through general Internet searches.

Once a model is selected by the client, there are several ways to transfer it onto a larger surface for the actual painting in a controlled manner. Here are two suggestions.

String Grid Method

My favorite grid technique uses string to form the gridlines on a painting surface. The string grid is quick and easy to create and leaves no trace in the final work. On the facing page I detail the string grid method in four easy steps.

FLORAL 1 / Nancy Reyner / Acrylic on canvas / 32" × 20" (81cm × 51cm) / Private collection


I used a gridding method with string to accurately transfer the image from the small oil pastel model to this finished acrylic painting.


This model measures only 6" × 4" (15cm × 10cm) and uses oil pastel on paper.

1 To transfer the image from the model onto a larger final surface, overlay a grid onto the model. Start by taping clear acetate over the model. Using a marker and ruler, divide each side in half, then half again, continuing to divide until grid sections are as small as you want, marking with a dot at each division. The more detail you have in your model that needs to be transferred, the smaller you need the grid sections to be. Now connect the dots to make the grid lines with a colored marker, seen here using blue.

2 Using a different color marker than the one used for the gridlines, trace over the image along general design lines. Here I used red.

3 Remove the acetate from the model, placing it over white paper to see the general design lines in red more clearly.

4 Grid your final painting surface. Using a ruler and pencil, divide the sides of your surface in half, then half again, marking the sides or edges with only a dot. This time, though, instead of connecting the dots with a marker to create colored lines directly onto the surface, use string to act as lines.

To create string lines, hammer extra long (5⁄8" [16mm]) metal pushpins along the sides of the painting surface and close to the top where each dot has been marked. Insert pushpins at a 45-degree angle to the surface so string lines will be raised up from the surface. If your surface does not have deep enough sides, drive the pushpins into the front face, close to the edges, either through the canvas into the stretcher bars or directly into the wood if using a wood panel. Tie string around one of the pushpins nearest to a corner and continue to wrap the string around each pushpin until the grid is complete, securing it with a final knot around the last pushpin. To begin the painting, dilute a light-colored paint and brush on your design using the model’s general lines and grid as reference. The string will be slightly raised off the front surface, allowing enough room for your brush to freely paint underneath. When your wash sketch is complete, simply remove the pushpins and string. Continue painting without the grid until complete.

Direct Sketch

This painting began by sketching directly onto the canvas without gridding. Direct, loose sketching with paint and brush is a playful way to mark out a specific composition and preliminary color ideas. In the final painting the underlying composition has remained intact.

Initial Sketch

Finished Painting

RIALTO CORNER 1960 / Bruce Cody / Oil on linen / 30" × 26" (76cm × 66cm) / Private collection

Sketching Wet-Into-Wet

Transfer a model or design with more play and less control using this fun technique. First brush a clear medium (water for watercolor, oil mediums for oil paint, acrylic mediums for acrylic) onto your painting surface. While still wet, sketch your design into the medium with a light paint color like ochre. The wet medium allows for easy erasing using a rag. While painting you can keep changing it until you like it, until the medium starts to dry. Repeat the process until enough of an initial design is established for your needs.


Cubist painter Juan Gris apparently preferred surprise endings when he said, “You are lost the moment you know what the result will be.” Here are some ideas for starting a painting that allow for more changes during your process. Additional flexible processes are described in Section 5 on pages 130 and 131.

Dive In

Get something onto your canvas spontaneously with little or no preplanning about what you want to paint. Start with any color or colors you like, apply onto the canvas using any favorite tool, and work them into shapes or marks with no agenda.


After starting with the spontaneous approach, Ragalyi got to this point, then evaluated the work, making decisions on how to progress.

VEILED LIGHT / Barbara Ragalyi / Acrylic on canvas / 46" × 36" (117cm × 91cm)


Ragalyi further defined the accidental shapes, added new shapes and applied an overall blue glaze, toning down the bright colors and integrating the overall color scheme.

Happy Accidents

Play around with your paint to achieve happy accidents. Apply paint experimentally á la Jackson Pollock. Heavily dilute your paint and fling, pour, drip and drizzle it all over the surface or in selected places. When left to dry the resulting image can be interpreted into recognizable imagery or left as is for an abstraction. Overpaint and redefine the image to more fully express your newly interpreted vision.


To create this Rorschach-type image, I diluted acrylic paint with lots of water and poured it onto an absorbent surface. (Similarly, you could use solvent to dilute oil paint.) This image could be used as a jumpstart or underpainting for a realistic or abstract painting. What type of imagery does it evoke for you? How might you add to it to make it more interesting, more realistic, or change it to something closer to your preference?

Thumbnail Sketches

Doodles based on simple designs—thumbnail sketches—can get your painting off to a quick start. Scribble a few ideas on paper, choose your favorite, then sketch onto a painting surface using pencil, charcoal or diluted paint and a brush. If using charcoal, seal it before painting by applying clear acrylic medium or fixative over the charcoal lines. Then overpaint using acrylic or oil.


Thumbnail sketches can be very simple. The middle sketch of waves was used for this final painting.

TURQUOISE SEA / Nancy Reyner / Acrylic on panel / 45" × 36" (114cm × 91cm)

Photographs and Collage as Reference

Photographs make great painting references. Instead of copying from one single photograph, make the work and your process more exciting (and original) by combining multiple photographs.


This 6" × 4" (15cm × 10cm) model is made from no fewer than thirty separate pieces cut from photographs and glued collage-style onto cardboard. The buildup creates a dense image with lots of reference options to choose from.

KOI AND RIVER / Nancy Reyner / Acrylic on canvas / 60" × 46" (152cm × 117cm)


Compare the finished painting to the original model. The dramatic difference in size between the postcard-size model and the large canvas helped me shift the image while working.


I combined two photographs from magazines, securing them with a glue stick on paper, to create a new reference image. I cropped in on the desired composition with four strips of white paper taped together to form a window.


Using the previous model as reference, I created another small-scale model using oil pastel on paper to establish the color scheme.

AQUA / Nancy Reyner / Acrylic on canvas / 48" × 36" (122cm × 91cm)


I used both models as reference for the finished piece, combining both the composition and color schemes. No matter how attached you are to your models, always stay receptive to changes while a work is in process.


After deciding on a controlled or flexible process, it’s time to choose a medium. Here are lists of pros and cons for most common painting mediums. In addition to those listed here, paintings can be made with many other mediums such as gouache, oil pastel, ink, pencil, markers, spray paint and silk screen among others. Experimenting with a new medium, even for a short period of time, can be fun and inspiring, and expand how you use your current medium once you return to it.


Pros: Oil paint is slow drying, allowing for more time to make changes and to blend colors. Oil refracts the color pigment in the paint for a beautiful, rich glowing color. Great for realism, blending and detail, oil can also be used for experimental and playful methods of abstraction

Cons: Working transparently (such as glazing) requires the use of oil mediums that often contain toxic solvents. Oil paint alone is not toxic, but some mediums used to extend oil paint are toxic. Reduce toxicity by using nontoxic mediums in the paint and baby oil to clean brushes.

Oil paint never fully cures even when dry to the touch, so correct care must be taken for handling and storage. The painting must not be shipped or varnished too soon. Layering requires correct chemistry so that a more flexible layer is always applied over a less flexible one.

Oil has the potential to crack, especially if used thickly. Most oils turn yellow over time, dramatically reducing luminosity in white and light value colors.


Pros: Acrylic paints, mediums and products are almost all nontoxic. Acrylic is known for its fast drying qualities but is also available in slow-drying forms. A wide variety of acrylic products are available to customize paint and to personalize preferences in surface absorbency, texture and sheen. Fast-drying acrylic paints are great for layering while slow-drying acrylics imitate the look and feel of oil.

Paints are available in varying consistencies (viscosity), so acrylics can imitate both watercolor and oil in look and feel. Acrylics can be as thin as ink or thick and heavy bodied for textural effects. Acrylic offers the widest range of possibilities and is now considered more archival than all other mediums. When used correctly it will not crack or yellow, and fully cures in about two weeks. Acrylic can be used in conjunction with many other mediums such as creating a fast-drying underpainting for use under oil paint.

Cons: Acrylic binders usually contain ammonia, and though considered nontoxic, can cause sensitivity with some people, especially when used without proper ventilation.


Pros: Watercolor naturally creates transparency, and its watersoluble nature allows for some changes even after it has dried.

Cons: Because watercolor is usually applied to paper, the paint will sink into and stain the surface, making the paint difficult to remove fully once dry.

When finished, watercolor paintings need protection, such as being framed behind glass, due to paper being not as archival as panel or canvas as well as the non-permanent nature of the watercolor paint.

SNOW LEOPARD / Tom Palmore / Acrylic and oil on board / 18" × 24" (46cm × 61cm)


Here acrylic is used to get a fast overall underpainting, then oil is used for the final layers for detail and blending.

Chalk Pastel

Pros: Pastel is actually a drawing medium, but finished works in pastel are often referred to as paintings. Drying times are not an issue when working with pastel, making it portable and an excellent choice for working outdoors. Good quality pastels can produce a unique and luscious sheen in the final surface. Colors come in a wide range and can be blended and mixed directly onto the surface.

Cons: Pastel remains delicate on a surface and requires protection with glass and framing. Alternative protection, such as spray fixatives and sealers, will diminish pastel’s color and sheen.

DAISY MAO / Deborah Lewis / Mixed media (paper and acrylic) on wood / 30" × 40" (76cm × 102cm)


Mixed media combined with paint adds a contemporary feel and tactile surface interest in this painting.

Mixed Media

Pros: Combining paint and painting mediums with other materials expands possibilities and adds an immediate contemporary appearance.

Cons: Non fine-art materials, such as those made for craft and commercial use, can fade over time with exposure to light and air, requiring UV or other types of protection such as sealing applications or framing with UV glass.

When one type of material is layered over a different one, it may need extra procedures for proper adhesion between them.

SISTERS / Alan Reingold / Colored pencil and oil paint wash on board / 14" × 18" (36cm × 46cm)


Reingold uses a combination of two fine art mediums. The oil paint washes create large areas of color and set up the composition and color scheme. Colored pencils, sharpened to a fine point, add fine detail over the washes.

A Word About Mediums

The word medium has different meanings depending on its context. It can designate a discipline such as oil or acrylic, or it can refer to an actual binder or extender used in the chemistry of that discipline. For example, linseed oil is a medium and is used with the medium of oil paint.


For painting, canvas and wood are two popular surface choices. Paper, plastic, metal, glass, ceramic, leather, vinyl and cardboard can also be used as surfaces for painting.


Canvas comes in cotton duck or linen and has several advantages. It is lightweight, making it easy to handle for large sizes. Canvas has a lovely absorbency and texture in the weave, if that suits your style. It is obtainable already stretched and primed for immediate painting. Loose unstretched fabric is also available for you to stretch yourself using wooden stretcher bars, or it can be left unstretched to pin up on walls or drape loosely on floors for painting.

Take extra precautions when applying pressure to the stretched canvas such as sanding or pouring acrylic mediums onto the surface. These techniques are best accomplished using rigid wood panels since canvas will droop both from the pressure required to sand and the weight of poured mediums, which will require extra support underneath.

For those unsuccessful canvas paintings you are thinking of repainting, it is best not to overpaint. Instead, discard and replace the canvas while reusing the stretcher bars. Since canvas can only handle a certain amount of weight before it will stretch or develop defects, avoid applying excessively thick layers onto the canvas.

Wood Panels

Wood panels can be made with a variety of woods. They can be cradled to give some depth to the sides and can be purchased readymade as panels, with or without cradling. Hard and rigid, wood panels can be easily transported while layers are still wet, and they work well for sanding and pouring techniques. Panels last longer than canvas given similar environmental circumstances. They are cost efficient and can even cost less than stretched canvas. That is because canvas stretcher bars are crafted for reuse, while panels don’t need this extra feature. This reduces manufacturing costs for panels. Hiring a carpenter for a bulk order, making several similar-sized custom wood panels at the same time, offers substantial cost savings to the artist. Carpenters will generally charge per hour plus cost of materials, while purchasing stretcher bars and canvas has additional retailer costs added into the final price. It is fairly easy to overpaint a former image on wood panel or sand off any texture from an old image for a fresh start on a new image.

Both wood and canvas should be sealed with a primer before painting with oil paint. Acrylic paintings require an additional stain sealer under the primer.


Hardboard, a type of wood panel formerly known as Masonite, is available as untempered (or standard) and tempered. A few decades ago, tempered hardboards resulted in delamination issues, though manufacturers have since resolved this. Now either type of hardboard can be used for archival painting surfaces. Tempered hardboard is a better choice as it resists warping and edges won’t fray.

Photograph by Tim Wilson (

FRANK / 1969 / Chuck Close / Acrylic on canvas / 108" × 84" × 3" (274cm × 213cm × 8cm) / Collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art / Courtesy of Pace Gallery


Artist Chuck Close paints portraits on a very large scale. The dynamic quality in his work is due in part to the unexpected combination of a face (which is intimate) with large scale (which is not). Chuck Close suffers from prosopagnosia, also known as face blindness, in which he is unable to recognize faces. He chose to paint portraits of people he knows as a way to help recognize and remember their faces.

Surface Size

Typically, small paintings are categorized as those that are easy to hold with one hand and measure around 8" × 10" (20cm × 25cm) or smaller. Medium-sized paintings are those easily held with two hands, 11" × 14" (28cm × 36cm) to 36" × 48" (91cm × 122cm). Large-sized works usually measure from 40" × 50" (102cm × 127cm) on up. It is important to know that a painting’s size will significantly affect how the image is perceived. Small, medium or large painting sizes will each create a different emotional effect when viewed, which can either change or reinforce your intent for the image you plan to paint on it. Small paintings appear to a viewer like gems or precious objects, encouraging close, intimate viewing. Medium sizes create the feeling one is looking in a mirror (especially if vertical) or out a window. Larger sizes, which approximate the size of human beings or bigger, can evoke a feeling of cosmic or universal grandeur. Small surfaces can sometimes be more challenging than larger ones. A large canvas is like writing a novel, with lots of space to weave your ideas, while small surfaces are like writing a haiku, often requiring precision with a simple and direct message.

UNINTERRUPTED / Larry McLaughlin / Ink and acrylic on paper and wood block / Installation of 25 pieces, each 6" × 6" (15cm × 15cm)


Create a larger statement using small-sized surfaces by displaying them in a tight group or installation to form the perception of one unified image.

ATMOSPHERIC DRIFT / Bonnie Teitelbaum / Acrylic on five panels / 48" × 60" (122cm × 152cm)


Combine multiple surfaces to form diptychs, triptychs, or in this case a quintych, by aligning them in a row.


Variety in a painting is key. It brings attention to the work, adds the element of surprise, enhances the spatial experience and increases visual tension. Variety here does not mean abundant, excessive or busy. Instead it signifies changes to avoid monotony and sameness. Gaze at a white interior wall that has been painted using the same white can of paint. Notice how the color varies naturally depending on how available light illuminates the wall. Variation in a painting indicates to our brain the existence, albeit illusionary, of space. This concept of creating the illusion of 3-D on a 2-D surface is part of painting’s appeal.

I like to think of the play phase in painting as “advanced kindergarten” where I play with the intent to achieve variety. I use the most suitable setup to bring variety into the work right from the beginning of the play phase. Here are ways to maximize variety.

Color and Palette Selection

Start painting sessions with a full palette whenever possible. Use a warm and cool color choice for each of the three primaries (red, yellow and blue). Premix several light and dark values for a palette with a full tonal range as well as color. When heavily diluting paint (for washes or extra transparency) it is best to use modern colors as these maintain color intensity even when diluted. For more on modern colors and the full palette, see page 106.


Paints and Other Painting Products

Oil and acrylic paints are available in different consistencies or viscosities—thin or thick. Variations in oil paint viscosity will depend on the manufacturer or brand. Acrylic paints, however, are sold in difference consistencies as separate paint lines. They range from very thin, similar to ink, to very thick, known as heavy bodied. As an alternative to purchasing paint in your preferred consistency, you can customize acrylic paint to fit your preferences by adding mediums, gels, pastes or water. Oil paints can also be customized as well with mediums, wax and solvents.

For preliminary sketches or underpaintings, dilute your paint to make it thinner or into a wash, using the appropriate solvent or vehicle for your medium. To get the most variety in your dilutions avoid adding the vehicle directly into the paint on your palette as this limits your options for dilution. Instead, add the vehicle near the color on your palette or mixing surface, keeping the paint undiluted so you can simply drag the pure color into the vehicle to make it stronger or weaker as needed.

Opaque paint is great for hiding or covering previously painted areas, and for adding details and finishing techniques. Use the paint as is, without diluting it at all, or add small amounts of Titanium White. If using acrylic paints, you can also add white acrylic paste to increase color opacity. Acrylic gels and mediums are generally white when wet but dry clear, and can be added to acrylic paint color in large amounts to make the color more transparent. Add clear gels and mediums in smaller amounts to acrylic paint to change its consistency, using mediums to thin the paint or gels to thicken.

Please note that it is not recommended to add acrylic products to oil paint or oil products to acrylic in wet applications. However, oil and acrylic can be used together when acrylic is used as a dried layer underneath oil, but not the reverse.

Even more variety can be obtained by using mixed- media and/or drawing materials along with your paints. Mixed-media is a catchall phrase that signifies the use of nonpaint materials such as photographs, stamping, stencils, drawings, paper, collage material, fabric and objects. Drawing materials can include charcoal, marker, pencil, oil or chalk pastel, pen and ink, and Conté.

Palette Types

Select the palette that best suits the technique you are using. Techniques can change while you are still working on the same painting; therefore, you may need to change palettes mid-process for best results. For instance, if you are using washes, these thin diluted mixtures will be frustrating to work with as they flow uncontrollably all over a flat palette.

For thin paint, ice cube trays and plastic egg cartons have compartments that are perfect for diluted colors (although you will still need an additional flat palette to mix variations). Keep the trays in tightly sealed plastic bags while not in use, and the paint can stay wet for months. Alternatively, several disposable plastic plates can be laid out on your table as palettes for thin paint. Restrict each plate to only one or two paint colors to avoid crowding dilutions, which can mix together, creating one muddy mess.

For thick paint, some good options are sheets of glass, sealed wood or Plexiglas in large and small sizes (large for your tabletop, small to hand hold) and tablets of disposable palette paper. Tape a sheet of freezer paper (not waxed paper or parchment paper) onto a piece of heavy cardboard, wood or tabletop for an easy do-it-yourself version.

Brushes and Texture Tools

Probably the most familiar painter’s tool is the brush. Expand your set of brushes to include a range of different sizes and shapes. Long handles are for painting while standing, and short handles work best while sitting. Bristles can be natural, synthetic or blends, and vary in shape from round or flat to a combination called filbert. Bristles can be long or short, stiff or soft, wide or narrow. In addition to brushes, experiment with alternatives such as knives, rags, refillables (empty containers with marking tips) and fingers. Textural tools sporting a variety of marking teeth, even knives and kitchen spatulas, can be found around the house or purchased from art stores. Additionally, try squeezing, pouring or dripping paints onto your surface directly from their original containers.

Application Techniques

Brush applications usually involve loading paint onto the brush, then unloading it while applying it to your surface. The reverse, called subtractive technique, involves applying paint to the surface, then removing from selected areas while wet. For removing paint, you can use stiff brushes, fingers, rags, knives, sandpaper or sanding equipment. Whether applying or subtracting paint, try to vary your wrist action and stroke direction.

ORCHESTRAL / Sam Scott / Acrylic on canvas / 80" × 66" (203cm × 168cm)


Exciting imagery is obtained here using a wide variety of paint applications.

5 Tips to Achieve Surface Variety

Apply the medium’s appropriate solvent (for example, water for watercolor) using a brush or spray bottle directly to the dry surface. Pre-wet in some areas, keeping other areas dry. Paint changes in appearance as it is applied over wet or dry surface areas.

Remove some areas of paint as you apply it using a paper towel or rag to reveal the white of your surface and add lighter values back into the image.

Tilt your substrate at an angle while applying diluted paint to allow washes to move and drip.

Keep changing color, movement, brushwork and dilution as you paint.

Rotate your substrate at intervals to paint from different viewpoints.

Customize Your Surface

Whatever substrate you decide to paint on, it will have a surface quality unique to the material used to produce it. For instance, unprimed canvas and wood naturally have an absorbent surface, while glass or metal are nonabsorbent. Nevertheless, you can change these qualities by applying acrylic binders to your substrate to create surface qualities that are very absorbent, moderately absorbent, of mixed absorbency, nonabsorbent, smooth or textured.

Acrylic binders come in three main forms: gels, mediums and pastes. Similar to substrates, each product has its own unique absorbency and textural quality. Apply these products onto any substrate in thick or thin layers, either textured or smooth, in any combination or mixture. For maximum variation use several different products together on the same surface. Once applied to your substrate, let dry a few days (or according to its label instructions), then paint your image using acrylic, oil or watercolor paints. Dilute paint with appropriate water or solvent to create a wash to best reveal surface qualities, and to offer the most potential for variety.

My favorite approach is to start with an absorbent product, then while wet or dry, apply nonabsorbent products on top, but only in some areas, leaving some of the absorbent products uncovered. When dry, due to the use of multiple products, the painting will have some glossy areas and some matte areas. As you overpaint with washes, the glossy areas will resist the paint color, while the matte areas will allow the paint color to apply evenly. The combination of effects creates an interesting variety.


Here, a sampling of products have been applied to a canvas surface, changing the surface quality and subsequently the way the paint will appear.


When the products dried, diluted paint (i.e., washes) was applied over the customized surface. Each area differs in appearance depending on the product underneath, creating a variety of color field effects. Use oil, acrylic or watercolor over your customized acrylic surfaces.

Surface Quality Chart


Absorbent (matte)

light molding paste

coarse molding paste

fiber paste

absorbent ground

acrylic ground for pastels

pumice gels

crackle paste


Mid-Range Absorbency

molding paste

glass bead gel

micaceous iron oxide

matte gels


Nonabsorbent (glossy)

polymer medium gloss

clear tar gel

gloss gels


Variety can be obtained using a range of tools and materials, yet our brain is also a tool that can be trained to maximize variety. Paint with your right brain dominant as much as possible since painting with your left brain will usually reduce variety.

Here are seven helpful suggestions to maintain right brain dominance while painting. As discussed on page 12 in Section 1, our brain naturally switches back and forth between both sides during all tasks. Being able to recognize when we switch and having some methods to control the switching can be advantageous.

1 Stay Playful

Remain in your play phase as long as possible. When your left brain starts to take over with its usual ploys of fear and judgment, take a moment to stop and change your thoughts to more positive ones. That’s not so easy. Sometimes we think that the only road to creativity is through suffering, or even martyrdom, overworking ourselves in order to produce. The “no pain no gain” philosophy has its place but is absolutely not helpful for the play phase. Liz Gilbert, author of Big Magic, suggests staying playful and not reverting to seriousness. Gilbert advises to switch from being the martyr to being the trickster, suggesting that we dance with the trickster and not let seriousness burden our experience. Put your ideas out there and see what happens. A painter’s play phase is not about guilt, burden or fear, but about releasing. Instead of trying to conquer fear, invite it along to play in the creative act.

For example, while I am working on a painting, my left brain may start suggesting negative thoughts intending to get me to stop painting. Thoughts about whether the work will be sellable or not, or suggesting the work isn’t very good. I treat my left brain, at times like this, as if it were a whining child, knowing it just wants to feel included, and this is the best it can do right now. I’ll start a silent conversation with my left brain, telling it that all is well while I am painting, that I am in no danger, but thank you for watching out for me, and wanting to check in. I soothe it more by saying that I appreciate my wonderful left brain, that I will need its wisdom as soon as my painting session is over, and in the meantime please take a back seat so I can keep painting. It might sound silly, but somehow it works!

2 Avoid Autopilot

Autopilot is our left brain’s favorite mode. While painting, try to be aware when the act of painting starts to feel repetitious and automatic. Notice if and when you start repeating anything—brushstrokes, direction, size, color. As soon as possible, stop actions that repeat painting the same thing three times in a row, do something the same all over, or cover exactly half your painting surface area. Once you notice any repetition, immediately fix it. Evenly applied patterns or too much symmetry will decrease the work’s attention-getting power. Keep changing color, movement, brushwork, dilutions and shapes. Avoid bringing attention to corners, edges and sides, and the dead center. Don’t hold your breath or tighten your jaw, and try to maintain a loose grip on your tools.

Original Painting

Altered Version

TETON AUTUMN / Bruce Cody / Oil on linen / 26" × 56" (66cm × 142cm) / Private collection


Notice the depth of space and viewing interest in this landscape. Compare the distant mountains in the finished painting (above) with the mountain segment that has been photographically altered (below), simulating what might happen when painting with the left brain on autopilot. Even realism can turn into pattern when on autopilot, producing a quick viewing exit.

3 Alternate Eye Focus

As an exercise while painting, become aware of how your eye moves around your image. Are you looking at the whole image and the big picture or smaller sections of detail? Practice alternating your focus between the big picture and small detail by allowing your eyes to focus broadly, then narrowing in on detail, going back and forth several times during a standard painting session. This movement from big to small and its reverse keeps your right brain active. It also helps integrate parts of your image to the whole.

4 Exercise Your Brain

The original Brain Gym book was written for teachers to improve learning with youth in classrooms. It contains exercises for activating our right brain. The book has since been revised with several versions, but all contain great information and exercises regarding the right brain. Although the book was originally meant for children, I have used it in adult workshops with dramatic results. Learn more at

5 Frequently Restock Your Setup

Keep variety readily available by continuing to check your setup and refresh, resupply or reorganize as needed. Inadequate setups result when we take the lazy route and use whatever is left over, resulting in muddy colors among other issues. If variety isn’t readily available in your setup, it usually won’t get into your painting.

TABLEAU I, CA 1921 / Piet Mondrian / Oil on canvas / 41" × 39" (104cm × 99cm)


Hard-edge abstraction is a painting style used by artists such as Piet Mondrian, Josef Albers, Agnes Martin, Kasimir Malevich and Frank Stella. This style is known for flat or shallow spatial depth, and geometric forms with distinct boundaries or edges. Hard-edge abstraction often contains pattern-like qualities, yet successful paintings in this genre will still contain enough variations in design and color to create interesting eye movement, as seen here.

6 Imagine Expansive Space

Try imagining that the image you plan to paint represents a very small fragment of a much larger space that exists outside the surface. This is similar to a snapshot photo taken from a more expansive landscape.

Practice the following exercise on an inexpensive surface to help you envision expansive space. Load your brush with paint, then place it well outside (at least 5" [13cm] or more) the edge of your surface. Position the brush loosely in your hand and angle it so both the brush head and handle are parallel to the surface. Begin moving the brush toward the surface as if you are applying paint in the air, continuing onto your surface where the paint is now visible, moving slowly while varying the line as much as possible. Avoid moving too quickly across in a straight line, into corners or riding along edges. Finish your stroke well outside the edges of the surface, again painting air.

7 Love Your Whole Brain

Make friends with your left brain by including it in your painting session. Learn how to work with your left and right sides together as a team. Our left brain can sometimes act like a spoiled child. It whines, judges, comes up with criticism and negativity, anything to get you to stop painting. Once you establish a good working relationship between your left and right sides, you will dramatically improve the level of ease and flow in your work. The goal is to feel like you are the observer (a term used in many meditation techniques) instead of identifying fully with the right or left sides. Being in observer mode is the most powerful tool you have. More on this topic is covered in Section 1 on page 12.

SIRENS SONG 5 / Willy Bo Richardson / Watercolor and gouache on paper / 21" × 26" (53cm × 66cm) / Photo by Kim Richardson


In this abstract comparison both paintings make use of vertical stripes as an overall compositional theme. The top image has little variation in that each uniform stripe differs only in color from its neighbor. This overly repetitive quality is a common consequence when left brain dominates.

One might argue that by simply changing each stripe’s color, one can create interest and a sense of space. Yet when it is compared to Richardson’s painting below, we can see the difference that abundant variety can make. Here colors not only change with each stripe, but shift within the stripe itself. Edges overlap each other in great variety. The work readily reveals the artist’s use of right brain dominant, producing a painting that has better attracting power and more intriguing spatial effects.



The word critique can sound scary, overly serious or harsh to some artists, especially those of us who have had some past negative experiences with criticism of our artwork. I believe critique can be fun, enlightening and empowering. It is for me, at least, and I’ve found pleasure in sharing my system for analysis using somewhat of a game format.

What is critique? Critique is a way to analyze eye movement in a painting. Critique helps identify design problems and discover ways to resolve them. It is best to separate critique from the play phase. This new phase represents a time to think differently to further enhance your paintings.

I call the method of critique that I present here The Viewing Game. It is based on the assumption that your two main objectives as a painter are to draw the viewer to your work and to sustain the viewer’s attention long enough to obtain a meaningful viewing experience. The success of both of these goals revolves around the quality of eye movement inherent in the work.

How The Viewing Game works. Our eyes perceive the world around us, and even though we have the ability to view using a variety of “perceptive lenses,” we habitually use only one favored viewing mode. This underutilized viewing capability narrows our view. Imagine wearing a pair of sunglasses with pink lenses. The world around you all appears pink. Everything changes when you switch to a pair of glasses with green lenses. Optimal viewing would be obtained by taking time to switch lenses for a broader perspective. Critiquing our work is similar. By using only one favored lens to view and analyze our work, we blind ourselves to areas that might have issues or need attention. The Viewing Game consists of ten different “lenses” that I call inquiries. Each inquiry singles out a specific aspect of your painting, one at a time, for evaluation.

When you apply The Viewing Game to one of your paintings, make sure to read and follow all of the ten inquiries in the order presented, allowing time to contemplate after each one.

Inquiry 1: The Big Three

Inquiry 2: Tactile Surface Quality

Inquiry 3: Flip

Inquiry 4: Entrances and Exits

Inquiry 5: Zones and Quadrants

Inquiry 6: Focal Points

Inquiry 7: Design and Movement

Inquiry 8: Spatial Depth

Inquiry 9: Hot Spots

Inquiry 10: Is It Finished?

ADRIFT / Pat Bailey / Oil on canvas / 40" × 30" (102cm × 76cm)



My in-depth self-critique process—The Viewing Game—involves ten inquiries that allow you to recognize and resolve aesthetic and design issues in your paintings. You will be prompted after the first inquiry to determine if your painting is, in fact, at an appropriate point to continue with critique or instead needs to return to the play phase for further painting. If you know what your next course of action is, complete that task first before proceeding with this section’s critique.

There are many advantages to self-critique. You can evaluate your work at the precise moment you need it, and improve your work without other people’s input and sometimes distracting comments. The Viewing Game can also be used for group critiques (see page 135).

Two Ways the Eye Moves Through a Painting

MORNING OVER A MOUNTAINOUS NORWEGIAN LANDSCAPE, 1846 / August Wilhelm Leu / Oil on canvas / 37" × 55" (94cm × 140cm)


When the eye is encouraged to start in the foreground or bottom of the painting, and feel as if it moves perpendicular to the painting surface, it creates the illusion of deeper space. For more on this topic, see Inquiry 8 on page 84.

FULFILMENT, 1905 / Gustav Klimt / sketch on cardboard / 77" × 47" (196cm × 119cm) / Collection of the Museum of Applied Arts, Vienna


When the viewer’s eye moves in a direction parallel to the front surface (usually left to right or bottom to top), it can engage the eye in an exciting journey. This eye movement relies heavily on the relationships of positive and negative spaces in the image. Notice how pattern and graphic elements encourage the eye to move across the front painting surface here rather than recede into spatial depths. For more on this concept, see Inquiry 7 on page 78.

7 Helpful Tips for Self-Critiquing

For critique to be of benefit, your painting needs to be at an appropriate stage in its development. Critique is helpful when you don’t know how to proceed, are at a crossroads with several options, have lost your flow or feel stuck, need to assess progress or are not sure if it is finished. When you find yourself asking “Now what?” that’s a good indication that it’s time to critique. Here are seven helpful tips to keep in mind when you are undergoing the self-critique process.

Always start with your intent. Understand what your painting is about before starting the critique. What is your intent, point of view, content, psychology or philosophy? Imagine what you want the viewer to see and feel while viewing it. This will help determine the appropriate action, level of visual tension, and analysis needed for each particular painting. Remember, higher levels of visual tension are not always better. High tension means more visual action (for example, fast-paced eye choreography) which might not benefit meditative or peaceful imagery.

Think with your eyes. Intuitive reasoning in painting often comes from our eyes and not from our brain. The inquiries are meant to stir up a quick spontaneous answer. Don’t overthink. Instead allow your eyes to present the answer. Train your eyes to gaze objectively and at length at your painting while asking the inquiry questions. Repeat the question, maintaining focus until you sense an answer. Often the answer comes in the form of a feeling in your body. You may be surprised at the wisdom and often underutilized abilities contained within your eye/body mechanism.

Use contrast. As a painter your most powerful tool is contrast. “All lies in the contrast,” wrote Paul Cézanne. Contrast depends on a pair of opposites and how they relate to each other in a work. Each inquiry focuses on at least one particular pair of opposites to be singularly evaluated within the scope of your painting.

Work with 80:20 ratios. Pairs of opposites in unequal ratios create more viewing attraction and interest than when used in equal ratios. Unequal ratios create unexpected elements that jolt our left brain to shift to the right for viewing. A painting that encourages a viewer to shift viewing from left brain to right usually results in a deeper viewing experience. Avoid 100:0 ratios (where one component in a pair of opposites is missing) or 50:50 (both components of the pair are present in the work but in equal amounts). Both of these ratios cause the dreaded quick exit, whereby a viewer loses interest in your painting almost immediately. Ratios such as 90:10, 80:20 and 70:30 generate more dramatic contrast and more engaging imagery.

There are no set rules. Every image requires its own unique analysis. Take The Viewing Game’s guidelines as suggestions and not as rules. To make the most appropriate decisions for your work, start every inquiry by first restating your intent and what you wish to communicate. Realistic or abstract, intellectual or emotional, it is best to personalize your choices. Always base decisions on your personal preferences, intuition and particular window of visual tension. For example, you may prefer utilizing a moderate 60:40 ratio for one particular pair of opposites while countering it with a more striking ratio using another pair in the same painting. Make your own decision about how to best use the critique concepts.

Practice slow viewing. When asked, “What do you do as a painter?” artist Pat Bailey replies, “I choreograph eye movement.” The idea of eye movement provides the basis for almost all painting analysis. Set aside enough time to allow for deep contemplation of your work and for multiple viewings of each painting during the critique. Each question is like putting on a different viewing lens to reveal aspects that may not be visible through other lenses. Slow down and take your time to allow the viewing of a painting to unfold over time rather than attempt to see it quickly all at once.

Use your gut response. The most accurate answers usually come as a first response with a quick yes or no gut reaction. As an example, take the question, “Are there any light values in your painting?” If you have to think hard about it, then the light values are probably not visible enough. Let the answers come quickly, but slow down the viewing.


Critique goal: Draw attention to your painting with important visual tools.

There’s a lot of competition these days for viewing attention. Imagine your painting on display in a group exhibition. Will it stand out or be lost in the crowd? John Berger in his book Ways of Seeing says, “In no other form of society in history has there been such a concentration of images, such a density of visual messages.” Our culture presents a bombardment of images daily via ads, billboards, videos, computers, etc. According to recent studies from Microsoft Corporation, people spend an average of three seconds viewing each art piece in a museum. That’s less than the attention span of a goldfish! Inquiry 1 is all about using the Big Three—value (light and dark), chroma (bright and neutral), hue (warm and cool)—to draw attention to your paintings.

Altered Version

Original Painting

SIX CUPS / Rick Garcia / Acrylic on canvas / 20" × 16" (51cm × 41cm)


A full range of values is used in this painting, including all tones from 1 (white) to 10 (black), as evident in the altered grayscale version on the left.

VALUE/TONAL QUALITY | Catch the viewer’s eye with light and dark values.

High contrast in a painting is created when a pair of light and dark values or tones are positioned close together. This pair will almost always attract our attention. Ever find yourself walking along a beach scanning the sand for anything sparkly: a gem, luminous shells, a glowing stone? We like sparkle. In fact, our brains are hardwired for high contrast. Our anatomy is even constructed to encourage this preference. In the animal kingdom, human beings are considered hunters and therefore have eyes placed close together to focus for hunting. Rabbits, on the other hand, are considered prey, with eyes spread apart on either side of their heads to better identify movement in their surroundings for possible enemies. Our eyes search for eye gems, or high contrast, as if it were the glint in a rabbit’s eyes while it hides in the grass.

This doesn’t mean we have to add glitter to our paintings to draw attention to the work. It does mean that the placement, quantity and ratio of lights and darks in an image is important. To correctly analyze this aspect in our work we need the ability to translate color into value. Try the exercise on the following page to strengthen this ability. Take time to analyze the range of values present in your painting. A painting with a wide range of values means the image will include almost all value numbers from 1 to 10. A narrow range signifies a limited number (perhaps just 4 to 7). I use the terms value and tone interchangeably throughout.

EMPEROR MINGHUANG’S JOURNEY TO SICHUAN (AFTER QIU YING) / Artist unknown / Wen Zhengming (calligrapher) / Ink and color on silk handscroll / 22" × 72" (56cm × 183cm) / Collection of the Freer and Sackler Galleries, Washington, D.C.


While viewing this painting, squint your eyes to help translate the subtle color palette into values. Here a narrow tonal range helps add a soft and subtle feel.

CHARLES MINGUS / Alan Reingold / Charcoal on textured paper / 14" × 11" (36cm × 28cm)


When an image uses extreme ends of the tonal scale (1, 2, 9, 10), it skips the middle of the spectrum and is high contrast or graphic in quality. High-contrast images show up very well in photographs and for printing purposes. This was used for an album cover.

SELF-PORTRAIT WITH PLUMED HAT / Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn / Oil on oak panel / 35" × 29" (89cm × 74cm)


The word chiaroscuro, created during the Renaissance, is often used to describe strong contrasts of light and dark. Old Masters, known for their use of chiaroscuro, include Rembrandt, Georges de La Tour, Giovanni Baglione, Francisco Goya, Caravaggio, Diego Velázquez and Jan Vermeer.


Training Your Eye to Identify Tonal Value

Our eyes are muscles, and we can exercise them to enhance their abilities to discern value. For this exercise refer to the gray value scale on page 50. With some practice you can learn to automatically read color as value without the need to match against a value scale.

1 To get started, collect a dozen or more paint chips from the paint department at your local home improvement store. You can also cut 1⁄2" (13mm) squares of uniform color from magazines, photos or printouts from online images. Place one color chip directly over black (10) on the grayscale. Stare for a minute or two until you can see an obvious difference between the black value on the scale and your color chip. Your color chip will likely be lighter than the scale’s black.

2 Now move the same chip to white (1) on the scale, gazing until it becomes clearly apparent that your chip is darker. Next compare it to 9, then 2, then 8, then 3 until you find its corresponding value. Continue to move your chip along the gray scale, swinging left and right, alternating between the dark and light tones, making it easier to narrow the choices and find the tonal match for your chip. Leave the chip in place directly under its matching value. Repeat with your other color chips.

Tonal Value Exercise Tips

Instead of using the grayscale on page 50, you can obtain your own high-quality version by printing one from the Internet or purchasing one from an art store. You can also create your own using Photoshop.

While gazing, for the best read, your eyes should be focused right at the edge of the chip where it meets the tone on the scale. The edges of your color chip should be clean, without any ripped areas of white showing, to reduce distractions while comparing.

Don’t give up. If you can’t determine a color’s value right away, just keep staring. The longer you stare the better your eyes will discern differences to identify its value.

Optionally, punch a hole using a hole punching tool in the center of each value on your grayscale. Place the color chip directly under the hole for easier matching.

Check tonal ranges in your painting by photographing your work digitally, then use the camera or photo-editing software to convert it to gray tones. Try doing this at intervals during your painting’s development to periodically check tone.

CHROMA | Achieve space and movement with bright and neutral colors.

Similar advantages obtained by strategically using lights and darks exist with chroma using brights and neutrals. Bright colors attract attention and often create the illusion they are moving forward towards the viewer, while neutrals tend to recede into the background. Combinations of these two can create the illusion of spatial depth. See Inquiry 8 on page 84 for more on spatial depth. For tips on mixing bright and neutral colors, see Solution 4 starting on page 104.

EARLY AUTUMN GATHERING / Sam Scott / Oil on canvas / 42" × 54" (107cm × 137cm)

THE CONCERT / Gerard (Gerrit) van Honthorst / Oil on canvas / 48" × 81" (122cm × 206cm)

INTERIOR / Celia Drake / Acrylic on canvas / 12" × 12" (30cm × 30cm)


Here are three examples of images that use a combination of bright and neutral colors to suggest the illusion of spatial depth.

HUE | Enhance your images with warm and cool colors.

A color is considered warm if it looks close to red and cooler if it appears more blue. We intuitively interpret a “temperature” for a color, even though there are no set rules on what is warm or cool. Warm colors feel vivid and energetic and tend to come forward in space. Cool colors feel calm and soothing and tend to recede into space. White, black and gray are considered neutral. Try to get a general read on the feeling of warm and cool temperatures in your work.


Most will agree that these colors feel warm.


Most will agree that these colo