Design Basics



  1. Don’t use 10 strokes when one will do.

  2. Impostor syndrome:  paint like you know what you’re doing.

  3. Be fearless but thoughtful.

  4. No plan of battle survives beyond first contact with the enemy.

  5. Artists have special ways of looking at the world.

    •Relational (how does this relate to that)

    •Reductive (basic geometric shapes so that an object or scene can be held in the mind)

  6. Learn the rules so that you can learn to break them with confidence!


painterly tips

  1. I’ve been doing this so long that my brain and body answer huge, complex questions more-or-less in the background, while my mind plays only a supervisory role. With directed practice, you’ll get there, too..

  2. Paint with light, so consider a darker underpainting. An underpaintings—imprimatura—serves two critical roles: it help unify the painting from the very beginning, and it relieves you of the task of painting on a white surface, which can lead to bad choices for colors and values as you try to relate them to each other and that bright white surface.

  3. Paint the whole painting to help unify by color.

  4. Learn the “rules” so that you can  break them with impunity; you’ll end up with a set of rules that are your own, and you’ll need to force yourself to break those rules, too.

  5. When you feel yourself tightening up

    • Change your grip on the brush or knife

    • Lock your elbow

    • Try a different tool

    • Try a much larger or smaller brush

    • Try fingerpainting

    • Try using a different tool (q-tip, rag)

  6. Try to see the whole painting.

  7. Always be looking at the land and thinking about how you’d compose various paintings.

  8. Use the best materials you can possibly afford or be prepared for an uphill fight.

  9. Use your paint as though its cost was a trifle.

  10. Take care of your tools.

  11. If you want to get to be a better painter, you have to do the work.

  12. We all become invested in our paintings, but be prepared to choose your battles.  If a painting is not going well, don’t beat it to death in the mud.  Pick another day.  Pick another song. 

  13. Always be looking at paintings and try to really SEE them.  What is it about a particular work that intrigues you—SPECIFICALLY!!!

  14. Copy paintings you admire because that will force you to really think hard about how an effect might be achieved.  Then, compare and contrast your work with the original.  REPEAT.

  15. Give yourself challenges:

  • Limited palette

  • Limited time 

  • Unusual shape of your ground

Design Rolodex


Contrast is KEY

  1. Value

  2. Color

  3. Size (scale)

  4. Shape

  5. Complexity


I found this image in a lesson on perspective (click the image to view it). Note the stability of the square and the triangles as well as the perspective lines implied by the architecture. Care to dispute the center of interest?


Demo Talking Points


The “forgetting curve,” as it’s called, is steepest during the first 24 hours after you learn something. Exactly how much you forget, percentage-wise, varies, but unless you review the material, much of it slips down the drain after the first day, with more to follow in the days after, leaving you with a fraction of what you took in.

Simply Start!


Research has shown that with regard to neural processing, when a person’s language centers are engaged--such as in speaking--many other areas of the brain disengage.  This is why it is so difficult to mentally walk and chew gum at the same time, and why it is so difficult to paint something new while speaking in a meaningfully engaged way. Or, for that matter, to speak coherently while engaged in painting something new.

This is why both my painting and speaking suffer when I try to do these demos.

So I’m going to try to talk less while my brain is engaged in painting and take frequent breaks to talk about what I’m doing.  I hope it works.

One of the most difficult things an artist does is facing that blank canvas.  Even then—at the earliest stage of creation—we tread on the edge of the precipice, girding ourselves to fight the good fight, preparing to create something great from nothing. How to begin? Where should the first stroke begin and where should it end?  Should it be thick or thin or both?  What should be its elemental nature or, if not that, what should be its personality?  And what about what comes after?  They say that the most important line is the first, because all subsequent lines must relate to it. 

Often, the only way I have found to clear this hurdle is to start.  Just start.  Anything is better than nothing, just because it begins.  It establishes a point of reference on which something else can hang.  And in that beginning, you have conquered your fear and the canvas is no longer blank.  You have drawn the hump of a hissing cat’s back.  Or the fin of a shark.  Or the horizon of a frozen moon.  Or the slope of a mountain’s shoulder.  Or the curve of a cheek.  Or the fractured edge of something.  Or nothing.  Perhaps the line you have drawn is simply a line: an undifferentiated stem cell of a line that will reveal its purpose sometime further along in its embryonic development.

So just start.  Draw a line and try to see what it is or what it should be—even if it is nothing more than a place upon which you can hang another line.  Then you have a line and its partner and the dance can begin. 

Are you afraid of the line.  Does indecision give you pause even now?  Then scribble with abandon, secure in the knowledge that you’ll soon sort things out.  But you have begun. 


The concepts of balance and composition are as difficult to teach as they are to learn, and I suspect that thoughtful practice and experimentation and failure and more failure will be the best teacher. 

We all know the elements of design, but unless you work with them every day—and sometimes even if you do—a refresher can be very helpful.  In fact, as I have been thinking about this demo, I have remembered important possibilities that I will be applying to my own work. I’ll be focusing on the elements of design that I most often work with and their many variations.

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