My Journey Begins…

Using Structure and Design to Map your Art

Starting a journey, it is necessary to have a map to guide you if you lost, or don’t know where to go next. In Art your map is built with the Elements of Design.

How do you analyse a painting?

  1. You look at the Shapes that are used to compose it.
  2. at the Lines which create the rhythm in it.
  3. at the Colour that are comprised in it.
  4. at the Values that create the movement around it.
  5. at the Space in which it sits.
  6. at the Texture and Patterns that enrich it.

So these are the ELEMENTS OF DESIGN

  • Shape
  • Line
  • Colour
  • Value
  • Space
  • Texture/Pattern

Okay. This is fine when you analysing a work of art. But how about when you are creating your own work? You are putting all these together but how do you know where they go? This is where the PRINCIPLES OF DESIGN come into it.

  • Contrast
  • Balance
  • Emphasis
  • Movement
  • Proportion
  • Rhythm
  • Unity
  • Variety

So why do I highlight the first and last, and not the others? Because in my view these two CONTRAST AND VARIETY are the key to any successful composition – DESIGN.

Of the two images above which would you consider to have the best design?

In fact, the one on the left was created from the start on the right, slowly altered to improve the design. I will take you through it step by step.

Just by moving the colour areas around so as to provide greater and smaller intervals between them you composition has improved i.e. Variety of Spacing

Here I’ve altered the values of each individual colours. Lighting some, darken others, neutralised others. Is this I have created additional Colour Contrast

Finally I have Varied My Shapes so as to create Shape Contrast in the composition.

I could have created improved Design to this composition by following these steps in another order…

In the bottom one, I also added additional Space through adding white/empty areas and added interest with texture, lines and colour contrast.

‘Stepping into the not knowing… *’

‘In art often you have to start before
you know where you are going.’ **

 Today I came across both these sayings from two painting mentors I greatly admire. And it made me think about the last workshop I gave at Cuckoo Farm Studios where we were exploring mark-making following a couple of demonstrations.

I was not at my best, that day so instead of attempting to do a finished piece, I had decided I would only do as many different marks as I could think of on a large sheet of paper, working with different colours as well as neutrals and B&W and use the finished piece as an illustration chart of possible marks. I stepped into the unknown and produced what I had been struggling to do – unsuccessfully – for several months!!

The conscious me did not know what I would do. The unconscious me leapt into the opportunity given and produced what I had been trying but couldn’t do.

To be successful in art, you need to be brave enough to step out into the Unknown.

It is very easy to stay comfortably in your known expertise. I can do this so I will carry on…doing it again and again and again. Receiving a pat on the back from your supporters. This is always nice. But stayin your comfort zone …and slowly your work becomes repetitive, mechanical, safe…and without realizing it you’ve stopped developing.

Resting on Your Laurels’ and you’ve stopped growing.

This is so important that over the years a number of clichês have arisen pointing at this.

This is why it is important to always take a risk. Go for that unknown approach. Try what you have not been able to do before. Change the formula. Consider the ‘What if?

What if I change my format, medium, size, subject, brush, colour…

Bravely go…where you have not explored before. Another clichê. But that is because this IS the path to doing your greatest work.

Looking at some of the work produced that day…looking back I see that this was produced by those not quite knowing what they were doing…they were just following their instinct.

These tentative efforts are exciting. There is a raw energy which you can feel. And sometimes the more knowledgeable you are, the more difficult it is to simply let go and explore.

Picasso once said that he had spent his whole life trying to learn to paint like a child.

Challenge yourself to do this! Everytime you sit down at your artwork or prepare to work at your easel. Look at what you have done and ask yourself…

what can I try out today?

It may work…

It may fail…

But even if it fails it will give spark to a new idea.

That didn’t work….but what if I try it this way?

And slowly you are on a new pathway …towards a new direction.

Don’t wait until you have the whole route in sight for then you will be limited by how far you can see, and by what has come before.

Step into the Unknown and discover what it still ahead of you!


  • * Dr Nancy Hillis
  • ** Nicholas Wilton

Coming Next: Using Structure&Design to Map your Steps

Building Your Own Lexicon

If your are going to have a Language of Your Own, it requires its own lexicon, like your own private dictionary from which you build your stories.

As children, we created these with our fingers, painting. And as adults never forget the joy of dabbing and smudging painting or charcoal to get that precise effect. But when we learnt to write we lost that sense of whole body movement. We sit at a table, holding perfectly still and move just our wrists to make tiny little marks. And the small the handwriting the more pleased the teacher was earning us greater compliments.

Many of us still paint like this, and perhaps for what you want to produce this is ideal. Small, precise, detailed.

But even in this there are a range of marks produced by different tools, pencil, crayon, both chalk and oil, felt tip, charcoal, pastel. But each of these also allows you to produce a multitude of marks, from intricate designs to wide open smudgy sweeps.

You will never have your full lexicon without exploring these and attempting to use these in your work.

Of course, some effects will fail, some might need practice. Picasso practice a particular arm movement stroke, time and time again, before he felt it was ready to use on a painting. It wasn’t accident. It was practice.

Others will not suit your lexicon and will need to be abandoned. But that is after you have tried it and made an informed decision.

Some marks will feel uncomfortable and others will feel just right, from the word go. Other marks you will struggle with but something in them will keep you persisting with them until finally they come out right….like that funny hump of the letter K when you were learning to write.

That takes me to tools. In writing one uses a pencil, then a pen, then a biro, maybe a felt tip and each gives its own mark. So in painting, watercolour brushes, acrylic brushes, hog brushes, small, medium and big brushes. Long handled or short, and now many other markers:

Scrapers, squeegee, rubber brushes, fan brushes, each and every one of these needs a different handling. Some you work from the wrist. Some from the elbow. And some from the shoulder requiring a full swing of the arm to get the full result.

Some are blending brushes to be used on what is already there, some are doodling brushes to give that accidental effect to what is in fact an intentional mark.

Each of these brushes creates a different mark not only of themselves but also for each artist. Your mood, your strength and liveliness will provide a different mark for each tool from one artist to another.

A bit like signatures, even if you try and sign like your friend, your version will be different to theirs…stronger, softer, wobblier, more hard-edged, bigger, smaller. Different and your own.

Our next workshop, Saturday 23rd February, we will be looking at a wide range of mark-making. We will be welcoming Lisa Temple-Cox who will be helping show the possibilities of dry media, graphite, crayons, both soft and oil, colour pencils, charcoal in a variety of applications.

I will be following on demonstrating a range of tools both artist and also ordinary home implements which work just as successfully in producing unusual marks. Then all these materials will be available to you to experiment on a large sheet of proofing paper and just enjoy yourselves and explore the possibilities….but just don’t go this mad!😆😆😆

However if you have the time and inclination, why not have a go at making your own brushes at home as shown here by Australian Rhoda Campbell, who has kindly allowed me to use these photos of her home made brushes and the kind of make you can make with these…you can see more of her brushes on her instagram account at https://instagram.com/rcampbellartist?utm_source=ig_profile_share&igshid=o0ygm11l1tlz

Look forward to seeing you on the 23rd February….

What to bring

  • Large sheets of paper
  • Three colours, black and white, warm grey
  • Black ink
  • Crayons (Oil or Pastel)
  • Charcoal
  • Pencils, graphite or Stabilio colours
  • Acrylic Medium (any)
  • A range of different brushes, palette knives and any mark-making tool you have

If you fancy making some brushes bring:

  • A selection of twigs or sticks (preferably straight)
  • Feathers, wool, string, bamboo, fabric, straw, toothpicks
  • Selection plastic containers and paper plates for mixing paints
  • Masking tape
  • Kitchen Towel

Art Journal:A personal record of your journey

Many artists already use sketchbooks to explore ideas, try out new techniques, and record experiences which might influent their own work.

However I also strongly recommend using an Artist Journal when developing new projects. It’s a bit like a conversation with yourself about the work you are doing. Much as you probably already do but in your mind. The advantage is that with a Journal you actually get to hear your answers and get a chance to think properly about this.

I was introduced to Journaling when I read The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron which for me was a game changer and took me back to my art roots which had over the years been left behind. To say it changed my life would not be an exaggeration. Luckily life does bring these experiences from time to time. As the more recent Studio Journey with Nancy Hillis.

While doing my Degree and then my Masters, tutors were insistent on us documenting everything we did, saw or developed but there seemed to be less concern about the Art Journal as a reflective aid then as a form of documenting your progress. I remember it more as a record what we were doing than of an opportunity to discover and reflect on those AH-HA moments you frequently have while you are painting (and in all other creative activities) so I’m afraid to say I abandoned the journaling fairly quickly after completing my training.

Photo documentation of work in progress

With my photography, I have now gotten into the habit of at the end of any productive art day, photographing the days’s work and reflecting on this in the quiet of the evening. With this I have now again gone back to posting these in a Art Journal with my comments about what I’ve done, my feeling about this work and ideas of where to go next. I find this helps set up the next days work, clarifies issues I might need a few more days thinking on before return to work. And most importantly let’s your unconscious tell you about all those clever ideas that have come to you while you have been doing the laundry or waiting for a bus. The think is though to get them down quick…before they go.

Not really wanting to do into a lot of cut and paste by using a traditional diary, I now have a digital diary. With much exploration I’ve finalised on one called DIARO (available both from Apple apps and Google Play) which is not expensive, syncs cross platform – I can use it both on my Android phone and IPAD tablet and it allows me to post both multiple images as well as well my observations and then read and look at these side by side and add further comments if I wish. When I open it it gives me in text and thumbnail images a running progress of what I’ve been up to the last month and more. Very useful for reflecting back on progress.

Working with ArtRage

Sometimes it is useful to be able to explore ideas away from the paint easel and I have found another app ART RAGE where you can import a painting you have been working on and then sample the colours to create the same palette and in this way explore possible directions without affecting the existing work. It is much easier to delete and re-done digitally than doing it for real.

By the by, if you don’t know how to use these apps, there are some excellent tutorials on YouTube to get you started….go for the ones on Painting in Oils as this normally involves importing and image to work on which is what you want to do, rather than start from scratch.

Fighting Resistance – The Enemy Within

I don’t want to discourage you when I tell you that it took me seven months to break through my personal barrier of resistance. Granted I did have a wedding to organize and a honeymoon abroad to enjoy in the middle of this.
But I’m pretty sure that if I didn’t I would have found something else to excuse my not producing much work. This is the nature of the beast:

While your conscious mind might say…I want to do this in terms of art…it is incredible what your unconscious will do to fight it. Whenever you start to try and CHANGE something, your inner self will fight it every step of the way.

I remember when I graduated from my Art Degree at University, instead of diving in full into my art….I decided I was going to open an Art Gallery and Workshop. Good for me, you say. Yes, but the thing was that I did this, not out of some long term dream, but simply so I didn’t need to engage with my own art practice. Let me tell you how it ran…

My first day of painting in my brand new gallery, I set out my paints and started to produce a series of abstract pieces. One two three four five six….

See? I had the right idea. I started working in a series using four primaries only ( I see green as a primary, by the way) and exploring on sheets of paper a number of techniques, including grid, flow, lines, splashes, etc.

The exercise was good! But as you well imagine the result was RUBBISH.

Well, it was the very first time I was trying out working entirely under my own steam! What did you expect? Jackson Pollock?

But what happened then? I looked at this work, decided it was rubbish, so told myself I was useless painting abstract work and didn’t try and do it again for at least another six months.

And that has been the story of my abstract painting experience. If I do not produce instant genius I stop working on it.

What causes this?

RESISTANCE!

Recently I came across a wonderful little book which all artists should read. It’s is called:

The War of Art

Quoting from it, let me tell you a little about RESISTANCE.

Resistance is Insidious


“Resistance will tell you anything to keep you from doing your work. It will perjure, fabricate, falsify; seduce, bully, cajole. Resistance is protean. It will assume any form, if that’s what it takes to deceive you. It will reason with you like a lawyer or jam a nine-millimeter in your face like a stickup man. Resistance has no conscience. It will pledge anything to get a deal, then double-cross you as soon as your back is turned. If you take Resistance at its word, you deserve everything you get. Resistance is always lying and always full of shit. RESISTANCE IS IMPLACABLE”

“We feed it with power by our fear of it. Master that fear and we conquer Resistance. RESISTANCE ONLY OPPOSES IN ONE DIRECTION
Resistance obstructs movement only from a lower sphere to a higher. It kicks in when we seek to pursue a calling in the arts, launch an innovative enterprise, or evolve to a higher station morally, ethically, or spiritually.”

“We can use this. We can use it as a compass. We can navigate by Resistance, letting it guide us to that calling or action that we must follow before all others.”

“Remember, Resistance wants us to cede sovereignty to others. It wants us to stake our self-worth, our identity, our reason-for-being, on the response of others to our work. Resistance knows we can’t take this. No one can.”



(from “The War of Art” by Steven Pressfield, Shawn Coyne)

Start reading it for free: http://amzn.eu/b9nfXqP

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An Inner Journey

When I started the on-line course Nancy Hillis was offering last year, I was looking for tips and directions but soon I found that what Nancy was providing was the answer for all those questions, deep in the night, that all artists face when doing new creative work, and it was the lesson of reassurance….of ‘keep going and you’ll get there’.

There were no answers about WHAT you where doing. But just to continue doing it because this was the way you wanted to go….and never mind the result because this would take care of itself. And it does.

My journey continues but rather than limiting her reach only to those who take her course, Nancy has now also produced a book, THE ARTIST JOURNEY where you can read her guidelines and follow her direction in under taking this inner journey.

If you would like to further explore your creativity, I strongly recommend you read this, whatever your method of expression. It changed my life…I hope it may change yours.

https://www.amazon.com/dp/0999750410 Now Available at Amazon in book and Kindle

‘One of the lessons I’ve learned over the years in being an artist as well as working with artist in workshops and classes is that being an artist is ultimately an inner journey. 

While we learn concepts, principles and techniques, we find out that these are guides but they’re not the thing itself. 

To get to our deepest work, it’s about stepping into the unknown. It’s about adopting an attitude of “not knowing”. It’s about cultivating exploration and experimentation. It’s about moving closer and closer to our own self expression. 

Technique is valuable, but it’s only there as a tool to support our expression. We don’t lead with technique.

This is a big shift artists come to, sometimes after years of focusing on rules, constructs and techniques. ‘

Nancy Hillis, MD

Working in Series

Step One : Painting in Series

One of the first breakthrough in my art came from working in Series. It stops you from becoming precious about a piece of artwork and allows you to take the risks necessary for your work to move forward.When I talk about working in Series, I don’t mean working on a piece until it is finished and then to moving on to the next. What I am talking about is a series of Starts

A START is like the first step in a new journey. It can take many forms. It can simply be an activation of the paper to get your ideas flowing with a black flowing mark, it can be establishing a shapes and forms, it can be limiting your colours to one, two or three only, it can be blocking shapes, it can be a series of textures, it can be washed or drips of colours, it can be different shapes of a chosen subject, it can be collaged colours of paper as a base, it can be extending a series of different marks over many sheets of paper…

The idea about STARTS is to make you abandon the preciousness of any one artwork. Painting is a journey into the unknown. When you begin you don’t know which of the many will be any good, so you become more willing to risk  and extend yourself. You experiment…Six is a minimum. You can work on 20 STARTS. Then once you begin you choose a second step to apply to all, and a third, and a fourth.

Use Collage to start the base of multiple Starts…

As Nancy Hillis says ‘More starts and fewer finishes…’

From multiple starts a final piece evolves with the richness of all these other explorations in its soul…

Exercise One:

Without much thought, list quickly TEN possible ideas you can develop into a series of work….

Exercise Two:

Choose ONE of these an create a CONSTRAINT. This is like a Riff on a well know piece of music. Limit your colours, select a single shape, decide on a point of view, use only of collage, ….

Limit yourself to a single element of the many you can use to paint this idea and discover how limiting gives you endless variety.