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Darkness Reveals the Radiance Within
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In the greater world, the forces of light and dark are dancing the same yin-yang ballet they have followed since life began. We need darkness in order to perceive light. Light reveals and shadow veils, connects, and obscures. Shadows provide depth, complexity, and dimension, they provoke introspection, courage, and silence.

Our souls find meaning in this interplay of joy and sorrow, hope and despair, vulnerability and resistance. Our inner world is populated with multitudes - inner goddesses, wounded children, rebellious teenagers, cunning demons, and fearless warriors... When we embrace our own shadow, the dark and wounded aspects of our psyche feel safe enough to enter into the light for healing. Light is a metaphor artists use to contemplate the radiance of the soul and shadow reminds us to embrace the totality of our human experience.

In the realm of art, luminous light serves to mirror our hope, joys, sorrows, and aspirations. Light symbolizes grace, beauty, and truth. It conveys the ephemeral nature of the soul.
Darkness and shadow provide contrast and evoke emotional recognition deep within. Using the alchemy of light and shadow an artist’s vision of reality becomes a prism through which it is possible to witness the world anew and experience the emotions, memories, and perceptions of our shared humanity

Regardless of the subject matter, this interplay between light and darkness is our metaphor to convey the very essence of the soul. Many artists have become so absorbed in their quest to master the representation of light on canvas that they felt even one complete lifetime was not enough to master it. In fact, many of the great masters of the past have made light their central subject rather than just being guided by how light transforms things.

In the late 19th century an art movement arose out of the Hudson River School of Art called Luminism. Artists in this style aligned with the Transcendentalist writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in their desire to immerse themselves in nature to know themselves and the divine.

Most Luminist paintings emphasize tranquility and depict land or waterscapes with calm reflective water. Characteristic hazy skies depicting the effects of natural light on the landscape take up more than half of the composition. Luminists use glowing light to capture moments in time through the use of atmospheric perspective and concealed brushstrokes. April Gornik said, "I began to see that the luminists... attempted to recreate a landscape's experience for the viewer...Their paintings were not so much depictions as they were complex machines of special effects." A 1980 National Gallery exhibition of Luminist art influenced many contemporary artists to embrace and expand on these questions in new and interesting ways.
Some living artists who work with luminosity are Thomas Schaller, Mitch Albala, Skip Lawrence, Brian Keeler, Cathie Hillegas, and Jeanne Dobie. I borrowed some of their suggestions on how you too can capture more light in your paintings.

Sunlight is powerful stuff. Your paintings will become more meaningful, and personal if you can throw off the elementary concepts of copying, describing, embellishing, and adding details to labeled objects in local color. What emotional response might you create if you painted only the essence of light and shadow, the conversation between brilliance and obscurity?

Sunlight has the power to make a black roof appear white and white objects appear black. When you see only the patterns and shapes created by light and shade you free yourself from the limits of objects and your compositions are distilled down to their basic essence where they can approach the more expressive realm of poetry. Simplify, condense, and eliminate details that detract from the mood and meaning of your subject and see what emerges.

Seeing the shape of the shade is not easy. In a past essay, I introduced you to the Japanese concept of Notan. Notan is an alternating pattern of black and white where white represents all areas in light and black represents the pattern of shade. If your subject reveals itself and has a strong abstract design at the most preliminary phase it is much more likely to be a strong painting when you add in many more values and colors.

If you have access to Photoshop it is easy to experiment with Notan using the editing feature “threshold” on a photograph. I am including a few links here to articles and videos if you are able to experiment with Photoshop.

To create a Notan drawing use white for every area that is in the sunlight. Disregard all local colors and values. A black surface receiving sunlight is left white. A red, yellow, or blue surface in light is left white.

Be committed to this idea. Identify the source of the light (sun or lamp) and remember that anything perpendicular to it is in light. A clear blue sky without clouds should be interpreted as white paper. The flat planes of a lawn remain white. Look for and color in cast shadows. Any surface that has cast shadows on it is in the light (white).

Color in only that portion of the subject that is in shadow.
Your drawing should contain an interesting, rhythmically connected pattern of both light and shade which distills your excitement and emotions for the subject. Walk away and gain perspective on your drawing to see if it carries your idea from a distance.

Manipulate the light to mold reality into a more subjective and personal statement. Are there shadow areas you can link together to create a stronger shape with a variety of segment lengths, changes in direction, and detail? Are there lights you can connect to define your subject more clearly? Save your detail for the edges of your light areas. Use overlap to create depth, add in features to improve your composition if needed

Trace or copy your shade shape onto good paper or canvas. Fill this shape with paint just slightly darker than the white of the page in single light value. Use warm colors in your first layer and focus this warmth and saturation in the middle area of the painting. Do not overwork or overcomplicate the detail in the shadows. Let the shapes merge and melt together into a unifying haze. Defined details should appear only where the edges of your shadow shape meet the light. With just one layer your subject will appear to be bathed in a hazy, strong light or thick atmosphere such as fog.

Add cool colors in your second darker layer to contrast with your first layer and create more glowing light in the shadow areas of your scene. This can make the glowing light stand out and give you the ambiance you want.

As the contrast of values moves further apart the light expressed will appear stronger. Brilliant light can only be seen in contrast to a strong dark. Experiment with this. Try tinting the paper or canvas before adding a darker value shade shape. Use 4 or 5 values. Notice how these variations affect the luminosity of your subject.

Here's a step-by-step I created to demonstrate this process :

This is a drawing of the shadow shapes

Here is a Notan of the beach shack based on the drawing above.

I filled in just the shape of the shaded area with a single mid-tone value using mostly warm colors.

This version has a full range of values, but I've been able to keep the painting loose and the colors related and harmonious. Notice how the purple sets off the yellow of the house.

The luminosity of color comes from choosing colors by their effect on each other. Paint colors change their apparent brightness, transparency, and hue depending on the context in which they appear.

To create a GLOW effect you will want to contrast both value and temperature of your primary color. A warm, pale pink will glow when surrounded by dark, cool green. Purchased blacks, grays, or neutrals will not have the same effect as the complement of your selected color. If your light value is a pale yellow, your darks should have a purple or purple-gray tone.
You can further exaggerate the GLOW that is forming by generating a warm/cool relationship between your light and dark by remixing your complementary dark, altering the proportions of pigments to move the color to be warmer or cooler. Every color on the color wheel has a cooler and warmer color on either side of it. Purple has blue and red as its neighbors. If your light-valued yellow is warm, the best complementary dark to enhance it would be a cool bluish purple. For a cool light-value yellow, set it off with a warm reddish purple.

In a luminous painting, strong darks can overpower your composition. Notice how most of the example paintings limit dark shapes. In this situation, mid-value color contrast is more effective. Instead of a rich dark, strive for a mid-value mix. Keeping your values close will maintain unity and flow within your larger shapes.

Mix the complement of your light color and shift it into a warm or cool variation as needed to create the temperature contrast. Try muting the mid-value mix by adding a bit of its complement to gray the mixture. A cool bluish purple can be grayed slightly with a touch of warm yellow. This should cause your warm yellow light to GLOW even brighter.

Remembering that paint colors change in apparent brightness, transparency, or hue depending on the colors that are nearby will give you more success in establishing luminosity. Strong bright pigments cannot produce luminosity by themselves. A luminous glow has soft edges and subtle transitions. Start with pale, pure color to maintain the impression of light. Gradually blending a complementary mix in an opposite temperature will interact to create the GLOW you desire.

As you observe the world around you and the way other artists render the light, pay attention to how light affects the objects closest to it. Gradually, you can add your observations to your compositions. See if you can observe how a backlit subject has a bright rim of light around it that obscures the details inside its outline, or how the sun washes out the width and darkness of trees in a halo as it sinks behind them. Notice how light is absorbed or reflected by the texture of different objects, how detail and value diminish in bright sunlight.

In order to see the rim lighting in this image the artist has made the sky very dark. We need this contrast to perceive the brilliance of the light.

Are you ready now to dedicate your entire life to mastering the depiction of light and shadow? Probably not. But light is a worthy subject matter all on its own and there is so much more to learn. As artists we distill the objects in our scene into a poetic interplay of light and dark, expanding our ability to interpret the world in our own personal vision.
This is the paradox of light. We need light to appreciate the blue of the skies, the green of the grass, and even the colored leaves of fall… Without light there is no sight, without shadow there is no contrast, no depth.

Let's honor June, the month of light, Midsommar, the solstice, the longest day of the year by bringing more light to everything we do.

This month I used the following books and articles as resources:
Skip Lawrence “Painting Light and Shadow in Watercolor”
Jeanne Dobie “Making Color Sing” .

If you would like my guidance and advice in adding more light and luminosity to your paintings I am happy to share my insights and my knowledge with you. I welcome the opportunity for conversation, cooperation, collaboration, and commissions.

With Light and Delight

Planting Artistic Renewal and Rebirth

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For a seed to achieve its greatest expression it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes. To someone who doesn’t understand growth, it would look like complete destruction.

Are you aware that April is the official month of hope? With all of the fear chaos, and overwhelm in our outer world there has never been a better time to lean on hope. Wikipedia describes hope as an optimistic state of mind based on an expectation of positive outcomes for ourselves and/or the world at large. Now is the perfect time to plant a garden for your wishes, dreams, intentions, and plans to grow.

Spring is a time of renewal and rebirth. Just as flowers grow in fertile soil, so will you. Just as trees grow flowers and fruits, humanity expresses hope through works of art. An artist brings something into existence that wasn’t there before. To live as an artist is a way of being in the world. A way of perceiving. A practice of paying attention - opening yourself up as a conduit for new creation.

Is a new and exciting vision calling you? Can you become still enough to feel it in your heart? Have you noticed your old self feeling constricted and uncomfortable? Could there be a genuine sense of hope rising within you?

Please join me in preparing a garden for artistic growth.


The first step in preparing any garden is clearing away the old growth that no longer serves. At some point the very things that excited and expanded us in the past start to feel stale and constricting. When a style or subject becomes popular and provides a comfortable lifestyle an artist can become trapped inside their own success. The known is safe and familiar, and it pleases others but it leaves us dull and lifeless.

When you stay in the known rather than stepping into the unknown there is a different sort of pain. The problem with refusing growth is the pain of living a life of unlived dreams. There is an almost itchy feeling that you were meant for more than "this".

One way you can recognize overgrowth in your creative garden is you repeat yourself. Fight the urge to repeat what works and sells and instead take risks, experiment, and evolve as an artist.

There is magic in not knowing, the mystery. If you follow your strategic mind, replicating what you already know, you will miss out on this wonderful feeling of being fully alive.

Artists lead an amplified life. It’s a bigger life, a happier life, an expanded life. Continually and stubbornly bringing forth the jewels that are hidden within you—is a fine and challenging art, in and of itself. Aliveness waits for us precariously balanced out on our green growing edge asking us to bring forth new ideas and share them with the world.

You will know it is time to clear the field when your own inner artist begins calling out for you to change. Your next move is already sitting beside you, waiting. It awaits your next step, your attention, and your curiosity. Do you see it? Do you hear it? Do you notice it? It may be a small, quiet voice whispering in your ear, it may be an image that suddenly appears in your painting, or the character who emerges unbidden in your writing.

Inspiration - Preparing the Soil

The most exciting moments for an artist are those when a new idea arrives fully formed and ready for our action.

Elizabeth Gilbert describes inspiration this way, “Both the Greeks and the Romans believed in the idea of an external spirit of creativity—a sort of house elf, who lives within the walls of your home and sometimes aids you in your labors. The Romans had a specific term for that helpful house entity. They called it your genius—your guardian deity, the conduit of your inspiration. This is to say, the Romans didn’t believe that an exceptionally gifted person was a genius; they believed that an exceptionally gifted person had a genius. It’s a subtle but important distinction (being vs. having)” Gilbert also says, “I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us—albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual.”

Imagine what’s possible for you if that is true! An incredible idea is seeking you as a partner to manifest itself. To pick up this energy we do not look for, predict or analyze our way in. Instead, create an open space that allows it in - a space so free of the overpacked condition of our minds that it functions like a vacuum. This is what I mean by preparing the soil to plant seeds. We prepare ourselves to receive this ceaseless generative energy by getting still enough to tune in to it.

My best ideas come when I am doing something relaxing and enjoyable. Ideas for art arrive like visitors while my hands are immersed in warm water washing dishes and gazing out my kitchen window, some drop in during meditation, or come and sit with me when I am drinking my morning coffee in a patch of sunshine. Pinterest, museum visits, travel, and reading are other ways I fill my creativity tank. What works best for you? Does inspiration come to you when you are out in nature, in the shower, falling asleep, or driving your car?

Inspiration is always trying to work through us. The feeling is the affirmation we are on the right path. The ecstatic is our compass - pointing to our true north. As artists, it is our job to collect this inspiration, transmute it, and share it. We are translators for messages the universe is broadcasting. We co-create with universal energy as we filter these downloads through our individual personalities and taste.

Notice how new ideas seem to arrive in waves sprinkled around the globe when their time has come. If you tune into this evolution of thought, a crazy idea that's bothering you might serendipitously connect you to an expanding and inspiring art movement.

This video planted a new seed for me. (

Yes, it is important to lead, but what if we only need to tune into and amplify someone else's evolutionary idea

Gathering Seeds

A seed can be a phrase, a color, a feeling, a need, an idea, a momentary perception, an unexpected thought, or the echo of a memory. Hints of inspiration can be the tiniest whispers, Two seeds of inspiration might seem indistinguishable but one may yield volumes and the other little to nothing. Seeds are potential starting points that, with love and care, can grow into something beautiful.

Elizabeth Gilbert describes how inspiration keeps, “trying to send me messages in every form it can—through dreams, through portents, through clues, through coincidences, through déjà vu, through kismet, through surprising waves of attraction and reaction, through the chills that run up my arms, through the hair that stands up on the back of my neck, through the pleasure of something new and surprising, through stubborn ideas that keep me awake all night long . . . whatever works. Inspiration is always trying to work with me.”

The more seeds you have the easier it is to choose one of them to focus on. If you’ve collected 100 seeds you might find that seed number thirty-five speaks to you in a way that none of the others do. If thirty-five is your only choice without the other seeds for context it’s more difficult to tell. Placing too much emphasis on a single seed or dismissing it prematurely can interfere with its natural growth. Collect many seeds and then, over time, look back to see which ones resonate. Each one should be approached with active awareness and boundless curiosity.

Where do you store your seeds? I have collected seeds from the past thirty years in a three-ring binder. In it, I have sketches, photos, notes, and detailed instructions for myself. I have more seeds on my Pinterest boards, in folders on my phone and computer, and pinned to my bulletin board in my studio. These seeds hold enough energy to get me going whenever I am searching for a new direction. I like to post images of art styles I would like to learn in a place I see them daily for further inspiration.

I find that if I leave my seeds for too long they lose energy and vigor. Something that lit me up a few months ago, is easily eclipsed by the next shiny object. And by delaying it’s not uncommon for my idea to find its voice through another maker. Someone told me that even Michael Jackson was terrified his muse would take his inspiration to Prince if he did not act on it immediately.

Talent is the ability to let ideas manifest through you. Technique and skill allow us a greater range of responses but on their own, they will not allow the seed to reach its full expression. Our work as artists is to collect seeds, plant them, water them with attention, and see if they take root.

Sometimes a small and seemingly insignificant seed will grow into a magnificent tree. Having a specific vision of what a seed will become is helpful in later phases, but it may cut off more interesting possibilities in this initial phase.

Nurturing Growth

Each action you take in a dynamic and evolving environment like a garden changes not only your perspective but also the environment itself. Both are deeply interdependent. Your actions create alternative possibilities for your seed that did not exist before.

Every brushstroke, every decision in your art, creates a set of possible paths that were not only invisible before but didn’t exist before you made that creative move. Each branch that sprouts generates possible new branches. Demanding full control of a work of art is just as foolish as demanding that an oak tree grows according to your will.

The only way to truly know if an idea works is to test it. Ask yourself as many “what if” questions as you can. Should the whole painting be purple? What if you used only two colors? What if you combined your idea with another seed? Each unsuccessful solution gets you closer to one that works. Give yourself permission to play with your seeds. Do not make them too precious.

When a plant is flourishing, we can see the life spring forth from every stalk, leaf, and flower. Our emotions tell us when an idea is flourishing. When something interesting starts to come together, it arouses delight and a feeling of wanting more.

As your vision grows the work reveals itself to you. Allow it all the time it needs to bear fruit. Elizabeth Gilbert advises, “Don’t rush through the experiences and circumstances that have the capacity to transform you. Don’t let go of your courage the moment things stop being easy or rewarding. Because that moment? That’s the moment when interesting begins.”

All that matters is that you are making something you love, to the best of your abilities, here and now.

Pruning, editing, trimming

Once you have a seed flourishing and bearing fruit you may find a direction that will support your growth for a week, a year, or a lifetime. A single seed can provide all you need to produce a series of deep and interesting artworks. Or, one of your seeds will grow and flourish to the point where it begins to take over the entire garden and block the sun from your other projects.

That’s when pruning, editing, and trimming can redirect you back to what’s essential and what feels joyful and fulfilling. Just as quickly your seed can lose vigor and wilt. If you lack a certain skill or expertise to bring your idea to fruition, set it aside until you attain the skills you need or invite collaboration and guidance from someone with the missing expertise. The beautiful thing about seeds is their patience.

Anyone can take the simple and make it complicated but it takes mastery to reduce a complicated idea to its essence - elegantly right and simple. The point of trimming and pruning is to encourage more vigorous healthy growth. Follow the feeling of joy when deciding between what needs to stay and what needs to go.

Watch for the urge to over-prune or kill a growing idea that scares you. A weed is just a plant growing where you didn't invite it to grow.

Newness always feels awkward and uncomfortable to you the artist and the people around you. Pursuing something new and different will invite criticism and comparison from others. You are not here to create the final statement in art after which no more comments are possible.

Each work you create is a milestone along your lifelong journey, a chapter about where, when, and what you were thinking when you created it.

If you can get your art to the point where when you see it you know it could not have been any other way - when it is balanced and elegant and simply stated - then you can truly enjoy the fruits of your labors.

Harvest/Gather Fruit:

Just as in gardening artistic growth is a seasonal process with periods of rest, hidden growth when everything happens underground, struggle, flourishing, hard work, harvest, and then clearing and starting over. At the end of a productive season rest and restoration are required before starting the process of clearing space for new seeds all over again.

Like gardening, creativity is more about the process than the product.

Our goal as artists is to live a fulfilling and productive life of making art. To be like my mango tree that effortlessly produces abundant beauty year after year. If you follow your own fascinations, obsessions, and compulsions they will bring you to life. Be the blooming garden, the fruiting tree, and create whatever it is that fills your heart with joy.

Creative living is always possible whatever form your expression takes.

Comparing yourself and relying on approval from others takes you further away from yourself. Who you are isn’t contingent upon anyone else’s opinion. You decide who you are. You are the author, artist, and composer of your life. It's an inside job. You give your power away when you look outside yourself for validation.

Recognizing that people's reactions don't belong to you is the only sane way to create. If people enjoy what you've created, terrific. If people ignore what you've created, too bad. If people misunderstand what you've created, don't sweat it. And what if people absolutely hate what you've created? What if people attack you with savage vitriol, and insult your intelligence, and malign your motives, and drag your good name through the mud? Just smile sweetly and suggest - as politely as you possibly can - that they go make their own fucking art. Then stubbornly continue making yours.”

― Elizabeth Gilbert

Making and sharing art is our legacy as artists. Each work we create says to the world "I was here". It connects us with others in a language beyond words. Each work is an affirmation of our time and our experience, it is a calling to the rest of the world to join in the play and light their own creative spark. It doesn't need to be any more than that for us to have pride in our artistic expression.

Here are the books I used as resources for this essay. I found them fascinating and you might too. I especially enjoyed Rick Rubin's book "The Creative Act". I highly recommend it.

Rick Rubin - The Creative Act

Suzanne Hanna - The Wilderness Walk Oracle Guidebook

Nancy Hillis M.D. - The Adjacent Possible

Elizabeth Gilbert - Big Magic; Creative Living Beyond Fear

Create whatever you want to create—and let it be stupendously imperfect, abundant, and joyful because it's exceedingly likely that you will be the only one to even notice. If you would like my guidance and advice in preparing your artistic garden for more expansive growth I am happy to share my insights and my knowledge with you.

Please reach out to me if you would like my collaboration in nurturing your artistic seeds. I welcome the opportunity for conversation, collaboration, and commissions.

With Light and Delight


10 Cues for Creating the Illusion of 3 Dimensional Space on a 2 Dimensional Surface

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All Art is an Illusion

Creating a three-dimensional image on a two-dimensional surface is a form of magic. An artist starts with a two-dimensional surface; it may be a wall, a canvas, a board, paper, or a pavement. Using paint or other media an illusion is created that invites the viewer into the universe of the picture and the tensions that reside within it.

In art, the term “space” is used to refer both to depth—real or represented—and to the general surface area within a work of art. Contrasts of color, volume, line, and texture activate expanding and contracting forces designed to breathe and pulsate, interact, and struggle within the space of your picture world, just as we interact and struggle within our own universe.

Whether your work is representational or abstract your picture contains a world of contrasts; a sense of movement through several planes, a flux between positive and negative visual energies, and the jostling between forms for frontality.

Our brain and eyes use depth cues to describe things as being in front, behind, above, below, or to the side of other things. The ability to perceive relationships in three-dimensional space is necessary for movement and the orientation of our body in relation to the objects around us. Navigating from one point to another depends on the ability to perceive depth, and even reaching out a hand to pick up a paintbrush, relies on depth perception.​​

Imagine you're driving in a car and you see a castle far off in the distance.

How is it that the castle begins to look bigger as you drive closer? The castle obviously isn't growing while you drive, so what is causing this?

Notice when you drive on a long flat road like Alligator Alley, the road appears to get smaller and smaller before disappearing entirely over the horizon. The road doesn’t change in size so why does it look that way?

When you drive through mountains do they appear blue and hazy in the distance and then become green and sharply focused as you approach them?

These illusions are all cues used by our brains to calculate distance and depth.

During the Italian Renaissance (c. 1400-1600) artists worked very deliberately to understand and create convincing illusions of three-dimensional space in two-dimensional media. These artists dedicated themselves to combining as many depth cues as possible into a system known as linear perspective.

Linear perspective refers to the fact that we perceive depth when we see two parallel lines that seem to converge into a “vanishing point” on the horizon. The other depth cues they used are the overlap of objects, the relative size and closeness of images to the horizon, and variation in color, value, light, and shadow caused by distance.

The first known picture to make use of linear perspective was created by the Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446). Painted in 1415, it depicted the Baptistery in Florence from the front gate of the unfinished cathedral. The linear perspective system projected the illusion of depth onto a two-dimensional plane by use of ‘vanishing points’ to which all lines converged, at eye level, on the horizon. Soon after Brunelleschi’s painting, the concept caught on, and many Italian artists started to use linear perspective in their paintings.

Look how Raphael creates an illusion of three-dimensional form in La Donna Velata. Through careful variations in value, particularly shading — using darker colors to create the illusion of shadows — Raphael convinces us that the woman in the painting is really there in three dimensions.

Light strikes her from her left, casting her right side in shadow. The folds of her voluminous sleeve are a particularly splendid example of the illusion of space. Even examining a small detail of it, it is hard to believe that there is no depth, at all, just thin layers of paint on a flat canvas.

In his 1474 portrait of Ginevra de’Benci, Leonardo da Vinci painted a narrow band of blue trees and a blue horizon at the back, behind the brownish trees that frame the pale stern woman whose bodice laced up with the same blue. He loved atmospheric effects and wrote that when painting buildings, “to make one appear more distant than another, you should represent the air as rather dense. Therefore make the first building…of its own color; the next most distant make less outlined and more blue; that which you wish to show at yet another distance, make bluer yet again; and that which is five times more distant make five times more blue.”

Coordinating depth cues correctly is critical for creating a familiar world on your paper or canvas for the viewer to enter and feel at home.

When you work abstractly distorting these cues or applying only a few of them is one of the ways an artist can create tension and interest in the work.

Look at these works by Mark Rothko. Notice how he uses color saturation and edge quality to create the illusion of space in this painting. The longer you gaze at this artwork the shapes seem to shift and change color and details will suddenly appear that you may not have noticed at first. Do some of these shapes appear solid, while others seem to be like veils hiding other layers from view? How deep would you say the space is in this painting? One foot? Six inches? Three feet? Rothko’s work is very subtle but the cues he uses to place one thing in front of another are the same ones used by realist landscape painters.

Hans Hofmann (1880-1966) was one of the most important figures of postwar American art and is considered one of the greatest twentieth-century teachers. Hofmann played a pivotal role in the development of Abstract Expressionism (1940 to present).

He believed that modern art must remain faithful to the flatness of the canvas support and he devised the term “push and pull” to describe the dynamic relationship between flatness and depth in an abstract painting or drawing.

Push and pull “are expanding and contracting forces activated by carriers in visual motion. Planes (a plane is a flat shape contained within a line) are the most important carriers, lines and points less so.” Hofmann felt Cézanne exemplified this concept. “At the end of his life and the height of his capacity, Cézanne understood color as a force of push and pull.

Hans Hoffman’s “push and pull” teaching is based on the same cues and concepts used by Renaissance artists and the same ten cues I present to you today.

These ten cues are the same ones our brain uses to determine our location in space and the approach of a speeding car or tennis ball. When applied together or separately in our paintings as contrasts of line, form, color, and texture a sense of dynamic depth, dimensionality and movement are created.

  1. Overlap - Objects in the front cover and hide objects behind

  2. Shading - describes how light falls on a three-dimensional form using darker colors to create the illusion of shadow.

  3. Relative Size - Smaller is farther away, Larger is closer

  4. Shadows - Objects create a hole in the light. The hole describes the shape of the object in a shadow that falls on anything behind it.

  5. Value/ Focus - Further away blends into the background (loses color & value)

  6. Placement - higher is farther away

  7. Perspective - parallel lines come together at a vanishing point on the horizon; the closer together the two lines are, the farther away they seem.

  8. Temperature - warm advances, cool recedes

  9. Edges - sharp advances, blurry recedes

  10. Saturation - bright advances, dull recedes

Imagine that you would like to paint a pond full of water lilies.

Each lily pad should get smaller and higher up as it goes back toward the horizon. Each one will lose color and detail as it gets farther away. Whether the lily pads get darker or lighter will depend on the light in the background. If the background is darker the small ones will begin darkening to blend with the background as they get farther away. If the background is light then they will get lighter as they near the horizon.

Making sure all of your cues agree will improve the illusion.

Maybe you want to paint boats in a harbor. Each boat should get smaller and higher up as it goes back into space. Whether you'd like to paint a field of poppies, sunflowers, or a vase of flowers these cues will help you add interest, realism, and depth. You can vary some of your flowers so they get smaller and higher up as they move into the background. Others can get cooler, and less defined as they become more distant. Flowers in the foreground can become warmer and more detailed. Cast shadows will add even more depth.

Whether you are painting a realistic scene or an abstraction of one you can use warm colors to make your shapes appear larger and cool colors to make them appear smaller. You can blur and sharpen edges to make them advance and recede within the space. When finishing a painting I often warm up my foreground with gold paint and cool the back with blue or purple to make my foreground more dimensional.

Common spatial errors are “kissing” and relative size. Kissing objects touch instead of overlapping each other or the horizon. Kissing will flatten your space, so you may want to invent an overlap even if wasn’t in your resource image.

Architects commonly add people to their drawings to demonstrate the scale of their designs. A familiar object allows the viewer to compare the relationship between one object and another. If you have a single object, like a house, a boat, or a person on a street or in a crowd, that repeats as it goes back in space, make sure that the size gets smaller in a logical way, so you don’t have one giant person in the midst of your crowd.

Unless you are trying to add tension and danger, check to make sure all your cues agree and your shadows are all going in the same direction.

My early work is filled with examples of conflicting spatial cues. It took me years of study to internalize these cues and there is still room for improvement. These works below are mine from 2016 and they could use more depth for me to be satisfied with them. These are pieces I set aside to finish when I acquire the knowledge I was missing when I started them.

When you look at the images below can you observe some of the cues giving conflicting information about the space? Can you list the cues being used in these paintings? What do you see that could be improved to make the space more believable?

The use of perspective to create a convincing illusion of depth does not make Da Vinci or Raphael a “better” artist than Rothko or Cezanne, nor does it make their works any “better” or more sophisticated.

Assigning value between abstraction and representation, or between gestural, expressionistic styles and geometric forms is not useful in judging whether a painting is successful. The universal goal of every style of art is visual unity, and form that stimulates interest in the viewer, whether pleasing to the eye or not.

The illusion of depth is one of the many tools in the artist’s toolbox. It is a useful technique for creating a heightened emotional effect and drawing us, the viewers, into the composition, as if we are in the scene. The process of creating a believable three-dimensional illusion on a two-dimensional surface is a work of magic because we are creating an idea in the mind of our viewer, not an actual 3-dimensional form.

Our struggle and interaction to create this illusion within the universe of the picture is a mirror of our interaction and struggle with the truth of our outer universe. Attempting to translate the conceptual world of the imagination into a believable physical universe of three dimensions is a worthy effort that can raise our work to a level of mastery few artists attain.

This month I used the following books and articles as resources:

Rebecca Solnit - The Faraway Nearby

If you would like my guidance and advice in adding more depth and dynamism to your paintings I am happy to share my insights and my knowledge with you. I welcome the opportunity for conversation, cooperation, collaboration, and commissions.

With Light and Delight


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