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Simple, Clear & Meaningful

Better choices about what's essential in your life and your art.

Life is complicated.

I’ve been feeling overwhelmed recently and you probably feel the same. Too much change, too much divisiveness, too much information, too much pain, too many choices, too many decisions, and too much detail. The abundance current is flowing like a firehose, breaking down the old, revealing what’s been hidden underneath and I feel out of breath from swimming to keep up with it all.

I need to breathe. I need time to pause and reflect.

One of the advantages of being older and wiser is having more tools for problem-solving. When it feels like everything matters and everything is urgent the tool I use is to create a space where I check in with myself and realign with what really matters to me.

I have done years of work clarifying my personal values, my purpose, and what it feels like to be fulfilled and satisfied. Good health, freedom, deep connections, learning, reflection, joy, creation, and teaching are most important to me. Knowing what is essential helps me to identify my priorities and pass on those problems that are not mine to solve.

The story below is really helpful to me in differentiating from everything that calls to me.

There once was a philosophy professor who was giving a lecture. In front of him, he had a big glass jar, a pile of rocks, a bag of small pebbles, a tub of sand, and a bottle of water.

He started by filling up the jar with the big rocks and when they reached the rim of the jar, he held it up to the students and asked them if the jar was full. They all agreed, there was no more room to put the rocks in, it was full.

“Is it full?” he asked.

He then picked up the bag of small pebbles and poured these into the jar. He shook the jar so that the pebbles filled the space around the big rocks. “Is the jar full now?” he asked. The group of students all looked at each other and agreed that the jar was now completely full.

“Is it really full?” he asked.

The professor then picked up the tub of sand. He poured the sand in between the pebbles and the rocks and once again he held up the jar to his class and asked if it was full. Once again, the students agreed that the jar was full.

“Are you sure it’s full?” he asked.

He finally picked up a bottle of water and tipped the water into the jar until it soaked up in all the remaining space in the sand. The students laughed.

The professor went on to explain that the jar of rocks, pebbles, sand, and water represent everything that is in one's life.

The rocks represent the most important things that have real value – your health, your family, your partner. Those things that if everything else (the pebbles and the sand) was lost and only they remained, your life would still have meaning.

The pebbles represent the things in your life that matter, but that you could live without. The pebbles are things that give your life meaning (such as your job, house, hobbies, and friendships), but they are not critical for you to have a meaningful life. These things often come and go, and are not permanent or essential to your overall well-being.

If you fill the jar in the opposite order there would be no room for the rocks. No room for what’s essential to you.

Written by Siddhi Latey (Weloquent)

This lens of essentialism will improve your artwork as well as your life. Our paintings often try to say too much, with too much information. When we don’t really know what it is that we want to say we have no idea what belongs on the canvas and what belongs in the discard pile.

It's easy to overwhelm your viewer with all the information in your scene and all the marks and shapes you fell in love with.

Whether you are a realist or an abstract artist what’s essential to your art is distillation - expressing your idea in the simplest way possible using shape, composition, and color.

This system of essential questions can help you to evaluate your artwork as it evolves from concept to completion. They are the rocks in your composition.


What matters most in this artwork? Can you express your idea with less?

Is there one corner that you love more than anything, a mark or line that moves in a particular way? Could you format (crop) the image to contain just that one thing and eliminate the rest?

There is always a choice, and we can simply leave out what is not needed to tell the essence of our story. Ask yourself if you can tell the story using just 20% of the information in your resource image? How much of the other 80% of the detail could be sublimated into a larger value zone?

Is there a clear path of priority through your artwork? Pick and choose what stays and goes so you amplify the essential and delete or diminish the rest.

I'm going to use this photo as an example of how to zero in on the essence of an artwork and how to apply the essential questions.

What attracts me the most in the photo we started with is the waterfall. Here are two formats that capture the essence of this waterfall.


What are the main structural forms in your image?

Asymmetrical shapes are more appealing. Can you adjust yours to be less symmetrical?

Could you say what you need with fewer shapes? Are there smaller shapes to combine into a larger mass that interlocks with two or three sides of the canvas?

Have you considered the negative space as a shape?


Squint at your image… Is the simplest, essential form of the image apparent?

How have you used a limited value range to set your mood? When you set the endpoints of your value scale in a smaller range emotion is enhanced.

Is the strongest contrast of light/dark at your most important event?

How are you using value to separate one shape from another?

Do you have a clear 2-value pattern (Notan) that conveys the essence of the image?

What happens when you add more values? How can you use value zones to contain and compress detail?

I think the vertical image has a more interesting pathway and interlocking asymmetrical dark shape than the horizontal one above.

Squint at this image...Is the value pattern more interesting? What you are seeing is a two-value separation (Notan). Does this capture the essence of the waterfall in the original image?

Can you follow a clear priority pathway through it? How might I improve on the pathway?

Here is how the image might look with more values. These additional values are being used to separate my large shapes into smaller ones.

As I add the details back in I associate the details with a larger value zone. Each value zone has a limited range of values in it.

My biggest value drop is in the correct rule of thirds location and I can exaggerate the effect of the waterfall hitting the river to enhance the pathway through the painting.


Consider the color grouping you will employ for harmony & mood?

Will your painting be based on a particular color or color arrangement that contributes to its essence?

Which color interaction will have priority in each of the following three contrasts?

Choose one for each contrast of:

  • Hue - similar/dissimilar

  • Value - low/med/high

  • Saturation - low/medium/high

Hue is the name of the color, usually one of twelve around the color wheel. Saturation is the strength of the hue. Saturation is reduced by adding black, white, or a complement to a hue. Value is the range of light/dark in your colors.

Play (Variation):

Play is the pebbles in your container of composition. Play doesn't just help us explore what is essential it is essential in and of itself. Play creates the poetry in your work.

Variation and difference keep the composition interesting and alive. Map the pathway of priority through the artwork as you vary the interval, length, height, angle, weight, color, and value of your shapes and marks.

In this painting my color harmony is split complementary - Red-Orange, Yellow-Green, Blue-Green

Choose one for each contrast of:

  • Hue - similar/dissimilar

  • Value - low/med/high

  • Saturation - low/medium/high

Notice the variations in height, angle, weight, color, and value of the roses.

Is the essence clear?

In this painting, my color harmony is Analogous - Green, Blue, and Violet. warm colors are extremely limited and neutralized. Choose one for each contrast of:

  • Hue - similar/dissimilar

  • Value - low/med/high

  • Saturation - low/medium/high Notice the variations in height, angle, weight, color, and value of the architecture and the hydrangeas. Is the essence clear? Can you tell what inspired me here?


One of the hardest and most essential questions is how to tell when your painting is finished.

It seems like there is always more you could do and more you could add. Your painting is not just about regurgitating the facts but about returning to what inspired you to create it. Reflect on your original intent when you chose the essence of this artwork. How did you live up to your vision for your artwork? Is there unity? Poetry? Perhaps you did not attain your entire vision for the piece. But, if you captured the essence of your inspiration you have more than enough.

At some point, you need to declare the artwork the best you can do at this time. If the essence of the piece truly inspires you, remember you can return to the point of inspiration and create a series of variations on your theme. Done is better than perfect. I often return to old artworks years later, pop them out of their frames and revise them with what I learned.

In situations of overwhelm in art and in life, less is more.

There is relief in amplifying the essential and leaving the rest. Picking and choosing what belongs and what does not is essential. Understanding the difference between the things that feel urgent and those that are truly important not only reduces overwhelm but is critical self-care.

Efficiently completing urgent but unimportant tasks keeps me from being effective in the areas that matter most to me. Reflecting on what is essential helps me to reorder my priorities and be effective as a human, an artist, and a teacher.

In art as in life, having a system returns our effort many times over. Figure out your priority list. Reduce or omit what holds you back. Walk away from dead ends. Amplify yourself and your work by concentrating on and creating more of what matters.

Interested in amplifying your effectiveness as an artist? Reach out to me and let’s talk. I welcome the conversation and the opportunity to expand with you. With Light and Delight,

Susan Convery


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