Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The need for emphasis (and downplay)

As an instructor, I have new students enrolling in art classes all the time. Many of them arrive with strong backgrounds in the techniques of drawing and painting, but few know how to emphasize an idea. They usually want to give equal importance to every part of their painting. Even older students who have been painting for a long time seem to have trouble with the concept of "emphasis". Ed Whitney used to say that the problem was "tight jawed egotism" or a desire to show off. Whatever the cause of the problem, the inability to emphasize one idea above all others and do it with subtlety is an indication that you still have room to grow.

So how do we move toward clarity of statement? I'll ask my students, "What do you want to say in this work? What first attracted you to the subject?" I'll have them write it down so that they can stay focused on it. Then, as they plan their painting they are aware of what part needs to be emphasized and what other parts need to be downplayed.

As they paint, I coach them on not letting the subordinate areas steal the show. They can unify them with color, tone, shape, etc., but their goal is to let the focus of the painting remain dominant. This is the hardest thing to teach! But I've found that the more you paint with this in mind, the easier it gets.

In "The Moorage" the emphasis is on the shaft of light rather than the ships and it was this light that first attracted me to the subject.


  1. Yes, I still chase around to try and get the whole picture.

  2. What an interesting concept for me to consider. I find it humorous that my mother pointed out the same idea over the weekend. "Just pick ONE subject"......

  3. Very nice painting. The shaft of light divides the painting yet at the same time pulls the viewer in and holds it together. it has superb abstract qualities with a nice variety of shapes, value and subtle warm accents. Is this an older work? It is very memorable and I believe I've seen it before or is my mind playing tricks on me?

    Many times while painting I'm so enthralled with a certain section that I fail to realize the truth is it really detracts from the whole. I have to do a lot of looking at works in progress and often paint possible soutions on scraps of paper then put them over the area in question.

    And also, congratulations on your AWS entry - beautiful painting. My thought is it will receive an award. It too is a very memorable painting.

  4. I love ocean freighters and I LOVE this dramatic perspective with the emphasized, flood lighted super structure. I found your blog via Myrna Wacknov's, a friend of mine.