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by Keith Bond on 2/1/2010 1:10:39 PM

This article is by Keith Bond, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews.  You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

Years ago I attended a slide show and lecture given by Richard Schmid.  He told a story of one of his still life paintings which included a salt or pepper shaker.  He was so focused on painting the shapes and colors within the shaker’s reflection that it wasn’t until after he finished painting it that he realized that he had just painted his self portrait.  He had disconnected himself from the object, and only saw shapes and colors.  (Hmmm…I just about typed that he disconnected himself from a reflection of himself.  How would that work?)

Many great artists and art teachers have counseled us to paint shapes not things.  Don’t paint a tree, rather observe the shapes of color that make up the tree.  Paint those shapes and you will find that it will resemble a tree, perhaps better than if you thought in terms of it being a tree.  Don’t paint a face, rather, paint the shapes of color that make up a face.  Don’t paint the flowers, paint the shapes.  You get the point.  You must disconnect yourself from your subject.

Literally, every subject is made up of shapes of color like interlocking jigsaw pieces.  Remember those paint by number sets you did when you were younger?  Any subject can (and should) be reduced to the abstract shapes of color. 

So where do you start if you can’t seem to get your mind to separate the ‘thing’ from the shapes?  It does take a lot of practice to learn to see as an artist.  Here are some exercises that can aid in the learning. 

A friend of mine, Michael Bingham, would occasionally have his students do the following exercise: 

Before class he cut out an image from a magazine.  He took the image and cut it into 1 or 1 ½ inch square pieces.  He then gave each student one square to paint from.  The assignment was to paint the shapes and colors as closely as possible onto an 8 x 8 inch canvas.  When each student was done, their painting would be arranged together to reveal the subject – a portrait. 

It was fascinating to see how well the paintings came together.  If I recall, the students could tell that it was a portrait from the squares, but they were cut in such a way that they didn’t have any single facial feature in its entirety.  There was no piece that had an entire nose or eye or mouth, etc.  This enabled the students to see the shapes instead of seeing the ‘things’.  By disconnecting themselves from the subject they could focus on the shapes of color. 

Additionally, by knowing that their square needed to fit with the others, the students were more careful in making sure their lines and shapes were accurate.  It caused them to study their square more closely.

Despite the fact that each student had a unique style, the image came together because the pieces of the puzzle were accurately painted. 

This is a great exercise for you to try.  Regardless of what style you paint in or at what level you are at, much can be learned from this exercise.  It will help you see shapes and colors.  It will help you see the puzzle pieces.   It will help you study your subject more closely.  As a side note, he chose an image that had easily distinguished abstract shapes.  Choose a simple image.  The more complex the image, the more difficulty you will have in the beginning.  Disconnect yourself one step further by having someone else choose and cut up the image. 

Another fun exercise is turning a photo upside down and painting from that.  It, like the previous one, forces a closer examination and enables you to see shapes instead of things.  There is something about seeing things in a different way that enables you to disconnect with your preconceived ideas.  You can more clearly see reality.

Best Wishes,

Keith Bond

PS  “Maybe all I need…is a new metaphor for reality” (From the song “Disconnected” by Queensryche). 


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Topics: Keith Bond | Painting Lessons | Productivity 

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Anne Watson
I remember doing that exact same portrait exercise in art school. Another good one was projecting an image on a screen, but really out of focus, where we couldn't recognize it at all. We just painted what we saw. Every once in a while, the instructor would focus it a bit more, until eventually we recognized it as an upside down landscape. Voila, when we flipped out paintings over, we'd unknowingly created these great landscape paintings by only observing shapes and colors.

Judy Mudd
What a wonderful story about Richard Schmid. Thanks for passing it along. It is a perfect illustration of removing your "self" from the artistic process and just looking at shapes. I have tried both of your suggestions in my classes and they DO work! You've just reminded me to try them again. Thanks!

Dena McMurdie
I also remember doing that exercise in school (both of them, actually). It was a great way to disconnect yourself from the subject and focus on painting shapes and colors instead of "things".

Esther J. Williams
Keith, this is such an important exercise for artists who want to get away from the stiff or silhouette look to their paintings. Shapes merge into neighboring shapes or negative space. A shadow from a salt shaker can connect to the next salt shaker. If we see that and paint it, the whole scene has a cohesive, held together look instead of a cut-out appearance. Good topic!

Michael Cardosa
Hi Keith,

Interesting article. I personally use the upside down technique occasionally myself and like the way it works out for me.


Carol Schmauder
I never took art classes in school (I took a lot of left brained classes) but I am anxious to give these exercises a try. Thanks for sharing this article.

Carole Rodrigue

What a great article and the advice is well appreciated. The mind is so used to thinking a certain way that it tends to play tricks on us as artists when we try and paint what we think something should look like. This article is right on the money and the exercise where the students had to do to paint shapes and put them all together is an interesting way to learn.

I worked on a similar project with a mural which has travelled around North America. This was put on by the Mural Mosaic group and all of the artists who participated had no clue what the mother image was. We only received panels with shapes, colors, and tones, and had to create images within those guidelines while keeping any obvious shape and color, as well as tone. The end result is amazing!

I have to say also that my painting only improved when I started applying the concept of painting what I see and not what I think should be there. This goes for colors too. Sometimes we think a horse should be brown, but if we look closely, there might be a lot of green reflected on the underbelly. This is just an example, but painting what I see is probably the best advice I ever started applying in my art. Practicing shapes is something I'm going to do now also. Thanks!

Carole Rodrigue
By the way, (for Clint) lately when I click on the link to reply to today's post, I get a dead page.

Sue Martin
I've done these exercises and they do, indeed, help. Thank you for the reminder! It seems that we artists must disconnect ourselves from all sorts of observations and assumptions of our "know-it-all" brain in order to make a grand painting. Learning to vary edges, and let some fade into the background is another similar challenge. The know-it-all brain tells us the figure is separate from the ground and that's the way we want to paint it. Learning to disconnect that brain and see with the artist's brain will yield a better painting.

Michael Cardosa
Clint, Like Carole, I sometimes get an error response when I try to send a comment.


Helen Horn Musser
Keith, Richard and I have some things in common. During my studies with a professor at SMU he walked into the studio; said Christopher discovered the new world in 1492 ( I think that is the right year.) We were painting a live model at this time. We left our paintings there overnight. The next day he said Helen is accessing information in her paintings. I took my painting home and looked at it carefully and to my surprise in her hair there were three tiny ships on a seashore that could dance on a pin. I did not paint the ships knowingly; I was painting the hair. The mystery of art never ceases; so how did that happen; I wish someone could tell me. I was painting shapes and colors at the time. I've seen other images in other paingings of other artists so I know it was not that unique but, still puzzles me.

Thank you for sharing with us; these are wonderful tips for inproving.


Helen Horn Musser
Keith, I forgot to write Colubus with Christopher but, you probably guessed. Please pardon other typos

Carol Schmauder
I clicked on the link marked "test" and all worked well. Thanks.

Clint Watson
via with facebook
The reply link problem will be fixed in tomorrow's issue.

Carole Rodrigue
Helen, the same thing happened to me in a painting I did last year. I don't want to say publicly what was painted by complete accident because some might take religious offence, even though it was a pure accident. Anyways, it's pretty strange to have something like that happen. I'd entered that piece in a competition and though I was sure it would at least be juried in, it wasn't. I often wonder if someone noticed that "thing" that will remain unmentioned . . . Otherwise, it's a great painting!

Helen Horn Musser
I can't really comment on your message; I don't know the image. I'm sorry it was not accepted

I love these ideas - thank you.

Al Di Campli
I enjoyed the article as it highlights, or reminds us to look at things differently be that from a different height, perspective, or angel.
As both an artist and professional photographer the last part of the article, turning a work upside down brought to mind a helpful technique we use when entering prints into our photographic association competitions. Here is how it works:
Using digital techniques and software today makes so many things possible when enhancing a photograph. We would first work on the image in an image editing software program. while Adobe Photoshop is the most popular, their are many on the market.
Please don't be fooled some of the less expensive ($99) programs like Adobe's Photoshop Elements are very powerful tools. So after enhancing the image and before sending it off to the large printer or lab we would print a color corrected letter page sized image. Let it sit for a while to erase our "vision memory". Then upon returning to the copy turn it 'upside down" before flipping it over to take a fresh look.
The question then becomes what part of the image does you eye 'go' to first? Normally it will go to the area of greatest contrast. Great it that is where you want to take the viewer. However if it is a secondary element say a window in the background it becomes counter productive and distracting.
This is also a great way to reinforce composition and where the eye travels to as well as the entry points in a work.
For the record, since we read left to right, the eye will generally begin on the left side of a viewed image. At either about a third of the way down or two thirds of a way down. Those are great places to begin your leading lines, trees, roads, streets, rail road tracks, waves etc.
Some of the most powerful arrears to place the subject or prime subject is where the lines intersect if you where to draw lines dividing the image into thirds both vertically and horizontally. Their intersections point are very powerful placement points.
Just a few of the pointers that have always helped in composition. The article reminded me of them and I just wanted to share, hope everyone enjoyed.

Good health and God bless.

Helen Horn Musser
Hi Al, Your experience as a photographer has certainly enhanced your artwork. Thank you for all the interesting points. Your comment about windows in the backround reminded me of the Dutch painter Vemeer. Many of his compositions incorporated windows; they shared the spotlight with his figures and were master paintings. The windows were mostly adjacent to the subject. As you said, they were not in the backround leading the viewer out of the painting. Thank you for sharing


Al Di Campli

Thank you for your kind words and the information on Vemeer. In referring to the window example I perhaps was not specific enough. i was tying that in with the contrast example.
The window theoretically reflecting a strong light source say the sun, very bright, and perhaps a shadow or broken pane, creating a very dark area. In that example one's eye would go to the area of greatest contrast, the window and not go to the subject or main point of the image.
I hope that helps explain it in a bit more details. Forgive me I sometimes type to fast and don't go into enough detail. I did visit your web site and enjoyed your art, keep up the good work, we both seem to like the use of saturated colors. Good health and God bless.


Helen Horn Musser
Al, Thank you for visiting my website. Yes, we do share a love of deep blue compositions. Yours are memorable. I especially liked Rose for blue Lady; I think that was the name.
Good fortune in your work.

Diane Tasselmyer
Keith, I am going to try the "upside down exercise". I read a lot about it, but never have tried it. And now my curiosity is piqued enough to take the time to DO it. This going to be fun.

Great little practice idea of cutting a picture into squares.

Lorraine Khachatourians
These are some great suggestions. I particularly like the little squares one - something to try for sure. I had an experience like that doing a painting of a reflective surface. I was just going along looking at the blocks of colour, then when looking at it afterwards realized it was something from outside the window. Fun! That experience made me realize how important it is to look at the colours and shapes.

Carole Rodrigue
Al, I agree. This is great and helpful information. Thanks!

Tuva Stephens
No subject can be too difficult if you remember to turn the image upside down if using photographs as reference. Not only can one see the flat shapes but the values to create form. Once while taking a workshop by Laurin McCracken the still life was so complex we actually had to look and paint about an inch at a time when painting a cut glass pitcher. The reflections in a sterling silver tea pitcher were amazing and easier to see when viewed upside-down. The disconnect you write about is when one uses the right brain (visual side) instead of the all knowing left brain (verbal side). This disconnect is what sets artist apart from others who say they wish they could do art. This approach can open the door for art students and they then connect. It is the "AH HA response".

Diane Donicht Vestin
In response to Keith's column about disconnecting your art into pieces or turning your art upside down for an interesting exercise, I think I'll give it a try. First, I'll try the upside down one and then the other. Think about me you artists out there that I can get this excercise done without quitting or even starting. I'm a representational artist, so I paint what I see. This going to be a difficult excercise. If all goes well, I'll send a photo of it on my FAV website. Keep on writing Keith. You're a very important asset to FAV!

Donald Smith

This is the first time I've read what a good exercise it is to paint with the photo upside down.

I like the idea of cutting up a photo and painting the different parts too.

I'm going to try both of them just for fun.



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