Monday, February 1, 2010


I just finished up a three-day workshop here locally and we were very fortunate to have some beautiful weather wedged between last weeks deluge and the new storm days away. Many thanks to all of you who attended. As is my norm, I’m usually in a reflective mood immediately following the teaching and since my voice is shot, typing seems to be the best way to convey thoughts as of the moment. So this 12 x 20 plein air alley scene above, “Pearl Stop,” will be my subject on focal hierarchy.

One of my beliefs in setting up the structure of a painting is the creation of a focal interest and its supporting cast. One way to view this is to imagine a pyramid, with my main subject of the painting being at the apex and my simple, quiet areas forming the base or foundation. Without foundational elements, my focus would topple and without a star element, the work would be unfinished. How much or little I develop these areas depends on the scene, but I’ve noticed that if I construct a poor-quality pyramid, my painting is usually unsuccessful.

In “Pearl Stop” I was obviously faced with a busy subject, so my foundational support section had to be made up of smaller elements than usual. But by grouping these together, I was able to create a larger visual shape by painting several items in one consistent value. I combined the far left hedge, closest portion of the street and far right telephone pole into one unit. My base section of the pyramid is now the “U” shaped foreground that’s all in shadow. I minimized detail here to move your eye past this element to my focal apex of the white fence, flowers and umbrella, and thus the completion of my two extremes. As I proceeded with the rest of the painting, all other elements had to fit in between to make the larger to smaller tiers of my pyramid. The next larger section is the red-roofed house and it’s counter-part across the alley. Then the centered tree shape, the distant structures, light bands across the street, smaller details of windows, trash cans, and center puddles, the telephone pole cross-beam areas at upper center and finally the stop sign. The stop sign then became a fun area to play around with. I painted it anchored in the foreground shadow, (my base), but contrasted it in the lighter area of the roof. This created a nice play of a supporting interest, and also forced a sense of depth. Now, I’m sure the actual hierarchy can be debatable person to person and depending on ones interests, but the basic idea should hold up. As your eye moves around the painting it will keep coming back to the more important elements and tend to gloss over the least important or foundational elements. All of this was achieved by working with my hard and soft edges and degrees of contrast.

I think I was able to a create nice composition and stop your eye where necessary, but I do live in California and our stop signs are only a suggestion. Enjoy!