Texture as Composition
Aug 20th, 2013 by alicia

The great aspect of acrylics is their versatility. Because acrylics are essentially composed of acrylic polymers (think “plastic”), you can add different media to your acrylic paint to create textures not typically found in, say, watercolor or oil.

With texture, there are two options: implied vs. real. Implied texture involves stamping, scraping, “scrubbing”, etc. Here’s an example from one of my Greek heroines:

Sappho in the Moment by Alicia Harvey

Sappho in the Moment
Acrylic, 8″x8″x1.5″








With this study, I applied gold gesso over my canvas prior to painting. So when I was working Sappho’s hair, I took my palette knife and scraped off some of the wet blue paint to reveal the gold gesso underneath, thus creating the texture of her hair. That’s implied texture. This technique does not alter the surface of your canvas.

You can use anything to create implied texture. For example, you can use household items to create a stamp, like an old wine cork or a paper towel tube (used to stamp “open circles” or roll lengthwise for a wider swath of color) or press mesh fabric from those cherry tomato sacks into wet color and lift. If you don’t have a palette knife to scrape with, use an expired credit card. Basically, with implied texture, the sky’s the limit for what you can use as your tools.

Now, let’s talk about real texture. Real texture is texture that actually alters the surface of your canvas. For acrylics, to create this kind of texture can involve “gluing” decorative paper with a soft gel medium or even applying the soft gel medium and stamping or drawing into the still wet gel. The gel will retain your stamping\drawing after it’s dry. (Check out the Golden Paint site for all the different gels, including soft gel.)

Let me focus on a portion of an old painting of mine. The painting is called “Ode to Georgia O.” and is a 5-canvas installation of an iris. (You can click the title link to see the full piece.) For now, I want you to focus on the top-right portion. Here it is:

Ode to Georgia O. - detail







In this example, you can see the raised texture of the Golden tar gel. This gel is clear when dry, so I mixed the wet gel with some acrylic paint and put into into a squeeze bottle before applying the “veins” of the iris. The tar gel retained its shape as it dried and the paint color added even more depth.

Either of these texture techniques can help you define the composition of your painting. I want to show you my latest piece in which the texture told me what I was to paint. This piece is called “9/11: When the Bough Broke”:

9/11: When the Bough Broke










This painting has been percolating in me, well, since that day. My son was 6 months old at the time, and, as I watched on TV (along with the rest of the world) and saw the towers fall, I held him and cried – thinking, “What world have I just brought my son into?” Personally, I think all Americans knew then (as they know now) that our future changed at that moment.

When I began texturing the canvas of what would become this painting, I began by layering one of my favorite decorative papers from Daniel Smith – a Handmade Mexican paper called Amate. What’s great about this paper is not only the texture of it (you have to feel it to understand what I’m saying) but also its ability to tear and separate some of its “slats”. Because this paper is heavy, I used a lot of soft gel medium to glue it to the canvas. When the paper dried, I realized that I had just (subconsciously) composed the Twin Towers falling. This is what I mean when the texture “informs” you and tells you what to paint.

So what shall we do for your assignment this month? I’d like you to go freeform this time.

  • Choose one of the two texture techniques, either implied or real.

If you choose implied:

  1. Lay down a solid layer of color on your paper or canvas. You can use one color or multiple colors. BUT do not think about any particular subject. Just lay down the color fast.
  2. Before the color(s) dry, scratch some lines into it or stamp different shapes, whatever you feel at the moment.
  3. And then – walk away to let it dry. DO NOT look at it for a few days.
  4. Come back to your dried texture and look hard at it. Move the piece clockwise and, at each turn, see which side looks intriguing. Do you see a composition there? (You may need to do some squinting!)
  5. Once you’ve decide the direction of your canvas and what the texture is telling you to paint, go with it. See what happens!

If you choose real:

  1. You’ll need to buy soft gel medium from any local artist supply store. If you are so inclined, and the store has decorative paper, choose one.
  2. Now remember with soft gel, you can glue and/or stamp. Go with the moment and play!
  3. And then – walk away to let it dry. DO NOT look at it for a few days.
  4. Come back to your dried texture and look hard at it. Move the piece clockwise and, at each turn, see which side looks intriguing. Do you see a composition there? (You may need to do some squinting!)
  5. Once you’ve decide the direction of your canvas and what the texture is telling you to paint, go with it. See what happens!

As you can see, with both techniques, Steps 3-5 are the same. The only difference is the implied vs. real texture.


So why not explore the Dark Side?
Jul 25th, 2013 by alicia

“Luke, I am your father.” Whoosh-wheeze, whoosh-wheeze…

OK, so it took George Lucas to show the positive and negative sides of the Force to the world. But artists have known about these two sides for a lot longer. So what does positive and negative have to do with our current topic of composition?

Many beginning artists begin by painting the subject in front of them. Well, you gotta start somewhere, right? But what many don’t realize is the beauty and meaning behind what’s in front of the viewer’s face.

One case in point, take a look at that photo I assigned to you in May:

Composition Practice









Part of your May assignment was to cut and manipulate the items in the photo to play with layout, as well as to decide on your vertical or horizontal positioning of those items. I chose a vertical positioning of my canvas and literally marked out what I wasn’t including in my image (notice that I radically cropped the photo before continuing to mark out my deletions):











The X-ed items will be removed from my study, while the spider plant under the metal planter will move to inside the metal planter. Remember, when working with photos, just because the photo has an item in one place does not mean that you have to put it there in your painting.

So let’s look at this photo in terms of positive and negative. All the flowers and plants are the positive space – these are the items that the viewer automatically “sees” when looking at this photograph. The negative space is what is around all those positive features. For me, I focused first on the wall and whatever my colored background may be above and around the plants and flowers. So I painted that negative space first using basically purple and blue tones.

After letting the negative space dry, I then came back in with color to work the shapes of the flowers, container, and turtle for my completed study:











Here’s another example of making negative space work for you. For ARTSplash, I decided to create a series of Greek heroine studies. One of these studies is of Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, who is kidnapped by Hades and taken to the underworld. Here is the first layer of this study, called “Persephone Looking”:











I began the painting by loosely outlining her face and neck with a light blue glaze to simply position her within the frame of the canvas. I then worked the negative space, which is the area beyond and around her hair. (At this point, I have not colored her hair at all.) Since, in her story, Persephone is torn between the light of the above world and the dark of the underworld, I kept the top area colors light and the area around and below her chin dark. Lastly, I did some loose, cursory color layers for her face, neck, and hair.

At this point, I stand back and take a good l-o-n-g look at what I’ve done. In playing with the negative space, I found that the area depicting the underworld (those dark areas) took on the shapes of catacombs and phantoms. As a result, I decided NOT to touch that area on my final layer of color:

Persephone Looking by Alicia Harvey

Persephone Looking
Acrylic, 10″ x 8″ x 3/4″












If you compare the two versions, you can see that, by concentrating on her face and hair, as well as bringing out a stronger color for the light of the above world, it appears that the lower third of her is “fading” back into Hades – which, of course, she does, every six months of the year. If I had not played with the negative space, this study definitely would have been different. Personally, I’m awfully happy that I explored the dark side on this one!

Okay – assignment time! Let’s go back to that flower photograph above. Let me give you a cropped version to work with:















Next steps:

  1. Do you want to crop this image further? (If so, do it!)
  2. Decide what items to keep and what to remove. (Personally, I find that stick-thing in the foreground REALLY irritating.)
  3. Decide what it is the negative space. (Can you say “walls and gravel”?)
  4. Decide on a color for that negative space and paint it first. (Keep it loose now!) Let that layer dry! If you try coming in with the positive space colors now, you’ll just end up mixing the negative and positive colors and, trust me, you will not be happy.
  5. Come back in and paint the positive space items. (Basically, the flowers.)

Sometimes, the dark side can be a good thing. If we don’t know about the dark, how can we know about the light?

Rules (but Really just Guidelines Anyway…)
May 13th, 2013 by alicia

Last month, we talked about placement of canvas and of the focal image on that canvas. Now, we discuss two important “rules” – one is another means of doing that initial sketch and analyzing what you’ll be painting, while the other addresses the number of objects on the canvas.

The Rule of Thirds is a grid system that can accomplish two means:

  1. It can be used as a grid for transferring your image to the canvas.
  2. It helps you see and understand the focus and flow of your image.

To create the grid, place two vertical and two horizontal lines equally on the canvas to create a 3 squares x 3 squares grid, like this:

Rule of Thirds Grid










Pretty simple. Now let’s place this over our infamous onion line drawing (can’t get enough of that onion!):










If you were using this grid to draw your lines, then you can see how the grid itself helps you to place those initial scratches, one square at a time. This grid system is an age-old tool. In fact, if you’ve ever seen the movie “Artemisia” (in which all the Italians depicted in this German-produced movie actually speak in French), you can see this tool in actual use. A frame, on which evenly placed string creates the grid, is placed in front of the artist’s focal image.

If we review the gridded onion, we can analyze how the lines then “fill up” and express themselves in each individual “square”. The center of the onion is at the center of the grid, but essentially the center spills up and through the top-right, middle-right, and bottom-right squares of the grid, adding a dynamic motion as compared to the relatively “calm” left-side squares. (In fact, if you want to play with abstracts, you can always focus only one of these squares to paint.)

You can also move the grid lines around, like this:










I cropped the original drawing to just the middle-top, center, right-top, and center-right squares of the original sketch. I then applied the Rules of Thirds grid to that cropped image. The center of the onion has now moved to the lower-left square and spills up and through the center and all three right-hand squares – an extremely dynamic image with little to no calming space. See the difference?

Here’s a couple links about the Rule of Thirds:

Now to my favorite rule because I’m an oddball by nature: Rule of Thirds. Short and sweet:

  • Keep the number of objects to an odd number, not an even number.

Why? Humans are naturally symmetrical. We are constantly looking for the two columns in front of the building, the ying to the yang, the peanut butter to the jelly, which means “even number”. Without that “evenness”, the viewer’s eye will continue roving around the painting looking for it. This rule works to keep the viewer looking at your painting for longer than a few minutes.

So for your practice this month, I have another image for you (thank God! Drop the onion already!):

Composition Practice








Now there’s a lot going on in here – that’s the point. So let’s play with the two rules. (If you click on this image, it will take you to my website, where you can access just the image.)

Using this full image and a ruler:

  • Draw your 3×3 square grid.
  • Ask: How do the objects in this image flow from square-to-square?

Select 4 adjacent squares and use that to crop this full image:

  • Looking at this new image, use a ruler and draw a new 3×3 square grid.
  • How has the flow or movement of the objects changed?
  • Is it a better version of the original image?
  • Count the number of objects – is this an odd or even number?
  • If it is an even number, can you “block out” an object to make the number odd? If so, how does the image read now?

Since there’s so much going on with this original image, you can play with this grid as much as you want.

When you get an image that you’re satisfied with, try using the grid to sketch your image. To use the grid:

  1. Draw over your printed image to create the basic lines. You want “just the facts”.
  2. Lightly draw your 3×3 square grid on your paper or canvas.
  3. Use the grid lines to transfer your basic lines of the image to your paper or canvas.
  4. Then go ahead and paint, using the color practice that we’ve done the past few months. If you drew your grid lines lightly and you’re using acrylic paint, you may not need to erase them. (Of course, that depends on whether you are using a transparent or opaque color – remember?)

Next month, I’ll show you want I’ve done with this image.


I’m jumping into Pinterest!
May 1st, 2013 by alicia

Currently, I have three boards – Art I Like, Gotta Laugh, and Inspiration. During the next few weeks, I’ll be creating more boards, along the line of alternative venues for artists, children’s education, and painting\artistic resources.


April practice: Basic composition forms
Apr 12th, 2013 by alicia

For the past few months, we’ve been playing with color – to understand which colors are your “friends” and how many different variations you can make with them. Now we move on to the other “c” word – composition. Let’s start simple.

The best description I’ve found about basic composition came from Mary Todd Beam in Celebrate your Creative Self. These basic simple forms relate to how you position your canvas (either vertical or horizontal) and then how you position your focal image onto that. Are you with me? Before I continue, let me introduce you to some terms that I’ll be using:

  • Horizon line = It is exactly what it says – a line drawn horizontally across your canvas. When we look at a sunrise, the sun is literally at the horizon, so this is where our eye hits. But where we place that horizon line against a vertically- or horizontally-placed canvas affects how the viewer reacts to your subject.
  • Halfway horizontal mark = an imaginary line that equally cuts the canvas in half horizontally
  • Halfway vertical mark = an imaginary line that equally cuts the canvas in half vertically

Basic compositional examples:

Turn your canvas so that the longest side is vertical. This works well with 9″x12″, 11″x14″, etc., canvases. If you place the “horizon line” above the halfway horizontal mark of your canvas, the viewer thinks high and tall. Look at a tree, a lighthouse, Stonehenge, what do you think? You think not only high, but also sturdy, rising, solid. Your eye literally is reaching toward the focal point of the image. In this example, the setting sun focuses our attention and then our eye draws down to the reflection in the water that seemingly leads toward us. Afterward, our eyes reach back across the expanse of water directly toward the sun in the distance.









Keep your canvas so that the longest side is still vertical. But this time, place the “horizon line” below the halfway horizontal mark of your canvas. The focal image is now weighted firmly to the bottom of the canvas. Think of throwing a feather up in the air, what does it do? It floats down (thanks to good ole’ gravity) until it comes to rest against the ground. Rather than soaring upward (like a tree) in the last image, this image brings the viewer down to rest. The sun appears closer to us now with the sky looming high overhead. The sun appears small compared to the vast height of the sky.









Overall, the vertical placement of your canvas implies specific, targeted direction because the focal point has only that vertical straight line of the canvas to move around in. The focal point can really only move up or down; there’s very little side-by-side movement.

Now let’s turn our canvas so that the longest side is horizontal and play with that horizon line.

Put that “horizon line” above the midway point of your horizontal canvas. The focal point is still high but now it has a lot of horizontal “breathing” space on either side. Think about the ocean or the desert. The sun here appears tiny compared to the “vastness” of the ocean.






Lastly, put the “horizon line” below the midway point of your horizontal canvas. The focal point is low but there’s so much more sky above it, to the point that the viewer almost seems to be looking down on it.






You might have heard from other artists not to place any focal point directly in the middle of the canvas. That would be here exactly where the halfway horizontal and halfway vertical points intersect. If you can imagine our sun right there with an equal amount of sky and water, what do you get? Boring! Snooze-a-roni!

The viewer has no “pull” from the focal image to tell him\her how to “read” the painting.







That said, there’s probably something that you-all noticed when I painted the above simple images. While the focal point (sun) moved above or below the halfway horizontal mark of the canvas, I kept the sun situated exactly at the halfway vertical mark of the canvas. Now I wonder what would happen if I start moving the focal point either right or left of that halfway vertical mark in each?

And that’s your art play for this month! You will use these same four horizon line plays that I used:

  • vertical canvas – high focal point
  • vertical canvas – low focal point
  • horizontal canvas – high focal point
  • horizontal canvas – low focal point

BUT, for each one, imagine a halfway vertical mark, and paint two separate practices with the image either to the right or left of that halfway vertical mark. By the end, you should have the following 8 practice studies done:

  1. vertical canvas – high focal point – to the right
  2. vertical canvas – high focal point – to the left
  3. vertical canvas – low focal point – to the right
  4. vertical canvas – low focal point – to the left
  5. horizontal canvas – high focal point – to the right
  6. horizontal canvas – high focal point – to the left
  7. horizontal canvas – low focal point – to the right
  8. horizontal canvas – low focal point – to the left

While you’re at it, don’t forget your color practice. Pick two colors, either truly cool or warm. I used Pthalo Blue and Cadmium Red Medium (blue for the water; red for the sun; and a combo of each for the sky). Also, keep your focal image simple. You can do the implied sunrise that I used or just a simple block on an implied table. If you keep your image simple, then you’ll concentrate less on the image detail and more on the compositional implications.

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