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I didn’t know I knew it til I said it

Teaching the art classes has been a really interesting experience for me. Cos I’m finding out things I didn’t know I knew. Well, I knew I knew them, I’ve just not had to articulate them before. I’ve just done them automatically, without thinking. But its when I’ve seen someone struggle with it in my class that I’ve had to put it into words for them.

Take today for example……..

One of my students was painting a watercolour of a walled garden in some English stately home. He’d spent three weeks working on it, and was doing a good job. I had stood over him to help him with the thinking process when he drew it out, had helped him pick out the colours he needed for the brick walls (yellow ochre and burnt sienna with a touch of cobalt blue), for the black wood of the doorway (violet and paynes grey), the gravel (raw sienna and a touch of cobalt blue with a hint of burnt sienna), and for the foliage (various shades of veridian, sap green, yellow ochre, and french ultramarine) and he was putting the finishing touches to it this afternoon. And it was the tiny details that I found I needed to pick out for him, to make the picture, well, look better. As I explained to him, that although the whole picture is painted in stages working through the sky, the building, the walls, the flowers in the fore-ground, it all had to LOOK like it was a cohesive whole when you looked at it, and if the tiny details weren’t put in right, then the whole painting wouldn’t look right. So, that tiny plant in the gravel needs to look less like a green hedgehog cos its rounded, and more like a plant sitting on the gravel, so it needs to be elongated more, with a flatter base that’s darker. Bearing in mind that that tiny plant was really nothing much to do with the point of the picture, its getting those bits right that means that the viewer doesn’t even notice them, but if they are wrong, they will scream out at anyone looking at the picture, and they won’t like the rest of it. Its got to be in harmony. Its the attention to detail that makes it, and is why I can spend as long again on a painting getting the whole right, as getting the main bits right. The student nodded when I pointed that out to him, and smiled, in agreement. I’m glad he understood, and that I got that point across to him so that he comprehended my attention to that tiny detail. As he did when I pointed out that the path he had painted in his particular picture didn’t actually go anywhere except a blank wall, which would lead to a few bruised noses for anyone using it! That meant removing some paint, but he did that in a couple of minutes, and suddenly the path made sense! It went somewhere.

 Sitting next to him was a student who was working on a figure of a young woman sitting with one leg  bent under the other raised knee. In the picture, both of her hands were in her lap, and she had on a negligee, her hair softly fanning over one shoulder and around her face. Figures are always more difficult to do as the tiniest line makes a huge difference. When you paint a tree it doesn’t matter if the trunk is too wide or the branches too long, it still looks like a tree. But, with a body if one line is too long, it puts the rest of it out, and looks like something Picasso painted on a bad day. As I walked past her desk from the front, I looked down on the drawing she was doing, and could see instantly that the raised leg was the wrong angle, and that the elbow wasn’t sticking out enough of the girls left arm. And explained to the student that the eye’s are so used to seeing faces and bodies that they “read” them in a way that sometimes is mis-leading to how they should be, on paper. You look at a line, and think “That’s how it should be, that’s where I’ll put it” not realising that its slightly wrong, and then wondering why the rest of the picture doesn’t look right, when it MUST be right, mustn’t it……?  I showed her the picture upside down, and she could see straightaway what I meant. Instantly. And that, I told her, was because the image was now just abstract shapes, not a body or a face, so the eye’s wern’t compensating for reading “body” they were just reading lines and shapes. She made the adjustments she needed to make, which just left the face to put in. I say *jsut* but that was the most difficult bit. She started with the eyebrows, and started too high, then did the eyes, too far apart, then the nose too long, then the mouth too low, so that the poor girl looked like a cross-eyed chinless wonder! MMm….I’m sorry to say this, but start again. She put in the eyes, over the eyes that were already there, and I gently suggested she rub the whole lot out, since it was confusing seeing which line was where, and which was needed, and which wasn’t. She rubbed it out, and drew the eyes in again, and I said that the right one was fine, but the left one was too far from it, the reason being that she’d put it by the soft curve of her hair, which was right, but it was actually not far enough in, so that was why the eye was wrong. She rubbed it out again, and did it again, and then I had to point out that although she had put the eyes in horizontally, they were actually slightly, ever so slightly, at a diagonal off the horizontal. She started to draw them again, and was stuggling to get the eyes in line with each other, so I got a pencil and piece of paper and showed her the way to do it……

….think of an invisible line, that can be tilted as the head is tilted – slightly up to the right in this case, and put in the four points where the corners of the eyes are on that line. Two points for each eye, with the gap of an eye between them. Then draw the slight ovoid shape that makes each eye, and voila, they are right. Simple, eh!

And that’s what I do without thinking.

Its only when I see other people struggling with doing it, that I realise they don’t know.

See, its the simple things that make the picture, well, right.


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