One idea that can save you years of frustration...

One idea, little mentioned in art education today, that can save you years of frustration, and allow you to progress towards your artistic aims with greater speed and enjoyment.

By Scott Breton

Have you drawn a face and wondered why it looks out of kilter somehow?  Have you drawn a figure and wondered why it looked dead and static in comparison to your subject?  Have you laid the brightest cadmium colours you own into a landscape, and wondered why it does not glow with luminosity?  And have you wondered why the same landscape, filled with bright colours and high contrasts fails to have the variety, interest, and exciting freshness of a far more neutral painting by one of the old masters?  The reason is not that you lack artistic talent - but rather that you have unknowingly contradicted one or more of the many principles of the way visual reality is experienced by the human eye.

The one idea that I am talking about in the title of this essay, is that there are tangible solutions to these questions.  There are facts that apply to the representation of objects and the creation of composition - relationships of line, tone and colour that simply cannot be contradicted without weakening or at least altering the sense of form or luminosity, or compositional drama.

Vernon Blake, in his book “The Art and Craft of Drawing” quotes his instructor, the artist Eugene Carriere:

“I do not wish you to paint as I do.  I am here to point out certain facts in the construction of the figure which must be rendered in your work; facts which I have always found rendered in valid work of all periods.  How you render them is your own affair.” (1)

First I want to convince you that there actually are facts that can be articulated about the way our eyes makes sense of the visual world.  Then I will examine the categories into which these facts can be organised, and how they, and their fascinatingly complex hierarchy of importance can be approached logically, so that the student can avoid being overwhelmed.  I aim to show how the student can enjoy this life-long process of discovery, with one part leading to the next, through which deeper and ever deeper appreciation of the visual world can be built.  I will also touch on the way that a master, who is thoroughly well versed in the truth of these facts can exaggerate, bend or break the rules to achieve his or her expressive aims, because of this understanding.  Whether your motivation for drawing or painting is the sheer enjoyment of the intellectual challenge and plastic manipulation, or your aim is more poetic, the humility to seek to understand visual reality is at the heart of your likely success.

But, you might argue, isn’t all art subjective?  Isn’t it the case that what is true for you might not be true for me?  Well, certainly, if you are speaking of how much an individual likes or dislikes a given artwork.  And it is true that the ideas and associations and that a person brings to an artwork might modify the emotion and emphasis of the experience greatly.  But there remain many elements that will be interpreted by the eye of all viewers in remarkably consistent ways.  For example, research by Paul Ekman has made a compelling case for the idea that the primary facial expressions of human beings are the result of consistent sets of facial muscle contraction, and that the reading of emotion from facial expressions is very consistent among all human beings on Earth, regardless of ethnic or cultural background (2).  That there are concrete differences between a smile and a look of fear is factual, and these differences might be critical to the expressive success of your picture.

Or take the simple perception of objects in space.  Say two different people take turns to look at a pot and an apple from precisely the same viewpoint.  If one object appears to overlap the other,  both people will instantly know and agree which is in front and which is behind.  If we wish to paint the objects as they appear in space, we will have to include this visual information (the overlap of one object over the other) that tells this story.  If we choose to ignore this information, and paint the objects as though both are seen from multiple angles at once, then we will begin to flatten the depth out of the image.  If we wish to portray the object in the manner of the cubists, well and good.  But if we unwittingly end up with a Picasso-esque picture when we wanted to create depth and light, won’t this lead to frustration?  Isn’t it better to be able to choose?

And further, even if one is able to master the techniques that allow one to be fairly accurate in depictions of real objects, accuracy alone is not enough achieve real mastery and authenticity.  Leonardo da Vinci wrote:

“Those who are in love with practice without science are like the sailor who boards the ship without rudder and compass, who is never certain where he is going.  Practise must always be built on sound theory [...]  The painter who copies by practise and judgement of eye, without rules, is like a mirror which imitates within itself all the things placed before it without any understanding of them.” (3)

Facts about visual perception, such as those listed above, form the substance of the languages of drawing, painting, and sculpture.  Like all languages, one increases fluency in proportion to the time spent studying and speaking the language, experimenting and discovering how to express one’s ideas.  Intuition is developed as the words, phrases and grammatical structure are used so much that eventually far less conscious thought is required.  And like verbal languages, visual art is ultimately expressed not just in what is said (ie the objects, the light source, the story that is told) but also how it is said, where the emphasis lies (the arrangement into a composition, the types of marks that are used, the size of the canvas)

If we accept that there is a language to learn that is interesting and satisfying in its own right and that has the power to express highly personal sentiments, how do we begin to learn it?  If we look to traditional or classical art education in the West, we see a system of tuition, developed over centuries, that focused on representing real objects, figures and landscapes, and the light falling on them, both as an end in themselves and as a means of developing the fluency and visual awareness that is necessary to be visually poetic in interpretation.  (The Eastern artistic tradition is very different but similarly is based on the representation of real objects.)

Traditional art study lost favour in the art establishment during the 20th century, as modernist ideas raised questions about whether the ability to represent objects (and the training to do so) is really necessary or even desirable.  But today, many young (and not so young artists) are turning to academic training in representation, both as an end in itself and as training in visual sensitivity, as it were.  There is the realisation that taking the time to learn the complex language of visual representation can give pleasure and can empower one expressively in the same way that taking the time to learn piano or ballet can.  There is growing voice of dissent saying that this form of visual art is as valid and relevant today as ever.

How then, does this type of art training progress?   Generally, it will start with learning to draw, which is to say learning to see the shape of objects accurately, and learning to see and represent objects as volumes in space.  At some point, the student will begin to use tone (or areas of different value, or “shading” in lay terms) to create the sense of the object being represented having a dark and light side, that will vary as the surface turns towards the light.  Once these ideas are firmly in place, the student will be introduced to colour, which raises the complexity of the mixture of elements again.  Essentially the visual world is separated into categories of line and shape, tone and colour, as a means to dealing with each individually, so that all can ultimately be combined together at the stage when the student has the fluency to deal with all of them in one picture.  We might say that line organises tone, and tone organises colour, and that an element lower in the hierarchy cannot repair the failings of the higher element.  For example, beautiful tone and colour cannot be expected make up for poor drawing.

These are generalisations, of course, but they provide a model for thinking about this very complex subject, and a way to divide the subject up for study.  Within each category we can focus on further subsets, for example, within the study of linear drawing, we can include the construction of simple geometric forms, and the study of perspective.  And this model of categories can apply not just to the perception of forms.  The complexities Composition and abstract design, and the expressive properties of each can be considered in these terms.

How does one go about studying this vast subject?  Well, there are many great books that cover this territory, some very old and some more recent.   At, under the “Resources” drop down menu, you will find a list on the page titled “Books We Recommend” including books on topics such as general drawing, figure drawing and anatomy, colour and composition.  Some of them are old enough to be out of copyright and are available as downloads from our website, or from other websites.  You can find these downloads and links in the page titled “Downloadable Books” under the same drop down menu.  Today, there are also many forums, blogs and other resources available on the internet.  You can find links to some of them on the page titled “Art Theory”, also under the “Resources” drop down menu.  

But learning to draw, paint or sculpt is not a purely intellectual process, and the student must go through the cycle of practical application, followed by reflection and study repeatedly, in an ongoing process of practical discovery.  So go to a life drawing session, draw your family and friends, paint or draw an interior or landscape, not primarily as an “artist” but in a spirit of investigation.  This will take the pressure off, and allow you to enjoy learning about the visual world.

It can also be extremely helpful, particularly at the beginning or when you hit a wall and stop progressing, to find an art school to guide your learning.  You can save a lot of time and frustration if you have someone competent to point your efforts in the right direction and bring to your attention problems that you may not otherwise have been aware of until much later.  An art school environment also gives you the opportunity to talk to other people who are wrestling with similar problems.  Seeing the efforts of someone else, that you observe with a fresher, more objective eye than your own work, can be highly instructive.  

Make sure you find an art school that teaches some form of academic drawing - this is a sign that the school is concerned with teaching the principles of visual reality discussed above.  There are many such schools around the world, often independent, and the number is growing with the resurgence in interest in classical or traditional art training.  Once you go to one of these schools, you will discover a diverse world wide community ranging from animators and computer-game designers to classical fine artists who are concerned with learning this language, each with their own individual ends in mind.  

At Atelier Art Classes, we believe in the importance of this movement, and it is our aim to use all the resources and innovation that we can to help students build their knowledge and fluency, for whatever personal end they might have.  Our weekly term classes focus on this content, and we also have holiday workshops that bring in tutors from other parts of Australia who we would not normally have access to.  They bring their own insights and emphasis within the same framework.  You can find out more on the page titled “Workshops” under the “Classes” drop down menu at

However you decide to proceed with your learning, the main point of this essay is this: don’t be overwhelmed and frustrated if you are dissatisfied with your work.  It is not a personal failure but a failure of knowledge, so aim to approach the subject with a sense of humility and curiosity, and your artistic development will be that much more enjoyable and effective.


(1) Blake, Vernon, The Art and Craft of Drawing. Oxford University Press, 1927 p8
(2) Ekman, Paul,  Emotions Revealed. Henry Holt and Company, 2003, Ch. 1
(3) ed. Kemp, Martin, Leonardo on Painting, Yale University Press, 1989, p 52


Nick Leavey