When you need an easy day

I have found few things that help my art more than a steady studio practice.  The momentum created by showing up, consistently, according to a schedule I establish, really helps me. Some days, though, I just don’t have the juice for full-on creating. I need an easy day in the studio.  Here are some good choices when you need one too.



Prepare substrates.  I have begun the practice of always preparing my substrate, be it watercolor paper or panel or canvas, with a layer of book pages. Even if this layer gets completely covered up, it is a nice place to start from when you make a collage. I like bare pages or very little text and some arrangement, nothing fussy, that appeals to me. The pieces shown above are 12×9″ on lightweight watercolor paper. I will mount them on thicker paper with a 3″ border after they are done.



Make collage materials. In my world of using books, this means painting book pages. There are some colors I just love and don’t find enough of in my scouring for covers, so painting pages is something I do with increasing frequency. I also like to make patterns like dots and stripes, which I usually do with black ink. I have started to use materials from printmaking as well. I print in a single color (usually black) and then tint the paper with transparent washes.



Organize your materials. This is a good thing to do when you could use a jolt of inspiration. I am always inspired by some of the cool stuff I have found and seeing it again gets me motivated to create.  After awhile of doing this collage thing, you forget all the stuff you really have, so its good to visit your stashes periodically. I organize either by color or by type of material, like: diagrams, maps, illustrations,etc.



Clean your studio. When I am in the thick of a new set of work, I have stuff on every available surface, and a lot of it on the floor.  Sometimes I can work in this environment for days, but then the day comes that I need a clean slate. Sweep the floor, clean the tables, put fresh white paper down, get all the tools in their proper place and materials in their bins. And then, just put stuff AWAY. The sense of order just feels so rejuvenating for that 5 minutes that you are able to maintain it. 🙂



Just photographs. This can be a surprisingly fruitful exercise. Get out all your favorite things and start building compositions on a clean white sheet of paper. Work at whatever size you feel comfortable. Just laying stuff down but not gluing.

Every time you get to something you *think* you like, take a photograph (I use my iPad).  There is no risk here and its all just spontaneous experimentation.  Sometimes you get in that mood where nothing you make looks good to you. You cannot quit second guessing, you cannot feel confident in what to do next.  This is a great time to make lots of photos. You will come back to them later and be amazed at how good your ideas were. This is the equivalent of the  20 second poses in drawing class, you work fast and loose and move on.


These are just a few of the things you can do to keep yourself consistent in your art practice even when your energy is challenged.  What else do you do? Please share your suggestions in the comments below.

Happy creating,






Composition Ideas to Make Your Art Stronger: Visual Weight

In the last post I mentioned that when we explore Unity vs. Variety, it kind of leads us to looking at something called Visual Hierarchy. As I thought about it, maybe we should talk first about visual weight. The elements of your composition can be said to have different visual weights, that is, the heavier an element, the more the eye is drawn there, the lighter the element the more it is in the background.

Qualities that make elements heavy can be: High contrast, sharp edges, big, vibrant color, darker color, unusual/intricate shape, pattern.

Qualities that make element light are like: low contrast, soft edges, smaller, less distinctive shapes, muted colors, lighter colors, flat color.

One of the most fun parts of composition is balancing visual weight and activating the entire space of the picture. Lets look at one of my pieces since I actually know how it came together.

I began with a black and white design with a weird shape, some bold type, and some skewed black lines in the middle. There is some unity because of the color scheme.   The two pieces of text sort of connect from similarity in size and shape, color. The lower left corner is very heavy, with all the black, and the high contrast type. The lower right is less heavy. The middle bars of black, overlapping, is my favorite part. I like the balance of shapes and slants. The two upper corners feel bare without any reason. Sometimes negative space is balancing positive space and it completely works. But not here.


I did not take a bunch of shots in between, unfortunately, so please try to visualize this progression.

The first thing I wanted to do was get something in the upper half of the frame. Stripes make me happy so I pasted a patch of wobbly, hand painted black stripes. That got the piece moving. Then I decided the text was just too problematic so I covered the RD with a piece of sanded book cover. The KOO was then way too bold, but I liked those shapes, so I obscured it mostly with some cloth.

In the upper right corner I found a piece of black that could wrap around the corner (a nice relief from all the vertical rectangles) and I cut its inside corner to be rounded, and uneven. The curve connects, visually, to the black shape in the lower left creating more unity. The wobbliness of the cut contrasts the perfect straight lines and gives us more variety, thus energy.

So now the black is moving around the whole picture and making connections. But the picture still felt like it could have more life,  so I looked at adding color. The light aqua blue made that corner much more interesting than just the sanded book cover (most of which I covered, sorry I don’t have a picture to show you how dull it was!). There was also some dark red on my table that offset and energized the aqua even more. Paste it down!

My upper left corner was still a little weak so I repeated the red shape, in a different material. And now I was mostly done. I had a nice balance of darks and lights distributed over the picture, but not too evenly. A balance of materials, the odd shape here and there. But I kept noticing that hint of yellow in the sanded book cover and wanted just a bit more of it. The gold and black stripe arrived as a fun afterthought.


Notice that keyword “fun”.  Keeping this work fun is a great goal.  And as we are looking at design principles I want to caution everyone, myself especially, to not get overly uptight about them. They are guidelines and I think really helpful, but if they are all you have, your work feels empty and stuck. Use materials that are fun for you, colors you like, shapes and textures that give you a little buzz. The playful energy that you communicate in your work is really valuable to your audience. As adults, I at least, really want to return to the sense of abandon and naturalness we had as kids. A little adult design principles and a lot of childish playfulness is a good balance to aim for.

Please leave a comment below if you have any questions or thoughts about Visual Weight in your own work. Its great to hear from you.

Happy Creating,


Composition Ideas To Make Your Art Stronger: Unity vs. Variety

Collage is a great medium for artists who want to explore the wonderful world of abstract composition. Since you can try a lot of visual ideas without committing, it can really free up your imagination and sense of play. And there is so much diversity in the materials that you can use. Really, artists use almost anything, but in book collage it can be titles, text, images, diagrams, blocks of color, shapes, fabric, stitching. Its exciting. But it can also be overwhelming. Found materials, especially old materials, have a lot of built in personality and character. They can tend to fight each other on the page. In art fundamentals they talk about balancing variety and unity. I find it a really useful framework for looking at your work.

So variety, difference, diversity— these create energy in your work. The eye leaps among very different colors, shapes, sizes, materials, and we get this charge. But we also very naturally want to pull it together into some kind of order. We don’t want chaos. We want to see connectedness.

Robert Rauschenberg’s work is an ideal place to study the balancing of these opposing forces. He was a great lover of unusual materials and is a master of wildly diverse compositions.

Photograph, 1959,  Robert Rauschenberg


How does Rauschenberg get to this feeling of wildness and yet unity in the above piece?

First, there is a sense of structure, a grid perhaps, that underlies the image. A recognizable structure, even if only loosely followed, helps to create unity. Rauschenberg often works in thirds, dividing the canvas into three rows or columns. It’s a structure I particularly like.

Second, he has quiet spaces where the eye can rest. Areas of strong diversity/activity are balanced by calm, neutral areas where there is less going on. I would also say its part of unifying to simplify your compositions. That 3rd column could very well have been a ton more collage elements that he wisely decided to just paint over.

Third, he uses similarity. Very different elements can be brought into relationship by making them more similar. The middle column of this painting is packed with differences: photographs, a tie, the letter S, some black stars, a plank of wood— these are all brought together through values of brown. Similarities of hue and value are strong ways to unify. The eye builds an association almost immediately. Also shape. Similarity of shape between the reflection of the city skyline and the light bluish paint drips creates a bridge between these two elements. The drips extending to the bottom of the canvas, brings in the tie (similar hue, proximity) and  the stars (overlap, proximity).

Fourth, notice the use of repetition. If there were only the one black “S”,  it would not bind as well to the painting. But then we notice a second, red “S”, different but similar, which establishes a well connected relative (so to speak). The repetition of blocks of white create a spacial connection between isolated areas of the painting. Your eye can travel white to white to white and encircle the canvas. I really do start to think of these elements as people at a raucous garden party with many subterranean connections— maybe I have been watching too much Downton Abbey. But a lot of the fun of that show is how different and well drawn the characters are.  Variety makes things interesting, and exciting.

I want to note something I just love in this painting: the two white squares in the lower left corner. They are sepia toned photographs of mostly sky. Being perfect squares they have a severity and stability that is a delicious contrast to all the more organic shapes. They reinforce the strong, straight boundary between columns two and three and give the painting a nice sense of strength. So subtle and so FUN!

Next post I want to discuss another aspect of visual unity that this picture has in spades:  a masterful sense of hierarchy. This is one of the most important elements of design, that is, to have different levels of dominance in your composition.  If everything is loud, you just get noise. Adjusting the volume of your elements begins to give your composition an overall shape, and harmony.

Meanwhile, how do you handle Variety and Unity in your own work?  Do you use a structure? Do you prefer more Unity or more Variety, and why? Leave a comment below (and lets see if I actually have that working!).

Here are a few more Rauschenbergs to enjoy until we meet again…

Happy Artmaking,


Retroactive II, 1963, Robert Rauschenberg
First Jump Landing, 1961 Robert Rauschenberg