Switch to swatch
by Robert Genn

October 6, 2009

Dear Rodney,

Yesterday, Melinda Wilde of Gabriola Island, B.C., wrote: "I'm design 
challenged. I see the shapes and I love the shapes but, for whatever reason, I 
just can't get my work to go WOW with them. I'm quite sure it's a design 
problem as technically I'm not bad. Can you suggest some exercises that might 

Thanks, Melinda. In childhood, our first art is often in the form of line 
drawing. In many cultures, children begin by delineating to describe their new 
world. Colouring books and other childhood media lead to the early triumph of 
lines over shapes. Colouring goes "between the lines" and even silhouettes 
become edges to be traced or cut out. Would-be painters need to unlearn these 

Before you start painting, whether from life, reference material, or from your 
imagination, canvas your subject matter for evidence of shapes. As an 
exercise, don't tackle motifs that lack them. Simply find ones that have them.

Find them by half-closing your eyes and reducing material to pattern. Colour 
and line are not important at this stage. Look for potential shapes that are 
not standard squares, circles or triangles. Look for irregular shapes, 
preferably ones that interlock or interact in some way with one another. Look 
for big shapes as well as small ones--shapes need not be of equal size nor 
equidistant from one another. While you're looking for these shapes, look also 
to the potential of other shapes to fit around them. In other words, plan 
ahead for the advent of negative shapes.

Also, let your strokes be wide rather than narrow. Put down blocks of tone 
value--patches--rather than lines. Use your larger tools to block in your 

Further, let a shape committed in one area be echoed, reversed or mimicked in 
another area. In other words, go here and there as though you don't know what 
you're doing. Go back and forth from one side to the other, and up and down as 

These early procedures go a long way toward establishing a strong composition. 
The ultimate test, even though the viewer may not recognize the subject 
matter, is that the work-in-progress also functions both upside down and 

Best regards,


PS: "Subject matter is not nearly as important as the arrangement of the 
elements into a pattern. Thus, the abstraction that contains no recognizable 
object may be a satisfying work of art." (Ted Kautsky)

Esoterica: Artists who work with fabrics--fibre artists, stitchers, quilters, 
etc.--have an advantage over brush-painters who might just happen to fall into 
the weak-composition trap. Fabric artists automatically work in patches. When 
we put our minds to it, painters can too. I call it "Switch to swatch." This 
is where the "wow" happens. It's a mental thing. But then again, a lot of 
painting is.