One of the ways I design koi images now is by combining little sketches in different, somewhat random arrangements to discover which overall pattern of fishes provides the most appealing composition. In these small drawings the goal is to get a large pattern established. Particulars of color, surface, anatomy or generalization, paint texture, etc. will all be sorted out later.

The finished painting might turn out to be quite large. So I spend time giving the drawing ideas a good stare to imagine how the imagery would look if expanded into a much larger format.

The fish placement isn’t really much different from putting fruits on a table to draw still life or to decide the relative positioning of anything that will create two dimensional movement across the picture plane.

Koi Swimming, 40 x 40 in. oil on canvas

contemplating planes

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The objects on the table would appear — I think — at slightly varying angles.  In Bonnard’s painting La salle à manger sur le jardin which this painting emulates, one comes upon the table as though standing in the room so that objects on the table are slightly below you.  In my painting, by contrast, the compotier and certain various other objects are not really sitting on the same plane.  And I guess I shouldn’t write that in my blog post because perhaps some observers wouldn’t notice unless one draws attention to it.

I am not being literal, though, about the objects.  The compotier has to be seen slightly from above or it looks wrong.  In contrast I think seeing the bottom level of objects in profile just somehow feels right.  So I’m going with my artistic intuition rather than attempting to assemble these things in true space.

When you walk into a room you look around, and you move through the space yourself.  This painting is large enough that it benefits from having a mobile quality.  So the objects sit in ways that perhaps relate to their being noticed at different points in time.

Below, my painting in progress on the left and its mentor by Pierre Bonnard on the right.


enigma of the picture

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Okay, maybe I can understand a little bit how extra dimensions can be hidden by folds in the universe. Matisse taught me the principle, but I must say I kind of stumbled into the practical understanding of it.

I was just drawing the still life table.  And as you can see the paper bowl is there — that’s the one I made of paper mache.  I composed it using scraps of paper that had little drawings on them from the period when my daughter was always scribbing.  Behind it is the black cloth decorated with exotic flowers.  (I think of them as “night flowers.”) In front, but next (if we’re moving from left to right) is the dark blue bottle of facets.  God, I love that bottle.  Found it in a thrift store, of course.

Next is the crow figurine.  Well, that’s appropriate — night flowers, night bird, dark bottle.  Then — everything changes here — you see, I had two still lifes set up side by side on the same table.  The other still life is visible next.  It’s much lighter (obviously).  So there’s this field of sky blue created by a drape and upon that sits the big white ginger jar.  Vase?  Ginger jar?  (Do you put ginger in the ginger jar because this one’s kind of big ….)  Whatever.

So I was drawing.  Evidently I was drawing from left to right.  Then I ran out of still life.  I couldn’t see what was next because my own drawing board was in the way.

So, like Matisse taught me, I just drew the drawing board — and thus redrew the left-hand side of the picture — only bigger (because it was closer).

Now I don’t know — strictly speaking — if the stuff inside the folds ought to be represented as it is in physics.  But my representation of the still life table dragged me into the picture (so to speak) because I had to draw my drawing board  — the way that Matisse drew his own foot when it happened to be inside the field of vision he was portraying — but you know that picture, don’t you?  You knew that was what I was talking about.

Arrangement & Experiment



I like to experiment with things.  Put the objects on the table, perhaps move them around a little, but not to think about them overly much.  Follow the instincts.  Set the stuff down and begin. Sometimes I paint the scene fast.  The painting above was done rapidly.  It’s a very small painting. It’s the size of a postcard.  I wanted to see how much I could convey without much fuss. The arrangement was crowded.  I think the general sense of it has come through.

Looking at it now, I see how much I borrowed from Matisse without realizing.  That’s the kind of influence that’s especially beneficial, when the earlier artist’s thought just seeps silently into your brain.  One learns by much looking. We learn about painting from seeing other pictures.  And there are so many ways of arranging things, maybe an infinite number.


This image is owned by The Baltimore Museum of Art; permission t
Matisse still life



For some time I have been portraying the objects on my table somewhat randomly as your eye might catch them when you walk into the room and scan the surroundings in an absent-minded way. They are composed and not composed at once.  The picture is a composition. It has structure.  But the things do not.  They are random.  The structure that the picture possesses is sleigh of hand.  The objects simply are.

sea shell in setup

Why shouldn’t objects be portrayed haphazardly?  Isn’t that how we encounter them?  And all the spaces between the things, the strange wonderful interstices, I like to discover those spaces.  I feel like I should make them as truthful as possible. I want to get the contours right whenever I can because that’s so much a part of the thing’s identity. The things have identities.  Shades of Plato!

Just the top of the teapot peeks over the edge of this picture. That’s where the paper ends.  It reminds you that the picture is artificial. The actual world seems not to have edges.  But the picture does.  So that’s where the objects stop.  And the accidental contours of their abrupt conclusions can be fascinating.




the periphery of interest

Contrary to the center of interest is the periphery of interest.

detail potatoes

I was reading a list of forms of cognitive bias and ANCHORING caught my attention. I found it defined as “the common human tendency to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered.” It hinders decision making — and hence invention — by getting a person stuck at square one.

In art, it’s certainly true, that the artist who is too focused on the “center of interest” (or as I like to call it the “nexus of focal attention” or the “convergence of visual acuity” or the “intersection of visual collision” or sometimes as simply “the point of no return”) —  as I was saying: such an artist might fail to see the forest because of the humongous big tree blocking his view when his whole face is covered with its leaves.


I realize I’m babbling — maybe ranting — but I did say that I was turning my blog into a sort of diary.  And in a “It’s My Party and I’ll Cry If I Want to” sort of way, I permit myself an occasional rant from time to time.

I don’t like the concept of “a center of interest.”  Does it show? I file it under cognitive bias. I’m glad to see it has a name, anchoring.

The cure is to get the attention moving around again. I like natural attention, myself, that’s my personal preference. Letting your mind move around, willy nilly, as its wont. But if one’s brain has gotten sucked into the vortex, whether that vortex is at the center or somewhere else in the picture, the cure for the bias is to fasten the attention somewhere else. You’ve got to move it around — diffuse it somewhat,  forcibly, if need be.


In my notes, I envisioned a grid — a desperate grid for the really hard cases — and inside each square of the grid you examine that portion of the picture to see what beauties it holds. And no I don’t stop there.


Then you shift the grid a little and you have new passages, and you gaze into those also. And thus the whole image is like a matrix with many doors. Such a picture (obviously this represents an ideal) is like a shimmering tapestry of decisions and observations.

In ordinary time, the simple habit of following your thoughts in the order in which they occur is good enough at last — as a remedy against art books that posit all kinds of rules, the most insidious of which is the center of interest.


I give it other names to diminish its charm. If we call the nexus of focal obsession by its other names — such as, the vortex of visual obsequiousness, then we avoid its becoming stronger by means of the “availability cascade,” the tendency of oft-repeated messages to be accepted as true simply because they are oft repeated.

So, pst!   Ipsnay the enter-cay of interest-yay.




more notes to self/early stages

The color contrast in the photograph


of this watercolor in its initial stage brings a violet into the picture that isn’t actually there. I wonder if I shouldn’t put violet into the wall of actual painting. Wouldn’t violet be better, and probably truer, to the light effects at dusk? Since the room’s interior is lit with warm yellow light, it’s hard to say what would be going on around the edges of the window, whether those passages would be yellow or violet, warm or cool.

There have been a bunch of things that I’m aware I need to solve. The falling off of the table was a question from the outset, when the still life was actually assembled. I was seeing the motif from two different angles. Now I’m trying to figure out how to split the difference.  The pattern of the cloth logically follows that decision. And how is it to look down at the cloth as it falls away when the painting is hanging on the wall?

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I was also just now wondering if the painting could reflect, could be about, a state of innocence. That possibility immediately brought to mind Fra Angelico’s San Marco frescoes. But I was also just thinking about the parlor of elderly woman whose home I visited thirty years ago, the woman who lived across the street from the church. The loveliness of that room was a microcosm of a whole civilization.

It’s such a beautiful day outside. The cool weather comes inside through the open windows, giving the rooms an oceanic feeling. We could be on a great ship sailing toward some magical place. The slow pace of life, awareness of the weather outdoors, shifts of light, movement in the leaves, interior and exterior meeting at the window are all qualities I want to materialize in this still life.

The flowers on the table. The flowers patterned on the cloth. The space that extends outdoors with the tree that’s visible on the other side of the glass, and also the reflections on the glass that are like a crystalline barrier. The panes of glass at the hour were reflecting the images of things inside the room. There were so many intersections of images meeting at the window panes.

An earlier version:

flowers window

My Italy of Thought

Years ago I began a large painting, one of my first large pictures.  Painted it in the living room of my parents’ North Carolina home using a ladder as an easel.  The motif was based on a parcel of land down the street from their home.  I tried to transform it into Renaissance Italy, the sort of place one of Giorgione’s gals would hang out.

These are samples of the several compositional drawings.  (There was a bunch.  I’m not sure what happened to them all.)  Looking through old notebooks, I found this one made in pencil (above) and this other in conte crayon (below).  The crayon adds to the Italian feeling, don’t you think?

On simplicity

The first stage of the painting is like Matisse.  Surely (it seems obvious) Matisse must simply have discovered that the ebauche has so much punch on its own, when the first large forms of an image are rendered solid from the dreamy vapors of imagination.  Edges are crisp, shapes as simple as elementary school cut-outs, the colors like color names.  One’s green is green, and a sky is blue.

So often people wonder at how they should talk about art as though it comes prepared with prescribed rules.  Something in our notion of “culture” makes  one reluctant to shout one’s delight in that bold way children do.  “Kids are born curious.  They’re always exploring.  We spend the first year of their lives teaching them to walk and talk, and the rest of their lives telling them to shut up and sit down,” said scientist Neil de Grasse Tyson.

A lot of people become fairly mute in front of a painting for fear of misinterpreting it somehow.  Now, I’ll admit, it’s not really such a bad thing to let an image function purely as a feast for the eyes.  But everyone wants to express themselves sooner or later in words, and it’s okay to let your own thoughts take to the air without worrying whether or not one has found the authoritative key.

Well, I decided to continue beyond the ebauche and wander into that territory of making the painting more specific.  I pad into the landscape with footsteps that are still mushy and soft.  Still not much specificity as yet at this stage.  But the colors divide themselves into more variegated sections.  From one simple form several interior passages unfold.  My manner of painting resembles to me a garden that blooms first spindly and tentative and later leafs out and grows dense.

And thoughts grow dense.  The landscape of the painting what mental forms is it meant to describe?  What refuge is available in the wilderness of paint, in the solitary travel through one’s own quiet picture garden?

The purpose of the painting?  Shh — that would be culture talking.  Just be delight.  Even to talk pure nonsense.  Just look and delight.

Adding Fish to the Pond

drawing in a new location

Did a little reorganizing today so that I could move the big koi drawing to a different wall.  It gets the drawing away from direct light and sets it beside the next big drawing in the series.  I added some new fish at the bottom.  So everybody’s in the pond now, I think. 

Once everything that’s going to be in a picture is in it, work takes a new direction.  Then it’s nuance time. 

I like nuance time.

Tree Cartoon, the School of Fish

Every once in a while here, I post a collage or a “cartoon.”  This cartoon (large compositional study for a painting) belongs to the Big Tree idea that I posted in mid-June.

Other collages I’ve posted include this abstract image, this idea for a child’s mural, and this study of a detail of a painting.  It’s fun to organize them so that they can be compared.  I’ve never seen them together except here on line.

For almost every subject I undertake, I do studies.  Some of these studies take the form of collage. Collage is such a free and expressive media.  You can organize large areas of a picture in one swoop.

I like to explore the possibilities and details of the images I design.  Often these studies vary enough from the original to suggest new projects.  This particular collage was supposed to help me figure out the tree idea, but became more about the fish.  It takes on a new interest for me now as I embark on a new round of paintings of fish swimming.  Meanwhile the fish in this collage have found themselves quite a nice little pond where they bob up and down like corks.

[Top of the post: Cartoon for the painting “Big Tree,” by Aletha Kuschan, Xeroxed pictures glued to paper with crayon drawing]