I am an art student

  stack of background cardsI use my art journals in many ways. Sometimes I just want to express a specific feeling or moment. Sometimes I want to play and see what my intuition brings up for me. Sometimes, I want to practice skills and techniques.

Lately, I've been feeling like I need to know more about arting. I've garnered some knowledge about how to collage and paint and how to use a few different mediums and tools. But I have so much more to learn about how paint works and how elements on a page interact. I feel I have many gaps, let's just put it that way.

So, being that my left brain willingly takes the lead any chance it gets, I decided I would put myself through a little self schooling. First, I looked up the building blocks of visual arts (studied a bit about what each is all about) and created my own notecards for reference.


Then, I cut down several sheets of watercolor paper to 6" X 12" pages that I can bind together into an art journal when I'm done. From there, I started the process of creating pages with the intention to consciously pay attention to art elements and design principles as I work.

I started with texture. Too often, I forget that element, so this time I laid out the sheets, smothered on Gesso and then texturized them with my palette knife (sometimes I use molding/modeling paste--but Gesso does a pretty good job of making peaks and valleys):

gessoed cards

Next, I played with color. I experimented with blending shades, transparent and opaques, and complementary colors, noting how the texture behind it worked with the color to create contrasts of light and dark. (Mostly, though, I just had fun):


Next, I began creating pages with the intention, again, of paying attention to how all the elements of art work together and how the principles of design impact the overall effect.  I purposely worked with both abstract and representational themes, and just so you know, I work slowly. All this didn't happen in a day. More like a week, I think. Here are my first five:

five cards

how I applied the principles (while paying attention to the elements)

On the first page below, as I put down collaged bits (shapes, colors) from my painted paper collection I thought about balance, mostly, and movement.  I think the blue circles are balanced with the yellow stencilled circles, and altogether with the vertical and horizontal paper shapes beneath them, form a T shape for the eye. I think the purple splashes tie a sort of ribbon around the whole piece (helping to send the eye down the circles and then back up the purple lines and to the right and off the page.

For me, this piece worked. I like the layering, too, which is often my weakness, but I think it works because of the white space. In fact, space as an element is also part of why this piece works for me. The white space lets each of the other elements have their place.


I'm not fond of this next one. I think in the end it lacks unity. . I played with contrasting complementary colors (blue and orange, red and green), and incorporated different values, both in the dominant orange color and in blacks and greys.

I tried desperately for balance (circles, graphic orange scrap paper top and bottom) but all in all...eh. No unity. No rhythm, for sure--maybe needs more pattern...but I lost interest in going further.


For the page below, I decided to work with a monochromatic theme, which I don't do often. I had a lot of fun. First, I collaged the background in different monochromatic papers. I really paid attention to balancing out the values across the page--and stenciled and did a little pen work on that background to complete it.

Then, for the focal point I played with line (obviously). I just love a swooping black line and I purposely drew it (first with a Faber Castel Pitt pen and then with a black Montana paint marker) so it would swoop from left to right and then off the page. The black dots (outlined in white pen) added just the right amount of pattern, I think, to add interest.

I like this one. I think it successfully uses all seven principles of design: Balance, Contrast, Emphasis, Movement, Pattern, Rhythm and Unity.

techniquecard 3

Okay, so after three abstract pages I needed a break. I fell in love with Nancy Stanchfield's work featured in the latest May/June issue of Cloth, Paper Scissors. So like any good art student, I copied one of her pieces so I could learn the techniques.

I really love the texture of her houses (and the crazy tilts) so I drew three of my own and played with blending the colors over the textured gesso to create walls that look stucco-like. I then painted in the roofs, doors and windows—letting the background dictate the landscape around them.

While I can't take credit for the house images themselves (they are very similar to Nancy's), I do think I achieved a decent composition using three houses and what is essentially three vertical areas on the page (the sky, the houses with their green/blue background, and then the brown line/green swath below (Nancy often uses black and white striped papers in her backgrounds and I was tempted to cover up the green below--but then I decided that I think it works). Overall, what I think makes this page work is balance, again, top to bottom, left to right, and rhythm of the leaning houses. Contrasting colors and the changing values of the house walls help, too! I'd like to do more pieces like this...with my own images. Maybe there's a canvas waiting for me...

techniquecard 4

Finally, for this last one below, I was kind of at a loss for what to do so I just  let my intuition lead the way. It was a blue/green painted page so I collaged on some blue/white tissue paper (circles behind), and then I started painting a circle around a hollow center.

For some reason, I gave myself three colors (blue, green and yellow) and, moving from inside to out section by section (what you now see as petal by petal, but I didn't at the time), I tried to create different colors and shades each time with just those three colors.

Soon I did see the petals—and I saw that the flower fell off the page (and I liked that composition). So I painted into the center and then did some shading to articulate the flower and and add dimension. I'm working on shading these days and I'm getting a little better...the background still needs some work (not enough contrast), but I think the flower is kind of nice...

techniquecard 5

I think the digital photo processing app I use (PicMonkey) agrees with me. As I was processing the photos for this post, PicMonkey turned the temperature way up and the background turned pink...maybe not a bad idea!


What I Learned

Wow. I can't say I would pass any tests, but I have learned with these exercises that it's useful to be conscious of art elements and design principles.

Now, this might seem too left brained and contradictory to some creative types. And on the one hand, I agree. Arting is so much about intuition and not thinking. Tapping into our our nonverbal mind is where true creativity lies—where we find the surprises, the innovations, the joy.

But, if you want to write you have to know how to use language effectively. If you want to build buildings, you have to know how to keep your structure standing and (hopefully) make it pleasing to the eye—and the heart.

It's no different for visual art forms. To create a piece that visually works, we need to know how to use the elements of art effectively and to design pieces (based on known principles, even when breaking them) that speak to the eye and the heart. And I think it's just like anything we learn. First we need to consciously practice so what we learn become a part of our knowledge bank.

And then, I imagine, the real magic happens when we can go to that nonverbal place and use what we know without thinking.

Let me know what you think in the comments below!