The Importance of Planning

To celebrate the arrival of spring, Donna Shortt painted a basket of pansies in brightly hued pastels for In the Spotlight (pastel 13×15). She’s a fan of vibrant, pure color, and has a good command of the pastel medium, which helped her to create an exciting image that’s full of life. Shortt also chose a viewpoint that brings interest to the scene. But by paying a bit more attention to her use of colors and the design itself, she could make this scene even more dynamic.

Areas to Work On
Thanks to a profusion of bright colors, we can see that the basket of pansies is Shortt’s intended focal point. But that goal isn’t supported by a balanced arrangement of darks, lights and midtones (composition), or her choice of colors. For instance, she placed the basket of flowers almost exactly in the middle of the paper, which doesn’t give her the room to effectively create a pleasing composition. As well, the colors of the flowers are weakened by the competing color of the patio backdrop. All of this can be remedied, however, by taking the planning of the piece beyond choosing the subject, medium and viewpoint.

Granted, planning isn’t nearly as fun as painting, but it should be a top priority for all artists. This stage is where options can be worked out, and may even take more time than the actual painting. When pastel is the medium, care in planning is especially important. The freshness of a pastel painting can only be kept when the thinking takes place before the hand touches the paper. By doing a little more planning, I feel Shortt can keep her pastels fresh, and improve her use of pattern and color. Thus, she can significantly improve her springtime scene.

Art Principles At Work
Arranging a good pattern. Shortt’s composition includes a brick patio, a basket filled with green foliage and several brightly colored pansies, and the cast shadow. But it has very little strong contrast throughout the painting. Typically, the viewer’s eye goes first to the spot where the strongest dark and light come together. In In the Spotlight, this should be the cast shadow, which will then lead our eyes to the focal point–the basket of pansies. Instead our eyes are drawn to the flowers only because of the difference in color.

By moving her basket of flowers more off-center and her light source to the right, Shortt could make her cast shadow more elongated and prominent. This alteration would then strengthen the composition by enlarging the focal area. In addition, she could decrease the value of the patio backdrop–including the detail lines–to create more interest in the flower area and the cast shadow pattern, as well.

Choosing appropriate colors. I know that Shortt intended that the flowers be her focal point. But she hasn’t set up the composition to reflect this, nor has she used the appropriate colors. For instance, the cool blue of the patio competes with the warmth of the yellow and pink flowers, and appears to have the same importance. Every painting will have a certain amount of warm color and a certain amount of cool color, but only one can dominate. And because of the warm light she’s using here, Shortt should have chosen a warm color as the dominant for In the Spotlight.

In addition, the colors of the pansies themselves seem weak, which further diminishes their status. This weakness is in part because Shortt grayed the front and shadow side of the flowers, which takes the life right out of them.

I feel the brightly colored flowers will truly become the focal point once the patio area is both lightened and changed to a warm gray. But she still needs to pay more attention to her flowers. To make the flowers stand out, Shortt needs to use stronger, more pure pigment color. Instead of adding a little gray on either side of the flowers, she should use pure hues for the light-struck side and those colors’ cooler counterparts for the shadow side.

In planning her colors, though, Shortt did remember the rule for coloring shadows. In general, cast shadows should be the opposite temperature of the light source. Since the light source is warm here, the shadow is cool.

Lessons Learned
Composition and color are the two most important aspects of a painting. In making the most of these two elements, you first have to take the time to plan how you’ll use them. Shortt got off to a good start with her choice of pastel and the different viewpoint. From there, however, she needs to work on her patterns of lights, darks and midtones, and her use of color. I’d encourage Shortt to re-create In the Spotlight, this time using my suggestions, and then compare the two paintings. Exercises such as this are all part of the learning process and will take her–and you–far into the beautiful world of art.

About the Artist
Indianapolis-based Donna Shortt paints with oils, watercolors, watercolor pencils and pastels. She describes her art as traditional, “but I do like to use color to the extreme.”

Joyce Pike is a California-based artist, teacher and writer.

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