Visual Arts: How To Begin

The blank page. Sometimes the most exciting part of the craft, sometimes the most terrifying. If you subscribe to small business newsletters or buy self-help books, you might have heard about having a plan, not just a goal. “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.” As they say. But what does that mean when you’re standing in front of an easel or a drafting table, holding a pencil? One line at a time? One stroke? One gob of paint? But which one?

You can tell yourself—or your agent, employer…mom—that you’re going to commit to a project. Then what? What’s your plan?

This is an example for the visual arts, but it works just as well for a new exercise regimen or novel.

Step 1: The Goal

Easy-peasy, “I’m gonna paint a princely portrait of Fluffy the Poodle.” Or: build his award-winning doghouse, write his biography.

Step 2: Think Big Picture

Not always intuitive, but necessary, is pumping the brakes and thinking about design. Design is foremost the idea of how all the pieces fit together. You don’t start with the watery eyes or wet nose of your subject, or even with that puckish face. You start with the ENTIRE image. Plot where on the page Fluffy is going to repose. Loosely sketch in his shape, his hindquarters as they relate to his ears, his paws as they relate to his tail. How does he fit in the four corners of the piece? This is what you do with your first strokes of pencil or paint. Fix your intention in your mind and fix the subject on the page. The same as laying out a newspaper: think of all your ingredients from photos to title, headlines to bylines. Know what you want to be seen first, second, and overlooked entirely.

Step 3: Avoid Tangents

“Tangent” has two meanings, a) going off in a new direction and b) getting uncomfortably close to another point which is distracting to the eye. Avoid losing your focus. What’s the most important part of the piece? What’s secondary? What doesn’t matter at all? Don’t spend time and detail on the pillow and cheat yourself out of that wet glisten of Fluffy’s kisser. Fill in shapes, outlines, fudge the background if so inclined, don’t bother finishing the curtain or drafting every leaf of the tree outside the window through which Fluffy fondly gazes. A piece of art differs most from simple observation in one way: controlling the eye. You the artist are in control of where the viewer looks first, and how their eye moves over and through the image. Blocks of color, lines, light and dark all work like road signs, directing the gaze. Be conscious of them! Turn the piece upside-down, look at it from across the room, squint, anything you need in order to see it fresh with the eyes of a stranger. Take charge and responsibility for the conditions of the road down which your viewer’s gaze will wander.

Step 4: Graduate Up to Detail

The last stroke on many a master painting is the highlight, but this isn’t just a literal thing. A face is blocked in, the head, shoulders and/or body are situated where they belong. Then come the elbows and knees, nose and ears. Look at the space you’re filling, and the space you’re not. Are they both lovely? The clear giveaway of an untrained artist is forgetting to consider the beauty of the space around the subject. Many a sketch is ruined by a foot, elbow or ear running too close to the edge or off the page entirely. Your subject is the entire work, not just the pretty lady. Just as a photograph can be ruined by ugly phone lines or a photobombing pigeon, a drawing or painting can be made mediocre by forgetting that it must stand within four sides of a frame. Note, more than the environment or setting, the actual shape of “negative” space. A chef puts as much eye on how the sauce drizzles onto the plate, and the shape and color of the plate itself, as the filet mignon. You can create discomfort or emotion by intentionally violating these rules, but unintentional effects are the marks of amateurs.

Step 5: Stop

The work is always done before you are. Like a clingy parent, you must realize before you’re ready that your baby bird has wings. Good poetry, little black dresses, stories and paintings leave something to the imagination. Whether it is the elaborate detail on a king’s lace collar that turns out to be a few squiggles and splats up close, or an emotional intensity that comes from eyes in a simple portrait that follow you through the room, your viewer is delighted to find themselves and their assumptions a part of the work. Let them join in. Leave unfinished stories, unmade spaces, and empty places to fill. That is what makes a classic—a piece that has room in it for the viewer and their thoughts. Fluffy’s immortality among poodles depends on that, as much as your craftsmanship.


Kitty Boyce is on her third or fourth creative incarnation, from Subway sandwich artist to freelance illustrator, and finally writer. Her hobbies include quoting herself and paraphrasing others. She may be found bagging groceries, sassing strangers or muralizing outrageously upscale homes. Currently she takes lots of selfies and plays good cop to C.R. Cohen’s tough-lovin’ bad cop.

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