The Structures of Beauty

As painters we strive for Beauty and to engage an audience however large or small. Yet Beauty changes over time, sometimes rapidly and sometimes slowly. What was considered Beautiful a century ago can now be seen as saccharine and banal. Of course, some standards of beauty are constant. The Baroque paintings of Rembrandt, Hals and Rubens come to mind. So, too, do the works of Degas, Van Gogh and Manet. Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn also fit the bill. These are amongst many.

Each grouping of painters mentioned here expressed in radically divergent modes of painting and all met the 'standard' of Beauty.

A good painting can be defined as one that pleases you, that engages you in a dialogue of common spirit. The natural question to ask then is: How do I make a good painting? And what constitutes good painting?

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#1: Intro and Notes on Drawing

#2: Unity

#3: Elements of Composition

#4: Architecture of Design

#5: Beginning a Painting

#6: Color Harmonies

#7: Creative Process | Pochade

#8: Creative Process 2 | Watercolor Study of A Young Girl

#9: Getting the BIG Shape

#10: A Walk in a Frozen Wood

#11: Drawing Hands

#12: Drawing the Skull

#13: Velazquez: Alla Prima

#14: Creative Process - Redux

#15: The Power of Triangles

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I used the word 'good' rather than 'great' or 'a masterpiece'. 'Good' implies a material competence and mastery which is the realm of craft. Great art defies analysis.

The Nine Elements of Beauty

First, and foremost is Unity. This is the oneness wherein the expressive whole is significantly greater than the sum of its parts. Everything that follows in these nine elements must contribute fully to the Unity of the painting.

I will devote an article to each of these elements.


Design is the underpinning of good painting. It establishes the overall relationship of areas, form and color.


The harmonious relationship of each element within the picture plane. Design and proportion often overlap (as do all of the other elements here). The harmonious divisions of space are the foundations of design.


Color is the prime material of painting.


Plasticity is defined as giving form to something. We usually think of this as three-dimensional rendering. It is more than this and can range from fidelity to the two-dimensional plane of the canvas to the space-invasive dynamics of the Baroque.


Color and form are dependent on Value.


Rhythm establishes movement and velocity in a painting through both repetition and contrasts of color, shape, line, spatial area, etc.

Surface Structure

The abstract structural surface (texture) is the sympathetic correspondence of mark making and the materiality of your medium (i.e., oil, acrylic, watercolor, etc.)


Every element of your painting must be subordinated to your defined intent. Your message should be clear. Simplicity in and of itself is meaningless. However, simplicity and clarity achieved through working through a wall of complexity acquires manifold layers of meaning. This working through is the creative process.

I withheld Drawing from this list. Drawing, however defined, is implicit to good painting whether it be realist or aniconic (non-pictorial as in color field paintings for example).

Drawing is a massive field of inquiry and for the sake of clarity I will limit myself to what I consider are the two germane approaches of beginning a painting. There is a huge difference between good drawing and good painting albeit good drawing will always be the underpinning of good painting.

Drawing, distilled to its essence, is Shape defined as how wide by how tall (proportion) and what are the angles.

Drawing is generally associated with Outline and Contour. Whereas Painting is associated with mass values and color.

You do not want a painting to read as a drawing, nor would you want a drawing to evolve into a colored-over painting. Yet this is what often happens when we take the illustrative approach to painting.

Rubens Clara Serena

Pictured here is my copy of Peter Rubens' portrait of his five-year old daughter Clara Serena. I began this painting with a cartoon (a preliminary drawing) which I then rendered with oil paint beginning with an underpainting proceeding to the full palette overpainting.

It is a competent work technically but a failure as art. It lacks the vitality of the original. This is the bane of copying. Yet copying is the most powerful and surest avenue to learning the language and processes of painting. Rubens, the most famous and richest artist of his time, copied Titian well into his fifties.

Beginning a painting with a well-resolved drawing is the common approach to both teaching and learning to paint. The drawing can quickly become a tyrant demanding absolute fidelity as we color-in rather than paint. The oft-result are paintings that lack vitality. That is the illustrative approach.

Of course we must learn how to accurately strike shape and fix proportion, especially within the facial matrix, and those skills are best acquired through drawing, but if you can do strike shape with pencil or charcoal you can also do it with the brush.

Rembrandt Laughing

I began my copy of Rembrandt Laughing with a very loose sketch using a long-handled 60 cm Escoda bristle brush. The long handled brush will feel awkward at first but the distance it avails from the canvas allows you to better see the shape.

Yes, the initial strike is clumsy and somewhat dismaying but you need to consider that painting is an additive/subtractive process of developing form and gesture. Rather than coloring-in my drawing my approach, like Rembrandt, is painting with a sculptural sensibility.

My experience is that it is much easier to render tighter from a loose beginning but nigh impossible to paint freer and expressive from a tight, illustrative beginning.

My Laughing Rembrandt workshop is a two and half hours download video.

Upcoming 2021 Virtual Art Classes via ZOOM

Painting Portraits in Oil | Foundation to Bravura

Oil painting art class

Michael Britton, Monique, Oil on Panel, 11x14", 2021

In this five-session workshop you will learn how to paint a dynamic portrait in oil from a photograph.

The language of the photograph is different from that of painting. In this workshop you will learn the process of how to translate the photographic image into a painting that is much more than a mere copy of the photograph.

You will learn how to accurately block-in the big shape before fixing the facial proportions to establish both your composition and the likeness.

Learn how to construct value structures to render three-dimensional form and the practice of spotting color notes mix accurate flesh tones that breath life.

The full course description and materials list.

Materials List

Saturday, 10:00 - 1:00
Pacific Standard Time
September 18 to October 16, 2021
5 Sessions


'I've learnt more from your online workshops than I have from my previous face to face courses combined and at a fraction of the cost. Your teaching is comprehensive, yet clear and engaging.'

P. Delaney
Sydney, Australia