Lesson 2: The Structures of Beauty


Unity is the first and, by far, most important element of a painting. Everything else is subordinate to Unity. Yet the conundrum is that for Unity to be effective a painting must be built upon concordant Contrasts of value, color, shape and area. Light against dark, complementary color, large and small, regular and irregular shape, and the understructure of divisions of area. And these elements must work seamlessly and effortlessly.

The study of Unity, as with any complex subject, needs to be undertaken with a layered approach step-by-step.

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First, you need to train your eye to see masses flatly and unbroken. You need to distill the image to its essence. This is the root of working from General to Specific.

The Notan is the ideal start. Notan is a Japanese term for Dark/Light harmony and it is the Notan that sticks a painting to the wall. A painting that lacks a good Notan will fail. Absolutely no matter how fine the drawing and brushwork it will collapse into a conglomeration of incoherent mumblings of form. Good Notan equals good painting!

Rembrandt's Old Man in a Military Costume, 1630 reduced to its essential elements presents a powerful abstract design. The surest way to acquire an instinct for good design is to copy master paintings and reduce them to their essential elements vis-a-vis a notanal pochade (a light/dark thumbnail sketch) as I have done in the following video.

Don't use only Black and White. This is a personal bias, of course, but I find it too harsh and, well, ugly. My palette for this notanal pochade is White, Black, Raw Umber and Yellow Ochre. If you're a hardline stickler to color theory then use Burnt Umber instead of the Raw.

The rationale for the Burnt Umber is that it will serve as your Red; the Ivory Black as Blue, Yellow Ochre as Yellow, and White is your tint. Hence, you will have all three primary colors at your disposal.

Pochades are an excellent training vehicle. They are small and cost/time effective. More importantly, they punch several times above their weight. My notanal pochade was done on an 8x8" canvas (20x20cm) and taped to 20x17.3cm so that it reflected the dimensions of Rembrandt's canvas. Incidentally, Old Man in a Military Costume's canvas has a proportion of 1.27 which is the square root of the Golden Rectangle. I'll discuss this issue at length in an forthcoming lesson.

And since I'm on the topic: you should not paint on a white canvas. It is nigh impossible to accurate assess color and values. On my canvas I applied an imprimatura which is a neutral first layer of paint. Refer to my YouTube video on how to apply an imprimatura.

Far, far too often the beginning artist gets tangled up in the details. My primary agenda when teaching beginners is to break that dismal habit.

The American painter and teacher, Charles Hawthorne (1872-1930), would confiscate his students brushes and replace them with a putty knife. This awkward tool supplants any notion a student might have of decorating their pochades with melancholic eyes and pouty lips. Hawthorne's students fondly called these studies 'mud faces'.

A student of Hawthorne's was the American master Edwin Dickenson (1891-1978). I have reduced Dickenson's mudface (Self Portrait in a Fur Cap, 1914) to its essential dark/light harmony. As with all good painting it possesses a strong Notan.

A good practice to further distill a Notan is to study it by squinting your eyes and looking through your eye lashes.

But looking is one thing; to truly acquire a good sense of design is to copy it. As painters we must paint!

I strongly recommend selecting your favorite old master paintings and on small canvases (8x10 to 11x14") practice reducing them to their notan. By reverse engineering master painting you will gain invaluable insights into what makes for a good design and Unity.

Dickenson Mudface

Mancini, O'Prevetariello

An excellent painting to study by reducing to it's notan is the Italian painter Antonio Mancini's (1852 - 1930) 'O Prevetariello, 1870

Mancini's early painting reputation was built upon the street urchins of his hometown Naples. After completing his training he embarked to Paris seeking fame and fortune as a painter. The American portraitist John Singer Sargent considered Mancini as one of the world's greatest living artists. Alas, the world was on the cusp of radical change particularly in painting with the likes of Monet, Manet and Van Gogh and a young Picasso reinventing the language of seeing.

There are many lessons of design to be found in this work. This canvas has a proportion of 1.32. Thus a pochade of 20x15.15 cm will do nicely.

In the video I touched upon the powerful composition device, the Rabatement. Check out how Mancini subtly used the Rabatement in placing the hat.

Admittedly it is one thing to copy another's design (which is a very powerful beginning!) yet quite another to develop your own design voice.

Morandi, Still Life Notan

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Michael Britton

About Michael Britton

Michael Britton is a New York City trained artist (New York Academy of Art) who has taught several thousand artists (some of whom have gone on to full-time art careers as painters and teachers) in his several decades long career. He was the Artistic Director of the Vancouver Academy of Art, Canada for six years and has also taught drawing for Walt Disney Studios, amongst numerous other appointments throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. He is also the author of several art-training videos including Painting Clara Serena.

If you have any questions regarding the courses please feel free to contact me at michael-britton-workshops@artacademy.com