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Theory and Practice...
In the following interview Pete discusses the theory and details behind the art system he developed over an 8 year period. Pete's system will be of interest to artists, teachers of art, and anyone curious about art theory and systems artists employ in their art.

Addendum Note: (July, 2006) At one point I speculated that if I had the time my system would morph into something more closely resembling conventional painting. Well I haven't freed up more time but my system has morphed. I can only guess I have internalized my system to the point I don't think about it consciously anymore. I still use discrete steps but they aren't formalized as rigidly as before. I'm still using the color wheel in the same way but again not so formalized. And the vaulted grid has fallen away almost completely. I think many of these things will make a reappearance at some point in the future but for now I'm just skating. In the old process I used drawings from Life Drawing as models for paintings. Now I'm employing the same mental approach from Life Drawing in painting. The whole process has abbreviated and simplified. The results from this transformation can be seen in my new gallery New Art 2006. The imagery is also somewhat new. I'm regressing to an earlier time in my childhood. To before art school, before grade school even. As a child, like most children, I always enjoyed making iconographic drawings of boats and planes and houses, etc. I find this very relaxing and enjoyable. I think it may be an act of rebellion; "To hell with what everybody else wants. I'm going to do what I want".
Q. Why use a system at all in your art?
A. Well, in one sense, everyone uses a system in their art. It may not be a well-defined set of rules, like I have come to use, but each artist in his or her own way comes to have, after doing this a number of years, a means of approaching, a way of starting out on a new piece, a particular methodology that they have discovered works for them. The methodology they have come to use can be called their system, even if they would argue that as far as they are aware, they have no system.
Q. Sure, but obviously there are systems which are well defined and which spell out procedural rules far more so than other methodologies.
A. Yes, of course. My own system at first glance seems to be a system which is very specific in the steps it outlines, and I know when people first look at it, it may seem to them to be too confining, too controlling over the final art, but I want to emphasize that there is a great deal of leeway in how my rules are applied and that the whole system itself is really just a ‘means of entry’ into the art.
Q. ‘Means of entry?’
A. Yes. Let me explain how it all came to me in the first place. I developed this system over an 8-year period, working totally by myself in my garage. I was not, during this time, trying to develop any 'system'. I was merely trying to get back into my art. This was after my time of disillusionment with art, after I had moved to Vallejo, away from the rich artist community I was around when I lived in San Francisco. At this time I was working at a job that left me precious little time for my art. I had to come up with ways to make the most of the time I had, and what my system is today evolved from my efforts to meet these challenges.
Q. You mean it started as a means to ‘speed yourself up’?
A. Well, not entirely. The elements that came to become incorporated into my system were basic things I had learned in Art School, and were things which I was going to be experimenting with in any case. But yes, in the sense that at that time I did need something in the way of a methodology so I could get some productivity out of the little time I had, the time constraints I was under forced me to come up with a better way of dealing with all the things that can slow an artist up.
Q. What things do you mean?
A. Understand that especially with Modern Art, what an artist can actually do is now so vast that just getting started can be quite a struggle, not only for student artists, but for long-timers like me as well. In the ‘old days,’ before the modern era, art was for the most part representational, what early modern artists like DuChamp referred to, almost with a sneer, as retinal art. There was no concept then of ‘painting an idea.’ At that time, what the artist could do and the way to get it done was much simpler than it is nowadays. Subject matter for painting was what was simply ‘out there,’ in the real world, be it landscapes, portraits, still lifes, battles, etc.

     Now, I don't want to be misunderstood about one thing: while representational art is not what I'm into myself, I am not belittling that kind of art by what I'm saying here. Artistic expression can find itself anywhere, and for the beginning history of art on this planet it found itself largely in what I'm calling representational art, and in that realm an artist can reach just as sublime heights as in any other type of art. To capture the soul of the subject in a portrait, for example, requires the utmost in mastery not only of one's art, but of one's own self, to see with absolute unbiased clarity into the nature of the subject and nail it on the canvas - I greatly appreciate this kind of art and always will.

     But in regard to what an artist has in front of him to deal with, vis-a-vis the 'old' art as compared to modern art, what I'm saying is that it's a whole new ball game. No one could argue that in the old representational art there are an infinite number of subjects and ways to treat those subjects. This is true. But as the mathematician Cantor pointed out, and actually proved, there are orders of infinities, some higher than others. With the advent of modern art, the art world changed as much as the concept of our physical world changed when the old idea of Newton's static-state universe gave way to the new space-time continuum idea of Einstein.

     The first thing that happened historically in art that hinted that the boundaries of art were beginning to crumble was when it was discovered that paint could be layed down in ways totally different than had been taught in art schools for millenia, and a whole new deeper look into the same ‘real world’ subjects could be obtained. This happened with impressionism, which at the time was just a new way to use paint to give effects previously unobtainable by the standard means. Even so, it was revolutionary in that it was a precursor to a whole new way of thinking about art. Close on the heels of impressionism came all kinds of new ideas in art. Artists became interested in what perception itself is about, and sought ways to capture this in their painting. Picasso and Braque's new idea of cubism tried to capture with paint the ideas being brought forth in the new physics. And the walls really came tumbling down altogether when the concept of painting a pure idea, or painting an emotion, came along. As these new ideas of art came into being, all the old rules were just wiped out. In range of concept, Modern Art is to the art before as the transcendental and irrational number realms are to the integers in mathematics. It's a higher infinity, not only in terms of what one can paint, but also in terms of how one can go about painting the idea one may have.

     So, as I was saying, in my early days, pressed so much for time, I really needed to come up with a way of getting my brush on the canvas, so art could have a chance to find its way through me to the canvas, and the vastness of all this was overwhelming to me. My system gave me a quick ‘means of entry’ in that it nailed down one approach that I could take with every painting I did.

Q. You mean your system helps you simply by giving you, dictating to you, a way to start to lay paint on the canvas? Does it give you your ideas of what to paint?
A. It doesn't dictate to me what to paint. But as to the ‘how to begin on it,’ yes - this is something it helps with a great deal. But it aids in other ways as well...
Q. Tell us some specifics of your system so we can understand more about what this is really about.
A. OK, but before I start let me emphacise that the real value of my system is something that happens in the midst of the procedures I'm about to outline to you, and not in the procedures themselves. The procedures have their value in that they set up the artist in a psychological way to be in an optimum state for art ‘to happen’.

     Also it’s important for me to note at the start of my explanation that the procedures I'm about to set out for you are the procedures I’d tell a beginner to my system. These procedures are best to begin with, and will in a general way often result in a higher percentage of ‘successful’ paintings, but my actual system allows for many variations in the techniques. I’ll talk about these variations a bit at the end, to widen the scope of my whole system, once I’ve laid the foundation.

     Furthermore, as I expound on the various aspects of my theory, I will have to use many words to try and explain the concepts and theory behind why some of the things I do in my system work for me. In a way, none of this explanation and theory, all these words, is really part of the system - the mechanics of how to employ my system can quickly be taught even to beginning art students, and all this theory that’s coming up, as interesting as it may be for people curious about art systems in general, does not have to be really given at all in practice - the value of the system will become evident in the doing of it.

     My method starts with a system for the use of color in paintings, a system I adapted from theories first developed by an artist of the early 20th century, Albert Munsell, and applies this system in a stepwise, repeating treatment of three basic elements which can be found in any of my paintings:

1. Grid - (GRID) the means I came up with to deal with the composition or placement of objects in the painting; note that in keeping with certain principles of modern art, in my system the means I take to deal with composition, this GRID, is not hidden (in most cases) in the finished work, but usually becomes an important element of the finished work in a quite visible way;
2. Negative Image - (NegIMAGE) everything in the painting that is not the central object of the painting; you can also think of it as the ‘background’ of the painting, or the ‘negative space’ of the painting;
3. Image - (IMAGE) the central object of the painting; since my art is abstract, this is often a simple form in its basic shape, but there’s nothing that prevents my basic system being employed in ‘representational’ art as well;
The heart of my system is a repeating step-wise process of applying color to these elements using the color system I adapted from Munsell's theories, but before I talk about this, I should expound a bit more on these three basic elements.

Negative Image and Image

Image and Negative Image are fairly straightforward, flexible concepts. They can be thought of either as form and negative space, or foreground and background, for example. They could also conceivably accommodate such things as color field painting, etc. These elements can be pushed and pulled quite a bit as to how they apply in any one painting, however in each individual application, their interpretation should be consistent.
GRID — Geometry in Art
While I handle composition with the element I term GRID, the fact that this GRID is also a visible element in my paintings makes it an especially important part of my system, and so I have more to say about the theory behind it. Composition has to do with the shape of the canvas (ratio of length to width), where the IMAGE occurs on it, and how other elements of the painting are positioned relative to each other. Coming from a technical background with my drafting experience, not to mention my keen interest in exploring the significance of relative placement of elements in a painting (it can be vastly important), and yet needing a quick, effective approach, I came up with a technique of drawing lines (a grid) on the canvas as a first step.

The very first step of employing a GRID is to decide on the proportions I want for the grid's sides, which is to say the sides of the canvas. In other words, what ratio should the length of the canvas have to its width. Of course, there are hundreds of possible ratios one could try in a painting, but I've found that I need consider only two to handle the images I deal with in my art. One is a simple 4:3 ratio, and the other one I've tried and often get good results with is the Golden Ratio, famous throughout the history of both art and architecture, and which occurs in nature in so many ways.

Naturally, my decision of the ratio to employ on the canvas is a decision I make in conjunction with the IMAGE I've selected for the piece. The Golden Ratio works best for images which are long or thin, while the more 'squat' 4:3 ratio works better for images that are more squarish in overall shape. But there is no hard and fast rule that always holds in this - experience in the technique will make it easier to judge which to use for given images.

For non-artists in the crowd, perhaps I should say that the theory behind using a GRID for composition is that our eye, meaning our seeing mind, really, is constantly, whether we are aware of it or not, trying to organize everything that it is seeing into an intelligent 'whole', which is to say it is always automatically relating the individual objects in its vision to each other in many ways, a primary way being simply the relative position of each to each other. Our eye has an internal intelligence where certain relative placements of objects in its field of vision can create what can be called 'visual harmonics', something analogous to a chord in music. It is ‘pleasing’, it becomes a part of what we mean by ‘beauty’. It can just as easily create a discord, something not pleasing. As a very simple example, for any rectangular canvas, a line can be placed to split the long dimension so that one of the two resultant rectangles is a square. Simply placing an object in the center of one of the end squares on a rectangular canvas is going to be a pleasing placement to our eye (see ‘The Skier’ below).

In representational art, where being true to how the eye sees in 3-D nature is important, the artist would draw ‘lines of perspective’, often meeting in a vanishing point on the horizon - everyone’s heard of this. When the artist then aligns his objects in 3-D along these lines he can be confident in a result that will look true to what is seen in nature, which is what a representational artist is after. With my abstract art (and abstract art in general) I am more concerned with a more fundamental, deeper aspect of the basic relationship of the elements of my painting, which has nothing to do with being true to 3-D perspective rules, so I use rectangular 'compositional' lines (instead of 'perspective' lines).

By letting a geometrical construct such as the GRID guide the placement of key elements of my paintings, and also letting that construct remain and become a visible element in my paintings, I discovered I could quite readily obtain pleasing placement of elements in my paintings without a lot of bother or time spent in contemplation. And the other happy discovery was that by just using two types of GRID proportions, the 4:3 and the Golden Ratio, I could handle most any shape IMAGE I wanted.

My system doesn't say you must use one of these two GRIDs - it's just what I've found work well with a great variety of image shapes, and while I would strongly suggest to people starting out using my system that they begin with these two types of GRIDs, the artist can use any GRID he would like to. The basic purpose of the GRID is to relieve the artist from struggling so much with thinking about composition and just letting a geometric construct guide him, without a lot of thought, in the placement of the elements of his painting.

4:3 Ratio GRID

Having said that, let me finish talking about this concept of using a GRID by giving you some of the details about the two GRIDs that I employ. I’ll start with the 4:3 ratio, as it's easier to explain. The drawing of the GRID for the 4:3 ratio is quite straightforward: it is just the 12 squares that are defined by the 4:3 ratio and their diagonals:

This grid pattern is drawn on the canvas in pencil to begin with. Note that the GRID can be painted in many different ways. One could paint the lines themselves, perhaps emphasizing different parts of the GRID (the diagonal, the vertical, or horizontal segments, for example), or one could paint little blobs just on the intersections of the GRID lines, or a combination of both, and so on.

The basic visual harmonies of the 4:3 GRID are obvious and this organization has been used in art and architecture for all of history. Here are some of my early-period paintings using this 4:3 ratio GRID, where you can see how the harmonies inherent in the GRID play their role in the composition of the whole:

Starry Night The Skier Portrait of Edvard Munch

Golden Ratio GRID

When I first started using the GRID concept, I was using only the Golden Ratio, which I'll talk about in more detail now. As I mentioned earlier, a Golden Ratio GRID works better for IMAGEs that are long or narrow, less ‘squarish’ in shape. The Golden Ratio's history and theory is very ancient and a fascinating topic in itself.

The ‘Golden Ratio’ is 1.618 to 1. Its exact mathematical value is ½(1+√5) but you can easily construct by geometry a golden rectangle by starting with a square, drawing a line from one corner to the center of a side opposite to that corner, then rotating that line, using the point that is the center of the side met as the pivot point, until the line is coincident with the side. The length of the side plus its new extension is in Golden Ratio to the side of the original square:

For developing the inner part of a Golden Ratio canvas, I use the squares within it which, in their turn, divide the canvas into smaller rectangles also in the Golden Ratio. The Golden Ratio is the only ratio for which this trick works:
with main  
These lines are drawn in pencil like the 4:3 grid and how one uses the lines for the placement of the IMAGE, and the way the GRID is painted, is no different from the 4:3 canvas.

For those interested in the fascinating properties associated with the golden ratio, in art, nature, and mathematics, there is a superb treatment of the subject by Britain’s BBC in their “5 Numbers” series, hosted by Simon Singh. You can hear the program devoted to the Golden Ratio by going on the web to here. You will find a "Listen to programme 3" link at the bottom of the web page. Do listen to the program - what they have to read about the Golden Ratio on this web page is very limited in comparison to the recorded program. I highly recommend it.

Here are some of my early-period paintings using this Golden Ratio GRID:

One Eyed Red   Saturn Eating His Son

The “Model” — the marriage of GRID and IMAGE

As I said, I normally choose which GRID to use based on the IMAGE I have decided upon. Having now described what the two GRIDs I work with look like, I wish to say a bit more about this marriage of GRID to IMAGE, which I term “Model.” In bringing these two elements together, the artist can, for example, first select a ratio, then look for an IMAGE, or select the IMAGE first, allowing the IMAGE to suggest the ratio. It’s something of a chicken or egg scenario - which should come first? The answer is it doesn't matter.

Let’s say you select an IMAGE first. This can be any image that fits on a rectangle. The technique then is to identify selected features of the IMAGE that you want to accent by putting them on GRID intersections. Identifying two features and the GRID points to place them upon will determine the scale of the model. For example, if the IMAGE is a vase of flowers, one of the more prominent blossoms may be selected as a feature. Another feature could be another blossom or, more interestingly, the edge of the table. If the IMAGE is a figure, one feature could be the head and another could be the knee. Whichever approach is used, the grid is imposed upon the image. This will in turn determine the overall size of the “Model.” If the two points selected on the GRID to match with the IMAGE's features are far apart, the result will be larger than if the two points are closer together. It is in this way the IMAGE plus the GRID becomes the Model.

As I work today, for most all my paintings I start by just grabbing past sketches of IMAGES on GRIDS—Models—that I've collected over the years. But for beginners to my system, I would suggest starting out by experimenting, going first by the simple rule that the Golden Ratio is best for longish images, the 4:3 ratio for the rest, and then aligning obvious features on the image with main segments of the GRID chosen to see the effect. It’s best to start by working off of photographs, or even famous art works of past masters, as a starting point. See how the objects in the photo or art work can be placed on the GRID in different ways, being free to alter a bit the original placement to match key GRID points. With a little practice the ‘idea’ of the whole thing will catch on in the student’s mind.

Q. That's quite a system in itself, this one element of GRID!
A. Well, it was a lot of words to just give you some of the theory behind this one element of my system, but really, the concept is pretty simple. GRID is both an element and the guide to the overall composition so there is a lot one can say about it, but the use of the concept is pretty easy to grasp, and knowing many details of the theory about it, that attempt to explain it, isn't really necessary in order to put it to use. It's a system that relieves me from a lot of angst and mental effort in coming up with good, working compositions, in a time-effective way, and that is its central value.

     So these three basic elements, GRID, IMAGE and NegIMAGE, set the stage, so to speak, for the use of my color system, which is really at the heart of the thing, since it was in my discovery of the value of repeatedly painting these three elements with carefully chosen colors that I found what I would dare to call a 'system' in the first place.

Q. Tell us about this color system of yours.
Albert MunsellA. In developing my color technique I borrowed from the ideas of a man named Albert Munsell, a late nineteenth century artist-scientist. I was in college when someone told me about Munsell and I first took a look at his theories. It was Munsell who came up with the color coordinate system used throughout industry today to accurately specify colors. His coordinate system uses what we call today Hue, Saturation, and Luminosity (or Brightness). Munsell called saturation “chroma” and luminosity “value”, the term artists are familiar with. In the rest of my talk I will use the terms “saturation” and “value” for these theoretical constructs. As a side note, anyone who works with colors with computers will recognize the connection to Munsell’s scheme and the HSL (or HSB) color scheme use so often in that type of work.

     But besides his scientific interest in color, Munsell was an artist, and he applied his scientific way of thinking about color to postulate what he called a theory of beauty centered around color. Using the idea that intense (highly saturated) colors advance and dull (of low saturation) colors recede, he progressed to the notion that in any given area, less intense color was needed to balance a greater amount of dull color. This applies regardless of the particular value (luminosity) of the colors. Being scientific minded, he wound up assigning a numeric value to each intensity and color value, developing a mathematical formula to determine how much of any given color is required to esthetically balance any other color or group of colors. And each of those colors could in turn be calculated for the appropriate area it filled on the canvas.

     This may sound very elaborate, however, upon investigation, I found that following his system produced a painting with evenly modulated color and value. But the initial overall effect seemed strangely dated and grayed back to me, even though there were bright colors in small amounts in the painting. Playing with it more, I found that if I incorporated the basic tenets of his system for most of the painting, and then depart from his formula for one dissident color, that color took on great intensity and impact in contrast to the other colors in the painting. In my current system, I call this dissident color the "Kicker", but more on this later. Also, I should make clear that when I use the basic tenets of his color theory, I don't mean I analyze anything numerically - I just choose my levels of saturation and value based on his general ideas.

     Another thing I brought over from Munsell's theory was his Color Wheel, which is different from the basic color wheel most people are acquainted with. The so-called ‘standard’ color wheel defines 3 ‘primary’ colors, Red, Yellow, and Blue, then fills in the 3 ‘secondary’ colors between those of Orange, Purple, and Green. This yields six basic colors, and to develop the full wheel one further step is taken, going to the ‘tertiary’ colors between the six giving a 12-color wheel.

  Note that in these Color Wheels the colors are shown at full saturation at maximum color value (neither ‘light’ or ‘dark’), and that their colors can only be approximate to true standards.  

     Munsell started with five primary colors instead of three: Red, Yellow, Green, Blue, and Purple. His ‘secondary’ colors then become Yellow-Red (YR), Green-Yellow (GY), Blue-Green (BG), Purple-Blue (PB), and Red-Purple (RP). I've found that this 10-color wheel works best with my method of choosing the 4 basic colors to use on a painting.

Q. Why only 4 colors?
A. I settled on 4 colors as a best fit after a lot of experimentation and thought about honing my procedures so that they could reap the greatest benefits. I was juggling several things: the fact that I was dealing with the 3 elements I defined earlier (GRID, NegIMAGE, IMAGE), a desire to work with colors that ‘fight’ each other in being complimentary to one another on the color wheel (thus requiring me to work with pairs of colors), wanting a way to cycle through the colors repeatedly over the 3 basic elements, and always trying to keep it all as simple as possible, of course.

     The 4 colors are not as limiting as it may seem at first, since while painting any element with ‘one’ color, I allow myself to use darker or lighter shades of the color to give definition to the object. For example, using dark shades for shadowing and lighter shades for highlights on the IMAGE.

Q. What's this about ‘cycling through the colors repeatedly’?
A. Ah—that’s where the ‘magic’ of my system comes in. But before I get into that, I need to describe how I choose the four colors that I'll be using on a painting—this is the very heart of my system.

     I had seen from Munsell's work that a painting, to be balanced in color values, will have greater areas of its canvas in colors of lower saturation, or ‘dull’ colors, while colors with greater saturation or intensity will use less of the canvas. His theory deals with both saturation and value, actually, ‘value’ being luminosity or brightness. Keeping this in mind, my system follows two ‘ramps’ as I pick my colors one by one: I choose them in order of saturation, and in order of value. As to saturation, whatever color I start with, I make that first color have the least saturation - you could say it's the most ‘dull’. However, the first color's value (luminosity) can be either light or dark. (For beginners I always say start with dark.)

     As to which Hue to make my first color (where to start on Munsell's Color Wheel), I will have more to say about later, but for the beginner in my system, I say just pick any Hue! This may sound crazy at this point, but bear with me and I think you'll see how it really is not so crucial a decision as you might think it must be.

     Now, following my system, the 2nd color I pick must be complimentary to the first color, a ‘step’ up in saturation, and a ‘step’ closer to maximum color luminosity, following the two ‘ramps’ I mentioned earlier. In more detail, for color #2, the color Hue to use will be directly across the Munsell Color Wheel, or not more than one color to either side of directly across. I allow some play here, but not much. Complimentary colors have a tension between them—they give a certain life to a painting, and on a color wheel, complimentary colors occur more or less opposite each other. They are good colors to work with for paintings that have simple color schemes.

     Since I am ramping up in saturation for each color, color #2 will be more saturated than the first color. And in terms of value, or luminosity, I will take a step closer to maximum color luminosity with color #2. If #1 had a dark value, color #2 will be ‘less dark’. If #1 was a light color, #2 will be ‘less light’. To be clearer about the color's Value, or luminosity, I can say that value can be thought of as how much ‘white’ (in the case of ‘light’ values) or ‘black’ (in the case of ‘dark’ values) has been added to a pure color Hue. So as a color gets lighter and lighter, it tends towards becoming white, and as a color gets darker and darker, it tends towards becoming black. The mid point of color value is where the maximum color luminosity occurs, where the full color hue can be seen clearest. Thus, if color #1 was light in value, color #2 will be less light, the idea being that by the time I reach the 4th color, I will arrive at maximum color value, the mid point between the light and dark values of the hue (neither light or dark).

     I think of traveling clockwise around the color wheel for choosing all four colors. So in choosing the first two colors, I've traveled half way around the wheel (or close to half way, depending on which of the 3 possible colors I chose for the compliment of the first). To go on to choose the 3rd color, I just continue clockwise, settling on a color ‘roughly’ mid way between the 2nd and the first, which, with Munsell's 10-color wheel, will always be 2 or 3 colors further clockwise from the 2nd color. One rule of my system to keep in mind when choosing Hue, by the way, is that no two of the four colors chosen can be adjacent to each other on Munsell's wheel. Another rule allows me to break any rule, and I've broken this rule on occasion, but it's good to follow in general. Having arrived at the Hue to use for the 3rd color, there is again the similar ramping up in saturation, and a further step closer in value to the color’s maximum color luminosity.

     To get to the 4th color, my system dictates that it be directly across Munsell's Color Wheel from the 3rd color - no 1-step variation allowed this time. Also, when we arrive at the 4th color, we will have the most saturation, and the maximum of color luminosity (neither ‘light’ nor ‘dark’). Because of all this, I sometimes call this 4th color the ‘kicker’. Below is a diagram of an example of this whole process, this example having color #1 be a light value of Purple-Blue. As per the rules just outlined, the colors selected in order are: dull light Purple-Blue, medium dull Yellow, medium bright Blue-Green, and intense bright Red. In keeping with the rules, these four colors progress around the color wheel from low saturation (dull) to high saturation (intense), and from a light color value to maximum color luminosity (neither light nor dark).

Q. And it really doesn't make any difference which color you start with?
A. Hang on, hang on. Up to this point I've described a set of procedures, parts of my ‘system’, which guide both composition and color scheme in a painting. Now I want to talk about my system’s guidelines for applying these colors. It is here where you have the chance to learn why this question of a starting color may not only be not so important, but why it may not be important at all.

     I will first show how my system uses the four colors chosen for a painting in a repeating way, applying each color to each of the 3 basic elements of GRID, NegIMAGE, and IMAGE, four different times. Then I will attempt to explain some of the theory behind this process, which is especially important to make clear, as I feel it is the way my system applies the colors repeatedly that the chief benefit of the system is derived.

Applying the Four Colors

In a typical example, the artist’s first step is to paint the IMAGE in the 1st color. The IMAGE can be painted in shades of the 1st color, in fact, using dark shades for shadowing and lighter shades for highlights. (These lighter and darker shades of the 1st color are the shades on either side of the particular luminosity Value chosen for the 1st color). In the second step, the artist will paint the GRID, using the 2nd color. Then the artist looks at the model and sees that around and behind the IMAGE is a background or NegIMAGE. Deploying lighter and darker shades of the 3rd color the NegIMAGE is defined. The fourth step cycles back to the IMAGE again, but this time utilizing the 4th color, not the 1st. Then it’s back to the 1st color again, but applied over the GRID, not the IMAGE as it was in step 1. And so on. We have the two parallel systems, one containing three objects: GRID, NegIMAGE, and IMAGE, the other consisting of four elements: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th colors. Combined, they generate a constant cycling between object and color.

In my system as I first developed, four passes through all four colors are made in this cyclic fashion, for a total of 16 color steps. Here is the ‘Step Chart’ depicting all these steps:

Step Chart
1st Color
2nd Color
Medium Dull
3rd Color
Medium Intense
4th Color

Some notes on this chart: Explaining what is going on here is crucial to understanding my system, but the benefits at this stage are in the way of preparing the mind in the best way for art ‘to happen’, so may be more difficult to explain. Nevertheless, I shall plow right on...

At the start of this interview I said that my system basically provides a ‘means of entry’ into the art. The first way it does that is that the rules for composition and color scheme make it easy for the artist to quickly get into the act of painting. Because the ‘rules’ make these kinds of decisions much simpler, the artist can get her brush on the canvas much quicker.

In my system’s method of application of the four colors, we have the other powerful ‘means of entry’ into the art, but the benefit here has to do solely with predisposing the artist's mind for the task at hand. It’s a psychological procedure, the explanation of which may best be approached by first telling you of something I experienced in my early art student days (recounted in my bio section on this site): I had found myself after my first year still ‘stuck’ in my old mode of art (psychedelic art poster stuff), and I wanted to break free of that. I hit upon a zen-like practice during one summer of just painting a whole sheet of drawing paper one single color. Then I'd start another sheet and paint it another color. And so on. Just immersing myself in the pure act of putting color down with a brush - no composition, no forms, no meanings - just the mindless-as-possible act of ‘painting’.

Well, it worked! This simple process led me out of the rut I had been stuck in and I was able by the start of the next school year to get into the abstract painting mode I had been blocked from before. I don’t pretend to understand how that zen-like act accomplished this ‘freeing up’ of my artistic flow, but I know it had something to do with having immersed myself in the pure awareness of the basic act of color going on a canvas. It was very like a meditative state, and somehow it allowed me to let go of what I had been hanging on to and take a step forward. In other words, it allowed me to be creative!

Now, the benefits of the repeated step-wise application of color in my system come from the same kind of underlying, subconscious processes. What is happening during these repeated ‘passes’ through the 4 colors is that the artist is immersing herself, in the way of pure awareness, not so much by thinking, in all the basic elements that will comprise the final painting: the 3 elements GRID, NegIMAGE, and IMAGE, and the four colors, strategically paired by their complementariness and ordered by their ‘purity’. Out of this immersion, each element getting a different color with each run-through of the 4 colors, it is hoped that within the artist, the knowledge of what this painting is really about, what this painting should look like at the end, will form in the mind and become apparent by the last step. Hopefully by the last pass, the ‘truth’ of this particular painting will have emerged.

There are analogies in other arts: when musicians have to warm up before a performance, familiarizing themselves with riffs and whatnot (the way jazz musicians improvise and play off of each other in long exploratory sessions is especially reflective of the process); or a writer who has reached a stand still in a novel sitting down and just writing at random, just going anywhere, silly or not, with a character to get the words flowing and ideas forming.

I see these repeated passes with the colors as a way of coaxing out the maximum potential beauty or meaning of the work, past the stern sentinels of our thinking intellects, which are always barriers to art and its free expression. Like the repetition one can find in religious ceremonies and spiritual exercises, I think my system's repeated application of the 4 colors can open doors which would otherwise remain closed.

Key to helping this whole process work in the way intended is the reminder I put to the right of the above Step Chart, which says that as we work our way towards the end, the rules get less and less important. It means simply that we don't worry so much about just obeying the rules the further into the painting we get.

This is a very important point to make: to achieve the best state of mind for the creative insight to happen, it is best that when you start out you not have any preconceived ideas of how you want the final painting to look. If you did have an idea of what you wanted at the end, and even chose your colors accordingly, well, fine—just do your best to forget that before you begin. Just mechanically follow the rules with little thought but maximum awareness or immersion in the act of painting at first. With each pass you will be looking at color variations of all 3 elements, and the possible meanings behind all the color relationships and variations in how you are painting the elements will be impressed upon your mind in a deep way.

This will maximize the chances of realizing the full potential of the painting by the time you're on the last row of the Step Chart. This alludes to the importance of the artist being fully open and as aware as possible of all that the painting is about as she goes through these passes, through each of the four colors. At first, one can follow the rules mechanically - no thinking, no trying to make any preconceived idea take form. Just painting the elements with the color dictated in any way, or with whatever whim may take you. By being as open as possible during this process, it is hoped that ideas about what the painting should say, or ‘be’, will occur, and guide the later stages. Firm decisions will be made on how to paint the GRID, which elements to emphacize, which to paint over, etc., based on the pure awareness of all these elements that is heightened by the repeated application of the colors, so that by the last 2 or three steps, the artist will know exactly what has to be done to complete the painting.


Now, when we get to that last ♦KICKER♦ step, we have several possible scenarios:

Q. This sounds like an incredible system—but does it really work?
A. Well, yes, it does really work. Certainly not every time. One can arrive at the end of this 16-step process and be nowhere. There's no guarantee that the mystical act of art will take place within the artist, and no way to force it. But my procedures give it a good chance to happen. My system can be one way to lead the horse up to the trough. If the horse is thirsty (if the artist is open and willing to ‘surrender’ to art flowing through her), the horse will drink and we wind up with a painting which ‘works’. If not, oh well, there will be another day and another painting.
Your chances improve a lot with experience using the system, of course. The more you know about art, the better your chances of the horse taking a drink. I get about 50% of my paintings which I can say ‘work’. About one in ten work really well for me. But my goals really aren't in the direction of creating a “great” painting. I paint because I have to paint. I'm constantly just exploring what can happen every time I choose a new Model, a new color scheme, a different starting element, etc.
Q. Would your system be valuable, do you think, in a teaching situation?
I've had my system taught to an art class, but that was an experiment in using collaborative art with my system. Because my system has well defined, independent steps, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to explore what could happen if different people painted each row in the step chart above. Thus four different people could work on one painting, each painting over the previous person's contribution, in whatever way they felt inspired to do.

This class was a success and is written up in its own section on my site. As to teaching beginning art students my system, I would say that the value would be greatest for art students who are having a problem understanding (getting) what’s really going on with abstract art. While a great deal of what goes on in teaching anything is mechanical and/or philosophical, what all teachers in any of the arts WISH they could teach, but which is really impossible to teach, is the EXPERIENCE of ‘getting’—understanding intuitively, ‘grokking’—what the art is really about. For some students approaching abstract art for the first time, this can be difficult.

I think a student caught in the ‘representational’ mode of thinking about art could be helped a good deal by my system to have an experience of the process that is the holy grail of all artists in painting a work of abstract art, in that it can, as I explained above, lead them up to the trough, so-to-speak, and make it most possible for them to experience the essence of what abstract art is really about, by having some of this kind of art ‘happen’ to them. Because that's the way art really works. It happens to us, when the conditions are right, and we're in the right frame of mind, and we're not blocked emotionally, and the moon is in the right quarter, etc.

Q. You mentioned variables to your system.
A. As to variations on the procedures or the rules, some of the procedures are entirely arbitrary, I admit. I myself started playing with variations simply because I got bored doing it the same way all the time. So variations are not really something to be TOO wary of. The ‘rules’ of my system are never carved in granite. The artist is free to do anything at any time, or we would have a very bad situation for art to happen.
But the rules serve a very good purpose, and it's really best to follow them rather slavishly at first. Following the rules strictly will introduce the artist to a lot of things I can't possible put down in words, but which need to be experienced before she can successfully start ‘fooling around’. Perhaps the best way of telling when one is ready to start playing with variations or outright breaking of the rules, is by noting when one is tuning into good ideas of what the painting should be about by the last row, or the last 4 steps. If you have learned enough from experience about how these elements play off each other and how the colors work against one another, then this will automatically start happening: you will at the last few steps, perhaps on the 3rd ‘row’, just see what needs to be done to get the painting to ‘work’. If this is happening, then one can be judged experienced enough to be ready for fooling with the rules.

I should like to note that for myself, and I've been doing this a full decade now, I try to follow the rules all the way to the end. Perhaps this fact just reflects that I'm more interested in just exploring what the choices I make lead to than I am in producing some ‘great’ work of art.

Some variations the advanced practitioner could consider are:

Q. Thank you for this exposition of the theory behind your system, Pete.
A. My pleasure.

For artists, a more concise technical description can be
obtained by clicking on Background and Process.

Recommended Reading

If you don't have the time to both paint and read about it, by all means paint. But in addition to practice, reading about art theory, composition, and ideas can always be an important part of your path. Some of the reading I have done that directly relates to what has been discussed in this section follow:


The Painter's Secret Geometry - A Study of Composition in Art — by Charles Bouleau
How far one can go with geometric composition theory is illustrated by this fascinating book. (careful you don't go too far)


The New Munsell Student Color Set
Helps train the eye of the student painter for learning to deal with Hue, Chroma (saturation) and Value of colors by supplying chips with accurate models of Munsell’s colors . Covers Munsell's art theories as they apply in the modern context as well as in Munsell's day.

Art Theory, Practice, Philosophy

The Art Spirit — by Robert Henri

Pedagogical Sketchbook — by Paul Klee

Concerning the Spiritual In Art — by Wassily Kandinsky

Point and Line to Plane — by Wassily Kandinsky

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