Simple Does It

We are knee-deep in layers upon layers. I don’t mean clothing, although that is also true if you live in the Northern segments of the world, and fall is approaching in frost-toed boots.

I’m talking about art journaling and art work. The popular touch of the moment is deep layers of colors and textures, sometimes applied with whatever is at hand, without much planning. There’s a point in that–experimentation is a great rough door that pushes into the art world. But there are also limits.

You’ve probably been in classes where colors are applied over gesso, stencils slapped over that, positive, negative, metallics. All are barely dry when the punchinella and bubble wrap appear and another layer gets slapped on.

Popular culture fads appear everywhere–clothing, food, health problems (the hypoglycemics of yesterday have been replaced by the gluten allergic),  breast-feeding, and parenting.

After trying layers on layers and satisfying my “color and texture” thrill, the work seemed  not much of anything except color and texture. I started steering away from it before I started my book, and iHanna, the popular art blogger, noted with some surprise that there wasn’t a lot of layers in any of my work.

Here’s the secret: we don’t need all those layers to hide the fact that we aren’t artists. Or that we are. Sticking to simple makes defining what we look at easier to get down on paper. The human eye needs only 30 percent of an image to recognize it.

While driving down a big boulevard yesterday, I noticed that the non-native pine trees here really got blasted in our desert sun. Keeping my eye on the road, even quick glances showed the clear shape of a pine, and that each branch held a bunch of needles. I got home and grabbed my water colors and two stencil brushes–one small and one fat, that I use to glue book covers.

I dipped the dry brushes in paint and pounced them on the paper. On the left, you can see the underpainting of yellow (our glaring light) is still wet. As you move farther right, the dry brush technique shows the pine trees as rough and sun-blasted. Just as they are.

You can keep your work simple and have it be sharp, effective and clear. Glance at something quickly and see what you remember–it won’t be layers and layers, it will be shape and structure. That’s a good place to start.

Context is the clothing on the bone structure of meaning. It can change, but the bone structure–the simple outline, simple structure–that’s what causes people to nod heads and look for meaning. And, well, you know how I feel about meaning-making. It’s what makes you an artist. Not layers.

–Quinn McDonald is a creativity coach and author of the book Raw Art Journaling: Making Meaning, Making Art.