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Popular culture fads appear everywhere–clothing, food, health problems (the hypoglycemics of yesterday have been replaced by the gluten allergic),  breast-feeding, and parenting.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


20 thoughts on “Simple Does It

  1. Pingback: Exciting new discoveries | Natasha White Designs

  2. I agree that there are fads in the art world. Right now it’s layers and ‘messy.’ I’m rather hooked on it, though because I spent many years doing simple designs in my journals. Now I’m not only doing layers, but looking through my stash of words, stickers, bling, stamps, inks, glitter glue and whatever else I can think of to keep my ideas flowing. I think each has it’s season. If your trees are all burnt and bare, it is probably time for simple. Mine still have leaves and birds and squirrels (we say the last word quietly so the dog doesn’t go ballistic) so for now, my time is for layers.

    • We all get hooked on what we like. I enjoyed the “permission” to be messy, but it passed, leaving me with a love of glitter glue. I’m not bouncing back to super-spare, but i find myself drawn to collage again. . .

  3. I am finding, too, that there is a difference between “collage” and “layers.” (I adore the world of collage! Collage is exciting, and very approachable). When I hear the term “layers” I visualize the heavily painted/gessoed approach, which shares common ground with collage–and which I am in awe of! I was excited when I came across Gwen Diehn’s book The Decorated Journal, because she actually identifies seven different approaches to journaling–she calls them “worlds.” Her categories aren’t exhaustive (Quinn’s Raw Art world wasn’t included, and neither was what I think of as the Poetic world) but she was the first person I came across who defined the Layered world (maybe this concept has been around a long time and I’m just out of it), and even offers an explanation of why it is a natural choice for journalers. I agree one approach is not better than another–I just think the point is to be honest and authentic. Isn’t that the very core of being an artist? Of course this sometimes means exploring a style or trend, but ultimately an artist will always be true to herself, using and developing whatever techniques are right for what needs to be expressed.

  4. You could read into this post that layered isn’t really meaningful, but I know you don’t mean that. 🙂 Glad my thoughts on your book gave you a spark to write a great post. And since you mention me I must say I love all kind of creativity, simple drawn or doodled, or with lots of layers and texture – I don’t think one is better than the other. Because collage is my own personal BIG love the things I create is often layered – it’s my personal preference, trend or no trend.

    Oh, and the giveaway is ON! Thanks Quinn!

    • People make meaning in many ways. One of the most meaningful art pieces I saw was a trio of Buddhist monks who made an incredibly complex mandala–it took them a week, pouring sand in minute amounts in intricate patterns. After it was complete, they said a prayer of thanks, swept up the sand and poured it into the Potomac. I gasped at the destruction of this beautiful piece, but it was their way of meaning making. Layers, as one of the comments said, is fulfilling to some. I, too, am a collage lover, have been making them since middle school, so I love my layers, too. I’m just moving on from the layers of color because I feel a need to move on. My journey is always just my own search.

  5. Thanks for speaking out, Quinn. I think there is a lot of pressure put on art-journalists to work in layers, because so much beautiful, breath-taking, and eye-catching work is being done in that area, and we feel that our art-journals aren’t really art-journals if they lack that approach (great strategy for the inner-critic). But I’ve sometimes felt layers to be overwhelming, confusing, and even strangely empty. I really appreciate how “Raw Art Journaling” gives us permission to keep it simple–this is helping to define a new area in art-journaling. I think journalists can forget that the point is to express who we are, how we are, where we are, fresh each moment. There is no recipe for honest expression.

  6. I love this … to make those trees seem soooo simple! And yet, they are beautiful. Wish I could do that (OKAY, I know that is my inner gremlin talking). I do layers for the reason you state – I won’t have to draw. But I WANT to draw … maybe I will ‘get there’ one day and just make the leap!

    • Actually, you can do this: Grab a round brush–the $0.99 kind you buy at Staples for kid’s glue projects is exactly what I used. Load the dry brush with some barely wet watercolor. Pounce the brush vertically down on a piece of paper, making a single dot. Below it, in another “row,” put two more. Below that, in another row, put three dots. On the row below that, put four. You now have a messy triangle of stipply brush marks. Up the middle, wherever there is space, draw the trunk with a straight brown line. I am not an illustrator. If you look at what I did, you can do it, too. Your gremlin is giving you false information–sure enough!

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