Friday, February 9, 2024

Design vs. Subject Matter

2/8/24 Maple Leaf neighborhood

In Ian Roberts’ latest video, he talks about how a painting (or any composition) will engage the viewer more fully when it focuses on design and structure instead of subject matter. It’s one of his basic compositional tenets, and I have tried to keep it in mind ever since I started studying his principles a couple years ago.

When his painting demos include subject matter of pastoral landscapes in Provence or Tuscany, it’s a little harder to separate subject matter from “design” because the landscapes are already picturesque. But the subject of this recent video is a relatively ho-hum urban street corner with some trees and a stop sign – exactly the kind of ho-hum scenes I sketch in Maple Leaf! His principles were no different, but I related to the subject more closely than I usually do. That made it easier to see that a painting of a ho-hum subject can still have a dynamic, compelling composition.

I haven’t been paying as much attention to composition lately as I used to, but I want to get back to it.

Technical note: As I’ve mentioned previously, a Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pen in white will never become my go-to white pen because it’s not opaque enough. However, sometimes I like having two levels of opacity to attract the eye to different degrees.

The white Pitt and the white Gelly Roll offer different levels of opacity.


  1. I like your idea of different levels of opacity in the white. I sometimes wish they did the geli pens in ivory too. Sometimes the white is just too bright.

    1. I think there are ivory colored gel pens in other brands, but they are totally opaque, too. The Pitt works better for slightly less brightness.

  2. This reminds me of an exercise I ran across early on in my exploration of drawing. The assignment was to find a really ugly place in your area/town, something no one would ever think should be photographed or painted or drawn, and make it interesting. While you don't sketch ugly places per se, you do choose subject matter that most would not find sketch worthy - like garbage bins and excavator machinery - and make them interesting. I always enjoy your take on these. They make me pause and look closer; always redeeming qualities in the most mundane objects.

    1. Absolutely! I think it's part of the artist's job to show the viewer what might be worth observing about a scene. If it's already a gorgeous view, what's the challenge in that? ;-)


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