Zen and the Art of Seeing (2)

What we see isn’t what we see, but who we are.

A painting is a filtered, subjective version of reality. That reality is different for everyone. What one person considers beautiful, another passes by indifferently.

Beauty isn’t located in the objects we perceive, but in our own way of regarding things. You can discover exquisite beauty in even the most modest things.

Although I didn’t really intend to give technical advice in these essays, I do have a few tips, should you want to put something down on paper. You’ve probably heard them before, from me or from others, so just regard them as a reminder. Please don’t consider them rules – which get in the way of your creativity – but think of them as ideas you might use to your advantage.

Failing to plan is planning to fail.

Always make a few preliminary value sketches using a soft pencil – 4B or 6B – using three values: light, middle, and dark; nuanced, yet still distinct. Particularly, be sure to establish a coherent value pattern, with a very few details at most. Don’t hesitate to bend reality a little. A painting has different demands than a photographic rendition. Investigate several different compositional possibilities in these sketches. Sketch like a composer: make it recognizable, but definitely not a literal depiction of reality.

When you choose your strongest, most powerful pencil sketch as the basis for your painting, it guarantees an 80% successful painting beforehand.

Don’t put it in jail.

Group your subject in about five large shapes, using soft edges to blend many shapes together. This gives them air and lets them breathe. “Don’t put them in jail.” This way, the subject as such disappears, to become part of a larger whole. You avoid having a bunch of disjointed small shapes when you join them into a smaller number of abstract forms. Similar tones or hues are proven ways to glue them together, and turn a messy, chaotic image into a harmonious whole.


Place the most prominent details along the edges of those forms as much as possible, so they don’t act as separate elements causing restlessness in the composition. This way you don’t give more attention to the details than necessary, while enlivening the edges of the larger shapes.


Don’t be afraid to keep large parts of the work quiet, in contrast with the more active and detailed part at the focal point. An additional advantage of this is that those quieter parts require less painting, hence there is less risk of making mistakes. Do make sure to enliven those quiet parts somewhat by using value or color gradation, or applying some spattering.

I’ve kept my advice to a minimum, as there are already (video) libraries full of titles such as “How to become a great artist in 10 lessons.” Too much advice will only keep you from experimenting for yourself, a precondition for your speedy and personal development.

I’ve added a few illustrations to clarify the text.

These are as neutral as possible so you won’t be distracted by an overly realistic subject, but can get to the heart of the matter more easily.

I also deliberately left out color advice to emphasize tonal values.

By the way, most well-known contemporary watercolor painters are tonalists rather than colorists. The reason is that a tonal painting isn’t that hard to do when you have the knowledge and skills, whereas a sparkling colorist work involves a lot more. As an experiment, try using a more exuberant color palette next to the safe – grays and earth tones – colors of the Hague School, but in a harmonious combination of course.

Next time I will delve a little deeper into such a colorist approach.


If you feel that you do need more technical know-how, I highly recommend Edo Hannema’s instructive and eminently readable blogs. www.edohannema.nl

©Kees van Aalst

This Lesson is translated by Mineke Reinders

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