(by Shafik Al-Hamdani )

Since the early 1990s, when I first started painting, I was not only enjoying the paintings I found  “beautiful,” but also having a good time analyzing them and writing critiques on what makes them so attractive.  I was eager to answer the general question: “What constitutes ‘Beauty’ in art?”

Twenty-five years, or so, later, my persistent curiosity began to pay off. The mystery started to clear, gradually, before my understanding. I started to identify, name, and isolate certain painterly effects which appeared to me, without doubt, to lie behind those paintings’ aesthetic appeal. These effects are many, and they vary in the degree they strike the artistic sensibility of the viewer. So to simplify and keep the list memorable, here are the seven most important, in my view:

” Light is the largest gem in the crown of beauty ”   (Schopenhauer)

The illusion of luminosity is probably the most desirable effect a painting can have, but, for most artists, it is also the most difficult to achieve. It is when the canvas appears as if glowing from within, emitting light of its own ( not merely reflecting the light illuminating it. )

When competently done, luminosity is the result of a collaboration of at least four types of contrast, each at a certain level or degree. So for a color patch to appear luminous, it must be painted slightly lighter in value than its background, slightly warmer in hue, significantly more intense in chroma, and, fourthly, clearer/advancing in atmosphere.  The background, conversely, should be painted slightly darker, cooler, more muted, and atmospherically foggier/receding.

Examples from modern painting are hard to find, but they abound in the work of the great colorists like Titian & Turner. See Titian’s “Portrait of Pietro Aretino” (the Florence version);  Turner’s. “The Slave Ship”, and “The Fighting Temeraire”; and Velasquez’s “Portrait of Innocent X”.

” The unlike is joined together, and from differences, results the most beautiful harmony. ”   (Heraclitus)

This is the beauty of different hues interacting on the canvas’ surface with living tensions. Chromatic tensions neither too weak as to give rise to monotony (a cardinal sin of art), nor too strong as to be discordant. The painted surface appears animated with energy and vibration everywhere.

The great merit of van Gogh’s whole oeuvre, in my view, is one of harmony.  “Harmony whose interconnections involve Truth”, without any “dislocation of falsehood.”  Look, e.g., at his “Wheat Field with Cypresses”;  note how gently the warm, yellowish, clouds mingle with the cool blues and bluish-greens of the sky, down to the bluish-grey of the distant hills: no one color takes more than its rightful share in the final appearance. Colour Harmony par Excellence!

3. GRACEFUL AGE.  ( Patina )
“Colour cannot at once be good and gay. All good colour is in some degree pensive, the loveliest is melancholy.”   (Ruskin)
“…rich, not gaudy:…).    (Shakespeare)

This quality is what separates the color of fine art from that of signs and posters. Raw “tube” coloring is the trademark of beginners.
Technically, a rich color has a Spectral Reflectance Curve of a wider plateau and lower amplitude, indicating that it reflects not only its own wavelength, but also portions of its neighbours‘ on the color circle.  

This richness gives color it’s characteristically deep, “pensive”, sometimes even “melancholy” appearance (in Ruskin’s apt vocabulary).  Two good examples of such deeply touching colors are the yellow in “Deep within the Ravine”, and the red in “Profound Longing”, both are late Hans Hofmann works.

“…light colours are always next to dark ones of a different genera. This combining of colours will enhance the attractiveness of the painting by its variety, and its beauty by its comparisons.”  (Alberti)

This is the beauty of seeing many colors together on the same canvas. When done effectively, a multi-hue painting can evoke a sense of unimaginable joy, exuberance, and bliss.  But the risk, when not done well, is falling into confusion, cacophony, and discord.

The Fauve painters (Matisse, Derain, Vlaminck, …) wallowed in the ravishing beauty of colour for its own sake. See, e.g., Matisse’s “Open Window–Collioure” and “Siesta”, and Vlaminck’s “Le Jardinier”

“… the really greatest thoughts of the greatest men have always … been reached in dead colour, and the noblest oil pictures of Tintoret and Veronese are those which are likest frescoes.” (Ruskin)

“The craft of stone-mason is probably the most noble of all crafts.” (Unknown)

This is the beauty of color seen in its mass-tone, in full plaster-like opacity, without any embellishment from cheap glazing, scumbling,    translucency, … etc.  The painted surface appears extremely dense, hard, and substantial. It seems to have a very strong existential presence.

To me, “Opacity” is becoming a synonym of “Truth” in painting, and “Full opacity” the “Whole Truth”.  My love of van Gogh’s work is mainly because it is uniformly SOLID (impasto) throughout the canvas, and not only in select spots, here and there, as done by most artists before him.
A few examples of Solidity are Nicolas de Stael’s “Fugue,” and his “L’Orchestre,”  along with Rita Letendre’s Momet,” and “Reseaux D’Intrigue.”

“Nay! the rudeness of the work increases its grandeur, as it excludes the idea of art and contrivance.” (Edmund Burk)

“Such harmonious madness / From my lips would flow”(Shelley)

There is seductive beauty in impetuous execution;  when the artist forgets for a while all about skill, rules, timidity, care, ego, and self-awareness and plunges into completely unfettered action.  The result is a work that looks artless, effortless, accidental, childlike, unpolished, and yet full of energy and animation.

One shouldn’t, however, make spontaneity of handling the “content” of the work.  Rather, only as a beautiful garb to dress a worthier artistic effect like harmony or luminosity.
See the stunning beauty, the “harmonious madness”, of Joan Mitchell’s brushwork in her masterpiece “Sunflowers” 1990/1991.

“Paint laid on with quite an outrageous prodigality cannot only be seductive but most subtly and mysteriously alive.” (David Sylvester)
“Colour and texture in painting are ends in themselves.” (Malevich)

Paint has a powerful physical presence.  It invites, even begs, touching. A painting must express the qualities of its medium (paint) in all its beauty and succulence, and not solely be concerned with the subject depicted.

Unfortunately, and without noticing it, the moment we start painting we also start “murdering” this precious quality of “fresh paint”.
The solution?  Apply the paint swiftly and leave it alone.  Don’t make revisits. Do the least amount of handling necessary to achieve beauty and nothing more. And certainly don’t polish; it’s the death knell of freshness.

As somebody said: “Don’t torture a painting that has already confessed.”  (I admit all this is easier said than done; after all, who amongst us painters can resist the joy of “improvising?”)
Examples:  Monet’s “The Church in Varengeville – morning”, and “The Belle-ile Rocks”

Of course there are other types of beauty in painting worth adding to the list above, like the beauty of SIMPLICITY in composition (Rembrandt’s  “Self-Portrait with Two Circles”), and the beauty of painting in CHROMATIC GREYS (Marsden Hartley’s “Birds of the Bagaduce”), but one has to draw the line somewhere.

Now until next time, it is time for me to sign off.

Mediums (Not the Spooky Kind)

Adding mixing media to your paint can be tricky

As we delve deeper into the world of paints and media and additives (mixing mediums), you will discover a whole spectrum of possibilities for your paint. You can go with straight paint our of the tube, liquid (usually acrylics) or you can add a mixing medium to enhance your paint.

If you want to use thick paint, add modeling paste or thick gel. Be careful when adding medium to your paints though, because there may be white tint in it so it could alter your color.

There is an interesting technique to add Marble Dust to your paint mix to create a paste that is a painter’s version of exterior stucco, for a rough stone-like texture. It’s so popular, you can get the Marble Dust Here

Help, I Have a Blank Canvas

Starting a new painting is much like a writer starting a new project. Writers are told to just write if they are stuck. Just do stream of consciousness until the brain kicks into gear. Well sometimes it’s the same thing for a painter. Sometimes just experimenting with colour and strokes is enough to engage the creative side.

No matter the level you are at, everyone experiences writer’s block, or for us, painter’s block. I tell every beginner and even some experienced painters, this is where a large sketch book or scrap book come in handy.

I have learned that if nothing comes to you when you sit down to paint, stand up. Just kidding. Writing or journalling in your sketch book is a great habit to get into. You can write what you learn from someone else, an idea for a painting, or an experiment. You can sketch an idea and work out the best composition before you start.

In other words, there is no bad journaling. Plus it gets the creative juices flowing. I have even done acrylic paint sketches in the book. If you don’t want to commit to a canvas or board, use paper. I like to experiment in my book though because I want a record of my progress. It’s sometimes encouraging to see that you did progress, especially on those days when you hate your work and yourself.

I encourage people of all ages new to the world of painting to start their first sketches and tests in a book. But a big roll of newsprint is ideal for multiple experiments. I have a friend who has an ideal approach to experimenting with color and technique. He cuts off 10 sheets off a roll of whatever size suits him and then proceeds to experiment until he is happy with his technique. Then he does a finished product on canvas or watercolor paper. This is an ideal approach.

When you wade into painting for the first time as an adult, cut yourself some slack. First of all. Everything you try will be rough, ugly and way below your expectations. That is to be expected. Determine that your first 100 paintings will be crap. If one shines, be happy, but don’t think you have arrived.

What most painters forget, or fail to see, is that the journey is the reward. The first handful of sold paintings will affirm your belief in yourself, but you have countless efforts to go. Now I was, in my opinion, very lucky to have struck oil on my first attempt. It went rapidly downhill from there. But after another 50 or so paintings, I began to sell paintings. Boy was I ever tickled when the first one sold. It never gets old.

I have a theory about finished, successful paintings. Even if they sit in the attic for years, someone is going to see it eventually and fall in love with it. It was the person who was meant to see it. I feel the good paintings belong to someone, I just don’t know who yet. It makes me so happy to see someone fall in love with my work. Putting money where their mouth is, verifies the compliments.

Let’s Go!

There are several ways to start a painting. The first is similar to writing. You don’t know what you’re thinking until you start writing. So in that vein, begin with cheap paint and a disposable medium like inexpensive paper or canvas pads or canvas boards.

I like to use disposable paper palettes, much like waxed paper. You can use something disposable like a plastic lid or foam plates and put out a variety of colors. I recommend starting with your three primary colors, red, yellow and blue. Add spots of white and a little black if you must.

Then select some common inexpensive paint brushes and begin your experiments. Use a pallet knife to mix your colors and wipe it off on paper towel. Keep a container of water nearby and you’re off.

Begin by mixing some colors together to see what happens. I’ll get into color theory later but for now just have fun mixing paints together and take some paint on a brush and start making marks. Experiment with different size brushes and see what you can make with each brush. Don’t worry about making a picture, just see how the brushes work. Try angle brushes (they taper from one side to the other at a 45 degree angle). You can make a huge variety of strokes with just one brush. Many watercolorists use the angle brush a lot for maximum flexibility of strokes.

Do not leave your brushes sitting in the water for too long and certainly don’t leave brushes with paint on them sitting on the bench for long. As you will find, the beauty of acrylic paint is it dries fast. paradoxically, the good thing about acrylic paint is it dries fast. So user beware and adjust.

Speaking of dry paint on brushes, I’ll detour for a sec. You can rescue them mostly by dipping them briefly in methyl hydrate or rubbing alcohol. The alcohol melts acrylic paint like magic.

I know this is painfully basic stuff at the moment, but I can’t assume everyone is advanced. Moving on. Let me be clear. You never achieve all the effects you’re looking for with brushes or palette knives. It has been said that every painting is a success because you learn something new from it. Even if you only learn what doesn’t work. We are always learning, so if you can’t succeed in making a “nice friendly tree,” right away, the practice session on scrap paper or in your notebook will always be a great place to learn.

One thing that bothers or distracts new painters is what kind of media to use. Even the most experienced painters will switch from one type of paint to another on occasion. Painters are always growing, adjusting, experimenting and combining methods. We will even use thing not intended for paint. Some will use cement or grouting trowels on a large canvas. Monet used a six-foot long stick taped tpo his brush to get a better vantage point and to force himself to use looser brushstrokes.

Media- As In What To Work With

Oil paint is workable for a long time and has a unique texture

The Wonderful World of Painting

Painter Painting  Painter
Acrylic on canvas, 24×18″ 2014

So you want to know more about painting. Well, that’s a deep subject (Pun intended). I guess we need to find a starting point. If you are new to painting, welcome. If you’re already well versed in painting and have some skills, please bear with me as we tackle the basics for a few posts.


First, let me tell you how I got started painting pictures. I painted houses for 30 years, almost entirely in Toronto and Timmins Ontario. I finally got the nerve to start painting art in my late 30’s in the mid 90’s.

Oh, it wasn’t a driving urge to paint since childhood. Sadly I didn’t have any encouragement to be creative while I was growing up. Quite the opposite actually. In the 1960’s art was barely acknowledged in Nova Scotia schools. It was deemed extra curricular entertainment and thus unimportant in school.

Yes, I painted as a child and had one friend of the family work with me on a few watercolors. It didn’t kindle anything much in me at the time. I didn’t like the look of watercolors but ironically, at the age of 10 or so, I remember saying to a friend that it must be nice to live off your art or hobby. Even at that age I was yearning to create but was convinced there was no way you could live off of art.

In my 30’s in Toronto, I befriended, Mildred, a friend of my mother. She lived near me and was alone in her 70’s. So we began going to art galleries and plays and movies and then out for dinner. We began to notice that people were scandalized by us, assuming we were a couple. So we of course hammed it up, snuggling and holding hands, just to see the shocked looks. We laughed a lot.

But my cultured friend introduced to more than good food. Mildred took me to places of art. We hit all the usual spots, like the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Royal Ontario Museum, but just as informative were the abundance of small galleries all over teh city.

It was with her guidance I began to see art not only as beautiful, but doable. After one outing to the AGO, absorbing the Group of Seven art of the early 1900’s, we sat down at her place and took out her oil paints. She dared me to try to paint what I thought was doable. Specifically, I adored the very simple but complex works of Tom Thompson.

She told me what I tell all beginners, “take some paint and see how it works, draw or experiment and see how mixing it works.” Much to my surprise, a simple landscape with trees, house, wood rail fence and river, appeared as if by magic.

Beginning With Paint

Since there are so many painters and artists in the population, art materials are no longer specialty expensive items. Now they are consumer goods. Anyone anywhere can get them. I won’t bog you down with specific brands at this point. We are only going to talk in general terms for now.

There are countless books on techniques and materials. Again i will avoid specific books for now. You need to start where you think your strengths might be. Pencils and paper are cheap. Go to a dollar store and you get a great starter kit of sketch pad and pencils for under $10. You can even get cheap paint and canvases to start playing with.

Now don’t confuse crafter’s paints with art paint. But it is a place for kids to start. Craft paint is cheap and easy to clean up. It will help the novice understand how to mix colours and how to make shapes. Art student paint is low-grade artist paint. Again, cheap and wonderful for learning on and using by the gallon if need be.

Once you get serious about your art, then begin investing in higher quality paint. This is fuller body paint and nonfading, intended to last for many decades. Then when you are skilled, selling and can afford it, you move up to professional quality paint. But let’s get back to basics.

The Ugly Word in Painting

No matter what level of painting you are at, you need to PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. Sorry about that, but there it is. When I teach children, I drill into them the need to ask their parents to let them practice weekly at least, or more if possible. The reason is I want them to create the habit of creativity early in life.

Are you still here after I swore at you with the P word? Good. Now as you begin to create something from nothing, you will experience a wide range of emotions. None of them are true indicators of your progress. You will experience joy, happiness, impatience, frustration, sadness, jealousy, embarassment, triumph and more.

But the farther we proceed into creativity in general and painting in particular, we get more philosophical about it. But it still comes down to practice, especially when you don’t feel like it. As we mature, we learn from our mistakes and we grow as we correct. The same thing applies to creativity. If you only learn how this colour reacts with that colour, or how to make the brush stroke that gives you what you want, you progress.

Sometimes we like a part of a failed painting. Learn from it and move on. Very, very few people are fantastic painters from the start. It’s a Hollywood myth to move a story line along. Yes there are terrific natural painters, but even they have to practice. If anything, they practice more than the rest of us.

Learning theory, reading, watching videos on YouTube and researching styles on Google is a great pastime. But sooner, we hope, you sit down and practice what you see.

What happens with creativity is the better you get, the more you love it. When that happens, you mind the effort less. You begin to look forward to it. The easiest thing in the world sadly, is LIFE GETS IN THE WAY OF PAINTING.

There comes a time when school work and teachers can drive the desire out of you. Or making a living and providing for the family becomes all-encompassing. DON’T let it happen. Carve out time in the week to keep up the painting. I won’t insult you by saying it’s easy. It isn’t. But don’t wait until you’re retired to start painting seriously. You will kick yourself. Hard. If you spend decades practicing, you WILL produce great works of art.

But if you wait until everything is convenient or for once you retire, how many decades do you think you have left to paint? From what I see around me and from what I’ve read, you don’t have as much time as you think. As they say, the graveyard is the saddest place on Earth, because there is so much unfulfilled potential in there. Think of all the unwritten books, unwritten music or unpainted pictures, or simply so much untapped creativity buried there. And mostly because of fear of failure. So, will your creativity be buried with you?

To Live and Die with Art

I’m a painter. I’m not even ashamed to say so. The palette knife is my favorite tool but I do use the brush. I’m not the worst or even in the middle among the millions of artists around the world.

But let’s face it. No matter how good we think we are, there is always someone better at expressing themselves in our chosen area of expression. So the only person you can and should compare yourself to is yourself. That is so easy to say but human nature is irresistible. So the best we can do is to remind ourselves that improvemnt is the real goal, no matter what level you’re at.

It’s not for me to tell you how you should paint, or which style is best. In the following blog spots, I will always swear at you by saying the only thing you SHOULD do is…..PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.

You still here after seeing those words? ALL methods, ideas, techniques and styles always come down to practice. I will try to share my knowledge, some methods, and some ideas, but let’s be honest with ourselves; there’s no magic method. No door, once entered, to greatness. If you don’t spend the time to perfect your art, you will never get anywhere close to satisfaction.


Artists don’t have to be driven. They have to be disciplined. Ouch! That applies to me as well. Because of my own family commitments, I have only two mornings a week in which to practice my art at a nearby art clubhouse studio. Yes, I study online but hands-on time is limited. So I try to make the most of it.

Working together on occasion is an asset to any kind of artist. I reccomend it to everyone. Sometimes I sit and chat with one or more of the painters who show up as well. Painting is often a solitary exercise, but rubbing elbows with other artists can invigorate you and inspire you. You can learn a lot by watching or chatting with each other. The only real requirement is to want to continue to grow as an artist. But even on those days, I will force myself to sit for a few minutes and at least journal in my scrapbook.

It’s always great fun to poke around on YouTube, Pintrest,  Google or social platforms for ideas, but it still comes down to breaking out the tools and doing something. I’ve heard it said that it takes 500 paintings to begin to create your own style and be ready to begin to be called a painter. 

I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to unload a handful of paintings but on the whole, I’m still practicing my technique. The less you practice, the longer it takes to become confident in what you do. But the more you work at it, the better you understand what you do. In today’s internet age, we are so blessed with an embarrassment of riches to study. People used to have to art school or university or even college, to be exposed to the wealth of artists we see for free through Google, YouTube, Pinterest and Instagram.

So really my only foundational advice for beginning artists and hobbists, is PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE. 

Next Blog: The Wonderful World of Painting.