The Designer

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During many years of teaching, I have emphasized to my students that CONCEPT is the first consideration when beginning a painting…What do you want to communicate to the viewer, and how best can that be communicated? When the concept is clear, it gives direction for the work to follow.

John MacDonald, in one of his recent newsletters, asks the question, “What kind of painter are you?” He says it’s important to be able to address that question because it will help answer two other important questions: “What is the intention for your painting, and what is your painting about?”

He breaks those intentions down into five categories: Poet, Reporter, Storyteller, Designer, and Virtuoso. He stresses that “these are generalizations but each category has a different intention and focus. It’s helpful to determine which category fits us because deepening our understanding of why we paint in general can help us determine the message of individual paintings and also help identify skills needed for each.”

There may be some overlap of categories, in other words, a painting may include both reporter and storyteller categories; what MacDonald emphasizes is that only one message should dominate, the other should remain secondary. As we analyze the artist Designer, there is no question as to his intention. The Designer’s paintings are the most distinctive and sharply focused of all categories. (Click images to enlarge)

Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) – “Virgilius the Sorcerer” – 9″ x 5″ – Ink


The Designer

When the word Designer entered the English language in the 1600s, it meant “one who schemes.” I find that hilarious but also somewhat true in its broader sense because the word eventually came to describe someone who figures out how something should look, especially something artistic. Some say that the average Designer tends to be agreeable and thoughtful in interactions, with a preference for stabilizing the environment rather than controlling it. There may be some truth in that as well.

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) – “The Barber Shop” – 60″ x 78″ – Oil


John MacDonald, who inspires this series of blogs, say “The Designer concentrates on the shapes of the composition, with an emphasis on clear, usually hard-edged outlines. More attention is paid to the graphic quality of the large shapes than to what occurs within them. Soft edges and subtle gradations are often omitted to deliberately flatten the space in the painting. It’s all about design. With an emphasis on the abstract quality of the composition, some paintings can become nearly pure abstractions. A Designer’s paintings are representational but never photographic.”

Charlie Hunter – “Call of the West” – 72″ x 48″ – Oil

Edward Seago (1910-1974) – “October Morning, upper Horning” – 12″ x 16″ – Oil


Design is not the sole purview of the artist Designer. Every artist is a designer, in fact design/composition is a cornerstone of every great work, whether that be painting, sculpture, photography, buildings, vehicles, or furniture. For the artist Designer, however, there is particular emphasis given to the overall shape of the design within the two-dimensional restraints.

John Carlson in his book, “Guide to Landscape Painting”, defines design as “decorative composition.” By that he means “the arrangement of value-masses into a design, almost as a poster designer would proceed. It means weighing masses as areas and arranging and balancing them into a pattern that will be interesting and beautiful because of the infinite variety of shapes, lines, sizes, and the forms of these.”

Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) – “Fruit” – 26″ x 17″ – Lithograph (1897)

Thomas Blackshear II – “Native American Nouveau” – 38″ x 48″ – Oil


Art Nouveau (New Art) was a  modernist movement from 1890-1910. It took its inspiration from organic subjects. These were abstracted and flattened into sophisticated, sinuous, flowing motifs of elegant design. The style emphasized fluidity of line, geometric shapes, asymmetrical composition and a bold synthesis of decoration and structure. Some of those qualities are seen, and most likely influenced artists of the day.

Maynard Dixon (1875-1946) – “Home of the Desert Rat” – 35″ x 39″ – Oil


Contemporary Western Art is being invigorated by an exciting new breed of visionary artist Designers such as Thomas Blackshear, Russell Case, Eric Bowman, among others. Drawing from the past, they have infused the Western Art genre with a new and exciting look.

Eric Bowman – “Picture Show” – 30″ x 30″ – Oil

Russell Case – “Summer Mesa” – 22″ x 34″ – Oil


In closing, John MacDonald, the inspiration for this series of blog posts, shares specific skill that the artist Reporter must have. “Every painter, regardless of the role he or she plays, needs good compositional skills. But a Designer requires an even greater ability to compose and an exquisite sensitivity to flat pattern and design – of how shapes interact to lead the eye and create a rhythm and flow in the painting. Shapes are hard-edge and the space is flat. It’s no accident that those artists with graphic design in their backgrounds tend to excel when playing the role of the Designer.”

Next week: The final installment of this 5-part series…The Virtuoso.


To view John MacDonald’s website, click HERE.

To view Thomas Blackshear’s website, click HERE

To view Eric Bowman’s website, click HERE

To view Russell Case’s website, click HERE

To view Charlie Hunter’s website, click HERE


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