Familiarity Breeds Carelessness

We’ve long known the old adage that familiarity brings contempt. Contempt may not always be apparent, but when we become too comfortable in our endeavors, it can show up in a certain amount of ambivalence or carelessness in our work. I’m no exception to the rule.

A friend whose artistic opinion I trust called my attention to it in my artwork. When I showed him a watercolor sketch I had recently completed, he pointed out that the work could easily have been simplified and that the juxtaposition of high and low values displaced the intended focal area.

He was absolutely right.

Any form of contrast is an important element of composition, one of the principal early lessons I had learned. And I had overlooked it!


The subject was an orchid, held upright by supporting stakes. Ideally, at least one of the stakes could have been omitted from the painting. Even worse, the low value and hard, straight lines of the primary stake were in sharp contrast with the soft, curvilinear sweep of the high-value plant beside it. This multiple contrast cried out for attention so the viewer focused on the stake instead of on the flowers.

Although there was little I could do at that stage to entirely remove the offending detail, the distraction the stake caused, as well as the related value problems, could both be modified to improve the composition.

I decided to do just that. I began by raising the value of the stakes and reducing the contrast between them and the high-value plant. There was little I could do about the straight lines’ contrast against the curves of the plant, but I softened their edges somewhat, which mitigated the effect.

The other half of the problem lay in the area of the flower itself. The low contrast surrounding the pale blossom couldn’t compete with the high contrast that the primary stake created.


Lowering the value of the background surrounding the white flower increased the contrast there. This, in conjunction with the reduced contrasts surrounding the support stake, shifted the focal area from the stake to the blossom, where it belonged. At the same time, the low saturation of the background called attention to the highly saturated red and yellow at the orchid’s throat, reinforcing the focal area and identifying a clear focal point within the broader focal area.

While adjusting values, I also exaggerated the shadows separating the petals to provide a greater sense of depth within the focal area. The remaining composition was left loose to suggest the other blossoms without providing unnecessary or distracting detail.

The question remains: In the future, how can I avoid manifesting contempt for the principles that underlie good composition? I expect that, just as I must consider my subject with fresh eyes before I ever lift a brush, I need to consider every painting from the dual perspective of an artist who is familiar with the subject and the fresh eyes of a viewer who is unfamiliar with it and has not seen the work previously.

Taking the role of an unfamiliar observer will allow me to become objective enough to evaluate whether it is as effective as it should be. And by stepping back into the role of the artist, I can determine what steps are needed to bring it closer to what it could be.

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