Contemplating on Gradation


“Madonna and Child”
by Mary Pettis

Through the years I have been trying to follow my own counsel to fellow artists — basically, “Paint when you can’t paint!” Here’s an excerpt from a handbook I wrote for my students back in 1997, when my youngest of three was eleven years old and life was more hectic:

“So much of being an artist (and becoming a better artist) lies in taking time out to be sensitive to our surroundings. Pausing to paint pictures in our mind brings untold joy. Study and reflect on beautiful and great art and see how your information relates to it. Then humbly go back to nature and do the same thing. Through this process the artist in you will be astoundingly more mature the next time you pick up a brush. So do not feel badly when the rigors of life impose unwelcome sabbaticals from your work. They are a gift as well, and make you the person that you are. Use them wisely, and then come to your easel feeling ready, refreshed and blessed for the honor of the opportunity to unfold the artist within.”


“Water Lilies on Balsam Creek”
Mary Pettis

Critique Your Work

I still hold this philosophy — we can learn and grow without a brush in our hand. Of course we need to eventually get miles of canvas behind us, but when life takes us away from our easels, we can actually use that time to train ourselves to see more deeply. To that end, I have created for myself a list of 30+ words that aids me in critiquing my own work, and helps me to identify and understand what I am responding to in front of nature. One of those words is GRADATION.

How It Works For Me

Most of us are familiar with the basic instruction to look for the gradation in the shadow values, being darkest in the nearest upright plane, getting lighter and cooler as they recede. We know that color generally gradates from the highest, purest chroma in the foreground or by the focal point to more grave and neutral colors in the distance. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Understanding Gradation

Gradation is a property that shows up in all six of the tools we use: Line, Shape, Value, Color, Edge and Texture. When I find a subject that makes my heart skip a beat, even if I can’t paint it at that time, I look for the gradation elements that would help me tell my story more simply. I go down the list to identify what I love most about this subject in terms of our six tools. Here are some examples of leading questions I may ask myself:


Mary Pettis in progress


“Oliver 2016”
Mary Pettis

Gradation of Line
What is the main direction of the Line of this visual path? Does it start out strong and then direct my eye to relax and meander? Is its movement sympathetic to how I feel?

Gradation of Shape
What is the large pattern? Can it be cropped better? Can middle values be raised or lowered to connect with either the light shape or the dark? Chinese artists say: ‘Where is your dragon?’ Does the shape move from loud to quiet?

Gradation of Value
How does the value of the sky change as it moves away from the source of the light? How does the tree change in value from its center to the top?

Gradation of Color
How do the local colors of similar parts or objects differ and influence the surrounding colors along various planes and different parts of the painting?

Gradation of Edge
How does the backlit edge of the jawbone melt away as it follows up the form? How does one edge move from crisp to soft or lost?

Gradation of Texture
How heavily do the masses of lily pads form a sumptuous carpet over the glasslike surface of a reflecting pond? How do leaves or grasses appear to change in texture from side to side or near too far?

Closing Thoughts

As I compare and relate how one part of my subject flows into another, I sense a musical structure emerging. One note follows another to form a melody, with crescendos, phrases, and pauses corresponding directly to what I am feeling. I exaggerate what matters and edit what doesn’t. I have faith that there is a time for everything. I’ve been impatient and doubtful over the years that I will ever get what’s inside out. But in crazy times I have tried to grow as an artist even though I couldn’t be painting. Contemplating the visual gradation I perceive in nature is one of the things that has helped me along this path.

The power in a work of art depends on the depth of the artist’s insight of that object he contemplates. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson


“Spring Path”
Mary Pettis

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  • Joanna McKethan

    I love your word and entry into visual sharing. You have a softness which soothes the spirit. It helps me to see the technical truths more as a spiritual and emotional reality and flow more, rather than beat myself up during the process and outside t@he process, waiting to come back in. Thank you.

    • Mary Pettis

      Hi Joanna,

      Thank you for your kind words. They made my day!

      Isn’t it strange that it takes discipline NOT to beat ourselves up?!

      Best wishes and happy painting,

  • Suzanne Lago Arthur

    Thank you Mary for this post. It has spoken to me in such a direct way that I will be printing it out and tacking it onto my bulletin board in my studio so that it can stay top of my mind. There is an interconnectedness to everything in life, it is important to honor or at least understand the ebb and flow of things especially for those of us who must juggle several responsibilities at once (mother, artist, teacher etc.). I know that I will now look more closely in my work and in my life for those transitions that create rhythm and beauty. Thank you for you insight Mary. Your words are a gift.

    • Mary Pettis

      Thank you so much, Suzanne. Your letter really makes me feel that taking the time to share a bit of philosophy is worthwhile. My appreciation to you!