Percy Principles of Art and Composition
  • Percy Principle #1 -  Avoid a sore thumb.  Nothing in the composition should be so strong that the rest of the composition looks neglected.  When you have a sore thumb, you do not notice the rest of your hand.  Avoid the SORE THUMB.  I study my composition to see if anything looks too important, I change that part to make it less important, OR I find something else in the composition and make it more important. However, even scars add interest, emphasis, and expression if they are integrated into the whole.
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  • Percy Principle #2 - Keep everything connected.  Connect each part of the composition to something else in the composition.  I think of this as Theme with Variation.  If I use a big red circle, perhaps I need another circle or another red or another big thing.  I probably should not have another big red circle.  If I use a black and white cow, I may need another animal or organic shape, or I may need another instance of black and white spots, etc., and so on.

  • Percy Principle #3 - Include Secrets.  Artwork is more interesting and expressive if it has hidden features and ideas that it only reveals to diligent observers.  The popular arts, by contrast with fine art, make everything obvious at first glance.

  • Percy Principle #4 - Challenge common assumptions.  Strong artwork often makes the viewer question prior assumptions about the world.  Is my artwork making an ARGUMENT?  What does my artwork have to offer that the viewer may find incomprehensible, disagreeable, or contentious?  By contrast, popular arts tend to support popular ideas and assumptions in simple straightforward ways.

  • Percy Principle #5 - Cherish Mistakes.  Mistakes are fascinating gifts, and what we do with them makes all the difference.   It is hard to plan creative work, but when a mistake happens, I am given a gift.  When I respond to the mistake and make a new thing from it, I do not have to borrow other artist's ideas to be creative.  It has emerged as my solution.  On the other hand, when the mistake is an obvious failure, it means that I have to get to work, do research, experiment, or simply PRACTICE MORE.  These are all positive outcomes.  Percy Principle #1 was about sore thumbs. Mistakes are sometimes like sores that make something less boring and more fun to see. I leave enough scars to keep the story interesting and expressive.
    Also see - Dennett, Daniel C. (1995) "How to Make Mistakes." In: J. Brockman, K. Matson (eds.) How Things Are. New York: William Morrow and Company: 137-144.

  • Percy Principle #6 - Be Accident Prone.  Accidents in art are tragic or happy - depending on the artist's disposition to respond.  The benefits of accidents and mistakes are very similar.  They both present unexpected problems or opportunities.  If one of my soft clay pieces accidentally falls off a ware board, it presents itself to me as an idea for a wall plaque, wall vase, mirror frame, or something else not yet imagined.  If a large bowl form falls flat and becomes a platter, it may not be functional, but it can be transformed into relief sculpture.  This particular piece of clay can be thrown in the rework, but the images presented to me are filed in my mental hard drive.  A series of wall pieces or platters may emerge from the ideas presented by the accident.  Creative people prize accidents and mistakes precisely because accidents move the mind to places it does not voluntarily go.  Creativity is not simply problem solving.  Experts may be good at problem solving, but the highly creative also love the art of "problem finding".  
    Accidents and mistakes are such useful problem finding techniques that we need to practice them.  Some lessons can have "intentional accidents" as part of the lesson.  It is a way to learn how to generate problems and ideas.  
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  • Percy Principle #7 - Never borrow other artist's ideas.  Steal 'em!   Ideas are free for the taking. Ideas are all around us in the vapor of existence. Images and particular arrangements of words, on the other hand, are copyrighted. Inventions are patented. Copyrights and patents are "intellectual property", but ideas and concepts belong to everybody. They are in the public domain - always have been. If I find a good idea, a truth, I do not want to borrow it. I do not want to return it. I want to appropriate it, test it, and make it my own. I own it. Like the thief, I want to steal it so I can tell it, paint it, and fling it in clay and glaze.  Ideas are free.  The ability to express a good idea is a valuable artistic ability.
    Source: I was introduced to this Principle by Nick Lindsay, poet and son of Vachel Lindsay, poet.  In 1972, as he was helping me build our house, I asked Nick if he felt like borrowing another poet's ideas.  He said, "Never borrow 'em.  STEAL 'EM.  Make 'em your own.  Don't plan to give 'em back."
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  • Percy Principle #8 - Make it memorableStrong and authentic artwork is hard to forget. Does it imprint on the viewers' brains? When they see it again, do they know they have seen it? Does it still make an impression? Does something make it unique? Does it have a fragment of truth not seen in other work? Is it primal? Does it spark a response? It is like an earworm--a song that gets stuck in their brains?

This list of principles is a "work in progress".  I make no claim of originality here but neither are they copied or simply borrowed.  I make no claims of infallibility.  However, I offer these ideas, for what they are worth, because they are ideas that I own and find useful to consider as I work.  You may also find them worth owning - not just borrowing.  If you are an artist who has another important principle, I would love to hear from you.  If you find flaws or question any of these principles, I would be pleased to hear your response.

written by Marvin Percy Bartel

updated October 6, 2012


All rights reserved, Marvin Bartel © 2004. You are invited to link this page to your page. For permission to reproduce or place this page on your site or to make printed copies, contact me.   Author bio

Marvin Bartel, Ed.D., Emeritus Professor of Art, Adjunct in Art Education
Goshen College, 1700 South Main St., Goshen IN 46526


Other related and recommended sites:

HOME page on Teaching Artistic Thinking - Essays and Lessons by the same author
An example Rubric to evaluate artwork
List of Assignments and Studio Projects
Group Assessment Form for this used for some group assignments
How to Plan Art Lessons  (you can check this one to see if my plans are similar to what I want you to do)
www.bartelart.com to see an art teacher's artwork

Archive of Courses previously taught including ceramics, photography, art education, and house design.
Goshen College Art Department, Goshen College Home Page


Drawing to Learn DRAWING

by Marvin Bartel - 2010 - is Now Available

http://www.bartelart.com/arted/book/Drawingbookorder.html

This is a book written for kids who can read who want some good ways to practice their drawing skills. Us older folks who still want to learn new stuff can also use this book. It is also great for artists who want some ideas on how to help children learn to draw better. If you are an artist, you could start a Drawing Camp or some after school art classes using the ideas in this book. Parents can use this book plan a really cool and creative kids art party. Many art teachers will find new ideas and inventions never before published.

It is a low-cost online pdf downloadable book. You can read it on the computer or print it out.

See the order page for a
Table of Contents and more about this book