'The first things I look for on arriving at a spot which has appealed to me are the shapes rather than objects,' says Mike Bernard. 'It is largely the fact that boats, harbours and docks provide a rich variety of interesting shapes that make me turn to these for source material.

'Essentially, what interest me principally are man-made angular shapes – flat shapes which are potentially capable of being rendered in an abstract form. Such shapes are quite different from those which are found in a garden, for example they are harder, with straight lines and angles rarely seen in nature. Appealing as natural shapes may be, for me they do not provide that spur which I seem to need, and they do not in my view lend themselves so readily to abstraction as man-made objects do'.

Things to look for:

  • Boats, especially boats in clusters
  • Harbour walls
  • Jetties
  • Silhouettes
  • Skylines
  • Buildings in outline
  • Rooftops and chimneys
  • Masts
  • Cranes

These work, not because of what they are as objects, but because they can help create an exciting pattern, look for:

  • Shapes which will create a pattern
  • Repetition
  • Individual patterns which will combine into a larger pattern
  • Diagonals
  • The effect of light and shade, where this helps create the pattern
  • Negative shapes, i.e. the shapes between objects

Where possible do a representational sketch on the spot - or take photograph if you don't have time to do a sketch – in order to see what needs to be left out, moved or brought in to make a satisfactory composition.

Developing the design

It is good practice to experiment with making patterns from a subject in black and white as a thumbnail sketch prior to embarking on a full-scale painting in order to find the best balance and format for a simple underlying composition. Although Mike says that he 'doesn't always do this, preferring to be an explorer in the new territory of the painting. Sometimes I will create a three-tone collage initially, to look for likely shapes'.

Begin by putting down interesting outlines and blocks of colour on the board. Once you have put down the first shape, try to repeat it elsewhere on the painting, but in a different size, in a different context, in a different colour or from a different angle.

Cluster of Boats, Cornwall, mixed media, (10 x12in.) The repetition of rounded shapes of boats gives a rhythm to the picture.

Shapes and patterns which repeat each other have the effect of causing the eye to move around the picture, so strive to repeat shapes but build in differences in the repetition. These variations stimulate interest and make the picture dynamic rather than static. Diagonals have a similar effect, keeping the eye moving. Masts of boats are particularly useful in this way, for they not only keep the eye moving but they also serve to link different parts of the picture – the foreground to the sky, the water to the buildings, for example. For example, you could repeat the shape of a boat several times, but view the boat from a different angle or by leaning a mast over to create a diagonal or to link two areas (see St. Ives, below, Cluster of Boats, Cornwall, above, and Fishing Huts, Swanage, below).

St. Ives, mixed media, )18x24in.) Note the repetition of shapes of houses, chimneys and rooftops, reducing in scale to carry the eye into the picture. The cluster of boats is also painted in a repetitive fashion using the same sorts of marks made with card.

Fishing Huts, Swanage, mixed media, (17x22in.). This shows use of repeated verticals serving to link beach to sky.

Also look for light and shade where these will contribute to the overall pattern, You can invent or move patches of light or shade in order to help create an interesting design (see Polperro, below).  The repetition of patches of colour form an important part of the pattern and help to keep the eye moving around the picture.

Polperro, mixed media, (23x16in.) Note the pattern made by areas of light, shade and colour.

Tools and Techniques

Fishing Boat, Cornwall, mixed media, (12x15in.)  Note areas of light and shade, and verticals linking water to sky.

To make elements of the pattern, you can use a variety of tools and techniques – for example, ink applied with broad and fine pen or brush, acrylics spread on with pieces of mountboard cut to small or large sizes, oil or soft pastel stick used on its side, as well as watercolour or oil paint used in a conventional way.

Mike sometimes draws into the design with pencil or with sharpened bamboo to create a continuous line where the pattern demands this.

Fishing Boat, Cornwall (above) and Beach Scene (below) are completed paintings which illustrate the results of this approach.

Beach Scene, mixed media, (10x12in.) Note use of areas of bold colour to make an abstract pattern. Also the use of complementary colours – for example, orange umbrellas against the blue sky.

What if the painting doesn't work?

You won't always produce a satisfying painting, of course. No matter how much you have looked at the subject though a viewfinder, trying to find the best viewpoint, trying to cut some of the objects so that only a part of them appears in the picture (for this helps to increase their abstract quality), sometimes the resulting picture can lack impact.


At this stage the practice of cropping can prove invaluable– using two L-shaped pieces of mountboard to see whether a selected part of the painting will make a better composition. 

Sometimes this can have a dramatic effect, turning a horizontal format into a vertical one, focussing attention onto the main subject more forcefully, increasing the degree of abstraction, creating a better balance and so on.

Top tip

Before framing any painting it's seeing whether cropping would improve it. Mike regards this practice as an essential part of my procedure. Redundant Fishing Boats, Hope Cove has been cropped in this way.

Redundant Fishing Boats, Hope Cove, mixed media, (10x12in.) Cropped from a larger picture to focus attention on the shapes.

Take a look at our great guide to mixed media art with Robert Dutton.

This article was originally published in the April 2000 issue of The Artist

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