Developing My First Client’s Dream; and Lessons in Commanding the Observer’s Attention

A friend recently asked me to help him design a photography shoot, concentrating on composition.

I had just been practicing composition, so it was the perfect opportunity to play around and apply some new ideas.

Before we talk more about his photo shoot, let’s take this opportunity to chat about some really cool art shtuff: borders, focal areas, contrast, and “Commanding the observer’s attention,” as Jack Hamm states.

So, some quick thoughts…

First, the shape of the border establishes the potential mood of the composition. Square and circular borders lend themselves to potential moods different from rectangular borders, and even asymmetrical borders.

Second, by blocking in light, you create focal areas that direct the observer’s attention.

Third, high contrast commands more attention than low contrast.

Let’s take a look at some examples.

First, I established a personal challenge, “Show me 12 boundaries with a focal area.” Keeping it simple, simple, simple…


So I did some rectangles and some squares and some triangles. Notice that your eye naturally gravitates towards wherever I blocked the light in. This is in essence “Commanding the observer’s attention.”

Then I tried circles and diamonds, and just stuff…


I quickly grew bored, however, and asked myself, “What if the border itself was an object?” Thus I gave birth to some wicked logos, continuing to play around and keep focal areas and contrast in mind.


Then it was time to attack my friend’s composition project.

We hardcore negotiated on a contract, including sizing and deadlines, and settled on $2 per final drawing. (Jee-wiz, the things you do for friends!) 😉

He presented me with a pretty clear description of what he wanted and I responded with a sketch. He gave me feedback and again I responded with sketches until we came to a place that was nearest his vision.

In brief, the description was for a woman in a Victorian dress walking through the woods in morning light.


(Just ignore the box shaped woman, lol, this was my attempt to reaaaallly simplify things).

Notice how I’m trying to contain the dark figure of the woman within the rays of the morning light, establishing deep contrast.


…until eventually I was making fewer changes. This was fun because I could communicate a lot of information through simple figure and shape outlines and the general use of contrast and value.

After we decided on an appropriate thumbnail I was able to sit down and render a piece that was a bit more appealing.


In no was was the final piece perfect, and – always the self critic – I find many faults within it, but to my joy it helped my friend better envision a photo shoot he was planning, which was going to involve several employees, equipment, and a model.

By having a sketch on hand, it gave him a reference to help him prepare, and it gave me, well, $4… a step closer to my dream of earning a living as an artist.

I can’t wait to work with more people 🙂 Who’s next?

Enter a caption

Tonal Master Studies, After Ralph McQuarrie

Cloud City, After Ralph McQuarrie
Cloud City, After Ralph McQuarrie; done with a Palomino Blackwing pencil on a generic sketch pad and lots of patience…about 8 hours total

A great way to improve your eye and develop a good sense of tone is by copying your favorite artist’s color work in grey-scale. When looking at a composition, squint your eyes. The details will blur and you’ll be better able to detect the values of the colors, not just the colors themselves. This allows you to recognize the major light and dark areas, thus the parts that, as Jack Hamm says, “Commanding the observer’s attention.”

I’ve been a fan of Star Wars my entire life, and Ralph McQuarrie’s concept of cloud city was undoubtedly the biggest impetus in my “getting serious with art.” The original color images can be found in The Illustrated Star Wars Universe book.

All of these drawings were completed using a Palomino Blackwing pencil on a generic sketch pad with smooth paper. The Cloud City rendering took about 8 hours, first by blocking in the major shapes and the clouds, then adding the darkest parts, being careful not to intrude on the lightest sections, then slowly rending from light to dark. 🙂

Master Studies, After Ralph McQuarrie
Master Studies, After Ralph McQuarrie

Finale of the Skulls


Wolff’s Carbon 4B on Pro Art Smooth Newsprint 18″ x 24″ About 18 hours.

This composition is based on a series of references provided by the Watts Atelier online.

After three months of studying skulls, memorizing names of bones, measuring proportions, and sketching and rendering countless angles, something finally clicked. As soon as I attempted to illustrate the forms fading to black and to communicate variations in shade with line weight and tone, the rules of “Form shadows are soft, cast shadows are hard” really clicked for me. This was definitely a leveling up moment for me.

I can also thank John Asaro’s work for my understanding of this. I spent a lot of time admiring his cast and form shadows in his JOHN ASARO Presents BELLA DONNA: An Exhibition of Over 60 Life-Size Figurative Oils booklet.

I gotta admit, I’m really proud of this study 🙂 Although I intend to return to skulls soon enough, I felt like I finally graduated from them. (I also secretly intertwined my signature, “Soeller ’16”, in the teeth of the bottom middle skull, heehee) I’m framing this and hanging it in my room.

Onto the Planes of the Head!

Some personal history fer’ya

Well, I guess I might as well start talking. I figure a great way to begin is by discussing my history and relationship with art.

My family is full of artists. My mom’s mother, Shirley Pittman, was a plein air painter in the Central Coast. My aunt, Patricia Keillor, taught color theory at San Mateo College. Her husband, Frank Keillor, was a photographic journalist. My uncle, Eric Pittman, plays guitar and bass. My father’s mother Anne Soeller painted and wrote poetry. My mother plays in art and I still remember everything she’s made. My father is graphically talented and has made some cool stuff.

By spending time with them in their craft, they all planted a seed in my mind. And although for the most part I was too impatient and too anxious to study art as a child, I loved drawing and playing with color.

Growing up I’d try to compose art, but hardly any of it developed the way I saw it in my mind’s eye. And it was discouraging. I wished I had the skill. But I didn’t know how to develop the skill. From time to time I’d buy a book here or there and I would work on it for a bit and I’d give up on it, defeated. I didn’t know what or how to approach studying.

At an interesting stage of my life, at the ripe age of 29, I was ready to make some changes. I wanted to develop a skill I could both continue studying throughout my life and earn a living at.

When I decided to make a life out of this, I decided to seek and absorb the highest quality education I could acquire.

That’s when I found Jeffrey Watts video on youtube talking about training in art. He talked about practicing day in, day out, repeating steps over and over until they were intuitive. “Repetition is the mother of skill,” he said. He also said you could expect up to six years to become a well paid professional artist….woooooeee. Here we go.

I couldn’t immediately move down to Encinitas to attend his atelier, so in January of 2016 I began taking his online courses,, and things began to change. Rapidly.