Thursday, March 1, 2018

An Approach to a New Subject

I live in a coastal area that is profoundly flat and I am primarily a landscape painter.  Tidal marshes and flat seascapes figure prominently in my work.  I do not  have the luxury of those dramatic cliffs and waves crashing on rocks.  Occasionally I sneak out to paint vertical scenes and it is a welcome change,  but since those opportunities are infrequent I like to mix it up with other types of subject matter.

Recently I came upon this photo in my "Art Ideas- animals" file-

I had never painted any part of a peacock though I have many photos, most of which are of the entire bird.  I don't know why I zoomed in on this draped tail (called a train) but when I reviewed it I thought it looked like an elegant wall hanging.  Although a bird, this stuck me as a found still life.

Here I share my process, both thought and painting-

1.  This was taken on an overcast day though there is some shadow and light apparent on the feathers.  My idea was to increase the value range with a dark somewhat transparent background and brighter saturated color in the lightest areas to create dimension.

2.  I didn't want to simplify the feathers very much but did want to lose the chain link fence which was distracting, especially near the edges of the image.

3.  I started with a block-in using my darkest dark- burnt sienna and ultramarine blue, both of which are semi-transparent.  For the very darkest areas I painted a little ivory black into my mixed dark (more on that later).  I used a little mineral spirits on a rag to carve out the lightest part of the feathers.

The feathers needed a lot of refinement in shape and location but this was an underpainting I thought would create the effect I wanted.  Even at this stage I tried to use brushstrokes that suggested the fine feathers, planning to let some of this show through in the finished painting.

4.  Before the end of the first session I started adding some more saturated color in a mid range value and defining the brighter areas with a lighter value.  I still have not come in with my lightest lights.  At this point I called it a day, wanting to take a break and take it slow.

5. In session two I brought in the stars of the show, my thalos- blue, green and turquoise. I use these about once a year but this was the day!  I still kept ultramarine blue in the picture and made a lot of little paint piles with variations.


For the silvery feathers I mixed a light violet using cad red and ultramarine blue (plus white).  I am approaching my lightest lights in many areas.  At this point I decided to let it dry completely.  I was painting on a piece of canvas and I wanted to mount it on a panel and apply retouch varnish before proceeding to what would hopefully be the last session.

6.  In the third session I added the lightest values, adjusted some shapes, and developed the finer feathers throughout the painting.  I also glazed some more burnt sienna on the peripheral dark areas in an effort to make them more luminous.  

"Eyespots"  14"x11" oil on linen panel

About tube blacks, I was told early on by many instructors not to use them.  I rarely do as a result and usually mix my darks for a near black color.  However, ivory black with yellow makes a lovely gray green and painting some black into dark areas is helpful if you want to make them darker as I did here in the block in.  When painted wet into wet with other colors it is no longer tube black.  Don't be afraid to use black if you need it, just be judicious, and never use it by itself to paint a black object.

Thanks for reading.  Lastly, many thanks to my handsome model!


Monday, January 22, 2018

Combining Reference Material to Get What You Want.

Recently I was asked to paint a local landscape for a friend and was given free reign about the specifics.  That is the best kind of commission.  No bad photo to make the most of or specific landmarks to deal with.  I decided I would try a dramatic sky/sunset over our flat marshlands.  I went to my "ideas" file of skies and picked this one-

I love the colors and light in the sky as well as the reflections, but there are a couple of problems here.  We know that photos lie, especially in high contrast conditions.  I took this photo recently and I remember that the land mass was not black.  It might be almost black at night, but there was still quite a bit of light at this time.  Besides that, this is a very boring composition.  There are 3 shapes (sky, land, water) that are very close to the same size.  The tree line has the pines and deadwood that are typical in our area, but it practically forms a wall across the scene.

So, back to my "ideas" file of local landscapes.

This is much more interesting.  There is a nice water shape to lead the eye into the painting and to allow for reflections.  The tree line is very characteristic, but tapers off for a long marsh view.  The small structures in the distance don't add anything and can be substituted for more distant trees.  But this is an afternoon photo which wasn't what I wanted.

While looking at the second photo I blocked in the darks and the shape of the water. Once I worked out the composition I only looked at the first photo for the drama in the sky and the water.  I kept a little bit of light in the land mass, avoiding a black flat shape.

This was local scenery, which was requested, but I took the liberty of using photos from two different sites, each with something of interest.

Save your reference photos and mix it up!  Many of us are having a tough winter.  It is a good time to organize your files and find inspiration.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

How to Save Paint (and How Not To)

Let's face it, paint is expensive.  While I think it is OK for beginners to use student grade paint, as soon as it becomes clear that they will continue to paint it's time to spring for the expensive stuff.  Student grade has more filler and less pigment, possibly making it less economical in the long run.

One very basic way to save money on paint is to use a limited palette.  The less colors you use the less you buy.  That may sound nonsensical, but think fewer of the large economical tubes.  If you mix your greens you won't wind up with numerous tubes of greens that you rarely or never use.  That is wasted paint/money and I have an impressive pile. Many of mine were on the supply lists for workshops, sometimes not even used in the actual workshop and certainly not after.  Others were colors I just HAD to have when I saw a beautiful painting and asked the artist what was used.  That was before I had a better understanding of how color harmony and temperatures make paintings work, rather than "that color".

Another thing to try, both paint saving and a good exercise,  is to mix your leftover paint from a session to make a "mother gray" for the next one, or even to use to tone some canvases.  Using a gray you mix yourself can unite a painting and use paint you might have wasted.

Try to get the most out of every tube.  For the studio I buy the large tubes and I wait for sales.  As the tube empties I use a heavy duty tube wringer to completely empty it.  This is the link to the one I use. Heavy duty tube wringer  It is amazing how much paint is still in those large tubes when they appear to be almost empty. I use the metal wringer because I have heard complaints about the plastic ones.  That said, the heavy duty is- go figure- heavy, so it stays in the studio.  There is a light weight option for the small tubes I keep in my backpack for plein air outings.  Check it out- Small tube wringer.  It is handy but not as effective.

Once the tube is thoroughly wrung I don't stop there.  I saw an instructor do this in a workshop and wondered why I hadn't thought of it-

Using pliers squeese the top of the tube all the way flat on both sides.  See how much comes out of a small tube- imagine how much is still in a big tube!

You can also prolong the life of the paint on your palette.  I always transfer leftover paint from my plein air easel to my studio palette when I get home to use later.  This keeps my pochade box from becoming a dried up mess.  I keep my studio palette in a plastic box with a lid.  Though mine isn't airtight it still seems to slow the drying process.   I have tried putting wax paper on top of the paint which helps but is a bit messy. I recently heard that Press and Seal is very effective and the paint doesn't stick as much.  This is a grocery store product.

I never put my leftover palette paint in the freezer but apparently this works very well. There are various devices on the market to make this easy and convenient.  Maybe I'll try it one day but my freezer space is limited.  You can take a look at this one to get an idea- Paint Saver

For impasto work there are paint extenders that also add body to the paint to enhance the effect.  My favorite is Gamblin Solvent Free Gel.  In my experience it does not make the paint dry faster on the canvas but I love the way it adds body to the paint without diminishing its intensity.  Of course you have to buy the extender, but it costs less than some of the pricier colors.

Professional artists likely don't need to worry about this.  I know some who get free paint from companies they promote so they don't need to bother.  (They have enough work to do as it is.)  For me it is worth the extra effort.

This leads to one last thing- how NOT to save paint.  Sorry to yell, but DON'T TRY TO SAVE PAINT BY BEING STINGY WITH YOUR PALETTE.  You might as well put your paints away and not paint.  Old joke, but so true...  That said, pay attention to the colors you use in large quantities and those you don't.  I have wasted so much alizarin crimson over the years by putting out too much.  A little goes a long way.  I put out a lot of ultramarine blue, yellow and white because I use large quantities of those.  I use a lot less red and strong blues such as Prussian blue.

You can be economical with your paints, but paint liberally!

Happy Holidays!


Friday, November 17, 2017

Painting Out On Overcast Days (Revised)

I love drama and I usually try to create it using strong light and shadows.  Recently I reviewed my files of other artists' work and realized that most of the images involved bright light.  Depending on where we live many of us are faced with overcast conditions.  I'll admit that I often find excuses not to paint out on those days.  In low light the range of values is diminished.  The contrast is less dramatic and the colors less saturated.  Below is a plein air piece I painted on a very gray day-

While I was painting, a patch of blue sky developed and I quickly blocked it in using white and tiny touches of Prussian blue and cad. yellow light.  Even though there is no direct sunlight on the scene this created a break from all the gray tones.  After I got to the studio I pushed the color a bit more.

Here is another plein air study on a gray day-

The darks in the clouds are too dark even though I wasn't painting from a photograph.  A value checker (red film) can help with this.  I reworked it later to add some warmer blue showing through and added more light on the trees.  I think these changes improved the painting.

Consider these thoughts about gray day paintings-

Try for a strong composition and make light and color less important.

The light does not change as quickly on overcast days so you can take more time to finish.

Look for spots of more saturated color for contrast (flowers, man-made objects, patches of blue sky showing through).  These colors will sing next to all the gray.

Try enhancing atmospheric perspective (fog, mist).

Look for water reflections.  Make some up by adding a pond or puddle if you can do that.

So no more excuses!  Go ahead and paint out on those cloudy days.  (And I'm talking to me, not you.)

Happy painting, and many thanks to artist friend Mary Houston for her input on these thoughts.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Planning a Plein Air Painting Trip with Friends

My last post was about packing for a plein air painting trip.  I have taken a number of traveling workshops.  It was great to have instruction at fabulous locations, but lately I have wished for a trip with painting friends to paint whatever we wanted each day and to enjoy each other's company.

This August I went with a group to paint in Maine.  We planned it almost a year in advance. It spread by word of mouth among friends.  We decided on a location in Maine- there are endless possibilities there.  I don't think you can go wrong on that coast in the summer or early fall.  We picked Harpswell with plans for a day trip to Monhegan Island. We stayed at a large inn which is a B&B on the point.  We could have painted there the whole time but we found some wonderful areas close by.  To get to Monhegan from the inn was an hour's drive and then a 2 1/2 hr. ferry ride each way.  Our time on the island was limited though we had lunch  (lobster rolls!) and time for one painting.  I would love to go back to the island and spend at least 3 nights.

Planning a trip is not difficult if you have a group of plein air painters.  We had 7 with additional family  members but 3 or 4 would have been fine. I liked using an inn because if someone had to cancel it would not have affected anyone else's plans or cost.  5 nights was adequate considering the proximity of the local sights.  A full week would have been even better.

We planned some locations but also played it by ear. It was very different from a workshop and we learned so much about the area.  We did not try to do everything together since we had a larger group with a variety of preferences.

Though this was a plane trip for most of us, it could just as well have been a road trip. I would like to try that in the future, maybe with multiple destinations.

Happy painting travels, and get out there somewhere.

                                                    Fish Creek, Monhegan Island  8"x10"

View from the Point  9"x12"

Painting at the Point

                                                        Photo courtesy of Bruce Dean

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Packing for a Painting Trip

Recently I had the pleasure of taking a trip to Maine with other painter friends.  This was not a workshop.  We wanted to get together to paint beautiful scenery, talk about our shared passion and enjoy each other's company.

Packing for such a trip can be a challenge.  This was my fifth time to prepare for air travel with my gear and I have a system I'd like to share that works well for me.

If you are bringing paint with you it will have to be in a checked bag.  Another option is to ship it ahead of time.  There is always a chance that your bag won't make it to your final destination, though items shipped are occasionally lost as well.  So far I have taken my chances with the airlines.  If you will be in an area with an art supply store and you don't want to check a bag you could also opt to buy paint once you arrive.  You can't fly with mineral spirits so some kind of arrangement has to be made for that unless you use water mixable paints or some other medium.  (I have a friend who has painted with nothing but vegetable oil when traveling!)  For this trip I shipped mineral spirits to a friend who was coming by car.

Supports can take up a lot of space in the suitcase and add significant weight.  I allow myself 3 canvases/day- 6"x8", 8"x10" and 9"x12", a total of 12 for 4 days of painting.  I'm talking about cut pieces of canvas, not stretched or mounted.  I bring 3 plastic corrugated sheets cut to fit my wet panel carrier.  On each I tape the panels for day one and tone them with burnt sienna.

Canvas cut to desired size with a little extra for the tape-

Now taped to the plastic panel along the drawn lines, toned.  I use black panels to keep the light from coming through the canvas while I'm painting.

My panel carrier can hold 3 of these.  The canvas piece can be any size as long as it's small enough to tape on the panel that fits in your carrier.

I put the remaining canvas pieces in a storage bag with my roll of artist tape and pieces of wax paper.  (Don't forget the tape!)

At the end of the first day I remove the paintings, tape new pieces on the plastic panels and tone them.  And so on each day.  At the end of the trip I have a very thin stack of painted canvas pieces which I put in the storage bag with wax paper in between each. The last day's paintings go back into the wet panel carrier still taped to the panels.  Any smudges/accidents that occur in transit are usually very minor and quickly touched up. And for the "keepers", refer to my post on mounting painted canvases on panels.

I have previously posted the contents of my backpack-
For travel I re-arrange things.  I can't include the small can of extra mineral spirits which I usually carry in case of spills.  I have to put my paint container in the checked bag and I pack it like this-  the jar with extra tubes in it is for my used mineral spirits once I'm there. It will be left behind for the trip home.  I only bring small tubes on trips and I bring an extra tube of blue and white along with solvent free gel.

The label says "artist's pigment in vegetable oil".  So far my paints have not be confiscated.  I also put my pochade box and my empty mineral spirit can in the checked bag. Metal containers can hold you up in security even if they are empty.  This time I put my tripod in the checked bag also.  This freed up lots of space in the backpack which was my carry-on.  I filled it with toiletries, pajamas, sunglasses, Kindle, etc.  My brushes, reusable trash bag and smaller painting accessories stayed in the backpack.

My checked bag weighs about 8 lbs. when empty and is 24" x 10" x 17".

This is how I pack the bottom of the suitcase- the glass jar is rolled up in a painting towel.   The turp can is also in a baggie because it will likely be dirty for the trip home.  

The bag with the blank canvases is in the top zipped compartment which keeps it from getting creased.  Next I put a plastic sheet on top-

This keeps my clothes separated from gear, more important for the trip home in case there is wet paint on anything.  There is plenty of room in this bag for paint clothes (one pair of pants, one top for every 2 days, my collapse-able hat, a hooded water-proof windbreaker) and something to wear in the evening (one pair of nice jeans and some tops).  I put one pair of flats in the suitcase and wear my athletic shoes on the plane which I wear while painting. I wear jeans on the plane which gives me an extra pair just in case-  I often spill coffee on whatever I'm wearing on the plane.  If your hat doesn't collapse you can wear it.

So here is what I have to manage in the airport-  if I carry a small purse it fits in the backpack too.

This time we stayed in an inn with no elevator so I was glad I didn't have more stuff, and getting through the airport was a breeze.  I wear the backpack so I have a free hand for the coffee I'm about to spill....

More on painting trips later.  This is just "Packing 101".

Have paint will travel!

Here is a link for the plastic panels.  Cut them to fit your carrier-

Saturday, August 12, 2017


I have mentioned that I save older paintings and revisit them from time to time.  I don't mean the ones I should pitch, but the ones that have potential.  The near misses, the ones that could be good but aren't quite.

I will pick three that weren't terrible but needed something. I like to push myself to find out why a painting doesn't work and what I can do about it. Once they are dry it is easy.  Any changes can be wiped off without ruining what is underneath.  You can try again if it doesn't work.  Don't be afraid to do this, and if you do somehow ruin the painting it is OK. You didn't love it, so what have you lost?


I used this in a recent blog on how to mount a painted canvas on a panel.  I picked it as an example because it was dry and ready to mount, not because I thought it was a hugely successful painting.  Several things bothered me but what really hit me was how cool the painting was.  I am used to painting southeastern landscapes which are quite warm (and GREEN).  I constantly have to remind myself to introduce some cool colors throughout my paintings to make them vibrate.  This was painted from my reference photo taken in Colorado where I rarely get to paint.  Even the greens there look cooler to me, and with the distant mountains and creek it is a pretty chilly sight.  Another issue is that the light doesn't make sense.  The strong shadows indicate a very sunny day.  In Colorado the sky is usually very blue in sunny conditions.

Here I have added distant gray greens into the mountains, more so in those that are closer but even the far away ones.  I made the sky blue with a few fluffy clouds for variety and now the shadows look right.  I added a few warm areas to the shadows and worked on the trees to the left (more bare branches and a few more sky holes).  The trees on the right are also a little warmer.  Overall I think this is a better painting than the one above. The sky could probably be a darker blue and I might try that.


This is a plein air piece from 2013, an early one that I considered a success at the time.  It has long since been out of the frame and in the reject pile.  It is a landscaped area by a pond.  The symmetric nature of the plantings bothered me and I didn't like the way the sloping trees to the right made me fall out of the painting.  The reflections aren't very exciting.


Here I have removed one of the tall cedars so there is one dominant vertical instead of the "twinsies".  I reshaped the more distant trees on the right.  I added more darks in the saw palmettos, which are meant to be the center of interest and brightened up areas of their foliage and their reflections.  I also reworked the sky with a warmer blue in some areas. From a compositional standpoint I think this is a better painting.  


Problems with the horizon are distracting.  Here is a very simple example of how just a few strokes can make a difference.  I painted the above in a workshop 4 years ago.  I had help with the clouds and loved the result.  The reference photo was mine from an island in the Bahamas.  The composition is good- there is a low horizon because it is all about the sky,  but the Bahama water and distant beach are also important.  Notice that there is a line across the beach.  Also notice that it is not straight. This is a very amateurish mistake- always look for this.  Use a ruler if necessary.  

This is subtle, but I only used about 10 strokes to eliminate some of the blue line close to the beach, straighten the line of the water, and add just a couple of darks and lights to the land mass.  I also put a few thicker strokes on the water though that might not be apparent in the photo.  

This is fun to do.  Go through your paintings and see what you can do. This last one was in a frame in our powder room for a few years.  It bothered me but I waited a long time to address it.  It took 10 minutes!  

Thank you for reading this blog.