Sunday, December 30, 2018

Painting from Memory

A few years ago I took a plein air workshop taught by Kelly Medford.  On the second day she made us do the following exercise on location.  First we painted a scene of our choice with a strict time limit.  As I recall we had an hour.  Then she asked us to study the scene for 5 minutes without painting and to make as many mental notes as we could. We put our first paintings away and moved our easels  to a spot where we could no longer see the scene.  We were given the same amount of time to paint the second one from memory. After we finished, we lined up our paintings and the group had to guess which was the one painted from memory.  The results were interesting.  Everyone was able to get a decent memory painting and the correct guesses were about 50/50.  As much as I enjoyed the exercise, I never did it again on my own.  I have seen beautiful paintings done from memory and I envy artists who can do it well.  Practicing this makes one a better observer and thus a better painter, because learning how to see is a big part of becoming a good artist.

Recently I saw a beautiful scene from an airplane.  The sun was setting just as the moon was rising.  The moon was full and the sun's reflections threw amazing color on the opposite horizon.  It was truly surreal.  I did not have a camera, but it was at such a sharp angle through the window that I doubt I could have taken a good shot.  I watched it as long as it lasted and made mental notes, something like this: from bottom to top there was a cool deep blue followed by a warmer violet blue.  Then lighter saturated pink with a small transition zone of some warm unsaturated yellows.  A warm lighter blue was at the top. The moon was yellow orange and occupied the blue-violet region.

I wish I had made written notes because it was a week before I had an opportunity to paint this, but it was still reasonably fresh in my mind.  I already had a 14"x14" stretched canvas that was primed with orange.  I had used oil paint mixed with cold wax so I decided to stick with that and paint with a palette knife, another thing I rarely do.  I did it in one session.  I have to be loose with a palette knife because I don't have much experience and I can't control it very well.  (Sort of like painting with my non-dominant hand.)

Here is what I got- nothing like I usually paint but it looks a lot like the actual scene.

I usually tone my canvases with burnt sienna thinned with mineral spirits and wiped down, but when I paint with cold wax I like to start with a thicker layer of vibrant color.  I can let some show through (easy to do with a knife) or even carve out areas to reveal the base color as I go along.  Cold wax creates a lot of texture and I do not add additional medium when I use it.  I use about a 50/50 ratio of wax to paint, sometimes a little less wax for the first couple of layers.

From a compositional standpoint this is a very simple painting which helped with the memory piece.  I'm not ready to attempt a complicated landscape.  Baby steps... but memorizing a complex scene makes simplification a necessity.

Another thing to try, and I have done this to avoid direct sun on my panel, is to paint with your back to the scene.  This keeps the sun off if that is an issue and requires you to study the subject, then paint a bit before looking back.  Though not as challenging as painting the entire painting from memory, it forces you to really look and make mental notes before turning back to the canvas.

I'll write more about cold wax later.  Meanwhile, Happy New Year and thanks for reading!


Sunday, October 28, 2018

Commissions- A Double Edged Sword

I never intended to do commissions and rarely accepted them until about 3 years ago. Before that it was an occasional piece for a friend or family member and usually a gift. I never promoted myself but eventually it grew by word of mouth.  Commissions often come through galleries and I am not in one, so I never expected much in the way of volume. This past summer I had eight commissions and have 3 to complete this fall.  That is more than the total number for the previous 3 years.  So, I have been busy.

There are a number of reasons to do commission work.  First of all, the painting is almost a guaranteed sale.  I always give the client the option of not buying the piece if they are not happy.  That has yet to happen though I'm sure it will sometime.  More on this later. Secondly, commissions are often very specific requests that would not be subject of the artist's choosing.  I do not do portraits because I lack the training, but I have accepted pet and house portraits as well as figures that represent specific people but are not exact likenesses.  My favorite type of commission is a more open ended request for something similar to a painting I have done in the past, but when I have to paint out of my comfort zone I always learn something.  For example, after taking on some house portraits I improved my perspective skills and ability to simplify architecture.  I like to paint cityscapes so the experience was helpful.  Accepting commissions has grown my client base. Many of my requests come from friends or family members of previous commission customers. Subsequently some have purchased non commissioned work as well.

There are some downsides.  I was so busy this summer I did not have time to paint subjects that I was passionate about.  I went on two brief painting trips for plein air studies but otherwise mostly worked on commissions in the studio.  Most of what I did involved specific deadlines which made things more stressful.  My general inventory is lower than I like for it to be because I was not able to replace pieces that sold online or in shows. These are good problems to have, though I have not had as much pleasure from a creativity standpoint.

As for the risk of unhappy customers,  I have a couple of suggestions.  If I have access to the scene I take my own photos, but often this is not possible.  I will not accept a commission if a bad reference photo is my only option.  I take progress photos while I work on the paintings and give the clients the opportunity to give feedback.  I had one large piece this summer (36"x36") and I first painted a small study for them to approve (12"x12").  That saved a lot of effort on the back end.  Galleries typically ask for a 50% deposit for commissions which is only refunded if the gallery is able to sell it to someone else should the client be unhappy.  Some artists charge more for commissions because they are more trouble.  I don't do either of these things but it is something to consider.

Below are a few examples of this year's commission work-

I would not have chosen this house to paint but it was a good lesson in simplification as this house had a lot going on.  I was able to get creative with the sky and the foliage which made it feel more like painting a landscape (my comfort zone).  14"x18"

I actually had to paint this twice, each with a different golfer.  I was lucky because the light was very good in the reference photos.  (Unfortunately I wasn't given access to Augusta National for photos...) The shot was taken in the fall but I was asked to paint the azaleas in bloom.  It is easy to find photos of this hole online so that was easy.  I do not want to be known as a golf course painter, but if I had to do it this was an exceptionally good subject with a lot of natural landscape.  16"x20"

Now for my favorite, a request to paint a subject I have painted in the past.  I love bicycles and hadn't painted any in a while.  Right up my alley and I was told I could use any reference I liked.  Hard decision because I have a large file!  The only specific was the size of the painting, 12"x12".

If you sell your work and have not done commissions I recommend giving it a try.  Starting with friends and family is a good way to get your brushes wet.

Thanks for reading!

Monday, September 24, 2018

Donating your artwork- pros and cons

In recent years I have been approached more frequently about donating paintings for silent auctions in charity events.  This now happens 3-5 times a year.  The venues have varied from outdoor festivals to large seated dinners.  I have mixed feelings about my experiences and have postponed writing about it because I wasn't sure what I wanted to say.

There is one very solid pro for donating your work to a charity you believe in, which the sheer joy of knowing that you have supported a good cause.  I feel particularly good when it is a local charity and I either know the people involved in the fundraising or the actual charity recipients.

There is a potential pro (and fundraisers usually bring this up when asking for donations) which is exposure for the artist.  In theory, many people at the event will view the artwork, remember the artist, and possibly buy their work in the future.  Maybe a bidding war will break out!  Gallery representatives might be in attendance!  Word of mouth can be a powerful thing.  I'll get back to this.

Now for the cons.  The subject of tax write-offs usually comes up. Fundraisers and the artists themselves often do not understand the existing federal tax laws.  Even with a signed form that includes the value of the donated artwork, the artist can only deduct the cost of the art supplies and framing expenses or any other service the artist pays someone else to complete the piece.  But consider this- if you are running your art as a business you have already deducted those expenses.  You can't deduct them twice.  So you are virtually giving your art away without any tax benefit.  If your art is a hobby and you do not deduct your expenses you can of course deduct them as a charity donation, but this will likely be much less than the value of the work.

Another con is the possibility of devaluing your art.  If the donated work sells at a price that is below its value, which is a common occurrence, the exposure can be a negative thing. Or let's say it doesn't sell at all- even worse!  All of those people saw that no one wanted your work.  Unless I attend the event myself I rarely get feedback about the winning bid, so I am in the dark regarding the nature of the exposure.  Consider also that if the work doesn't sell, the charity gets nothing.

Saying no is not easy either, especially if you are saying no to a friend or to someone who works hard to support the community.  Being told no is tough for  fundraisers.  They need to have thick skin and often work hard for little recognition.

So what to do?

I wish I had all the answers, but I have made some decisions for myself.  I want to support charities, but I cannot support them all.  I have decided to forgo outdoor festivals and similar venues, knowing that they are not good exposure for my work.  When approached in the future I will offer to write a check.  That will benefit the charity and I can deduct 100%.  I will continue to participate in a few events that are indoors in nice facilities with a large attendance.  Historically this is where I have raised the most money.  In one instance there was a bidding war for my painting which wound up selling for 4 times its actual worth.  (Alcohol was undoubtedly involved.)  I felt very good about that donation and it was a charity that is near and dear to me.

I had the opportunity last year to do a one artist show in a local business.  The venue was very nice and there was a well attended opening reception.  I was asked by the business owners to donate 25% of my sales to a local hospital.  This was a win-win.  I sold well, got great exposure and wrote a nice check to the hospital.  It also led to three commissions.  I have never had a subsequent sale, or even an inquiry that resulted from a charity auction.

An artist's decision regarding donations is a personal one.  My intention here was to create awareness of tax laws which are often misunderstood and to propose a thought process to help determine which venues work for the artist and charities.

Thanks for reading!  

                                             Marsh sunset, Kiawah Island, SC
                                                  my photo- no painting yet!


Thursday, August 2, 2018

Postcards from Wherever

It is vacation season so I thought I would say something about those paintings that we paint just for ourselves.  I think of them as souvenirs.  After taking up painting 10 years ago the photos I take while traveling have changed.  In addition to the obvious touristy shots, I take photos specifically for reference.  Though technically not souvenirs,  the paintings I have made from my trip photos remind me of special moments.

Here are a few I would like to share-

                                                      "On the Oregon Coast"  12"x24"

This is a beach on the Oregon coast recently painting from a photo taken 10 years ago.  I cropped it to better suit the scene- it was not this horizontal.  Usually I wouldn't wait this long to paint from a reference.  It is best to paint while the actual scene is still fresh in one's mind, but when I looked back at this one it felt as if I had been there recently.  I still remember the way the air felt and the sounds of the ocean.  I enjoyed painting this format. The large rocks on the beach were not there but I thought this was more attractive than the monotonous dirt in the actual scene.

                                                         "On the Golfo Dulche" 14"x18"

Another seascape, this one from a beach in Costa Rica.  This was from a trip taken earlier this year.  I painted a few of the rocks on the beach but there were thousands of them. When we went in the water each wave carried tons of little pebbles, so better for viewing than swimming.  Other than reducing the rocky component, I was pretty much a slave to the photo.

                                                       "Cassis Fishing Boats" 8"x10"

These little fishing boats, called pointu by the French (took me forever to find that out) were in the town of Cassis near Marseilles.  It is a charming fishing village and though quite touristy these days is  still worth a visit.  I took a lot of photos but when I got home I realized that what I loved the most about the place was the boats.

                                                            "High and Dry" 24"x30"

I love painting laundry but I find it difficult to get good reference photos.  This is from a portion of a photo I took in Amalfi two years ago.  Here is the photo-

The laundry was hanging very high on a building right off the docks.  This was the maximum zoom on my iPhone but I cropped it once I was home to get the part I wanted.  I had a lot of fun playing with the composition.  This now hangs in our laundry room.

Enjoy your summer and take plenty of pictures!

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Imagining Color

A friend of mine took a fabulous photo on a small family farm we were visiting in Colorado a couple of years ago.  I love the composition and the animal faces.  I also love that it is black and white.  It was a very gray day. A distant storm was brewing over the mountains so there was very little light.  Black and while suited the scene perfectly.  Recently I decided to use this reference for a painting but I didn't want it to be colorless.  Here is the photo-

I cropped it in a bit but kept the square format and decided on a 12"x12" sized panel.  The values were set.  All I had to do was imagine color.

My initial block in was with burnt sienna and ultramarine blue thinned with some mineral spirits. I used a little ivory black for the darkest darks.  At this point the animals are just simple shapes that needed refinement.   I eliminated the cow's head at the right edge of the painting.

I toned the canvas with burnt sienna immediately before starting the painting.  That way I didn't have to stare at a white canvas but could still wipe out some highlights.  As a result of toning the sky is a pinkish orange color which I liked.  

Under the circumstances there could only be so much color.  Sheep, a cow and lots of mud doesn't scream "colorist territory" but I thought I could play with the tree and the distant mountains and sky.

Here I have put more paint on the canvas and tried to approximate the values in the photo.  I exaggerated the size and color of the distant mountains with a lighter more saturated blue and made the sky pink with some light yellow breaks in the cloud cover, giving it an over all orange impression.  I added some nondescript debris in the shed (so it wouldn't look like a black hole) and gave the fence a little more personality by leaning some posts and adding random stokes to suggest vegetation.  All the greens in this painting were made with ivory black and cad yellow light to keep them very grayed down.

Lastly I put a bit more light on the tree with some red tones, but I didn't want to indicate bright sunlight. I lightened up the ground and developed the faces of the sheep in the foreground trying to leave the animals in back as suggested forms.  I filled in the darks in the sheep with some warm and cool half tones.  After the painting was dry I glazed the distant field, the foreground and the shed with more chroma (saturated, less grayed), both warm and cool.

I had fun with this one and will try it again.  Exercises such as this help painters develop their imaginative skills and offer a break from the same old routine, just like trying challenging new subject material.

Many thanks to Laura Todd for providing the reference photo.

And thanks to you for reading!

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Studio Tips

I have had a home studio for 3 years.  It is an optional bedroom in a house we built and has its own bathroom.  I selected a stainless steel sink because I was going to wash brushes there.  Instead of carpet or hardwood floors we had plywood floors installed that are painted a darker earth tone (close to burnt sienna).  The walls are white.  I have a hanging system and I will write post about this in the future.  When we sell the house someday the buyers can add a closet (where I have storage cabinets), remove the plywood, install carpet and chose a more attractive sink if they don't want to remodel the bath.

The layout of the room is a work in progress but I want to share a few tips I have learned from others.  It is small, and though I envy artists with large studios my limited space forces me to cull through things on a regular basis and make the most of every square inch.

My easel is big but not super sized, appropriate for my paintings which so far have never exceeded 30"x40".  Here is what it looks like-

It is made by Best and isn't the best as far as I am concerned, but it is very sturdy and wasn't horribly expensive.  I don't like using the knobs and leveling the canvas can be tedious.  That isn't the tip however.  What I want you to notice is the cheap unfinished table that holds my palette IN FRONT OF the easel.  I learned this from Ann Blair Brown. She uses a credenza in front of her easel to force her to stand farther from the canvas while painting.  Painters have a tendency to get too close and hold the brush like a pencil. Now I have to stand back and hold my long handle brushes at the end which is where they should be held to keep things loose.  I also prefer mixing paint in front of me rather than on the side table which is what I used to do.  It's easier on my shoulder and also better for looking back and forth while mixing.  I like having a drawer for extra tubes of the paint colors I use the most.   If you want to spend more check out the taborets (Cheap Joe's) or even a metal tool cabinet at Lowe's with a glass palette on top.

Next tip- if you paint from an iPad or similar device,  here is something I learned from Barbara Jaenicke.  Amazon sells a product called the Accmor Tablet Tripod Adapter which costs a whopping $8.99 and can be mounted on any tripod.  I have an old tripod that isn't very good but is perfect for this use.  The adaptor can hold large smart phones and most iPads.  I use the mini.  It's also good for making videos.   Check it out-

Here is my setup-

I adjust it at eye level with the painting- so much better than the stand I was using on the table! This also freed up more table space.  If your setup isn't close to an outlet you can get an iPad charger (generic) with an extra long cord for around $6 at Tuesday Morning.  I keep mine charging while painting so I don't run out of juice.  And I change (under settings) the "auto-lock" to "never" so I don't have to tap the screen every few minutes.  If you do this be sure to turn the screen off when your session is over.

If you are still using photo prints for reference consider making a change.  I will never go back now that I have discovered how superior a backlit digital image is.  You can crop, adjust the photo and save a ton on prints or printer ink.

Last thing- I like to have paintings in various stages on a stand to study, sometimes while I'm taking a break or on days when I am not going to paint.  I was using a display easel which only held 2 small paintings and wasn't very sturdy.  A painting friend recently told me about the Testrite Art Tree.  I found a used one on eBay which was quite discounted and I bought the most basic one.  Here is what it looks like-

It is strong yet lightweight and has castors which make it very easy to move around. Paintings can be displayed on the front and back.  It is portable enough to take to shows if you do that and can accommodate frames or panels.  Click on for a larger view.  You can buy a new one here-
or look for used ones on resale websites.

Bottom line- your studio is never finished.  Try new things, ask your artist friends (visit their studios if possible) and pay attention to the practical tips at workshops!

Happy re-arranging!  And thanks to friend Vicki for the Testrite tip!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

The Customer is Always Right

Recently I had a very satisfactory interaction with a friend and long time patron.  He was interested in an older painting from 2015 which had never sold.  It was a local scene from my reference photo-

I love this view.  I pass by it every time I drive home.  While low tide paintings are not that popular, I love the marshes when they are almost empty.  The channels of the  creeks are so interesting.  Yes there is mud, but it changes almost from minute to minute and the reflections and shadows can be beautiful.

When I decided to paint this I immediately wanted to do away with the wall of trees. Marshes show best when there are long views,  but not all of the long views have such an interesting channel of water.  So again, you have to combine references or use your imagination.

Here is my painting from 2015-

I wasn't exactly a slave to the photograph.  I made the distant trees recede, added a river that isn't there (it is on the other side of the island) and enhanced the colors of the grasses.  However, I didn't consider changing the foreground.  When it didn't sell after a time I took it out of the frame and put it away though it was still on my website.

My friend saw it and decided he wanted it.  After I delivered it he remarked that the left lower corner of the painting bothered him (the flow of the creek didn't look right) and wondered if I could do something about that.  Well of course I could!  Truth is, I hadn't looked at the painting critically in a long time.

Here is the problem-  there is a very sharp curved edge on the left lower side between the mud and the water. It literally dumps the viewer out of the painting along with the water- not good!  To make things worse there is a big value shift there, again not good for the corner of a painting.  The grasses do nothing to mitigate this.

Here is the re-do-

This did not take much time.  I used my Art Set Pro app to try out some things before painting on the canvas.  The edge and big value shift are now gone and the creek flows smoothly, leading the viewer into the painting and off to the distant trees and river.

Bottom line- pay attention to every critique.  A small change can make a big difference. Keep reviewing those older paintings.  I must remind myself to do the same.

Happy Revising

PS- thank you George!  

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.