Friday, December 30, 2011


Spring Canyon, 12" x 18"

Using a photograph as a source of inspiration can be a helpful tool, but as an artist you need to develop the strength to make decisions based on your creativity and ideas, and not become overly dependent on photos. Becoming a better artist is a lot like building muscle. You must make time to work out and improve, and try different exercises to become stronger. Training makes you fit, gives you confidence and allows you to try new and more difficult activities, which can result in new vision and creativity. Your artistic muscle improves when you exercise it independently.

A photograph can assist you in planning a painting. It can be a wellspring of information that helps you recall the place, time and object you’re painting accurately and helps you capture temporal elements not easily recalled. However, the same photograph can come to dominate a painting, slowly and subtly becoming the goal, sapping you of creative strength. Too often a photograph enslaves the unsuspecting painter to some degree of realism, detail or composition, and steals creative aspects. The artist can feel compelled to make the painting almost identical to the photo.

The eye sees differently than the camera. This difference shows in a painting done exclusively using the photo. When you stand in a location and look at a scene you tend to overlook the little things that lie close to you that a photograph will often include. The photo creates an “arm’s length” look to a place set off in the distance, like a postcard held in your hand. Another aspect derived from using different lenses is the tendency to have the same amount of detail from your feet to infinity or the horizon -- something only a photo can do -- or to have such a short focal length that everything in front of and behind the subject is a dreamy blur. Surely you’ve seen pieces painted using a photograph and clearly recognized that fact.
Many artists aren’t willing to abandon the use of photographs entirely, wanting to make credible paintings that include some aspects found in photos. So, how can you free yourself of over-dependence on the photograph? At what point does it cease to give strength and become a source of weakness? This point is different for each artist, but if you find the photo has begun to sap your power you might want to try a few exercises to help you limit its use as a resource.

Newly gained freedom from photos can often be disturbing, even a bit frightening. It seems safer to have a good photo that you can go back to over and over. However, the idea is to free yourself of this dependence and find the creative aspects of painting that will make you a stronger artist. You need to develop those artistic muscles. Begin by resolving to put the photograph away after completing a certain portion of the painting. Decide exactly how far you wish to go before setting it aside. You might choose to do a sketch, the underdrawing or one layer of color using the photo as reference.

You must put the photograph in a place where you can no longer see it if you’re to become free of its undue influence. When you reach the point of too much dependence, resolve to put the photograph completely out of sight. This means it’s not lying on your worktable a foot or so away where you can easily glance over at it. If that’s the case, eventually you’ll pick it up to see some aspect more closely and find yourself captured by it once again. Put it in a drawer or in another room, a place where you have to make a concerted effort to get it again.

Spend some time thinking about how far you really need to go with your reference photo in hand before going without. At what point in the process of your painting are you comfortable putting the photo away? (If you just said, "When it’s finished," you need these exercises!)

One way to begin is to decide to use photos only for sketches. You can draw every detail and catch every nuance of the photograph as long as you know it’s only the beginning. Many artists find this system helpful because it works out the desire to draw what they see. After completing the initial sketch, you can begin to recompose elements, rearranging things to improve the composition in subsequent sketches. Once you arrive at a pleasing arrangement of shape, line and value, put the photograph in its hiding place and proceed with the painting, relying on your intuition and creativity to complete it. This usually results in a more original work that contains some of the virtues of the photograph.

Another possibility is to use the photo for the underdrawing only. This means that you might make decisions about composition, value and detail on your paper but not make any commitments to them without changing things. You can use the photo for certain aspects, then recompose before you begin putting down color. Rearrange the elements -- lower the horizon line, position an object lower or higher, or to the left or right, lighten or darken an area, mass things together differently. Whatever needs doing, do it now. Think of the drawing as your own, not a recreation of the photograph. Take possession of the place or object you’re painting. In some ways, you might find this a more independent way to compose, unlike making sketches and transferring the image to the paper. This method encourages you to loosen up in your approach to the whole painting process. Once you’ve determined what elements you want to use and where they reside, including details in certain areas, be sure that you put the photograph away. Try to think of the new image as being liberated from the photograph, an original place or item that’s solely yours.

Sometimes you’ll use one of the two methods above, and then as you begin to paint you’ll have a need to refer to the photograph again. You may need to retrieve a certain area of detail, perhaps the rocky face of a cliff at your focal point or the sheen of the water’s edge. In that case, try beginning with the photo, putting it away to recompose the drawing, and then retrieving it for the details before putting it out of sight again. This yo-yo effect works to begin to free you of the photo by assuring you when you’ve rearranged and established a clear composition and found the area of interest. You’re still able to retrieve the detail in areas where you need them. It may reassure you to know that you can freely compose and go back to your reference material later. Don’t fall into the habit of using the photo too often. If you’re tempted to pick up the picture and return to it as the final authority, this method may not be the best for you.

Another idea is to use the photo for the underdrawing, deciding on the light and dark masses of the painting, at which point you can choose colors based on the black and white values that are in place. Match the value of a color for the value in the drawing, disregarding the photographic color. This is a good idea if you’re fairly capable of understanding value and color and are not afraid of working without the aid of the photo. You’ll become free of overly photographic color and can begin with a lovely layer of playful color. If your goal is realism, you can achieve more realistic color in your subsequent layers, allowing the creative use of color to enhance realism’s lyrical quality.

Another possibility is to do the underdrawing and one layer of color, then put the photo away. This way you have the natural color in place, but are free of the photograph to add layers of creative, personal color. This will work if you’re able to think value when a color is in place, but will be difficult if you’re overly dependent on photographic color. For instance, once the green of the foliage is in place, you may find it difficult to put orange or purple over it. However, if you feel confident of color and are more comfortable with the colors of nature in place, begin with the green and let orange or purple work their magic. You still must free yourself of the photograph, allowing natural color to bow to your creativity.

If the photograph is so precious and beautiful that you cannot bear to depart from it, consider having it enlarged and framed, and don’t try to make a painting using it! Good photographs are seductive, urging you to copy every aspect. Instead, find a photograph that has some interesting elements, but one that you wouldn’t paint as it is. This will force you to recompose or recolor your painting. Bad photographs can make good paintings in the hands of an increasingly strong and original artist and can encourage creative risks that will likely improve your work. When you’re not enamored of the photo you might be inspired to make the painting look even better.

Is there ever a time when you should rely on the photograph throughout the entire course of a painting? Each artist must answer that question herself. However, think creatively and use different methods to see what will help you become stronger. As you become more confident of your ability to paint, rid yourself of dependence on the photograph. The ultimate independence comes when you no longer rely on the photo as a reference at all, instead reaching into your memory and experience to paint. Most artists have built more muscle than they realize and the act of painting solely by recall can reveal hidden strengths. Try painting your next piece without using any reference photo at all. Think about the place or objects you wish to paint, making a mental composition. Relax and let your mind and hand find the composition on your paper. You may be surprised in your ability to paint without any help from outside resources.

Building muscle is challenging but it results in new self-confidence. Knowing how much to rely on the photograph and when to let go can make more powerful paintings.

Soft Morning, 9" x 12"

Making a drawing, as I did above, can satisfy the desire to capture the details but free you to paint an image different from the photograph.

Sunstruck City
The resource photograph, shown above, is quite ordinary and uninspiring, except that it reminded me of the light that day. I used it to establish the mesas and shadows, then cut loose and recalled the color creatively.

Twilight Crossroads
Likewise a dull and fairly pedestrian photograph inspired me with a memory of shapes and light, but the color is all my own.

The paintings below were done entirely from my imagination, using no reference photograph at all.

Glow, 12" x18"

Boundary of the Day, 18" x 12"

Hillside series paintings.

Thursday, December 29, 2011


Waterfall, 18" x 12"

This experiment is meant to help you identify the value of a color and use multiple colors in any given value area.

First find a photograph that contains good contrast and a range of values that you would like to use for a painting. Make two black and white copies of it, enlarging them to about 8"x10”. If you’re able, blur one of the grayscale photos. If not, it won’t make any difference. Just be sure you have one clear grayscale print, and a second one that is either blurred or not. Blurring it sometimes simplifies the choice of value areas.

Cut the grayscale print into pieces. Use three, four or more value groupings. In other words, cut out the light sky shape, the medium-light shadowed cloud shapes, the dark tree shape (massed together), the medium mountain and the medium-dark ground plane. If there are smaller groupings within a value area, such as in the clouds, average this out by squinting at the picture or by placing it across the room to look at it. Find the average of the area. For instance, where there’s a tree against the sky, do not try to cut out every little light spot. Simply choose the dark value of the tree where it is dark and the light area of the sky as big shapes. Make as many value pieces as you need so that you have at least three or four puzzle pieces. You may have more than one puzzle piece in any value grouping -- for instance, you might have two medium-dark value pieces, one on each side of a road.

As you cut out the pieces reassemble them over the grayscale copy so that you can see where they belong. Lightly number each piece with a line pointing to that area in the grayscale photo, and then number the back of the cutout pieces to match. All this is meant to do is to help you reassemble the parts into a whole again.

Now remove the grayscale photo and arrange each of the cutouts into value order from light to dark. If you find pieces that are exactly or extremely near to the same value, group them together.

Take each value (or grouping of values) and prepare a clean, preferably white piece of drawing paper that will become the chart of colors you might use. Number them from one to five or six, depending on how many values you use.

Lay the hole in a value finder over the value shape cutout to find its value number from 2 to 9. Note the number of that value on your clean paper. * Note: There is no standard for numbering grayscales. Some will number white as 1 and some will number black as 1. Use whatever your value finder says and disregard others.

In good strong light on a separate piece of drawing paper find pastels that match this value. Lay down a swatch of the color and hold the value finder above it, then squint to see if it matches. Once you have found the matching value, note that color on the chart.

Have fun! Any color is okay. Try colors that often go unused. Think value, choose color. This is no longer a sky -- it‘s a light value. It’s not trees, but a chunk of dark colors. That’s no longer the ground but a harmony of medium colors. If you need to, turn the value shape cutout another direction so that it loses its identity as an object, such as trees, and can only be identified as a value.

You’ll know the values are exactly or almost exactly the same if, while squinting, they seem to blend into one larger shape. Look at the illustration above and notice how when you squint the blue centered in the hole and the gray surrounding it seem to merge into one. (If you can't see it, squint more.) Then mark the colors with the edges touching and you will quickly see if they are the same or very nearly the same value. As you can see in the mass of colors touching here, when you squint they become one larger shape, indicating their similarity in value.

It might be a good idea to lay aside the colors you have chosen from your palette so that you can easily find them again. You will be returning to these exact colors for your finished painting. It's helpful to make a chart for each value listing the value number and the colors, and lay out the pastel sticks on it. Do this for each of the value groupings in your painting. You should have three to six value charts. showing the color possibilities you might use in a painting of this image.

Now, looking at the original, whole grayscale photo, compare it with the charts you’ve made. Notice that you’ve selected many different colors of the correct value for each value grouping. Using only the grayscale photograph and your imagination (no pastel for now), envision a version of the image using different and varied colors. Imagine some different color possibilities for your painting. Take your time and think. This is valuable time and necessary to do.

Then using the grayscale photograph make three different sketches, loosely trying out different color layers to see just how the values work. Layer colors over one another or use broken color, putting them side by side in your painting. You don’t need to use every color in every painting, but remember that as you layer colors they will appear to be different depending on the last color applied. Perhaps it would help you to work in a format similar in size to the black and white copy. Paint quickly so that your brain doesn’t have time to demand “real” colors. Be playful, have fun, don’t let the finished product blackmail you into becoming colorless or vague. This is a color experiment! Find what is expressive and beautiful.

When you have completed your color sketches, select one to use as a basis for a larger, more finished painting using beautiful and expressive color.

(I apologize for not having any painting samples to show you from the above color choices, however here are some colorful paintings done using this method.)

Final Touches, 12" x 9"

Shadow Colors, 9" x 12"

Green at Pink Time, 9" x 17"

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Hacienda, 12" x 9"

In this experiment you’ll select a photograph to paint and make a chart of the values and colors to use for a painting. Find a photograph with good contrasting darks and lights and an excellent range of medium values, which make this experiment easier to do. Later you can go on to try it with moodier photos that contain less contrast. It can actually be a very good tool to use to help you decide on color variations in any value area.

Begin with a clear print of the photo in color, not grayscale, since this experiment will help you learn to determine the value of a color, as well has help you find other colors of the same or similar values to use in the course of the painting.

On a piece of clean white paper mark off a grid of approximately 2” squares, five across and five down. You can use any paper, but my experiment is done on a piece of white Wallis Pro grade paper. I find that making a chart on the paper I plan to use for the painting is most instructive.

Use a value finder, which you can hold over the colors to find the values. It’s easier to determine the darkest and lightest values, which is why you’ll do them first. Medium values are most challenging to sort out.

• Squint at the photograph and locate the darkest value in your photograph. Fill the bottom left square with a dark gray that matches that value.

• Find the lightest value and fill the top left square with a gray in that value.

• Decide on the next lightest value, which is medium-light, and add a gray in that value in the second square.

• Determine the next darkest value, which will be medium-dark of course, and fill a gray in the fourth square matching it.

• Find the medium value and fill the center left square with it.

**Hint: It might be useful to turn your board different directions as you fill in your squares to minimize the smear factor and the way dust drops down the page.

Check the values in your photograph carefully and make sure they’re found in the photo. Don’t use too black a dark if that value doesn’t exist there, or too white a light if it’s not that light. Remember that white has no matching color, since nothing is really as light as white.

Next to the value column record the color you see in the photograph. For instance, if a dark green tree is your darkest value and color, make a square of that dark green beside your darkest value square. If the sky is the lightest light, as it often is, place that pale blue in the second column next to the lightest value. You should then have a row of colors corresponding to each value that is derived from the real, natural colors seen in the photo.

This is the chart of colors I chose to use for the painting.
Can you picture all of them used simultaneously in the proper areas?
But to expand on your color choices, now add three more colors that match both of your first two selections in value. These need not be colors found in the photograph. Just match the values as a means of seeing that you could use them in the same place. For instance, beside your dark green you might put a very dark purple, a dark blue, and dark rust. Beside the light blue use pink, lavender or yellow. Repeat this for each row, choosing three other colors, so that you end up with a chart of colors matching each value. You should have a grayscale row, a row of real colors, and three rows of colors matching in value.

It’s advisable to set aside the pastel sticks you choose in order to make the painting with them.

Now you have a chart that you can use for your painting. My challenge to you is to use all of the colors in the chart to make a painting. See how you can use combinations of pale yellow, green, pink and lavender to paint the sky, or all the variations of brown, red-violet, burnt umber, and blue-green to make the medium-dark areas, and so forth. It isn’t necessary to make the colors highly saturated or bright, as I often do. You can just as successfully paint a tonal piece with subtle color that is strong and lyrical in color.

I suggest you begin with a good underdrawing in charcoal on you toned Wallis paper. Record the values so that you become familiar with them and can match the colors in your chart to the value areas properly, but in  painterly fashion.

To find out whether the colors were close in value I made swatches, touching the colors to make a mass and squinting to see if the values were similar or not. You can see some colors that didn’t make the cut.

First layer of color

Here are the colors used in the first layer. The ones along the
bottom are extras, beyond the original palette of colors I chose.

One thing I should make clear is that you don’t need to stick to the original palette. Those colors are meant to inspire you to use adventurous color combinations. I often launch the painting using that palette, as I have here in the first layer, and then go on to add other significant colors where needed. Be careful not to destroy beautiful color layers by adding a flat layer of one color over the top, however.

Take your time and enjoy exploratory color. Leave evidence of layers. Let broken color shine independently, creating a visual mélange. You may choose strong, bold combinations or paint lyrical tonal variations, but no matter what you do, take some color risks to see where they will lead you.

A close-up of the colors used. Notice the layers in the building
and the more broken color in the tree.

Many colors make up the tree, which invited
broken strokes laid down side-by-side.

The grasses are massed together but show evidence of
layers of multiple colors.


As a review, remember that you can determine the value of a color by laying swatches down so the colors are touching one another. For example, to find a value matching the gray stripe across the bottom, I’ve put several colors along it, just kissing the stripe.

I prefer to look at the pastels with my eyes to determine the values of the colors, rather than changing a photograph into a grayscale version (as I have done for you below for illustration purposes.) I find that there are too many variations on how to achieve the final grayscale version, not to mention the fact that determining the value of a color needs to be done visually, not mechanically, as you stand at the easel. It’s important to develop your ability to see the relative value of a color in its environment, whether that’s in nature, in your palette or amid your painting strokes.

Before looking at the grayscale sample below, decide for yourself which of these you think is the same or a very similar value. Squint to see if they become one with the stripe or not. (As much as I don't believe grayscaling the colors is particularly helpful when painting, I do believe you can learn about the application of value to color this way, so I've included a grayscale print.)

You can see that the second color, the rust, is a little dark, and the fourth color, the greenish-yellow, is a hair darker, (if this grayscale is to be believed,) but both the magenta and orange closely equate to the value of the gray. Don’t be fooled by complementary colors or saturation when seeking values. Squint harder.

I believe you would be successful in combining all five of these colors in an area that’s medium in value, except possibly the rust, although I might be inclined to use it in an earlier stage to flavor the colors and subsequently cover it with the truer values.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011


Imagine a River, 12" x 18"

Do you remember sitting before a blank piece of paper when you were a child, imagining what to put there? It was so easy to paint. Everything you put down meant something to you and it didn’t matter whether anyone else understood. Times have changed and now the strokes you put on the paper need to communicate clearly, but there are still some wonderful things you can derive from your imagination. You may be surprised to find out how much you already know.

Mount a piece of untouched pastel paper, place it on your easel and simply look at it. Don’t think of it as a potential painting but as a window. If I ask you to imagine something through your window, the chances are you’ll think, “I don’t know what to paint!” So start by bringing to mind the subjects you’ve already painted successfully. Do you like to paint mountains and skies? Maybe you paint dogs, or figures, or the ocean or flowers. Whatever it is you know and feel comfortable painting is fine. Find an interesting composition using a subject you know well. Recall a clear picture of your most successful or most recent painting to inspire you.

Spend some time imagining your painting in different formats. Most of us think of the horizontal landscape or vertical portrait formats, but how about a painting that’s quite wide and short, or tall and thin? Perhaps this painting could be relatively small, or you may use the whole page. Format and scale play a large part in the success of a painting. Mask off the format you’ve chosen, changing the shape of your window.

Before starting to paint, think about the value structure of your painting. Far more important than color is the arrangement of tones, which you should plot out in your mind. Whatever subject you plan to paint, think about how dark or light the colors will be and locate key elements. Where do the darkest and lightest areas come closest together? Where will you place a calming neutral? Is there an interesting massing of dark, medium and light colors, as well as smaller and larger shapes? Imagine all kinds of shapes and values together.

Now think about the palette of colors you want to use. When painting a familiar subject you’ll have a suggested color scheme -- sunflowers are yellow and black, for instance. Certain color choices appeal to us, so we frequently repeat the same palette. This may not be the time to try something new but to rely on what you’ve found pleasing and successful. However, you don’t necessarily need to think of this painting as a slavish rendition of reality. You may want to make your sunflowers orange and purple, or gold and blue. The point is to summon up colors that please you, whether true to the actual subject or a departure from reality. Plan the color scheme for all the local areas in your painting, not just the subject. Decide what color the background and foreground will be, filling in the blanks in your mind like puzzle pieces. Consider how the color of the paper might factor in the finished painting. Painting on a bright color or a very dark one will change the overall look. If you plan to tone the paper, take that color choice into consideration as well.

At this point you might feel ready to begin painting, but take one more step before putting pastel to paper. Identify the movement you use in your paintings most often. Movement is the energy of a painting, the motivating factor in shifting the viewer’s eye from place to place. We tend to repeat movements that please us. Think about the successful paintings you’ve completed already and determine whether you can find connecting threads of movement. For instance, you may be inclined to use a centered and circular motif in your still life compositions. Perhaps you use strong zigzagging diagonals in your figures, or calm horizontal movement in your landscapes. Knowing your habits will allow you to either use this inclination to its best advantage or go against the flow in your imagined painting. Plan the movement in your imagined painting by visualizing where the eye will start and the direction it will travel around the subject.

Try to visualize the painting fully, seeing it in your mind’s eye before starting. Be sure to use this mental picture only as the starting point -- an aid to help you reach a goal that’s not set in stone. Do a few thumbnail sketches to help you pinpoint the location of key elements, map the values you plan to use and find the movement that interests you. Limit these sketches to less than a minute to begin with, gradually lengthening the time until you have a small, satisfying composition.

The painting should begin to flow as a result of your visualization and planning, slowly taking shape as you paint. Be responsive to what begins to happen, allowing those pleasing incidental marks that occur to lead you. Occasionally close your eyes to envision your goal, and then refer back to your thumbnail sketch so that you don’t lose sight of that goal. Be flexible, but don’t allow the painting to overwhelm you. The excitement and energy of painting can sometimes become so absorbing that you’ll find yourself heading too far from the envisioned outcome, which can often result in a mess of colorful, fun marks that don’t communicate anything. As a child you could get away with spontaneity in place of communication, but now you must be in control, disciplining your mark-making and choosing successful, though lose and painterly strokes, that tell the story. Don’t let the joy of painting fool you into losing touch with what you’re trying to say.

Take frequent breaks to step back from your painting and look at it, remembering the vision you imagined so that you can compare the results. You may need to punch up the contrast, or change the size or scale of an element. Perhaps some accidental stroke or color combination will inspire you to change things. Whatever you see is legitimate since there’s no photograph or other record confining you. The goal, aside from a few thumbnail sketches, is all in your mind. Try several of these paintings, allowing yourself to come to trust that you are able to paint without a net, utilizing the spontaneity of a child and the discipline of an artist.

Monday, December 26, 2011


Cedars on orange, 6" x 12"

In this experiment you’ll work on different colored grounds using the same photograph for each painting to see how the ground color affects the finished image. You’ll observe more clearly how much influence the ground can have on a painting once you try this.

Choose a simple photo that has good contrast and interesting colors. Cut your paper to the same size so that you aren’t trying to recompose the painting each time.

White paper is easy to find, as is a medium tone. However, you might want to try toning your own paper, which allows you to experiment with a variety of colored grounds. My method is simple. You can see just how I do it in CHAPTER THREE -- GETTING STARTED.

You might try some of the Pastelmat colors for this experiment.

For more about Pastelmat visit

Complete each painting separately, not side by side. Let each one come of your response to the ground. It’s not necessary to retain the same palette of colors for all three paintings. (If you do use the exact same palette, use a light touch that allows the ground color to be seen beneath the colors.) I prefer to allow each paper color to inspire me to use differing palettes. I usually find that light colors move me to use brighter colors, while darks result in richer colors that are deeper in tone. Very bright grounds make for a saturated colors – and sometimes a heavy hand as I desperately try to cover all that offending color.

Think of these as three paintings, not one painting done on three grounds. Let the color motivate you from the beginning, and try to analyze your responses to those first color choices. My observations on how I usually respond are below. Yours might be different.

White or very pale ground: Usually a white ground allows darker colors to harmonize quickly and intensifies pure colors. The light of the paper seems to glow through every color. Because it’s light, however, you need to nail your darks in place early. Take notice whether this light color inspires you to play with bright colors more, or if the lack of color bothers you.

Cedars on white, 6" x 12"
Medium ground: A “safe” alternative, the medium ground seems to allow all colors to work together without too much influence. As you paint on this ground, analyze how you feel and whether you’re relying on the ”usual” colors in your palette. Are you free to grab any kind of color? Or does it constrain you to certain choices?

Black or very dark ground: Dark grounds instantly harmonize lighter colors, which is often the majority of a pastelist's palette. Depending on how dark or black the color the ground, you might notice that all of your light and medium-light colors look similar in value until you have covered most of the surface. You therefore need to pay attention to the medium values in this painting. Notice whether this ground color influences your color choices. Are you inclined to pick up more muted tones? Does the somber tone make you feel differently about the colors? Or do you prefer stronger contrasts as a result?

Cedars on black, 6" x 12"
Bright ground: If you choose a particularly vivid color to paint on, you may find that your initial colors seem dark and dull, which may make you tend to grab more vivid, bright colors. The ground color influences every color, so depending on whether you’re using a complement or an analogous color you may feel very differently about each one -- at least until you cover more of the ground. Sometimes I find I’m just dying to blot out that color and work hard to cover it all, resulting in a thick layer of pastels that effectively ignores the ground color. Make certain you think the color is suited to the subject you’re painting, perhaps a complement to the majority of the ground color. Notice how this choice influences your process.

Once you’ve completed all the paintings put them up and study them together. Don’t lightly go over this step; really study the images and decide what worked.

• Analyze what worked and why.
• What colors made for a more successful painting and why?
• Do you feel better about working on a light, medium or dark tone?
• How about vivid colors?
• What other ground color experiments do you think would be helpful?

Sunday, December 25, 2011


To learn how to control color and use it creatively, try an experiment that limits the number of colors you use. Find a photo -- really any subject matter will work -- but make sure it’s something that you find intriguingly colorful. (This may not be a brightly colored photo, just color you like.)

You’ll begin with only 10 colors, so choose them carefully. Use dark, medium-dark, medium, medium-light and light colors, based on the photograph. If it is a high-key photo with lots of light colors your darkest dark may be a medium. If it’s a moody, dark photo, you may choose far more dark colors and only one or two medium-light ones. Lay out the colors you’ve selected on a paper towel and put away your palette. It’s much easier to do this exercise if you can’t see what’s missing.

Work all over the painting with the colors so that you structure things altogether at one time, relating all the elements to one another. Don’t start with details. If you don’t have the right color, layer the ones you do have to achieve the right value instead. Make use of the different colors and values on hand to make new ones, layering or scumbling with a slightly harder stick over softer pastels. Notice how the color effects differ when you layer them in a different order. Pay attention to the way some colors look dark in light areas and light in dark areas. These ‘bridge’ colors are very useful!

After you have painted for a while, you’re likely to find yourself missing one or two key colors. This is not the time to add 10 new colors -- only one or two. You may need a particular color that’s missing. You may need a darker dark or a lighter light. Whatever you really need you can add. Cover your palette after choosing them so you aren’t tempted to grab more. Then work to your conclusion using only those colors.

I suggest you make a separate chart of the colors you chose. You’ll find it comes in handy later to remind you how you made those colors, so it might be a good idea to stick it to the back of the painting.

• Evaluate this painting a bit differently than you would your other work.

• Look for the things that happened that pleasantly surprise you with their clarity, despite the spontaneity.

• Where are the accidents that please you, and what did you do to create them? Which colors did you layer together?

• Did you blend them?

• Why do you think that grassy foreground look good or the tree-covered hillside work?

• What is it about the lavender you were forced to layer into the sky that is so pleasing?

• What color combinations did you find surprisingly successful?

When you have developed a small body of these paintings, lay them out together and analyze what’s working and what isn’t. There’s a lot to be learned from this. Put up a little show for yourself in the studio and analyze them. Look for trends, for those things that happen repeatedly that please you. Put them in order of your own personal preference and ask yourself why you chose this order. Find the specific things in each one that works and ask why.

You can see that I chose three colors as the most significant ones, the medium blue-violet, orange and rose. In addition to those main colors I chose a deep lavender, dark green, a medium yellow-green, a light cerulean blue, peach, light yellow-ochre and two peaches, one pale and one medium. The colors in wall behind the pot with the dappled the sun and shadow please me.

I found three key colors here, as well, a light yellow-orange, medium magenta and cobalt blue. The bright orange and intense yellow-orange layered over the light and medium-light blue sky work well. I added a dark red-violet and blue-violet, as well as touches of deep turquoise and dark blue to finish the palette.

Saturday, December 24, 2011


9” x 12”, 30 minutes

I’ve been teaching for many years now and very few people have come to me to ask how they could become tighter painters. Far more often they ask what they can do to loosen up and be free, not constricted by tight realism and a slavish adherence to detail.

This exercise will help you relax and paint a little faster. It limits the amount of time you have to paint, making you move faster and without inhibition, as well as limits the palette of colors, which forces you to be creative.

Start with a smaller piece of paper. This small size seems to allow you to let go a bit more easily since you aren’t filling up a huge piece of paper. A smaller paper also allows you to move more quickly without getting bogged down. I usually suggest a 9x12” or smaller size.

If you’re working on Wallis or another sanded paper that has no color, toning is a good idea. It makes the first marks on the paper, which frees you of “white canvas syndrome” and gives an overall color to the paper that you can use with a limited palette. You may choose one of the colored papers such as Art Spectrum, La Carte or Pastelmat.

Any subject matter will do for this exercise, but clouds and skies are particularly suited to it. The idea is to paint fast and furious without a lot of detail, which works nicely in the sky. The palette of colors found there is already somewhat limited, and clouds lend themselves to looseness.

Prepare ahead. Tape your paper to the board, clip your photograph on the board where you can see it and take out a white paper towel for your palette of pastels. As in the last chapter, devoted to limiting your palette, carefully choose only 10 colors. Use dark, medium-dark, medium, medium-light and light colors, based on the photograph. Lay out the colors you’ve selected on a paper towel and put away your palette.

Find a timer, preferably one that has a loud alarm that will stop you in your tracks, and set it for 20 minutes. Begin with an extremely fast sketch that only locates the horizon line and the major elements of the composition. There’s no time for details.

Work all over the painting with the colors so that you structure things altogether at one time, relating all the elements to one another. Don’t start with any detail. If you begin to put in too many details you’ll slow down too much. You must keep moving. If you don’t have the right color, layer the ones you do to achieve the right value instead. Make use of the different colors and values on hand to make new ones, layering and blending them.

Keep the timer where you can see it so that you’re aware of how long you have left to paint. This is a sprint, so go all out. Abandon yourself to the color and mood, dashing in streaks and smoothing down swaths of colors all over.

When the timer sounds, lay down your pastels. Now step back and analyze what’s happening. Look for the accidental things that thrill you and for those things that are working. Ask yourself if you missed one or two colors, perhaps colors you didn’t choose or missing values.

Choose only one to two more colors and add them to your limited palette. Set the timer for an additional 10 minutes and get going. Again, move fast, not letting up for details. Work right up until the timer sounds, then lay down your pastels.

If you’re like most of us, you’ll find things you like about this fast little painting, and some things that displease you. Sometimes it takes a little practice to loosen up and accomplish much in just a half hour, so practice! Set a goal for yourself, perhaps to paint 10 of these little ones in a week. This will give you the motivation to keep working.

When you have a small body of these paintings lay them out together and analyze what’s working and what isn’t. There’s a lot to be learned from this.

• Stop criticizing what doesn’t work because you were moving fast, and instead look for trends, for those things that happen repeatedly that please you.

• Put them in order of your own personal preference and ask yourself why you chose this order.

• Find the things in each one that works and ask why. Use corners to crop down to the area that is spontaneously successful and think about what happened there that is good. Did you use a certain kind of stroke, a particular set of color layers, or another element that works? Be specific.

• Evaluate the things that happened that pleasantly surprise you with their clarity, despite the messy, spontaneous strokes.

Then go paint some more.

6" x 9", 20 minutes

6” x 9”, 20 minutes

Friday, December 23, 2011


20-stroke sky

This experiment is designed to help you make fresh, lively paintings using a few well-chosen and carefully placed strokes. Where in the previous chapter, Limit Time and Palette, you moved fast, here you may actually slow down a little and take time to find the most effective and efficient strokes you can use. You’ll find simpler colors, use somewhat larger, gestural strokes, and overlap them to create an impression of detail, while limiting the number of strokes you use. The idea is to see how few strokes you can use to make a painting that effectively expresses a place.

thumbnail sketches
Begin with a few thumbnail sketches to sort out the major shapes. Keep these simple and fast, which will allow your brain to see shapes without regard to what the object is. Your eye and hand have the ability to see and record these things more accurately than you think, almost independently of your will. Do more than one thumbnail. Start with a credit card-sized box and do a quick drawing of what you actually see in your photograph. Then begin to move in closer, remove objects, rearrange them or add to the shapes to make an interesting composition. It’s simpler to stick to three values, dark, medium and light (which is usually the paper), although you might use medium-dark and medium-light values, too. As you refine the thumbnail, think about how you could make use of strokes to create the shapes.

only one stroke each
Let’s talk about what constitutes one stroke in pastel. Unlike an oil painter, your brush won’t run out of paint as you drag it across the paper. You can make some very lengthy and intricate strokes. Count each stroke from the moment you touch the paper to the point at which you lift your pastel stick. You might lay a stick flat on the paper and drag it over the entire area of the sky, using a back and forth motion to fill it in. If you have distant mountains, that same stroke might be lightly incorporated there as an under-color. A jagged stroke might simulate a line of trees or grasses across the entire span of the paper, while a continuous curlicue could create foliage or the undergrowth on a distant hillside. One stroke could serve several purposes as you vary the pressure on the stick. Use a big zigzag shape, or a huge swoop that curls and curves back and forth. It could go on for quite a while, so eke the best out of each stroke. You could conceivably paint half the piece in one well-conceived and executed stroke if working on a small sheet of paper. For our purposes, count using your finger to blend a passage or a Colour Shaper™ to brush pastel around like paint as one stroke.

I recommend preparing a smaller sheet of paper and doing a very simple line drawing to locate the major shapes. Think carefully about what needs to go down first. Paint what lies behind before painting what’s in front of it. Paint through objects, varying pressure where the sky passes behind trees or other items bisect space. Utilize some of the lovely habits of pastel, sometimes making a thick, impasto stroke to obscure what’s below, or a soft dry-brush stroke that allows color to glow from beneath. Think about how you can create color modifications using careful layers and different kinds of strokes.

Don’t try to make every nuance of color, highlight or shade. Distill the colors to essentials, modifying them where most useful to express the scene you’re painting. Choose the most vital shadows or highlights. Decide where smaller strokes will be necessary and most informative, and use them judiciously to draw the eye to the area of interest.

Painting in progress with hash marks to one side.
Keep a record of your strokes, limiting yourself to only 20. It’s probably simplest to make hash marks alongside your painting. You may find your paintings too rudimentary to start with, but in time you’ll find there’s a charming elegance to these simple little pieces. Paint a series of smaller images using 20 strokes. Later, if you desire, increase the stroke count to 30 or 40, and analyze how that changes your paintings.

Take the time to find strokes that work together to create the impression you seek. Go slowly, thinking through how you will structure the piece. In searching for the essential stroke you may find that you honestly don’t need to use more strokes. You only need to use better ones.

20 stroke Sandia

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Mesa Meadow, 18" x 12"

Color and value are inextricably intertwined. They're very much like a hand in a glove; although the glove exists independently in the material world, it does not function until the hand is inside it. So it is with the glove of color, which needs the hand of value to motivate it. Artists rely on color as one of the fundamental elements of painting. Value is an issue that comes up as the artist advances in skill and consideration of the theory of painting. Value or tone, which is the lightness or darkness of any color, is independent and exists with or without color. It's black and white and all grays in between, as well as all of the dark to light tones of any given color. It's an essential component of any color. You cannot separate color from its value, but you can and should consider value as an issue of primary importance, separate from color.

Understanding value can strengthen color. Most artists use color easily, almost without thinking, far more often than they consider the underlying, driving force of value. This doesn’t mean that they disregard value -- quite the contrary. Value is so intimately linked to color that they seem not to consider the hand apart from the glove. As the artist progresses through her career, value sneaks in, becoming increasingly important. As fundamental as it is, value is often left to the consideration of the more experienced painter. This should not be a surprise since, as in so many other disciplines, the further one goes into the depths the more elemental the concepts become. Still, the most experienced painter can learn new things, which is why art is one of the richest and most varied of pursuits and may continue for a lifetime.

One way to come to understand the interdependence of color and value is to plan a painting that utilizes only complementary colors but retains the original value of each of those colors. In doing this you will come to see the value or tone of the color more exactly as you challenge yourself to duplicate it while using its complement. Spend some time looking at a painting you have recently completed. Select one of the colors you used and name its complement. In your mind begin to choose the complements. If the sky is blue, it becomes orange. The green tree is now red, the yellow grasses are purple, the white clouds are, surprisingly, white. Why? Because the complement of white is not black. White is a value, in this case, not a color. If you’ve retained the correct values of the colors in your mental painting, they haven’t shifted except in color. If the clouds aren’t really white, but are a very light pink with touches of pale purple and blue, they become very light green with touches of pale yellow and orange. If they’re white, they stay white. This exercise will help you begin to think of value and color independently, and will increase your awareness of the multiple colors you can use in any value range. It will aid you in learning how to layer or lay side by side different colors of the same or similar value in any one tonal area.

In doing this painting it’s best to have two photographs from which to work, the original color photo and an excellent grayscale copy of it that accurately shows a range of dark to light values. The photograph is helpful because you’re freed from making compositional decisions and are also able to study the colors separately from their values. This is strictly an experiment in value and color. Using the grayscale photograph, do an underdrawing or value study of the image using black, white and grays. Accurately render the tones. This can become an elegant rendition of the scene that develops your sense of colors as values. As you draw, you’re able to see the color of the object you are depicting in your mind’s eye, which helps you identify its value.

White Wallis paper toned with gray pastel.
Charcoal underdrawing on gray-toned Wallis paper.

Now, looking at the color photograph and using a color wheel, select and lay down the opposite color of the natural one. Be careful to select the correct value, whether a light, medium or dark tone. It’s helpful to use a color wheel to find these complements at first. Find the blue of the sky and lay your finger on the orange as you seek out the right shade.

Once you have placed a single layer of the complementary colors in the proper values all over your paper, put the color photograph out of sight. If you’re looking at a photograph of a blue sky it’s very difficult to discipline yourself to pick up orange, but if you have already chosen the new colors and briefly recorded them in place, it’s easy to look at the black and white copy to paint. Forget the colors in nature now, and begin to expand your painting using the correct values and opposite colors on the color wheel. Think of the purple mountains as yellow. You already have a layer of yellow in place so you no longer need to think about that. What color is a dark yellow? Most yellows tend to shift to a muddy brownish-green as they darken, so choose a dark gold or yellow-green instead. Make it dark enough, sacrificing the exact complement to the correct value if necessary. The important thing here is to get the appropriate darkness or lightness of the color while not relying on the real color to find it. When you lean on the colors of the natural world, you’re dismissing value. Remember the hand and glove effect of value and color.

Complement layer in place.
You might spend some time completing this complement painting. It will almost certainly look like some unfamiliar place or thing, with all the colors shifted out of the world we see. Don't be concerned if you feel that it's unsettling and looks wrong to you. Relax and have fun in this alien place. A glowing pale orange sky, billowing white clouds with yellow shadows, dark reddish-orange hillsides, purplish-red grasses or red and orange trees with pink highlights can encourage you to play with color. Allow this new reality to inspire you. Think of the ways you flavor color when painting the natural world and apply that way of thinking to this complement painting. Analyze how it is that you vary colors. Do you consistently rely on a certain shade of blue to flavor a shadow? What version of orange color does it become now? Is there a way you might use that new orange color, rather than consistently using the same blue, in a future piece? What might happen if you begin to layer it over or put it down next to the favored blue? If it grays the blue too much for your taste, how might you shift it slightly one direction or the other on the color wheel to aid the blue, making it more lyrical and visually stimulating? Experiment with color this way. A series of paintings could be very instructive, freeing you to have fun with color in a way you might not have tried before.

Once you’ve completed your new complement painting, spend some time analyzing what happened. Ask yourself if this has challenged you more than you thought it would. Most of us have become dependent upon a palette of colors that we routinely use, which in itself is not a problem unless it’s become overly dull and boring. This experiment might suggest some new alternatives or additions. At this point you might have a painting that‘s worth keeping as it is. Often the new colors are intriguing and inspiring. If so, set it aside and try another using a different photograph. However, in painting the landscape you must keep in mind that you have a filter for the color blue that’s built into your brain. You know that the bluer and paler a color is, the farther away it is, but when you switch to the complementary colors you create an orange filter. Your brain is not able to process orange as a distant color, so landscapes often seem to lack a sense of air or space. This can be a dissatisfying effect. The solution might be to paint the colors of nature directly on top of your complement painting.(See Mesa Meadow, at the top, the finished painting with the natural colors added over the complementary layer.)

You might choose to spray a layer of workable fixative on your painting to give it more tooth, which will help hold another layer of pastel, but remember that fixative will slightly darken the colors. (If used, I suggest Spectrafix, which is non-toxic and alters colors less.) It’s not necessary to fix your work if the paper you’re using is adequate to the task, such as Wallis paper. After all, if you’re going to match the values using the colors of nature, you should be able to carefully lay them down directly atop the complement and arrive at a color that’s only slightly grayed or dulled. Finger blending is not recommended, as it tends to result in colors that are somewhat dreary and grayed. Now is the time to return to your original color photograph so that you can add the colors of reality. Remember, however, that the photograph is not a goal, but an aid to you. Use it to recall the colors you saw when you recorded the scene, then let this new color take the painting into places the photograph cannot go. As you put down the latest colors beside or on top of the original ones, notice how they optically jump, dazzling your eye. This is the power of complements. When a bit of red shines beneath the green, it adds some sparkle and pizzazz. Orange under blue gives some zing. Purple below yellow makes it snap a little. This is the essence of optically blended color. The artist must choose the degree to which this is successful and pleasing, but should not disregard the potential of such color use. Experiment with this idea, adding colors of the same or similar values to your paintings. Think about how using broken color might make your paintings stronger, so that instead of falling back on the color habits you have developed you become more adventurous. Take a chance with color and see where it takes you.

You might also choose to leave a portion of the complement painting untouched while covering a part with the natural colors. Divide your painting somewhere that logically leaves some of the underpainting showing so that you can see both lower and upper layers. Now make a painting the usual way, using the same photograph, without first layering the complementary colors. Notice the color choices you make and analyze whether the experiment has changed the way you think about and approach color.

Original photograph.
Painting color with value in mind is not a new idea. Most artists seem to intuitively come to understand value as they progress through their careers. However, using this series of exercises can help show you some new ideas about the use of color and challenge you to attempt new, visually exciting combinations. Put your experimental paintings alongside one another and compare results. Include the one that shows the complements below and the colors of nature directly on top, as well as paintings you did in the usual fashion before these experiments and subsequent to them. You may see that you’ve come to understand the values of the colors a bit more thoroughly, and you might also have found a way to utilize new colors of the same or similar values, but shifted toward the complements to enliven your color.