Working From Life

There is much to be said for painting, or drawing, from a live set up.  In today’s digital age photography couldn’t be much easier, making it very convenient for artists to work directly from their computer monitors.  And why not?  It’s a tremendously useful tool for doing all sorts of things.  It’s great if you need to zoom way in for a closer look at some detail.  You can also edit and manipulate your reference photos to make them into anything you can imagine.

However, cameras do not see the way your eyes do.  They only record a limited range of values, far less than what you and I are able to perceive from life.  That’s not to say that cameras don’t take amazing images; they certainly do!  But your eyes are better at seeing color and value and subtle nuances that the camera just isn’t able to.

Here you can see my shadow box with a simple still life.  It allows me to do small set ups which are great for doing studys and small oil sketches. If you are an artist who only works from photos I would suggest that you take a little time and make your own little set up area.  It doesn’t have to be a shadow box or anything elaborate.  It can be as simple as a an end table by a window or a shelf next to a lamp.

However you choose to work is up to you.  I like using both methods and find they each have their pros and cons.  I’d love to hear from you and get your thoughts on the matter.  Send me some pics and maybe help me improve my own studio!  Thanks for reading!


Still life or portrait?

Still life with skull and rose, 12″x 16″ oil on panel

This is Ed … Ed the bone head.  No, I did not name him though I might have, many years ago.  He is a plastic version of the human skull and a very willing painting model to boot!  So much so, he never asked for a single break throughout the entire process.  Thanks, Ed.

I’ve been working on a number of portraits lately and decided I needed to revisit the structural framework of the human face.  It truly is an amazing piece of design and if you’ve never drawn or painted one from life I suggest you get yourself one.  I also wanted to make my study a bit more interesting so I dug around in my box of goodies and came up with this simple still life.

Turns out it wasn’t so simple after all.  I had a bear of a time building structure in the shadow areas, which is like eighty percent of my subject.  The colors and values were so close I had difficulty rendering them.  I had to resort to exaggerating what I saw and then try and knock them back so they looked more like what they were supposed to.  I feel like my approach wasn’t quite right and will definitely have to do some more experimentation.

It’s okay if you don’t get it right every time.   You have an idea and then you try it out; some things will work and others won’t.  It’s all part of getting better at what you do.  So, as the saying goes, “Back to the ol’ drawing board!

Thanks for reading!


Heebie Jeebies!


I wish I had thought to take some pics of this one while it was still developing.  I was working from a reference photo and decided to go with the background color as it appeared.  As you can see it’s quite ‘red’ (though the photo is actually less so) and I went with some Alizarin Crimson straight out of tube (think ‘blood red’).  I mixed a couple of different values for interest and then proceeded to work on the face.  The reference photo was pretty washed out and I had a bit of trouble seeing her features, but I muddled through.  Eventually, I had her all blocked in and after adding the highlights to the eyes I got up from my chair and walked across the room for a fresh view.  Yikes!  When I turned around it was like a scene from the Exorcist!  I actually got the heebie jeebies, it was so scary!

The process of painting is a continual series of problem solving.  What’s the right color?  Is the value too dark?  Where is my light source?  How will this thing affect my composition?  These are the kinds of questions that go through the artists mind.  Right then I was asking myself way too many questions to deal with so I took a break.  Whew!

After my break I made a couple of changes and then stepped back to have another look.  Yikes, again!  Why was this happening? When I was working up close everything looked fine but the minute I stepped back I was looking at Carrie!  I’m not exactly sure when I figured this out but the blood red background wasn’t helping me get out of this mess.  After toning it down and changing her complexion three times I was at least able to stop scaring myself.

Eventually I got my portrait to where you now see it, though, I’m not sure it does much justice to the lovely Anne Marie (I tried). However, at some point you have to call it ‘done’ and move on.  I did learn a thing or two from this painting and I’m glad I was able to somewhat successfully answer most of those questions that came up.


“Retired Preacher”

I’m sticking a fork in this one and calling it done.  This handsome subject presented a few hurdles which turned out to be a bit more challenging than first anticipated.  If you’ve read any of my previous posts you will recognize this image.  It’s the same painting with a few tweaks.  Initially, I thought his right eye was too high (I wished that were the case).  Turns out the entire lower half of his face needed to be shifted ‘left’.

There were a few minor adjustments as well.  The crown of the head needed a little fattening up along with his left cheek.  Of course, that required me to repaint his left ear, which actually came out better, I think.

Here is the previous version:

“Retired Preacher” 10 x 12 oil on panel

Was it really necessary to redo all that work?  This is not a commission piece so who’s gonna know, right?  You could argue either way but I like to do my best to get an accurate likeness.  It’s sort of a personal challenge for me to test my draftsmanship.

All in all he was a wonderful subject!  Just look at the character of those features!  The wisdom of the years is upon that brow and oh, the things those eyes must have seen …



Just Finished …

I just finished reading the book I previously mentioned, “Daily Painting.”  With pen in hand and a notebook at my side I filled numerous pages of illegible scribble (except to me) of action steps I plan on taking.  I think I might write a few posts on some of the things that I found to be most helpful.  For today, I will just say that if you’re interested in this sort of thing then get the book!


Dontcha hate that … ?

You’ve been sitting in front of your easel for HOURS, laboring over a portrait but you just can’t seem to get the likeness right.  You look at it in your mirror, you check the proportions, you break out the dividers and measure each feature in relation to all the rest but, alas, the solution evades you like the last piece of pizza you were saving for breakfast.

Then, someone comes along (in my case my wonderful wife), takes one look at it and says, “Nice job, Honey!  His right eye is a bit too high, though.”  And guess what?  They’re right!  I think that’s why, as painters, we need to make sure we take frequent breaks.

Here’s a pic of the painting in question.  Still a work in progress but it’s starting to look like something.



So, What’s on your easel?


This is the latest study in my pursuit to work ‘looser’.  I set it aside to dry before the next step and it’s been a week so it should be ready by tomorrow.  As you can see much of the dark paint has sunken in (i.e. it has a dull almost chalky look) and appears lighter in value than it really is.  I will need to ‘oil out’ those areas before I proceed in order to get the relationships right.  Here’s a short video put out by our wonderful friends at Winsor & Newton Paints describing and demonstrating the process:


Hello Out There …

This is the first post on my shiny new blog.  I’m fairly excited to be working at my art everyday and I hope to be posting some useful and inspiring stuff!  Right now I’m 2/3 of the way through my latest art book, “Daily Painting” by Carol Marine.  Most cool!  I suppose I should write a review or something when I finish it.