Plein Air: Wax Pencil Sketching 

It really helps to do a lot of value sketches to see and really “sink in” to your subject. In painting, there’s a lot of thinking going on with color, brushwork, and other technique issues. So many times in my paintings, it was an issue of forgetting to focus and observe my subject. My brush is moving, but I’m not taking the time to look and record. Sketching will re-focus you into accuracy, squinting to get the values right and also, you can let go and let your mind work out the patterns needed which would be a disaster in painting. In painting that’s a straight road to overworking the subject until it’s color is mute and looks dead. 

A new “toy” I’m using for this is a wax “Sanford Peel-Off” pencil used for marking metal (welding pencil). The other two pencils are a white General charcoal pencil and regular 0.5 Bic mechanical pencil to lay in the undersketch. The wax pencil has a benefit over charcoal in that it’s keeps the tip sharp easier and you can use the eraser to blend it out. The more you erase, the thinner the coat is until it’s like a transparent layer. Perfect for edgework to soften edges far from the focal point. 

If your up to practicing this, start by marking four values on the bottom corner, dark black, light black (wax pencil with lighter touch), leave the tan to be the next lighter value, and finish with the white charcoal. Draw in your subject lightly with the mechanical pencil, then shade in the white and darkest darks. This should help you define the focal area well since it normally has the highest contrast. Next shade in the rest and don’t forget to leave the tan paper blank where it’s already the correct value. When you finished shading, if you want to soften up the edges away from the focal area, use the eraser to move the wax around. You might need to scrape off the eraser if it builds up. Keep erasing until it looks right. You can go back over it with the wax pencil if needed, but the white charcoal will not work over the wax. So, make sure you keep away from the white. Have fun! 


Plein Air Colorado Springs: Helen Hunt Falls



About the Scene: Helen Hunt Falls is in the Cheyenne Mountain State Park in Colorado Springs.  When you enter the windy road of the state park, it’ll run alongside Bear Creek. You will pass huge cliffs and massive Ponderosa Pines for about 2 miles until the falls come into view.  It impressive.

The Experience: After waking early, tired from thoughts of employment rolling around in a spin cycle all night, it was time to get out and enjoy the day.

If I’ve learned anything from life, it’s to enjoy the moment. Whatever has me tied down, just let go. Don’t quit, but take a time out. Painting is a release. A zone. It’s a place I can go to in my mind where I only observe what’s beautiful before me and feel the deepest need to share it in hopes it may provide this release for someone else. We all have our vices, our bad situations. Thank God for nature’s inspiring magnificence. We’re just a blink of an eye compared to what we see. Our problems are so insignificant compared to its timeless quality. I look at the scene of this amazing waterfall, and the worries slip away to the soothing sounds of the water crashing rhythmically over the smoothed rocks. Trees rising up at the top in a triumphant display. People passing by over the small bridge, one by one, each with a world of worries on hold, just for a moment.

I set off to the side of the entrance, painting on a small hardboard panel for about three hours, which seemed like half an hour. Visitors to the falls stopped to chat; some took pictures. Little kids giggled and got excited about painting, and a lady enjoying her retirement said, “It’s time for me to get out my pastels again!”. It so funny how all of this happens unexpectedly. I’m there to paint, taking notes and thinking about how I’d produce a large studio painting from the scene. But in being there, these moments make it so much richer. I learn about their stories, and in the process of listening, see them relax into the scene. It’s comforting. I just enjoy the moment, and somehow the concerns of the future and employment disappear.  What good is it to worry about the future and miss moments like these??

It was a good day.

Artist Chat: I’m now in love with Red Oxide.  I usually use Alizarin Crimson, but red oxide mixes with ultramarine blue into a deep, warm gray-purple that sets off the yellow tints in highlights.  When there is the indirect light glowing in the shadows, a touch of yellow ochre does the trick. Using these three color, along with Titanium white, produced a great color harmony in the rock structures.

Distractions: Above the falls was a back-lit scene producing tons of bright, yellow highlights like glitter. I had to make a decision to ignore it or not, but figured the point of this is to get accurate color notes of the scene.  This sketch is information for a larger work.  In setting this sketch aside for a day, I can see today that I’d mute the sky color, most of the bright yellows and focus on the subtle grays in the waterfall, letting the rest of the scene above the falls only support and enhance it.

Plein Air: Springtime at Pergatory Creek Natural Area

Springtime at Pergatory Creek Natural Area (San Marcos, TX), 6 x 6.5", acrylic on paper
Springtime at Pergatory Creek Natural Area (San Marcos, TX), 6 x 6.5″, acrylic on paper

Last week I took only a pencil and paper to plein air sketch and re-learn to see the world in values (not colors). It really helped today. There was a very brief moment of sun around 3:30 and despite barely being able to put on my socks from a hurt back, I eventually found a comfortable postion in my truck and headed to Pergatory Creek Natural Area in San Marcos, TX. Hobbling from Dante’s Trail up to Nimrod Trail (all the trails are named after Dante’s Inferno series), I was amazed at how many college women were out jogging. I tried to straighten up and look manly, but then I sneezed wrenching my back and almost hit the ground. I gave up the manliness and hobbled to a spot that looked like it would be a good drawing. It had great contrast in values and, hey, it’s bluebonnet season. All painters know not to pass it up.

Quick 10 min sketch to see if it could be a good painting.
Quick 10 min sketch to see if it could be a good painting.

It had a nice design to it, so I re-drew it very quickly onto the acrylic paper and brushed Matte Media over it to seal the dry paper and sketch.  I also discovered that doing a pre-sketch helped to decide what format is best (rectangle in portrait, landscape, or more square).  That can make a big difference in the “feel” of the final painting.

Quick sketch onto the acrylic paper.
Quick sketch onto the acrylic paper.

With a solid sketch, and studying the scene, I was focused. I didn’t paint while saying,”How am I going to paint this?”, but just followed my own notes. My 6:00, it was done and that was a very good thing. Storm clouds rolled in blocking the sun and all the prancing college women darted down the trail to get back to the parking lot.  I kept a steady hobble pace and was glad the clouds of impending doom didn’t burst into a downpour.

The result under a thick blanket of clouds. If you look at the previous picture, you can see what it looked like before.
The result under a thick blanket of clouds. If you look at the previous picture, you can see what it looked like before.

Fun day! We’re studying values in the Virtual Art Academy online. No doubt now that it’s helping! I recommend it if you’re looking for a serious and structured way to learn.

Artist Chat: Titanium White, Ultramarine blue, Cad yellow hue, Orange, pthalo green, alizarin crimson red and yellow ochre. The pthalo green and alizarin crimson red make a very dark green-gray, which really made the light paddles of the cactus stand out. The yellow ochre, ultramarine and yellow made for the highlights in the cedars branches behind the cactus. I kept the cedar branches somewhat abstract because it was only supporting the main figures, which were the cactus and bluebonnets. It was tempting to make the grass much greener, but by muting it with some orange, it make the bluebonnet color pop a bit more. Oh, bluebonnets are actually a bit more purple than ultramarine, but I decided to keep it simple and just use mixes of ultramarine and white for the flowers.

Studio Painting: “A Dash of Blue” (Bluebird)

This is from a picture taken of a bluebird at Grace Ranch (Muldoon, TX). 11x14" Acrylic
This is from a picture taken of a bluebird at Grace Ranch (Muldoon, TX). 11×14″ Acrylic (

In springtime at Grace Ranch a couple of bluebirds had built a nest in the purple martin house on the corner of the corral.  When you get accustomed to the subtle muted earth colors of the ranch, it takes you back to see a bold color, such as the bluebird.  There’s no sounds of traffic, nothing in the background hurrying to get somewhere, only the still of the mid-morning as this shy bird looks out for a grasshopper to take back to the nest.   This is the concept I wanted to try and capture.  So, I kept the background muted,  arranged the boards in a squared, steady fashion with muted dark, warm grays, and left the bold colors to attract and keep the eyes on the bluebird.

With that being said, Australia is now playing Chile in the third game of a brilliant display of World Cup soccer today! Gotta GO!

Artist Chat:

Titanium white, cobalt and pthalo blue, payne’s grey, cad yellow, alizerin crimson and red medium, raw sienna

Design: I tried to keep the colors muted except for the bird, and the highest contrasts and sharpest edges around the bird. Originally the bird was perched on a straight board, but it caused a defined line straight across the canvas (bad composition), so I broke it up inventing a post to the bird’s left and breaking up the board on the right around the left and right vertical thirds. The bird itself is positioned with the eye just off center of the top third horizontal line with the bottom of the tail reaching about to the bottom  third horizontal and vertical lines.  I added some striations to the board under the bird as interest and lead the eye towards the bird.  Values are the key to this painting!

Plein Air: “Keeping it Simple” at Miller Springs

Foxglove sketch. (~6x8"ish) on acrylic paper.
Foxglove sketch. (~6×8″ish) on acrylic paper.
Prickly Pear in Golden Field (6×8 acylic on paper).

Perfect weather, hiking sandals, a pack full of paints and ready… it was time to get back and continue my Miller Springs series of sketches.  This time I had a single goal: “keep it simple”, by that I mean something with a clear subject that I know I can paint in an hour.  If you feel unmotivated, here’s an article I read from the website I practice figure and portrait drawing that will help:   “New Year’s Practice Resolution”… which links to this article (also great): “Focused Practice: an Exercise for Real Improvement in 33 Days”. By the way, this is an amazing website! It’s deserves any promotion I can give it.

I went out looking for anything “simple”, and about 1/2 mile from the trail head ran into this Foxglove flower.  It’s very noticeable and often found along a road-side (look for bright, thick multiple flowers along a stalk). I thought, “This is simple, and I can keep it under an hour”, then questioned, “What if people see me painting flowers?. I’d have to hand in my man-card, but wait, I can explain this is a “man-plant”. It contains a powerful medicine called digitalis that can make your heart feel like thunder in your chest… man plant. See? Do I get to keep my manliness?”.  (Side fact: it’s also how modern drugs began, and yes, I talk to myself).

Just as I finishing up about to add some final details, an old man came hiking around the corner looking at me curiously, about to say something and realized he lost his truck keys. He had that look of doom. I packed up and we backtracked trying to remember where he went (lots of cross trails) and there was his key, in the middle of the path.  Doom to elation in two seconds flat. Good feeling. I never lost my man card.

I wandered off to find a different “simple” scene and came across the “perfect” scene for the day. It was around 6:30 and the setting sun was reflecting off the golden grass that resembled a field of oats, highlighting their tips where the seeds were. A cactus patch was right in the middle, back-lit from the sun but lit up on the shadow side with the reflections from the golden grass. Plus, it had a dark background with the woods close by.  I popped out me gear, saying, “Keep it simple, keep it simple.” and just as I sat down to make the first sketches, a enormous horde of gnats discovered me.  They were in my ears, nose and always trying to get to my eyes.  Not willing to give up this scene, I squinted and used the eyelashes to keep them out, blew them out of my nose like a whales blowhole and tried not to swat unless they were actually going inside my ear. I’m stubborn and this really was a fantastic scene.  After about 40 minutes, I decided I’ve achieved “simple” and packed up faster than I ever have before.

Despite the gnats, it was a great day and although I can see how I could have done more, I achieved what I went out there for “simple”.  Now, time to get some bug spray in my painting kit.

Artist Chat:

Palette: cad yellow, cobalt blue, alizerin crimson, mars black, titanium white (acrylics)

I drew sketches with an HB graphite pencil lightly while looking for values that were either “dark”, “middle” or “light” in order to emphasis the focus (the main group of flowers).

For the Foxglove: I blocked in color quickly (5 min) keeping it simple to about these three values, starting with the “dark” background, “middle” leaves and background flowers and then punched in “light” flowers.  I kept everything just about black or white in case I needed an extra dark or white later.  This base dried quickly. Then I mix up thick paint and carefully, but boldly apply details in the petals or leaves in as few strokes as possible.

Cactus patch and grasses: same process applied for this one, but I had enough time to get a bristle brush and flick on grass, lightly loading the brush and grazing the paper against the bristles. The foreground highlights were added with a liner brush for the “oat seeds” and cactus highlights.

“Inspiration List” for Painting

I added an “Inspiration List” page to this blog (look at the navigation links at the top of the page).  On the page are thumbnail pictures, the name of the artist, and a reference link. I use this list so often and it helps me so much, I wanted to share it with you in hopes you’ll be able to use it.

If you’re an artist, hopefully this will help you get your own list started or add on to the list you have. Immerse yourself in their paintings and when questions arise, you’ll know where to go.

If you’re an art admirer, I believe you’ll love this list just as much.

Link to the page:


Sketching the worries away


Around three years ago to this day, I had freak symptoms of facial twitching and loss of speak while hiking the Appalachian Trail, only to enter the surreal world of having a “glioma”, or brain tumor. Since it was mostly removed in June, 2011, MRI checkups since then are a big deal. Now they come every 6 months, and around month 4-5 , this time I was getting a bit antsy. Little things like minor spasms in the face, much like those annoying tired twitches everyone gets, brought questions: “Is my tumor back? What will the MRI show? How will my parents handle that?”. Concerns. It’s a good time to sketch, paint and take the worries away.
This sketch (above) of Jess and Sumner was perfect timing. While recovering from an awake craniotomy in 2011 (cool experience), Jessica, a friend through family came to visit me. Although this is an extremely rare tumor, she has it too in a very similar place and had her surgery just years before me. We’ve become great friends now and she’s about to get married. As a tribute to how much her friendship means to me, I wanted to sketch her and her fiancé as something to give to them. They both encourage me in my art and to live fully (thanks Jess and Sumner!!).


The second sketch, a “plein air” sketch, is of a group at the May’s Clinic Cafe. I did this quickly before heading in to get the MRI. The person in the middle had cancer and a warm wrap on her head. It felt good to see her enjoying the simple pleasure of the sun’s warmth.

The MRI scan had good results again, showing no changes or regrowth! I’ve accepted life whichever way the results go, but a “good” result does feel like I get a new lease on life to move forward, rather than make plans to visit family and prepare to wrap things up. So, for the next six months, I’ll celebrate life drawing, painting and continue to find out who I am, and more importantly, what I can share with others.

Thanks for being a part of this blog by reading and enjoying it! Sounds weird, but even if you don’t comment, just knowing I can share this with you makes all the difference.

Birds at the Feeder (Commission): Step 1 Concept and Design

As in my previous posts about working through a commission, you can easily turn something stressful into an enjoyable journey.  Good communication and breaking it down into steps is the way to go and if you have fun, it will show in the results.

Step 1: Concept and Design

My client’s husband likes the birds in the area and made a platform feeder for the backyard.  As a gift to him, she’d like to have two cardinals and a chickadee around the feeder.  Also, they notice the cardinals often take turns at the feeder, the other close by standing guard. The chickadee, well, that just an awesome bird. Gotta have it.  Lastly, there are a lot of cedars nearby, so having a dark cedar green as the background would feel right.  With a quick generic sketch we both liked, the concept was clear. All this information is pure gold when it comes to putting the painting together.  It’s becomes the story behind the painting.

I did a generic sketch when I was with her to brainstorm ideas and we both found a basic design we could use.  From that design, I did these quick sketches below:

Two option with the canvas in portrait. The left sketch has the male cardinal in the tree "standing guard", while the female eats.
Two option with the canvas in portrait. The left sketch has the male cardinal in the tree “standing guard”, while the female eats.
Landscape orientation options.
Landscape orientation options.

Any of the sketches could work from a design standpoint, but the bottom one in landscape orientation seems to combine all the aspects of design,  doesn’t minimize any of the birds (especially the chickadee), puts one cardinal on guard duty and includes the entire platform.  Winner. So, with a solid design, it time for the color sketch! (next post)

Miller Springs #6 Plein Air: Down at the Creek

Miller Springs Plein Air Painting
Down the Ravine at Miller Springs 6×8″ acrylic. (click on this picture to see it enlarged and clearer)

Catching a break from the cold fronts, hordes of people piled out of their houses to breathe some fresh air and tire out their kids before bedtime.  I did my best to get lost off the trail and found this area about 200 yards off the trail down a ravine.  I was sure I’d found a sweet spot to hear the serene sounds of dribbling water coupled with lightly chirps of bird. “OH MY GOSH, LOOK! LETS GO DOWN HERE!!”. “DAD, WE WERE JUST HERE!”. “JASON, STOP. WAIT FOR US. [whistling] HERE BOY, DUKE! GET BACK HERE, $&#^(#! DOG!”.   Yep, I had gone 100 yards off the trail, then somehow looped back 80 yards back toward another trail, and these sweet shouts were a recurring theme for 3 hours. Hmm.

Despite the hordes, it was a very sweet, sunlit spot begging to be painted. I did a quick value sketch (pencil and paper) to really nail down what I want to emphasize in the scene. I love the rocks, especially along the dark bluff. There were some great underwater rocks with gobs of green algae that would be fantastic in a larger scale!

I finished up, took some reference pics to see how the scene compared to the painting, and said bye to the endless screaming kids and the bad dog, Duke.

Just finishing up
Just finishing up
Do the colors match?
Do the colors match?

Artist Technical Stuff:

There were several good spots along the creek, but this had the best composition simply because the large, dark bluff with overhanging roots provided a great contrast to the sky and rocks.  Most of the other scenes were good, but almost everything was about 50% value with maybe a few shadows under rocks. Not enough.  The first impression of a painting to a viewer waking up to a painting is largely based on contrasting values, then colors.  I used the same pallet:

  • cad yellow
  • titanium white
  • cobalt blue
  • alizarin crimson (red)
  • payne’s grey

In scaling up, I may lighten up the background  to push it back a bit and make it a cooler blue, but with this study it’s a pretty accurate depiction of the scene to tweak from. I constantly questioned if the rocks were brighter than the sky, but the sky was about a 20% value while they were the lightest in the scene (~10%?).  That was perfect to get the greatest contrast in the focal area.

Having Fun Painting a Commission: Final Step, Scaling Up

This is the final step in a four-post series. Painting a commission work should not be a lot of pressure.  The reason for painting in the first place is to share what you love to do.  When you’re having fun, that really shows in the final painting. I encourage you to read, or at least scan, through the previous steps (they are short posts).

Step 1: Review the Painting
Step 2: Values and Composition
Step 3: Color Sketch
Step 4: Scaling Up

This is the fun part. You’ve made all the important decisions, now just paint! In this commission, my client liked the initial drawing and color sketch and decided to ditch the bench (totally agree with that).  I’m really happy with the result and EVERY step came into play, guiding me in the final painting. Here’s a short mental review:

18x24" Acrylic. A Commission work of the view from a hiking trail in Colorado
18×24″ Acrylic. A Commission work of the view from a hiking trail in Colorado

The concept: the background view is the important area. (Step 1). The client told me what she like about the reference photo, which told me the “story” is.

Darkening the foreground will push the viewer into the background view. (Step 2). With that concept in mind in step 1, I wanted the lightest area, what the eye goes to, to be the background, the darkest area, what the eye avoids, to be the foreground. Beirstadt is a great example for this style.

Getting the colors about right, but more importantly, the right value with color notes (Step 3). Looking at the photo, I tried to match the colors, but keeping the values in line with my sketch in step 2.  The values are so important!

The final painting:  I didn’t change much from the color sketch, except add some details. I had fun with the rocks. I kept them basically the same as the color sketch, but didn’t restrict myself from letting it unfold as I went. The point is the background, not the foreground. I also saturated the color a bit in the distant mountain to get those rich blues, but kept the edges soft and details to a minimum.  The mid-ground mountain had fantastic windy, path-like clearings, so I emphasized them to draw the eye to check it out.  I also noticed some kind of ground cover growing between the rocks, so a added them in the foreground for some variety.

I can’t wait to give this to my clients!  She and her husband hike in Colorado, so I really hope having this on their wall will be a reminder or inspiration to get out there and experience the real thing.

Thanks for letting me share this with you!