Studio Painting: Lazy Days

“Lazy Days” 12×16″, a/c
Value study (6×8″, a/board)
Initial concept sketch
Reference Photo
This scene is from the summer days when I’d pass by a field of cows in Columbus, TX on my way home. It started with that initial glance of the lazy cows trying to find shade under a sparsely branched cedar. I shot a quick photo as I passed by. Months later, I was flying to Marblehead to visit my brother and his family and flipped through the photos on my phone looking to sketch on the flight. Seeing this photo, I was able to zoom in cropping the rest of it, focusing in on the heart of what I saw in that glance. Months later, I was flipping through my sketch book and thought I’d post it to my Instagram account (@teveman) and after watching a DVD of John Poon teaching his method, figured I’d give it a go. I did the small value sketch last night to both work out the composition more and find some good brush strokes. This morning, I woke up and it went quickly! I thought it’d be fun to mix up my palette a bit and colors I don’t normally use that leaned towards the warm size. As I went, I saw the need to make the cows tan, rather than white to really stand out against the green surrounding and remembered the cows I’d seen around my home. I took a risk, but it seemed to work out well. I thought the cows might need more detail, but then stopped. It’s usually better to have bold, defining strokes than a bunch of strokes searching for a way to say what one careful stroke can do. Fun study! The enjoyment really is in the process of the painting.

I highly recommend John Poon’s Landscapes DVD. He has great organizational skills and presents how to use a busy scene, clarify the focus and work through a four step process. He also works in acrylics, but it’s equally good for oils as well.


Studio Work: Afternoon Grazing

14×18″ acrylic on stretched canvas, “Afternoon Grazing”

While driving to and from work at an artist’s studio in Columbus, TX, I pass by many fields with cows. One field in particular is on the west side of the road and the cows hang close to the fence, back-lit by the sun. When I saw this young cow with the fuzzy hair on the ears lit up like they were glowing, I hit my brakes, rolled down the window and caught this pose just in time.  A couple days later, I needed a painting to start on my Friday “artist-in-studio” sessions at the local Live Oak Center. I propped up my laptop on a table, and got started. That was a few weeks ago, and since then, this painting has hung around the kitchen at home. It seems if I see it around in passing, my mind works on it and when I see it again, I think “this needs a cactus”, or “I need to change the background cow’s color. The last time I passed it, it just seemed like it was done. I had the goal in the starting point to add color into the shadows on the main cow to draw interest and past that, I really didn’t care. It was a simple goal and if the rest of the surrounding parts support that cow as the main character, it’s a success. I was going to name it “Moo”, but I think a gallery would prefer “Afternoon Grazing”.  Fun times.

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!

Studio Painting: “Hi Lobo’s Expression” (Weird name, cool cow)

This is "Hi Lobo's Expression"... that's the name. No, really. 16x20" acrylic on canvas
This is “Hi Lobo’s Expression”… that’s the name. No, really. 16×20” acrylic on canvas

This is a painting I’ll display at the Art Walk in a week.   This one will be for sale AFTER the Art Walk in a top-secret, extra covert fashion.  (You can contact me or visit my website). I’m supposed to have a sole proprietor business license to sell artwork, else the Texas Tax people will sent their goons to knock on my door with open hands for money and pink citations for my villainous underworld activity.  However, once they find out I made less in a year than a true sole business person makes in a day, they might do the math and discover it’d cost more for the postage stamp than what they’d collect from me.  🙂

Back to the painting: this is another longhorn from my uncle’s ranch (see ref pic)

This is the reference photo.

The story goes, the dad was “Little Ace Lobo” and the mom was “Supreme Expression”. By naming the kid after both the parents, it keep the lineage straightforward. … in theory.  Thus, “Hi Lobo’s Expression” was born.  One aspect of this cow is, it really is a “low – bo” with short legs. Kinda the weaner dog of cowdom. I thought about giving him leg extensions with my artistic license, but art is about loving our differences. Sorry HiLoBo Ex, no stadium shoes for you this time.

Here’s some progression pics with captions:

fairly detailed under-painting.
fairly detailed under-painting.
Layered in a background to cover all the canvas and worked the details a bit more on the fence and face.
Layered in a background to cover all the canvas and worked the details a bit more on the fence and face.

In the final photo (at the top of this article), I invented a post to the right, put in the grass and weeds, added some oaks in the background to balance out the invented post and further developed the details, especially around the face.  Oh, I almost missed giving poor HiLobo a tail! In the reference picture, it’s tucked behind his legs.  If I tried to paint it there, it would look like it’s peeing or doing something else, so I swung the tail to the side and only gave it a slight highlight to keep it unnoticed.

This was fun to keep this painting loose and abstract in the background and grass, but give just enough in detailed objects to make the rest seem real.  At first it feels like cheating, but if you go outdoors and view a scene in nature, that’s really what you see.

Thanks for letting me share this with ya!

Artists Chat:

Palette (ridiculously extended): Titanium white, cobalt blue, alizarin crimson, hooker’s green (warm green), pthalo green (cooler green), raw sienna, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow hue, burnt umber (make a great dark grey with the cobalt blue), cadmium orange and ultramarine blue.   I really only needed half of this, but it’s fun to experiment and see the benefits of each. For example, the raw sienna was a great saturated color to really give some punch against all those greens for the lit side of the cow. The saturation couldn’t be matched with mixing.  The shadow side is really key to making the cow look real. If you can see in the white hair of the cow in the shadow side, it’s full of reflections (sky, grass, and a warm grey in between).  I’ve heard it called “opalescence”. Check out Daniel Gerhartz’s latest blog post to read about it from a world renowned pro. If you haven’t tried this, please do! You’ll love it! It’s subtle changes, but so important!


Studio Painting: “Under the Oak”

"Under the Oak" 18x24" acrylic.  This is a scene at Grace Ranch in the Spring
“Under the Oak” 18×24″ acrylic. This is a scene at Grace Ranch in the Spring

This painting has been in the back of my mind for a long time. I took a reference picture when I first started to plein air paint (2011?) and finally felt as if I could do justice to what I saw. Grace Ranch, a ranch now owned by my uncle, has been in the family for two generations now. There is a huge Live Oak on the low area of the property where a creek runs and longhorns that graze there. The oak’s massive limbs seem to snake their way randomly away from the trunk in what seems to defy gravity.  This year was a good year for rains just before Spring and set the stage for a full beds of bluebonnets.  I wanted to capture the rugged, fresh feel of Grace Ranch in the Spring with the combination of the oak, the longhorns and the bluebonnets,  making the center of interest the longhorns.

Here’s the reference picture:

Reference pic
Reference pic

In my first attempt, I had a really hard time setting the mood for the scene and remembered an article I’d just read describing how the artist does an accurate gray-scale charcoal drawing before starting the painting (and the painting was amazing).  So I used mix of black and white acrylics and attempted this as an under-painting.  I found that rather than thinking about color, I was focused on getting the design right, making sure the main objects stood out, adding objects and altering others to “tell the story” correctly.  It was like having a value map, with full detail, taking the pressure of making too many decisions when trying to find the right colors later.

Here’s the grey-scale under-painting (I painted over the previous attempt):


This is the grey scale underpainting that served as a "value map".
This is the grey scale under-painting that served as a “value map”.

It worked perfectly. Staying within the light/dark values on the map, I set in the colors and could see if they were off right away if the color was too light/dark.  It even kept me in line of staying away from too much detail where it isn’t needed.  In the end, it has the rugged feel with big oaks, dead limbs on the ground, yet a freshness of spring colors in the trees and on the ground. All the while, the center of interest in pointed toward the longhorns grazing in, what must be to them, a piece of heaving itself. (in the scene, they haven’t been butchered… just wanted to clarify).

Artist Chat:

I used Titanium White and Mars Black for the grey scale, then switched to Cobalt blue, Alizarin Crimson, Yellow Ochre, Titanium White, and Bunt Umber. I did use Mars Black sparingly in color mixtures too, but not much.  In the planning, notice the line of bushes point toward the longhorn, as does the line of bluebonnets on the right, and dead limb on the left.  The longhorns are the showcase, and the oak and bluebonnets support them.

Studio Painting: “Country Sunrise”

"Country Sunrise" 11x14" Acrylic. This is a scene near Muldoon, TX in the morning.
“Country Sunrise” 11×14″ Acrylic. This is a scene near Muldoon, TX in the morning.

This is another painting for the Fulshear Art Walk on April 26th. A few weekend ago, I went down the do some ranch work with my uncle.  As I drove out there in the morning, a scene of a huge oak in the background and the cattle in the foreground came into view.  I knew it was a good scene for a painting and slammed on the brakes before I lost the right angle or the cows moved.  I backed up a bit (it was a little like when adjusting a painting on a wall “no, no… a little to the left. Now to the right. Shmidgen back…”. Eventually the cows had just the right back-lighting and I got the shot. Phew.  And this is why artists are really bad drivers on country roads.

Here’s the reference pic:

Reference pic
Reference pic

As you can see, I did quite a bit of alteration changing angles of the land to get rid of too many horizontals and added oaks to the background to give some balance and depth. There is typically Broomweed out there, which is bright, yellow-ochre in the morning light and it just felt right for this painting, so I added it in.  Ranchers hate it, so if a guy with leathery skin, boots and a cowboy hat asks if that’s broomweed at the Art Walk…”What? Broomweed? Why I’d never…”.

Well, it now Friday, sunny and I’m getting out of here for some plein air! Hopefully I’ll see some bluebonnets, big oaks and red blankets for some studies.  That’s pure Texas.

Studio Painting of a Blue Jay “A Moment of Repose”

Blue Jay painting
11×14″ Acrylic “A Moment of Repose”

In my adventures in the last post, I became a “birder” chasing birds around the back yard here in Harker Heights, Weimar and Muldoon, TX, sometimes on rooftops.  So, I set to weeding out the pics with half a wing, my foot in a blur or branches where the bird left the instant I pushed the shoot button from those that actually had a bird and a decent possibility for a composition. Below was a shot of a Blue Jay here in Harker Heights that got tired of my stalking it and sat down in a tree in a “moment of repose” while I took a pic.  It could just have easily been called “please stop following me”, which describes the look in the picture perfectly.

photo reference
photo reference

I learned a LOT from the last painting in having to discover and invent a background.  So, my goal for this painting to not the technicalities of bird so much as setting a mood with the background.  When I take a photo or paint an outdoors color sketch, I look for accuracy, not emotion.  However, a real part of connecting to a painting IS the emotion and emotion is very abstract.  The background colors are essential for this.  For example, a powerful sunset is vibrant and dynamic, whereas a foggy grey morning is quite different. If you tried to describe why the clouds or grey fog made you feel differently, you’d quickly dive into abstract words and to describe specifically why, it’s abstract colors.  Next time you see a sunset, try it. You might just connect with a part of yourself you haven’t felt in a while.

With this goal in mind, I had a warm feeling in the scene, but I wasn’t sure why.  I wanted to connect with that in a real sense and feel that uncomfortable edge when you’re about to speak and don’t know quite how the words will come out. I found my fingers mixing the paints and dragging streaks of color down the painting, concentrating only on the mood I felt from that scene.  It was the opposite of being technical, exact, realistic or … “me”. It was frustrating, freeing, exhausting and refreshing all at once. What came of it was a balance between a technically detailed bird with all the notes of the feathers, and the abstraction behind it, and felt closer to what I intended. When I look at it now, I don’t have the words to describe what I felt, but it’s there in a visual language.

I can see the more I do this, looking inwards and trying to put that abstract emotion on canvas, the closer I’ll come to clarifying and connecting to those that view it.   The journey continues!

Artist Chat:

I used yellow ochre, alizarin crimson, cad yellow, cobalt blue, pains gray and titanium white.  To add texture to the branches, I used heavy modeling paste, mixed with the colors and applied it with a knife.  To add “glow” to the background, I watered down yellow over the areas to highlight.

Also, I made the colors more vibrant than the photo, so if you’re walking into a room, even dimly lit, you’ll see the bird and not a blue-grey mass and some twigs.  If I’d thought it was going to hang in a brightly lit room, like in a sunlit spot on a wall, I might have opted to tone in down a bit to keep the similar grays as the photo.


Feeding the Birds (Commission): Steps 2 & 3

This is the continuation of the previous post, describing a commission to create and paint a scene of a homemade platform feeder with two cardinals and a chickadee.  Since this is cedar country here in central TX, the background scene would be based on this. 

We came up with a rough sketch to arrange the birds in the first step, and next was to make a color sketch.  The goal with this was simply to get put color to the sketch and see if it works.  I found out there is a big difference between painting a scene from a photo or en plein air, and illustrating a realistic scene from imagination.  It took a few fails and some outdoor adventure to put this all together. Here’s some initial attempts that seemed close, but somehow didn’t feel right. I think the sky blue with the bright red was like wearing plaid short with a rugby striped polo (while I have never done…twice).  Taking out the sky was just depressing.

Attempts to make the birds stand out and also have some harmony with the background. A very humbling lesson.
Attempts to make the birds stand out and also have some harmony with the background. A very humbling lesson.

Time to look down my website list of favorite artists (a long list) for some guidance and inspiration.  The painting below, from Edward Aldrich, shows a perfect example of color harmony.  The rich, dark background has all the colors of the bird if you look closely, making the bird and flowers seem to “fit” in like high notes in a symphony.  Looking back at my color sketches, I saw a squeaks and random, out of tune notes of a middle school band practice, complete with “tuba farts”.  I needed a focal point to draw it all together and something in the background to create harmony.

Edward Aldrich's oil painting showing amazing color harmony
Edward Aldrich’s oil painting showing amazing color harmony

If my background was about cedars, it was time to get out and do some plein air, really evaluating how the bird colors would fit in with this.  I found reds in the cedar bark (male cardinal has red), yellow ochre and rich greens in the leaflets (female cardinal)  and bright and dark grays in the branches (chickadee).  Amazing how much you can find if you look!

cedar tree studies for the painting
cedar tree studies for the painting out near Dana Peak park (Belton, TX)
The cedars had everything from cool blue colors, warm greens and yellows and even chalky white colored branches. Perfect.
The cedars had everything from cool blue colors, warm greens and yellows and even chalky white colored branches. Perfect.

Next came the cardinals.  I searched the web images, took pictures from yard, ranch fields and rooftops, and this is what I found: the male cardinal is just red. Bright, bold red. The female, however, it subtle and varied in color, making it very elusive. The only way I found a female to take pics of was to listen and look for the males.   Oh, Mom, if you notice there’s not many cardinals visiting the bird bath or feeder lately out in the yard, it’s because I chased them with the camera around the yard for a few days. I’m now a living scarecrow to them. Sorry about that. I did it in the name of art, right?

A mash-up of pics from Google searches to my hunting down birds with an ultrazoom camera here and in Weimar, TX.

A mash-up of pics from Google searches to my hunting down birds with an ultrazoom camera here and in Weimar, TX.

After a couple more attempts, I found a color sketch I was comfortable with. (note, it’s meant to be a quick and rough sketch)

Here's a rough color sketch that seems to harmonize a bit better (as you'll see in the final painting).
Here’s a rough color sketch that seems to harmonize a bit better (as you’ll see in the final painting).

With a better color sketch and all the research, I stepped into the final painting feeling much better.  Working back and forth between the birds and background (repeatedly), I found it naturally merged them slowly into it.  I’d paint part of a bird, then use that color somewhere in the background, and vice versa.

There were a couple things that personalized this painting to put a their story in the painting’s concept. The feeder had perfect elements, such as small drainage gaps in the corners and the squirrel proof cone below it.  Also, the female is in the tree because they notice one cardinal feeds while the other stands guard. I’d put her on the feeder and make the male stand guard (as it should be, right), but her colors were perfect compliments to the sky blue (sorry lady).  As for the little, bold chickadee, note the branches of the cedar tie in with it.  Little details like this make a huge difference!

16x20" acrylic on canvas panel.
16×20″ acrylic on canvas panel.

Thank you Mrs.  Harmeyer for this adventure!!

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)

“Red Bellied Woodpecker”: Studio Work

11x14 Acrylic.  "Red-bellied Woodpecker". This is a bird that frequents the tree near the feeder.
11×14 Acrylic. “Red-bellied Woodpecker”. This is a bird that frequents the tree near our feeder.

This red-bellied woodpecker swoops down to the tree in our backyard almost everyday to check out what might be hiding in the tree bark. Why it’s not a “red-capped”, I don’t know, but that’s what the books say.  Over the past year, I’ve taken pictures just in case there was good time to paint him (or her?).  Turn out, I have a commission with three birds to warm up for, so this was the perfect chance.  Aside from the chickadee, nuthatch and a few others, this is another bird that ranks among my favorites.  It’s sort of shy, and if you’re around, it’ll try hiding on the backside of a tree, poking it’s head out to see if you’re gone.  However, around other birds, I’ve seen it dive bomb a whole flock of sparrow splashing in the bird bath.  While the sparrows lined up on the fence dripping wet, waiting to return, it mocked them taking it’s time for one single sip before flying off.  That’s character.

Here he is (or she?) in action grabbing a grub or seed from the tree.
Here he is (or she?) in action grabbing a grub or seed from the tree.
This is the picture I decided to use for a reference.
This is the picture I decided to use for a reference.

Now, onto the commission!  Pumped and ready to go.

Artists’ Technical Mumbo Jumbo:

The palette:

  • Titanium White
  • Cobalt Blue
  • Raw Sienna
  • Cad Yellow
  • Pyrolle Orange
  • Alizarin Crimson

About 90% of this painting used Cobalt Blue, Raw Sienna mixed up into either warm grey or cool greys, varying value with Titanium White.  I used the yellow, red and blue to mix up a bit of light tan to highlight the bark in the foreground.  I could have just used the sienna, but I like the variations you get when mixing from just the primaries. The ONLY way I could get the cap to really shine was with the power of pyrolle orange.  Just mixing yellow and red isn’t nearly is vibrant.

It can really hard to see form in the subtle greys and reflections of brown on the feathers.  It’s easy to not darken enough on the gradient towards the edges producing a flat looking bird. I had to make myself push the dark in the underbelly and then lighten with glazes until it looked right.  Also,  I found myself looking for ways to “lose the edge” on the back and other places away from the focal point of the cap and eye.  Adding similar values for the bark compared to the edge feathers helped.  Blending gel really helps as well to get that buttery smooth feel for softening the feathers near the edges. Hope these tips can help. Be sure the comment if you have other tips for all the other artists that read this! Thanks.