Plein Air: Weimar, TX (“Gracie’s Lantanas”)



picture taken indoors (no glare)
 In my grandmother’s backyard is a Lantana bush that was just about knee height with 4 fours in 2012. I had planted a garden there to fend off boredom while I went through chemo and left this little sprig alone. It obviously loves it there and is now a 6′ by 5′ bush sprawling out everywhere.

It was a perfectly lit, halfway out of the shadows, which really made the flowers and leaves pop out. Although painting flowers doesn’t really inspire me, it’s perfect to learn from. The flowers are pure, saturated color, which makes it easier to mix up greyed out (or “muted”) color for the leaves. I decided to go darker for the shadows, rather than try to suggest much there. My main goal was to learn brushwork.

Hopefully, I’ll be comfortable enough to start doing some landscape studies with old barns and cattle. The spring greens and golden color of the molting oak trees are hard to resist!


The Apple Challenge, and an Answer

Why am I painting this?: The DPW challege was to paint an apple with as few colors as needed and still give a 3-D illusion. (I highly recommend doing these challenges along with Richard Robinson’s challenges!) In doing this I hoped to learn from other artist also completing the challenge and maybe sell it for a little spending money. I never expected an answer to my initial question!


Another artist commented on my painting:

“As a recipient of many apples over the years (I am a retired teacher) I got a warm fuzzy feeling from this one. One day a Kindergarten Kid did not know why kids would leave apples on my desk, so she “stole” a can of fruit from her mom’s kitchen and left it on my desk. That is the one I remember the most. I am tempted to buy yours as representative to my good life as a teacher.”

I replied, “I’m sending it right away, no charge!”. She responded, “I will frame it nicely and pay the good deed forward.”.


I learned an important lesson through this. Artist don’t make much money, the competition is stifling, and after pouring your heart into a painting the last thing you want to do is give it away! However, this reminded me why I paint. I paint in hopes that someone else may find value in it and be inspired. The value in her comment and especially in stating she would pay it forward renewed my sense of purpose. In gifting, I received a priceless return, an answer.

If you ever find you are losing inspiration to paint, put your heart into a painting for someone else. Then, give it to them without expecting anything in return. I promise, this act will give you a sense of freedom from the inside out.

Update: She sent an email with it framed and said it now hangs in her kitchen.


Attempting Looseness (Part 3)

Why am I painting this? As a continued effort (Part 3) to learn how to relax and paint more “loosely”.  The effort will result in not only my further enjoyment in what I’m painting, but to the viewer as well.

8x10, acrylic on canvas panel "Opposites Attract"

Here, I took a challenge to paint with larger brushes in an effort to broaden my strokes and do away with edges further.  So, I took a single 1 inch, square brush, a palate knife and an 8 x 10″ canvas panel and had some fun.  I set up a simple still life and had some fun making a message of it with the orange wrapping an “arm” around the apple (the differences are the spice of life).  I blocked in the main objects colors first and decided the range of values that seemed right for each (including the background). Then simply applied paint in large brush strokes as in previous attempts.

The apple: here’s a great video to show a process of laying down paint first and then working through to the finish. It’s more detailed, but has great info!

What resulted from this big brush challenge is that the brush size doesn’t matter (at least for me) as much as the ability to see the goal.  I’m still looking for the finished style as I know it.  Somehow, I just learned to use every edge and angle of a 1″ brush to get the same result! Ha. Oh well.

In going back through Alla Prima: Everything I Know about Painting, I can see some different techniques to try.  There will be a Part 4!!  In Part 4, I’m going to create a messy background and possibly foreground with undefined objects with the main focus being on the subject.  See his floral still life paintings for example. Possibly in a plein air landscape?  Who knows.  Just got a portable  easel, so time to test it out!!

Update (4/24/12): Hmm, I guess there’s not a Part 4. I blame on the new portable easel.  I’ve been spending so much time painting outdoors, I’ve forgotten about this series.  I’ll include things I’ve tried to help loosen up in the next posts (after 4/27/12).  I have learned that the point isn’t so much loosening up, but getting the initial concept of a painting before I start.  More on that later. I recommend buying Paul Strisik’s book Capturing Light in Oils.  He explains it in a way I’ll never be able to that seems to make clarity in this muddy subject.  Seriously, it’s worth every penny.

Attempting Looseness (Part 2)

It’s go time.  Time to apply paint over the painting and come out with a bolder, more expressive result. Hopefully.

Luckily, today I saw that Richard ( has come out with a preview of the Workshop 7 painting that is a still life involving an orange.  It’s a great reference to what I’m trying to accomplish here.  I noted two thing immediately in looking at this painting:1) the background has a LOT to do with the overall “loose” look and 2) the farther from the focus object, the looser he is (note the leaves blend into the background).

Approach: Start outside with a loose background, darkening the part farthest from the light and keep it with a brushy, almost unfinished look. Let part of the background color merge into the objects more as they get farther away from the main focus.  Use a large brush.

Paint in the background
Use large brush

The top of the salt shaker and the grapes need to merge into the dark background and lose their edge.

darken back grapes and shaker lid

Paint over the orange with a 1/2″ brush and try to keep it simple strokes without loosing the color look.  Need to be more careful on not overlapping brush strokes too much. It loses the bold, loose look very fast. I want to add stem to grapes, but will it stand out too much?  Loose means loosing some of the definition in object out of focus.  We’ll see. Yep, stands out.  Will re-do later. In trying to use a few bold strokes for the shaker lid highlights, this was very hard.  BE VERY ACCURATE WITH HIGHLIGHTS! Smooth & slow.  Gotta redo this. Lots to learn.

paint over orange

Painted over the grapes with 1/4″ brush.  The 1/2″ brush was too big to form a grape. I really like the loose look of the grapes. It still looks real with using bigger strokes. Nice.

painting over grapes

Ran over the edge of the shaker when correcting stem and needed to repaint the entire right background to cover up the repair strokes over stem.  Now I’m seeing why painting “loose” actually means being more aware of exactly what/where the strokes are going.  Painted a red-gray dull highlight over grapes. I think it’s harder to stay loose on small objects.

paint over shaker lid, highlight grapes

Ok, attempt #2 at shaker lid. Using a smaller brush to match width of highlight I could each one with a single stroke.  This is a nice look.  Painted white dots for highlights on grapes and also the orange.  I  over, highlighted the orange and had to redo the right side.  “Loose” highlighting is hard!

highlight orange

What can I do to make the cloth underneath have edges that lead the viewer to the object? Twisted the plate some to get fold underneath.  Nice effect.  Added to orange reflection to the grape (single, careful stroke when I could). Grapes are too dark. Added some red-purple with touch of white to add the effect of light illuminating through the foreground grapes. Much better. Added plate  highlight with 1/2″ brush with off-white color in single stroke. Went back with some pinks and tans randomly to loosen up the single color.  Added white highlight with a dab and hold, then pull stroke that had a nice bold end and blended end. Gotta remember that stroke.

Filled in plate highlight and cloth

Overall, this is an excellent way to learn to loosen up!! And fun! This ended up a bit darker than I was expecting and somehow it seems just as tight. But when I look closer, I can see bold strokes!  Nice!  I think on the next painting I’ll go for an even looser effect.  Hopefully others at the complete artist had luck and will have more tips. I’ll update this if I find some!

Update: Here’s the pic with the ruler to give some idea of the size of the object (sorry for the delay!)

Here's the size of objects


Learning to Paint Loose (Part 1)

Why am I painting this?  My painting style right now is very “tight”, meaning very detailed and attempting to replicate the photograph.  I’d like the freedom of some “looseness” to relax more about the details and introduce expression in my style. 

I suppose I should start by defining what I think “loose” is, or what I’m shooting for.  If you read Alla Prima: Everything I know About Art (Richard Schmid), he does a very good explanation of how to keep the focus of the painting “real” while loosing the surroundings that are distracting as seen here.  Richard Robinson has a similar style in that his paintings look “real”, yet are achieved with more careful application of fewer brushstrokes in bold colors.  “Helping  Hand” is a great example of this.

Fortune turned my way in the previous grape and pear workshop and Richard reviewed the study to give a hand in helping me learn to loosen up.  He urged to start from what I know: finish a painting in my “tight” style, then go back over and “loosen” it up.

The goal: Two parts: 1) Do a challenging still life I’d be pleased with and then 2)  “loosen” it.  Here’s my notes:

Part 1: Do a Challenging Still Life

Find a new arrangement that will take research to complete.  Different textures? Orange (dimpled surface), stainless steel salt shaker (bushed steel on bottom, smooth on top), grapes, wood semi-shiny plate and green towel backdrop.

Photo of the still life (pic is overly yellow, the shaker actually looks silver, not gold)

Starting off: Cropped photo to find good balance in the scene (rule of thirds). Sketched arrangement.  Blocked in colors of orange, plate, grapes and left salt shaker alone (what color is it?). Painted background. A comment was made to not detail the background of last still life, it’s a distraction.  Good point.  Simple blue gray back, green bottom. I’ll fill the background when loosening it up.

Painting the orange: How do you make a dimpled surface??  This goofy guy made a good still life video on painting oranges showing that dimpling in the highlight makes it “real”.  Jean Pierre Walter had great realism in still life oranges and lemons at Rather than use a small brush, I used a old bristly brush to lay the color in there. The dimple effect comes naturally.  Orange, then green for a dimpled shadow, then yellows for the upper-left reflection and lower plate reflection. For the direct highlights ( right side), I made a semi-wet (semi-translucent) mix of white paint and dotted in the highlight area, then repeated another time just in a center light area to add that extra kick of light. This took a day to learn, but absolutely worth it!

Painting the Stainless Steel shaker:  THIS was a challenge!!  Surprisingly, there aren’t too many videos about shiny steel surfaces.  This one is good, but has no instruction. I pillaged Jean Pierre’s work again which helped.  Mostly, I sat and just painted what I saw. Many times. Many. Times. Brushed steel look: paint reflections blending into each other. Then, use dry bristle brush to go over it –>put light grey on the bristle brush and brush across a paper towel until dry and barely any paint coming off, then make rounded stroke over surface to add the appearance of miniature blending lines.  The “dark” areas of the brushed steel were always lighter than the smooth top.  For the smooth shiny top, I just painted in smooth strokes with fine definition between light/dark and made sure the highlights defined the round shape.  I’m not sure why, but painting in the dark area of reflection of the smooth surface seemed to require a bit darker color than the actual reflected object. Paint what you see… day and a half.

Painting Wooden plate: Pretty easy here. Matched color and didn’t worry about wood grain lines.  Not focusing on the plate itself too much.  Light reflections of the objects, especially the white line in the shaker makes it look “reflective”.  Make watery reflection mark, take finger and pull down to extend the reflection across the plate. If it’s too dark of a reflection, wash over it with a plate-color wash.

Grapes: Ah, like finding a good friend among strangers… paint grapes like the previous still life.

Finished enough to be “tight”?: the plate edge is undone and background as well, but this will be a part of getting “loose” to mostly ignore these. The goal is to work on the main objects with large brush strokes and still keep them “real” looking. Part of what I see in video of loose painting is blending some edges into the background.

"Tight" painting 11x14 Acrylic on paper. This was kept unvarnished.

Grape n Pear Still Life

Why am I painting this?  This month’s workshop challenge at is a  still life has grapes, a pear and a white jug (or mug in my case). It continues from last months challenge. It teaches 1) how to set up a still life with a good source of direct lighting, 2) how to paint from the objects (not a photo) and 3) how to see everything that is going on with reflections, lights, darks and midtones (among other lessons).  So, here we go!

Working through the lesson:

Sketching and notan: The dark background needs something light, light tablecloth? Plate? Something to even it out.

Having problems with the ellipses.  The plate is distorted and really hard to fix! Solution: Use this YouTube video that shows how to correct the ellipse.   Just sketch a rough draft of what your “plate” looks like, then apply this technique to make it more accurate. Much better.

Underpainting: Cool background (green/blues) warms in/around objects (yellow-brown?) … water down acrylics almost to watercolor consistency.

Background texture: How do I get the fleece to look fleecy? Block in the folds with darks/light areas.  Using the old brush dab repeatedly to work out the lines between the light/dark areas.  Add a bit of yellow to the green and add light dabs to light areas, green to the blue/blacks and dab in the dark areas.  Nice!

Painting glass to look real (reflections, the sheen). I found this long, boring video on painting still lifes (17 part video??) and after 3 video parts I have a better idea of getting a convincing look of a glass surfaces. For reflections, paint a light reflection that looks about right on the still life, then paint a watery coat of the glass color over it. Thin – translucent. I really like Quang Huang still life’s, but he’s SO good it’s hard to understand the basics he’s not mentioning. Boring video shows it better.

Grapes: Looking at other submissions, Richard’s video and Quang’s video, do a red-purple oval/circle, let dry.  Repeat to darken color. Add reds to the center to make the grape look like light is going through it.  Maybe a bit of orange.  Keep red and orange semi watery.  Let dry. Add reflections as you see them.  Emphasize the green pear on nearest grape to tie the pear in to the grapes. White dot highlight.  Same with the pear. Shadows: check out pixels on photograph and look to see if that’s what you see in the still life.  Purple grapes..some green-grays. Pear… some red-grays, almost purple grays.

Need to connect the green pear with red grapes:  throw a few loose grapes over there.

Nice.  Looks like I can grab the plate!!

Let the acrylics dry, then varnish to bring back the crisp color.

Ok, this took 3 days… time to step back and come back to see mistakes.

11x14" acrylic on canvas panel

Update: coming back to it, it definitely looks “real”. How do I get it to look loose?  May need to look again at too much stem?

Update#2:  Got great advice from Richard today. Finish a painting (DON”T VARNISH) and when it’s finished, then go back and loosen up the edges with a BIG BRUSH.  No fear!! Just do it!

The Green Pepper Still Life

Why am I Painting This?… to learn about lights and shadows using still life.  This will be a huge help in realism for the focal subject in ANY painting!

On Richard Robinson’s “The Complete Artist” site, he has a workshop to lights and shadows in a still life.  While I missed the date to join in this, it’s still worth studying his workshop “challenges” and learning  by observation.  Rather than repeat the descriptions, I encourage you to follow the link above and read it for yourself.

The first challenge is to do a notan study separating the “light family” from the “dark family” (as described). It is hard to understand why the backdrop is in the shadow family and the base in the light family, but I think it may be because the subject casts a shadow on the base?  Notan is great for looking at composition as well.  There should be a balance between light and shadow in every painting that follows the “rule of thirds” or other composition tools.  I don’t know all the secrets of composition, but after doing the notan, if something looks “off”, then it’s easy to readjust the subject at this stage or maybe turn the canvas to do a landscape view instead of portrait.

The second challenge is to do a value study and see the pepper in only shades of grey.  This will help as a second step to see the lights relative to the darks after choosing the composition with notan.  It defines the edges of the subject and how they relate to the rest of the surroundings as well as in the subject itself. It’s also great for telling what “value” one color has against another.  For example, if a green subject seems to have a similar value to a blue background, by squinting your eye one may look darker than the other.

The third challenge is to do the pepper in colors (as you read in the challenges — link above). I did an orange, green, and yellow pepper trying to paint each in about 10 minutes. The result was disaster.

This was definitely frustrating, but I realized an important thing which I bet most beginning painters, like myself, don’t realize: it’s hard to see color correctly! I looked back over the green pepper and now I could see that my mental color wheel wasn’t understanding how I could match the color. Maybe I’m not seeing the values of color? I made a quick color-value gradient tool (below) with the pure blue, red and yellow mixed with white or black to try and help evaluate this comparing the actual colors I’m seeing with the gradients. If this doesn’t help me, then I know I need help with the hues, or different blends of pure color.

(1/27- update)  Well, the color chart did squat.  Honestly, I think a simple grey card would do everything for getting values.  I also found that if I take a digital picture, the pixels reveal the “real” colors to shoot for.  It’ll be a good lesson for getting started.  Live and learn.