Commission from Photo: Wedding Venue in Colorado

The finished commission, 24×18″, acrylic on stretched canvas
I finished a commission from photos of a wedding venue in Colorado, adding the final touch-ups and varnish yesterday. This scene had a lot of aspects going for it, a strong focal point with the lodge, the walkway to the left along the lake directing the viewer to the lodge and the distance with the background mountains. However, this painting was a tougher challenge than first expected because of something I overlooked in the photo; no shadows. The photo was taken with the sun directly behind the photographer. It’s was a great shot, but shadows give the illusion of an object being 3-dimensional for the painter to use. Everything looked flat, so it was an excellent way to learn alternative ways to show depth and form. Adding warmth to the foreground and cooling off the color with blues to the background gave a good sense of atmosphere. Overlapping the trees in front and behind others was a huge tool for front to back depth. To show roundness in the foreground trees, very subtle color shift were used to add the greatest warmth to the center and cool off the sides where the sky reflects more . Other tricks were to use the rocky places in the background mountain to form broken lines to indicate loosely an illusion of roundness. Similar to looking at a striped towel with folds, the stripes form curved lines leading the eye around the shapes. Fortunately, the client and her husband loved it. Now it’s being packed and it’ll be sent off to begin it purpose. I love it when the scene automatically connect the viewer to a great memory. 


Plein Air: Rocky outcrop near Westcliff, CO

The scene: in an area about an hour north of Westcliff, I hiked along a ridge line to the top of a mountain with this rocky outcrop. In the background are the Sangre de Christos mountains. It’s a striking view to look at with the rocks in the foreground in contrast to the distant blues of the far mountain range, giving you a sense of just how tiny you are and yet honored to be even a small part of it. 

The experience: I’d hoped the sketch would be something I could give to my friends while visiting them at their mountain home, but it needed a lot more touching up back in the studio (the image you see above). A bit frustrated that the sketch wasn’t what I’d hoped for, I packed up and headed back for dinner not realizing my wallet had fallen out. Unfortunately, the spot I painted from was about two feet wide with about a twenty foot drop off on one side and a large, thin crevice from about ten to thirty feet on the other. The next day, I hiked back up and found the wallet at the base of the cliff with my credit cards and drivers license missing. There’s zero possibility of another person stealing it because of the remoteness of this place. What happened was a mystery at first… Then we discovered chew marks on my leather wallet. Pack rats living in the rocks likely took those cards into the crevices. If they wanted to take my identity and order an year’s supply of mouse food, they now have the finances to do it. I’m certain they left the chew marks as evidence just to mock me. : )

Before heading back to CO Springs, I saw a view from the owner’s porch that seemed like a great composition with golden grass leading between the cedars and pines towards the view of the mountains. Deciding to go big (16×20), a couple of hours later it actually turned into a decent sketch that they really liked. 

Turns out they had wanted a painting of that scene for a while and the colors in this sketch matched the colors in their home. Some things are just meant to be. They’ve now named the rocky outcrop with the devil-rats Williamson Rock. Ha. Good times and always an adventure.

Plein Air: East Plum Creek in Castle Rock, CO


The Experience: It was about 4 degrees last night, but warmed up to at least 20 by 9am, so Jamie (local artist friend) and I went to a PAAC (Plein Air Artist of Colorado) event in Castle Rock, CO. The plan was to find scene along the East Plum Creek that runs through town and honestly, at first, I didn’t see much. There was a bunch of leafless trees with what looked like a frozen over creek. But when we walked around a bit, all the shadows in the snow and the dark contrast of the creek running thought it made for really neat designs. I guess the mind needs to shift into a different way of seeing opportunities in unfamiliar areas, and then suddenly there too much to choose from. I settled on a scene where a shadow was cast over the shallow creek with snow covered boulders alongside. Great combination and simple enough to really dig into the details of the scene and capture those deep yellows under the water. Anytime you see a deep yellow and light blue (snow) in a scene, it’s going to have a “vibration” that appeals to the eye.

After we finished, it was time for some grub, so we ate at the Taco (something) restaurant. Mmm. If you ever stop there, get the taco salad with Fajita meat. Awesome. Thanks for the taco salad, Jamie!!

Artist Chat: In snow scenes, I’m learning its a really good idea to first mix a light gray-blue and mat it over all the snow to ensure you have enough room to hit highlights at the end. Also, to gauge how “light” to mix the snow color, find the darkest dark and figure out how many steps in value it is between the snow and that area. The rest is just finding the shadows much as you would if you were painting a blanket. It ripples much the same way. To mix up a good snow grey, try using ivory black and ultramarine blue with titanium white.  Mixing this combination in different amount allows for most of the shifts I see. When another color, like a green tree, is near, there will be hints on that in there too. Hope it helps!


Studio: Colorado Springs Winter Scenes

Here’s a quick update with some snow scene’s I’ve been busy working on from plein air studies. It’s amazing how many colors are snow! I thought, “Well, it’s white…”. Wrong. It’s reflected blues of the sky, greens from trees and grays. The only thing that could be “white” is the parts that reflect the sunlight right at your eyes. After scouring through many Josh Clare and Clyve Aspevig’s master works, I’m slowly coming to understand how to show the roundness and ripples in snow.

The first work is of a scene along Sandy Creek I saw a few weeks back. After a snow, a shallow part of the creek froze over mostly with some icy parts. The grass poked through the snow, reflected reds, bronzes and yellows. Pretty stunning to see against the blue backdrop of the Rockies.

“Winter Gold along Sandy Creek”, 16×20, acrylic on stretched canvas

About two weeks later, I was invited to a small family cabin near Woodland, CO. The snow was so deep, snow shoes were pretty much mandatory off the path from the road to the cabin. So, I experienced snow shoe plein air for the first time. (Thanks for the snow shoes, Sean and Holly!). After a semi-quick sketch, I later scaled the scene up to this 16×20:

“The Mikulas Family Cabin”, 16×20, acrylic

I loved the shadows of the trees running up the hill towards the cabin and that deep yellow of the cabin against the cobalt sky.

The next week, I was antsy to get back in the snow shoes and went out to Palmer Park after another great snow. I found some huge snow covered boulders and then noticed this bush with dried up orange-ish leaves that stood out brightly against the deep blues of the background snow. It somehow seemed intimate, like a portrait, so I dove in. After freezing my fingers, paints and water basin, I had enough information to finish at home. Warmth. Ah.

“Snowfall in Palmer Park”, 9×12, acrylic on hardboard panel

I’ve since been out to Garden of the Gods… (I HAVE been busy!)… and, well, I’ll leave that for the next post. : )

These paintings will be available from my website:

Plein Air & Studio: Snow at Palmer Park, Colorado Springs

“A Moment of Warmth” 16×20. (Studio work)

Location: This scene is from Palmer Park, located in the center of Colorado Springs. If you’re familiar with this area, this is by the Templeton Trail entrance on the main path winding around the park towards Austin Bluffs St..

My Goal for this Painting: I wanted to emphasize the sense of a cold, crisp snow scene with the warmth of sunlight on the little tree.  I also love the contrast of light and dark snow provides and wanted to used the grass and sunlit snow to invite you into the scene.

The Experience: I’ve been drooling over snow scene paintings of Clyve Aspevig, Micheal Godfrey and a recent one from Kathleen Dunphy and had thoroughly reviewed the “how to paint plein air in the snow” articles from other artists. I was more than ready.  There was a snow storm last week and just enough snow left in the shaded areas to improvise a snow scene, so it was time to test the new winter gear. I was toasty in three layers of pants, five layers up top with a tshirt, thermal underwear, a wool shirt, puffy down coat and a shell jacket. My feet were comforted with liner socks, expedition mountaineering Smartwool socks in thick wool lined “pack boots”. To finish off, I donned a windproof fleece beanie. Like I said, I was more than ready. I also got to test out my new field easel similar to the one Joshua Been designed. Many thanks, Joshua! It works great!

After walking down a trail, feeling the snow crunch under well cushioned feet, I found this scene (but the little tree was lit up at the time):


Although the actual scene wasn’t so dramatic, it provided enough information to express the “feel” of the scene in my sketch. I could see it in my mind and knew I had minutes before the sunlight left and much of that information was gone. In no time, I set up my new easel, hung my bag and scattered my painting gear randomly in the snow next to the main trail. Within ten minutes I had a sketch and background filled in, ready to figure out how to paint snow and focus on the tree.

The sunlight left and it was instantly cold. I put on my extra poofy down jacket and shell looking about twice my normal size. Of course this is when a group of trail runners passed by in shorts and one without a shirt. Feeling less than manly, I said, “Well, at least I’m warm” to boost my ego and get back to the scene.  Over the next hour and a half, I patiently added the tree and snow with deliberate brushstrokes backing up from the easel, mixing paint and then adding the stroke. It’s a very refreshing way to paint, rather than dabbing colors anxiously, unsure if it’s the right thing to do. After two hours, I felt the slightest hint of cold in my feet buried in the snow and my water dish for cleaning brushed was icing over. With a mark of approval to the new boots, I packed up and left smiling.

The field sketch

Many people think it’s crazy or extreme to paint in these conditions, choosing to be comfy with the heater on in their studio, but there is simply nothing like painting while experiencing the scene. Every sense felt and seen somehow influences the painting and this little sketch was a product of joy. I liked it so much, I went home and scaled it up onto a 16×20 canvas before heading to bed.


Another great day!!

Plein Air: Colorado Aspens

Over the past three weeks, I’ve been busy getting out to study the famous aspens here in CO.  They show for a short time, then it over, so there was little time to blog. Here’s the studies with a quick caption of the setting for each:


This was the first study in one of the groves along the Seven Bridges Trail (Colorado Springs, CO). I was trying to see how the silvery-white bark reflects light off of the surroundings and the glowing leaves. If you’re ever under a tree with light bark, look at the trunk on the shaded side and you’ll see this. The back-lit leaves were like those glow lamps and make a huge impact of what you need to make this tree look real on canvas.


A bit down the trail is a towering rock about a 100 feet tall (~30 meters) that has a purple tint, surrounded by dark spruce and pine. The few aspens looked almost alien, standing out so much. I think that actually was a problem. When painting, it appears as though the painter doesn’t know how to make it look natural, super saturating color and overstating the aspens, even though it’s what the scene is like.  I definitely pushed the limits of my paint.


I wanted to study a group of aspens on the canyon side with a view of other mountains in the distance.  I thought, “this is going to be easy”. Nope. I mashed on as much bright yellow and green as I could until it looked like huge splotches of paint in the middle of a forest. By the end, I found that by layering different hues of yellows, yellow oranges and green, it sort of make the trees distinct, but I came to a point that I was in over my head. Plus a thunderstorm with rain and hail ran me off. My tiny collapsible umbrella was the gear of the day.


Going back (a week later) to the canyon, I took a different route and times this scene perfectly. The light was just peering over the edge of the canyon wall, lighting up the top of the aspen with the rest in the shadows. It sort of add a dramatic effect when looking at it. You’ll notice many professional artists use this in their scene to add drama and emotion to their paintings. At this point, I was starting to realize I can’t just use a single brush stoke to say “leaves”. For aspens, the leaves look like little flickering dots as they move in the wind, so it’s necessary to show at least some dots of varying color to get that look (or there is just something I don’t understand yet).


Along this same path, there was a rock slide where the moving gravel prevents most plant from taking root. There was a single aspen just begging to be painted.  I loved the background with dark trees and distant mountains.


And finally, after many studies, I got on the road and headed from Divide, CO to Cripple Creek on Hwy 67. This is famous for the amazing aspens with scene overlook and pull-off all along the way. In fact, the speed limit is only 35 to 45 because so many people are leaving and entering along the winding road. Dangerous. I was advised by my roommate, “You’re going to want to pull off and paint before you get to Cripple Creek, but don’t do it.”. I pulled off just before Cripple Creek not knowing it was just about three miles away. I tried, but the aspens were calling. I put everything I’d learned before into this scene and it all helped. Now I have more confidence I can pull from these studies and produce a large scale studio work that’s build on composition, rather than sticking directly to a scene.

I think I have about one more week to immerse myself in these amazing trees. You can bet I’ll be doing just that. I think this is the “bluebonnet of Colorado” as an analogy to Texas. When I think of Colorado, I think “aspens”; Texas, I think “bluebonnets”. Its there for a short time and the entire state love it.

Artist Chat: I could write a short book about everything I’ve been learning, but I’ll summarize it into bullet points:

*To make the leaves glow, saturate the color of the leaves but mute the other colors and lean them away from yellow towards purple or blue (cool grays).

*If you can, paint a scene where the tree is somewhat back-lit.

*Use at least two colors for the leaves; one for the shaded side, the other for the highlights. Even though you may not see it well, emphasize a lit side to give it form. Hansa opaque yellow is a great “gold”. Lemon yellow mixed with white is the best highlight.

*For green aspens, a mix of phatho blue and lemon yellow and white really “pops”, if the surrounded trees are dark, muted greens (like spruce and pine).

Plein Air: Garden of the Gods, Center Stage


I woke early to go back out to Garden of the Gods (Colorado Springs) to plein air paint before the crowds arrived. Having a few walk by and comment to talk about what they see is great. I love it. But, hundreds of tourists taking pictures, and making comments is a different story. I found a place to park on the west side of the towers and wanted to walk to either the south or north to get a view where there was both sunlit and shadow sides of the rock as the sun rose in the east.  Heading straight through the center to get there was a huge mistake. I saw so many incredible views, being immersed in red towers on all sides. It took almost looking at my feet to ignore it in order to not stop and drool as the scenes. Well, I didn’t make it. A small sunlit group of rocks with the main tower in shadow as a backdrop was more than I could bare. Too beautiful. I set up my easel in the center of it all, cringing and saying, “What are you thinking, Steve. Bad idea. Bad.”. Imagine setting up an easel on the side of the walkway in an airport. Yeah, bad idea. Then I’d look up again, see those rocks and I’d keep setting up.  In about 2 1/2 hours, about fifty people stoped and talked to me and I am now a feature in many vacation scrapbooks and blogs.  As I was finishing the painting, I had full crowds behind me!  It was strange. That painful scenario I’d imagined wasn’t that bad. Painting is so relaxing for me, it didn’t matter who was around. What’s more, I enjoyed seeing people pass by and then stop take a second look at a scene. They wanted to know what I was seeing, and then they’d point to feature of the rocks, like the fire orange strip of indirect lighting that seems surreal. It felt great that they were experiencing this scene with me. One lady stopped an mentioned the paintings she sees in the galleries aren’t as good [hint, hint]. That’s very encouraging.

Well, I went home to patch up a few places I didn’t have time to get to… and one brush stroke led to another, then another. Before I knew it, I was floundering in trying to get the painting back to where it was! Well, hopefully I didn’t kill it, but it was another repeated lesson to finish the painting on-site and be done. I may take the painting back out there and fix it if needed. Here’s the reference photo:


Critique: I do like how adding warm colors in the grasses and bush in the foreground, as well as in the shadows of the rock seemed to pull it forward from the background. Also some of the darker shadows in the rock had the same effect. What I wish I had done only add the warm colors to the bush and maybe add a couple deep, dark shadows, but to leave the original thick brushstrokes on the rocks alone. There were some areas were a dry brush marks left places of canvas peeking though, but in hind-site, I should have left it.  It had the illusion of rough patches of rock with little white highlights. In reading Richard Schmid’s book, Alla Prima, he is constantly tackling the same problem and he is a contemporary Master. He has a wife that takes his brushes away and tells him to stop. Maybe I need to get an artsy wife. Ha.

Another great adventure!

Plein Air Painting in Gunnison, Colorado

This is a 6x8" color sketch that helped to get a palette that works for the area
This is a 6×8″ color sketch that helped to get a palette that works for the area

“I wish you would go with me to visit James in Gunnison for a week.”, Dad said. I’m in the middle of job hunting for a welding job, but somehow that stuck in my mind.  Eventually all the job descriptions that basically said, “must be able to work weed days, weekends, overtime, and have no life whatsoever beyond welding” convinced me that this is indeed a great time to get in a trip with Dad to Gunnison.  James, a relative through my Mom’s side, is 88 years old and has the energy and mind of a youth.  We went four-wheeling, trout fishing, site seeing where he took us on a 300 mile guided tour, eating at his favorite restaurants (everyone knew him)… it was amazing.  After 30+ years of going from Austin to Gunnison for the summer, this was his final summer trip. I thought, if there is ever a time to do plein air, this is it. I can paint something on site in his favorite spot and give this to him as a way to remember it.

In getting ready, I realized many of the colors were different from Texas, so I’d need to find the colors in my arsenal of paints to mix and match what I saw.  On one afternoon, we had a couple hours of free time and I got in the quick sketch seen at the beginning of this post with rocks, cottonwood trees, some shrubs and distant background mountains. Oddly enough, the colors of the rocks were subtle grays of orange and cobalt blue. Glad I got in this sketch before tackling a bigger plein air!

When James took us trout fishing on the Gunnison River in a canyon about 3 miles from his place, I knew this was the place to paint. It was stunning to see. In the morning the canyon lit up the walls upstream like something from a fairy tale. Coming back to paint in the afternoon, it had changed dramatically and now the view 180 degrees downstream became a fantastic scene of overlapping canyon walls I couldn’t have imagined in the earlier light.  Using the orange/cobalt blue mix I’d found earlier for the rock color, I quickly blocked in the main colors and values (about 10 min) before the light changed, like dictating notes from an oral lecture that hopefully make sense later. The next hour was spent making sure I could emphasize the depth by making the shadows darker and warmer in the foreground cliffs and lighter in the background. In four hours, the light had changed so much, I was working from memory and glancing at the scene for details.  While all this is happening, wind gusts blew so hard I had to bury my easel in river rocks. When the easel rocked and the canvas met my brush before I could lay down a stroke, I just had to go with it. There wasn’t a rock there, but now there is. Thanks wind. When the dry air dried the paint of my palette within 10 minutes, I just squeezed out a big blob twice the size and painted twice as thick.  It was infuriating at times, as if the wind and sun objected to my being there, but somewhere deep inside, it just made the journey of completing the painting that much sweeter.

16x20" acrylic "Gunnison River". This was a big plein air to attempt, but it really fit the scene.
16×20″ acrylic “Gunnison River”. This was a big plein air to attempt, but it really fit the scene.

I finally relented as the sun set over the ridge changing not only the shadows, but the colors of the rock.  I could have spent an entire second day refining details and colors, but it was as finished as time would allow and I felt like it captured the depth beyond what a camera would provide.  Presenting it to James, that smile went straight to my heart.  He even pointed to a spot where he had caught a fish in the past. This is really what art is for.

Artist Chat:

Palette: titanium white, cobalt blue, cerulean blue, cad yellow, red light hue (orange), black

The sky was a gradient from light cerulean on the horizon to cobalt up high, and this was the only area I used cerulean.  The rocks were done with cobalt blue and orange, changing values with white where it was sun-lit, and leaving variations of blue to orange shades of gray at about 60%.  The foreground cliffs on the left had a lot of indirect lighting from the grassy area in front of it, warming it up, so I mixed in some cad yellow into the shadow mix. I added some black into the mix to make some indications of dark cracks in the foreground cliff, punching it forward the sending back the cliff the right. I tried to do something with the straight roadway coming in from the right to vary the horizontal lines, but that’s the way it was (and the way James remembers it), so I left it.  I went back several times to cool down the shadows in the back cliff. This is an area I would definitely have worked if I had more time. The paint dried so quickly, it was had to soften the edges where it meets the sky. The water was tricky! It had a full spectrum of color and changed constantly with the winds, but sat for a few minutes noting the basic colors and reflections and just went with it.  It actually saves time to just sit and look!  Within 1 minute after the last brush stroke, the painting was dry, so next time, I’m going to get a big tube of Golden Open white and cad yellow to slow down the drying time in the mixes. Not too slow, but at least to a five or ten minute drying time to allow some blending.

Having Fun Painting a Commission: Step 3 Color Sketch

Painting a commission can be fun without all that pressure.  I’ve learned if I take it a step at a time, it leads to a more enjoyable experience for both me and the client, plus a better painting.  Hopefully it can help you too.  And please add a comment if you have some tips for me and other readers!  If you haven’t read the first two steps, I encourage you to do this first(they’re short posts).

Step 1: Review the Photo
Step 2: Value and Composition
Step 3: The Color Sketch

I left off with a solid value study, deciding to follow the wisdom of Beirstadt in getting the viewer to move into the background view (thanks Albert — yes, we’re on a first name basis now, ha) with a dark foreground, light background. Now, it’s time to nail down the right colors at the right values.  The sketch is still a small scale, rough draft worried mostly about color notes, not perfection.

Color Sketch
6×8″ (tiny) color sketch. Only worried about colors and values, not perfection.

Before getting into the painting, I’ll give the option of a bench just to see how it’d fit.  I’m not so sure it’d add much.  This is a perfect time to paint it in, take a pic and ask them!

Hmm. Let's if a bench would be good in there... now's the time to check. Not so sure.
Hmm. Let’s if a bench would be good in there… now’s the time to check. Not so sure.

Color temperature is a big deal with a color sketch. Cool muted colors (blue and green light grays) make up the distance hills, while the foreground has more saturated warm colors (ochre, deep browns, yellow greens).

I’ll wait to see if the client has any changes she’d like to make, but I feel pretty confident about scaling up to 18×24″ now.

Having Fun Painting a Commission: Step 1, Review the Photo

A commission painting is fun if you plan right. Small steps and good communication really help.   Rather charging right into the final painting, and wondering, “Is it good enough? What would they think if I make this little change…?”, take it in steps.  Invite the person you’re doing a commission for to join in with feedback or approval at each step.

Step 1: Review the photo and decide if it’s really something you can put your heart into. Make sure they’ve seen your past work and know what to expect.

For this commission, I’m painting a scene from a rocky outcrop in Colorado.  Being a landscape painter and outdoorsy, this is definitely something I can put my heart into! Here’s the reference photo:

This is the reference photo for the commission.
This is the reference photo for the commission.

Review of the photo: In looking at the photo, I wondered: “What’s the story behind it?”. Why was it taken?  How can I personalize this to be “her” painting? Was the rocky structure and bench and foreground trees more important, or was it the background view? She replied it was the backdrop, which I understand perfectly being a hiker and coming onto a summit or viewpoint.  The bench, being red could be either a distraction or a key part of the story here. While I like the concept, I made sure it was not an important part of the story before starting (it wasn’t). Everything about the painting will support one thing: that “Wow” moment when you see the view from the trail.

Next step: The initial drawing/sketch to look at values and composition.  (Next post)