Developing the Idea

I’ve been asked how I develop the idea for a painting. Here is the process I went through in a recent one.

Finding a subject that resonates with me in my reference photos is the first stage, photo #1. I liked the gesture of her stance and the way the light is falling on the right side. I will replace the background barn and the foreground gravel, I want to tell a different story about her.

Photo #1

Than fleshing it out, how can I made this scene more of what I want to say? The photo on the left below, shows a cropped section of grass from a painting I did several years ago, (you never know when those old paintings will come in handy), which seemed a good environment for her. I’ll be omitting the barn and mountains in the back, just wanted the grass texture. Also it seemed a tractor would add to the story I want to tell, ( decided to use a red one instead of the yellow and red).

Putting them all together, it’s beginning to work. Notice how I cropped the figure in closer. A close cropping makes for bigger, bolder shapes, as well as focusing on what I feel are the most important parts.

For the first stage of this painting I decided to put a wash on the painting surface. Why? The glow of a colored wash on a white canvas can only be accomplished at the beginning. I’d like this glow to show through in small areas as the top more opaque layers of paint build up. I chose to use an orange tone under the green field area to add warmth, because green can sometimes be problematic as a raw cold color. In the area on the girl, I washed on a warm green because in real life the green in that field would be reflecting all over her. Also it creates a harmony within the painting. See the video below-

Diane, applying the initial warm wash on the canvas surface.

To be continued in part 2. . . . . . .


Evolution of a Painting


Have you ever “finished” a painting, than weeks later , saw that you missed the original idea? That’s what happened with Drifting, the painting below.


I was really excited about this image, my thoughts exploded in all directions.

  • I liked the vantage point from above, wanted a – floating, drifting, sleeping feeling.
  • I liked the intense warmth, wanted to manipulate this from warm at the top to cool at the bottom.
  • Wanted her to exist in two worlds, one of reality and one of graphic design.

Any one of these would have been interesting, but all of them at once was too much. There were parts of the painting that I really liked; her face, hair, warm light, the composition. However I got lost along the way, the relaxed flowing atmosphere I had originally pictured was not there. So how did I go about bringing it back?

First deciding what needed to change.

This is a breakdown of the areas that needed the most changes.

  • #1, shows where the color transition from warm to cool needs to be fixed. Because of the way cool colors recede, she almost looks like she is bent forward at the waist. The change is too stark, some cool would be good in the lower half, but this is too much.
  • #2, the hands- the most important area after the face that will show the mood of the painting. The gesture of these hands is too tense. Don’t always accept what you are given, change anything for the good of the painting.
  • #3, the folds are too angular, they do not fit with the idea of flowing.
  • #4, the leaves are clustered in a stiff pattern, again, not the flow I had in mind.

The final version. I haven’t touched her face yet her expression looks more relaxed. You can see how I tweeted the background color and movement. Now she appears to be floating above the ground, I see the view like something out of an airplane window.

How to Get Unstuck

How does getting stuck while painting happen?

You choose an image that grabs your attention, begin the painting, only to find a brick wall in your way. It’s hard to move forward, almost as if there is a road block.

In a perfect world that image has a good composition, dazzling color harmony and a fascinating subject, so all you have to do is paint it the way it looks. But the problem is, most images don’t have all these things, so you need to manipulated somewhat, be creative.

Getting caught up in interpretation; what style should I paint this, what colors should I use, can be exhausting, in other words, too many choices. When paintings go “off script” more a personal statement than a literal one, the payoff is a more meaningful piece which is much more rewarding.

Recently I was working on an image that evoked a certain emotion response in me, maybe it was the boho, the free spirit or the 70’s? Not very far into this and I hit the road block. I just didn’t know what direction to take, so I fell back on painting what I saw, (which was not the the vision that I felt)…make sense? The more I painted academically, matching what I saw, the further I got from my vision.

When this happens, a push forward is needed.

The first move to get unstuck is pick an area to start with. Here, it was her hair, which was dull and lifeless, (my model did not have lifeless hair, just my painting at this point). With a palette knife I mixed three piles of paint. One for the light, medium and dark value of the hair. These piles need to be enough paint to really load a brush.

Next I picked up an uncomfortably large brush.

Now going against conventional wisdom I painted the area from light to dark with a minimum of large loose strokes. Things started looking a little more interesting. The colors don’t have to be “right”, but the values (amount of dark or light), do. Just get the paint on, you can always go back later and tweak the color.

Move on to the next adjoining area and do the same.

Here I moved on to her top. This area could be summed up by one value of a pinkish tone. By mixing this pile next to the others on the palette it becomes easier to get a harmony between them. A pink was way too intense, so by adding this murky olive green mixture to the pink I arrived at a duller version that was in harmony with the rest.

As a side note, there is not such thing as a dirty color, if subtle tones, like these are in harmony with the ones next to them a wonderful visual richness can happen. If a bright pink was used next to the other tones here, the pink would look garish and the subtle tones would go dead.

Continuing to move down the painting I found myself “unstuck” as one area told me what the next needed to be. The arm on the left in shadow was close to the color in her hair. If there is any color already in the painting you could possibly use for another area, use it. The arm on the right was similar to the the tone of her face, repeat it.

Working through the image one large chunk at a time, the image begins to solidify and come together. The ideas here is, the more right things that materialize on the painting the easier it is to see the wrong things. When I say wrong things, I’m not talking about what’s in the original image, but what is out of harmony with what’s on the canvas. Don’t be scared to put something down “wrong”. Changes will need to be made, but can’t be unless there is something down to evaluate. The right passage of color over the wrong passage can be very exciting!

When December Comes Around

When December comes around I find it’s a good time to look back on what I’ve painted the past year, where I’ve been, where I’m going. This is an important exercise for any serious artist if you want to progress.

In the 50 something years I’ve been painting, just about every type of subject has crossed my easel:

Landscapes; like the possibility for textures, openness and nature, but need a person for the emotional impact

Cityscapes: not so much, too many hard lines closing in

Still life: another opportunity for texture, but can’t get too excited about painting things

Seascapes: love the paintings by those that know the sea, but living my life in the desert, I am not one of those people

Portraits; the expressions, the textures, the emotion, it’s all there for me

Figures: like portraits only better, because add hands, feet and wardrobe to the mix to get endless possibilities

What I’m saying is . . . understanding yourself and what really excites you will raise the bar on your skills and enjoyment of painting.

This year I have enjoyed painting more than ever, because I am painting what excites me. . .

Reality to Fantasy and scattered thoughts

Lately I’ve been working on some paintings that bridge reality and fantasy. Thought I would share some of the process that gets me from point A to point B.

It begins with photos I’ve taken of one person in various, but similar poses. Something about them has to have a definitive mood.

Keying in on the mood. . . the theme. . . the brain storming (or scattered thoughts) begin. These are a sampling of the 10-15 images I looked through, what I saw was ;

  • High Fashion
  • Photography
  • Tall
  • Black, Grey, Pink, Flesh tones,
  • Strutting
  • High cheek bones
  • Dramatic lighting

Going back to the above images I pull out three that display the above ideas the strongest. In Adobe Photoshop Elements using the eraser tool, the backgrounds are eliminated so that only the figures remain.

The next step is creating a new blank page the size of the finished painting where I freely move the figures around until I see a rhythm emerging between them.

I throw shapes and blocks of my colors, listed above, black, grey, pink and flesh tones behind them with the goal of connecting the figures with the flow I want the painting to have.

Going back to my list, what elements can I use to strengthen my story? I have a black and white image of a photo edge to incorporate, check the finished painting to see how I used it for inspiration.

Ready to start the painting, the above information is my foundation, my jumping off point, the place where I go when I feel I’ve lost my way in the painting, which can happen with a subject like this, why?

The background will be painted and allowed to dry before I move on to the figures. This can take a week or more. With other paintings happening in between, the original concept can get foggy.

In the beginning stages above you can see I had a totally different idea of what the face on the right should be. It is a very fluid process, I have to be willing at all stages to take some things out and add things, the big question…what does the painting need?

The finished painting “Strut Your Stuff”

The Heart of the Painting

People ask me why I spend the extra time making a drawing before I start a painting, here’s the answer;

The drawing really is the heart of the painting. When I choose a subject to paint I’ve learned that there are some important questions to ask and get answered before investing time and energy into a subject. Keeping disappointments, (failed paintings), to a minimum, is important to my productivity. The more successes, the more excitement to create something else new.

The magic of; a piece of paper, a stick of charcoal and, yes, the trusty eraser have a way of exposing potential problem areas, as well as, areas that might benefit from some exaggeration or down right restructuring.

Here is the original photo

Here is the drawing, after cropping and some creative license

I chose this image from a photo shoot I did six years ago. There have been several similar scenes from the same group I’ve painted over the years. Something about the white dress and sunshine have a timeless quality.

*But why do I want to paint this subject again, is there something to add that wasn’t said in the previous paintings? I want to key in on the delicate quality of the image.

  • Some design questions need answering. What movement and lines can serve as a silent scaffolding to hold up my story? I see the triangle composition in the drawing. Are there some areas where I want tension; yes in her face, yet I want to keep a soft expression. I want the body to be more relaxed.

* I’m not stuck with the colors the photo has handed me, so…what colors would express my feelings? Since I want to feature the delicate cool blues, greens and violets, I will use hot vivid reds and golds to contrast with this. The harsh colors will make the others that much more delicate by comparison.

I will change some of the anatomy shapes to suit the flow of the design I want. Artist John Asaro is a master of this, he twists and turns the human body for his design purposes.

In Asaro’s painting Two Dancers, see how he restructures human anatomy

Seeing where something is “off” in the photo and how I can turn it into an asset can be clearly revealed in the initial sketch. For instance the long lines of her arms in the photo are too stiff, here is an opportunity for some reworking of shapes. In the painting process these things can easily get overlooked in all the multitasking that takes place.

In fact as the painting progresses I will look more at the sketch for the direction to go instead of the original image.

I like to think of the sketch as the “getting to know you” stage. Working through the drawing I discover how important the one strand of hair that falls over her eye is. The shape, value and placement are paramount to her expression (another thing that could have been haphazardly dashed in, on the painting).

At the left above the background has been basically laid in and the face started. This is a good place to evaluate the direction it’s going. Checking back to my drawing, there is a softness to her facial expression as well as body language that is missing. My corrections will be to widen her face slightly as well as round her shoulders for a more relaxed look. Many decision are made going back to the drawing for answers.

The finished painting “Morning Hues”

What if

Many times when I am “finished” with a painting I ask “what if?”

Even before the what if comes the original intent of the painting, the emotional investment, what was the appeal of this image in the first place?


  • The motion and movement
  • The feeling of a transition from one place to a better one

So did that happen in the finished painting? No

The original “finished painting”

In the above image see how the pattern in the cape moves upward to the right, so does the leg. But the outstretched arm stops this movement dead.

What if I continue the movement up past the arm, using the same color and a similar texture so that the flow continues as much as possible, minimizing the stopping line of the arm.

On another note is her expression fitting the story? This is a difficult question to answer by anyone but me, because only I know what was intended, but the answer is no.

I want to keep her face loosely painted, so whatever is done needs to be light handed and subtle.

What if…

I lighten the left eye socket slightly, Minimize the black liner under her eye and thicken the eye brow,

Re-shape the light on her nose,

Darken her forehead and bring down the hairline slightly,

Narrow the mouth and turn up the corners,

Extend her hair on the right side,

Now it’s coming around to my original intent. Never hesitate to go back to a painting for revisions if you have some “what if” questions left.

I’ll Fly Away final version and a thank you to my new Las Vegas model Presley King

When a Painting Goes Off Track

How do you know when a painting gets off track? It’s a good thing to stop at the end of every day and critically take a look at what’s going on.

I choose a spot on an empty wall, free of distractions to set the painting. With a note pad and pen in hand the questions start:

What is happening here that’s successful?

What’s happening here that is not working?

The basic laying for A Certain Time of Day

In the early stages of “A Certain Time of Day” my answer to the first question was hard to come up with. It’s not that there was anything “awful”, just nothing successful either. So going back to the biggest question of all, why am I painting this subject?

I like the relaxed moment caught, the nod to western ranch, nature, warm earthiness.

How to get back to the original intent? 

-Add a desert landscape, with an end of the day lighting effect.

-Add some weather, maybe show her hair blowing.

-Warm up the colors.

Starting to get back on track

 Now things are starting to go in the right direction. The distance is set up for a mountain range, (the desert), the gloves are taking on a rustic texture (warm and earthy).

Wanted to add the light effect to the mountain range shape, but didn’t want it to be too jarring or distracting. By matching the value of the warm tone closely to the value of the shadow tone it all held together nicely without jumping out.

 Moving along …darkening her hair so that I could key the value of her gloves. Every piece depends on the piece next to it. 

The green in the foreground had to go, too bright, need to push this area darker and grayer to draw the eye to more important areas. Not sure of the yellow on the horizon, too early to tell, it could look completely different after the arm shapes are established.

Here’s where I can start drilling down on what needs to be done. The best way to describe this is to see my notes. There may be wrong spelling here, doesn’t matter….just get the thoughts down-

The process of self critique

Actually thought I was done here…..nope. So what’s wrong?

  • The left side of her body the edge of her hair on the right and left, all are the same diagonal, this is boring and repetitive.
  • The left side of her body is at a color discord with the background. This would work if they were closer in value, but being opposites; dark blue green against light red orange is not pleasant to look at.
  • The orange in her hair flipping up at the left is too distracting. What is my center of interest? The hands and gloves, the orange against the dark hair is just upstaging my intent too much. Notice how I say my, this is what makes painting such a personal thing. This image could have told many different stories, but in the end this is the one I wanted to tell.
  • The shape of her body on the left is a long boring shape.

This was more my intent, the story I wanted to tell.

New Art Studio Space- Lighting

A very important consideration is studio lighting. There needs to be enough of it to see your subject, painting and palette without eye strain.

Light temperature is something to think about. The coolness or warmth can be plotted on a Kelvin scale:

An incandescent bulb is 2600K on the scale, with almost an amber tone, while a daylight bulb is 5250K, much cooler. I like to keep my lighting at the daylight level, with a little bit of warmth mixed in. A good way to do this is with LED bulbs.

They come in a wide range of temperatures, they don’t get hot like incandescent and they last a lot longer. Some light fixtures like the four flush mounted ceiling lights in the illustration below come with a built in LED unit. They give off a nice full light but when the LED unit burns out they can’t be replaced, the whole fixture will need replacing. On the other hand the larger 180 watt equivalent light fixtures in the center of the ceiling hangs down from the ceiling on a rod about one foot and take LED light bulbs that can be replaced.

Here is what the lighting in my studio looks like

Other factors that come into play are the amount of natural light coming in windows. I like to keep some LED lights mounted on floor stands, to move around the room as needed.

LED lights on stands can come in handy to fill in areas while working on special projects. These have covers on to provide a diffused light.

New Art Studio Space, Need #1

Studio Space, a place to work. What do you really need? My perception of “the dream studio” has changed over the years. The European villa glowing with north light, with enough space for three easels, a stage, walls tall enough to hang paintings three high, an area just to contemplate including overstuffed chairs and a couch. This setup is not only unobtainable by most but not practical.

Many years ago my “studio” was a spot on the kitchen counter, which needed to be transferred to a closet when it was time to make dinner.

Later in another house I took over a bedroom. This worked out most of the time except when large painting projects or shipping required branching out into the garage or backyard. Eventually I took over another room to store paintings and frames.

We’ve recently moved into a house that has just what I need, two rooms with a common wall we removed for a larger space.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what an efficient work space looks like. We, as artists are visual people, so it’s also important to like the way our space looks.

Number one on my list is storage;

Storage for frames. Good frames are expensive, corners can be easily damaged if left leaning against each other.

Storage for stretched canvases. Stacked up with smaller sizes leaning against larger ones can leave permanent dents in the surface.

Storage for large pads of paper. Drawings can get damaged, good paper gets creased.

While searching around on-line I found this solution that checks all the boxes for me. The Art Storage System

It’s on wheels, so you can wheel it to different locations in your studio, or park it away from the wall to hold larger items. It’s modular, so I can add to it at a later date. It knocks down. As someone who just survived a move, it’s very fresh in my memory how difficult it is to move large and heavy items, like this would be if it did not break down. The only downside is it takes several weeks to get once ordered.

Now onto the next thing on my list….

A Painting Detour

Sometimes life gets in the way of painting, and that’s exactly what happened to me. John and I have been thinking of moving for sometime. The raging real estate market said “now is the time”. In late August we began the whole process.

Putting our home in Phoenix for sale brought an abrupt halt to painting as our real estate agent advised us to stage my studio space as a bedroom to attract a larger audience. She was right, we sold it the second day!

Our house in Phoenix, with shipping containers, that’s Brandy looking pensive in the driveway

We found a new home in Las Vegas, which was closer to family where I could more than double my studio square footage. It’s going to take a little remodeling ; taking out a wall, redoing the floor, (carpet is not the best surface to paint on), and closing in the entrance with glass paneled double doors, it should all work out. We were ready to move several times but shortages of air conditioners, and garage doors held us back from closing for awhile.

Our new home in Las Vegas

Anyway, we are finally in the new house and work on the studio has begun.

The drywall being taken off, next the electrician, than the framers-

We found out that the wall between rooms is a bearing wall which means a large header beam will need to be placed at the top to hold the weight of the ceiling, but so far so good.

The Trouble with Hats and Beards

Here’s Nick, who posed for open studio at SAS. A great subject to paint, I especially like the strong black and white contrasts. So what makes this challenging?

Hats. The trouble with hats is;

* We have a preconceived idea that a hat sits “on top” of a head, but it really sits over the head, with the head sinking into it. It’s important to remember that there’s a head inside that hat.

* We think of a hat as being secondary to the face, but in most cases it takes up a lot of space and may be equal to or larger than the face.

* Here, I’m looking up at the head which causes the hat to receive in space. The angle is unexpected, my mind tells me no, but my eye says yes, (listen to your eye).

Beards. The trouble with breads is;

* They don’t have a solid structure, kind of like a cloud, they are puffy and soft.

* It can be challenging to give them dimension, but they do have a light side and shadow side. Look at the light falling on the face for clues as to how the light is hitting the beard.

I use standard proportion when first mapping out a face. Like the center of the eye socket is usually the half way point between the top of the head and the chin.

This subject has both the top of the head and the chin obscured, so the logical thing to do is use what I can see. The height of the hat compared with the face, compared with the beard.

It turns out that the hat and beard take up about the same space vertically while the face takes up about 3/4 of this measure. This gives me a great place to start.

I never rush my base drawing. Taking my time on this step pays off big in the painting phase. I like to use vine charcoal which is easily erased and won’t leave the trace lines that pencil will.

Here I’ve blocked in the darkest darks first. The next most important area is the background, many times I see a student paint the background last, the is the opposite of what I do. The background will influence everything else. An extreme example of this is someone in a white shirt next to an orange wall. The color in the orange wall will bounce all over the white shirt. A subtle background like this one will also infuse into the subject.

I’m working from dark to light, from easy colors to judge to hard ones. You’ll notice I’m leaving the flesh tone until last. Flesh is such a muted tone which can change with each person and even situation, saving it for last will make it easier.

The final pass is adding texture to the hair, beard and face.

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