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.

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.

How to Simplify a Complex Subject

Simplify, simplify, simplify, you’ve heard it a hundred times, but how do you really do it?

I’m going to walk through a recent painting showing the steps I went through to make it easier for me to paint.

Here is the original image. 

I liked the gesture of her putting on a shoe, also the lighting was interesting. But the photo was taken on a stage with all sorts of things in the background that had nothing to do with her. It needed to go someplace else. O.K. she’s in her closet, packed with dresses, and shoes, lots of shoes, on the floor and in boxes. Now I’ve got something to run with.

Even though this may seem like a lot of stuff, I’m organizing it into  three big shapes, the simplify.

So first the initial drawing, it doesn’t need to show everything but it does need to be accurate.

Now is the the time to revisit those big shapes, which are:

• The girl, her seat and the floor (shape 1)

* All the clothes, the wall and the shoes (shape 2)

• The stack of boxes (shape 3)

So how  am I going to hold them together?

• Shape 1, this shape will contain the darkest darks, the lightest lights and the most intense color. All those things add up to the most important shape, nothing else will be allowed to upstage this shape.

• Shape 2, this shape will fall into a medium value of muted warm tones.

• Shape 3, this shape will also be midtones with muted colors used in shape 1.

In the image above I layed in a flat tone behind the girl so I could better judge my values. Here I have roughed in the girl, and the floor, just the big important shapes, keeping in mind how I want to hold her together. Yes, there is a lot more information within her that I could paint, but I have to force myself to move on. Some of things like strands of hair that I really like, may not even be necessary in the final painting, focusing on the whole instead of the parts, simplifies.

Generalizing shape #2, mixing several tones next to each other on my palette really helps to keep these close in value and saturation while getting a variety of reddish, yellowish and blueish tones. Working from the most obvious shapes to the more subtle, knowing the ones near her face should be more interesting. Some of this may stay untouched for the rest of the painting, some may be redone, but I’m working on getting a base here to work with. Next on to shape #3 the boxes.

Everything is massed in now, it’s time to take a hard look at how things are fitting together. I see I will need to adjust the color on the boxes to harmonize more. It’s like a song, there is a high note and a low note. I have already established the warm and cool extremes, so I see some “off” notes like the orange box and the orangey red box.

The design is holding together, which is the priority, so I will go in and adjust everything with an eye on the whole, taking care to not have the big shapes fall apart.

Having a plan and limitations for each area gives me the freedom to express what’s there, it’s having no limitations that will give me brain freeze, just too many options!

As I paint some things may change, it’s always good to be open to something you never even considered.

Final painting “Her Happy Place”

Words from the Wise

I’ve just finished reading Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting for the third time in ten years and finding it as inspiring and eye opening as ever. Written by John Carlson in 1929 it’s not a flashy book, no color pictures, no flowery language, doesn’t even mention paints, color or canvas. What it does offer up is how to see and think like an artist.

Thought I would unpack three of my favorite quotes from Carlson;

“An artist must first be a dreamer, and than a sane analyzer of those dreams.”

I believe this speaks to imposing your own preferences on a subject. How can I make this subject more appealing to me? It’s letting your imagination run wild, then reining it into something that can actually be painted. Here is an example below of a reference photo and the changes that took place that transformed it into what was in my head.

The real story here is a neighbor of mine sitting in front of a window in my dining room. Not very interesting. What I’d like her to be, an Eastern European immigrant, traveling with her favorite chicken. “At The Station”

“There can be no expression without previous impression.”

This is about actually getting emotional about your subject. Look at it, really look at it, how does it make you feel? Let it filter through your heart as well as your head. If you can’t come up with anything , move along, this isn’t a good subject for you.

This subject just exploded with youth and freedom, warmth and escaping the normal world. Infusing her into a bubbling atmosphere of weightlessness, moving toward nowhere in particular was my vision for her. “Going in Circles”

“In Art, knowledge assists invention.”

As artists, we can never believe we draw well enough or understand color enough. It’s life long training that help us gain the skill and knowledge to invent within our paintings. To create something that is unique to our personal vision.

A photo of a friend’s daughter in the back, overgrown yard of a neighbor.

There happened to be a broom resting against the dilapidated porch, she grabbed it. What I saw, a mystical being, walking through the tall sun lite grass, searching for some work to do with her broom. She might physically clean something up or help someone to “clean up” a problem in their life. “Summer Spirit”

Next time you’re faced with a new subject take some time to dig deep into the possibilities.

Moving Toward the Story 3

This is the third part of Moving Toward the Story. Many times when a finished painting is framed and on the wall I see there’s more to be done. One factor is the frame. It adds two horizontals and two verticals to the design, which can affect things. This happened with Pure Americana. Below left is the original finished version and on the right the framed painting with the changes I made to it. Can you spot at least 8 things that are different?

Below is the before image with numbers and explanations on why I added or deleted something.

  • 1. The right side of her hat is not in shadow anymore, it was too severe but more importantly it pulled the eye upward, not where I wanted it to go.
  • 2. I had to get rid of the blue mountains, even though I liked them. They created a visual weight pushing down on her. This is another example of a horizontal that wasn’t working.
  • 3. Because she has little visible face I felt the need to develop a softer texture in her hair , there was too much tension in it.
  • 4. I added the lace pattern on the top of her blouse, again, I felt she needed some softness.
  • 5. I cut down the underside of her arm, another horizontal that looked a little too heavy.
  • 6. Cut down the top of the arm also.
  • 7. Got rid of the shadow on the edge of her hat, didn’t really want your eye traveling down that line.
  • 8. Made her nose a little smaller and lowered the value slightly, it was just too strong in that sea of shadow.
  • 9. Brought the sky all the way out to the edge. The red on the upper edges of the sides was leading the eye up and out of the painting.

It’s never too late to change something in a painting as long as the freshness isn’t lost.

Moving Toward the Story 2

This is a continuation of the first blog on this subject “Moving Toward the Story”.

It’s time to reevaluate what’s happening here, this is done by asking questions.

What do I like so far;

  • The subtle play of red showing through the grey
  • The big interesting shapes in the truck

What I don’t like so far;

  • The area of her face and hat in shadow are looking too harsh now
  • Still not sure about the blue behind her head
  • Areas still need more developing, but which areas?

O.K., so those were design related things, now… about the story? I want the young woman to have some mystery about her. What is her situation, who is she? I want to keep her upper face in total shadow so that you can add her expression. Since there won’t be information in the upper part of her face I need to explain who she is by other things; such as her stance, her clothing, even the texture of her hair.

To set the scene to fit my narrative, the truck needs to be older and in the country. At this point I’m really liking the black and grey against the background so am not going to add the subtle colors that were intended at the beginning. This is where “listening to the painting” is so important, sometimes we can steam roll right over something that is better than we originally planned.

Finished painting, Pure Americana

When color is no longer a concern, value does the heavy lifting. Just because I have all the values to work with between black and white, doesn’t mean I should use them all, in fact I want to use as few as possible. Adding more detail to a painting is really a matter of breaking the big shapes into littler ones with more values. The more an image gets broken down the weaker it becomes. The big interesting shapes become what I call “mushy”.

I also want to orchestrate the values, not following the reference image exactly, but using it only for the information I want.

Where do I want the most emphasis? In the girls face and outstretched arm, so that will be the only area that goes to total black.

What role does the truck play? Supporting cast. Really hold back on the values here. How few can I use to explain just enough, three.

And that blue passage behind her head that I wasn’t sure of at the beginning….I really like it now, adds to the Americana feel, in fact the title of the painting is “Pure Americana”.

Continued on Moving Toward the Story 3

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