The Trouble with Heads

Have you ever been working on a painting, specifically the head part of a figure and it just won’t materialize the way you envisioned. I recently had this happen and thought I’d share my remedy to “the head that will not work“.

It’s good in the beginning to realize the reference head is a difficult one. What makes one head more of a challenge than another? I’ve brought out some of my older portrait studies to see.


The example above is a easier head because it has strong lighting which defines the planes, but more important it is straight on vertically and horizontally. Not the most interesting pose, but definitely the easiest.


This one is more difficult, although there are some good defining shadows the head is not only tilted to one side, but tilted upwards, Notice how the ears are going lower on the side of the face, this is always the tell tail sign of a head tilted up.


In many ways this head is more difficult than the one above because it is so slightly tipped to one side and tilted up (notice the under side of the chin being visible). This being a rounder, softer face makes it more challenging than one with sharp angles.


An extreme angle like this is hard because it’s a strain to come to terms with the fact that the nose can appear to touch the eye. This is when you have to trust what you see and not what you think you know.

After I’ve made a few attempts at a face from photo reference and it just isn’t working this is what I do:

Making sure the photo head is the same size as the painting head, I draw a square box around the head, placing the head at one side. Label the size of the box, than divide it into eighths if need be. In this photo the right side of the box was mostly her hair, a shape I could easily grasp so I only divided the left side of the box.


On the painting, draw the same size box where the head is. Using the divisions as guide lines, draw in the main elements in the correct locations. Sometimes I’ll do a dry run on a piece of scrap canvas.


Here is the box and pencil drawing on the canvas. Now I see it! The hair line was off, but I know have a good guide to move forward.




Excuse me You’re in my Picture”


If I had come across this photo five years ago it would have been deleted. But working out the kinks with this kind of thing over and over has helped me to mine out the content and ignore the rest.

It all starts with the question…what about this image interests me enough to think it would make a painting?  The light falling on the girl with a rake and the fact that she makes a strong diagonal composition.


A terrific eye path up the right side to her hat, down to the rake and over to the bottom right of her skirt and around and around. It’s important to examine all the elements in the photo and ask .. are they helping to make my point or taking away from it.


I have numbered and circled some areas.

1. This couple didn’t mean to photo bomb my subject but they have to go.

2. This path leads out of the image on the left, conflicting with the triangle composition. It also has a strong contrast to everything else, drawing attention to itself …got to go.

3. There are a large assortment of shrubs of different textures tones and sizes. I feel it makes the area too complicated and does not enhance my motive, the girl.

4. The lone shrub in the front is just a blockade to the flow of the composition.

O.k., so if I remove these things, what do I replace them with? Going back to the original photo and using the basics of what’s there is the answer. The distant foliage can be greatly simplified into two colors of the same value against a large darker mass of green.

In place of the light path the dirt can go further back and the greenery can come forward until they meet. The dark shadows under the shrubs also disrupts the triangular flow of the composition so it’s eliminated.


So what I end up with is the essence of what I wanted to say in “Summer Sun”.

The Portable Artist

During this last year I have found new opportunities to paint outside of the studio. Working outdoors or in classroom/open studio situations, can be an exciting way to supercharge your motivation. I’ve needed to think faster, with limited time, quick decisions need to be made in order to get it done.

Another part of being a “portable artist” is traveling light. It’s great when I can spread out in the studio, brushes in this drawer and that container, canvases leaning, stacked and on easels, but a condensed version of what’s needed had to be trimmed down.

One awkward situation is having one or more wet paintings to carry out, put in the car and get back to the studio without damage to the surface. On more than one occasion I’ve finished a 3 hour painting session outside only to drop my painting, face first, yes, into the dirt.

Wet panel carrier by John
Wet panel carrier by John

Several years ago John made a wet panel carrier for traveling on trips, for instance on an airplane.

This works great but what I was currently looking was something light weight, easy to carry that holds panels or stretched canvas in various sizes.

John came up with this great design which holds two canvases (up to 16″ x 20″) or a panel and canvas of different sizes or multiple panels. He has chronicled the building process at

John's new canvas/panel carrier
John’s new canvas/panel carrier

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John is going to reproduce several carriers. I’d like opinions on what you think would be a reasonable price point?

Getting in “The Zone”

Those of us who paint are familiar with “the zone”. That place where it’s easy to get  lost in the world of your painting, a place with a repetitive cadence; look, mix, apply, evaluate …and again. A place where hours melt by, while the world outside pulses with turmoil, your’s swirls with texture, color and emotion. It’s such a great place to be but it can be very hard to get there.

Sometimes stopping everyday tasks to go in and actually paint can be like walking on the stage of a Balanchine Ballet mid number and being in the flow, it’s  a hard transition.

Here are some things I do to ease myself into “the Zone”-


If I haven’t actually begun the painting yet, I’ll pull out my paper and pencil (always in the ready position), and do a drawing of the subject. There are fewer things to deal with in a drawing, no color, no paint to scrape off, just exploring with a pencil, taking my time, what’s the rush, this is part of my painting time. Soon something magic will happen and the subject has turned into art, a thing that’s one step closer to a painting. Taping it to the wall by my canvas helps me to see there are more possibilities than the obvious.

Lay the paints out on the palette…too many options….where do I start? Sometimes a one color block in gets the thing on the canvas, giving a sense of how it takes up space, the movement of it all. SteppingBloglr

Than the paint, I like to give myself suggestions, a sort of menu of what might look appetizing. With a knife I mix two colors on my palette, and another, what about those two? Getting ten to twelve colors in the same value range, usually the mid value range and things start to get exciting.

Just put something down. There is one of two things that will happen, you’ll hit the mark and have something to take off from or it’s the wrong thing, so now you know what the right thing is cause that wasn’t it! Forget about anyones expectations but your own and enjoy the process –

Stepping Out by Diane Eugster
Stepping Out by Diane Eugster

Before & After

I’ve always loved before and afters, whether it’s a personal makeover or a living room makeover, but my favorite before and afters are paintings.

At the beginning of this year I did a 30 paintings in 30 days challenge, which was very rewarding, but of course the time was limited, so decisions had to be made, and fast.

Now that I have time I’ve been looking over some of these small 8″x 8″ paintings…what subtle improvements could I make, things that I missed the first time around.

The original painting  “Little Swans” could have used a darker mass to anchor the girls. In the after I chose to use a darker version of a green tone already in the scene, the additional dancers liven things up.

In the painting “Saturday at the Dog Park” I  asked myself “what is the point of this painting”, my answer; it’s all about the dogs and their owners.  In the before, the strong blue shadows overtake everything. The man in the middle floats because his pants are the same value and color as the shadows. In the after I lighten the shadows and totally eliminated the distant ones which pulled my eye right out of the scene. Now it’s easier to see the people and their pets.

There are some small changes here. In the before a red hand comes in at the far left, there isn’t enough of the person to identify that it’s a hand. The same for the leg on the far right, more confusion than help, in telling the story. In the after I eliminated the hand and leg, got rid of too many horizontal lines in the bars, pushed the green in the back wall a little, added some red to the bags on the floor… all little things but they make a big difference.

Why don’t you pull out one of your old paintings for a remodel, you might be surprised at how your judgment has developed and how your problem solving skills have increased.


The Northwest Experience

The bags are unpacked, the laundry’s done and it’s time to reflect on what I saw. The weather was fabulous, around 90 which was refreshing for us, but not the residents of Spokane, Washington. Seems it was an unusual turn of the thermometer for them.

We experienced the raining ash in the sky and campfire like smell from the nearby forest fires, some close enough to see as we drove along the freeway. Our main purpose was to visit family so painting time was minimal. I did get an opportunity to paint however when I made the sacrifice to forgo a 35 mile bike ride, in order to just walk around and see what I could find to paint.

My plans were to start in the backyard, which contained all sorts of rich vegetation, than work my way into the nearby field. I never made it to the field as there were just so many interesting colors and textures in the yard.

Washington Pears by Diane Eugster
Washington Pears by Diane Eugster

What did I learn? That painting outside, even in the shade, gave me a false sense of the values. I should have known this from taking photos outside and inside. Even the brightest room inside can’t compare with the amount of light in the shade outside.

When I brought this painting indoors, the midrange greens were way darker than they appeared outside, so I needed to make adjustments later to lighten them up.

It was also hard to decide how to begin the painting;

• Should I put in the brightest color and work duller from there? Maybe, but there was a huge leap from the brightest color, the pears, to the leaves in this instance.

• Should I have started with the dullest color and work brighter? Don’t think so because this painting was more about a strong value pattern, but this is how I approached the other painting below.

• Should I put in the darkest darks and work up from there? This is the way I decided to go, although in this case, I started too dark, which I will remember to compensate for the next time.

Little Mountain Town by Diane Eugster
Little Mountain Town by Diane Eugster

We spent two days in a cabin in a little Canadian town called Rossland. I was inspired by this view from the cabin window.

There were so many subtle tones in the distant trees and roof tops, I used the method of laying in the most distant tone of the violet mountain, than working forward with more saturated color, while keeping the values close.

All in all it was a fantastic experience, being outside I also learned a lot about simplifying what I saw, there just wasn’t time to dwell on anything, put it down and move on.

It’s was nice to veer off the subjects I normally paint, although I feel I can use these lessons to enhance my figurative paintings in the future.

In the Garden, continued…

It took me about three days to get the answer I wanted. What was the question? Something about the color harmony of “In the Garden” was not working. Pulling out the color wheel usually clears things up for me.


In the original painting above the main colors in the figure are cool versions of blues and violets. The background greens were leaning  toward the yellow family. On the color wheel it is clear that the yellow greens were a large step around the wheel from the cool violets. This large step is why the warm greens are too jarring when placed next to the violets in the painting.


In the final image above, I shifted the background to a family of greens closer to the violets. This shift has made all the difference.

Color harmonies can enhance the mood of a subject or detract from it. If I were painting a Mardi Gras scene in the French Quarter using complimentary colors (those opposite each other on the wheel), would be a good choice for high energy and bright impact, but the opposite was what I wanted here, more natural, quieter and calmer.