Harmony Through Limited Color

Workshops, friendly suggestions, something that caught my eye at the art supply store; all of these contribute to an overextended, bloated palette of colors. It can be a waste of time working this way. Like weeding through a stuffed closet of clothes in the morning, making too many choices is tiring.

At times like these I go back to the limited palette, like a breath of fresh air it clears my head so I can focus on the important aspects of creating a painting.

The Zorn Palette, made famous by the Swedish 19th century artist Anders Zorn is one of my favorites. ZornPalette-lr

Yellow Ochre, Scarlet Lake (he used Vermillion), White, Ivory Black. Here I’ve separated the warms from the cools with white. This selection leans toward the warm side, having two warms and only one cool, which is useful because most paintings need warmth to give them life. But they do look a little lonely…ZornPalette-blog2

By mixing neighboring colors together, warms with cools and white, the palette is beginning to open up. These are not all the possibilities by any means, but it gives me a jumping off point.IMG_0659

I set this subject up in my studio, experimented with the lightly and elements until they worked together. The things I look for when putting something like this together are:

  1. Focusing on a “star”, one item that the painting is about.
  2. Other elements that visually or physically flow to the star, and around the picture plane, (the composition)
  3. A variety of angles and curves
  4. A variety of values; dark, medium and light
  5. A variety of textures, smooth, rough, etc.
  6. A dominant color, (usually the “star”)

Notice how color is the last consideration? Sometimes we get sidetracked into thinking that “it’s all about the color”, but if the first five on the list aren’t there, no amount of color will save a painting with a weak design.

Now that the preliminaries are ironed out, the next step is the actual painting which I’ll talk about in my next blog.


Making an Entrance…

A sweeping staircase, a crystal lit foyer, open iron gates or a cobblestone walkway would be great, unfortunately many times we’re left standing on the curb with no path to the front door.

A painting can leave you with that same feeling, you want to get in but enthusiasm is lost trying to figure it out.

Here are some examples of welcoming  entrances –

Miss Helen Duinham, John Singer Sargent



Breezy Day, Zhaoming Wu
John Asaro
Home Fields, John Singer Sargent
Vincent Van Gogh
Drying Out, Lori Putnam

Usually the most effective way to enter a painting seems to be-


I’ve found taking a photo of the subject with my phone, than making a quick cropping makes it easier to visualize the best place to cut off the bottom for a good design lead in,  especially helpful when working from life.

Here is a subject I recently painted, and how I decided to crop it.irenelr

I began blocking this in from the bottom up. It’s tempting to start with the area of most interest, the head, and work down from there, but too many times I have been left with awkward shapes at the bottom, spending way too much time trying to “make it work”.

Latin Influence, Diane Eugster

Summer, Revisited

Have you ever finished a painting you were happy with only to find that months, weeks or even days later there are some serious problem areas. Summer Breeze is such a painting.

This painting is a little larger than I usually work, 20″ x 30″, but after two weeks of planning and execution it was finished. There were many things that worked out well, OldSummerBreeze-lr

The gesture of the pose, the expression of her face, the sense of light, but as she sat on my fireplace mantle for several days I started to “feel” there were some areas that needed addressing. It was a “feeling” at first because I couldn’t pin it down enough to do something about it, and I will never go back to rework a painting unless I have a specific change in mind. Enough days had passed, it became crystal clear what was required.


At #1, the strongest shape in the scene. It is very strong because it’s surrounded by dark, is large and is pointing to the left, drawing way to much attention to an area that is secondary,

The shape at #2 is bothersome because it appears to be the same value as the top plane of the skirt, which is the way the photo appeared because of the tendency for photos to blow out the lights. In reality this area would be darker than the upper plane which is receiving more light.

At #3 and 4#, these light shapes take away from the solid anchoring effect of the dark shadow along the bottom and add more attention to an area that shouldn’t receive any.




At #5 I could add a little more information to follow the form of her body and make it more interesting.

All during the painting process I wrestled with that rectangle #6,  behind her head. Should I keep it or not. Now I can see, not, it adds a visual weight to the top of her head, which throws her a little off balance.

At #7, stream line her shoulder a little here to soft her.

The lower shadow area #8, could be working harder to stabilize the balance. I want it to create a more solid base for the figure. Even though there was not a supporting leg on the bench in the photo, it was needed to alleviate the floating sensation in this area.

Last but not least, the color needed adjusting. More warmth in the background wall, as well as in her skirt.


I was happy with the changes and glad I made them. It’s never too late to go back and make things better!

Respecting Your Boundaries

The real world and a painting are two totally different things.

You’re standing in front of the model, here lovely Marisa. Interesting costume, nice pose, that rug with the oriental design is great, what a wonderful group of objects by her feet, all shiny and shimmery…

You’ve been there before, you want to paint it all but….you are limited…..by your boundaries, the canvas. Those four edges restricting the world you can paint.

On a recent open studio session at SAS this is how I made those decisions.


I wanted to paint those silver vessels on the floor, I wanted to paint her shoes, but…Reclinelr1

more importantly I based my composition on how small I was willing to make the head and where on the canvas  boundary to place it comfortably, not too high, too low, too near the edge.

What I didn’t concern myself with yet was the actual color, bright green and magenta. Instead getting neutral value blocks in that filled the space well was what I was after.reclinglr2

Here I was thinking, how is the visual information going to enter my boundaries, how comfortable is it to explore the scene leading to her face? What I gave up was her legs and shoes, too much information where I don’t want you to look. The bright green and magenta just didn’t matter anymore.reclinelr3

Now that “things” are basically the way I want them, what is fighting my original intent? The dark edge next to her uplifted hand in the previous image was causing a tension, pushing against her, so it’s eliminated here. Also the dark shape in the lower area of her dress was distracting.relinlrfinal

This is where it really gets fun, adding pattern, textures, refining her expression…and knowing when to stop!

Order From Chaos

girlingardenlrHave you ever held onto an image in hopes of painting it one day, you pass over it periodically but always end up choosing something else.

This is one of those images. Why did I want to paint it? I liked the mood of stems and leaves going in all directions while the girl, among the chaos pumped water from an old iron pump. What kept holding me back was my perception of its complexity.

I decided it was time to paint it or discard it, so the struggle began, but with a happy ending.

Here are some of the “tricks”, methods I used in order to make this scene paintable to me.

Before starting I searched for the patterns that would make the best eye path through the scene.girlingarden1Studying the foliage I could see how using some of the longest stems to lead upward around and down would make a good composition.

Omitting a bright area of sky in the upper left helped to direct the interest into the central part of the scene instead of up and out the corner.

After the face was established I used stripes of paper to mask off areas so I could concentrate on others, it felt less overwhelming and helped me to actually see what was going on.

When I felt painters’ fatigue creeping in I even set my phone on a 15 minute timer. Every time the alarm went off I turned the painting and photo a quarter turn. Working on it upside down and sideways offered a new perspective and freed my mind up to just think shapes instead of objects.

The more I finished the easier it was to continue with the remainder, until it seemed I said all I wanted to say about this scene.

Spending 50% Of My Time On 25% of the Painting

Oak Creek Trail 1 by Diane Eugster


The more I paint the more I realize the need to be selective within each painting. It’s back to the center of interest discussion, to have one or not to have one? For me, there needs to be a focus.

In Las Vegas we have a multitude of Cirque du Soleil shows. They are the epitome of visual stimulation, with performers riding oversized contraptions on stage while others do unnatural contortions, all the while costumed acrobats zoom overhead sparkling and glowing. I love these shows but they’re also exhausting. Some painting are like that, they scream “look here”, “no look here”, “hey – over here”. When it come to painting I think all parts suffer when there isn’t one thing special to lead the eye.

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The Sharp Eye, an article by Laura Robb


In an article titled “A Sharp Eye”  byArtist Laura Robb she explains how she begins her paintings with a rectangle around the focal area, to remind herself to keep the focus there.

The best way I’ve found to keep this in check is by spending 50% of my time on that special 25% of the painting. I’m not talking about detailing; that three haired brush, hard edged, labored place that no painting should go, but getting to the heart of the subject, by asking, what is it about this scene that made me want to paint it. Slowing down to finesse it, exaggerate if need be to make the point. Make that glass really sparkle, that rock really rugged or those lips really luscious.