Sunday, January 21, 2018

Shapes Before Subject

Block-in for In the Winter Spotlight
In the Winter Spotlight, oil, 11x14

When I choose a subject to paint, it’s almost never because I want to paint THAT particular subject. I don’t go outside thinking “I want to paint a Juniper tree” or “a clump of snow with grass coming out of it.” It’s usually something else that tugs at my artistic voice. It could be the light. Or the shadows. Or it could be a pattern of textures or edges that I can envision creating in pastel or oil.

But my first order of business before I attempt to visually create what appealed to me, is to find the shapes in my composition. To hear the word “shapes,” it sounds easy enough. After all, as kids we start hearing about shapes by the time we’re in kindergarten. But to look at a busy landscape and boil it down to a few shapes is much easier said than done. We can look at an artist’s work after the fact and see those shapes pointed out to us, but it takes practice to learn how to create that combination of shapes on your own. And it can be overwhelming when the subject is chock-full of busy detail.

Shown in this post are two paintings, along with their block-ins. As with most all of my paintings, they both required some compositional searching, editing, reproportioning of shapes, and a bit of value restructuring.

Block-in for Warm Summer Day at Multnomah Falls

Warm Summer Day at Multnomah Falls, pastel, 14x11
(Available at The Artful Deposit, Bordentown, NJ)

In workshops that I teach, I find that many students are more interested in how I finish a painting than how I start a painting. But the truth is, what makes a painting successful at the finish, is what I do at the very start…which is all of those things I do before I make single mark on the painting. Sometimes this process comes together logically, and it’s just a matter of going through the steps. Other times it takes searching and working my shapes like a puzzle. I can honestly say that my own skill level increased when I began to understand how to plan out a painting in this way at the start.

Students are often determined to take home successful completed paintings at the end of a workshop. But what if you instead took a few days to work intensively on just this important skill that’s required at the start of each painting. And if you did indeed improve it, your overall skill level as a painter is sure to get a boost!

Okay, so you probably know where this is headed, so let me just say it…

It just so happens that I’m teaching my Composition Boot Camp at two upcoming workshops this year:

Fresno, CA – Feb. 15-17, A Sense of Place Gallery (Studio Workshop)


Bend, OR – May 22-24, Cascade Fine Art Workshops (Studio & Plein Air…we’ll apply this to field studies, too!)

(Details for each are below.)

In this workshop, I explain in detail my process for how to “see” shapes in the landscape, and how to edit those shapes.

And if you’re not able to attend, I still encourage you to set aside some time on your own to practice this skill. Try composing and editing “shapes” for your paintings, rather than “subject matter,” in small thumbnail sketches. (Hint: SQUINT!!!) Then block in paintings from your thumbnails instead of directly from your source photo. Take several days to practice only thumbnails and block-ins. I know it doesn’t sound glamorous, but it’s certain to help you see your paintings in terms of shapes, and ultimately improve how you can lay the foundation for successful paintings!


Fresno, CA - 3-day PASTEL/OIL workshop
Feb. 15-17, 2018
"Composition Boot Camp"
A Sense of Place Fine Art Gallery
Contact: Ginny Burdick,, 559-392-6775

Providence, RI - 3-day PASTEL/OIL workshop
March 23-25, 2018
"Painting the Poetic Landscape"
Providence Art Club
Contact: Angel Dean,, 401-331-1114 ext. 16
$425/members; $525/nonmembers (nonmember fee includes lunch each day)

Centralia, WA - 3-day PASTEL/OIL workshop
April 20-22, 2018
"Painting the Poetic Landscape"

Bend, OR - 3-day PASTEL/OIL workshop 
May 22-24, 2018
"Composition Boot Camp" (studio & plein air)
Contact: Sue Manley,, 541-408-5524

There's more!!! ... For FULL WORKSHOP SCHEDULE, go to


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