Monday, July 29, 2013

Composition Boot Camp Wrap-up...and plans for the next one!

Scattered Evening Light, oil, 10x8

Meandering, pastel, 8x8

This past weekend I taught a workshop titled "All Media Composition Boot Camp." In my experience, I've found that composition is the one area that artists tend to "fight" learning. It involves a little up front planning before paint is mixed, paper is taped to a board, pastels are set out, etc. It's not the fun, colorful part of the painting process, and usually involves those rough-looking, sometimes unattractive, black and white sketches.

I used to fall into this category. There was a time when I just didn't "get" the purpose of a thumbnail sketch. Why draw it small when I'm going to draw it all over again big?

Over the years I've come up with my own, somewhat unconventional method for working out my compositions. It's a quick, easy and accurate way to put my painting puzzle together before I put a single mark on my expensive surface. And these days, I actually enjoy this planning's where I begin to see the possibilities of the painting. For my studio work, I feel it's a crucial process for the success of my work. But honestly, with the method I use, I really don't spend very much time laboring over the process.

Like most artists, when working from photos, I begin my composition process in the camera. The process then moves to Photoshop (I use Photoshop Elements), where I can very quickly look at additional cropping possibilities. There are many other digital tools (iPad, etc.) that also allow you to quickly and easily do this. But even after additional cropping is done, I find that, in order to get the most ideal composition, I still need to tweak, pull stretch, etc. This is where I stray a bit from the norm and pull out the old fashioned tracing paper...yes, tracing paper...and shift things around by placing it over a cheap print out of my photo.

In my classes and workshops I explain my method more thoroughly. But following below are some shots of thumbnails and my block-ins. In this particular workshop, the focus was on planning the composition, and holding true to the original plan in the block-in stage. In my demos, I took the painting just a bit further than the block-in stage, and finished them off later back in my studio. (Finished versions are shown above.)

oil demo - block-in

reference photo...cropped from the original photo

original version of the same reference photo

pastel demo - block-in
loose pastel application over block-in
One thing I always stress when initially developing a composition is to simplify the landscape into as few shapes as possible...connecting shapes wherever possible. This is what needs to be worked out in the thumbnail stage, and then followed during the block-in stage. When I block in a painting, I look at my thumbnail, not my photo.

I should note that I only do this much planning with my studio work. When I'm painting out on location, my goal is to capture the mood, atmosphere and lighting conditions quickly before it changes too significantly. I still go through all of the same thought processes that I use when planning with thumbnail sketches, but it's done in my head rather than on paper.  I don't always get it right, but often the goal with plein air painting is to come back with a good study that can be refined into a larger studio piece.

In September I'm teaching this workshop again in Dahlonega, GA. It's a two-day workshop, Sept. 5 & 6, at The Art Loft. Visit or see the workshop page on my website,, for more information.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Up Close & Personal, Part 3

Hidden Mountains, pastel, 10x8

In our third week of my class's Up Close & Personal series, we moved out of the water and into the trees. With trees, when you zoom in, you have lots of busy chaos...up close! My goal with this painting was to create connected shapes in the trees that would contrast against the distant mountains.

My reference photo showed a hint of bluish mountains behind the gold trees. I liked that color contrast and decided to move the mountains up a bit so that I could have more opportunity to set up that contrast with negative shapes peeking through the trees.

reference photo
In my underpainting I mainly focused on blocking in the dark values with a large connected shape, and then used a small amount of lavender to contrast beneath where the brightest gold hues would be placed (difficult to see here in the underpainting photo, but it's there). I also used a warm pink beneath where the blue-grey of the mountains would be placed, and then yellow in the sky to tie in with the eventual gold hues of the tree. I ended up covering most of this yellow, but I find that blues in the sky area have more life to them when placed over a warm hue beneath.

Sorry, I didn't remember to take my next photo until I was too far into the process. Stay tuned for Part 4 in this series!

Friday, July 19, 2013

Up Close & Personal, Part 2

A Quiet Little Spot, pastel, 8x10

Continuing with our "Up Close & Personal" series in my weekly pastel classes, we studied another water scene, this time with some sticks and branches. And also still with some wispy grass, as with last week's example, it was still crucial to begin with large, connected abstract shapes. I blocked in these shapes as loosely as possible; however, they were carefully placed (previously planned out in a quick thumbnail sketch). The block-in was done mostly monochromatic, with some added orange placed beneath where the bright blues of the water would be added.

While working over the underpainting, it was important to keep the large shapes as connected as possible while breaking down each area with only the necessary details.

As you can see from the source photo, lots of editing took place here. I only added a small amount of the skinny branches...just a few to catch the light...and kept the grass only loosely indicated, since I wanted the focus to stay on the sunlit base of the tree.

"A Quiet Little Spot" is my demo from my Thursday class.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Up Close & Personal

Cattails, pastel, 8x10

I started a new series in my classes this week that will focus on zooming in on a small area of the landscape.

Often with landscape painting, we want to depict distance, sometimes even miles and miles, going as far as the eye can see. And sometimes we paint a large, vast area simply because we want to include a variety of elements in order to capture interesting contrasts of colors and textures. But some of the most beautiful paintings zero in on just a tiny snippet of the landscape...maybe just a few feet (or even less) of distance, creating unique compositions with a close-up view of items we don't normally pay much attention to.

As with any painting, starting with large abstract shapes is key. Although when zooming in close to your subject, it becomes even more tempting to go after small details too soon. With my subject matter being thousands of thin, wispy blades of tall grass, I knew that I had to ignore detail completely in the initial stages and instead establish my abstract shapes.

I must say that my underpainting isn't one of my more attractive examples, but I did it quickly and it did the job I needed it to do. With such a thick mass of grass to work with, I wanted to get my darks in first and work my lighter and brighter values over top. In the underpainting, I also snuck in some subtle warm hues where I knew I'd need them, such as in the grass (above the reflections in the water) and the blue area of the water.

The challenge of this painting was to keep the rendering of the grass as simplified as possible as it progressed, but not lose sight of the overall shape of the grass formation.

reference photo

 "Cattails" is my demo from my Thursday class.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Composition Boot Camp

One-way Road, oil, 8x10

Coming up this month and in early September I'll be teaching one- and two-day workshops in Georgia focusing on composition for pastel, oil and acrylic.This is the perfect opportunity to try those more daring compositions that you wouldn't normally pursue...

Composition Boot Camp (Pastel/Oil/Acrylic)
Push yourself beyond the typical composition. Bring your own landscape photos that you normally work from and we'll put them through an intensive composition workout. Through numerous quick studies, you'll move, stretch, crop and basically push the limits of basic landscape subject matter and get that "wow" factor into your compositions. Oil/acrylic painters and pastel artists who work in a representational style and are already familiar with their medium are welcome.

Atlanta, GA - 1-day workshop
Spruill Center for the Arts 
5339 Chamblee Dunwoody Rd.
Atlanta, GA 30338

Sat., July 27, 2013, 10 - 5
To register call 770-394-3447 or visit

Dahlonega, GA - 2-day workshop
The Art Loft
Sept. 5 & 6 (Thurs/Fri), 2013


To register, visit