Monday, April 18, 2016

It's not about painting "things."

When artists first learn the basics of painting, the challenge is to capture an accurate image. We learn about values, the color wheel, and other skills necessary to make our painting look like a believable replication of our subject. In other words, we paint things. And that's fine for the beginner. We all need to start with those fundamental skills. 

Many artists stop there.

Those who push themselves further begin to search for something special about their subject ... a distinct visual message ... and build their painting around that special idea. When I look back at what I consider my stronger work, I notice that I had a very clear visual idea and built the painting around it. All other elements within the composition were included only in support of that idea.

When I fall into the trap of simply copying my subject without determining what's special about it, that's when the work falls flat. It doesn't strike any emotional chord with the viewer. 

Once I zero in on what's special about the landscape, I can manipulate my painting in the following ways to help me communicate my visual message:
* Carefully edit details to avoid over-defining areas not important to my message.
* Give additional emphasis to a particular contrast (value, color, or color temperature) in a special area.
* Exaggerate hard and soft edges in the more important/less important areas.
* Vary the size relationships and placement of elements within the composition.

Below I've described my visual message for a few of my paintings:

Winter's Silent Crescendo, oil, 20x16

Winter's Silent Crescendo -- 
Visual Message:Intense back-lit glare against strong shadows. 
I knew that getting the accuracy of the warms and cools would be important to communicate this special lighting situation, so I took my time with this one, carefully discerning each slight shift in color temperature relationships. To keep the visual message clear, I had to capture only the necessary visual information to identify those warm and cool shapes, with careful control of edges,

Springtime's Arrival, oil, 8x10

Springtime's Arrival -- 
Visual Message: Fleeting light and shadow on the sunlit bush and fallen trees. 
All other elements are merely implied and placed within the composition only in support of the elements that are most communicating the fleeting light effects. If more detail was rendered in the background trees, the visual message would be weakened.

Mountain View from the Meadow, oil, 11x14

Mountain View from the Meadow -- 
Visual Message: Distant mountains that appear spectacular and majestic, even though they only appear in a small space in the composition.
With mountain scenes, if you don't want your horizon smack in the middle, you have to emphasize either the foreground (using a high horizon) or the mountains themselves or mountains and sky (using a low horizon). With this composition, I wanted the distant mountains to appear spectacular and majestic and beckon the viewer's eye, but I wanted to set up my composition so that they appeared in the distance, with a large shape given to the foreground, using a high horizon. Keeping the mountains almost "ghosted" behind the field and trees, very close in value to the sky, and with very little detail, actually gives them a grander presence than if all of my shapes were more equal in size and with more detail rendered in the mountains.The value  and edge contrast between the trees on the left in front of the mountains also emphasizes that area of visual interest.

Wide Open View, pastel, 12x16

Wide Open View --
Visual Message: Distance ... and of course, as the title states, a wide open view.
An accurate value contrast from the thin trees high atop the edge of the cliff to the far distant mountain was key. More sharply defined edges in the trees and rocky cliff also helped to place many more miles between that area and the distant view.

Windmill on the Hill, pastel, 18x18

Windmill on the Hill --
Visual Message: The bright evening glare at the top of the hill.
I don't often title a piece after the smallest element in the painting. But similar to what I did with "Mountain View from the Meadow," I wanted to pull the viewer into the painting through the high-contrast zig zag of the large foreground shadow area into the bright evening glare, emphasizing the warm/cool contrast of the shadow and sunlit areas. The glare is also emphasized by the mostly low contrast of the structures at the top of the hill, and especially with how the windmill is almost visually washed out.

This is my first announcement of this! I have plans to begin filming next month for an instructional online course (which may also be available as a DVD) tentatively available by August. I've received many requests for this, so I hope this will be of value to those of you who are unable to attend my workshops, or those who have attended but would like additional instruction that you can absorb at your own pace in your own studio. More info to come on this, but if you're interested to know when it will be available, you can click here to sign up to be notified.

Upcoming Workshops:

Lewisburg, West VA - 3-day PASTEL workshop - FULL
April 25, 26 & 27, 2016 (Mon/Tues/Wed)
Carnegie Hall West VirginiaKellar Art Studio105 Church St.Lewisburg, WV, 24901
$295/member; $400/non-member
Contact Jeanne Brenneman, 304-645-3050

Springfield, OR - 3-day PASTEL/OIL workshop
May 3, 4 & 5, 2016 (Tues/Wed/Thurs)
Emerald Art Center500 Main StreetSpringfield, OR 97477
$420/member; $445/non-memberCall 541-736-8595;

Bend, OR - 1-day PASTEL PLEIN AIR workshop - FULL
June 4, 2016 (Sat)
Plein Air Painters of Oregon (PAPO)
Location: Shevlin Park. Back-up studio location will be provided in case of inclement weather.
$65/member; $70 non-member
Registration will open up to non-members after March 15.
Contact Nancy Misek, 541-388-1567,

Bend, OR - 3-day PASTEL/OIL workshop (studio & plein air)
June 6, 7 & 8, 2016 (Mon/Tues/Wed)
NOTE: This workshop is separate from the 1-day PAPO workshop on June 4.
"The Well Edited Landscape, Inside and Out"
Cascade Fine Art Workshops
Exact venue in Bend TBD. Plein air location will be near studio venue.
$410 before May 6 ($460 after May 6)
Contact Susan Manley at or 541-408-5524

Lac du Flambeau, WI (northern Wisconsin) - 4-day PASTEL/OIL workshop
(studio & some plein air)
June 27, 28, 29 & 30, 2016 (Mon-Thurs)
Dillman's Creative Arts Foundation
3305 Sand Lake Lodge Lane
Lac du Flambeau, WI 54538
This will mainly be a studio workshop, but will also include some plein air time. Dillman's is a resort facility where you can enjoy gorgeous (paintable!) scenery right outside your door, boat rides on the lake and other outdoor recreation right there where the workshop takes place. The studios stay open after workshop hours for artists wanting additional painting time. Workshop fee also includes a welcome dinner the evening of your arrival. Affordable accommodations in the resort are available through Dillman's. This is a great option if you're looking to completely immerse yourself in a painting workshop!
Call 715-588-3143 for more information or register online at

Florham Park, NJ - 3-day PASTEL workshop
July 22, 23 & 24, 2016
Debarry Studio Ten
Contact Christina at 973-525-2544 or

For full workshop schedule, visit

Online Critiques
Would you like me to personally critique your oil or pastel painting? Visit and click on my name for quick, affordable feedback on your work.

NEW! Critique Group in Bend, OR
In the Bend area? See the workshop page on my website for information on a new monthly critique group that I'll be leading!