Category Archives: Top Observations

Variations on a Theme

I was speaking to someone on a airplane last night about the visual arts and how they relate to music. Here’s my analogy: In high school, I played jazz trombone. Key to that genre is the ability to improvise. It’s a beautiful thing to hear a musician create new music on the fly during an improvisation. What may seem to be a beautiful, but haphazard, run of notes is actually the result of playing within the composer’s written sequence of cord progressions. The jazz musician creates in the moment, but she does so based on what’s in front of her: sheet music (in a sense). The same is very much true of those artists that create variations based on a theme. The subject is the theme (sheet music) and the art is the variation (improvisation).

For me, a recent theme has been Moss Beach, here in Northern California. The series of paintings below shows how I’ve studied this area, and created variations on this landscape. The first three paintings are based on the same spot, but with different mediums–oil, watercolor–and different perspectives. The last 4 are looking in a different direction, but again, studies of the same view using different mediums and ideas. From these studies, I’m learning to record and compare my feelings for the spot so I can later determine what resonates and where to build upon–as, for example, a larger studio work.

I hope you enjoy these improvisations of Moss Beach. More to come.

Moss Beach Cove, Oil on Linen, 9x12
Moss Beach Cove, Oil on Linen, 9×12
Moss Beach Cove, Watercolor, 6x6
Moss Beach Cove, Watercolor, 6×6″
Moss Beach Study, Watercolor, 9x12
Moss Beach Study, Watercolor, 9×12
Moss Beach Bluffs 1, Watercolor, 6x6
Moss Beach Bluffs 1, Watercolor, 6×6
Moss Beach Study 2, Watercolor, 6x6
Moss Beach Study 2, Watercolor, 6×6
Moss Beach Bluffs 5, Watercolor, 4x6.5
Moss Beach Bluffs 5, Watercolor, 4×6.5″

 

Moss Beach Bluffs #3, Oil on Linen, 12x9
Moss Beach Bluffs #3, Oil on Linen, 12×9″
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Observation 7: Value Values

“It is in the contrast of light and dark that design happens.” Helen Van Wyk

This is part 7 in my series of 10 “top observations” on painting…although I think a few more may crop up 🙂

First a definition: In art, “value” is the range of grayscale from white to black, generally thought of in a 1-9 scale (1 being white, 9 being black). It has been said that the eye can discriminate no more than 9 distinct grays. Why are values important? The root of our visual system is value, not color. We saw in grayscale before color (according to the evolution of our visual systems).

Control of values is the most challenging technical aspect of painting, at least for me. I’m continuously learning and honing this skill. Values are important for two reasons:

  • Design. A strong value structure forms the basis for a good composition/design (see “Work in Abstractions”);
  • Representing Reality. you can’t truly have fun with color unless you get the value right. I’ve had more than one colorist master tell me, “it doesn’t matter what color you paint something, as long as the value is right”. I’ve found this to be true: if you’re values are correct, the painting will “read” correctly.

When I’m having a problem with a painting, I’ll often go through the process below to determine if the values are correct. This can be done both plein air using a digital camera in the field, or in your studio on a PC.

  1. Take a digital photo of your subject, being careful to get a good balance of values–eg, center your view on an area with both darks and lights, to get a good average. This is more difficult that most realize. Cameras–even digital–tend to over-darken the darketst darks and white out the lightest lights. Taking a digital photo with the correct value balance is an art in itself.
  2. View the photo in grayscale. Most digital cameras allow you to modify your image on the camera in this way. If not, transfer the image to your PC and use photo editing software to convert it to grayscale.
  3. Take a digital photo of your painting, again, being careful to get the right balance of values.
  4. View your painting in grayscale.
  5. Compare your painting and reference photo in grayscale. Do they match?

Although I’ve included the color versions below, the key comparison to make are the black and white images, the reference photo on top, my in-progress painting below. This schene is basically a simple three-value design, with some highlights (light) and accents (darkest darks) here and there.

This is the first layer of paint–I expect to add one more. The key question I had when I decided to analyze this painting was: is the value of the light side of the bridge correct? Is the value of the cast shadow on the water correct? Reds are particularly challenging to paint in the correct value–don’t know why, but that’s my experience.

Compare the value of the distant hills with the bridge in light, bottom left of the black and white reference photo. They’re almost exactly the same. Surprising, when you see my color version, which has a distinct vibrant difference (probably due to the red/green complementary color change). Because the colors were so vibrant, it was difficult for me to tell if the red was the right value, turns out I got it right. The cast shadow of the bridge (which I think makes this painting interesting), is also the correct value when seen in grayscale. What’s incorrect–and this surprised me–was the concrete pier base of the bridge in the foreground. It’s not nearly light enough. Knowing this, I can correct the painting’s value structure and finish it off with bridge rigging and other possible detail.


Reference Photo – Color

Reference Photo – Black & White

My Painting – Color

My Painting – Black & White

Here are some of my own paintings in grayscale, to illustrate the value of a distinct blocks of value in painting to build strong design. Color versions are also available, as well as some reference photos when available.

Other resources on this topic

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Observation 6: The anatomy of nature

“Nature does nothing uselessly.” Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)

Have you painted the figure? If you have, you know how difficult it is. Our brains are “wired” to recognize the slight differences between people, so even the slightest error in drawing the figure can make the difference in getting an accurate likeness.

What if one ocean wave could see another?  Like us, it could easily recognize the slight differences between waves.  Can you? Waves, trees, clouds–they all have an anatomy of their own, a structure that has repeatable and somewhat predictable, but each with slight variations that make them appear unique.

As artists, just as we need to study anatomy to paint the figure convincingly, we should study the structure of the elements of nature we paint and figure out their own rules. There are few shortcuts. You can get a field guide (eg, the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees) and I found one online site field guide that was very detailed (The Virtual Field Herbarium)

Leguminosae-mim Acacia caffra
| | © Rosemary Wise

You can see in this illustration above by Rosemary Wise how the basic anatomy of one type of plant is shown. The drawing communictes clearly the components of this plant, their relative size and position.  I’ve drawn similar illustrations of ocean waves, Monterey Cypress and Eucalyptus trees. Draw enough of them and you’ll discover the basic elements.
The next step is to abstract them out to just a few gestural lines.  I recall a video made on the life of Pablo Picasso (and later found this site, which a great series of images of his that show this process–check it out!).  He drew a life-like bull, lots of deetail.  His subsequent drawings contained fewer and fewer lines and detail, until the end he could communicate a bull with just a few gesterual lines.  I followed this approach with Monterey Cypress trees.  I recognized that their tree limbs have a fairly predictable pattern. They grow downard two lengths, then up one length and repeat–and then I had it, a gesture for this tree.  This comes in handy when you’re painting outside with limited time available.  You’re not going to study each branch and paint it as is, you need stored in your memory a gestural stroke that represents that branch, that you can repeat with slight variation in your painting.
In addition to linear structure, it’s also a good idea to draw or paint value studies of common natural elements. I’ve done this with ocean waves quite a bit, learning the value of the shadow side of the wave and how it relates to flat water, and the crest. You’ll aways run across exceptions to the “rules” you’ll discover, but I can say discovering them makes life a lot easier when you’re painting plein air and have 30-90 minutes to capture a scene as it shifts in light from one painting to another.

Virtual Art Academy (my sponsor), is of the same mind, and has a course dedicated to this subject in their “Observation” section. Here’s how the course is described:

“For many types of objects such as trees, fruits, flowers, or rocks, there are certain characteristics that collectively define the ‘itness’ of that object and that differentiate it from all other objects of that type. For example, pines and cypress trees are both evergreens. Every pine tree is a different shape and every cypress tree is a different shape, yet someone who knows their trees can immediately tell which is which. This means that before you start painting a subject you need to spend a lot of time studying it (that is if you want to truly capture the essence of your subject).” Click to learn more, see the “Observation” section in the left side bar navigation.

This is installment 6 of what I plan to be my top 10 painting observations. Click here to see the others.


PS. While researching this post I came across the site”The Field Guide for North American Males“, by Marjorie Ingall. Hillarious. Here’s an exerpt:

Q. Why do males travel in packs?
A. “Grouping” is a way to avoid predators. Some guys watch for danger while others feed. You never know when a guy with a big knife is going to jump out at the Burger Barn! Also, their sheer mass may confuse the enemy. When males are together, the odds of any one male getting attacked are lessened. Also, when in a group, they can turn on a potential attacker. However, for some reason they do enjoy going to public bathrooms alone. Any female knows this is absurd.
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Observation 5: Color Separation

“Think in black and white, but paint in color.” – George Post
“I want all my senses engaged. Let me absorb the world’s variety and uniqueness.” Maya Angelou

In every workshop, there are usually just a couple of things I come away with remembering forever, that really stick in my sieve of a brain. From Camile Przwodeck, I learned the concept of “color separation“. I don’t think she ever called it that exactly, but the idea is somewhat analogous to value separation: The uneven distribution of and planning of values (from 3-5, generally for me) is used to design something pleasing to the eye. In my “Observation 2: Design in Abstractions” post, I wrote about my use of Notan Sketches to abstract a scene into a limited number of values, and to keep one value dominant, the others supporting (see the Notan Sketch on the right).Just as you need to have a clear separation of values to make a design work, so too color. Just as the eye responds to abstract value shapes, it apparently does the same with color. In my recent post about the physiology of the eye, Margaret Livingstone describes our visual system in which different colors are handled by different cell types. The reason complementary colors create a sort of visual “vibration”, is because the two visual systems/cells in the eyes are actually competing with one another to see the scene. That “fight” causes the vibration. The book describes many other types of effects like this that I can see myself experimenting with for years.In practice, here’s what color separation means:

  • If you think you see two greens that look about the same, exaggerate the difference between the two, to separate them easily for the eye. For example, in this plein air sketch of ice plant in Pacific Grove on the right, to create the greens in light and greens in shadow, I used completely different base colors. For the green in light in the bushes on the left, I used Hansa Yellow and Cerulean Blue, and Ultramarine Blue and Hansa Yellow Orange (and a little Alizarin Crimson) for the shaded side.
  • Don’t use the same color to represent two different objects in a scene. For example, if I’m painting a red barn, with a pot of red flowers, I will use two different color combinations to create the two reds, with no colors in common . So I may paint the barn with an Alizarin Crimson base color and lighten with a Cadmium Orange, then paint the flowers with Fire Red and lighten with another color, such as Cadmium Yellow Medium.
  • Avoid lightening colors with white, especially if you want them to be vibrant. White KILLS color, but is very effective in a gray-day painting! Use the next lighter value and warmer color on your palette. See my previous post on gray-day vs. full-sun painting.
  • Just as I would design a value plan with a Notan Sketch, I design a color scheme with a dominant color, and then limit the number of supporting colors. For example, the painting above is basically a green dominant painting with reds a close second, followed by light pink/yellows.
  • After a basic drawing, I will often start with small color spot tests to represent each object, and see how they work together (harmonize) before painting the entire area. This is something I learned from Barry John Raybould (see Virtual Art Academy) when painting landscapes, and Jim Smyth taught this technique when painting the figure as well, in which we’d paint tiny (2″ square) color spots to represent the figure in light and shadow.
  • With a full palette of paint, and trying this technique, it’s really easy to go overboard and create a painting with no color harmony or with no color shapes that hold together to create a coherent painting. I see this a lot in florals. Although I have 13 colors on my palette (plus white and black), I won’t use them all in the same painting! If you’re a beginner and just learning how to get basic values accurately, I would not use this technique. Save it.

In summary, while you’re in the design stage before you’ve laid down a stroke, analyze your subject and think ahead about a color plan. Use color separation to create paintings with a vibrancy that will challenge the human eye.

This is the 5th in what will be 10 total “top observations” of mine as a plein air painter. Click here for an a list of the others.

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Observation 4: Always a Student & a Teacher

“I am going on with my researches…I am continually making observations from nature, and I feel I am making some slight progress.” Paul Cezanne at age 67, a month before his death
“Whoever ceases to be a student has never been a student.” George Iles

I’ve noticed a few consistent traits of artists: they live a long time; they’re always learning; and willing to share what they know freely. The master’s I’ve met have stressed that they’re still discovering new things and pushing themselves, always studying. They have great humility. You’re either the type of person that loves a constant challenge or one who wants an “end point” to your artist journey. If you’re reading this post, you’re likely the former.

I think accepting risk and change is critical to learning. You need to work out of your comfort zone. No painting should be so precious that you’re unwilling to trying something new and push it to the point of failure. If you feel you’ve painted someting wonderful that you don’t want to ruin, remember: if you did it once, you can repeat it. Take that personal masterpiece and be bold. Add that color you think is too far afield, or that bold stroke that says more than a dozen smaller. Be fearless! It’s the best way to learn.

I noticed this fearlessness in Kevin Macpherson. The first time I watched him paint was at Catalina Island at one of the PAPA events. He was easy to find as he had quite a crowd around him. I recall he was painting the Catalina Yacht Club, struggling with the American flag over the harbor. He painted a few bold, fearless strokes that simply didn’t work out. He got out his palette knife and scraped off the flag and did it again. Twice I think.

Remember it’s simply oil on canvas. Whatever you do can be removed and recreated.


Verde Artist Guild Paint-out (Stanford University campus)

Are you mentoring someone? This is something you can do online (through blogs like this, certainly) and there are sites like Hello Creativity, where you can mentor a child or sites like VolunteerMatch where you can find people searching for mentors. Paint-outs are a great opportunity to mentor. When I paint with the Verde Artist Guild, I’ll almost always take a break and walk around, offering critiques and bringing my own painting with me to ask for the same.

Did you have a great mentor, or are you mentoring someone now? How do you learn? Chime in with comments, let us know.

Observation 3: Equipment Matters

“You don’t get hung up on the scalple if you’re a surgeon. You get hung up on what the scalple will do.”Artie Shaw
All group painting activities I’ve been involved in has included discussions about equipment. Everyone is always checking out everyone else’s setup. We all face too many obstacles when creating art, so don’t add another one–especially when it’s under your control–by not considering carefully your setup. There are endless ways to configure your studio or plein air kit, and not everything I do will be right for you, but here are some things I’ve learned:
  • Consistent paint quality. Even while a student (I still am!), don’t buy the so-called “student grade” paints. They’re somewhat less expensive, but you’ll pay for it in frustration and poor quality results. When you’re learning, you need to learn with the materials that you’ll paint with for a life time. Whatever brand of paint you choose, when you know you’re happy, stick with it. Most of my paint is by Classic Artist Oils. They are incredibly cheap in large quantities (10 oz “guns”) and used by many masters, including Ken Auster and Ovanes Berberian. I do use Gamblin occasionally (especially their mediums, which I love). Their Permanent Alizarin is allegedly the only true permanent Alizarin Crimson on the market.
    • Are “Student Grade” Oils really cheaper? I did a quick price comparison using the Winsor Newton prices on Dick Blick vs. Classic Artist Oils. Even with a sale running right now at Dick Blick (far below retail prices), the high quality Classic Artist Oils rival Winsor Newton’s WINTON student grade. Eg, For Ultramarine Blue, the price per oz was: WINTON: $2.13/oz; Winsor Newton Artist Oils: $4.90/oz; and Classic Artist Oils: $2.40/oz. So even while on SALE, Winsor Newton’s Artists Oils cost double the price of Classic Artists Oils and comparable in price to W/N student grade WINTON oils. It pays to buy in larger quantity.
  • Your easel is your foundation. Easels can be the most difficult decision you’ll make for outdoor painting. I use OpenBoxM for small kits that I take hiking, and a Soltek easel for larger works outdoors that don’t require too far of a hike. Be warned, however, Solteks break constantly. I’m currently testing a 12×16″ palette OpenBoxM easel as my primary outdoor kit. So far, so good. I’m phasing out my Soltek due to technical difficulties. If I could afford it, I may buy two like Ken Auster, who assumes one will always be in the shop while one is in working condition.

OpenBoxM Easel
OpenBoxM 12×16″ Palette Pochade, Tripod Mounted

Soltek Easel
Soltek Easel, all-in-one, but unreliable

  • Brushes with body. Flimsy brushes without enough hair are frustrating! I use only pure hog hair bristles brushes, and sometimes the synthetic/natural bristle blends by Ultrect. Brands I trust include: Dick Blick Masterstroke; Robert Simmons; Winsor Newton Rathbone and Utrecht.
  • Painting surface is objective. Of all materials, I think the surface you paint on is the most personal. I prefer a smooth surface with just the right amount of tooth. For me, that’s a double-primed linen (naturally, the most expensive!). It just “feels right”. My advice is to try everything, every surface with every combination of preparation (gesso, primer, etc). I use RayMar’s double-primed linen panels (as well as their panel carriers for storage).
  • Studio light intensity and color must match the viewers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve painted a work in my studio that I thought was perfect, only to see a dark, less intense version in the gallery or home of the collector. Just as you don’t paint in direct sunlight outdoors (because it results in dull, dark paintings when viewed indoors), you should moderate your indoor studio lighting. I tend to paint indoors with too much light, and when that painting is put in my living room (for example), it looks much less impressive. I try to get in the habit now of placing a painting I’m working on in my living room with typical nighttime “indoor light” to see how it looks.
  • Use anything and everything. One of my favorite artists to watch is Camille Przwodek. She’ll use anything and everything at her disposal to make a painting work: the end of a brush, a scraper, paper towel. No one is going to judge your painting’s quality someday based on traditional technique, it’s the end result that matters to them. So use the opposite end of the brush, your fingers, whatever you need to create the effect you need.
Here’s my “studio” set up in my garage. Someday, I’ll have have my dream studio with a crackling fireplace in the corner (far away from the solvents!), windows overlooking the Pacific ocean, spacious and with rugs and comfortable furniture. For now, it’s a cold garage I share with my jealous car.When I work indoors, I’ll usually work from either a small plein air study as reference, or from my digital photo library. When the latter, I connect my MacBook to the TV to project the image. This is MUCH better than working from printed photographs. You could alternatively paint from the laptop screen, but I prefer a larger reference.
What did I leave out? Let me know in Comments, and I’ll add to this post.
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Observation 2: Work in abstractions

“A good composition can be seen at a glance”John Carlson
“Things should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Albert Einstein

Great paintings have a great underlying abstract design, typically based on 3-7 large abstract shapes of value. If you’re a representational artist, don’t fool yourself: perfectly painted detail only matters if it sits within a broader design of interesting abstract shapes. Those few big abstract shapes will make or break a painting. No amount of detail can save a poorly designed painting.

As painters, we’re at a big disadvantage in our rapidly evolving culture of shorter attention spans and immediate gratification. How much time do you give a novel before you decide to finish it? Hours, probably days. The average viewer of a painting evaluates it in seconds, and then may linger for minutes if they like it (watch people in a museum 🙂

The eye first registers the big abstract shapes, delineated typically by value differences or sometimes hues of the same value. In any case, that first impression is of shapes, not subject matter. Abstraction is hugely important to get the viewer’s eye, but you’ll keep the viewer based on the painting-within-a-painting. Think of the abstract design as the first layer and the detail, color, subject–everything else-as the ‘icing on the cake” that the viewer will enjoy once you’ve got their attention.

When I paint, I start with a notan sketch that identifies the 3-7 big shapes of value and keep each shape together by staying within the value family of the shape. I then have fun within each shape with color, texture and warm/cool, saturated/gray color. Here are sample notans where I’ve taken the same scene I tried different designs:

Here are some tips for designing a painting in effective abstractions.

  • Design a value scheme with at least one dominant value, and others subordinate in unequal proportions.
  • Divide your picture into at least 3 and no more than 7 shapes. Here’s a quick and easy exercise you can do anywhere: with a sketchpad, look at a scene, and decide where those 3-7 big shapes are, and draw them as interlocking shapes. You’ll almost certainly have to make compromises to abstract the scene, such as merging values together, but this is a necessary part of design (see notans above).
  • Limit your values. Some of the strongest designs are just 3 values. it’s really difficult to keep to a solid, limited value structure, but well worth it.
  • Here’s a tip to simplify your values: If–like me–you’re near-sighted and wear corrective lenses: slide your glasses down to look at the scene (blurring it) and view your work surface with your glasses as you look down. If you don’t wear glasses, blur your view by squinting (note this is less effective as squinting also darkens your view). I almost always paint most of my painting without my glasses on as I love focusing on accurate color and value first. It works!
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Observation 1: To move, be moved

This is the first of ten planned observations on plein air painting.

“A work of art which did not begin in emotion is not art. Emotion is the starting point, the beginning and the end. Craftsmanship and technique are in the middle.”Paul Cezanne.

“When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece
.” John Ruskin (1819 – 1900)

Why do you paint what you do, and how does that intention reach the viewer? It all starts with a spark of recognition. Something you see sparks an emotion in you that you felt compelled to capture and keep alive in a painting. That spark may have been based on a memory, something universal or your emotional state at the time you saw it. It hardly matters because once you have that response–for the artist–the analytical and technical process of translation can begin. If you paint to communicate what you feel about your subject, then this observation is for you. I realize not every artist paints this way.

The act of committing to canvas your emotional response is by far the most difficult to explain. You make a number of choices when you paint–and in fact, other than the physical properties of your materials (which are not entirely under your control), and other than limitations in skill that come with time and practice, everything you do is a choice. Communicating emotion starts with composition. What you leave in and choose to edit out means something. There are too many “rules of composition” that can equip you to tackle this to cover here, so I’ve listed some examples to give you an idea of where to start. There are also some some very good sources I can recommend for the readers among us (Conversations in Paint, by Charles Dunn; and Composition of Outdoor Painting, by Edgar Payne).

  • Peace: close value structure; Ariel perspective (distance); grays with slight warm/cool variation; vast sky; soft edges; horizontal lines dominate; flat texture; cool colors; analogous color scheme; analogous/close values; compound curve or “S” composition; symmetry; soft lines (“s” and concave curves); few details; simple, broad design.
  • Vitality: disparate values side-by-side; saturated color; warm colors dominate; hard edges (accept where movement is indicated); vertical, diagonal and curved lines dominate; varied texture; complementary color scheme or slit complementary; dissonances, unbalance, asymmetry, zig-zag lines
  • Nobility: vertical lines, large masses, triangular or pyramid design, dark colors/values, solidity.

This observation brings up the balance between the head and the heart in painting. There are divergent forces at work here: on the one hand, you want to feel great emotion when painting (because it does translate to the canvas), on the other hand, you need to be analytical to control the materials and develop the composition. The way to start is to recognize the emotion you want to convey and dip your hand into your toolbox of technique to make it happen. I recall Ken Auster talking about this. If I recall correctly his take–one I subscribe too–is that the head starts the process with careful design, analysis, and visualizing the end result, and the heart takes over, once that thinking is there and your foundation drawing is laid to support your ideas. Consider Gaudi or Gehry, two extremely expressive architects. Their buildings breath with life and movement, yet clearly they are first and foremost earthly structures that require sound engineering to build. As artists, we’re like them in that we must obey the physics of our materials. Even the most emotionally evocative paintings are built on solid art principles and techniques.

By example, consider my painting below, “Last Light, Provence”. I did this painting on my first significant trip dedicated to art in 2003, in France. I suppose–like almost anything–the first time you do something you truly love the adrenalin permeates you and solidifies your memory (this is based on study reported on 60 Minutes). I was traveling with two teachers (Brigitte Curt and Jim Smyth) and another student. I was so happy to be there it seemed that every painting (or the next painting…there’s always the next one!) represented a breakthrough. This painting represented a breakthrough for me. My goal was to loosen up my style and communicate more emotion. After a productive morning (and equally productive nap in a Lavender field) I set up under the shade of a great oak in the middle of Lavender. I actually can’t recall what I was painting at the time…a clump of buildings in the distance, I think…when (in the golden hour, no less) I turned around and saw the last bits of light striking the hillside. It took my breath away. I knew a couple of truths at that point: 1) I’d only have about 20 minutes at most to capture it; and 2) I HAD to capture it. If you feel compelled to paint something, paint it!

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10 Observations on Plein Air Painting – Intro

Over the coming months I plan to launch a series of posts that expose what I consider my top 10 observations as a plein air painter. Many of these apply across mediums and I’m sure you’ve seen many in one form other the other in books, workshops or other sources. These represent my take on these topics, offered to give you another perspective. I also find that I probably read everything I ever needed to know about painting in the first book I bought, but it’s true that you’re not always ready to truly understand and apply them. Reading and learning are not the same. These represent learning, but they’re by no means the end! You should chime in with your take using the comments mechanism of each post.

I’ve set up a new category, “Top Observations” for this series. Even after I publish the last one of 10, I know that I’ll update from time to time as this should be a living book. I hope you’ll participate in it by added your perspective.

Enjoy!