Category Archives: Technique

Storytelling painting

What attracts you to a work of art? As I write, looking around my living room, I see two patterns. First, I see paintings that act as windows into places I want to be, and the state-of-mind that appeals to me, like peace/tranquility, love or a place that sparks a memory.  Second, I see paintings (typically those with figures) as the starting point for a story. One particular favorite by Francesco De Benedetto is of a beautiful young woman, head turned looking over her shoulder. Her expression loving. What is she thinking? What does her glance say about what she’s seeing?

The art I’m drawn to either provides an escape or sets up a story.

Figurative Storytelling

Of course, non-figurative art can tell a story, but having the human element in a picture places us in the world the artist created in a more compelling way. As a tribal species, we’re naturally inclined to connect with and understand others.

There are cases when a story is clear cut, such as Picasso’s Guernica, meant to get the viewer to see (and then feel) the atrocity of war. And there are open-ended stories the viewer invents through their own interpretation. Think Leanardo’s Mona Lisa and her mysterious smile.

I’m thinking more about storytelling as I paint more figurative work. I’ve painted plenty of beauty (and will continue!), but as I seek to broaden my art’s impact, I think of storytelling as “the next level.” But how?

How to Improve Storytelling

I’ve gathered a list of tips to help better tell stories in a painting and use one of my paintings as an example.

Man Regarding Bird (Chinatown, San Francisco), Oil, 12×9″
  • Setting. The place you illustrate is the start of the story. This is perhaps the most important context we can give the viewer. This setting is Chinatown in San Francisco. Other than the storefront sign (“Asian Ambia”), this doesn’t scream Chinatown, it only suggests it. What was important to me wasn’t the neighborhood, but the fact that these are two living creatures in a man-made, urban world where nature is precious.
  • Framing the Subject. How much space does your subject or center of interest get? Does it fill the picture frame or is it a small part with other design elements emphasizing it? Here, I surrounded the subject with lots of architectural space that support the relationship between the two figures. These living beings stand out because they are surrounded by man-made, flat, fixed linear objects in space.
  • Senses. Of course, the physical nature of painting limits how many of our senses are activated, but there are subtle ways to represent senses beyond sight. Depicting a burning building could evoke the smell of fire or warmth in the viewer. In this painting, I used the sense of sunlight to convey a clear, warm day. A perfect time to appreciate nature in a city.
  • Posture. The posture of figures depicted in a painting say a lot! Think of the figures in motion by masters like Titian and Caravaggio. Where the figure looks, movement or stillness, articulation of musculature that can depict tension or relaxation–all play an essential role. For this painting, I sought to show a man, relaxed standing in the sun, taking a break. With his arms crossed, I’m trying to convey the fact he’s thinking, regarding the bird in front of him with curiosity, but remaining still leaning on the fire hydrant so the bird doesn’t fly away. And of course, the posture of the bird facing the man suggests mutual curiosity, or perhaps, a potential source of breadcrumbs!
  • Emotion. A vital purpose of storytelling is for the viewer to experience an emotional response. The best books take us through a series of well-planned emotions. In a painting, there are practically infinite methods for doing this, so I’ll stick to this painting as an example: With this sparse setting, and through specific shapes and colors that surround these figures, I sought to draw the viewer to the connection between man and nature. The scarcity of nature in a city setting like this makes the bird special. Other than the man regarding it, the bird is the only depiction of nature. This makes the man curious about the bird, but with a calm appreciation (shown through his posture).

Want to learn more? Some of the best artists today are working in film and TV. Among them, Pixar is a leader, and lucky for you, through the free Khan Academy they’ve shared a beautifully produced and easy to understand online learning module on storytelling. Although meant for moving images, I found plenty in it to support painting.

How do you tell stories in your paintings? As always, reader comments and ideas are welcome!

Creativity in Art is Risky Business

“Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and somehow valuable is formed.” Wikipedia

Creativity & Commerce

I feel lucky to live my life in two worlds: technology and fine art. This intersection has given me insight into the risky nature of the creative process.

Risk-taking is tied to commerce, otherwise, making (and keeping) money would be easy.  As a 40-year veteran of the tech world, I can say without doubt techies are risk takers. They can appreciate the past and present world but remain focused on what comes next, what hasn’t been created.

Name the risk-takers in art.  Vincent Van Gogh, David Park, Francis Bacon, Pablo Picasso come to mind as my favorites.  They challenged the aesthetics of their time to chart a new path, and at the same time placed commercial success secondary. Prioritizing artistic creativity over commerce can be difficult–even impossible–for many artists today to achieve. It’s a real challenge: how do we move our art forward without taking risks, especially if our livelihood depends on it?  And that’s the real issue: attempting to be financially successful while at the same time taking a commercial risk by pushing creativity in directions that the art market may not be ready for or appreciate.

How Art History Impairs Creativity

Art history has too much influence on contemporary artists as too many art buyers are only comfortable buying what they’ve seen before (as “validated”), and too many artists don’t have the confidence to create a completely new path that risks their livelihood.  These artists repeat a playbook that ensures sales, but at the expense of moving their creativity forward.  As a community, I think we have to accept that and support both artistic paths, as divergent as they are.

Here’s a test: If you were to see the Mona Lisa today in a gallery among these other contemporary works without historical context, which would you prefer?  Yes, da Vinci was an incredibly creative genius who formed new paths for his time, but new paths continued throughout history by risk takers much like him.  My concern is that we don’t have enough risk takers today (me among them).

Mona Lisa
“Mona Lisa” 1503
by Leonardo da Vinci

“Jane”, 1964 by Peter Greenham
“Jane”, 1964
by Peter Greenham

“Peter with Striped Kimono”, 2015 by Anne Gale
“Peter with Striped Kimono”, 2015
by Anne Gale

“Mother II”, 1972, By Lucian Freud
“Mother II”, 1972,
By Lucian Freud

I’d buy any of these works over the Mona Lisa.  I can hear the shouts of sacrilege now! I appreciate the significance of the Mona Lisa in the context of the time it was created, but if artists after Leonardo didn’t seek divergent paths, where would we be now?

Another Way: Become Divergent Thinkers

To be creative requires divergent thinking (generating many unique ideas) and then convergent thinking (combining those ideas into the best result (short video here).  Research shows there needs to be a balance between these two types of thinking, but that divergent thinking declines as we age—not through biology but societal influences and teaching methods that favor convergent thinking.

To support my theory that art history as a form of convergent thinking harms creativity, consider this NASA research and the stunning decline over time of our ability to be creative from childhood to adulthood (see chart below).  A 5 year old is almost 3 times more creative than a 10 year old, and the decline continues to adulthood (at 2%). The conclusion of the research is that children are taught to eliminate divergent thinking in order to improve on their convergent thinking abilities pushed by our education system, harming creativity in the process. Art history reinforces the wrong kind of thinking.

Creativity Scores
Source: “Breakpoint and Beyond: Mastering the Future Today (2000)” by George Land and Beth Jarman

Rebuilding Divergent Thinking to Create

“When you’re being creative, nothing is wrong”, John Cleese

We’re so lucky to have as a guide to divergent thinking: children.  Have you ever watched a child draw or paint?  No rules, nothing is wrong!  Negligible self-doubt or judgement.  Just experimentation. Experiment. Discover.  Oh, what would it be like to draw for the first time!  Children have strong divergent thinking skills, that is, they find their own path through intuition. In divergent thinking, their subconscious mind is primary.

Here’s an impractical idea: rather than start art education with art history–which sets up expectations for what art is “good”—perhaps we end with art history, and instead start with a “blank sheet” that forces creativity and divergent thinking.

After the basics of paint/materials handling, what if the art professor put out art materials at your desk, while in front of you stood a beautiful human being. “Make art from this” is the only instruction you’d get.  What would happen?  Without art history as context, what would students create?  I’d love to see this, but it’s impractical for a 19-year-old college freshman previously exposed to art history or what society holds up as “art.”

Building Creativity through Divergent Thinking

Through our traditional education system, convergent thinking has been ingrained in us, but it’s never too late to recover creativity by building divergent thinking skills. Some exercises to try (courtesy of Natalie Shoemaker and Saga Briggs):

  • Take a Walk. One researcher found that walking indoors on a treadmill or outdoors didn’t affect divergent thinking capability, but walkers outscored sedimentary non-walkers. Physical exercise has yet another unexpected benefit. “Part of why walking, I think, is important is it can be boring. It’s that very aspect that causes your mind to go back and revisit, even subconsciously, on what you’ve been analyzing and learning,” said Barbara Oakley, an engineering professor at Oakland University.
  • Be bored. With smartphones a constant distraction, too many people today don’t have the mental space for new ideas to grow (for more, see this article). Try reading the phonebook or take a walk to help trigger boredom. Let your mind wander in boredom.
  • Brainstorm when tired. Ron Friedman, author of The Best Place to Work, explains our fatigued brains are less capable of filtering out all the weird stuff, like we are during the day. He suggests finding that time when you’re tired and less focused to box off that time for creative brainstorming.
  • Fast, frequent failures. Trying multiple failing paths quickly leads to a successful path sooner. Spending 2 hours creating 10 quick studies builds divergent thinking much faster than spending the same amount of time on a single artwork.
  • Paint like a Millionaire. Art supplies can be expensive, which too often means we “play it safe.” Lately, I’ve been painting on carton (cardboard, basically) or paper treated for oil painting because it’s 1/10 the price I normally pay forcanvas panels. I feel much less invested in making a piece work and am fine with failure. Painting on a iPad is another idea. Bits are free.
  • Defer Judgement. This has been a huge hurdle for me: I’m constantly judging an artwork in progress. I find it best to—at a certain point before I think a piece is done—set it aside a few days. When I return to a piece, I see and appreciate things I didn’t see before.
  • Set aside “Play Time”. You may be balancing your time between commissions and work for your next show, but be diligent about setting aside solid blocks of time to experiment and build intuitive thinking.

I hope this post helps you think differently, and balance art and commerce. As always, I appreciate reader feedback in the comments section. I have a feeling this will generate some discussion.

Painting in a Series: San Francisco Moonrises

“Theme and variation is simply the combination into a single principle of the effects of contrast and repetition.  Once a theme is stated, it may then be given a series of restatements, each recognizably the same, though each work a variation on the theme”

John F.A. Taylor

What does it mean to paint a series?

Have you explored creating art by working a theme into a series?  Doing so can improve your skills and sales.

Over time, I’ve slowing grown to appreciate the value of painting in a series.  Perhaps a turning point was when my local art museum exhibited Monet’s series from his gardens, including his water lily pond, rose archway, gardens and iconic Japanese bridge.  It is telling that Monet focused more on serial painting after he had become successful and was rewarded with the flexibility to create whatever he wanted. He made a deliberate choice to paint this way later in life.

Unless you paint as a photo realist, you are making subjective choices in every painting.  Art is a subjective endeavor. Painting in a series that constricts the subject gives the artist the opportunity to explore subjective artistic choices to look at the subject in new ways. In this way, it builds creativity muscle.

Here are some examples of other art forms that use a serial format. You can see the value of this is pervasive.

  • Music. In jazz improvisation, a set of chord progressions is analogous to the subject in a series, and provide the context for experimentation.  Like a painting series, each improvisation performance is unique, but made consistent by a single chord progression.
  • Television. In a television series, a foundation of characters forms the basis for exploring different situations. 
  • Painting. One of my favorite series that I study often is Kevin Macphereson’s “Reflections on a Pond,” in which he paints 365 views of his pond. Jean Stern said of this book, “Kevin’s goal was for the subject to be secondary to the momentary conditions that affect it,” conditions such as weather, time of day and light.

Why paint a series?

  • Deepen Subject Understanding. There is tremendous value in reducing the complexity of making art.  Making fewer choices and focusing on decisions that matter (subtlety, color, etc.) allows the artist to explore the subject of a theme more deeply.  Series are paths to discovery, the essence of creation.
  • Foster the Eye. The challenge of discovering or inventing variations on a theme forces you to create differences within a context, such as the painting’s subject (e.g., for Monet, haystacks).  This helps the artist develop subtlety and train the eye to see new things.
  • Improving Sales. While I have no research to back this up, I think there’s a sales benefit. It’s interesting how a buyer’s thinking works.  Viewing a series, I believe they begin an internal process of judging which among the series they like best.  It simplifies their choice.  Rather than choosing between a seascape and a cityscape for example, they are given a narrowed path to make a purchase decision. Also, this kind of work demonstrates your depth as an artist, that you can see the same subject and represent it in a myriad of ways. This increases the buyer’s confidence that you have the breadth of skills to succeed long term, making you a good investment.
  • Studio Work. And finally, a series of smaller works can be a form of exploration for larger studio work.

How to paint in a series

  • Start with an Objective. There are typically two objectives: either to learn new skills (with no intention of showing the work); or developing a series with a sales objective.  For example, living in San Francisco, I’ve painted series’ around an iconic subject that I know will connect with collectors. At other times, I paint this way simply to learn the subject more fully.
  • Choose a Subject. Select a subject and create variables for exploration. For example, in this San Francisco moon rise series, the subject is the rising moon, and I’ve constrained the series by using the same aspect ration (9×12 here), same view (living room window), and proportion of sky to land.  The areas of exploration are color, weather conditions, the position of the moon in the sky and the moon’s size.
  • Rinse and Repeat. Create new variations on your theme until you’ve met your objective.

Painting in a series is a great way to explore any subject and grow as an artist. Share your own experience in comments. For a video of this series with music, click here to go to YouTube, or click the video below.

Pushing Paint

Oil paint has many unique qualities, including variations in texture, from light, watercolor-like washes, to impasto strokes of full body oil. Lately, I’ve been exploring the latter, painting with a fully loaded brush that creates bold strokes of color (called “impasto”, the technique of laying on paint thickly so that it stands out from a surface).

I’ve found this technique to have many benefits: it gives painting a sculptural “presence” that reminds the viewer this isn’t a photograph, it’s made by a hand with passion; it allows for richer color and interesting edges, as the loads of adjacent paint strokes combine at the edges, creating a marbleized co-mingling of color; using impasto for foreground elements makes them move forward in the picture plain, especially if you paint the distance in a thinner wash; and finally, there’s something more about it that’s difficult to describe….I think it’s perhaps the fact that the painting’s fluid surface gives it an organic quality.

Here are a few recent seascapes painted in this vein:

Lifeguard Station

Lifeguard Station

8×10 inches
$325 *

Cove, Maui

Cove, Maui

8×10 inches
$250 *

Juicy Rocks & Surf

8×8 inches
$250 *

Shell Beach Bluffs

Shell Beach Bluffs

8×10 inches
$225 *

Sea Cliff Bluffs (San Francisco)

Sea Cliff Bluffs (San Francisco)

10×8 inches
$225 *

Juicy Rocks & Surf
Juicy Rocks & Surf

Juicy Rocks & Surf

8×8 inches
$250 *

Color Spots Demonstration

To help fellow artists achieve their color goals, I’ve documented how I approached a recent painting in terms of color and composition. 

I’ve taken many workshops, read many art books–but at the end of the day (at least for me), practicing the craft by covering miles of canvas is essential.  It’s funny too how I’ve not really grasped much of what I was told (or read) until later in my art career.  There are many skills I thought I learned years ago, but I find myself now revisiting them, developing a deeper understanding.

An essential book on painting is Charles Hawthorne’s “On Painting“.  He wrote, 

“Painting, is just getting one spot of color in relation to another spot…. Let color make form, do not make form and Color it.”

Sounds simple, right?  If you’re a painter, you know better!  I keep coming back to his advice because it’s so powerful.  Simple ideas always are.  I followed Hawthorne’s advice in this painting.

To get started, the first priority for me is design/composition.  A strong design will attract the eye when the viewer is across the room.  It will draw people in.    

My first step was a simple charcoal drawing on paper, where I could adjust and experiment with ideas easily.  Since the subject is architecture, there are design constraints.  Unlike a cloud or seaside white water, I don’t have the complete freedom to create shapes that play well together.  So for this image, the architecture needed to be solid, but I had to ensure all the components (trees, sky, etc.) supported a coherent design. 

In this sketch, I thought about the big shapes and how they related to each other.  I considered principles I first learned by reading Edgar Payne’s “Composition of Outdoor Painting“: creating balance among large shapes; balancing organic, loose forms (trees) with architectural elements; ensuring there’s a comfortable amount of space between primary shapes; avoiding repetitive shapes; etc. For example, I shifted the bush in the lower right of the painting leftward, so I could intersect those greens against the garage door’s complementary reds.

Ingliside Preliminary Sketch (charcoal on paper)

Next, color. Given this subject is primarily architecture, it’s a bit easier to find the right color. Flat planes like walls don’t have a lot of variation (like a tree). Even so, I approached mixing color the same way. I mix a pile of color (see pic below) for each of the major areas of the painting on the palette before I touch the canvas, one pile for an object in light, the other for the shade side of the object.

To get accurate color spots, I use a technique I’ve written about before here called “brush in front.” Also, to increase vibrancy, I started with a single color that is key to the scene, and built the rest of the painting around it. For this painting, I started with pure Cadmium Red Light for the garage door in light, and then mixed a completely different color for the door in shadow. I’ll often apply this to other paintings: start with the most exciting color, place it on the canvas, and then make all the surrounding colors relate to it.

Another point about color I’ll make here. In nature, true color in a scene is rarely duplicated across objects–unless of course the objects (tree type, whatever) are the same. Think about the hillsides you’ve seen with various types of trees and vegetation. If you observe closely, none of the colors are the same among disparate objects, so why use the same base pigments to represent them?

To make objects stand out (my goal was a sunlit-colorful design), I use color separation and avoid repeating color formulas for objects of the same hue. So, for example, the greens in the building were mixed using a different set of blues and yellows on my palette than those of the trees, and the grass was yet another combination of pigments. This becomes apparent when you look at the final painting below. See how the character of each green is distinct.


After drawing the design on canvas, I applied spots of paint to key areas where I could judge the adjacency of color. For example, if you look at the garage door and driveway, I placed the three spots together in the drawing so I could ensure they relate before painting the entire area. In the upper left, I placed the sky color right next to the tree, and so on. Placing these spots allows me to further adjust color as needed on the palette, because as Hawthorne wrote, it’s the relationship among colors that’s important. An alternative is to paint directly on canvas and then continually adjust paint there, but I find that that muddies the color. I’d rather get the color right the first time on the palette, and this mixing technique does it for me.

After making some adjustments, I filled in the drawing with paint, keeping things as simple as possible. I believe that simplicity results in a more powerful image. While I did model the tree on the right a bit with some dark and light colors, in general I kept the planes of color flat. If I’ve mixed the correct lit and shadow colors, form will happen.

Ingliside, Oil on linen, 12×9″ (click to purchase)

I’m happy with this one. I was able to recreate the feeling I had when I saw this scene. I hope you see the same, and that you found this demonstration was useful! Feel free to ask questions or provide feedback in comments below. This painting is available for purchase here. Happy painting!

Seeking Balance in Plein Air Painting

“Isn’t it intensity of thought rather than calmness of touch that we are seeking?  And in impulsive working conditions such as these, out on site and of this nature, is a calm, well-ordered touch always possible? Dear Lord, it seems to me no more so than when on the attack in fencing.” 

Vincent VanGogh in a letter to fell artist John Russell

VanGogh captures perfectly the essence of a struggle plein air painters face: balancing the heart and head in the battle to create art on the spot.  When you’re painting, how do you balance the impulsiveness driven by the excitement of the moment, with a deliberative approach that substitutes intuitive painting for thoughtful—and some would say “tight”–painting?  Or is this a false choice and do both?

Painting and studying with some of the best in our field inform my opinion.  Of those teachers, the great Ken Auster comes to mind.  In short, his approach was that you start with the head (deciding what to paint and why, designing the picture, drawing…), move to the heart (reacting, for creating the kind of expressive brush strokes and sophisticated grays he’s known for) and end with the head to thoughtfully consider the painting from an objective standpoint, and ask yourself, “is it done?” Judge it.

I agree with much of what Ken taught me about this question, but I have a slightly different although complementary take: Painting en plein air is possible through building a solid foundational of skills that make automatic as much of the process as possible in the moment.  

Have you ever commuted home from work, realizing when you got there you were on complete auto-pilot, barely remembering the drive?  That’s what building a skill means to me: having the most complete toolbox of artistic skills so that I can be intuitive and responsive to nature without thinking about it. I want to use my heart completely in a picture.  This is my goal, but I’m not quite there yet.  I’ve worked in the corporate world too many years to escape a structured, self-critical mind. 

But like Ken, I do start and end deliberatively. Perhaps this is my failing, or an essential truth to live with.

This is a painting of mine that represents for me this principle. I started with a careful design—especially large shapes, light and shadow—and switched to a complete intuitive state (athletes call it “the zone”). I skipped the evaluation, self-judgment phase until the next day.  I’m glad I did.  I like it just as it is.

China Cove, Oil on panel, 8x6"
“China Cove”, oil on board, 8×6″, Click for availability.

Painting with Purpose: Color Spots

The problems most growing artists try to solve often boils down to a lack of singular purpose. For example, a common question plein air painters ask is, “how much time should I take seeking a location to paint?” I’ve been there, all too often taking longer to find a scene than painting—a frustrating experience I know many of us share.

Seemingly simple questions never have simple answers, but the solution depends on the goal for going out: are you out painting today to work on a particular technical skill, like color or drawing?  To prepare for a show?  To commune with fellow painters?  Do it all?  When I go out, even though like anyone I’d prefer to be inspired by a scene, I: choose a goal; quickly narrow my visual choices to achieve that goal; and then focus on it alone.

The most common goal for me is understanding natural light, and with that, accepting the constraints of plein air painting. Most of the time, we only have about 90 minutes to finish a picture before the natural light shifts to the point where the scene has changed enough to require a new start. The skills I’m most focused on is composition and color—and sometimes just one of the two. I try not to expect too much from one 90-minute painting: draftsmanship, color, selling, or winning a competition (or “likes” on social media).

Plein air painting is an essential tool for understanding natural light. When I judge a show, I can easily distinguish between a painting that captures natural light and one where the artist spent too much time and “followed the light” too far, for example, spending 3 hours on a scene where the light has moved far past the original light moment. To illustrate this, I’m sharing two plein air studies where I had the singular purpose of capturing the effect of light. Capturing light can be achieved by mixing small, exact color spots. I learned this from reading Charles Hawthorne.

Charles Hawthorne understood how to capture natural light through color spots. If you’re a plein air painter and haven’t read “Hawthorne on Painting,” by Charles Webster Hawthorne, you’re missing out!  Buy his wisdom immediately!  He describes an essential truth in painting in general, but especially true of plein air,

“Painting is the mechanics of putting one spot of color next to another. That’s the fundamental thing.”

This is a simple, essential truth often missed by painters who expect too much from a single painting session.

Here’s a color spot example. I was out on a beautifully clear day in San Francisco, a city where subjects to paint are endless. I ended up at a favorite, Crissy Field, where I could have painted architecture (including the Golden Gate Bridge), beachcombers, rocks and surf, long city views, hillsides, etc, but I was struck immediately by the dramatic color of this building. 

I started a color notes journey by painting small color spots for each element: the main structure walls in light and shadow; roof; lawn; sky and distant bay water behind the building (see below).  I didn’t fill in the broad shapes of color until each spot related first to each other.  And if one color note was off (I first painted the roof too dark), there’s a domino effect and adjacent colors notes change too. In this study, I repainted the sky color spot several times after all the other spots related correctly.

Color Spots Example, Crissy Field, San Francisco. This picture is a grey scale version with highlighted color spots used to seek the representation of natural light.
Color Spots Example, Crissy Field, San Francisco. This picture is a grey scale version with highlighted color spots used to seek the representation of natural light.
Finished color study of Crissy Field, San Francisco. Oil on wood, 8x10"
Finished color study of Crissy Field, San Francisco. Oil on wood, 8×10″

To keep focus, you’ll notice the building has no windows or doors.  Of course, it actually has, but painting that detail would have taken time away from my singular goal.  Having captured these key colors in this study I can later paint a larger studio work that includes this detail, but there was no need to do so in the 90 minutes I took to capture color notes here.

This is another example, a Pacific Grove scene of color notes I painted last week.

Give it a try, let me know how you do!  Also, to capture accurate color notes, refer back to this post on how I mix color outdoors.

Anchoring Abstraction

Impressionistic realism has been the foundation of my art for many years, but that’s starting to change as I explore mixing identifiable forms that are relatable to abstract forms that work on a different level. Abstract art has merit, but I hadn’t pursued it until now because I struggled with how to communicate with it.

Recent Abstract Experiment: Mission Dolore Park, Oil on board, 11x14
Recent Abstract Experiment: Mission Dolore Park, Oil on board, 11×14

For me, the human figure is the most relevant symbolic subject in art.  People are complex: outwardly transparent, but inwardly hidden.  We respond to the Mona Lisa because while her body is drawn to perfection, her veiled thoughts through her smile intrigues us and draws us to this painting.  So how can a painting be both approachable and mysterious?

Fast forward 450 years from Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa to the 1950’s Bay Area Figurative movement (lead by David Park), when an intriguing fusion of figurative art combined with Abstract Expressionism. Painters in this school ( David ParkRichard Diebenkorn, Elmer BischoffWayne Thiebaud…) had different reasons for mixing figurative representation and abstraction, but many found a dead end in Abstract Expressionism’s ability to communicate. They resisted being constrained by a formal “school”, but instead believed in taking freely from both figurative and abstract traditions.

I’m working on a series now that uses the figure as an anchor, like this movement.  In one of these paintings (“Green Shorts”, below), a solitary figure stares out at an abstracted plane, resembling the sea. (or, is it a clouded sky?).

"Green Shorts", oil on board, 16x12"
“Green Shorts”, oil on board, 16×12″

The figure is used as an entrance into this world of sunshine and contemplation.  He stands on the picture plane as if an observer himself to the alternating bands of blues, violets and grays.  It’s designed in such a way that his surroundings are open to interpretation: he could be in a museum (barefoot—probably not allowed!) surrounded by a large painting himself.

I had a lot of fun with this one.  While the reference photo I used is in fact of a man at the beach, the viewer can have fun with this and imagine other scenarios. For example, he could be standing on flat land, looking out at distant snow-capped hills, sky, and clouds above.  If you were not told this was the sea, could you see alternative realities like this for his view?

This ambiguity is what interests me, because I believe strongly that the best art requires participation by the viewer. Just as decoding the Mona Lisa’s thoughts are the viewer’s creation, I seek to give the viewer the opportunity to find their own meaning. This makes the painting theirs through co-creation between viewer and artist.

So that’s what I’m working on.  It is fun creating these worlds, but not easy—art never is!

Postscript: This series will probably be shown in San Francisco at Spark Arts, in April, but specifics TBD.

Upcoming Color & Design Workshop

I will be leading a 2 hour color and design workshop in San Francisco on Saturday, May 19, 10am-Noon.  It is free.  No need to bring materials, this is a 2-hour slideshow discussion. In this donation-based class, you’ll learn and discuss with other artists:

How to design a picture space

Color & design technique

Resources for learning more

Elements of color design

Optional critique, bring your work

Over 100 inspirational examples

Join us at AHF / Art Saves Lives Gallery, 518 Castro St, Saturday, May 19, 10am-Noon, FREE.  Register here on Facebook.

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″

Painting Demonstration

After a great plein air painting trip, I’m back to the studio and focusing on the figure.  I took snapshots of my progress on this painting so you’ll be able to view as a demo on YouTube.

I know this is an unusual composition, but I like that.  This was a great study in warm colors (hence the title, “Warmth”).  One of the key objectives I had was to represent warm/cool warm colors, and find a way to have the figure stand out from the rocks behind.  It’s a figure, so of course it will always stand out visually, but I also wanted to use color to accomplish the same objective.  I typically do that through “color separation” (which I first wrote about on this blog in 2007). The basic idea is to use completely different colors from my palette to represent a color of the same hue family and value.  For example, to separate the color of grass in shade and light, each of those two mixtures will have different blue and yellow mixtures (eg, green in shade might be Ultramarine Blue + Yellow Ochre, while in light it might by Cerulean Blue + Cad Yellow).  Both make green, but the fact that different base colors are used to mix each helps further separate light from shadow.

In this painting, I kept his flesh in shadow based on Mars Violet, while the base for the rocks was Alizarin Crimson.  This was also a fun study to do in terms of brushwork. I was able to get the contrast I wanted by keeping the rocks loose and free-form, while the draftsmanship of the figure is tighter (too tight, actually, I’d love to be able to paint a figure as loose as Dan MacCaw.  Someday!  The other challenge in this painting was representing the direction of color of light.  There’s a cool reflection from the sky in his hair and chest for exmaple, and a very warm reflect light coming from the ground to his chest and parts of his face.  That’s always fun to paint!

You may see a larger studio version of this painting as it’s one of those studies that resonates with me.  What do you think?

"Warmth", Oil on Canvas, 9x12"
"Warmth", Oil on Canvas, 9x12"

Here’s the YouTube video demonstration:


Painting Day in Asilomar

I had a week off and spent the time painting from Carmel > Big Sur > Ragged Point > San Simeon.  It was a wonderful week focused on painting!

In these two studies (painting at Asilomar, just north of Carmel) I was focusing on the use of dark transparent colors to represent the ocean.  click on the paintings to see the detail.  Notice how the use of transparent Ultramarine Blue gives it a nice watercolor-like glow. Even though it’s a dark color, it reflects the white board underneath, so it gives it the feeling of both being dark and light at the same time.  To create the reflection of light on water, I wiped away more of the paint to show the white ground, rather than paint a second color on top.  BTW, pure Ultramarine is too intense to represent the Pacific, so I deaden the color, generally with a Cad Red, or sometimes with Gamblin’s Chromatic Black–a great transparent Black that will reduce the chroma of any color.

Asilomar Beach Study #2, Oil on Linen, 8x10
Asilomar Beach Study #2, Oil on Linen, 8x10

Asilomar Beach Study #2, Oil on Linen, 8x10
Asilomar Beach Study #2, Oil on Linen, 8x10