Category Archives: Technique

Progress with abstraction

In a previous post, I described how I was learning to abstract my work, by painting without my glasses. My first couple where plein-air pieces, and I’ve just started a new set of studio works in this style. It’s a lot of fun! Lots of juicey paint. I think I really like this direction. Over the next couple of days/posts, I’ll show you more samples of this work.

This is the first one I’ve done. It’s a tributary along the Truckee River. I took several digital photos recently. I don’t paint from printed photos, but rather digital photos projected on a TV, usually from my digital cameria, but a video Ipod works as well.

Snow Creek

Snow Creek, Oil on Linen, 10×8 

The benefits of near-sightedness

Had a great time painting with Verde Artist Guild on Sunday.  Great group of artist’s showed up.  And wow, what a great day. I started early–about 7:30AM–and the light was so perfect.  Hollywood film director’s call it “golden light“, when the light is lowest on the horizon, in the early morning or late evening. The color of the light is so striking.

So, as I said, started my painting of a Eucalyptus early. As artists starting arriving, as the host, I thought it important to be social and say hello to everyone. Glad I did, but by the time I returned to my painting, it was really striking how the color of the light had changed–from a warm orange to a flat, grey-ish blue.  Undeterred, I finished the painting’s color harmony from memory, and from what I’d done so far.

I’m particularly happy with this small passage.  As you can probably see, my work is loosening up. I’m trying to see as the great American Impressionist Charles Hawthorne advised, whereby you don’t see “things” you see shapes of color.  To get this effect, I’m painting without my glasses most of the time.  I see my canvas just fine, but the subject in the distance is blurred.  I’m near-sighted, and would never consider lasix eye surgery now.  It’s too great an asset to take my glasses off and see in the abstract.

Don’t you just love the way abstract bits form the final image, below?  I haven’t decided whether this painting is done yet.  It’s sitting in my office at Wells Fargo (where I’m working on a contract basis for a few months to save up 😉  I think I may add some fallen branches to the grassy area at the bottom, as I feel the tree comes out of the ground a little to strongly, seems isolated to me.

Verde Artist Guild Paint-out

We had another great paint-out at Stanford this past weekend, and a good turnout.  Here are some pictures.  We’re thinking of painting at Gamble Gardens next month (April), as there should be plent of blooms by then.  Spring is officially here!

This is a great way to narrow your scene down to something manageable.  Notice she’s doing a thumbnail sketch (notan) right next to her viewfinder. Good idea!

Ovanes Berberian Workshop!

Exciting news! I will by studying with Ovanes Berberian the first week of June, in Idaho! I consider Ovanes one of the best living artists. He studied under the great Russian/American Impressionist, Sergi Bongart. Wish me luck! I hear he’s a very tough teacher.

Update: To get on the email list to attend a Ovanes Berberian workshop, contact Ray Morrison:






Here’s another page from my sketchbook.  This was done in the small village of Aurel, France.  I took in the scene, and looked for a combination of shapes and values that lead my eye.  The arrow drawing on the right is the desired eye path, and the end point, which I assumed to be in the window of the lower-right.  A center of interest that is centered on thirds (top-third, lower-third, both vertical and horozontal).

In the bottom drawing I drew the composition and kept notes on the scene. It was really striking.  This is something I can take back to the studio and paint.

Aurel, FR

Learning composition and design

I’m re-reading Edgar Payne’s Composition of Outdoor Painting. What a classic! I think it was Kevin Macpherson who said he re-read the classic art books often, because he learned something new each time. Sometimes your own experience painting informs your ability to really understand what the book is trying to teach. Design is, I think, the most important thing to learn. A well designed painting can easily overcome other short-comings.

Edgar Payne Landscape

Seirra Morning, by Edgar Alvin Payne


Leading the eye, Abbaye de Valsaintes

Before I start a painting, I think about design, and how the design leads the viewer’s eye around the painting. In these sketches from France, I looked for patterns of dark/light that form interesting shapes. They eye is attracted to areas of great contrast, so that makes a good starting point, or focal point for the image. I trace how I’d expect the eye to travel from the focal paint, in a pattern that stays within the picture. In these small sketches, I also capture the direction of light (as represented by the small sun, where the sun rays remind where the direction of light).

I have sketch books filled with images like these. It’s great to look back at them and again wander the beautiful villages of the south of France.

Sketches of France

Planning a painting

Since I’ve been on the subject of technique lately, here’s something I learned from Barry John Raybould–use of the notan sketch. The notan sketch is a great way to try out several different compositions of design, based on a 4-value plan. Why not do this before committing to paint?

I use 3 felt tip pens by Tombo, a black, medium grey, light grey, and white for the lightest value. I’ll try different combinations out, and see what works. I’ll often note below what I like or don’t like about the design.

Each row below represents a painting, for which I tried out three different designs. Try it!

Playing musical scales, with color

As many of you know, I occasionally teach. Not nearly enough. I have a queue of students (thankfully!), but lately have been too busy to schedule a workshop. I hope sometime this summer. If you’re interested, let me know. In the meantime, showing up for the monthly Verde Artist Guild paint-outs is a great way to watch and ask questions.
But, back to the topic at hand, “Playing Scales with color”. What does that mean? Bottom line, this is a GREAT exercise to play with color. You’re an artist/collector, so you love color, right? Maybe not. Regardless, you may find this interesting.

First of all, my first paying job (well, outside of paper-boy at 13 and a very short–two week stint–at Knotts Berry Farm) was as a musician. I played professionally starting in high school. Like art, I couldn’t BELIEVE people where paying me for doing something I absolutely loved. Enough said. I know not everyone is in that situation, but that’s a good future topic. I played Jazz, so am fluent with the concept of improvisation.

Improv applies to art. In order to make things up in a fluid way, yet stay within a defined structure (musical key, color palette), your options (notes, colors) must become second nature. Once they are second nature, you can sit before a subject and apply that key/color-scheme to reach the artistic ends you desire, be it an exiting emotional painting, calm, mysteries, whatever.

So, here’s how I apply this to developing my painting skills. First, I define a “color key” that matches the mood I want to convey. In color theory, there are several: analolgous colors, complementary colors, split-complementary colors, triadic colors, etc. To get experience with these “color keys” I take a very simple 3-value design, and re-paint it using several different keys. These color studies sometimes result in great paintings (I’ve sold many), but like a musician, I don’t count on scales/exercises to sell. They’re through-way, for learning.

Look at the example below. The top-left is an analogus color scheme. Colors are adjacent on the color wheel. Top-right is a triadic color scheme (blue/violet, orange, and green are equi-distant). Bottom left is a complementary color scheme (Orange and Blue), and bottom-right is a split complementary scheme (Orange + Green/Blue and Red/Blue). What do you think? Doesn’t each version have a different emotional tone?

When it comes to painting nature, drawing skills are abolute, but let yourself go with color!
Color Study Example

BTW, this techique is also discussed in Ted Georschner’s book, The Workshop Experience. Try it! It’s only paint!

Buelton Farm House

While study with Ted Georschner last year, I stayed at a Motel 6 in Buelton (outside Solvang). I captured the “golden light” view from my room. I was too tired to paint, but did this little painting (8×10) when I got home. I project images from my digital camera on a TV in my studio. It really helps to illuminate the image. Painting from photos is really a drag. The darks all become black, and the highlights all average out. Much better to paint from a project image.

Buelton Farm House

The power of subltey

I’ve just finished Kevin MacPherson’s new book, “Reflections on a Pond“, and like all great art books it will be re-read many times until dog-eared and worn.  That’s a complement!  The book contains one painting for every day of the year of the view of a pond outside his home in New Mexico.  Imagine, trying to come up with 365 paintings of the same scene!  He pulls it off, and in so teaches a lesson about observation. 

You can look at the same site, day after day, and see something different.  Of course light changes, weather, and so on–and those changes are obvious.  But the series of images demonstrate how the artist really brings the subject to life, by conveing a point of view, or an emotional response.  I also found the book a good lesson in subtlety.  You can see how incredibly sensitve the artist as by the careful observation and emotion in every paitning.  I’ve been thinking of painting a similar series because I can see there are some real lessons to be learned here.  There’s a good spot off 280/Edgewood Road that I’m considering, although it’s a rest stop, so not open 24×7.  We’ll see.  In the meantime, in the coming weeks, I’ll post some of my own paintings that hopefully show I’ve learend something from this great American master.

Work in Progress

Bean Hollow Painting Animation

I’m often asked about demonstration my process, in order to see how paintings progress. The painting on the left is an example of the progression I can go through. The animation starts with the original painting, then shows the changes I made, in part based no a crtitique by Ted Georschner. In the final painting (which will be in my show opening January 3rd! Plug, plug), I did the following

  1. I darkened significantly the bottom of the painting. This allowed the viewer’s eye to focus where I wanted them to focus, on the golden light lit ice plans on the hillside. Darkening the bottom of a painting like this was also a technique used by Edgar Payne.
  2. I added some trees atop the bluff. This pushed back further the background trees, and it gave me a nice dark to help the ice plants look even more illuminated. An artist will often surround a light with darks to help punch it up. The range of our pigments is a small fraction of that found in light, so we rely on techniques like that to strengthen light.