Category Archives: Technique

Big Sur Mountians

Our life is frittered away by detail… simplify, simplify.
Henry David Thoreau

One of the challenges I (and I know many other landscape painters face) is learning how to simplify.  Capturing the essence of your subject with as few marks or shapes as possible makes for a strong design (one you can read across the room) and in general makes a stronger statement.  I love this example of how Picasso evolved the drawing of a bull from a detailed representation to just a few lines.

To work on this skill, I selected a reference photo with as few shapes and color variations as possible.  This painting was done from a reference photo I took in Big Sur, CA.  Notice in this study how there are very few shapes and only about 7 main color mixtures.  I could have rendered this more fully and modeled the clouds or other shapes, but I think (at least for this composition and study) it would have detracted from the impression.  Of course, this is also somewhat a matter of personal taste.  It fits the bill for me, as I strive towards more abstraction in my work. Simplification is part of that path.

Big Sur Mountains, Oil on Linen, 12x9  (Big Sur, CA)
Big Sur Mountains, Oil on Linen, 12×9


Palm Canyons Shadow Study

I used a reference photo of “Indian Canyons” park in Palm Springs, Ca to study shadow color.  The color of shadow on a surface is influenced by it’s local color, as well as the environment: objects facing the sky tend to have bluer shadows than shadows that don’t reflect the sky. A good area of the painting to observe is the top left quadrant.  The large boulder there has a striking blue shadow.  The color of the rock is near white (with some blue in it), but the reason the blue is so strong is the influence of the sky.  That sky color reflects into the shadows.  Compare that top shadow with the shadow on the left of the boulder, as it hits the river bed. There are several shadow colors there.  The side of the rock is a warm shadow,  it doesn’t face the sky plane, but instead has warm palm tree leaves to reflect. Yet the side also takes on an orange hue reflecting from the water below it.  That same cast shadow of the boulder’s left side hits the water, and and a smaller boulder behind.  That small rock is facing the sky at an angle, so has a deep blue shadow.The cast shadow on the water is more violet, as it is not getting as much sun as the top of the rock.

Indian Canyon Shadows Study, Oil on Linen, 11x14
Indian Canyon Shadows Study, Oil on Linen, 11x14

Tucson Trail

Revisiting the colors of the desert landscape.  I had some trouble with the distant shadows, and kept alternating darker/lighter.  This photo seems to show them lighter than they appear in life. In the end, the distant shadows are probably a bit too light, because when I removed color from this image to make it black & white, the shadows and light of the hills appear the same value.  It’s interesting to see how color temperature can telegraph shadows as well as value. I guess that’s where the colorists of the Henche School are coming from.

Tucson Trail (AZ), Oil on Linen, 11x14
Tucson Trail, Oil on Linen, 11x14

Colley Whisson Workshop

Colley Whisson
Colley Whisson

I was once asked to give a talk about “thought leadership” in media. Two creative people I spoke about where Julia Child and Bob Ross. The former revolutionalized American cooking at home by introducing us to the “mystery” of French cooking, and the later did the same for art. I think a lot of artists look down on Bob Ross, and while his painting may not be to your taste, he made art approachable by taking the stress out of it. He de-mystified painting, as Julia did cooking. What does this have to do with Colley Whisson? Two things, first, his manner is calm, re-assuring, yet precise. Second, he’s introduced me—and most people in his workshop—to Australian art as Julia introduced us to French cooking. I hope you make some discoveries, too, after reading this.

Cholley’s Approach

I fouund his approach to be quite similar to other tonalist painters, and in contrast to the Henche school (taught by John Ebersberger, Camille Przewodek, etc). I didn’t get great pictures of any demo start to finish (except for the video below), so the illustrative photographs below go back-and-forth between various demos. I think you’ll still get the general idea.

Materials. Good painting starts with the best materials you can afford. I’ve tried the cheap stuff, and fighting poor quality isn’t worth it, especially when you consider the many challenges you face in bringing together a painting. A couple of notes about his materials:

  • Brushes. Two things drew me to Colley’s work: his dramatic sense of light, and his brushwork. Realizing that great brush work has a lot more to do with precision and sensitivity (that only comes with experience), you may want to try these brushes, but don’t expect a miracle. One book dedicated to brushwork I like is Emil Gruppe’s Brushwork for the Oil Painter. It’s out of print, but you can find used copies on That said, Colley used some brushes I hadn’t seen anyone use before. They look like house painting brushes: quite wide, razer shart, short handle. He uses them both for the first wash-in (see below) as well as throughout the painting to add beautiful calligraphy. Someone told me he used Langnickel 283’s, which apparently you can buy in a three-pack for $15 (I haven’t purchased mine yet, so can’t confirm….I will update this post after I do UPDATE 12/10/2010, from Colley: “Brushes are in a pack of 3:  Royal Langnickel “Large Area Brush Set” White Taklon (Medium) Item # RART-150”). He also showed us how to use a razor blade to trim back brushes that are too thick for his technique. Holding the blade with your thumb and forefinger, push the blade down from the ferrule to tip.
  • Support. He paints on wood board, Mahogany, I believe. When using canvas, he tones with Yellow Ochre. The board is a good choice for his technique, because he often uses the palette knife to cut-back or trim light colored paint to review dark undertones, a techique he learned from Richard Schmid.
  • Medium. He uses an Alkyd medium, but tried Turpenoid during the class and really liked it. He thought it probably dried faster than his usual medium, although he was somewhat concerned about cracking. He said in the past he painted dark undertones/accents with a cool mixture (Utramarine Blue + Alizarin Chrimson), but said that mixed cracked over time. His boards seemed a bit warped, so I wonder if he neglects to prime both sides? In any case, he now ads a Cadium Red to his darks to prevent cracking.
  • Rags. Interestingly, he rarely uses paper towels, but instead rags that you can apparently buy in large bags at second hand stores in Australia. I don’t often use rags, but will try it to see if there’s a difference. I do use Viva paper towels exclusively, because they are rag-like and very absorbant. Soneone had blue shop towels with them, and he seemed to like those as well.

Concept. If art is revealing something that’s never been seen or said before, then you should start with a concept (unless you’re painting quick studies to improve skill, like value, drawing, etc). Colley said he paints the picture first in his mind, and things tend to go wrong when you forget that or stray in another direction. There are exceptions. I’m sure we’ve also started with one idea and discovered something new while painting, but I think this idea of keeping the focus on your original impression is good rule of thumb.

Design. Colley starts by marking with dots the vertical and horozontal thirds of the painting surface, and draws a mental (sometimes physical) circle connecting the dots. He believes the center of interest and closely subordinate interests should be within that area. You should also think of the circle in terms of how the eye should move within the painting. Since the subject of composition is so complex, I will refer to the many great books written about composition (eg, Edgar Payne’s Composition of Outdoor Painting is a personal favorite).

Drawing. Start with small dots indicating the boundaries of the large masses. Ensure the relative position, size and shapes are there, then start to draw them in. Like almost any artist I’ve studied with, he emphasized the importance of drawing and doing so whenever/wherever you can. He also demonstrated a nice drawing aid: he uses an thin/light frame as a horizontal and vertical maulstick.

Cholley Whisson DRAWING stage

Underpainting. Colley loves strong contrast, so he usually started his paintings with a very dark mixture, although once in a while I noticed he started with midtones, and added dark accents later. He discourages the use of thinner at this point, but rather pure medium (even to clean the brush). In general, I noticed that he tended to paint whole areas dark, even if they would later hold lights. This helps the lights “pop” against the dark background, but of course, this technique requires you give the underpainting time to dry to avoid picking up the underpainting later. I noticed that even with 20 minutes of wait time, my underpainting wasn’t completely dry. He’d often take a paper towel and remove excess underpaint to ensure the next layer could be applied cleanly. This is something I need to continue to experiment with and learn. This may be especially challenging in a “plein air” situation where time is short, so we’ll see. Please share your own experience in comments!


Masses. He’ll first place the lightest light as a small spec of a stroke to ensure it will pop against the dark underpainting. He then focuses on the large color masses, going for accurate value and color on the first stroke (rarely working back in to adjust later). At this point, he stesses an “attack and retreat” technique, ie, lay your strokes in with confidence, and step back often to check your overall color/value relationships.

Painting. He works the canvas all over, drawing the work to completion together, rather than say starting at the center of interest and working outward. He uses the large (4-5″) brushes throughout the painting process, to generate interesting caligraphic strokes and lines using the brush tip. His brush strokes follow the contour of the shape (and not gravity, as some artists like Ken Auster do). He ties the types of strokes he paints in relational to sky (should be a thin veil, like panty hose); mid-field (more texture); and foreground (shag carpet!). As he paints towards completion, he continually asks himself whether the painting is far enough along to communicate his original concept. We all risk taking paintings too far, so I think this is great advice. Let a painting sit a few days before you call it done. He’ll also photograph his work and then flip it on the horizontal axis. This new perspective helps you see mistakes.

Many thanks to The Tucson Art Academy (and their gracious hosts, Gabor and Christine Svagrik) for hosting this workshop, complete with fresh baked scones and cookies! Also, I hope to followup this post with one on the Australian artists Colley referred his students to in class.

Demo (plein air)

While this demo may be helpful, Colley has a wonderful book and DVDs available in International Artist Magazine’s store. You’ll find those much more complete: Impressionist Painting Made Easy; and his various DVDs here.

My Workshop Studies

Golden Summer (after Colley Whisson), Oil on Linen, 12x16
Golden Summer (after Colley Whisson), Oil on Linen, 12x16
Interior (after Colley Whisson), Oil on Linen, 12x16
Interior (after Colley Whisson), Oil on Linen, 12x16
Crystal Cove (after Colley Whisson), Oil on Linen, 16x12
Crystal Cove (after Colley Whisson), Oil on Linen, 16x12

My painting demonstration for EBPAP

I painted a demonstration for the East Bay Plein Air Painters last Saturday.  Ikuko Boyland (Administrator of the EBPAP) was kind enough to take the time to photograph the demo and put together a PDF file.  Thank you, Ikuko! The 5-page PDF should be loaded below (it’s 6MB, so may load slow depending on the speed of your connection). If you have trouble viewing, you can either click the full screen (box) icon in the top right of the viewer below, or click here to download the full PDF file (6.15MB).  Be sure to view the color-corrected final painting below (the demo photos are a bit too cool).

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Here’s the final painting.

San Francisco Morning #2, Oil on Linen, 11x14
San Francisco Morning #2, Oil on Linen, 11x14



This painting of Timberfield model Chase sat in my studio for a while, unfinished (I thought). I like to work “ala prima”, wet into wet. I wasn’t able to finish this one that way, so it sat a few weeks. But it grew on me as is, so here it is.


This painting is an exploration. Art is a viable pursuit for me as long as I have the opportunity to push myself through experimentation and growth. Having just finished Door County Plein Air, I was reminded that I need to avoid creating works that veer on “trite”. Yes, I like to capture beauty, but I want to create works that are more intellectually stimulating. That’s how music evolved from Bach to Portishead :-).

Pushing the viewer by capturing images that are beautiful (in an abstract way), yet have mystery–and maybe confusion–is a direction I’m exploring. This is one example. When you see this image, what do you think?

What you don’t see, is that Chase is jumping out of a tree, so his body is contorted in an unusual way, you don’t see the tree, but you probably get some sense of movement. This is similar to Robert Longo’s “Men in the city” series, who I recall used to photograph his models while throwing rubber balls or rocks at them.  Their contorted bodies made for an interesting subject, and without the balls for needed context, the viewer wonders what instigated the movement.  Mystery in art…it’s a good thing.

Sewing the Sail (after Sorolla)

Painting copies of artwork you admire is a great way to learn. Joaquín Sorolla is one of my favorite painters, so I can open “Joaquín Sorolla” (Museo Nacional Del Prado) to any page and find a work of inspiration to copy.  Like this one.  Funny thing is, I opened the book, and found later this is a detail of a larger painting! I had a feeling it was an odd composition (having the two people on the edge of the canvas), so it was nice to see the full composition on the next page.

Even so, copying “Sewing the Sail” (1904) was a great lesson in composition and color.  I learned how Sorolla used the folds in the sail to lead directly to the figures, and even the shadows in the sand.  Look how the main shadow folds in the sail lead directly to the center of interest (foreground person).  I was also surprised someone how intense many of these colors were, but how adding a complement (violet to the orange) would bring down the intensity just enough (although, comparing mine to his now, I see I should have used even more violet).

This was also a great study in brushwork. The original is much larger, but I was able to adapt my brushwork to this scale (10×8) to lay down some juicy brushstrokes, particularly on the sunlit side of the sails.

The Sewers after Sorolla, Oil on Canvas, 10x8
The Sewers after Sorolla, Oil on Canvas, 10x8


More resources:

Self-Portrait, Video Demo

Still feeling really challenged by learning the figure.  Reminds of a quote by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, “Do something every day that scares you.”  I need this.  I took snap shots as I progressed so I could review with my teacher Al Tofanelli (at l’Atelier aux Couleurs), so he could advise me.  It’s interesting, I think a personal style in portraiture is emerging at a faster pace than landscape.  Not sure why.  Enjoy!

Self-Portrait, Oil on Linen, 12x10"
Self-Portrait, Oil on Linen, 12x10"

And here’s the video on YouTube

Mike ala Pompeii

To prepare for studying the figure with Al Tofanelli (at l’Atelier aux Couleurs) I’ve been painting the figure from reference photos. It’s going to be so great to paint from live models Friday! I like painting the figure, it’s a real challenge, and I like to play with color. Mike has wonderful warm-violet skin tones. Once I laid in a solid drawing, I practically destroyed it early on with broad strokes of color (once you get a drawing right, don’t worry, you can paint over it…it will always come back).

When I showed this to Mike, he really liked it, but he had a funny observation. It reminded him of the frescos in Italy (and most recently, Turkey/Istanbul). The eyes of those figures are somewhat exagerated, as I think his might be here. No matter, I was going for that spark of life and happiness, so why not exaggerate a bit?

Mike, ala Pompei - Oil on Canvas - 10x8
Mike, ala Pompei - Oil on Canvas - 10x8

Inspiration? Separated at birth? Here’s an example of a Pompeiii fresco that Mike thought of when he saw my painting. Smart man!

Pompeii, House VII, 2, 6: Paquius Proculus and his wife
Pompeii, House VII, 2, 6: Paquius Proculus and his wife

Buena Vista Park Redux

Buena Vista Park’s recent “remodel” is complete! It’s great. They’ve added lots of new walkways, wooden bridgets and stairs.  A friend of mine (Eric W) is a regular volunteer at the park, and should take some credit (thank you, Eric!).  It’s a really beautiful place.

I painted this from a reference photo.  The sun was setting through the trees, and since the photo was over-exposed, it actually made good reference for a relatively “high key” painting.  If you’re a regular reader, you know I’ve been exploring this method. I’m finding it really helpful to fine tune my understanding of value and color temperature.

Faint Sunset (Buena Vista Park), Oil on Canvas, 12x9
Faint Sunset (Buena Vista Park), Oil on Canvas, 12x9


Lake Tahoe from the Rubicon Trail

Painted this little study in my studio the other night from a reference photo.  The view is from the Rubicon Trail looking down onto Lake Tahoe, which in this part of the lake is the deepest near shore. I painted in my usual “full key” (full value range), which allowed me to use rich colors and sharp value contrasts.

From the Rubicon Trail (Lake Tahoe), Oil on Linen, 8x10
From the Rubicon Trail (Lake Tahoe), Oil on Linen, 8x10


I set this painting next to my most recent “high key” value painting.  It was striking to see the sharp contrast, and you can really see that the photo of the previous painting wasn’t over exposed, but really quite light.  Coincidentally, both paintings had trees in them, and when side by side, the curve of the land connects, as if they’re part of the same scene.

So which painting gives the best feeling of light?  Perhaps that’s an individual choice. I’m still very interested in this technique, so will continue to pursue it.

“High Key” Riverbed Study

“Full Key” Tahoe Study

Riverbed, high-key painting study

I’m continuing my exploration of high-key painting, which I define as painting in a narrow range of values, in the higher key of lights.  I don’t know where this is going to lead, but it’s great to practice the control in value needed to get these paintings to work.  I think I’m going to paint this scene again, perhaps a few times, each time narrowing the values further.  I know looking at this now I could have taken it further, and made my darkest darks much lighter.  I usually paint in a more dramatic, contrast’y way, but every technique I learn builds me as an artist.  What do you think?

Riverbed, High-key Study - Oil on Linen - 6x8
Riverbed, High-key Study - Oil on Linen - 6x8"


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