Saturday, December 31, 2011

Complementary Colors

Much of this painting is blue-green.  Therefore, it made sense to use a pinkish (red) color for the trunk colors and the mud beach.  The color choice for the boat was made to complement the surrounding reddish hue.   Complementary colors contrast and attract attention.  Careful placement of them around the focal point is a good idea.  Make sure one dominates, and then use the complement to emphasize the primary subject.

Happy New Year,  everyone!

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Using Shadows as Frames

In "Oysterman's Rest", I decided to use shadows in the foreground to help frame the oyster boat.  The shadows are also reflected in the water, which extends the frame, providing a dark shape to look over.

The scene is of Indian Creek, which borders the property here at Sportsmans Lodge.  I wouldn't even have to leave the Lodge grounds and still have plenty of subject matter to paint!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Framing II

In my last post, I talked about using "framers" to peer around to get to your main subject.  Here's a really old painting that does just that.

Now that I'm in warmer weather, I hope to get out and paint very soon.  Meanwhile,  Merry Christmas, Everyone!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Framing the Subject

I learned about framing as a kid when I was first exploring photography.  Placing the subject so that you have to peer around something in the foreground creates a sense of depth as well as a sense of mystery.
Looking over, past, or around something also gives special attention to a second subject, kind of a two-for-one painting.

Here's a painting I did in Naples, Florida several years ago that illustrates this approach.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Dry Spells

For a variety of reasons, most artists go through periods when their productivity drops off dramatically.
It could be illness, depression, confusion about direction, lack of motivation, or time restraints.
There might be the thought that you've "lost it", that you've run out of ideas, that you'll never be able to paint anything good again.

I've experienced this phenomenon several times.  The upside of this, unfortunately not known at the time you're experiencing the dry spell, is that it sometimes signals a breakthrough is on the horizon.  It is often my observation that while the hand is not busy, the brain is still thinking through problems and their possible solutions.

When this happens, I find myself going back to the basics:  values, design, color dominance....
I also tend to go back to very small paintings in the hope that if it isn't a serious attempt, if I'm only playing around, I have nothing to lose.  It frees up the hand and the brain.

Now....if I can only take my own advice!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

The Silhouette

A tell-tale silhouette is often the cure for the over detailed and textured depiction of a subject.  These Monterrey cypress trees are easy to caricature because of their zig-zag shapes. 

More paintings fail because the descriptive silhouette takes second place to details in the interior of the shape.  Get the silhouette right, and it will carry the day.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Sketchbook Habit

"An artist is a sketchbook with a person attached." --Irwin Greenberg

Preparation in art is a matter of keeping your eyes in training.  I often say that each year when I return to Maine, I get my eyes back.  Looking and seeing are two different activities.  The former just needs to identify objects without much detail identification or naming.  But seeing implies that you stop for a longer studied view of things:  their shapes, values, subtleties of color and texture.  Giving your brain and heart the time to connect with what you see is an invaluable skill in the production of meaningful, emotional art.

Your sketchbook is the shorthand reminder of these moments.  Jotting down impressions helps to free us from overwhelming details and allows us to be free to adjust things and improve them.  To find patterns, alter colors, add figures, experiment with values....All are easier when dealing with a reference sketch.

So tuck that sketchbook in your car, and take advantage of waiting times or unexpected vistas.  Keep your eyes and your hand busy and they will be ready for you when it comes time to paint that masterpiece!

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Demo

Last night the members of the Art World Association here in St. Louis invited me to give them a demo at their monthly meeting.  I was a bit nervous as I planned to do a painting using the technique I've been doing for a while now which starts without any drawn plans.  Facing a totally empty white piece of paper with no preconceived notion of what the end product will look like is normally daunting;  doing it in front of an audience is nearly paralyzing!

I gave them two choices:  horizontal or vertical format?  warm or cool colors? They chose a warm, horizontal theme.

I then proceeded to carve out the whites.  Look carefully at the four corners of the finished painting and you'll see that they are all different sizes, shapes and directions.

Then I started placing the midtones, defining the normal objects found around a working dock.
Last came the carefully chosen placements of darks.  I think the final product has a vibration and movement that resounds with the energy around a seaside dock.

Thanks again to the Art World Association for having me!

I'm going to try to move on to some new subjects next week.  Tune in again soon!

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


In this painting, I began with an abstract underpainting of cool blues ---cobalt turquoise, thalo blue, and ultramarine blue--and cobalt violet to give some warmth to the painting.  Then I went back with darker values of the same colors to add some buildings and signs.  Finally, I left a trail of dark accents.

I think you can see that the preserved whites left after the initial underpainting all point to the busy focal points of the design.  Intuition played a large part in placing the buildings and signs.

Early this week I kept getting into trouble because I was trying to include too many colors and none of them clearly dominated the paper.  When you have too many warm colors to choose from, the temptation is to put them all in.  To get out of that problem, I decided to stay strictly on the cooler side of the palette this time. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011


Design is the hardest part of producing a successful painting.  One consideration is to contain the subject matter within the parameters of the  paper.  I am very mindful of the negative space in the background.  Keeping the background relatively quiet will certainly focus attention on the focal points of the subject matter.
The values and textures should be limited to the focal points, keeping the background area quiet and subdued.

P.S.  Design is not an easy thing to achieve.  I've attempted at least ten paintings in order to produce one that hopefully accomplishes these attributes.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

St. Louis Proud!

Sorry I haven't posted lately, but I've been busy cheering on my St. Louis Cardinals who are now the World Series Champions!  It's hard to believe since on August 25th, we were 10 1/2 games out of first.  But we scratched our way back to the Wild Card spot and then beat the Phillies and the Brewers in the playoffs.

Game 3 was amazing with Albert Pujols tying only Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson with three home runs in one game.  But Game 6 will forever be implanted in my memory as the most amazing baseball game I have ever seen.  Twice, the Cards were one strike away from losing it all, but came back to tie the game.  And home town favorite David Freese nailed it down with a walk off home run which sent us to last night's game and victory!  A fairy tale ending to an amazing season!  If sports is a metaphor for life, the message is don't ever give up.  In baseball or in painting!  The journey is its own reward!

Here's Albert Pujols hitting a homer early in the season.  And waiting in the batter's box is World Series MVP David Freese.  Congratulations to the World Series Champions, the St. Louis Cardinals!

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Color and Value

Many of my students have a difficult time translating their black and white value sketches into color.
Either their value sketch doesn't have a clear pattern of value shapes (at least three), or when they transfer their idea to the paper and start to translate it into color, they are fine with the light values, but the midtones and darks don't seem to be clear enough.

Here's a reversal of the process.  I took a photo of my latest painting and used the computer to convert it to black and white.   You can clearly see that there are light areas, midtones (especially around the edges where I wanted the least emphasis), and darks where I wanted the viewers' eyes to be drawn. 

Some colors do not lend themselves to dark values.  Yellow is especially hard to go much beyond a light midtone.  But most other colors can be rendered darker merely by limiting the amount of water applied in the second or third glaze.  To maintain glowing transparency, it is important to be able to commit to the midtones and darks the first go, or you will have to try again with the real possibility of muddying the area.

Try changing your computerized image of one of your paintings into black and white to see if you have clearly rendered the three basic values.  It would be a helpful thing to do this during the stages of your painting, too, to see where placement of a dark would enhance the focal area.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

From This to That

People often wonder how the artist starts a painting.  I started this one with a cool relief of blues and then  proceeded to what was to come...a warm, red, violet ground color.  Then I began to pick away at the midtone I had established to "find" objects in the wharf scene.  I did no previous drawing or value study.  I simply knew that I wanted to emphasize the wharf objects, so I started finding barrels, flags, boats, and architectural features I have used before.  It is all invention.  But it is very conscious design.  Obliques that are emphasized by the darks and cools help create shapes that are interesting and create tension. 

Remember that every color dominance needs a relief of its opposite.   Warms need a little cool, and cool dominance needs a little warmth.  And above all, establish interesting interlocking shapes!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Workshop Opportunity

I am conducting a workshop in Naples, Florida    February 20th - 24th.  Tuition for the five day workshop is $425.  To reserve your place, send a check before December 20th to     Carol Jessen    8865 Flamingo Ct.  Brentwood, MO  63144    You also might want to make your lodging reservations soon as it will be high season in southern Florida.

Please join us for painting in sunny, warm Naples in February!

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The "S" Curve

                                     "I Saw Her First"
In this painting of sunflowers and daisies, I painted the background first, keeping in mind the trail of white shapes which formed an "S" curve.  It was then a matter of emphasizing the focal area with a few well placed darks. 

Seasonal subjects are always a good choice.  Pumpkins, gourds, corn stalks, apple pie.  Try some!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Travel Paintings

                                                               "Newport Harbor"
When I'm travelling long distance by car, I always keep my French easel on top of the suitcases just in case I get an urge to paint.  But I can't remember a time when I've been willing to spend a couple hours painting in lieu of seeing as much as I can during a limited visit.

So photographs are the answer.  On the way home from Maine this year, I veered off course to Newport, Rhode Island.  So much to see:  the mansions on Bellevue Drive, the cliff walk, Ocean drive, the tree lined, cobblestone streets of downtown, the wharves.  So the easel stayed in the trunk.

When I arrived home, I was able to filter all the sights and sensations of the place.  The one lasting impression I have of Newport is the harbor and the scene of the America's Cup races.  The bridge out of Newport over to Jamestown Island  was impressive and heart shaking, as I would soon have to drive over it!  Here it is, seen from Goat Island and its lighthouse, in all its magnificent, terrifying altitude!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

I'm Back!

Sorry I was gone for a while.  I was on the road back to my home here in St. Louis.  Between packing up and travelling, I also haven't done any painting in a couple of weeks.  But now I should be settling into a routine and posting more frequently.

Here is a painting I did up in Maine a few weeks ago.  It is also on the subject of zooming in.  To give you an idea of the actual distance I was from the lighthouse, I'm also including a painting done earlier this summer.
Sometimes zooming in will change your whole perspective about the subject, and give you a different motivation for painting it.

Glad to be back!

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Everything But the Kitchen Sink

When confronted with an overload of possible subjects on location, the tendency is to think that since it's there, everything must be included in your composition.  Not so.  It only confuses the viewer when looking at such a painting.  What is this picture about?  If the answer is, Everything, try zooming in on one particular object or building or boat. 

If you can title the painting, it might help focus your attention and thus eliminate extraneous details.  A painting called "Boothbay Harbor" doesn't tell us much about what you want to say about the place.  If you can say, "Sunset over Boothbay Harbor", we know your focus was on the sky and its light and color.  If you give it a title of "Red Wharf", both you and viewer will know that your interest was on the color red, not just the subject.

The time to do the hard work of focusing on your purpose is before you start the drawing or painting.  Know what you want to say.  Then say it!

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Limited Palette

I've said it several times this summer because I believe it;  limiting your palette will force you to concentrate more on your values.  This painting was done with yellow ochre, burnt sienna and ultramarine blue.

In addition, when making a painting of a repeated object, the further you recede, the fewer details are needed.  By the time you get to the last buoy, the eye has already figured out the shapes, and so including every detail there is not necessary.

What better subject to say "Maine" than a string of lobster buoys? 

Is this the last painting of my summer?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

More Small Paintings

On a wet, soggy day, plein air painting is impossible, so I decided to do some more small paintings.
I normally don't paint flowers, but I'm on a flower kick.  Here are two more.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Little Paintings

The last day of my workshop, I encouraged students to paint often.  But that isn't easy when you're searching for ideas and trying to be bold.  So I set up an assembly line of small paintings:  5 1/2 x 7 1/2", taped with masking tape around the edges.  I first painted the background of one, then the sky of a second, the water of the third, etc.  By the time I painted the fourth or fifth background or underpainting, painting #1 was dry enough to go back to.  I had no idea what the subject was going to be in most cases, so that freed me up to explore the shapes with bold color.

Try this small painting-assembly line approach and see if it doesn't make you loosen up.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Staying Loose

First, I want to say thank you to all my students who made the first annual Carol Jessen Boothbay Harbor Watercolor Workshop a great success  You worked hard, played hard, and ate and drank well!  Let's do it again next year!

One of the goals stated by the students was to learn how to stay loose.  Here are five suggestions:

1.  Keep the background simple, perhaps painting it wet-into-wet (dry-into-wet).

2.  Find several places to soften your edges.  Hard edges need the contrast of soft edges.

3.  Use larger brushes for the first two thirds of the painting process.  That will cause you to think in terms of large and middle sized shapes.

4.  Paint standing up.  Swinging your arm instead of rotating your wrist will keep your strokes longer and more fluid. 

5.  Hold your brush farther down the handle.  The more you hold your brush like a pencil, the tighter your strokes will tend to be.

Happy splashing!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Through the Looking Glass

On location on the the third day of my workshop, I looked at the gazebo on Boothbay Common and noticed the town office building across the street.  I thought it would be fun to look through the gazebo at the building. Framing things with objects in the foreground that the viewer has to peek around or through is an old photographer's trick, useful when designing painting compositions, too.

Remembering yesterday's lesson, I decided to work in contrasting colors of blue and orange.  Figures always give scale and life to a landscape, so I included a happy couple under the gazebo, which is slightly off center.  To add interest to the right side of the background, I carved out a tree by painting the negative space around it.

What a great bunch of kids in my workshop this week!  So eager and ready to give it the old college try!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Dominance and Contrast

Deciding which side of the temperature scale is to be the dominant one in the painting is critical.  Throwing equal parts of warm and cool colors at the paper doesn't establish a clear color theme. But staying exclusively on the cool side or exclusively on the warm side doesn't provide enough contrast to create the tension that gives a painting interest. 

Think about a novel with a fictional character that is all good.  That would be a rather boring story. Most authors create interest in their good characters by showing a flaw in their character that leads to tension and therefore creates interest.  Their intentions are good, their past is filled with good decisions and actions, but suddenly a flaw crops up that contrasts with the dominant good side, and creates interest.

The same is true of paintings.  It is imperative that you know which temperature is going to "win" or dominate.  But it is also necessary to provide a touch of relief in the form of a cool at several places around the picture, especially near the focal point.

Here are two views of Hendrick's Head Lighthouse on Southport Island, Maine.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Workshop Eve

I spent the day getting ready for my first annual Boothbay Harbor Workshop. Today was all about setting up and hauling supplies and paintings to the Lions Club where I'm holding the workshop.  Twelve students have signed up.  Not bad for the first time around.

I'll be posting almost every day this week.  Check back often!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Relief By Contrast

A painting should display a dominance of color temperature, either warm or cool.  A warm painting needs a little relief, so placing a few cools near any spot in the painting that you'd like to emphasize, relieves the eye.
Contrast is always an attention grabber.  But keep the relief smaller than the dominant color.

Also notice the trail of S-curved white that will direct the path that the eye will travel.

Good to be back in Maine!  Between hurricanes and a quick trip home to the sweltering midwest, I haven't gotten much painting done lately.  I hope that will now be corrected!

Monday, August 29, 2011

Hurricane Irene

Irene tore her way up the east coast on Sunday.  Southern Maine was hit hard but midcoast was spared the full treatment.  So this morning I awoke to bright blue, sunny skies.  The town is temporarily without its usual tourist population.  But all the businesses that closed yesterday are back open, and the fishermen are ready to haul traps. Their boats are normally in the harbor on Sunday anyway since by law they can't haul from Friday night to Monday morning as a conservation measure. Here is a photo.

Two weeks from today my workshop begins.  There is still time to sign up and I have some spaces left. Please join us!

Thursday, August 25, 2011


Every artist needs some encouragement along the artistic journey.  Sometimes it's sales.  These two paintings have been sold at my show at Gleason Fine Art this month.  Sometimes it's the encouragement of our fellow painters who know what the struggle is all about.  And sometimes it's a breakthrough painting that signals a new level of competence or successful exploration of a different approach.  I'm grateful that those exterior confirmations have been generously offered. 

As Hurricane Irene approaches New England and with travel plans, I may not post for a few days.  Check back, leave a comment or reaction (encouragement!), and keep painting!

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Breaking The Line

My friend Betsy drove over from New Hampshire to paint with me for two days.  This morning I took her to a spot I've been wanting to paint for a while, an old abandoned shack at the end of Linekin Bay.  To let the viewer know that it's a Maine shack, I provided a small peek at the water and a rowboat that wasn't really there.

The real purpose of the rowboat was to interrupt the straight line formed where the shack and the grass met. It also is a "pointer".
The chimney already interrupted the lines of the roof.  The tree does as well.  But study the length of the eave, and you'll see that the line there is broken into three different lengths.  And the space between the chimney and the foreground tree is different from the space between the tree and the pole on the old shed.

I also enjoyed painting the negative space behind the trees on the right.  Certainly an enjoyable morning spent painting with a good friend.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Grouping for Balance

Balance can be of two kinds:  Formal and Informal.  Formal balance occurs when objects of the same "weight" are found on both sides of the page.  Informal balance, which is more prominent in paintings, is like the father and the child on the teeter totter.

In these two examples, setting one of the objects apart provides an informal balance. Grouping several of the chickens or the lightbulbs gives weight to the left side of each painting, while the "outsider" gives weight to the right side.  The space on the right side is the equivalent of the child with the length of the teeter totter helping to equalize the weight.

So use grouping and spacing to achieve informal balance.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Old and New

                                                                     Old View
                                        New View
Change is the one constant.  But for me, it's sometimes hard to accept changes in the landscapes I love around the Boothbay peninsula. 

This is Cuckold's Lighthouse, just off shore at Southport Island.  I'm also including a painting I did over the winter of this very famous lighthouse that marks the entrance to Boothbay Harbor.  This summer, work is nearly complete on rennovations to restore the light to its original condition, including some of the outbuildings that had been demolished years before I got here.  It's hard to accept the "new" view of this old favorite spot.
But I'll just bet, some old timers would say the same thing after they had to tear down the old buildings!

You can see the Cuckold's Light from the Town Landing at the end of Route 27 on Southport Island, Maine.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Opening

After months of painting, experimenting, culling, matting and framing, there finally comes The Night.  Two hours of greeting people who will decide whether all of your effort has been worth the trouble.  Red dots are nice, but every bit as important to me is the reaction to the work.  What will they pick out as pleasing?  I always hope the comments are not just about the subject matter because the painting has been about much more than that.  Will they notice the things that were important to me as I painted?  Color, texture, design, shapes.  Some will, because many of my fellow artists will come to support and encourage.  They know, because they are in the struggle.

So as I anticipate my two hours in the spotlight, it gives me a chance to catch my breath before the next round of painting begins....tomorrow. Always tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011


Sometimes I go through the stack of my old paintings and cull the worst ones.  But I still hang on to some that I would never show publically.  It's good to see how far you've come in your painting journey. 

My first emphasis was on accuracy.  I strove to depict the landscape as it actually appeared.  But now I want to highlight other concerns.  Color is much more important as its own subject matter.  I'm much more aware of edge quality.  I move or entirely eliminate objects.  And I'm more conscious of  where I can place obliques.

If you want growth in your work, try concentrating less on portraying your subject as you find it, and more on the elements and principles. 

Here are two works I executed about several years apart.

Saturday, July 30, 2011



In this painting of the "End of Sample's Boatyard",   overlapping plays a big part in creating movement, textures and interest.  First, overlapping plays a crucial role in interrupting many straight lines. That creates shapes that are not boring rectangles.  More important, the overlapping that occurs around the dock house contains the lightest values in the painting and therefore draws your eye to that area. 

Be conscious of overlapping shapes to create both aerial perspective and textural interest.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

New Colors

I've had the same colors on my palette for ages.  I know how they combine with other colors, and which ones to use to mix up a warm or cool gray.  But this summer I decided I needed to shake things up a bit and have tentatively added a few new flavors to the mix. 

I'm still not sure I would recommend that an absolute beginner buy every color note offered by the manufacturers.  Get to know the basics:  a warm and cool of each primary and a couple of earth tones ought to do it.  Gradually, you can experiment with one or two new colors if you find a reason to.  It is very important that you know your color goals as well.  Since I'm gravitating towards more inventive and arbitrary colors to make color a statement that is every bit as important as the choice of subject matter, it only makes sense to expand my choices.

Here's today's effort, which utilizes Quinacrodone Rose. (It took forever for my tongue to get around that one!)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Plein Air Group

I was once asked by an elderly painter I had just met if I "painted in a herd."  I knew what she meant, but nevertheless, I was somewhat offended by the superior attitude.  Painters paint together for all sorts of reasons.  Life drawing/painting classes are certainly more affordable if everyone chips in for the model's fee.
Instructors teach classes in which there are always some people at the beginning of their painting journey.  And sometimes it's just fun to paint with a group of teacher, no critique....just everyone doing their own thing.  While waiting for my watercolor washes to dry, I get a chance to walk around and see what other painters have chosen to paint and how they choose to paint it.  And often in that setting, we get to talking about technique or composition or current shows.  The conversations develop naturally, and usually laughter is involved.

Back to my painter friend.  I answered that sometimes I valued the comraderie of painting with my peers.  And a good teacher can inform or remind you of the basics of painting.  I understood that she meant that sometimes painting in proximity to other artists can influence the direction of the group.  I countered that if you have a solid background and have already begun to develop your own style, you can still take clues from the work of others.  If we didn't, we might never go to a gallery or a museum to study what others have done.

So, yes, today I painted in a small herd of talented and dedicated plein air painters.  And I totally enjoyed it!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Local landmarks

                                            The Footbridge
Every town has them.  Landmarks that are so iconic that every artist in the area has painted them a dozen times.  So how do you get a new angle on an old subject? 

1. Zoom in.   Most of the time we put in far too much subject matter and the landmark gets lost in the crowd.

2.  Limit your palette.

3.  Add figures.

4. Let other buildings "frame" the landmark
 I once saw a painting of the Missouri State Capitol framed by the opening in a close-up barn.  I never forgot the image.

5. Soften or eliminate the background.

Here's a local landmark in Boothbay Harbor, Maine....The Footbridge House.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Color Theme

                                    Wharf Life #13
This is the third in a series of paintings I've done in which I've limited my palette to white, grays, and blacks.
The first two were vertical, so I wanted one more that was a horizontal. 

Also, note the absence of texture in the water and most of the foreground.  Cluttering up the foreground would make you look at that instead of out where I wanted the viewer to focus.  Instead the eye looks over the foreground on its way to the textures and busy-ness of the dock.  Limit details and calligraphy to the focal area.

Friday, July 22, 2011


                                 Friendship Sloop Races
It takes big contrasts to create drama in a painting.  Far from photo realism, I still believe this painting achieves a level of dramatic color, value and lighting. 

The technique is again to carve out the whites with the first wash. If the resulting shapes are interesting, and the washes are clean, the lack of detail is an asset in creating drama with big bold shapes. Notice that the white sails overlap and therefore create one big shape with oblique, interlocking edges.

These are Friendship sloops, designed originally to haul cargo downeast.  I love the long graceful curve of the bow and the rectangular shape of the main sail. 

It's hot here!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011


One of the six value patterns described by Ed Whitney is alternation.  It's a kind of checkerboard pattern with no real light source.  Alternating white, gray and black with a few touches of warmth for relief, here's a painting which illustrates the technique.

Basically, I established the white shapes using the grays.  Then I added the blacks, either within a gray shape or next to a white.  You should be able to look at any valued shape and find the other two tangent to it.  There are a few exceptions, but mostly alternation is present everywhere.

Scroll down and see Second Chance for a color version of this technique.
Beware!  This is way harder than it looks!