Saturday, August 30, 2014


If the focal point and major subject is the lobster boat, finding ways to balance the other objects and the background is paramount to create a pleasing composition.  First, I balanced the right side of the painting with another lobster boat.  The dark building on the left side helps to frame the subject and prevent the eye from going off the page.    The boat on the left far side and the house to the right on the far shore break up the water shape and the tree shapes. 

The dock and boat with their textures and warm colors keep your eye in the foreground.  Gradation in the water leads the eye back to the reflections in the water. 

All of these things take some fore thought and planning.  A good composition is created with balance in mind.

Monday, August 25, 2014


When on location, I often tell my students to keep it simple.  But that bit of advice can go right over the heads of a person who is bombarded with so much information.  The temptation is always to include as many details as possible.  So the advice to Keep It Simple, Stupid (KISS)  remains a mere slogan rather than a practical solution.

So, how does a painter keep it simple? 

1.  Squint at your subject.  This will help you see shapes more easily.  While squinting, concentrate on identifying shapes:  rectangles, triangles, cones, silhouettes.

2.  Also while squinting, your eyes will filter out the little details that some students feel so obligated to include.  windows, doors, shutters, shingles, lattice work, etc.  Those can be added later when the major shapes are solidified.

3.  Also while squinting, find the three major values:  lights, darks and midtones.  That will be helpful in deciding what to paint first.

4.  Finally, avoid trying to duplicate the actual colors in front of you.  Decide on two or three colors and the grays that they create when combined.  Simplified!

And since I'm simplifying my advice, I'll stop there! 

Friday, August 22, 2014


Sometimes I have to remember that zooming in can come in aid of the subject.  Depicting the entire harbor scene can confuse the viewer about what you are drawn to.  This boat just attracted my attention because of the 'bimini' which shaded the wheel house area. 

I also had a great running conversation with the captain of this vessel.  He and his friend kept going back and forth to get ice and other supplies for their brief sail out in the bay.  They were quite entertaining, assuring me that I had another 45 minutes before the boat sailed.  Sure enough, I finished just  before they set sail. 

Zoom in and eliminate details out beyond the primary subject.

Thursday, August 21, 2014


Sometimes, when my more realistic approach to painting a subject fails, I resort to a technique that involves an abstract under painting.  Using a dominant color gives the painting unity before you paint the subject matter on top of it.  I often use a complementary color near the focal point.  The edges can be hard or soft in the under-painting.  I tend to use soft edges. 

After two tries painting this scene realistically, I had two pea green messes.  So in frustration, I turned the paper over and wet the entire page and then flooded it with violet shapes, adding yellow near the focal area.  When this was dry, I added the darker shapes of the subject matter on top of the under-painting, ignoring the background.  I used basically the same two colors in the overpainting that I had in the abstract first wash.

Robert Wood was a master of this technique.  His book has a whole chapter on this approach.  Practice this idea many times, and eventually you'll get the hang of it.  It's a liberating way to approach your subject, and will help you avoid the trap of painting the literal truth of a subject but missing the vitality and liveliness of its hidden truth.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Memorizing/Recalling Details

I went to one of my favorite painting locations today on the east side of Boothbay Harbor.  Sometimes, when nothing strikes me immediately, I tell myself to be patient;  maybe something will happen.

Sure enough, suddenly right in front of me, the Friendship sloop The Bay Lady sailed right past me, and just as she passed, the first mate started taking down the sails.  That action and the warmth of the sail gave me the impetus to quickly jot down some details.

Of course, I've painted this little sloop many times, so I could rely on memory for some of the major ideas.  But the sails, which are actually pretty white, looked almost yellow to me this afternoon.  And I also tried to memorize some of the rigging lines.  I would estimate my time to memorize the details I wanted to include lasted all of about 30 seconds. 

Later when tourists come by, they, of course, look puzzled.  "Where do you see that boat?"  Sometimes I like to mess with their heads and say, "Wait.  You mean you can't see that boat?"  They slowly back away with worried looks on their faces.  (See entry about The Bore Who Came To Stay, "Onlookers"  July 26th.  This is another great technique to get rid of unwanted visitors, as some people are inclined to believe that all artists are ready to slash their ear off at a moment's provocation.)

But again, studying, sketching, looking intently for details you want to include are all a part of producing plein air works.  Train your eyes as much as your hands.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Sketching For the Fun of It

This summer I've been teaching a private student about the elements of drawing.  That has inspired me to get my sketchbook out again.  I love the quiet study, sitting in an Adirondack chair on my dock here in Maine, sketching my cove or my back yard.  Today I went to my weekly happy hour at Robinson's Wharf a bit early so I could sketch some of the lobster boats tied up to the dock.  When I was finished, my friends introduced me to the captain of the lobster boat I had sketched.    My easel and my sketchbook have opened a door to the local fishermen that wouldn't have happened without putting pencil and paint to paper.

Be willing to put yourself out there to the locals around you.  It's a reward beyond money and official praise!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Ongoing Series

One more Queen Anne's Lace painting. 

Silhouettes of rocks are relatively easy.  But as they get closer, you need to add some texture and vary the color a bit.  Some dry brush gets the texture done.  Be sure to alter the value and temperature of the rocks as well.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Annual Subjects

Choosing subjects is an eternal concern for realistic painters.  But at certain times of the year, the matter of picking a subject is made easier by the reappearance of certain items.  In August here in Maine, for me it's the  blooming of Queen Anne's Lace.

I know it's a weed, but its lacey quality appeals to me.  How to achieve that delicate look is a problem that I  choose to solve without the use of any masking agent.  Rather, I drag a dry brush around the half-dome shape of the flower.  Then  I use a very small rigger to dot some pinpoints in the interior or along the edges.  Finally, I add some shading to give a rounded, three dimensional feel.

The background surrounding the flowers has sometimes been a problem.  In the past I've darkened the area around the flowers in a uniform dark value.  Nowadays, I darken only one side and gradate to a mid-tone by the time I get to the other side or the underside of the flowers. 

Here are two examples of the ongoing August series.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

What's It All About, Alfie?

There was so much to paint at historic Fort Edgecomb where the Plein Air Painters of Maine gathered to paint today.   Signs, water, trees, the fort, the fences and flowers.  My problem was elimination and placement.  Everything seemed to conspire to place my chosen subject, the fort, in the center of the composition and to eliminate anything that detracted from that subject. 

To avoid that problem, I moved the fort slightly to the right and balanced it with the sign structures on the left.  I threw in a couple of figures to break the straight treeline, and concentrated on making the fort one shape rather that including every shingle and window opening.  The sky was overcast, causing the fort to be in a flat light, so I consciously decided to invent the sun's position in the sky so as to create the planes of the fort to be in shadow, and the cast shadows to help emphasize the lights on the building.  I eliminated many elements, such as the fences, other signs, and the foreground subjects so that the fort was the main subject. 

 I was surprised that many of my fellow painters had chosen to come to Fort Edgecomb but not paint the subject that was most obvious.  If you come to a site which has an obvious emphasis and paint only the natural elements --trees and water--then why did you come to this location?  Avoiding an architectural subject that is so prominent doesn't seem to make much sense. 

I found many other possible subjects at this site and will probably return there sometime this summer..  More to come!

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Lines or No Lines

Some subjects require careful drawing on the paper prior to painting them.  Other subjects merely need a light sketch to indicate placement and size.  But sometimes I like to start in painting with no pencil lines at all, rather just a firm idea of where everything will be.

On the topic of erasing the pencil lines after the painting is completed.  Most of the time the paint covers up the lines.  In lighter values, though, sometimes the lines remain visible.  That doesn't bother me at all.  In fact, I think that it is interesting to see the plan that the artist had. 

Be careful not to become an artist who colors inside the lines.  Just because you've drawn a line doesn't mean you can't leave an edge soft or merge shapes by using the same values where they meet.

Above all, be flexible.  If you do use a line drawing, don't become a slave to it.  Evaluate and adjust the plan as you proceed.  Rigidity makes for a very mechanical look.  Swing that brush and splash away!