Monthly Archives: March 2014



The photo is the beginning, not the end.  We use photographs as inspiration, to save time, and a vehicle for our thoughts, ideas, and feelings.  Ever since the camera came into being, artists have used photographs as a tool: Vermeer, Holbein, Van Dyke, Caravaggio, Ingres to name a few.  They didn’t use the photograph as an image to be copied, however, but to change it in some way to make it unique to themselves, such as exaggeration, distortion, adding several images to make a new composition, changing values and hues.  We must do the same.

The photo we’re using doesn’t have to be perfect, detailed, or colorful.  The photo is for REFERENCE, only, not for DUPLICATION.  I keep a “morgue” of photos I have taken or torn out of magazines and newspapers for easy references.  As the late Maggie Price suggested, sometimes it’s a good idea to use a less than perfect or detailed photograph because then the artist must fill in with his/her own ideas.

Most of the photos you’ve seen have too much detail.  The values in photos are also darker than the original scene and do not have the subtle nuances you can see in a landscape.  It’s always much better to paint from life for this reason.  Learn how to make drastic changes by simplifying, flattening the space, finding a different viewpoint, using different hues, values, and textures, and adding or subtracting shapes and emphasizing the mood.  Above all, try out different versions in your sketchbook.  The more you change the photo, the more you make it your own.



Having gone to one of Skip Lawrence’s workshops several years ago, I remembered an exercise that he does like “scales” every day before beginning to paint.  It is an exercise in different kinds of contrast:  contrast of value, contrast of hue, and contrast of intensity.  I can’t see how he does it every day, because it took me 3 days to finish mine!  However, I don’t work hours at a time.

This is usually done in watercolor, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work in any medium.  First of all, I sectioned off a half sheet of watercolor paper into 9 equal spaces – three across the top and three down the edge.  Each of these sections is about 5 x 7″.  I separated the sections with narrow artist’s tape and wrote the particular problem above each.  Across the top the sections are high key, middle key, and low key (light values, middle values, and dark values only).  Down the left side are contrast of value, contrast of hue, and contrast of intensity.  Then I proceeded to paint contrast of value in each key with monochromatic greys.  Below those, I started to paint the different keys in contrast of hues (color) but decided to make it a little more difficult by using a color scheme from the color wheel:  analogous, double complement, and complement and 1/2.  Below those, I painted with contrast of intensity, meaning that I had to gray down all but one dominant hue.  The first I did in a semi-triad color scheme, the second as a split-complement color scheme, and the last as a complementary color scheme.  This took time and a lot of thinking, but it was well worth the effort, since I learned so much from the exercise.  My results are below.  If you want or need more information about this, send me a comment, please.


contrast exercise



One of my strongest concerns in making a painting is CONTRAST.  Contrast can be achieved in many different ways:

1. CONTRAST OF VALUE:  This is the opposition between white and black and their immediate gradations when mixed with various colors.  If a painting or drawing has high value contrast, it pr0bably has at least 6 different variations from light to dark. Strong light or sunlight makes for a wide range of contrast, while cloudy days and diffused light makes for a limited range of contrast.

2.  CONTRAST OF HUE:  This is the contrast of hues (colors) in the same values against each other. For example, the action of a bright red on a bright green background causes optical effects resulting from the contrast. If a painting has light values,but different hues, it is said to be high key. If it has dark values, but different hues, it is said to be low key.

3.  CONTRAST OF INTENSITY:  This is the contrast of a clean color against a dirty one, or intense color against neutral. A little bit of color at its maximum intensity (strength) against a grayed down hue produces a very effective type of harmony.

4.  CONTRAST OF TRANSPARENCY:  Color can be transparent like colored glass, semi-transparent like cloudy glass, or opaque like a thick layer of house paint. Transparent color like the stained glass of a cathedral, is the most powerful of all. In the same way, transparent paint is more powerful than an opaque passage. This works best in watercolor, of course.

5.  CONTRAST OF TEMPERATURE:  Consciously or unconsciously, we are aware some colors are warm (red, yellow, and orange) while others are cold (blue, green).  A single hue may vary in temperature: a purplish blue is warmer than a greenish blue, and a purplish red is cooler than an orange red. To identify whether a hue is warm or cool, think about how much red or blue is in it. Warm colors have certain emotional overtones that differ from the emotions evoked by cool colors, so use thus principle when you are seeking to imply a certain mood.

6.  CONTRAST OF COMPLEMENTS:  Colors which are diametrically opposite one another on the color wheel are called complementaries, and they have the power to bring out the maximum effectiveness of their opposites when placed side by side. Thus, yellow will emphasize an adjacent purple; red reinforces a nearby green, etc. The remarkable fact about complementaries is that the nerves in the eye will create an illusion of the opposite color. Therefore, a bright patch of red will seem to suffuse the surrounding area with green.


Here are some more suggestions about how to finish a painting.  I’ve made notes for years on things to remember about creating art, but I can’t remember where they came from!  This is from some book I’ve read and it pertains mostly to watercolor:

Five steps to finishing a painting:

1. Lighten anything you don’t like. Scrub out an area, or use opaque paint to cover.  Check to be sure it makes sense.

2.  Adjust your values. Should they be deeper? Check values under both bright and dim light. With watercolor, you can apply two shades darker than you want because of the lightening when the paint dries.  Remember to adjust other values in the painting to agree.

3.  Evaluate your texture – sometimes adding shapes to the background makes the texture better balanced.  Most paintings need a coherent pattern of texture. Don’t let everything be the same size. Break up space in larger paintings by using color gradations and abstract color and pattern variations. Use spattering or dry-brushing at the end. Clean up accidental textures. Be sure to consider whether the painting’s overall texture pattern leads the viewer’s eye toward the focal point or away from it.

4. Surprise your viewers! Add unexpected (arbitrary) color or a foreign object. Try switching media or adding collage elements. A visual pun might do the trick.

5. Unify the painting. Make sure that cool paintings are really cool and hot ones are really hot. Eliminate white in the wrong places. Look at the painting with a mat around it. Put the painting away for a few days, then take it out and look at it again with a fresh eye. You’ll be surprised what you find out!