Paint Every Chance You Get!

July 28, 2014
watercolor sketch from Smartphone, about 6x9 in.

watercolor sketch from Smartphone, about 6×9 in.

Artists seem to worry a lot about things like what to paint, is it ok to paint from photos, is it plein air if I do it in the car, is it ok to paint pets, etc. A lot of energy is spent thinking about painting rather than actually painting. My advice to my students is to paint every chance you get! Doesn’t matter what or where, just paint (or draw). The more you do it, the better you will get.

My preference is to work from life or direct observation–but that is not always possible. I may not have access to a model, or I may want to paint something it is not logistically possible to paint (the inside of the Holland Tunnel for example). Rather than agonizing over whether it is “OK”  to paint it or not, I just do it. I always note my sources when I post my sketches online and use only my own reference materials.

Another thing that seems to create much consternation is the definition of plein air. Plein air means you painted something that is outside while you were outside. So is it ok to paint in your car? Of course, just say “I painted this from my car” when you post it or exhibit it. Edward Hopper painted from his car frequently, if the car is ok for him, it’s certainly ok for me.  If the idea of not adhering to the strictest of definitions prevents you from painting, or from enjoying the process of painting, is it really worth it? I’d much rather paint inside my car on a cold rainy day than out in the elements, so I do.

The point is, get out there or stay in your studio, but whatever you do, get the paints out and paint. Or get the charcoal out and draw. The only way to improve is to do it every chance you get…in the manner that works best for you at the time!


Skill vs. Technique: Know the Difference!

July 14, 2014
Watercolor sketch from direct observation, old spoons, 9x12 in.

Watercolor sketch from direct observation, old spoons, 9×12 in.

I get concerned when new students tell me they want to learn “techniques”, this usually implies that they want to skip the basics–drawing in particular–and move right into how to create specific effects with a given medium. In my view, technique is secondary to skill. If you have the right skills, you can work successfully in any medium. Techniques are easy to learn and fun to develop on your own, but they will never replace or compensate for skill, particularly when it comes to drawing.

For example, in the little study above, I used watercolor to create a monochrome study of some old silver spoons. The spoons in and of themselves are not all that interesting, but I’ve used them to create a dynamic composition by placing them at angles to move the eye in a variety of directions–to effectively do this with any subject, you must have developed skill in composition. I find the shapes (forms) of the spoons particularly interesting. If you’ve ever drawn a spoon, you will understand that getting the proportions and angles of the stems and bowls just right is key to making them look like they could actually function as eating utensils. In order to do this, you must use drawing skills–the ability to see form, value, proportion and perspective. It is the values that create the illusion of dimension, as well as suggest surface texture, they tell you whether you are looking at the inside or the outside of the spoon’s bowl. The shadows create some of the forms from the negative space–if all of this sounds foreign to you, you are not ready to be learning technique, you need to go back to basics and focus on building skill.

So, where does technique fit in? Once you have built your skills and developed confidence using basic media such as charcoal, pencil or monochromatic pastel, you are ready to start exploring how different techniques can enhance the work you create using those skills. In the example above, I used my knowledge of drawing and composition (form, value, proportion, perspective) to create the structure of the painting. I used the technique of very loosely applied brush strokes in a variety of tones of Prussian blue watercolor to create the effect of the spoons melding with the background in some places and coming forward off the page in others. If I couldn’t draw the spoons (have the skills), I would not be able to create this effect (use the technique).

Until you become highly proficient in drawing, don’t rush into learning a whole host of techniques in different media. Focus on the basics, build confidence and skill. When you feel you can create something good with the most basic of materials, you are ready to start learning about techniques in specific media.

Commissions: They CAN be fun!

July 3, 2014
Watercolor and Ink preliminary sketch for a current commission

Watercolor and Ink preliminary sketch for a current commission

Any artist who has ever painted something on commission probably knows that commission work presents a unique set of challenges. You are painting someone else’s painting, so their vision and yours need to be on the same wavelength, otherwise, the process can become frustrating for both you and the client. I have found that I actually enjoy doing commissions if the match is right between me and the client. I have also found that being as specific as possible in a written proposal goes a long way in ensuring that there are no surprises along the way in the form of unexpected and unreasonable requests for changes, quibbling over price or delivery dates. Spell it all out upfront, and the process will go smoothly! Here are a few steps you can take to ensure the best possible experience for both you and your client:

  • Get to know your client and what they want, and have them get to know you! The first thing I do when I get a request for a commission is tell the client to visit my web site and really LOOK at my paintings. They should ask themselves the following questions: do they like my painting style? Is it appropriate for the subject they want painted? Would they enjoy having one of my paintings in their home to live with for a long time? Because I paint in a very loose and painterly style, I often will specifically say “this is not going to be a rendering of the subject, it will be an expressive painting that hopefully captures its essence, is that what you want?” You can modify that question to suit the style you work in, it’s a good way to avoid having someone who doesn’t really know what they want get started down the wrong path (with the wrong artist for their project).
  • Paint only subjects you WANT to paint–if someone wants a painting of their grandchild, I’m going to send them to a portrait artist. I love painting people, and I do enjoy capturing likeness, however, most people want a specific, formal look to a portrait of someone they know. There is also an intrinsic element that more frequently than anything else causes them to say “no, that’s not really my….”. So, I politely decline those projects and suggest other artists who specialize in portraiture. Again, it isn’t that I can’t paint a portrait, it’s just that I would rather not deal with the intangible idea of trying to capture someone I don’t really know. On the other hand, I LOVE architecture and the landscape, so if someone wants a painting of a place or of their home, I am more inclined to accept the project–providing they understand that it will be an interpretation of the place, not an architectural rendering.
  • Once you have decided that you want the job and the client wants to work with you, it’s time for the proposal. Include everything in the write up: a detailed break down of how much you will charge for each part of the process: materials, preliminary sketches, finished product. Ask for a non-refundable deposit of at least 10% up front–this will ensure that you are paid for your time and expenses during the preliminary sketching phase. I almost always do a preliminary sketch phase, unless it is a small watercolor commission where I might forego the sketches and just suggest views, but if it is an oil painting, I always provide the client with 3 sketches done monochromatically in watercolor to choose from. This is to work out the composition and format. If it is a very large painting, I might take one more intermediate step and do a color version in pastel, but only if it is a very large piece.
  • Include time frames in your proposal–tell the client how much time you will need, be realistic based on other commitments you have–you don’t want to be in the position of rushing or having to tell the client the painting will not be done on time. Finishing earlier than expected is always appreciated, not finishing on time, is not.
  • Charge enough to realistically cover your time and expenses, know what your time is worth, and spell out how open you are or aren’t to input from the client. I prefer to work with clients who do not want to micro manage me, I like initial input and direction, and then I take it from there, always doing my best to capture the essence of the subject in the way it was requested. However, I will not re-paint a painting simply because the client is buying new furniture and wants the painting to match the couch–again, it comes down to screening. You can usually pick up on these traits early in the process and if it seems like it could go that way, don’t be afraid to walk away from the job instead of taking it on. Remember, your name has to go on that painting–if you have someone directing you to do something you know is not going to work, you do have the right to say something. Again, that’s why the screening process, proposal and preliminary sketches are so important, especially on a large project.

Once you find a way of managing the process, commission work can be rewarding and a nice source of steady income. Just be sure you are enjoying the process and still painting the way you would paint something that was not a commission–that will ensure you are doing your best work, and your client will no doubt be happy with the end result!

Note: I accept commissions for a variety of subjects, landscapes, architecture and urban scenes are my specialty, if you would like to talk further about commissioning a painting, email me at