Composition is Key

December 18, 2011

Church Street, Oldwick, NJ - plein air pastel, about 9x12 in.

Composition is a key element to any successful painting. The painting has to work as a whole, no matter how great the rendering or use of media, if it doesn’t hold together with a balanced composition, it won’t work.

When painting plein air, you must work out your composition before you start putting anything down on paper. To start, you have to have something to draw the viewer in–anything with a strong sense of perspective, particularly one point perspective, will do this. Think of streams, roadways, telegraph poles and wires, trees, anything that defines the space with perspective will draw the viewer into the painting. Once there, the eye needs connecting points in order to be motivated to explore the painting. Repeating shapes and colors are great for this. It also presents the artist with an opportunity to be creative and expressive–if you need a bit of yellow in the upper right to balance the yellow elsewhere, put it in whether it is there or not in real life.

Think of the format of your painting as space that needs to be divided geometrically. Look for alpha forms such as “Z”‘s or “L”s to create a strong division of space and movement. Forget about “what” you are painting and look purely at forms made by light, shadow, color and values. Rather than painting trees, block in shapes that are created from a mass of leaves.

The painting above was done in pastel, which is a great medium for plein air. I first block in the comp monochromatically with a hard pastel, then I lay in the values with that same color. Once I have the comp and values blocked in, I go to color working from dark to light.

This piece was done in about an hour. Working plein air trains your eye to see things quickly and accurately. The light WILL change while you are working, that is why blocking in the values and staying loose is so crucial to plein air. You can’t noodle around with your drawing, be very gestural and get in the big shapes, you can put in as much or as little detail as you feel is needed once you have the big picture laid out.


More Plein Air

December 11, 2011

Green house on curved hill, plein air pastel, 6x9 in.

Drove around a bit today looking for something interesting to paint. I liked the exaggerated perspective the curves and hillside presented, as well as the shadows and the unusual color of the house. I have to have something more than trees and other natural elements in my work, something structural to give things scale and perspective as well as geometric form.

Simple One Point Perspective Sketch

October 1, 2011

Iron Truss Bridge, pastel study, 6x9 in.

This is a simple but dramatic, one point perspective sketch done as a demo for my pastel students.

Whenever I have a piece that has one point perspective, I typically start out at the vanishing point and work my way outwards. Your lines in a one point perspective drawing can only go in 3 directions: vertical, horizontal or back to the vanishing point. If you are above the horizon line, your lines leading back to it will angle downward, if you are below it, they will angle upward. Forget memorizing this, just put it into practice a few times and it will become second nature. By putting it into practice, I mean sketching from life as often as you can and learning to see the perspective naturally. I can’t emphasize the importance of this enough. Once you understand and automatically see it, you can work from any source: photos, your on site sketches or as I typically do, a combination of the two. Remember, photos often distort perspective, you can include, eliminate or exaggerate as much of that distortion as you choose, as long as you understand the basic principles outlined above.

Abstracting an Image

September 19, 2011

Pastel study of construction site (WTC Memorial tower), acrylic and pastel on PastelMat, 9x12 in.

When I paint a subject, it can be any subject, I don’t focus on “what” I am painting. I don’t give objects names, instead I view darks and lights purely as shapes, focusing on form and value to get my drawing mapped in. Doing so allows me to abstract the imagery and yet still come up with a drawing that describes the subject, accurately yet in a simplified, geometric manner.

In this case, I began with a wash of cobalt blue acrylic on white PastelMat. On top of this, I mapped in my darkest values with NuPastel #353 (dark brown-purple). I did this while the paper was slightly damp, which resulted in some great bleeds. Next, I began adding in the local colors of the elements in the composition. This piece has dramatic lighting, with very dark shadows and very bright lights, so there was not a lot to do in terms of middle values.  Additionally, the blue background helped a lot for establishing a middle toned base, on top of which I applied similar tones in soft pastel.

I plan to do a large painting of this landscape in oil or possibly acrylic. Working out the idea for it in pastel is very helpful, and this sketch will be used far more than any reference photos I have once that process begins.

Paint It Your Way!

September 4, 2011

Riverside cafe in winter, Clinton, NJ - ink wash drawing over splatter background

If you are looking for a course that will help you to discover and develop your own individual style of painting, Paint It Your Way! might be right for you.  This course focuses on universal concepts of drawing and painting that can be applied regardless of the medium and painting style that you prefer to work in. Demonstrations are done each week in alternating media such as oil, acrylic, pastel, charcoal, and water media. Students are encouraged to experiment and try new media while identifying and clarifying the painting style which suits them best.

The course is held on Wednesdays from 9:30 to noon at the Visual Arts Center of NJ in Summit and runs for 10 weeks beginning Sept. 14. For more information on all of my courses, visit the art center’s web site. Questions? Call the art center at 908-273-9121, or send me an email at

More Plein Air!

July 16, 2011

Rockaway & Pottersville Road Intersection, plein air pastel, about 30 min., 6x9 in.

Meadow Lane, plein air pastel about 45 min., 6x9 in.

These are two more plein air pastels I did this past week. The weather has been great, not too hot or humid, and perfect for plein air. If my work schedule permitted, I’d be out there everyday, but it doesn’t. So, I make sure on the weekends to get out early in the morning (between 8 and 10 am) when the lighting is interesting. I try to choose spots that are out of the way where I won’t run into other people. I feel self-conscious when I paint out doors and try to be as discreet as possible. It isn’t that I’m not confident in my work, it’s just “odd” to be painting in public, sort of like being on display. Anyhow, plein air is great practice, so if you have the opportunity, get out there and enjoy the summer!

I will be having another 2 day plein air workshop at the end of August, details will be posted here soon.

Fun on the Bridge

June 2, 2011

George Washington Bridge, pastel study, 6x9 in.

This is a quick and bold study of the GWB. I plan to paint it large, about 30×40, in acrylic using rollers and foam brushes to start. I want it to be bold. Graphic. A strong piece that has no trace of hesitation. At some point, I hope to walk the pedestrian crossing over the bridge to get additional sketches and references for additional paintings. But for now, this one will serve as my starting point for the next big painting of the bridge.