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how to Jump-start your creative battery.

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We have all hit days when the well seems to be dry, and the dry rut we feel we are in just got deeper.  How do you get the fire back?  How do you open the dam and let the creative waters flow again?  Dwelling on the paucity of ideas and lamenting your lack of talent (whatever that is) is not the answer.

Some artist wanna-be’s just say, “I’m not in the mood today, the muses have not touched me this morning. I have to wait for the creative moment, for the inspiration to hit me.” All of my cattle-raising friends around here know exactly what that is. They shovel it daily.  Don’t fall into that pit. ( It stinks)

The way out of those creative doldrums involves action. You have to stir things up. The creative juices have probably just settled to the bottom. Here are a few things that you can do (especially in watercolor) to stir things up, and all of them involve change.

*Force yourself to see things differently.Turn a piece upside down and work on it while squinting. This eliminates details, and puts the whole thing out of context. This is a change that permits a different kind of seeing.

*Learn from others. Attend workshops from different instructors, as each has something unique to impart. We are all eclectic- a little from here and a little from there- and we end up putting it together in our own unique way. Inspiration can come from other artists, books, illustrations in magazines or lichen patterns in rocks. Be open.

*Court casualness. Approach a painting with a devil-may-care attitude. Have faith that as the need arises, the inspiration will come. And that is a grand key. The inspiration most often comes when we are not courting it. If we try to become inspired we won’t be.

*Court the accidental. What appears to be accidental is actually the random order of Nature taking over. Here are a few things that can bring this into play in watercolor; especially during the initial washes.

1,  Spatter clear water on the paper, then spatter thinned versions of different colors-especially opposite colors like pale orange and pale blue, pale purple and yellows, pale sienna and pale blue. As the spattered color hits the spatters of water the mixtures will be more random and thus mirror Nature.

2. Spatter thinned gesso on the paper (thickness like whipping cream). Allow it to dry for about five minutes. Blot the excess gesso from the surface by patting lightly with an absorbent paper towel. Keep turning the towel so that you don’t re-apply the lifted gesso. Dry completely, then apply light washes of varied colors, alternating between warm and cool colors. This will provide a unique ground for the painting.

3. Use the torn edge of mat board to apply gesso to the surface prior to painting. Apply it with stamping motion or scraping. The idea is to create a random surface that alters the absorbent quality of the surface in unusual ways. This will provide a ground that will give a somewhat textural quality to the initial washes.

* Take note of the rhythm of your brush strokes. Now consciously change the rhythm. Make them jerky, or fluid, or syncopated. Keep your focus primarily on the new rhythm, and only secondarily on the subject. The outcome may surprise you.

* Do a small painting holding the brush only by the tip of the handle. Don’t allow yourself to choke up on the brush. You are going for a home run, not a but to first base.

* Try re-designing using overlapped continuous contour drawing. In the example below I drew a pair of glasses in an unbroken, continuous contour line. Then overlapping this I drew a mug that held a number of pencils. Over this I divided the format with a couple of horizontal lines.

BC 1

This gives me a linear pattern that breaks up the format interestingly in a naturally random manner. Next I used a Chinese ink block and a watercolor brush to add grays and blacks. This is similar to the random scribbles we all did as children (and in my case still do while talking on the phone or listening to speeches or attending meetings I can’t manage to avoid.)

BC 2

There are hundreds of ways to introduce change and randomness into your work. Explore and have fun.


Countering Diagonals, a Composition Workhorse.

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Finding your own voice in art is a process not an event. One thing you can do is to pay close attention to your predilections. Most people are actually casual observers and respond to a subject’s content rather than its form As artists we need to be intense observers. When you see a painting you really like, ask yourself why you are drawn to it. Something besides the subject strikes a sympathetic or complementary note in your own personality. Is it the simplicity of its statement, the transitions of value, the use of contrast? It will be one or more of the formal aspects of the painting, not just the content.

During my student days, I found that many of the paintings that drew me into deeper study contained countering diagonals as a compositional element. I mentioned in the last post that one of the early influences on my artistic development was Ted Kautzky. Here is a drawing by him entitled, “Gulls and Shadows”.Ted Kautzky

Kautzky directs my eye around the format through a  series of countering diagonals. From the lower left up through the rocks to the pier, down the pier toward the left side, stopping at the building gently dancing across the masts to the powerful diagonal posts on the left side, down the post to the water and a floating board that returns me to the beginning. Perhaps because I grew up always countering my older brothers, countering diagonal thrusts appealed to my personality. For whatever reason I was drawn to this kind of movement in paintings, and I began employing it in my own work. Artists like John Marin appealed to me because he seemed to understand the countering thrusts of energy that animated nature. 

I explored this dynamic energy in pencil doodles like the ones below.


Each line was a response to the previous line, redirecting the energy like the bumpers in a pinball machine. This little exercise also proved helpful in getting me through boring lectures and speeches.

In this one I responded to energy moving upward in a vertical format. Try this and drawing will take on a new aspect. You will be directing energy in a format instead of merely copying something you see. Learn to feel this dynamic energy. It will also breathe life into your paintings.


As I became more aware of this dynamic force I also discovered how infinite the variations were in its application. So many great artists had utilized it and I had been blind to its power. But like everyone else, I did respond to it.

Here is another painting from Philip Jameson.


See how he stops every diagonal line as it nears the edge of the format, and re-directs it. The result is that our eyes continue cycling around the format on this course of dynamic linear movement.

Here are a couple of mi own uses of this compositional devise.


This one is of Zion Canyon, and although I may have gone too far with the zig-zag of the stream, it nevertheless leads back to where it meets the diagonal thrust of the gap in the canyon walls.


This one, based on the strata and crack patterns in a road cut shows just how dynamic countering diagonals can be in moving the eye around the enclosed space of a format.

Share some of your ideas or favorite examples of this concept of opposing thrusts, and tell us what you have learned about it.



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[singlepic id=246 w=100 h=75 ]


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[singlepic id=245 w=100 h=75 ]

Authenticating Detail in Painting

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Canadian artist Robert Genn wrote in his latest newsletter about authenticity in art.  You can read it at Mr. Genn is very insightful and erudite but also very down to earth in his writings about this wonderful activity of art. I recommend it to you.

The subject of authenticity is an intriguing one. The question arises, “When does a work stop being authentic and slide into slavish mimicry? I have asked this of myself at times, wondering if I have gone too far. The guiding principle for me is this:  For this particular work, am I adding the authenticating detail the painting requires  or am I bordering on decorative bric-a-brac? Every painting is different, and the answer to the question is always found in my initial intent. What did I want to say about this subject? How did I want the painting to look when it was finished. I don’t want it to look exactly like what is there. A photo can do that better than I can. I see the subject and then see it in my head again, this time as a painting. I want my painting to look like this inner image.

It is impossible to see the painting with all of its detail in your head before you start. But You can visualize the subject as a painting. In fact, if you don’t do this, then you will be attempting a replica instead of painting a painting. This is true whether you are painting en plein air, or working from reference photos in your studio.

As an example I am posting here a photo I took at Kingsbridge, England. I did several small paintings on site that day, but I also took a number of photos of things I wanted to look at later.

The reference photo and its possibilities

The reference photo and its possibilities


I liked the white boat against the dark sea wall in this photo.Then I began the exploration. These are only seven possibilities for arranging the lights and darks in the format. I could have kept going. This helps me to visualize the final painting. From each drawing I picture a different painting – some more detailed, some more simple. The plan I choose determines the amount of detail I will include in the painting.




I decided I liked the value distribution in the second from left at the top.. It is the least developed of all the drawings, but I liked its simple pattern. I liked a couple of the others too, but this one inspired me at this moment, and that’s what counts. Incidentally, If I had done no drawings, then the only source for inspiration would be what my camera saw, and it can’t think! I would have to be a little mad to let it tell me what my painting should look like.

Here is a little painting done from the little drawing plan, and using the photo for authenticating details.

Watercolor using the drawing as the plan.

Watercolor using the drawing as the plan.


You can see that I followed the plan in its distribution of darks coming from the top seft and trickling through the boats to the other side.

The task was to create the value pattern and add enough authenticating detail to make it believable without getting lured into the rocks by the siren call of non-essential details. I opted out on most of the detail in the near boat. I told myself, “just include what is necessary to tell the story convincingly”.



I make a distinction between authenticating details and decorative details. The first are details that help explain the structural form of an object. The orange stripe on the boat does this. Such detail might also include things that help set the stage; like the sea birds here. I also added them to help complete a circular pathway in the composition. The boat with the blue tarpaulin was non essential and rather boring, so it was not included. I also left out all of the interior detail of the second boat, going for suggestion rather than completion. Some rigging was necessary for authenticity, as well as composition. But my purpose was not to show a sailor how much I know about rigging, so I didn’t include it all; just enough to show that I was observing.

Decorative details would be things like all the bricks and stones in the wall, extra rigging, all of the bumpers hanging off the main boat, and bits of stuff lying on the ground.

Too many details that simply decorate surfaces is like too much frosting on the cake. Have you ever had to scrape off the excess frosting to enjoy the cake? Let’s build the cake and add just enough frosting to make it more enjoyable.


Loose Watercolor Painting

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A common thought expressed by participants in the workshops I teach is the desire to learn how to “loosen up.” Accompanying this desire to loosen up is the belief that this looseness is somehow linked to speed and randomness in wielding the brush. I see brushes flying back and forth ow dabbing wildly in an attempt to achieve a loose style.

What they are really after has nothing to do with the speed or random wild brushing. In fact quite the opposite. Looseness is not HOW the painting is done. The looseness they are looking for is in the final appearance of the painting. It is a product of careful observation and deliberate application of strokes. When I am painting I ask myself one simple question. I say, “Carl, What do you really see?” That question makes me look past the identification of what is before me and see how close the values are, where the edge is defined and where it is not, where colors flow naturally from one object into the next, and where things do not appear as I would expect them to be.

If we carefully observe we will discover that a lot of what we think we see is really the result of our brain’s ability to fill in the blanks. To take a few clues and extrapolate the rest.If we then deliberately include that same lack of completion in our paintings the resulting appearance is called “loose”. Our trouble is not in being too tight, but in being too literal and in defining every edge . When we clearly define every edge of an object, we effectively divorce it from its environment, and no amount of detail will re-unite them. If we leave those lost edges that we actually see we provide connection points, places where the edge of one shape is connected to its adjacent shape.  This is not an artistic device, it is a fact of nature, of visual reality.

So don’t abandon control and fling the brush around hoping that those accidental strokes will produce the coveted looseness. Look carefully at the world around you and notice the looseness there, the random edge quality that has been hiding in plain sight. Then deliberately make it happen in your paintings. I have found that water moves the watercolor pigments around on the surface much more freely, and more effortlessly than my brush can.

Bold Watercolor Darks

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During the recent workshop in Casper Wyoming someone asked me, “What colors do you mix to get black? “Well”, I said, “I never really try for black because black is so flat”.

Also I have found that any attempt to mix a strong dark ends up with a certain zombie character. I once heard that if you mix Sap Green, Alizarin Crimson, and Ultramarine Blue, then the resulting color will be close to black. Did it. Turned flat.

I have found  that what does produces rich darks is the juxtaposition of dark colors. I use plenty of water so that I am not dry-brushing, and so that the colors will merge along the edge of the strokes. I don’t mix them on the palette, nor do I mix them on the paper. I allow water to gently pull them together.

For the dark colors I use Phthalo Blue, Quinacridone Pink, Transparent Pyrol Orange and sometimes Sap Green. Since the colors are laid down with water and in their pure state they retain their intensity even when dry.

Juicy darks can make the lights really pop!

Both Pthalo Blue and Transparent Pyrol Orange were applied very wet in the darkest areas. In addition I dropped in a bit of Horizon Blue while the surface was still very wet.

I avoided the habit of over-stroking because that would mix the colors and turn them into zombies. When you over-stroke, you watch it croak. Some instructors call this over-stroking “licking” or “petting”. The underlying belief behind over-stroking seems to be, “Why use one stroke when twenty will do?”.  It is however, impossible to make a stroke better by going over it again. With each pass of the brush the stroke loses integrity, clarity and freshness.

So the key is to have your brush saturated with moist paint and loaded with water. Then put the colors down where they can get to know each other in a wet environment and let the watercolor do its thing.