Something Every Artist Needs

In my last post, I made the case for why one should look at ‘bad’ art (including one’s own failed works!) as a useful exercise in reinforcing one’s own skills. Despite its merits, spending time with uninspiring artwork is hardly enjoyable! It’s something like eating those healthy vegetables than no one is particularly fond of; boring but worth the investment every now and then.

This post is about something much more thrilling, a treat you can enjoy every day, and the complete opposite advice of the above.

I’m talking about surrounding yourself with inspiring art.

It might seem obvious and is probably something you already do to an extent, but being in an environment of stimulating artwork is one of the most important things an artist can do, in my opinion.

My studio walls are covered in reproductions of my favorite paintings from artists new and old. These images make it as easy as possible to study a technique or composition with as little effort as possible. Perhaps more than that, at any odd moment, I will find myself unintentionally staring off into one of those works, and on a subconscious level, I seem to absorb the style of each painting over time.

This notion of ‘passive absorption’ is important. Most art that we find impressive comes from some technique that we don’t quite fully comprehend. Naturally, if we did truly understood the skill involved, we would do it ourselves! While some techniques can be best learned by focused study, other techniques or stylistic effects require a more holistic appreciation. It is for these types of features that passive absorption can be very effective. Research has even shown that being briefly exposed to artwork can increase one’s creativity, so clearly, something is getting through whether you realize it or not!

It’s easy to find high resolution images online, but if you’re not sure what you want, I suggest joining a group on social media where like-minded artists share hi-res works. Scrolling through lower resolution art on Instagram, Pinterest, or similar sites is also useful, but I feel that being physically surrounded by art in real-life is particularly valuable. That being said, having a desktop or phone background that cycles through a folder of images is also a great way to keep fresh artwork coming your way.

Curiously, over time, I’ve found that the displayed paintings that I used to hold up in complete awe become much more accessible.

I start to think to myself, “I could do that.”

Why You Should Look at ‘Bad’ Art

If you’re an artist, or aspiring to be (which—by the way—does makes you an artist if you ask me!), you have likely spent time browsing works in your particular medium and style. Whether in a museum or online, works will inevitably be found that don’t meet your own personal standards. To call these works ‘bad,’ would be unfair—after all, if they are in a museum, they were clearly good enough for someone! Nevertheless, it’s easy to find art that rubs us the wrong way for one reason or another, and if you’re anything like me, your first impulse will be to look away and move on. However, this is a habit that is worth changing!

There are different levels of off-putting art: some works point at something that personally offends us; others are perhaps so extremely naive or careless in execution that they warrant little attention; but then there are those works that are ‘okay’ but miss the mark in a way that reminds us of our own struggle to improve in our craft, demonstrating a less-than-perfect execution of the medium. If the work meets the latter offense, don’t look away!

By resisting the urge to flee from the work and choosing instead to study it, we benefit from a great opportunity to reinforce our own artistic strengths. This is an exercise in proving to yourself what you are capable of seeing. Ask yourself, “What exactly is wrong with this piece?” Is it simply that the proportions are off? If so, how would you fix them? The fact that you can recognize the problem already reveals a level of your skill, but if you can’t definitively answer the question, then you have found your sore spot. Often, it’s this painful point that repels us from the piece—it’s a damning reminder of our blind spot. Now, is your opportunity to shine light on this flaw.

In my experience, these moments of reflection signal a ripe moment for growth. You might be surprised at what you discover about yourself by looking squarely at awkward art.

Playing artistic detective can become a great confidence booster! Scroll through Instagram or Pinterest and give it a try; there will always be some piece that you are capable of correcting.

Of course, the ultimate critique worth undertaking is that of our own work. The more you shudder at the thought, the better! This is how we mature as artists—the sooner we accept it, the sooner we’ll grow.

What Makes This Painting Beautiful?

Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

-Anton Chekhov

Have you ever told a joke and the punchline was so clear that you couldn’t bear to say it, because if you did, the joke wouldn’t be half as funny?

Some things are better left unsaid!

Our brains get a thrill by filling in the gaps—the missing pieces of a puzzle. This is as true in comedy as it is in art, music, and just about every other creative form of expression.

With this in mind, take a moment and consider what makes the above watercolor painting by Joseph Zbukvic so intriguing.

This is a great example of leaving things unsaid. Notice how little of the buildings or cars is actually rendered in this painting; most of the work is left up to the viewer to imagine.

Aside from the excitement the mind gets from completing the visual story on its own, there is another motivation for leaving certain details out of a painting: Zbukvic’s work is a story about the atmosphere of a rainy Parisian day, not one about cars and buildings. We are not interested in how many bricks fill each facade or in reading the bumper stickers on a passing Peugeot. We want to experience the heavy air and play of light that defines such a specific time and place. By leaving out extraneous details, Zbukvic helps the viewer see what he wants us to see and experience a specific moment, and one can almost hear the muffled echos of traffic and wet pattering of tires along the road.

If you’ve ever struggled with elevating your own artwork to something more than a simple copy of your subject, consider omitting the details. Show only that which is relevant. What are the essentials? What parts of your subject strike you the most? Why did you want to depict it in the first place?

I’ll conclude with a few more examples of Zbukvic’s tactful omission—but the details, I’ll leave up to you…

Revealing the Tricks of Richard Schmid

Make your art a gift of inspiration to others to work toward better things.”

Richard Schmid

The celebrated contemporary painter, Richard Schmid, certainly lives up to his advice in the above quote. His virtuosic work has galvanized representational painters for the past fifty years, elevating Schmid to a living legend among artists in the genre—often being compared to masters like John Singer Sargent, Anders Zorn, and other influential artists of the late 19th century.

The above painting is a beautiful example of Schmid’s style. This piece is very much like a symphony of well-applied techniques, working in perfect harmony toward the final image. The execution of strong composition, use of edge, value, drawing, and interest are just a few of the key players in the success of this masterful work, which we will study closely here.

The composition of this piece is achieved in several clever ways. To begin with, the direction of lines throughout the painting move the eye toward the focal point, the hands. Notice how the arms, mirror, and folds of cloth direct one’s attention—corralling our eyes ultimately to the main area of interest. This is also achieved through the use of value, as the arms and hands are much brighter than the contrasting environment. When one “squints down”—using a technique often referenced by Schmid—one can notice how the bright shapes of the arms are the most unique structures in the overall composition, standing out from the more nebulous forms throughout the rest of the image. By squinting, we also can appreciate that the overall composition remains balanced in value, where the rear wall shadow is compensated by the dark plant and bookshelf. All of these features set the strong base upon which the other technical aspects of the painting can be used effectively.

The use of edge is one of Richard Schmid’s most mastered tools, invoking excitement, realism, and directing the interest of his painting’s audience. Hard edges are used very sparingly in this painting, found most notably in the carefully rendered hands of the figure, but in three other areas as well: the mirror, the flower, and the kettle. These four emphasized areas serve almost as a secondary composition, overlaid upon the first, sending our eyes bouncing between each item, helping to tell the story of the scene. The soft edges used elsewhere invoke the gentle feeling of the natural daylight, coming from an unseen window. The lost edge in the bottom left corner, where the curtain and table would have met, was a smart omission, as the alternative would have detracted from the overall composition.

The use of value here has already been mentioned in terms of composition, but it is also Schmid’s other most well-employed technique, which helps to achieve a strong sense of realism. Schmid’s ability to accurately render values of light is one of the most gripping features of his paintings. His careful attention to the “falling off” of value in this scene clearly communicates the quality of light entering the room. This, in combination with the neutral temperature of the light, one feels that this painting was likely made on an overcast day. In addition to Schmid’s careful attention to proportion and the accurately drawn figure, one is struck with a very realistic painting.

The final bits of interest—or the “jewellery” as Schmid sometimes calls them—are the dabs of color that help give the painting its extra sparkle. Without those cool notes of blue scattered sparsely around the image, the painting would not have achieved the same sort of serenity it ultimately has. Another dynamic element of interest comes from the handling of the brushstrokes, in particular, the rendering of the leaves and the cloth in the foreground, which have a kinetic energy to them, appearing as though motion blurred. This sense of movement adds excitement to what could have been a more subdued or static scene.

It’s always a joy to study the works of this wonderful painter. If you enjoyed this analysis of Richard Schmid’s work, please let me know in the comments and perhaps share this page with others who may also benefit. Did you notice anything else that strikes you about the painting? Which painters inspire you? I’d love to hear from you below.

It’s Not Easy Being Green

For those painting outdoors, particularly landscape artists, one is confronted with an abundance of green; from fields of grass to forests with countless leaves and needled trees, the color is unavoidable. For many, this many not seem like a matter worth fretting over, but as we will see, a careless approach to green in one’s painting can ruin an otherwise fine work of art.

A quick image search for landscape paintings on Google can give us a sense of the jarring green that tends to pervade many works.

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Before I proceed, I should make the disclaimer that art is a matter of taste, and for some, the above is not only acceptable but perhaps embraced. That being said, in my experience, I have found that most people tend to connect stronger with a different approach. For comparison, let’s try googling “master landscape painting” and view the results.

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Quite the difference! In fact, despite the fields and trees, the bright green we tend to associate with grass and leaves is almost completely absent from the above images. There are a number of reasons for this, which we will touch upon in a moment, but before we continue, I’d like you to consider your own reaction to the two different approaches. You’ll likely agree that there is certainly a different mood associated with the latter paintings—one I would define as more complex in emotion. The former set of paintings are no doubt full of life and a sense of positivity, but almost singularly so.


An interesting consideration is the color sensitivity of the human eye. As it turns out, bright green is the hue most easily seen by people, hence its use in improving visibility of safety equipment, etc. The reason for this is due in part to the fact that sunlight is strongest around this range, a feature of which the human eye has taken advantage. This is also the reason why plants reflect green light—essentially, they are preventing over-exposure.  So, in a sense, painting this bright green color is something like singing a pure, high note—beautiful but best used in moderation. 

“Fair enough,” you might say, “but if the landscape is green, isn’t that what I should paint?”

Yes and no.

You may know that the grass can be green but is that actually what you’re seeing? Often times, the artist’s inaccurate perception of color is behind their overzealous application of green. You may have noticed that many of the paintings in the second image search depict times of day when the sun is either setting or rising, casting warm colors throughout the landscape. Inevitably, those warm colors will neutralize the greens, forcing them toward muted tones or into the reds altogether. For many of those artists, they chose that particular time of day because of this effect of light. If you wish to do the same, be sure to observe carefully the changes to your scene. Take a look at the painting in the first set, bottom row, third from the left. If the clouds were truly so pink and orange, it is very unlikely that the grass would be as glaringly green as was painted. In addition to sun effects, atmosphere also will affect color temperature. That is, as objects approach the horizon, they will cool in chroma, tending toward blue. While we can see that observation rendered in many of the above paintings, a couple of the images from the first set did not appear to take this into account. Furthermore, on clear days with a  midday sun, cast shadows will almost always take on blue hues from skylight. Simply painting a “dark green” shadow without accounting for a shift in color temperature will perpetuate the overly saturated sense of one’s painting.

Even in ideal conditions, like a field in direct sunlight, you will likely discover many colors other than green between the blades of grass. What do you see? A good exercise I like to do is to view a scene and ask, “Do I see any red? Purple? Blue?” etc. Let your eye highlight any objects that so much as suggest changes in temperature or chroma, and then be sure to include those observations in your painting. Depending on your style and tendency toward impressionism, you can push these color changes further, exaggerating them to an exciting result. I’ll leave you with a painting by the master of this technique: Grainstacks in the Sunlight, Midday by Claude Monet.

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Painting Tips: Lessons from a Solar Eclipse

Millions were treated to the total solar eclipse in the US this week. Aside from a surreal source of inspiration, there is quite a lot this unmatched spectacle can teach us about light and painting.

To help us consider the sun’s lesson, we look to a fascinating effect that accompanies an eclipse. The shadows cast by objects will take on a bizarre pattern as the light from the sun is occluded by the moon. The eclipsed light through a tree will generate thousands of overlapping crescents upon the ground.

The reason this happens comes from the diffraction of the sun’s light off of the surface of each leaf. Diffraction is a physical phenomenon, in which light is redirected or bent around the edges of an object. The many light rays originating from the crescent sun approach each part of the leaf from slightly different angles. After diffracting from the leaf’s surface, those individual light rays will project a flipped image of the eclipsed sun on the ground. This is, of course, exactly how a pin-hole camera works.


Well, that’s interesting, but how does it help us as painters? If we realize that this diffraction effect is happening all the time, even under normal lighting conditions, we can take advantage of this knowledge and render more realistic images. Consider the diffraction of normal sunlight through a tree. What may not have been obvious before, should now be clear: the tree’s cast shadow on the ground is made up of hundreds of circles of light! The projection is composed of overlapping circles, because the sun’s image is (normally) circular.

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If you’ve struggled to paint this type of fuzzy shadow before, now you may have more success. You can use a round brush to build up the shadow’s pattern through the layering of various circular dabs of light. Each dab of paint should be varied in value, and depending on the surface upon which the shadow is cast, the chroma may vary by location. If you build up this effect enough, a realistic portrayal of your subject will begin to take form. Of course, always remember to use your discretion and observe your subject with a discerning eye. Without this consideration, the effect your creating may look like a cheap trick and produce a more shallow, kitschy appearance. If done correctly, you will have a pleasantly soft impression of the tree’s shade.

Studio Lighting

Our lesson about diffraction can also inform our decisions about studio lighting for subjects painted indoors. The smaller the source of light (e.g. a pinhole, LED, small window) and the further the light is from your subject, the crisper your subject’s cast shadows will appear. Those who witnessed the eclipse may have noticed the crispness of their shadow just before totality. On the other hand, the larger the light source and the closer it is to your subject, the more diffused the cast shadows will be. Rembrandt used to take advantage of this effect. He often would place his subject in an unlit room beneath a single skylight — a large source of light at a relatively close distance. This quality of light produced his signature softness and moody atmosphere.


Featured eclipse image credit: Yuri Shwedoff

Getting into Shape | Painting Tutorial

Have you ever painted a subject, maybe a landscape or still life, and were disappointed at how all the elements in the painting felt somehow disjointed – as if the composition didn’t quite flow as well as you had planned? It’s a common problem, and perhaps, sometimes one the artist doesn’t even realize is the source of their frustration. There are a few solutions to this dilemma. However, one of the most effective strategies is to simplify shapes. This doesn’t mean that a square should be reduced to a circle! It means that adjacent forms should be combined when possible to create cohesion and simplicity in an otherwise complex subject. This technique is also known as massing.

Take for example, the serene painting above, by T. Allen Lawson. I can’t help but relish in the middle grouping of pines. In truth, it is one shape. Each tree blends into its neighbor, leaving one solid form. The effect this has on the viewer can hardly be overstated. The simplification of this landscape is not only easier on the eyes but helps to distill the essence of the artist’s expression. This isn’t a painting about trees; it’s a story of a blissful, natural harmony. The viewer knows that there are trees in the forest. We don’t need to show them every needle and pinecone. In fact, the eye prefers not to be shown all the details. Furthermore, our mind is thrilled to fill in the details itself! We struggle as artists to please as many types of viewers as possible, but why do all the heavy-lifting when you can let the viewers do the job themselves? By reducing shapes and form, each viewer will read between the lines and see what he or she wants to see, engaging their own imagination, subconsciously dreaming up more exciting details than you or I could probably produce ourselves.

There are many important tools in a painter’s reserve but massing is one of the most effective. You may have noticed that this technique is closely related to edges – in particular, lost edges, which I wrote about in the last post. Essentially, the simplification of shapes is achieved through omitting edges or removing details altogether.

An understanding and mastery of simplifying edges is especially essential to the watercolorist. I’ll leave you with a painting by one of my favorites, Joseph Zbukvic. Talk about massing! The interconnected shadows and horses in this painting were all done in nearly one flowing wash.


On the Edge


One of the most exciting aspects of a good painting tends also to be one of the most overlooked: edges. The majority of painters seem to be well aware of the importance of good draftsmanship, composition, sense of color and perhaps value. However, the concept of edges too often seems the forgotten virtue. But a painting without a consideration for edges is like a cake without icing or a bride without jewelry. In fact, a painting without carefully planned edges is perhaps less than these things; in addition to a beautiful feature, edges can aid in storytelling and composition — directing the viewers’ eyes to the salient aspects of an image and sharing the artist’s vision in a magical way.

In the above painting, by Zhao Ming Wu, notice the contrast of hard and soft edges to the woman’s figure. Follow the contour of the form and observe what are called lost-and-found edges — edges which come and go. Make note of how the hard edges draw your attention. The human eye is specially designed to hone in on hard, well-defined edges, particularly when those edges denote a sharp transition in value. A painter can use the four types of edges — hard, soft, lost, and found — to her advantage, by choosing to save those hard edges for the focal points of the image.

At first, giving up on uniformly hard edges can be more challenging than one might expect. After all, many realist painters spend a great deal of time practicing their ability to faithfully copy their subject. But after some practice, one starts to notice which edges can be softened or lost altogether. For example, in the above painting, the contour of the knee and thigh is completely missing. The only clue to the leg’s form is the shift in color temperature from the bed sheets to the body. If that contour had instead been painted with a hard edge, it would have been a distraction, pulling the eye from the more interesting parts of the image. With these soft, missing edges, we find our eyes dancing around the painting — the shoulder, the rear, the hand, and feet. How would it feel if painted any other way?

A Choreographed Chaos


In this gripping landscape, by Alexey Alpatov, a fusion of realism and abstraction is masterfully achieved. Between a sweeping palette knife and bold brushwork, a series of shapes seems to give way to recognizable form – as if the cliff were growing out from the chaos of paint. How was this effect achieved? This is the result of a marriage between vision and technique.

When I look at this painting, I see both hemispheres of Alpatov’s brain hard at work. First and foremost, there is evidence of a clear understanding of form, value, color, and edge – aspects of the painting that give it its sense of realism by accurately emulating the physics of light, and that serve the ‘readability’ of the painting through composition and the general design. Secondly, there is a strong sense of vision – the emotion felt by the painter, which informs the choice of style and breathes life into the image.

These two tools, vision and technique, are required to achieve such a painting. Make no mistake: realistic paintings such as this one, which feature bold brushstrokes and bravura, may suggest a devil-may-care approach to execution, but nothing could be further from the truth. This is a highly choreographed chaos. Notice the subtle color temperature shifts in the cliff face – how the surface color saturates with warm light as the stone reflects upon itself. It all looks like an accident but its realistic accuracy reveals its secret. This was a very carefully constructed painting.

More details on how to achieve these effects in coming posts.

For a high resolution image of the painting, click this link.