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Thursday, March 19, 2015

How's the Quality of Your Painting Relationship?

"Snow Dance"
Oil on linen - 24x36"

If you step back and look at your relationship with painting as if it were a partnership with someone that you really cared for - how are you showing up?

Spring is a time of renewal, cleaning out the dust, opening the windows and letting the fresh air in.

What about some spring cleaning for your painting mojo? Could it benefit from a little tune up - or is it perhaps in need of a major overhaul?

Toxic and Constricted 

Here are some warning signs that things are not vibrant and fulfilling. How often are these states of being present in your studio?

  • bored
  • formulaic
  • judgmental (of yourself and/or your painting)
  • in angst
  • agitated by frustration
  • struggling
  • overcoming
  • controlling
  • forcing
  • tight and rigid
  • strongly attached to outcome

Time to lean in and get clear who you're being, and what you want in this relationship. These energies do not support your growth and joy as a painter, but the good news is - you are in charge!

What do you need to do to change it up?

Thriving and Expanding

On the other hand - you may be in the relationship of your dreams! How often do you find yourself in this place in your studio?

  • curious
  • exploring
  • playful
  • open
  • free
  • spacious
  • respectful
  • non-judgmental
  • vulnerable
  • taking risks to stretch and grow
  • fully present and in the moment

If this is you, you are really bringing it in the realm of painting. Bravo! Your heart's all in, the energy's clean - you're good to go!

Upcoming Workshop:

On another note (and it will also help with the spring cleaning! :-), I'm teaching a 3 day workshop in my Canmore studio from April 10-12th. We'll dive in to the key things to focus on in order to to create great design when working from photos. All mediums welcome. More details here.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas!

"December Violets"
Oil on linen - 8x10"

Merry Christmas you fabulous artsy types!

I recently listened to a speech Daniel Graves (founder and president of the Florence Academy of Art) made to his 2014 graduating class, and I was inspired by his questions so wanted to share them with you:

He started by asking, "What does great art do?" and then gave some cool things to reflect on:

"Think of a painting you think is a great work of art and ask yourself "Why?" i.e.:
  • it inspires me
  • it stimulates me
  • it moves me….
Then ask:

How does it accomplish that? What is different about this work of art? Why do I think this is happening?

There is no wrong answer. Here are some possibilities:
  • technique
  • beauty
  • innovation
  • evocative
Finally, here's the most significant question - a great one to reflect on:

Are you applying what you think makes other art great to your own work?

"Paint your own paintings, don’t be swayed. Have the courage to paint the paintings that you are meant to do, that are uniquely yours. Just do it, no excuses." - Daniel Graves

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas and a fascinating relationship with painting in 2015!

Friday, August 8, 2014

3 Tips to Make a Boring Plein Air Subject Fun

"Lançon de Provence" - oil on linen - 8x10" - purchase

Here's the scene I was painting from.

Nuthin' to Paint Here

How many times have you gone out to paint plein air and found there was simply nothing that interesting to work from?

I was in Provence in July, and one day my painting companion Kaye and I drove around all day on a quest to find something great to paint. The light was overcast and flat, we didn't know the area at all, and we just kept turning corners and running into underwhelming subject matter.

These times are an opportunity to really tap into your creativity.

A Bit of Inspiration and Full Permission

What I've noticed in choosing subjects, both from life and from photos, is that my gut tells me if there's something there first, and then I start exploring from a technical perspective.

If the volume is turned way down on my gut message, what's needed is a willingness to be in exploration, and full permission to make shit up. You want to use the scene as a jumping off point and then let your creative muse take the ball and run with it.

Get Curious

Roll up your sleeves, put your painter brain on, and look through the the lens of possibility. If you feel even a glimmer of inspiration, ask yourself: "What's here that I can work with?"

In the scene above, here's what I saw that I could push to create interest:
  • lots of depth
  • a zig-zagging pattern of diagonals leading into the distance
  • a warm foreground and cool background
  • a variety of shapes/sizes to arrange in interesting ways
  • a balance of weight on the foreground right answered by the background mountain


Since the scene wasn't especially compelling, I used brushwork and colour in an expressive way to spark my sense of playfulness, and followed where it led. If it seemed like a fun move, I went for it to see where it would go.  

The best thing about a day like this is that there is little expectation of a great outcome. It's an opportunity to just play with paint, letting each brush stroke lead you to the next with no specific end in mind.

"Painting from nature is not copying the object; it's realizing one's sensations." - Paul Cezanne

Upcoming Plein Air Workshop Adventure

Stephen Quiller and I will be co-leading a unique plein air workshop this September. Carrying on the annual tradition that Bob Genn and I created 5 years ago, we are taking a group of painters on a fabulous adventure heli-painting in the Purcell Mountains of BC, Canada. 

The 4 day workshop starts with a full day of plein air instruction in the gorgeous Rockies of Banff, where Stephen and I will be giving 6 hours of hands-on instruction covering all the essential elements  needed in order to get the most out of this 3 day heli-painting experience.

It's a super cool opportunity that will truly flex your plein air painting muscles. You'll fill your tool kit with all kinds of tips and techniques for tackling outdoor painting, and bring home a wealth of great reference material, inspiration and memories.

Follow this link for more details and registration info.

Click the link below to see a mini heli-painting slideshow:
Heli Painting Photos
(Note: You may need to give the page a moment or two to load).

Feel free to contact me directly if you have questions about this trip:
Phone: 403-763-9035

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Farewell to a Master of Painting and Life

Robert Genn painting in the Bugaboos - August 2013

This morning I spent some time resting my hands on two beautiful paintings that were created by my friend and mentor Robert Genn.

I was quietly feeling him in them, sensing how every inch of them held his personality, his expression, his unique way of responding to the world. It was so clear that these paintings are and always will be my direct connection to him, no matter where he is in the Universe.

There are some important truths I learned from Bob in the time he was in my life, and I feel inspired to share them here as a way of honouring and remembering the remarkable being he was.

On Painting

When you are painting a babbling brook - make gurgling, splashing sounds 

One day when we were painting together, Bob came over to help me find my way in a plein air piece. I had the rocks nailed but was struggling with the moving water.

As he placed a few brushstrokes on my painting, he mimicked the dancing, playful sound of the water. He was connecting with the ‘creek-ness’ of the creek, bringing it fully into the painting.

Singing helps, too

I remember painting fairly near to him on a plateau at Lake O’Hara one sunny July afternoon when I heard him start singing to himself “For he’s the jolly good fellow...”  in a quiet, self-entertaining way.

He was completely immersed in an experience of joyful curiosity, in a state of play and wonder, as he explored what was possible between the world in front of him and the world inside of him.

Stop searching and get started 

(A variation of "Go to your room.")

I spent a day painting in a peaceful cove on Gabriola Island with Bob and his constant four-legged companion Dorothy. For the first hour or two, Bob painted while I roamed around with my camera, looking for something that inspired me to paint.

As I returned to where he was painting, Dorothy was anxiously whining about something and I was amused to hear him admonish her. “Dorothy”, he said, “get a hold of yourself.”

He looked up at me from his perch on the beach, surrounded by 4 really good ‘starts’ and a 5th on his easel, and shot me a glance with a wry smile that suggested I also take his advice...

Stop searching, sit, settle. Let the paintings find you.

On Life

Do what feels true for you

Bob wasn’t ruled by what others thought, or ideas about what he ‘should’ do. He did what compelled him, and didn’t do what didn’t. He was an example of how to live an incredibly authentic life.

Stir the pot - It’s where all the good stuff happens 

He was bold enough to ask inflammatory questions and declare controversial opinions. Whenever he put out an especially ‘hot’ letter, I could sense him sitting back and rubbing his hands with gleeful anticipation as soon as he hit send, deeply curious to see what polarized, emotionally charged, lively discussions would ensue.

He believed that contrary opinions made for elevated, interesting conversation, and he was always more than happy to stay and participate in the debates he initiated.

Ask others who they are, what they believe, and why

I saw Bob do this with pretty much every person he met. He knew he would learn something new, and it often created friendship. People were a wonder to him, an adventure, an opportunity to lean in for exploration and discovery.

He was genuinely, absolutely fascinated by human nature - both other’s and his own.

Be generous with your wisdom, influence and time

The first conversation I ever had with Robert was when I was starting out with galleries. I quickly found there were many confliciting policies, opinions and expectations, and I wanted clarity about what was fair for both the artist and the gallery. I decided to make a list of all the questions I had, and call up several professional artists to ask their opinions.

I had never met Robert, but I cold called him in his studio, thinking, “What’s the worst that could happen?” He engaged in conversation with me for more than an hour that day, and so began a friendship that lasted over 15 years.

It was an integral part of his nature to share and be of service, to give a leg up, to get behind anyone he saw was invested in themselves, and to help them get where they were headed.

Be in the vibrant drama of life unfolding - instead of ‘creating’ drama around it

Bob met his diagnosis and the hard reality that came with it head on, with absolute simplicity and clarity. His moments from his diagnosis to his death were spent living fully into them - free of spinning a story about them.

He chose to respond instead of reacting. He brought presence, care and attention to his dying, meeting each moment, right to the end, with skillful intention.

I heard a great Virginia Woolf quote today:
“Arrange whatever pieces come your way.”

Bob arranged his last pieces as powerfully as he arranged brush marks on his canvases. He met this experience in the same way he met every one of his paintings. Rather than focusing on ‘what was’ - he was far more interested in exploring “what could be”.

He was, and continues to be, an inspiration and an incredible gift in my life.

Fare well my friend, I wish you continued fascination and curious exploration as you continue on your journey. xo

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

2 Great Painting Tips from Kevin MacPherson

"Alfred" - underpainting in progress - oil 9x12"
Just got back from a fantastic workshop in San Francisco with Kevin MacPherson. He is not only a masterful painter, he’s a great guy. He is passionate about teaching, lots of fun to learn from, and really knows what he’s talking about. Super worth studying from!

Though most of what he taught was not new to me - it was like taking all the value study work I’ve been doing for the last few years, paring it down even more - and launching from there.

The Power of Black and White

I’ve worked with doing pre-painting value studies before, but always including a midtone. With Kevin, we started every painting by doing a value study of our subject using only black and white to create the pattern that is light, and the pattern that is shadow.

It’s super challenging to simplify to this extent. What’s needed is a big sharpie marker and a willingess to abandon detail in service of design.

Once you feel the sweet spot of this approach, you cross into a new world of possibility. You become liberated from the idea that detail is needed to tell a powerful story.

Photo from Chinatown - San Francisco

Value study of above Chinatown photo

The Essential Truth About Light and Shadow

Once you begin painting, the trick is to move back in the other direction without going too far.

The biggest thing I got from Kevin was this: the way to preserve the compelling design you just created is to honor a fundamental truth. White in shadow is darker than black in light. Everything builds on that, no crossing the line.

You can deepen your comprehension of this principle by putting a piece of white and black cloth side by side in a direct light source - sunny window for example, and then casting a shadow across them. Now squint down and compare the values and you’ll see it. I've posted a photo as an example, but it’s great learning to do this yourself and see it live.

Cover everything except the white in shadow and the black in light and squint. You'll see that the black in light is lighter than the white in shadow.

What to Consider As You Bring Color Back In

The next thing is to decide if your painting is about the light or the shadow. A good place to explore when considering this is to ask which takes up the larger part of your picture plane.

Once you decide if the light or the shadow will be the star player - put your richest colour there.

If it is the shadow, then you have to create enough light in it to see the colour, which means you need to add a lot of white to your lights (to keep them lighter than the shadow) - and adding that white will be at the expense of pure colour.

On the other hand, if it is in the light where you want to have your richest colour, you will have to darken the darks to get the shadow family where it belongs, again at the expense of rich colour.

"Doorway" - underpainting in progress - oil 12x9"

Try this approach, stay out of the weeds of detail, and see what happens when you let strong design and skillful use of color become a foundation of your work.

Photo reference for "Alfred" painting at the top of the post.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Co-creating With Robert Genn: What's Next for Heli-Painting

"The Bugaboos Spires"
Oil on linen - 6x8"

In September 2010, Robert Genn and I taught an inaugural plein air workshop in the Bugaboos. We used the helicopter to lift us quickly to high, stunning vantages. It was a life changing and unique painting experience for everyone involved, and we all returned home with records of time spent in very sacred, magical places.

In 2013 we completed our 4th annual trip, and each year it has gained in popularity. Heli-painting is a rewarding and challenging experience that can’t help but grow you as a painter - it has become a “bucket list” opportunity for adventurous artists looking to expand their range while connecting with like minded souls.

Taking A Hard Right

Shortly after our 2013 trip, Robert was diagnosed with cancer. As many of you who follow his blog The Painters Keys know - he is meeting his diagnosis with remarkable grace, and a surprisingly pragmatic attitude to getting on with things.

I spent a few hours with him in his studio when I was in Vancouver this January. For most of our visit he reclined in a comfortable chair in his studio, working away on a painting. It was so obviously a form of meditation for him, a way of staying present in the moment, of navigating his new reality while staying connected with one of his greatest passions in life.

Over the course of our friendship Bob has been an inspiration to me in many ways. Observing how he is meeting this experience has taken that to whole new level.

I watched as his assistant, his son, and voices from the outer world all kept checking in, interrupting his sacred space to get input on the unfolding tasks of getting and keeping his affairs in order. He would pause to address what was needed, and then return to his painting and our visit. He is clearly choosing peace, acceptance, and a commitment to living now - not in past or future.

Where We’re Going From Here

We discussed at length what direction we wanted heli-painting to take going forward, and determined that we both felt strongly it was a distinctive workshop experience that should continue.

We considered what artists might best complement the kind of teaching and painting experience we have created, and for 2014 we have invited Stephen Quiller to co-instruct. Stephen is a very accomplished studio and plein air artist who has taught painting to hundreds of students. He has developed a proven approach for creating transformative shifts in the students he works with.

Stephen and I taught together on Salt Spring Island in September of 2012. He is incredibly laid back, extremely articulate and infinitely generous with his wealth of knowledge. Our intention is to continue to share with you a remarkable, trip of a lifetime painting experience.

If you’d like to join us next year – please click here for full details and booking information.

Click here to view a Heli-painting photo album

Monday, February 24, 2014

Diving Head First Into "Wrong"

Oil on linen - 8x10"
purchase info

What kind of relationship do you have with getting it wrong? Does it feel like it's something to be avoided altogether, or resisted after the fact?

It can be so compelling to edit in advance, to deny our creative urges, to not take risks in order to avoid potentially making a mess. There are moments when fear of screwing things up can be almost paralyzing. (Think: painting that's 3/4's done and working.)

On the other hand, it's tempting to beat ourselves up when we do act and then decide what we did was stupid or a mistake. (Think: painting was working, and you just killed it.)

If we decide killing the painting was a bad thing, we start to reinforce our tendency to act with caution in future paintings. Our focus shifts toward painting "successful" paintings instead of exploring 'what might be' from the beginning to the end of the painting process. It becomes an ongoing cycle of painting timidly in order to edit all risk out of the painting process.

Stay in the Game and Keep Shooting

Through a lot of trial and error, I've come to the realization that getting it wrong is not the problem, it's our interpretation of it that sends us into the ditch.

A great metaphor for this is a basketball game. Can you imagine only taking shots if you were sure they were going to go in? Or if every time you missed a shot you started telling yourself a story about how much you suck, how you should be better than you are, how you shouldn't be on the team? Every time you do this, you are effectively benching yourself.

The point isn't to have every shot go in, it's to stay in the game and keep playing.

What's Right With Wrong

So what about a reframe. What if wrong is a magical, essential part of the creative process unfolding? Yes, you may have killed the painting. And you may have no idea how you did that. Even so, every wrong stroke was information - rich, juicy, creative feedback for your soul. Wrong is always valuable information about what 'not right' is.

Trust that you know more now than you did before, even if you don't know what it is that you know. Your cells know. The space knows. There's important data on the hard drive that wouldn't be there if you had held back and been unwilling to step into scary land.

You don't get better by developing a shot that works and then taking that same shot over and over. You rise to the top of your game by taking shots from every possible angle, expanding your range, not caring about 'wrong' or 'failing', and trusting everything is information to create from.

Wrong is a necessary part of getting to right, in painting and in every area of our lives. The more we choose to befriend it, the faster we can integrate the value of it - and get on with the game.

PS: Huge shout out to reader Roxanne Tongco for reaching out to connect - and calling me forth to get my butt in the seat and write a long overdue blog post. This one's for you!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Using Vivid Colour to Flex Your Value Muscle

"Red on Red"
Oil on Canvas - 6x6"

(*Note - all proceeds from the sale of this painting will go to Typhoon Relief in the Philippines. These funds will be matched equally by the Canadian Government, so you'll get an awesome new painting and do a whole lot of good at the same time!)

Dive In to Some Serious 'Seeing' Bootcamp

One way to build your skill at seeing value is to paint your subject with a palette that is limited to varying shades of grey. Another is to paint it in colour and then use a photo to check out how you did in black and white, as in the example above.

Choosing a subject to work from that is monochromatic and colourful is a powerful way you can challenge yourself to represent value accurately in your paintings, and it works an extra muscle at the same time. You're not just challenged to see value, but to mix the nuances of it correctly in one colour. This throws a whole new ball in the air.

Play With Creative Combinations

Try this exercise with every colour in the wheel. (Wait 'til you get to yellow on yellow - seriously tough one.) Then photograph your paintings and turn them into black and white to see how you did. This will tell you immediately if you've nailed your values or not.  If it reads, you have taken another step forward in learning how to see value in colour - and bonus, you have a cool painting! If not, you have some info about where you need to keep working. :-)

I am a huge believer in carving out time in our painting world that is solely dedicated to working on skills, with no attachment to outcome. It is not enough to just paint a lot of paintings, it's important to focus on our weaknesses if we want to become really skillful. Keeping an eye on intentionally working with them is dedicating yourself to mastery, and it can't help but show over time.

Painting is easy. Painting well is not - don't forget to eat your veggies you amazing artistic souls!

Monday, October 14, 2013

Essential Requirements of a Creative State

"Glacial Tarn - the Bugaboos"
Oil on linen - 8x10"
purchase info

How connected are you with your creativity?

Once one gets past the idea that creativity is a thing only some of us are gifted with (the truth is if you are alive, you are creative) - we arrive in the land of how to best tap into our creativity.

I recently listened to a brilliant talk on this topic by John Cleese. (I've shared the link below, well worth a listen.)

Open vs. Closed

What I loved most about John's talk was what he refers to as 'open' and 'closed' states. In order for us to achieve anything of value, both of these states are necessary, but we can only be in one or the other at any given time.

The objective is to learn how to dance in and out of them skillfully, intuitively knowing which moment requires which state.

Work Time - Getting It Done

The 'closed' state is about execution. It has a narrow focus.
  • It is about getting on with it. 
  • It is action oriented and purposeful. 
  • There is not much humor or lightness in this state. 
  • It has tension, and sometimes an anxious, impatient quality which can be exciting and pleasurable.
  • It is a bit manic.
  • In the closed mode, information that we weren't looking for is considered irrelevant.
His most important point is that while the closed state is essential - there's no room for creativity here. Which brings us to the place where creativity thrives, the open state.

Play Time - Letting it Find You

The 'open' state is about the opposite of execution. It has a wider perspective.
  • It is about being less purposeful and more expansive.
  • It's relaxed and contemplative. 
  • It is playful and explorative. 
  • It asks the question - what is there to discover in this moment? 
  • It is completely free of the pressure to get somewhere - not at all outcome focused.
  • In the open mode, information we weren't looking for is a clue, something to be curious about.
With regard to painting - I think the most relevant point John makes is that the confidence for being creative comes from knowing that while you're being creative - nothing is allowed to be 'wrong'. Everything that happens is fascinating.

"You can't be playful and curious if you're frightened that moving in some direction may be a mistake. You're either free to play or you're not."

Integration - Making Room for Both

Here are some ways I have found to weave the open state into the closed 'execution' state:
  • Choose subjects that make you ask, "What's possible?" It's not about how to best copy what's there - it's about stirring up the artist in you. What moves you about the subject? What do you uniquely have to say about it?
  • When working from photos, play with the reference a lot before diving in. Try cropping it in different ways, use filters in photo editing software to create different effects and see what gets triggered in you. Throw a bunch of stuff at the photo and pay attention to your gut responses.
  • Once you are into the painting, get back from it often. It is easy to get sucked into the 'doing' and forget to create space for your muse to offer input. We need that contemplative distance to connect with what's wanting to happen as the painting unfolds. This is not a place of knowing, it's a place of listening.
  • When you're stuck, instead of worrying that a wrong move might wreck the painting, just try something. Be spontaneous, throw a brush stroke down, wipe out something that doesn't feel right to create room for something else. 
"Painting is a process of discovery. Trial and error. A search for self."
I can't remember where I found this quote, but it's hanging in my studio and on especially smart days I remember to reflect on it.

Finding a Balance That Works For You

I think many of us spend a disproportionate amount of time in the closed state - brush to canvas, getting paintings 'done'. As John puts it, "Too often we are stuck in the closed mode because we are addicted to action and outcome."

My quest in my painting life for the past 2 years has been to turn this around, because it simply stopped making sense to me as an artist to spend more time in production than creativity, and that's what was happening.

As I stepped away from painting to contemplate what felt true for me, I wasn't sure what I would find, I just knew that what I was doing wasn't bringing me joy and something had to change.

My current goal is to have the creative state be where the disproportionate amount of my time is spent. What's needed for this is freedom from self-imposed external pressure, full permission to explore in my work, and trust that this will lead me where I'm meant to go.

Your Wisdom

Many artists find ways to keep up with commercial output and still spend much of their time in a creative mode - the open state. I applaud them! I'd love to hear your comments on how you manage this balance in your work.

*Please note - if you are viewing this in your email program you may not be able to see the video. Simply click on the blog title at the top of the email to take you directly to my blog where the video will be enabled.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Wild Mountain Painting

"Looking Out" - oil on linen - 6x8" (sold)

Just back from our 4th annual Heli-Painting adventure in the Bugaboo Mountains of BC.

Each year Robert Genn and I, along with his amazing daughter Sara, co-lead a plein air workshop in one of the most visually spectacular places on earth. This year we had 15 students ambitious enough to brave the elements and get to work in an environment that calls forth tenacity, determination, and a willingness to stretch in service of artistic growth.

Bob doing a demo with Bugaboo Spire in the background.

The more I paint plein air, the more I realize that the gift is not in striving to take home a painting that matches what you saw, but rather to be present for the experience of connecting with what you're seeing, and expressing what is true for you about it in the moment.

When you add in sharing the company of like-minded souls immersed in the creative process together in a sacred place - it is as high quality a life experience as one can have.

Thanks to the gang of 2013 - it was a great pleasure to paint with you in this wild mountain sanctuary!

Hunkered down with Robert in a cozy shelter.

"Looking Out" - detail

I love playing with the combination of transparent darks and thick opaque lights to create interest on the painting surface. I find oil-primed linen allows me to get the most from this approach due to it's non-absorbency and organic, irregular weave.

Raymar Art offers an incredibly light 1/16" thin panel which is ideal for plein air work. Here's a link to the panels I use.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post with a link to a photo essay of this year's heli-painting adventure.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

5 Tips to Creating Strong Design from Photos

"Cruisin'" - 8x6" value study - oil on linen

Have you experienced how difficult it can be to take a compilation of photos and combine them into a sound and compelling design?

If you like painting life unfolding - you have no doubt encountered several 'moving target' scenes that present challenges due to the number of varied elements landing in different positions in each photo. Some examples are:
  • street scenes
  • restaurant interiors
  • children playing
  • boats in a marine scene
  • groups of animals or birds in motion
  • rapidly changing light in the landscape (such as a stormy day with windows of sun spotlighting different areas)
It would be so awesome if you could get the parts that were working to stand still until the others got lined up and in perfect position, but in any 'series' of photos, there will be elements that you do and don't love in each photo.

One option is to pick a single photo that is mostly good and work with it, finding your way as you go. I have done this often - with varying degrees of ease and angst, unexpected pitfalls, surprise wins, and frequent experiences of wading through confusion wondering how I got myself into this mess.

Good news! There's another way. What can really set you up for success is to choose what you like from each of several photos and combine these elements to create the best possible design before you start painting.

Putting in the time to develop your idea in the beginning can really free you up to play once you get into the final painting, as you will have solved many of the potential problems up front.

1) Let Your Muse Lead You

Begin by getting out in the world and immersing yourself in an environment that captivates you.

For me it's a feeling of fascination, intrigue and possibility - out on the hunt for reference is one of the most fun aspects of being an artist! This kind of enchantment with my subject compels me to find a way to explore my unique vision with paint. If you aren't inspired by your reference, it's pretty hard to get into action in the studio.

2) Sift Through Your Reference

Now that you have collected a series of images that are shot from the same viewpoint, and in the same general lighting conditions, lay them all out in front of you, or put them all up on your computer screen.

This is the 'chaos' part of the creative process, you need to get an overview of all the bits so that you can start to decide what needs to stay and what needs to go. Let your intuition lead you - it will tell you what is calling most loudly in each photo - the key elements that are wanting to be included in your final design.







3)Photoshop Time

Adobe Photoshop is an invaluable tool if you work from photos a lot. You can either buy it as a monthly subscription (one year minimum), or buy the software download as a one shot deal.

It's great for editing photos of your paintings for your website, juried shows, etc. - as well as compiling elements from different photos into one working reference as I have done here.

In the photos shown above, I've used Photoshop to merge different elements from each image to create the design I want. The 4th image (in black and white) is the final composite. This is a bit of a learning curve that I won't get into details of in this post - but if you are looking for an artist specific demo on using PS, here's a super valuable one that Scott Burdick put together.

4) Simplification

Once you have a working photo with the key desired elements composed as you want them - it's really helpful to do a value study in order to help you simplify your design further. By eliminating colour and detail, you will find your way to a strong design.

 "Cruisin'" value study - detail

What I am always looking for in a value study is where I can lose edges by bringing values together in order to connect shapes. Some examples of that here are the edges of dogwalker's hands, parts of the dog's legs and the left side of the middle woman's hat merging with the background value so that it becomes about a connected pattern rather than a bunch of individual shapes.

 5) Play With Paint

Now you get to dive into the final painting, knowing that much of the hard work has been done. Having value and design sorted out frees you up to play with colour, brushwork, detail and paint handling - the other challenges of creating a successful painting. :-)

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Take Your Work to a New Level of Awesome

"Bog Grass - Fall" - acrylic on canvas 36x48" by Suzanne Northcott

An invitation to come on a journey of discovery:
The Maker and the Muse - Suzanne Northcott and Liz Wiltzen
Hollyhock - September 22nd-27th, 2013

About a year ago, Robert Genn suggested I consider teaching a workshop this coming September at the amazing Hollyhock Retreat Center on Cortes Island, BC - a beautiful and remote island nestled at the entrance to enchanting Desolation Sound.

The Maker

Robert and his daughter Sara were so enthusiastic and passionate when describing their time spent teaching in this remarkable place that I felt inspired to investigate it futher. As I began to explore the idea, I had a strong sense that the unique mystic of Hollyhock was wanting something in addition to the sound foundational principles that I am so committed to teaching.

The Muse

Suzanne Northcott is both an exceptionally talented artist, and one who breathes the 'why' of creating in every fiber of her being. Everything in me knew this place, this workshop, this undertaking called for a collaboration with this wise and innovative artist, and when she agreed to join me in creating a transformative experience for artists wanting to truly find themselves in their art, it was clear something fabulous was beginning to unfold.

The Adventure

What we have designed together is a soul shifting workshop. It brings the very best of each of our talents and experiences together to take you on a journey that will be a powerful merging of the practical and ethereal elements of the creative process.

We are creating a space that invites you to dive in deeply, to explore, to dance with what unfolds as it is unfolding. And to trust that there will, in the end, be evidence of who you are when you engage with your work in a uniquely playful, courageous and wide open way.

"Nesting II" - Acrylic, ink and charcoal on canvas, 36 x 60″ by Suzanne Northcott

 If you would like to register for the workshop or learn more about it, please follow this link or contact me at:

Thursday, May 16, 2013

"This Might Not Work...."

"Evening - Vermilion Lakes" - oil on linen - 9x12"
purchase info

Listened to a great interview with the brilliant and innovative Seth Godin recently. In it he talks about a liberating way to approach ideas or projects that he finds intimidating. He comes from the place of "This might not work."

It struck me that there really couldn't be a better way to approach painting. If you decide at the beginning that having it 'not turn out' is totally okay - you swing the door wide open to boldness, curiosity, exploration and a willingness to keep dancing with uncertainty all the way to the end. I've been playing with this a lot lately - it's an interesting way to engage with a painting.

The above painting is a demo I did last week for a group of 50 artists at Swinton's Art in Calgary. Painting in front of a group has a unique kind of pressure, and some whispering voices of self doubt showed up just as I was getting started. And then I remembered Seth's wisdom. Hmmm, this might not work. What if that's cool. What if I simply say my power word (Shazam!) and let the brushstrokes land where they may....

Poof! Just like that, stress gone - game on. Magic!

This is my current formula for fun in the studio, wanted to share it in case any of you were looking for a new secret weapon. :-)

Upcoming Workshops

I have a couple of workshops coming up in the next short while. I will be teaching a 5 day portrait workshop in my Canmore studio at the end of June - details here. And I will be out in Vancouver to teach a 3 day Daily Painting workshop at the end of May.

A Chat with Leslie Saeta on Artists Helping Artists

In April I sat down for an hour with Leslie on her blog talk radio show to discuss "Staying Positive About Your Art". We touched on all kinds of great ways to stay focused and in motion when challenges show up in your art world. You can listen to the talk here.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Learning to Design with Value

Value study demo - oil 6x6"

In order to learn sophisticated painting techniques it is valuable to break them down into simple exercises and build up from there.

Something that skilled painters excel at is designing with value. What this means is that you don't paint objects or things. You see the shapes of light and shadow that these 'things' are made up of, and paint those.

The skillful part comes in knowing where to push values, making some slightly darker or lighter than they actually are, in order to link shapes. This creates a pattern of light and shadow that forms a strong design - the structure of your painting - and when done well, everything else that is built upon it will hold together in a powerful way.

The challenge for this simple exercise is to create your value study with only 4 values (+ white for highlights). By limiting values you are forced to designate the same values to some shapes that are in reality different in value. Shapes will naturally connect into an interesting pattern as a result.

Things to Keep in Mind As You Proceed

  1. Determine the important big shapes that fill the painting surface. Remember the shapes of the shadows and background are AS important as the shapes of the objects themselves.
  2. Draw out these shapes, filling the canvas.
  3. Block the shapes in with paint using only 4 values.
  4. Begin modelling form by introducing intermediate values within the shapes.
  5. Refine edges - hard and soft edges can be determined by squinting down. If an edge disappears when squinting - make it soft. High contrast areas will often be harder edged. Use your powers of observation to lead you.
  6. Finish with highlights and accents (small lights and darks) to complete the story.
The most magical thing happens when you find a great place to connect two shapes and the design starts to find its way. I definitely find this way more fun to do in paint than doing a little thumbnail sketch in pencil, not sure why. Give a try and see what you think.

Since I paint these studies alla prima with impasto passages, I don't then paint a color version on top. If you want to follow with color in a grisaille fashion, you could either paint your value study very thinly and wait for it to dry, or paint it in acrylic (as long as your canvas isn't oil primed) followed by oil on top.

If I want to do an actual finished painting, I will start a new painting using the value study as reference for the underlying structure I want to stay true to. If the colour or detail start to make things busy and the structure gets lost, I have the value study to lead me back to a sound design.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Daily Painting and Heli Painting

"Late Dinner" - oil on linen - 9x12"
purchase info

After a 5 month hiatus, my instructing calendar is firing up again. Click here for my full 2013 schedule.

First Up - Daily Painting

Coming up very soon - April 20th-22nd, I will be teaching a Daily Painting workshop in my Canmore studio. I keep this one small, limited to 8-10 students, which allows for an intimate environment and a lot of personal feedback for each artist. We have a lot of fun and build some high quality connections. The focus is on really getting a handle on the key fundamentals of value, color and strong design.  More info / Registration

Heli Painting - A Totally Unique Experience

Robert Genn and I take a group of painters into the Bugaboos each summer to spend 3 days heli-painting. Last year Robert's daughter Sara joined us and added a whole new twist to the mix. The 3 of us are quite varied in our teaching approach and philosophy which exposes the group to a broad range of stimulating concepts and ideas.

I appreciate that many people can't afford a trip like this but here are some things to consider if the idea of coming along has you teetering on the edge of diving in:
  • It is truly one of the most beautiful places on earth.
  • There is a lovely bond that is created when a group of artists get together and share this kind of experience - it's more than a workshop, it's a captivating adventure. 
  • Robert is fascinating to spend a few days with - and he won't be doing this forever.
  • You benefit from the experience of 3 very diverse instructors. 
  • I was a heli-hiking guide for 10+ years so from experience I can tell you that flying around in a helicopter to paint in stunning mountain places is a unique and super cool thing to do in your life.
Finally, if you are a professional artist, the trip will provide you with all kinds of valuable reference material, and of course it's a write off. It easily pays for itself if you are productive with the inspiration you gather when you're there.

If you're ready to leap, we'd love to have you join us!
More info

 "Late Dinner" - detail

Here's my latest NYC painting - yay! I had a ton of fun with the bits and pieces of color in this painting - it is one of the reasons I'm finding city scenes so incredibly captivating to paint!