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Thursday, August 16, 2012

3 Tips for Stronger Paintings

"The Kootenays"
Oil on linen - 4x10"
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How often do you ask yourself: "What should I be focused on daily in my quest to improve as a painter?"

I just got back from teaching a 3 day plein air workshop in Kimberley, BC. On the last morning, I did the above demo to set the students up for an exercise that I have found to be enormously valuable in my own learning, and one that almost always creates a breakthrough for students.

The challenge was to begin by drawing out a composition that was no more than 10 shapes, and then to paint the painting in 50 strokes or less. (Not many takers on the "less" in either department.)

As I was explaining the ground rules, I had a terrific conversation with one of the students that went something like this:

Her: "What is the point of this exercise?"

Me: "What do you imagine it is?"

Her: "Well, let's see, the 10 shapes is probably about learning to simplify my composition."

Me: "Uh huh."

Her: "And the 50 strokes or less is about..... ummmm - mixing up lots of paint so that I have enough when I need it, and I guess I'm going to have to be very focused on getting the value and color as accurate as I can before I put each stroke on the canvas."

Me: "Yep, that about sums it up."

She thought about all of this for a moment or two, and then asked, "Soooo, why don't we always do that?"

Fabulous question.


  1. fabulous exercise...thanks so much for the information.

  2. Oh now that conversation's punch line has me laughing out loud!

  3. Great tips, and a perfect explanation. Thanks for sharing, Liz!

  4. Rules................

    1. Hi Anonymous - if you would like to expand on your comment so I understand what your meaning is - I'd love to have a dialogue with you about it. Especially on the topic of rules... it's a great one!

  5. Replies
    1. Hi Suzy, wondered if the lack of bullets might make it ambiguous:

      1) Simplify your compositions - one way to do this is to limit yourself to 10 or less shapes. You can of course add more shapes as the painting progresses, but the idea is to start with a strong, simple design.

      2) Mix up lots of paint. Can't stress this enough - one of the most common stumbling blocks I see students struggle with is working with starved little mixtures of paint. This shackles your creativity in numerous ways.

      3) Care and attention to accuracy of value and color. This does not mean accurate to what is in front of you, it means accurate to what you want to express about what's in front of you.

      Hope that helps!

  6. I just did the exercise you taught our group in Maine last year - 20 strokes in 30 minutes. I was thinking of you and wondering - what would Liz do if she was here? - oh yeah... so I did several paintings to warm up and posted some of the results. Can't wait to try this one. thanks for sharing.

  7. Yes that explains it. Thanks for the clarification

  8. Looking forward to give this a try, thanks Liz.
    Wonderful demo painting by the way..

  9. so strong and that blue grabs the viewer.

  10. Great reminder! Thanks!

  11. Great reminder, "starved little mixtures of paint", I'm putting this in my studio!