Saturday, July 31, 2010

Circular logic

Franz Bishoff
I apologize to to all of you who commented yesterday and didn't get a reply from me. I was writing the post very late and I collapsed. Its a long story. One of you from the Rockport Demo asked me about the guitar player I was recommending so highly.That was Johnny A here is a link where you can hear him play. What a magnificent player. Those of you who don't rock, can go back to sleep.

Here is an example of a circular composition. I have been talking about designs and said this;
What I meant was that design is a human construction and can not be copied from nature. You use decision making to add it to your painting. Design is a decision making and not a transcription process. No matter how carefully you copy that which is before you, you won't end up with a designed painting. Design is a construct, a geometric armature upon which you build your painting. I think I will show some examples for a while here. The most important thing I want to teach on this blog, design. Not just how-to, but you-should. You can learn to draw accurately, in fact that is essential. But it is not enough to make a picturemaker of you, only a journalist.

Circular compositions work well in square canvases. The square almost makes the design happen on it's own. Many painters who have worked on square canvases have used circular designs routinely. Above is the Edgar Payne, and below is the same picture with the circular design indicated.
It is customary to call this a circular design, but in my own work, I think of it as a whirlpool or a vortex. I like to try and spin them around a few times before the escape. I have painted a lot of 26 by 29 paintings and almost all of them have been vortexes. It is a powerful and sometimes almost violent way to set up a painting. A well worked out vortex painting is to my mind the most arresting composition. Below is a Waugh.

And here is a diagram of its design.

Tomorrow, I believe I will write about the group mass composition.

Odds and ends

Hi Stape,

First, I'd like to say I love your blog. Thank you for taking the time to teach young painters a thing or two about how to be a pro. All of the questions I've been struggling with you have answered for the most part on your blog. Thank you so much!!!

I have a 2 part question to ask you. I was reading your post about making a morgue of paintings from magazines and books and it sounds like a great idea. However, I can't seem to bring myself to cut the images out. I have issues of American Art review from 1998 until now and I love going through and reading the articles. What are your thoughts about this?

And I guess this is a more important question: Do you photograph your paintings after you varnish them or before? Do you photograph them yourself? Do you recommend any photographers?

Thanks again!

Best, (name redacted)

Dear redacted;

I cut the magazines up because I would never be able to find the paintings I want to see if I left them all in the magazines. I order them by periods and geography. Also if they are open in my studio when I am working, putting them in plastic sleeves protects them from flying paint. Here is the link about building a picture morgue.

About photography. I used to have many of my paintings professionally shot, particularly if they were going to be reproduced. That was in the day when I used 8 by 10 transparencies. They were expensive, and like color slides one of a kind, unlike a photo from a negative that could be printed out in quantity.

Today digital photgraphy has made things much easier. I shoot my own photos. I usually do that outside, but not in direct sunlight. The best thing about digital is I can open them in photoshop and "tune" them. I have the small version of photoshop, photoshop express. It is enough for my needs.
I try to shoot the paintings before I varnish them. It is hard to shoot a freshly varnished picture without getting glare, or hotspots. I am not an expert photographer and I have a very inexpensive camera. I shoot everything on the blog with it though. I have also shot my own paintings for advertisements in national magazines.

In the comments I was asked;
Question: what did you mean by "you cannot observe good design into a painting?"
I am confused by the term "into". I read it first as "in a painting", but that didn't sound right either.

What I meant was that design is a human construction and can not be copied from nature. You use decision making to add it to your painting. Design is a decision making and not a transcription process. No matter how carefully you copy that which is before you, you won't end up with a designed painting. Design is a construct, a geometric armature upon which you build your painting.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

What I said at the Rockport Demo.

Here's a painting I made recently. I put it into a show at the Rockport Art Association in Rockport Massachusetts. I did a demo there tonight. It went OK I guess, there were a lot of people there. I did all my usual silly schtick, a couple of ladies in the front row kept giving me disapproving looks. They saw the name Stapleton Kearns and were expecting Peter O'Toole and got a paint splattered old hippie. Actually I guess most of the audience enjoyed it. I am teaching a workshop there in Sept.

Here(with bullets) are some of the things I told them. You have probably heard these before, I repeat myself endlessly, but I am always trying to drive home some of the same ideas.
  • You cannot observe good design into a painting.
  • There are three stages in a Stapleton Kearns painting. (1) I am almost done! (2) Gee, I hope I'm doing this right. and (3) This was going to be really good.
  • When my paintings fail its not because they aren't accurate but because they are matter of fact.
  • The world has lots of ordinary paintings, it doesn't need another.
  • I throw about half the paintings I start on location away. I keep those that have something special about them, something unique or captivating.
  • I get way to hung up on the way the paintings actually look. I am the same way about music, I don't care about anything other than how it sounds.
  • I am a poet and not a journalist.
  • How do you know when to quit? I can continue to work on a painting as long as I can continue to make good decisions about it.
  • Like my high school girlfriend, my paintings often look best in dim light.
  • My favorite white is Lefranc, which I get from Jerrys.
  • I always listen to music while I paint, usually rock and roll.
  • Paintings have design, that is an underlying geometric structure. Design operates below the surface and its purpose is to imperceptibly tie the painting together and to give it a human imposed order that viewers find rational and appealing.
  • For everything I say you can find another excellent artist who does exactly the opposite. That doesn't mean there are not better and worse ways to make a painting. There are different goals that painters have and they use different means to achieve them
  • When I rule the world, all frames will have to be made of wrought iron. Better hang em on a stud. I am so sick of getting expensive frames back that are irreparably damaged.
  • There will always be enough blue in a sky. Skies work because of the presence of the other colors in them.
  • Whats the deal with Alex Katz anyway?

Abbott Thayer and camouflage

Abbot Thayer had a lifetime interest in natural history as it was called then, particularly in ornithology. He studied how animals hid in plain sight in their environments. Above is an illustration from his book showing a snake hidden by its protective patterning.

In the Spanish American war he proposed a scheme for camouflaging ships that was never implemented. Years later in World War I Thayers ideas were used by the British navy. Below is an example of what was dubbed dazzle painting. The illustration below dates from the second world war, but is illustrative of the idea. Besides breaking up the outline of the ship from a distance, this camouflage was intended to confuse the range finding equipment then in use in naval artillery. Later with the invention of radar this sort of camouflage was no longer useful and zebra themed navies were repainted in gray.

Below is another illustration from his book of a rabbit hidden in the leaf mould of a forest floor.
A third illustration shows a partridge like birds coloration breaking up its outlines and hiding it from predators.

One of the ideas that Thayer espoused was Countershading. Some birds have their bodies darker on the top where more light will strike them and lighter on the bottom. This makes them harder to see because it reduces the tendency of the light to reveal their forms. This is still called the Thayer effect.

I once visited a women who I believe was related to Thayer and let me see a small model of a battleship in dazzle paint that Thayer had made and an original copy of his book. You can read that book for yourself online. Below is the link.

Concealing Coloration in the Animal Kingdom by Abbott Thayer

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Abbott Thayer

Tonight I want to write about one of the stranger characters in American 19th century painting. Abbott Handerson Thayer, 1849-1921.Born in Boston but raised in the shadow of Mount Monadnock in western New Hampshire, Thayer grew up fascinated by wildlife. This was a time when much of science, particularly the natural sciences were the province of amateur hobbyists.

Thayer studied first in New York (a city to the south of Boston) at the National Academy. He then moved to Paris and studied like many young American painters at the Ecole de Beux arts with the great and somewhat rigid academic painter, and foe of the impressionists, Leon Gerome.
Returning to New York Thayer became a successful portrait painter. The death of two of his children, a common occurrence in those days before antibiotics, affected him deeply and he and his wife moved back to New Hampshire. She eventually lost her mind and died in an asylum. Thayer himself developed a manic depressive illness and was plagued by the roller coaster ride of exuberance followed by deep inescapable sadness the rest of his life. He remarried and then painted wonderfulpictures of his surviving children as angels. Here is one of those.

His long study of ornithology informed the wings in this painting and pulling off such a painting is quite a feat. In most other hands this would have been schmaltzy kitsch, but Thayer makes it work and it is a lovely and oddly convincing painting.

Thayer has subordinated the values in the lights giving this piece a quiet and perfected feeling. I have written before about the use of restrained modeling in the lights to get a "clean" look. This is a great example of this restraint of modeling. The uncluttered lights of the wings and gown have the least amount of interruption possible, yet give enough information to tell their story. This gives a dazzling brightness and is in keeping with the "holy" nature of the subject. The handling carries the picture and is part of why the picture works when in the hands of so many French academics of the era this sort of painting is embarrassing and vulgar. Restraint is often the key to pulling off subjects that would be cloyingly sentimental if painted in a more naturalistic fashion. Note this well, as it is mastery and very applicable to painting still, and little appreciated.

Thayer grew odder as the years went on and he and his entire family slept outside year round. It gets real cold in New Hampshire in the winter so that took some commitment. Many people at that time still believed that fresh air was the key to good health and that the stuffy air in a home could inflict disease. This was at the beginning of the American sanitary movement. I guess that's another post.

Thayer gathered about him a coterie of apprentices that included Rockwell Kent. He was a much respected and sought after teacher.

Notice the sweeping parabolic curves about this figure. These were as I so often say; installed and not observed. He no doubt set up a model in this position, but he brought to the painting an underlying geometric structure which gives it a rhythmic beauty.

Tomorrow I will recount for you the surprising story of how this artist who painted these idealized, virginal and presumably virtuous young women became one of the inventors of modern military camouflage.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

My job; painter

Bryant Stove and Music Company located in Thorndike, Maine is the best source for restored antique wood stoves. They have an incredible selection and can ship. You may have figured out that I like antique stoves.

I thought I might discuss something that came up in another blog I read recently. That is, what title does our occupation have? Some of you might disagree strongly with this, and that's why there is a comments page.


To me it sounds pretentious and a little too casual. I am always flattered when other people call me an artist, but I call myself a painter. If people ask what I do, I say " I am a professional oil painter". If people ask "Are you an artist" I reply "Oh! I sure hope so!"

I was told as a student long ago that "A painter who calls himself an artist, is like a priest who calls himself a saint" and I always liked the idea. In fact I think it encourages people to think I am an artist more than my telling them so, they like "giving" me the appellation themselves. It makes em feel generous.

I have noticed that a lot of the pros, at least here in New England will tell you they are a painter rather than an artist. I know a lot of the old timers did that. I think it is probably a 19th century convention, and I do like old timey ideas and things. I am the derriere garde. Calling yourself a painter carries a sort of humility and it is also a code word. When someone tells me they are an artist, I usually expect them to be an amateur. When I hear a stranger tell me they are a painter, my ears pick up and I think I am probably meeting a pro.

When I am at openings there is always some blowhard dressed in black, wearing a beret and loudly telling anyone who will listen " I am an artist!". I fight the urge to ask,"Do you file quarterlies?" but I might ask " NO kidding, maybe I've seen your work, where are you showing?"
I suspect that at at least a subconscious level a lot of people think the speaker is "putting on airs". Even if I didn't have a philosophical reason for calling myself a painter and not an artist, I would still do it for business reasons. It seems more professional to the dealers and clients.


Item two;

I will never talk a painter down in front of a client, dealer or almost anyone else. I believe this is unprofessional. If their work is weak, others will eventually see it without your pointing it out anyway. I may say very little about their art, but I try not to dump on them. I do this for several reasons. The first is, they may well be trying to feed themselves and their family and I don't want to pull the bread out of their childrens mouths. The other is that it often gets back to them and you might incur a lifetime of resentment, and deserve it too.

Sometimes you will hear an artist ( yes, I happily use that title for OTHER people) run down the work of another artist to build up their own standing with their listeners. That seldom is really effective and instead makes you look insecure at best, and petty at the worst. You will seem confident when you find a good word to say when another artists work is pointed out to you. If you can't figure out anything good to say, try "I like that red" or whatever color dominates the painting. Or remark on it's subject "those are strong looking horses aren't they?" People are really invested in their art, if they aren't hardened pros they may be desperately sensitive to criticism, especially when it is neither private or constructive. They may wear their nervous system on the outside. You can really hurt people with a single casual remark. This is especially true if you are a successful or well known painter, so be kind.

When I am in the company of a trusted friend who is a pro, I may say what I think of a particular painting, but never in earshot of anyone else and only if I know it will go no further. I also feel free to criticize big time New York modernist painters who couldn't possibly be wounded by midgets like me and have such colossal egos that I wish they could be. The dead are also fair game for criticism, unless you are talking to their relatives. I have no problem hurting the feelings of someone who has been dead for a hundred years.

This is a professional courtesy I extend to my fellow artists, and hope for in return. Making it as a painter is hard enough without other artists sabotaging you.

Monday, July 26, 2010

We'll meet on edges soon said I

I mentioned last night that I would write a post on edges. I have written a lot about edges back in the first months of this blog. The painting last night had an edge handling problem. I want to show you a little about that. Above is a painting of a mountain ( humor me, the mountain is the lower shape). The brushstroke runs the same way as the mountain and is visibly striated. That sets up an unnatural relationship between the mountain and the sky. This is clumsy and evil.

Here is one of several possible better fixes. This time the strokes bear no relation to the mountain. I pulled them away from its edge. This is better handling generally. This is true in a still life of an object or around a face in a portrait. The strokes can be pulled together to make them less visible. This also doesn't leave a ridge of paint where the sky and the mountain meet.

Then I can soften the edge with a brush from which I have wiped all of the loose paint with a rag. Just tapping or carefully pulling the brush along the edge will soften it.

Above is how I was taught in the Ives Gammell studio. When working on a picture day after day, it was good to paint the background down over the object, like so......

Then the object would be painted back up over the wet background. This confers several advantages. One since you have wet up both sides, you are not trying to get a soft edge of wet paint on top of dry paint. That is very difficult to control well. But the big advantage to this is for folks working a number of sessions on a painting. If you don't do this and you repaint the passage repeatedly you will develop a thick and visible edge where the two forms meet.

I wanted to mention that Armand Cabrera is showing Waugh paintings along with some quotes from Waugh on seascape painting. Armand Cabrera Art and Influence. He has a great blog and I link to it on my side bar. However the Waugh posts are of particular interest to me and I think to readers of this blog as I have referred to Waugh repeatedly. He shows some nice Waugh paintings too. Those are hard to find.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

I decided to do a crit tonight. I know I said I would do more selected seminal posts, but I got a complaint that I was doing reruns. I did wish to point those early posts out as they are different and a necessary percuser to what I am writing now. So I would advise you to read the earliest parts of this blog, that is where the very technical and the explanations on edges and form, paint and brushstroke posts are. I also did a bit of analysis of the design moves of some of my artistic heroes. I am going to move on then, I don't want to do reruns. If I was not as useful as usual I apologize.

I received this image from an artist who lives in a far away land. I have a number of comments to make on it. Bullets!
  • The rows of whatever that is (radishes?) growing across the foreground lead the eye rapidly across the painting and against the rabbet on the right, instead of leading the eye into the picture.
  • The perspective in the house is off, at least the roof line. The lines of recession should be to a vanishing point that is the horizon and that is our eye level. Everything that is above our eye level will slant downwards and everything below our eye level will slant upwards.
  • The shapes in the mountain in the middle are too similar and need more variety.The shadows back there seem too heavy also. The darks back there are as heavy as those in the foreground.
  • I think the chroma should drop out of those greens as they recede. The lawn to the left of the house is a strong as the foreground greens. There is an old saying that yellow is on the tip of your nose, red is in the middleground and blue is in the distance. I think you need to neutralize the greens with a red as they recede.
  • Every note in this painting seems saturated, I think it would be a better picture if some notes were, and some were not. All color is no color. Good color is not a matter of the most color, (all color is no color) but of cunningly selected and applied color.
  • The sky is too blue. The light in a sky comes from the yellow and red notes flying in there too. You can almost always get enough blue into a sky, it is the other two colors that make skies have light.Perhaps you might have underpainted it with a warm color and then threw a little blue down into that.
  • The thing I most want to point out though is the paint handling in the sky along the left hand top of the mountains. That series of brush strokes echoing the line of the mountains kills the illusion of the sky. They need to either be invisible or pulled in strokes away from that mountain. That gives mean idea tomorrows post. I will write about how to handle a passage like that and work up a little paint demo to go with it. I remember learning that long ago and I don't remember ever writing about it.It is an important little part of handling in landscape painting and it comes up a lot.
I also received this e-mail;

I feel I’m against this big wall of “What to Paint?” This is mainly because, I want to sell my paintings not just do one painting after another. My heart goes out for still life and some Persian Modern/Easter paintings (I was born and raised in Iran until I was 17) and I am not too big on outdoor landscape paintings. I feel there is a very little market out there for Still Life or my Persian Paintings and most people buy landscapes and landscapes of places they know .So what is your advice for this confused Painter?

That's an easy answer to give. If you don't paint what you want, you probably won't paint it well. You say you like still life, perhaps you should be painting that. Still life painting has supported many artist, it is a dependable genre that never goes out of style. Still life is also an excellent way to build your drawing skill.

I would not assume that a landscape is the only thing that people want. You don't have to sell the most people, just a few. After landscape, still life is the most popular genre with buyers. I agree though, they may have an aversion to Persian.

Think about what sort of still lives people might want in their homes. Flowers are always good, people often like still lives containing kitchen or culinary subjects for their dining rooms. There are "genre" painters of still life too, I know an artist who has built a long career painting his collection of antique toys, and another who collects and paints colored glassware and bottles.

Buyers usually are fond of still lives that look real to them. The most salable still lives are generally tightly painted and illusionistic.Carefully rendered still lives are usually the most sought after. I think most of your customers will be women, so you might think about what colors and subjects women might want when decorating their homes. Many still life painters work in sight size. Do you know how to do that. There is a good market for smaller still lives I have noticed.They need to be nicely framed, still lives are generally a decorator item. People have an expectation of a formal sort of painting, that may seem a little unfair, but generally that is what they want. A small still life is often seen as a decoration for a formal dining room or hallway in a more traditional home. There is also a market for large tightly rendered highly colored still lives that are more "contemporary". You probably know the kind of thing you like, if you make it there are probably others who will like the same thing.

Do you know what type of paintings sell best? Good paintings. Take care of your art and it will take care of you. If you are having trouble with sales, don't think "how can I make more salable paintings?' Ask yourself "How can I make better paintings"

We are coming into the time of year when people begin to turn their attention to their homes, in the early summer it seems they are a little less likely to do that, perhaps they are in vacation mode or concerned with other things. I work hard to get my galleries stocked for the upcoming fall, that is often the best sales time in the year. Although that may vary depending on where you live. I always think that the longer the year runs the better sales will be. Early spring and the beginning of summer are often slow. So now it is essential to get those galleries stocked. You can't sell from an empty cart.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Selective list of seminal posts 3

You can get an antique stove like this at

I am mining the earliest parts of this blog to make available some of what I feel are the most nuts and bolts entries I have written. In the early parts of this blog I covered a lot of how-to stuff. Because I have moved on from that to other subjects I wanted the readers to know they are there. These are probably the most useful posts for those learning to paint. I write about art history and art business etc, and those things are important too, but the sections on edges and brushstroke are essential. These may well be the most unique and worthwhile things I have written, and I wrote them before a lot of you found the blog.

About edges

More about edges

More about edges 2

Yet more about edges

Juries and injuries

Each brushstroke

Every brushstroke 2

Every brushstroke 3

Every brushstroke 4

Edges, deweighting for eye control

I hope you will go read those and I will meet you back here. I might do about one or two more nights of this, then I will return to the slaughter of the innocents. Critiques.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Selective index of seminal posts 2

Here are some posts that I think are particularly useful from the early part of the blog.

Dissecting a Metcalf, brushstroke

Pre stretched canvas

Beginning a painting on location

The artist and charity auctions

Dissecting a Hibbard

Dissecting a Hibbard 2

Some observations on Hibbards key

About restraint

Good advice, no charge

Drawing lines on a Bouguereau

There are so many posts (nearly 600) I can't imagine anyone could go back and read them all. Perhaps you will want to, but these are some of those I like the best. I have not selected any from personal history or from my exposition of the history of American landscape painting. I will do this for another couple of nights and then back to some critiques of submitted work. I have em all duct taped to the plumbing in the basement with bags over their heads.

Here is an e-mailed question I received today;

I am writing to you because I believe that you understand what good art is about.Your work is truly masterful.I am a beginning artist and I never really had any formal training.I was just wondering what you would suggest as the best subject to start out drawing.I see many websites advocating cast drawing (sight size) as the best way to start out.Yet I find many others advocate copying the Bargue plates as the best starting point. (Being that your copying from a 2 dimensional paper.) And one other question I had I recently read about an online atelier in which you draw at home and they send you back critiques. Can this in any way compare to a real atelier?(Being that right now I can't really afford a real one).

I think both cast drawing and copying the Barque plates are both excellent ideas. Copy Ingres too. I wrote a post on copying drawings here. I think that Ingres is a great artist to copy, also Raphael. I am not at all sure how you could draw casts without some experienced artist making corrections on your work.
I have never heard of an online atelier, perhaps it is OK, but I have my doubts. The whole idea of an atelier is working with a master and getting individual instruction. However the old Famous Artists School (draw Binky) is reportedly a very good program. Here is their web site.
If I were going to do online instruction I would consider them. Many ateliers are not terribly expensive, but I know they vary in quality. When I was with Ives Gammell his was one of only two nor three in the nation, now they are common across the country. I can't imagine that any online atelier can compare with the real thing.


Notice in my sidebar that I am doing a demo at the Rockport Art Association in Rockport Massachusetts on July 29th at 7:30 P.M. If you want to see me make either a seascape or a fool of myself you are welcome to come. This is a benefit for the art association, all proceeds go to them, not to me. It would be fun to meet more of you, I always enjoy finding out who is out there reading this.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Selective index of seminal posts

There is a difference between a book and a blog. If this were a book I could assume you had read the early chapters rather than only the most recent. Many of you have only read the blog for several months, and I want to encourage you to read some of the early posts. I am going to provide a list of selected links for you all tonight. If you haven't read these, you might. Some of the best and most informative posts are from that era. Her are a few.

My palette

My palette 2

Some things I have seen


About Varnish

Making a value scale

Brushes 1

Color vibration 1

Color vibration 2

Color vibration 3

Suppression of values in the light

Light and shadow

The bedbug line

The rhythmic line

Art and price

Why form matters

Herding sheep

Variety of shape

That ought to keep you busy for a while. I am going to continue with this tomorrow. The idea of the blog has been to write down everything I have learned about painting. I began by writing the most nuts and bolts entries I could. They are real basic and I think if you haven't read them you will find them useful.

I will return to critiquing some more submitted paintings after that. I do like to mix things up some.

It looks like I have enough interest to do a class in the fall in California. If you are interested too, e-mail me and I will get back to you. This doesn't commit you to the workshop but helps me to build a list of interested parties,

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Barns and birches in brown

Above is an image sent to me for a critique. I have a bunch of them and am choosing them not by quality or the order received but because I see something in them that I can use to teach certain points.
  • I like the foreground of this painting. It looks to have been painted with a knife and has an interesting texture. Below are the "problems I think this picture has.
  • Almost everything in this painting marches from one side of the canvas to the other. This is a fault I call stripyness.That repetitive pattern of shapes doesn't lead the eye into the painting and is static rather than dynamic. It makes the shapes too like one another. Even the trees in the background are striped in the same manner as the rest of the painting.
  • The barns are too close to the rabbet on the edge top be as interesting as they are. Their decreasing size directs the eye into the edge of the painting, and that feels uncomfortable.
  • The birch trees on the left are too complicated and the artist was unable to communicate whether they are in the light or the shadow. They are represented as bright as the sky. Even though they are white, the could have been a lower note, or at least part of them could be. They are painted with their local color (white) rather than as they might appear under some particular illumination. White things are subject to light and shadow, value shifts and temperature changes like anything else. Also all of the branches reach from the trunks to the right, more variation in the direction the branches grow would be good too. About half as many branches would be about right. The branches should probably darken as they pass in front of the sky, and against the grass in the foreground. That is called counterchange. I have written about that here.
  • The shadows in the trees in the background are the same value as the darks in the very foreground. They are also full of deep color. I would expect to see less chroma at this distance and also a value shift as things go into the distance is often useful and would be in this instance I think.The darks back there are sort of inky. When you paint a dark passage try to think beyond just DARK, think about WHICH DARK? You need to have more value arrows in your quiver.
  • That thin strip of sky at the top is too narrow, it seems like an afterthought or that the artist just felt they had to squeeze it in. When the painting is framed the rabbet of the frame will hide about a third of it and the problem will be compounded. Remember that you are going to lose the width of a small brush handle into the frame and you need to account for that in your designs. That is probably going to put the right hand barn hard against the frame too. Jamming things into the edge of the frame can give a very unnatural look to a painting. It is better to stop well clear of it, or drive boldly through it.
  • There are two subjects in the painting. That's a problem I call "one for each eye" The tree on the right and the barns are both pulling the viewer about equally. It is important to know where you want the viewer to go, and then to arrange things so as to take them there.
  • The barns could have been made more interesting, perhaps they could have been brought in closer so that we might see a little information about their sides, the roofs could be decorated with some rust or variation of some kind. It would be nice to get more "story" about the barns. Perhaps a little light on their sides to tell us about their color or the material or texture. Maybe some variation in the tree roofs would be nice too, they are all the same shape, varied only in size. Perhaps a tree might break through the horizontal lines of those roofs, perhaps a silo, something else needs to go here.
  • I think this painting could use more variety in color. The whole thing is warm, perhaps some cool notes in the barn roofs or in the sky or the birch. Also I think it would be nice to introduce another color besides the gold red notes, Perhaps a violet or some blue in the sky. A little variation in the color would make this painting less "the same color all over".
  • I think the amount of texture in the grass should decrease as the field recedes from the viewer. I also think that the chroma of the field should drop off as it recedes too. The plane of the field seems more like a vertical wall than a field stretching away from us into the difference. It looks as if we must scale it, rather than walk across it.
  • The field in the left hand lower quadrant has two yellow stripes divided by two green stripes, all of the same width, stacked one above another. This passage needs more variety of shape, that's what I mean by stripey. Watch out for stripes!
  • Other than that, I have no problems with it.
Thank you mystery artist for letting me crit your work. I know it takes a lot of courage to allow me to rip into your painting. I hope you and the other readers will profit by my criticism. Of course you are you, and the painting is something you have made. I critiqued the painting, and not you. For our mental health it is important to understand that. What a great guy I would be if I could improve myself as easily as I can improve my painting.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A side of poetry, hold the science

paintings by Thomas Wilmer Dewing from

Well that was fun. I asked for work for a critique and my inbox is filled with them. Thank you all. I will go after a few of them, I hope I get to yours but, there are a lot of them! I wouldn't mind a few more though. I look for those which I can use to identify a particular problem that I think would be useful for teaching. People said funny things, like "skip the anesthesia" I am going to do a couple of short topics tonight . The first is an e-mailed query. Sounds like that might be an Italian name.

Dear Stape

How do you design a painting in a particular key yet still try to hit the true color you are seeing? My latest landscape I felt like it was way too bright, crayony greens and yellows, but I also felt like the colors were accurate. I would have liked to tone down the key a bit so it was more grayer or browner. But that sacrifices accuracy (and I'm not to the point of being able to design yet anyway, I am still too unsure that I will be able to be accurate about anything and count accuracy as a victory.)
Yours always;

Chromaticus Emasculatum


I highlighted the crucial sentence in your heartbreaking missive. The colors before us in nature are often crayonny. Your colors were probably accurate, but that won't necessarily make them beautiful. In fact, that often gives you a painting that is a mosaic of unrelated color. The ability to paint any color accurately is a necessary skill, but it is not the only, and often not the best approach. As you have heard me say about a million times before, You cannot observe design into a painting, the same is true with color. You cannot observe good color into a painting. Good color is poetic and creative, it has to be installed. Color can be heightened, characterized, modified, systematized, formulated, enveloped, cooled, warmed, broken and who knows what else. This is the difference between observed and artistic color. Luckily most of us bring a set of color preferences and individual taste. Fine painters each have their own "style" of color.

Once you have developed the ability to "hit" color accurately you must "design" your color.You may choose your own path on this, there is a lot of personal preference to color choice. But the important thing here is choice. Art is about decision not transcription. Accuracy is for scientists and turret gunners, for artists, beautiful and poetic ( or vulgar, or powerful or whatever) is one of the goals. We twist the knobs and see what we can make out of that which is before our easel. Observed color is often matter of fact. It took me many years and hundreds of matter of fact paintings to figure that out.

You might begin by studying the work of a favorite painter, I would suggest you choose someone dead. Ask yourself, what decisions have they made about color, how do the different colors in the painting relate to one another? There are probably grays in there, what role do they play? Are all of the colors enveloped or multiplied through by a single modifying tone?? What is going on with the color temperature? Are these chromatic or earth colors? Are they heightened or reduced? You get the idea. There is a logic to the colors in a great painter, see if you can figure out what that is.
Perhaps you should try setting your palette with only three colors, or a few unfamiliar colors. That might force you to make some different choices. Perhaps you could choose a favorite painting and impose those colors on a piece of your own.

Nice old Stape

I mentioned the phrase raison d'etre in passing and I thought perhaps I might elaborate a little more on that. The phrase means reason for being. But you can think of it as a treatment. It's how it is a picture of the subject. If it were a seascape you might choose to make it a sunset or backlit, or full of choppy broken color brushwork or enveloped in a soft macular degenerative fog. It is something you do to the subject to make it interesting rather than a straightforward and ordinary presentation. Other examples would be a strong light effect or an overall unifying cast of color. Imagine painting a dog the color of jewels or a landscape the color of seashells. Unless there is an exciting effect taking place in nature, raison d'etre is the tool of choice. It is the cure for boredom in painting. You can make a painting work that wasn't formerly very interesting.

Again, if you are in California, and interested in taking a workshop please e-mail me and let me know. This doesn't commit you to it, but I am getting a list together of possible students, It looks like I have enough to do one, I will contact you all and see where you think it should be held and how long it should be, three days, five days or six to eight weeks.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Fountain critique

I was sent this image by a reader and it seemed like a good piece to critique. I might do a few more of these, so if you have something for me to eviscerate send it in. I will of course, only critique those pieces that have something wrong with them. If I don't choose to use your submission you can assume it is perfect.

I am going to shoot bullets at this piece, so let me jack a round into the chamber.

  • The painting lacks a clear subject. I expect the artist wanted to portray the fountain, but the trees on either side are equally as important. The path, the trees and the fountain are given equal importance in this tableau. It would be improved by the subordination of these competing elements to the fountain. Sometimes it is possible to allocate space on the canvas in proportion to the importance of the element in the picture. It is often useful to begin a painting by asking yourself,"what is the name of this picture?
  • The values are muddled. The underside of the bowl of the fountain for instance. Is that in the light or the shadow? My guess is that it was in the shadow but bathed in reflected light. The artist has overemphasized that reflected light and made it a s bright as something in the light. When you look at the shadow alone out of context with the lights, the reflected light seems very bright. But if you look at the larger scene the reflected light assumes its rightful place in the shadow world. Remember

Here is a post that explains the parts of the light.

  • Look at the shadow on the ground to the left of the fountain, its value is about the same as the trees in the foreground which I think are supposed to be in the light. This doesn't read. Every time you touch your brush to that canvas you need to know "is this passage in the light? or is it in the shadow?" The shadows are going to be from one end of the value scale ALL OF THEM, and the lights from the other end of the value scale, ALL OF THEM. No value exists in both the lights and the shadows. They are two different worlds and wholly separate. ( You have heard me say this before, haven't you?)
  • Most importantly this painting needs something the French call raison d'etre, that is reason to exist. rather than just showing us a fountain, the painting needs to say something more. It might describe something about the fountain or the light on the fountain or a romanticized description of the fountain. Thye picture needs to have a treatment, a way of seeing the fountain that is special.
It needs to say more than HERE IS THE FOUNTAIN. Below is a fountain painted by Sargent.

This is more a exposition of the light, the glowing shadows and crisp details against an amorphous background than it is a picture of a water spewing masonry doodad. It is an opinion, a poem painted about the fountain. It is often a good idea to think about painting the radiant light more than painting the subject. Painting the light has made lots of ordinary subjects noble.


Its not what you paint, but how you paint it that matters.

It might help to ask yourself, what can I say about this fountain,? How does this fountain make me feel? How can I make this fountain look cool? It is all in telling a story about the subject rather than showing up and recording it.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Ask Stape, about repeating paintings

Here is a question I received via e-mail.I have several more in the hopper that I will answer in coming posts.

Hi Stape,
thanks for all the great blogs you have done. I follow you and learn a lot. Question: when does a painting stop being an original? I have a collector unhappy with me cause he bought a painting of Deathwhistle Lake 3 years ago and has seen others similar (but not exactly) to that in the local gallery. Also, I have posted on my web a duplication of a painting but in a larger size. So if I do a painting in a different size, is that bad also? I have heard that I can go back to the same location and change subject slightly and still be okay. Maybe it is a gray area or am I relying too heavily on my past success?
Regards, Tetanus B. Mandiblesnapper

All paintings in this post are by Gilbert Stuart of George Washington

Dear Tetanus:
That's a delicate question. There are artists who make the same painting over and over. When their name comes up in the conversations of their artist brethren, that counts as a strike against them. Respect of your peers is one of the conditions of success. So there exists a point at which an artist is perceived as having become a mass producer working merely for money. There are a lot of gradations short of that though.

If you have a client who is concerned you probably have a problem and I would take it as a warning. I see no problem with making a larger version of a small painting. You can call the small one "A study for Deathwhistle Lake" and the larger, simply "Deathwhistle Lake". I have had customers ask if I would paint them another version of a painting that they wanted but I have sold. I tell them I can, but I have to make it a little different out of respect for the owner of the first version. They usually have no problem with that, and I make it noticeably different. I also get half up front, please.

I don't think there is a problem with doing a series of paintings of the same subject, but they should all be variations on the theme and different enough that the average Joe can tell them apart at a glance.

I don't think however that it is good to make the same painting more than once. I know that some artists feel that a certain subject is a good "seller" and they want to always have that picture in inventory. But I think in the long run you lose more than you gain with that. You might sell a few extra paintings, although there is no way of knowing if what you might have made instead would have sold as well.

An artist sells integrity, that is your most important product. In the long run people are trusting you to be an original and inventive artist, at least when the money gets meaningful. Production painters doing stacks of small inexpensive paintings probably don't have as much expected of them, and they can crank out widgets and still sell them. But at the level I like to operate I am selling to collectors and they expect to get an original one of a kind, lovingly crafted painting original in concept and execution. They buy my art expecting to receive that, and I want to give it to them. That is important when selling collector quality art. If there is more than one of a painting they feel that what they have bought is reduced in value. Artists are expected to be creative, always making something new and different is more creative than wearing the same path over and over.

There is another reason I think repeating yourself can be a problem. I don't think you will get as much artistic growth making the same image repeatedly. Making new images stretches you as an artist. You have to try harder. When the painting is sold the money will be quickly spent and what you will have to show for it's creation is an increased ability to make paintings. I am much more interested in the increased ability to make paintings than in any one painting, I have made thousands.

I would get bored with the tedium of making the same picture twice, it would seem too much like punching a clock for Mr. Charlie, drudgery. As an ADD role model and human whippet with the attention span of an insect, I need to vary my tasks all the time. That is one of the things that makes painting such a great business for me. I am always working on something different and making projects that have a beginning and an end. I hope I haven't been too harsh, let me know if I have and I will post a picture of a baby animal as penance.

If you are in California and would be interested in a potential workshop there in the early fall, please e-mail me and let me know.

blah, blah, blah, key

The Pissaro above, from is an example of a painting that has been keyed beautifully.
The lights are low enough in value that they still retain color rather than going to chalky glare, yet the entire painting has a delicacy and ethereal lightness. Pissaro has keyed the road just low enough that he can operate in values above it to paint the church and those fence posts on the right . Notice the figures and even the architecture are arrayed in a decorative band across the middle of the image.

I was reminded by a reader that I have written about keying a landscape before. I am pushing 600 posts and I don't really remember all that I have written. Here is a reprint of that information.

Keying a painting is setting the range of light to dark, and where the different elements will be placed on that value scale. Generally this is done by establishing the values of the sky and ground, and hopefully, something like a tree or a hill where the landscape meets the sky. The difference between these is how the key is first established. With the introduction of a few dark accents and a higher note in the landscape, you have layed out the gamut of values that will be used in the painting. Note I am talking about key as it relates to values and not as the set of colors used to make the painting. I could key a painting in black and white.

Imagine a set of ten shelves with each shelf representing a value in our scale of one to ten. If the elements of the landscape are the toys scattered about on my playroom floor, key is how I pick them up and order them on those shelves. I might for instance, put all of my toys on only the middle four shelves. Or I might put one on the top shelf and all the rest on lower shelves, but none on the bottom shelf. I can put those toys in any arrangement on those shelves I want, using all of the shelves or only a few. But I decide. The toys don't tell me where I have to put each of them.Toys are not good decision makers.

I paint in a relatively low key. That means there is more colored pigment in my lights . If I were a high key painter there would be a lot of white in my notes in the light. Most outdoor painters work in a pretty high key so this gives my work a little bit of an unusual look. By lowering my key it enables me to keep more color in my lights, because I am not using so much white there. Much more on this later, but I mention it because I am a bit out of the usual in the aspect. It is important to find how YOU like to key your paintings. I point this out because I want to teach you in the broadest manner I can, that is, how to do things, rather than HOW I do things. Much of the time what I do is pretty universal, but in key I am a little out of the ordinary, so there's a heads up.

There are several large themes running through this blog and one of them is the idea of observing, thinking and deciding. Here is today's version of that.


So keep in mind that the sky is the giver of light and the landscape merely the receiver of light. You are the designer of the painting, not nature. Arrange your lights and darks to make an effective composition, rather than having the same biggest contrast at the horizon installed automatically in every picture you make. The eye is drawn to contrast, if your biggest contrast in a painting is always in the same place, all of your pictures will arrest the viewers eye in the same place.


A handful of people have expressed an interest in a California workshop in the early fall. I think I probably have the nucleus of a class. If you are interested e-mail me. This does not commit you, of course, but it does allow me to measure the interest out there. I like this idea, I would love to come out and do my thing on the other coast.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A value = color thingy

Here's a painting I was sent recently for a critique. It has a problem I see very frequently. In fact when I teach workshops about half of my students have it. The problem lies in establishing the "key" of the painting.

This painting has the middle values and the darkest darks. The clouds are a high value but nothing else is. What happened is this.


He, she or it looked out on that field and saw that it was very green, to get that green they assumed they needed lots of green pigment and they loaded it into the note until it was a low value. They mistakenly assumed that a strong color was a dark color. Once they had done that, the painting was keyed really, really low. In order to paint the pine trees they had to drop them almost to black in order to get them to be enough darker than the grass.

Their lights are painted in a middle-low value and the darks are ink. If they were to do it again, I suggested they take a Munsell scale out when they paint ( that's one of those value charts that run 1 to 10 ) and set their lights at about 2 . Then they would have lots of room to place the lower values without having to go so dark.

I was taught to start a painting by "keying" it. I no longer do this, except instinctively, but I learned after getting a rough drawing or rub in, to find and place my darkest dark and my lightest lights. Often I would paint the sky first contrasted with something that came up against it. That established the value range in which the picture would be placed.

Value is more important than color, as it is a part of drawing., Color is a decoration you hang on your drawing. Since it is so important to get the value right.


If you are in California and would be interested in a potential workshop there in the early fall, please e-mail me and let me know. If I have a few takers I will schedule one.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

More about the Shiskin lesson

Here is the painting for which the sketch I showed you last night must have been the study. This was provided by thehiddenplace in the comments. Thanks, behind the scenes a lot of e-mail arrives asking questions and providing me with interesting information. Perhaps someday this blog will be self writing.

Several people have asked me when I would do a workshop in California. I might be there in the fall, if you are interested in that e-mail me and let me know. My e-mail address is over on the right under ask Stape. I would love too, by the way, but there needs to be some interest.
I received this e-mail. I have highlighted the e-mail message in aqua velva and then inserted my commentary in red text.

Dear Stape,

Your breakdown of Shishkin’s piece was thought-provoking- great bullets. I am realizing more and more that my color sense is downright horrendous, so I am trying to improve my decision-making:Here exactly is how my Color thought process would work in copying this piece:

a) The trees look like cad yellow and cobalt blue- that’s my light, but there are some burnt sienna notes, probably for the local tree color.

I don't know what color the piece actually is, there is a lot of variation in monitors and digital captures, but for the sake of this exercise lets assume it is true. I don't use cobalt much except in skies, but that might work. I would have to hit it once and see. My default choice would probably be ultramarine.

b) That means the shadows should be the complement, which is an orangey-violet. I’ll use ultramarine blue (because I want to use a different blue than in the light) and cad red (because that’s browner and warmer than aliz. crimson) and I’ll mute it with raw umber( that will help me keep it dark enough, plus warm). Or maybe just ultramarine blue and burnt sienna (that’s orangey!)- that way I’m incorporating the burnt sienna I’ve already used (color harmony!). But wait, isn’t this a case of cool light, warm shadow? Maybe I should use lemon yellow, not cad yellow, for the lights!

I would probably reach for the cobalt violet, I might modify it with a little ocher. I have no idea if Shiskin actually used it, but it is about the right hue. I would also have ultramarine and burnt sienna handy. Again I would try that, if it looked good. OK, if not, I would try another ploy. It is hard to know without actually trying to hit the note and then comparing them.I have no lemon yellow only cad yellow vulgaris. I can cool a yellow if need be so cad. lemon seems extraneous. I know a lot of landscape painters do like it though. I have only one cadmium, cadmium yellow, sometimes I have cad red light but I am just as happy with the proprietary reds like Rembrandt's or Sennelier's. I like those which are closest to vermilion.

c) For the dark or medium midtones I should mix the light color with this shadow color, because we should see some related color of the tree in light in that mid-shadow.

I would try to mix up the color I perceive rather than trying to arrive at it mathematically. I would mix a color that "went" with the family of hues in my lights. I probably still have a pool of color on my palette left over from painting the lights that I could doctor up and use too.

d) The grass is getting more sunlight, so it’s the cobalt blue with a greater part of cad yellow(or maybe lemon yellow, because it’s supposed to be a cool light), and some aliz. crimson to mute it a bit; the shadow grasses would be ultramarine blue and a duller yellow, like yellow ochre, muted with some cad red (because that’s warmer than aliz. crimson).

That sounds good but I would have some viridian rather than the cobalt blue on the bottom of this mixture.I have cad red but almost always try to use something else, it doesn't seem to be a very clean mixer, but in this instance it would probably work. I would again be peddling cobalt violet there. I would expect that Shiskin used vermilion, that was the common warm red in those days. It is a great color and I learned to paint using it, Now it is replaced by cadmium red because it is mercuric sulphide and nasty poisonous.Which brings us to an interesting dilemma, should a copy be done with original period materials, or is it OK to use contemporary pigments. I would argue the latter as long as you can get close to the original look, because the real point is to learn, and you won't have period materials when you are doing your own painting.. Also you might not want to use some of the colors that those guys did, they have been replaced because of their toxicity and the availability of better, more permanent pigments.

e) The sky I want the coolest, so it’s ultramarine blue and aliz crimson.

f) White of course wherever I need a lighter value.

If you wanted to be like Shiskin, that would have to be flake (lead) white of course. Use Titanium instead.

Does my logic sound correct, am I close, or am I insane?

The first thing that happens when battle is joined is that all planning goes out the window.You really have to try a mixture and then check to see if it is right. If fit is not, the question becomes, what can I add to it to make it right, does it need more x? Sometimes the root color is wrong and you need to start a new mixture in hopes that will be correct.

Plus this is just to copy a successful work- it’s many times worse when I am deciphering what is live in front of me. Any advice would be helpful, but if it is just that I am insane then I apologize for taking your time. In case of this, I did not put this as a blog comment.

I have an almost instinctive system of grabbing the colors to make a note before me. Some of this is personal preference, and some is experience. They have worked for me outside. But there are other ways as well, maybe better. It is awfully hard to make anything more than a guess without actually mixing up the note and seeing if it will work. I can hit any color I see except for some weird colors in man made materials like Sears ponchos.

Signed, My Kids Have To Dress Me Or Everything Clashes