Oil Painting Painting People Puerto Vallarta

Work in Progress – Puerto Vallarta Cowboy

Puerto Vallarta Cowboy 10 (WIP) – – – Puerto Vallarta Cowboy 11 (WIP)
Larger — — — — — – — — – –(Revised version)- Larger
(Earlier version w/charcoal lines)

I knew there was something wrong with the composition of this painting in progress that I started in July but I wasn’t sure what the problem was. I studied it yesterday and realized that my eyes kept going to the blank area on the ground between the brick column and the guy’s feet. I was thinking about adding a box or something to the painting in that spot but then Elinor stopped in with Robin and pointed out that the problem was the weak contrast around his head where it’s all white against white and doesn’t draw your attention and is competing with the strong red area and contrast at the bottom of the wall where a white crack serves as an arrow to the ground.

To fix the painting, I decided to add more contrast around the guys head and break up the space/negative shapes in the composition. I experimented by drawing lines in charcoal seen in the picture on the left. Then I painted the blue square behind his head (that will have white lettering added to it instead of the blue lettering on a white wall in the original photo) to add contrast and make his face the focal point it should be. I also added a second column of bricks, lowered the red paint area on the wall and added an ochre band on top of it, and lightened the sidewalk.

I have a hard time finding the problems in my own paintings though I can usually spot them a mile away in someone else’s. I need to make a checklist of questions to ask myself about a painting when I have that uneasy feeling and don’t know why. Any suggestions welcomed as there’s still a way to go on this one.

Art theory Oil Painting Painting People Photos Portrait Puerto Vallarta

Work in Progress: Puerto Vallarta Cowboy in oil

PV Cowboy - Oil painting layer 2

Oil painting IN PROGRESS – 22 x 28 inches
Click here to see larger

I started this oil painting today from a photo I took in Puerto Vallarta a few months ago (see bottom of this post for the original photo). I thought I’d track my process and progress and post the results as I go.

(Clicking on any of the pictures below will take you to Flickr where you can click All Sizes to see larger)

Original thumbnail sketches

Above are the thumbnail sketches (each about 2″ x 3″) that I did first, trying to work out the composition and colors. I needed to make the sketch match the dimensions of the canvas. Unlike watercolor paper that you can cut to any size, with canvas you either have to stretch it yourself (been there, done that) or use standard sizes.

Above top right: I used grey markers to work out the values but I didn’t change the composition from the photo. Above bottom left: In this grey marker sketch I moved the cowboy to the right, adding more wall between him and the door and added some white gel pen to put back light I lost. Above bottom right: I used gouache to work out the colors.

Enlarged photo with cowboy moved Drawing on colored acrylic ground

(Above left) I placed the original photo in InDesign so I could print it out in grey scale in”tiled” pieces and then I taped the printed sections together so that it would be the same size as my 22×228 canvas. Then I printed just the cowboy in color and stuck him where I wanted him on the large printout. I could have done this in Photoshop but decided it was quicker to do manually. It’s placed over the canvas in this photo.

(Above right) I toned the canvas with acrylic paint mixed to a sort of orangey-brown. I used a sponge brush and kind of messed it up, going over an area that was partially dry, which took off paint instead of putting it on. Fortunately it was in an area where there’s a textured wall so it didn’t matter. Then I put a sheet of Saral graphite “carbon paper” between my enlarged printout and the canvas and using a stylus originally designed for using on a Palm Pilot PDA, drew (invisibly) along the outline of the shapes on the enlarged photo. The Saral paper transfered those lines to the canvas. Unfortunately I didn’t notice the enlargement slipped so I had to retrace the guy again, half an inch to the left which left a lot of confusing double lines. The main reason I wanted to trace was to get the shapes on his face right and they were totally messed up. So I redrew him over the graphite lines with a fine point Sharpie instead of tracing, which worked OK.

Working from enlarged thumbnail sketch & photo

Above: I scanned my thumbnail value sketch, enlarged it to 8×10 and printed it out and stuck it on my easel along with the reference photo and then….

5-Monochrome acrylic underpainting

Above: Using black acrylic gesso I referred to my value sketch to make a grisaille or monochrome underpainting over the orange. Now that I’m looking at this I realized I forgot to put the grey rectangle behind his head that will have the text on it and the orange is looking paler than it really was.

6-Painting the face upside down

Above: I was having trouble with the face so I enlarged his face and printed it, then turned the canvas and the printout upside down and tried to get the shadows and value patterns right on his face.

Then I blocked in the first layer of color with oil paints over the underpainting (picture at top of post). Once it dries I’ll paint another layer. I plan to work loosely, avoiding overworking, especially the door on the left which I like just the way it is.

Below, the original photo. Isn’t he wonderfully macho?

Original photo

People Puerto Vallarta Sketchbook Pages Watercolor

Puerto Vallarta Corn Snacks


Ink and watercolor in large Moleskine watercolor notebook
To enlarge click image, select All Sizes

I wish I could have actually done this sketch in person along the Malecon waterfront in Puerto Vallarta but there was no time alloted for outdoor sketching in my workshop. I noticed several different people selling both corn on the cob and corn kernels in plastic cups that they barbecue on site (the corn not the cups).

I wanted to do a small watercolor in my sketchbook since my painting time lately has been spent working with oil paints and acrylics. When I went to look through my Puerto Vallarta photos for something to paint I discovered most of them were missing. I’d done some nifty photo organizing the other day, sorting everything, trying to back up onto DVDs (but it kept eating the DVDs so I gave up and copied files from my PC to my laptop). Somehow I’d deleted half of the folders I’d sorted, thinking I was deleting extra copies from my laptop. Without going into lots more detail about how this stupidity occured, I’ll just say that I went through all the steps of the grieving process: anger, denial, bargaining etc., through to acceptance and then oh so gratefully, found a folder on my laptop that had the files!!

People Puerto Vallarta Sketchbook Pages Watercolor

Elotes: Puerto Vallarta Street Vendors

Elotes 2

Ink & Watercolor in large Moleskine watercolor notebook
(To enlarge, click images, select All Sizes)

On our trip into town this friendly gentleman (reproduced here twice from two different photos) was standing in the hot sun selling hot corn. He gave me a big smile and held up his sign…not exactly a candid, natural photo, but P.V. was rather like that. People were very friendly and kind, but very much oriented towards the tourist. I wish I would have planned for time to travel away from the well-beaten path after my workshop.

I changed the colors from the photo to use a warm, analagous palette (colors near each other on the color wheel). In the photo the umbrellas were multi-colored and the wall was a royal blue. But in a small sketch like this I thought it would be too busy with all those colors and wanted a hot feeling instead of a rainbow.

After I scanned the original version below, I decided it needed a dark doorway to break up the long wall and give some contrast and focus to the front-facing man. Which do you think works better?

Elotes - Street Vendors
(To enlarge, click image, select All sizes)

Art theory Outdoors/Landscape Puerto Vallarta Sketchbook Pages Watercolor

Puerto Vallarta Aeropuerto


The Control Tower at the Puerto Vallarta airport. A couple of guys in t-shirts in the open air tower were moving from side to side, looking around and then looking down at their computers (I assume).


The view from the waiting area of the runways surounded by grass, bushes, the mountains in the distance and some beat up police vehicles parked in the tall grass.

Ink and watercolor in small Moleskine watercolor notebook.
Click images to enlarge.

When I was leaving P.V. I was told to get to the airport 2 hours early. I got there even earlier than that and after a rudimentary search of my luggage and checking in, learned my flight was delayed an hour. The airport was hot and humid, with no air conditioning. I went upstairs and borrowed a chair from the burger joint to go sit by the window. When I tried to buy an empty cup to put water in for my paints they wanted $1.50 for the cup so I wandered over to the Starbucks and found someone with an empty coffee cup who was happy to give it to me. I washed it out in the bathroom and went back to my chair and finished the drawing.

I decided to go ahead through customs where they searched my carry-on backpack (and allowed me to take my empty cup and paints) and discovered another part of the airport that was air conditioned, modern, fancy and full of duty-free shops that might as well have been in NY or San Francisco. I found another window and drew the runway and then headed to my gate with a yummy ice cream on a stick coated with chocolate and almonds. I was both sad to be leaving and happy to be coming home.

Here’s a few more tips from the Judy Morris watercolor workshop:


  • Morton Coarse Kosher salt works best
  • Tape paper flat to the table to avoid tilting and getting little star patterns…this technique is to get texture but not lighter starry areas.
  • Paint all of the salted areas of the painting first, finish all the salting, and then paint the rest of the painting.
  • Paint the area to be salted in little sections, areas no bigger than size of palm. The paint must be very, very wet. Pick up pinch of salt and rub between finger and thumb to drop it from about 10-12” above painting. Then paint next little area. Don’t let the shine go off the paint before salting and make sure there’s no clumps in the salt.
  • Leave little skipped white spots where you can add in a color from other areas of the painting to unify with them later when the salted areas are dry and the salt is removed.
  • Drop in darker paint along edges or between salt crystals or drop in a reflected color from adjoining areas (red into purple if neighboring area is red).
  • Blow off salt that falls into dry, non-salted areas rather than brushing it off to avoid scraping and damaging the paper.
  • Remove salt from salted areas by scraping that area firmly with a palette knife when very dry.
  • After removing salt, blot the salted area with a damp paper towel to remove any remaining salt or glaze the area with a light wash of yellow or another color to unify, soften edges and bring out a glow.
  • To glaze, use a flat 1″ brush and flick brush lightly in all directions, making x’s or asterisks.

These are her instructions…I’m just passing them along and I think this is the last of the PV drawings and notes from the workshop I’ll share.

Plein Air Puerto Vallarta Sketchbook Pages Watercolor

More Puerto Vallarta sketches

PV-Fountain-white background

Watercolor in Canson 7×10 watercolor book
To enlarge images, click them and select All Sizes


Ink and watercolor in small Moleskine watercolor notebook

I struggled with painting this fountain that was outside our classroom. There was no direct light because it was in a roofed courtyard and there was a bright fuschia pink wall behind it and a bright yellow-green wall on its right side. Before I painted the background, the fountain looked great. Then I painted the wall bright pink and it overpowered the fountain so then I tried painting over it which didn’t work so I washed off as much of the pink as would come off using a damp brush, and then painted over it with yellow ochre. The second version is with the background removed in Photoshop, cropped and lightened a bit to try to recreate how it looked originally. Which do you prefer?

One good thing that came of doing the drawing was that I recalled a tip I’d heard somewhere: to make a cylindrical object like a fountain or a vase appear symmetrical: draw a light vertical line down the center first and then measure each section (measuring its width on one side by sliding your thumb down the pencil to mark the size) and then comparing it to the other side or just eyeballing it.

I drew the grocery picture in the supermarket a couple doors down from my hotel. A workshop friend and I were there to get photos developed at the in-store 1-hour photo booth (thank goodness for my Spanish–without it they would have printed all 104 pictures on my SD card instead of the 10 I wanted–I had to talk them through how to do it on their machine since there was no self-serve). We stood in the produce aisle with our pens, sketchbooks and little paint kits drawing and painting as fast as we could while shoppers and employees ignored us. The worker was standing on a raised rail changing the prices. Half of the price tags listed comparisons to Walmart prices to show shoppers they were getting a good deal. It’s not the charming street market I hoped to sketch, but they did have great fresh rolls in the bakery and organic lettuce and rotisserie chickens that I used for lunch sandwiches all week.

Art theory Outdoors/Landscape Plein Air Puerto Vallarta Sketchbook Pages Watercolor

Color Chords


Ink drawing with watercolor in Canson 7×10 watercolor sketchbook
To enlarge, click image, select All Sizes

I left the workshop to go sketch outside behind the classroom, sitting on a little brick wall along a road with trucks and taxis constantly parading past. This dry fountain was going to be torn down soon as it’s in one of the ubiquitous construction areas.

(More from my workshop with Judy Morris in Puerto Vallarta last week).


This is important to me because I can get so involved in rendering exactly what I see that I forget to take artistic license to create a more pleasing color scheme rather than painting whatever colors are present. A color chord is like a chord in music–a selection of color notes that harmonize or are exciting together.

  • Most paintings accepted into the American Watercolor Society annual show have a limited palette
  • Avoid too many colors or abrasive color combinations by making a “color chord” plan before painting
  • Use a LIMITED PALETTE with any combination of the 3 primaries (a yellow including yellow ochre, a red and a blue); a complementary color scheme (2 colors opposite each other on the color wheel) or an analagous color scheme (neighboring colors on the color wheel); or· 1 color and sepia OR
  • Use a BORROWED COLOR SCHEME: Collect samples of from good photos, postcards, or other paintings color schemes you like and keep them in a folder. Select a color scheme from these samples to select a color chord for your painting.