Two Sunflower Survivors with Process Chart

Two Survivors, oil painting of sunflowers and white vase on linen panel, 7x5 in

Two Survivors, oil painting on linen panel, 7×5 in

Persistence, patience, perseverance, determination, curiosity, courage, confidence, wonder…these are all qualities needed to become a better painter. Another essential is learning to really see and understand the subject. I titled this painting (available hereTwo Survivors because only these two survived from the big bouquet during the week I struggled with two previous sunflower “studies” (aka failed paintings). Sometimes it takes a while before the “blinders” fall away so that I can see the shapes, colors, and values instead of the named bits (e.g. petal, leaf, or nose) that interfere with seeing as a painter.

I was inspired by artist Chris Beaven (whose sunflower painting I purchased and love) by his Session Detail charts that he embeds at the end of each post (sample). I modified his chart to create one for myself to focus my goals and intentions for each session and the painting as a whole. Completing  the chart at the end of each painting session with image, results and plans/goals for the next session is making a big difference in my process and helps me avoid random, unfocused messing about with paint.

Below is the chart I used for this painting. If you’d like to see all three session charts for this painting with my notes about goals, composition mistakes and corrections, and corresponding images, click here to open 3-page PDF file.

Session 1 Detail Chart (Click image to enlarge or click PDF link above to see all 3 sessions)

I loved the original painting of the vase in Session 1 above, with wonderful warm highlights and cool shadows created by the new LED lightbulb I’m experimenting with. My intuition told me to leave the vase alone but instead I started adding the pattern from the actual vase. After a few strokes I realized I didn’t like it and tried to wipe the pattern off the still wet paint. Then I tried to return to the original shapes of color, temperature and value.

I revised the chart layout after this painting. In my next post (another sunflower still life) I’ll include the completed chart for that painting’s 6 sessions and a blank template for anyone who wants to experiment using or modifying it for their own artwork sessions.

Frankie Flathead Planes of the Head Study, oil on canvas panel, 11x14"

Frankie Flathead Finally Painted (Planes of the Head Grisaille Study)

Frankie Flathead Planes of the Head Study, oil on canvas panel, 11x14"

Planes of the Head, Grisaille study, oil on canvas panel, 11×14″

When I bought a “Planes of the Head” life-sized plaster cast two years ago I wanted to learn more about portrait painting. I put it on display in the studio and studied it. I knew I should be drawing and painting from the cast, but hoped learning would happen by osmosis since it didn’t really inspire me as a painting subject.

Planes of the Head Plaster Cast

Planes of the Head Plaster Cast

Then I got curious about grisaille techniques after seeing beautiful paintings that began with that approach. I watched the excellent video “How to Paint: The Grisaille Method” by Jon deMartin (in which he paints from a cast of Julius Caeser) and decided to try grisaille using homely Frankie Flathead, my Planes of the Head cast, as my model. See bottom of post for a clip of the deMartin video.

Planes of the Head Open Grisaille

Open Grisaille in which Frankie resembles a demented old perv

I was going to display all my steps along the way, but my photos weren’t good enough. Above is the first stage, the “open” grisaille, which means it’s painted thinly, using only transparent washes of grey (or in this case, burnt umber) and wiping paint off to achieve the lighter values. At the top of the post is the “closed” grisaille, made by mixing and applying a range of values opaquely, using white and the same burnt umber on top of the original “open” grisaille.

One of the most powerful things I discovered in the video is the way light changes across planes.

Gray scale and strip painted 50% gray

9-step Value Scale (white to black) on left and strip painted Value 4 Gray on right (screenshot from video)

Same Value 5 gray strip curved to show the range of values as it turns from light

Same Value as image to the left but the Value 4 Gray strip is curved to show the range of values as it turns away from light (screenshot from video)

When bent so planes are at different angles to the light, the gray strip on the right seems to have all the values in the 9-step value strip on the left. Isn’t this a powerful demonstration of the effects of light and shadow?

My first attempt at grisaille was  interesting. I made many mistakes and got lots of good practice.

My finished painting isn’t great, but doing the study helped prepare me for the next lesson I gave myself (and that I enjoyed more and will post soon): starting with a grisaille to set the value structure in a still life and then adding the color in the same values.

Below is a clip from the video. I was very curious about how grisaille works so it was worth the $35 to download the three-hour program, also available here to watch online and DVD.

(Disclaimer: I have no connection to or receive no benefit from writing about these products)

Mothers' Day Bouquet #1, oil on linen panel, 8x8"

One Bouquet, 2 Paintings: Generalizing vs. Specifics in Drawing and Painting

Mothers' Day Bouquet #1, oil on linen panel, 8x8"

Birthday Bouquet #1, oil on linen panel, 8×8″

My three wonderful next-door neighbor children bring me flowers every year for my birthday. This year the bouquet lasted so long I got to make two paintings from it. They come to my door, hand me the flowers and then each one shyly gives me a hug and says “Happy birthday.” I love that they’re still doing it at 10, 13 and 16.

When they were little they would come to the studio and make brilliant expressive paintings. Then school got the better of them and they started drawing the archetypical house under a rainbow with 2 windows, a door and smoke coming out of a chimney).

Mothers' Day Bouquet#2, oil on linen panel, 8x8"

Birthday Bouquet #2, oil on linen panel, 8×8″

When I try to work too fast or am tired, I start generalizing, which rarely turns out well, whether in painting or drawing. It’s too easy to do like my neighbor kids and just make a generic house or bunch of flowers rather than these specific ones. I enjoy the process and the results much more when I go for accuracy in drawing, color and value.

Some people are great at simplifying and whipping out gorgeous, impressionistic art. But for me, it’s the individual personality of my subject that interest me; the specifics that make it that particular rose, place or person.

That was the discovery I made when painting these, so they are two more “almost” paintings (see previous post). Each one is just a stepping stone on the long and joyful path that is painting. (And some paintings really are better suited to use as stepping stones in the garden than hanging on the wall!)

What I Learned About Art and Life in 2011

Pastime Hardware After Dark, ink & watercolor, 5x7"

Pastime Hardware After Dark, ink & watercolor, 5x7"

Before I get to my reflections on art and life in 2011, a word or two about the sketch above (and below) from our evening at the hardware store. I stood and sketched between the paint solvent and cleaning product aisles (both stinky), using an aisle-end shelf for my paints.

Same Pastime sketch before adding the dark in the windows

Same Pastime sketch before adding the dark in the windows

When we finished and shared our work, I realized that in the original sketch above, I ignored the fact that it was dark outside. So when I got home I painted all the windows dark. I’m not sure which I like better. What do you think?

Accomplishments and Things Learned in 2011


  • Converted a 440 square foot garage into my new studio including a patio door onto a deck off the studio, insulation, sheet rock, flooring, electrical, and water. Once I have everything moved in I’ll post the story with pictures.



  • After a brief (and briefly successful) venture into painting things to sell, returned to following my whims and inspiration instead of worrying about making work that would sell. This led to the series of 16×20 portraits of people at work in my community, now well underway.
  • Learned from Rose Frantzen video (see clip here) to say “Oops, made a mistake…but that’s ok I can fix it!” instead of “Now I ruined it!” followed by self-critical name calling. It’s downright liberating!
  • Realized that while I value and enjoy many different artists’ styles and techniques, I’ll never be as good as them at painting like them so I’m focusing on painting like me instead, which I can get good at.
  • Learned to ask myself, “What do I want to do with art today,” and doing that, not what some imaginary critic or the illusion of an audience is demanding that I should be doing.
  • I heard Robert Genn say that one’s style is often the thing one doesn’t do right, that it’s your mistakes or the rules you break that make it yours. I’m learning to relish and appreciate my wonkiness. Perfect is boring.
  • When someone plays piano and finishes a tune, there’s nothing left, just quiet. Why not paint that way too, focused on the line, the brush stroke…enjoy the process and let go of the product.


  • Abandoned water-soluble oils and acrylics for regular oils after learning from my friend Kathryn Law how to reduce the use of toxic chemicals and still get the consistency I like.
  • Started watercolor sketching instead of oil painting at plein air paintouts to quickly capture a scene and keep moving instead of standing in one spot for hours while the light changes completely.
  • Tried a bunch of different pens, from expensive Namiki Falcon fountain pen that I didn’t love (sold it) and inexpensive uni-ball Vision Roller Ball, but returned to my favorite, Lamy Safari Extra Fine Point Fountain Pen with Carbon Platinum ink. Both hold up well on the watercolor paper I use in my journals.


  • Registered for a week-long Alla Prima Portraiture class with Rose Frantzen at Scottsdale Artists School in February 2012. (So excited!!!) It is way out of my comfort zone (and budget) but I adore her work  and her book, Portrait of Maquoketa and she is a fabulous teacher.
  • Took a 3-day workshop with Peggi Kroll-Roberts in her studio after studying her series of CDs. Learned how to mix/use juicy luscious paint and more. She said I needed to work on my drawing.
  • Studying the Loomis books Drawing the Head and Hands and Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth to improve my people-drawing skills. Unlike a painting of a pear which can succeed even if the drawing is a bit off, a portrait will fail. It may still be an interesting painting, just not of the person you’re painting.


  • Continued to sketch nearly every Tuesday night with my Urban Sketchers group and regularly sketch my world. As a group we have committed to a sketch a day in January.
  • Finally mastered binding journals using the method in my directions and can create a journal in a few hours instead of days.
  • To mix things up I switched to a Moleskine when I finished the last journal and am already missing my handmade sketchbooks with their really nice multimedia paper.


  • Made the decision to wait until I leave my day job in a year to put effort into art biz/marketing and just concentrate on painting until then.
  • Sold a number of paintings early in the year on DailyPaintWorks.  Recently sold a sketch of Der Wienerschnitzel for their corporate collection.


  • Found balance by prioritizing making art and living life above blogging about it.
  • Celebrated my six-year blogging anniversary with 180,000 views in 2011 (982,746 total); 141 new posts (total 1,004) and 418 pictures uploaded in 2011.
  • Posted regularly and administered the Urban Sketchers S.F. Bay Area blog.
  • Regularly follow about 30-50 other art blogs.

Backyard Llama and Great Drawing Tool: Accurasee Review

Backyard Lama, oil on panel, 8x8"

Backyard Lama, oil on panel, 8x8"

When I spotted llamas in a residential neighborhood backyard near the beach in Pacifica I took a few photos of them for painting later. In the process of this painting I experimented with a terrific new drawing tool, Accurasee, and put this llama through its paces.

I started with this watercolor sketch in my journal:

Backyard Lama, ink & watercolor, 5x5"

Backyard Lama, ink & watercolor, 5x5"

While sketching I edited out the apartment building in the photo and got some understanding of the subject. Then I put the sketch and my iPad displaying the photo on the table by my easel so that I could refer to both as I painted.

Blocking in the values

Blocking in the values

First I sketched in the llama on the panel (above) with thinned paint (hoping it was fairly accurate) and blocked in where I wanted the darks and lights in the painting.

Lama attempt #1, but drawing wrong

Llama attempt #1, but drawing wrong

I thought I was nearly finished (above) but after a break from it, realized that the drawing was wrong: the face looked more like a dog than a llama and the neck was too short.

Then I discovered Accurasee, a free computer program for Macs and PCs (plus an iPhone app) that helps you be more accurate in your drawing or painting by using an innovative approach to the “grid drawing” method as a way to help you see. Accurasee adds a grid to a photo or scan of your drawing and you create a matching grid on or beside your painting. Then you use the grid coordinates to find the landmarks, height and width of objects in the composition.

You can read more about the history of gridding up here and see how much easier it is using Accurassee in these demos or read their user guide (pdf). (Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in promoting this product or this company, but I think it’s great!)

Photo after gridding in Accurasee

Photo after gridding in Accurasee

Accurasee offers a collection of clever drawing tools, including special measuring tape but I made my own using masking tape and marked off the inches:

Tape with inches marked to match Accurasee

Llama Attempt #2 Redrawn: Tape marked to match Accurasee grid

By mentally visualizing where the intersection of the lines would be, I redrew a little more accurately (though still not quite right). As they say on their website:

The ultimate goal is not to create a “dot-to-dot” drawing, but a proportionally accurate one. The Accurasee Method and tools are designed to be used as drawing aids, not a crutch. When used correctly, the Accurasee Method can quite literally train you to see more accurately.

Lama attempt #3, almost there

Llama attempt #3, almost there

When comparing the painting to my watercolor concept I saw the ground was too dark so lightened and brightened it, worked some more on the face and neck and all around.

Eventually I just got tired of the whole production and decided that I’d learned everything I was going to learn from this painting, had nothing more to say, and called it done.

UPDATE: Julie asked how I was using the iPad vs my computer monitor and how I had it setup. Here is a picture:

sketchbook and iPad set up by easel

Sketchbook and iPad set up by easel (plus messy desk and computer monitor)

I have in the past used my computer monitor to paint from but the iPad is handier because I can have it right next to the easel or on my drawing table and with two fingers I can enlarge (as in the above photo) or move the section I’m viewing or go back to seeing the full picture. I use the iPad Smart Cover which when folded back works well as a stand.

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