Before and After





I’ve been playing around with a method for improving paintings. My mind is analytical which has some benefits and drawbacks as an artist.  Since there is little I can do to change it, I might as well go with it.

After I complete a first draft of a painting I put it on my mantle for a few days.  When I’m ready to finish it, I invest time in systematic reflection.  I want to have a punch list of changes before I touch paint or brushes.  If I don’t, I’ll just waste time mucking around without significant improvement.

I use a notebook. First, I note glaring problems like the shepherd’s crook that needs cleaned up and the birds that aren’t noticeable.  I take into account Rich Clem’s advice from our Central Ohio Plein Air group critique -“Get rid of the tree on the right.  It doesn’t help the composition.”  I want to see if he’s right, so I cover it up.  Yes, I think he is!  I still want to keep the stump for the bird but I can lose a lot of that tree in shadows and/or foliage.

Then I look for a strong center of interest.  When I planned the composition I placed the larger feeder 1/3 of the way down from the top and 1/3 of the way over from the right to be in the sweet spot.  It seems to work, but could be strengthened with some subtle tweaks to the background.

The next thing I want to consider is the color scheme.  I was painting from nature but I can control how I represent it.  This painting uses all of the greens and all of the reds on the color wheel for a complementary color scheme.  That’s why the yellow-orange on the smaller feeder looks out of place.  I can switch it to red-orange.

Then I work my way through the principles of design:  unity, contrast, dominance, repetition (with variation), alternation, balance, harmony and gradation.

Dominance jumps out as a problem.  The original painting is about half green.  I don’t really have a dominant value either.  Even though I did a gray-scale sketch before-hand, I work backwards and do a thumbnail to see where I stand.  If I skinny up the tree on the left, I increase the green and the middle values.  That also has the advantage of overlapping the small feeder with green foliage instead of framing it within the rectangle of the tree.  

Alternation might also be a problem.  I could do a better job of connecting the darks.Then I run through the elements of design (line, value, color texture, shape, size, movement) to see if I get any new insights. Just where do the lines lead?  I can play with that in the foliage and blossoms.  Then I’m ready to work my way through the list to the new and improved painting below.


Reworked Painting

Please leave a comment about my self-critique.  What did I miss?  Do you have a similar process?  I’m keeping the notebook so that I can go back and look for patterns.  If you have a process for self-critique I’d love to see it.



Art Colony Pilgrimage

I knew nothing about Brown County, Indiana, when Michael Chesley Johnson mentioned last spring that he and Indiana artist, Doug Runyon, were planning a retreat there for May 2018.  My thoughts:  a painting trip with my buddies, a car packed with art supplies and spring weather!  Where do I sign up?

The retreat grouped gathered at the Hill Top cabins north or Nashville, IN.  Our Ohio crew needed more beds and baths so we rented the cabin above on Grandma Barnes Road.  Grandma Barnes was a character reminiscent of Granny Clampett and a popular subject of the artists in the local colony.

On Sunday Doug gave us a schedule that was a great mix of art, Brown County history and opportunities to paint at sites we’d have never found on our own.

The making of a Gustave Baumman print

On Monday we visited the Brown County Museum where Lyn Letsinger Miller showed us some of the amazing paintings in their permanent collection.  It’s hard to imagine coming to the hilly, undeveloped county in the early 1900’s without running water, good transportation or electricity to make art, but T.C Steele led the way and so many others who were well trained artists from major cities followed him.

Since Michael has written two blog posts about our trip that focus more on the artists and our activities you might want to read his blog 

On the first day we painted at the Brown County State Park.

While most of the crew painted at the lookout tower, Marty Husted and I went on a quest that ended up at a very pretty creek and indoor restrooms (always a plein air plus).  When we saw people in hazmat suits we were a little alarmed.  They were researchers from Purdue out collecting ticks in the woods. Beware!







Each morning we held a critique of the previous day’s paintings.

The next day we painted at the Flower and Herb Barn.  There were so many detailed structures, planters and garden  ornaments that I decided to keep it simple and just capture a backlit scene with early spring greens.  While we were having a fabulously fresh lunch at the Farmhouse Café, the wind blew over my easel, but the painting survived.

Cabin at Camp Palawopec

Wednesday was my favorite day.  We painted at a summer camp with some very cool structures and interesting landscape.  I could have spent the whole week there.  At our critique the next morning one of our fellow painters asked if I’d sell my painting.  I wanted it as a souvenir but decided to part with it. That evening we were hosted for dinner by Leo and Lyn Miller and their friends.

On Thursday it rained quite a bit so we visited  the TC Steele State Historic Site.  This was my favorite of his paintings.  His son’s expression – “I’m trying not to cry, but I really can’t sit here much longer in my Sunday clothes.”

We didn’t paint as a group, but I went downtown to sketch a lovely little church and painted dogwood flowers in the evening until dark.  My friends laugh at my obsession with painting on these trips.  While some are content to do a painting or two and just relax, I’m driven to wear out my brushes. (With that said, I’m the queen of accomplishing little to nothing at home.)




On the last day we visited a private residence where artist Adolf Shulz lived.  Then we went to a private home/antique shop to paint.  I liked the potting shed, playing around with lots of paint and a knife. 

After a delicious lunch it was time to pack up.  I’m hoping our group’s aspiration to visit some of the other artist colonies around the country provides as wonderful an opportunity as this one did.

From Nothing to Something

Last summer I promised to do a landscape painting for the highest bidder in our parish festival silent auction.  One of my painter friends warned me that I’d be likely to get photos that would be difficult to work with, but I went blindly ahead.  (Pun intended.)

The couple who won the bid wanted a painting of the view from their favorite campground.  They promised to get a photo with fall color and email it to me.  Ideally I’d like to visit a location and take my own photos but the campground was more than an hour away so I waited for their photo.

After a gentle reminder, here’s the photo I received.

Oh, the challenges!  I needed to imagine a composition with a center of interest.  I loved the sky and I imagined that rolling hills were beautiful in person so I at least had a starting point.   When I enlarged the photo I could see some buildings near the fields in the distance so I decided on a barn as the focal point.  I emailed the couple and told them that I’d need to make some adjustments and asked if the rolling hills were their main interest in this scene.  They agreed so I started with a pencil sketch to work out my ideas.

I decided to go with oils instead of pastels or watercolors and chose a 16 x 20 inch canvas so that I could wrap the scene around the edges in case they didn’t want to frame it.

I started with an underpainting using burnt sienna.  I haven’t been using earth colors from the tube in my oil paintings, but I thought it would unify this fall scene and provide a framework. I sent  the couple a pic so they could follow the progress.

I let if rest a few days while I worked on other things.  As I began adding color to the background I shot a few photos along the way.


The road was definitely not working yet.

I smoothed it out and added the couple.






The foreground still needed something interesting and I wanted to get across the idea of a campground. Maybe a few camp chairs facing toward the view, as if the couple had just gotten up?  That didn’t work, so I decided to do picnic tables.

The tables started out a bit grey but I warmed them up with the burnt sienna. (I’m not a fan of the color gray.)   I was  waiting for the painting to dry so I could varnish it and send it to its new home when I decided it needed more highlights.  So here is the final version (I think).