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How To Paint When You Lack Inspiration

My two "uninspired" paintings

It has been a busy year.   My summer was a series of workshops and family visits bookended with two exhibitions.   Painting time has been sparse but I knew I had an upcoming stretch of weeks where my schedule was open to paint, paint, and paint.   Finally last night I was free to go into the studio and found that all I wanted to do was retreat upstairs and curl up with a book.  I looked around the studio at half finished paintings and thought, “Nah, I don’t want to work on that,” so I made a bargain with myself.

I will paint for an hour and a half.  If I am still not feeling inspired after that time then I am free to leave.

Since my heart was not in it I decided that I did not want to do any preparation.  I sectioned off a 5x7 and a 6x6 on a piece of U-Art that had previously been painted on then scrubbed off.  Usually I am very particular about my palette but without the inspiration I did not bother with sorting my values or colors instead, decided to use whatever pastels I had laid out for a previous painting.  First I tackled the 5x7 and choose to work from a photo I had taken on a recent trip through the Mission Peninsula in northern Michigan.  I liked the graphic pattern of the hills, sky, and water.  I laid in the darks, lights, and then the midtones.   Next I adjusted the values and colors for a sense of depth and atmosphere.  After a while I felt I had done all that I could and would look at the painting later to assess its success.  An hour had passed and I decided to start a new one.  This pastel was copied from a 5x7 oil I had done of three small roses.  I felt like the oil painting had promise but I wanted to try it in pastel and in a square composition.  Once again I used a mechanical approach but this time painted the lights first, then the midtones, and finally the darks.  I finished blocking in the second one when the timer went off telling me my hour and a half was up and I could return to my book without guilt.

This morning I went down to my studio taking it for granted that last night’s paintings were unsuccessful and I could scrub them.  I was pleasantly surprised with how much I liked them.  There was freshness in the application that is sometimes lacking in the work I take seriously.  Lesson learned: The most important thing we can do as artists is show up, and put the time in. 

Even when my brain was whining, “Can I stop now?”  - I ignored it and put in my time. Since I showed up, my painting did too! 

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My Snazzy International Travel Plein Air Set Up

Wanted to share my snazzy plein air set up I took to Italy.  Space was at a premium so I brought my Guerrilla box which holds 6x8s.  My splurge purchase before I left was the Guerrilla tripod which weighs 2 pounds and is 17 inches folded up.  I had an old Unison box that fit into the bottom of the easel (where the paints would go) and brought another small Terry Ludwig box which I attached with a giant rubber band to the palette.  I ended up with about 35 pastels.  My palette was could not quite capture the colors that were there.  Italy has beautiful yellow light, with violet shadows.   I brought too many greens with red in them, and could not capture the blue greens on the shadows of the foliage.  My pastel surface was a 9x12 Kitty Wallis pad that I kept in a Panel Pack and connected it to the box using a bungee cord.  When I wanted to watercolor I had a 6x8 block that sat inside of the box and then my watercolor palette sat on top of the box palette.  I brought a collapsible bucket for water which I hung with a hook.  All this fit into my laptop bag which I used as my personal bag when I was flying and the whole thing weighed about 12 pounds.  Other than having the wrong colors to capture the light in pastel, I was very happy with the set up.

Here is a close up of the my plein air box and pastels. 

The watercolor set up: I painted on a 6x8 block which I kept in the box.  The palette fit on the top, and I kept the watercolor tubes in a small tin.

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Changing Visions

An interesting effect occurs when I learn something new in painting - my vision changes.  This has happened time and time again throughout my artistic journey.  There are rarely lightning bolts of knowledge that fill me with insight but rather a slow realization that I see the world differently than I did before and that change influences my artwork.  When I first began painting I worked in the typical fashion of most beginners where I would carefully draw objects then color them in.  I marveled at demonstrations where the artist would block in a landscape with light and dark shapes regardless of the objects in the painting.  Watching as the painting materialized through a series of smaller light and dark shapes seemed like magic and I marveled that the artist could see what was before them in such a simple way.  I struggled for years with this approach, never quite trusting that I could get a painting without a detailed drawing first. Plein air painting forced me to paint in a fast and succinct way and a shift occurred in my vision where I began to identify the world around me in large tonal masses.  I began painting shapes of values regardless of the objects that were present. Now when I look at a scene I do not see “barn, tree, or house,” - I see it as a series of light and dark shapes.

When my vision changes my art progresses.

I knew my recent trip to Italy changed my vision but I was not certain how.  I have been painting long enough that I understand the restless nature of the muse searching for a way to reveal what is different.  This is often accompanied with a sense of unease and uncertainty.  I thought I would come home and paint Italian landscapes with cypress trees and stucco buildings, but what called to me was a painting of two boys at a beach.  The scene could be from anywhere and is a universal moment of boys lost in play.  What was different were my colors and approach.  I found myself reaching for pastels that I rarely use - brilliant blues and yellows to create the sense of sunshine and water.  The light in Italy is very yellow and clear which creates vivid colors.  In Michigan, where I live, the light has a lot of red in it and the humidity creates a veil of atmosphere that dulls the local colors. 

Another change occurred in how I approach figures.  When we were in Florence, we visited the great museums of the Uffizi, and the Pitti Palace and saw beautifully painted figures turning and twisting. The Accademia was our last visit and nothing prepared me for the power of the iconic statue of David.  He is the perfect sculpture personifying gesture.  He is at one moment relaxed and tensed in a stance of concentration before he loads his sling to slay the giant.  It is the perfect “about to” moment.  Gesture has always been important in my work but after viewing such great and finely crafted work I find myself slowing down and paying attention to details that will enhance the gesture.  The boys have had their feet and ears enlarged slightly and special attention paid to the weight and twisting of the figures. I have been playing with this painting trying to add in any elements that will add to the feeling of boys at play.   This is my first large painting since my return from Italy.  It is only a start; my vision has changed and I am excited to see how this will transform my work.

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To Bring or Not to Bring- How to prepare for a painting trip to Italy.

What to bring plus a work in progress showing the beautiful light.

What to leave home- phrase book.  Before the trip I knew that I would usually be accompanied by an Italian speaker and was lazy about learning the language.  My husband purchased a pocket sized phrase book before we left.  I am not sure who organized the chapters but when we wanted to ask about a train schedule or where the bathroom was the information was not easily found.  While staying at a (phenomenal) farmhouse B &B outside of Sienna our host picked up our book and randomly opened pages to read out loud to us:

“I am here on business”   “Io sono qui per business”                                   

“Can I give you a hug?”  “Posso darti un abbraccio?”

“I do not eat Dogfish”   “ Non ho mangiato palombo”

 “Do you have any sexually transmitted diseases?”   “Avete delle malattie sessualmente trasmissibili?”

The phrase book was used mostly to amuse Italians, and not very helpful for day to day interaction.  It would be best to learn some common useful phrases before you go.

Bring good walking shoes and a scarf- Good quality comfortable walking shoes are a must. Italian women manage to traverse the cobblestones in high heels but for me a pair of Skecher shoes did the job.  They are like slippers and allowed my feet to grab the cobblestones, after a day of walking in the city my feet were surprisingly not sore.  A scarf is must have accessory and can be purchased all over the city.  Italians know how to dress and scarves are used to fancy up any outfit.  For females, they can be used to cover bare shoulder or any hint of cleavage when touring the cathedrals.

Bring a good appetite- Italy is about food, the presentation of food, the taste of food, the sharing of food.  Meals are not to be rushed and take out is unknown except for tourist areas.  Italians are warm generous people and food is a great source of conversation.  I had some of the best meals of my life while I was in Italy.  I think it is a mixture of fresh ingredients, and cooks who care deeply about tradition and season with a big dash of Italian pride.

Bring a really good camera- I hauled my Nikon D3200 around everywhere and while it is heavy and bulky the 26 megapixels made it worth the effort.  I can zoom in to the shots and create dozens of compositions from a single photo reference. I also purchased 32 GB sd card before I left and never had to worry about running out of space for the 2000 plus digital images. The downside is resizing the photos to post on this blog and Facebook.

Pack your palette with lots of yellow and blue green pastels- I packed about thirty pastels for plein air painting in Italy.  The greens I brought with me were too gray to capture the light.  Light in Italy is bright,  clear and very, very yellow.  The shadows on trees are intense blue green; the Midwestern gray greens in my palette did not do justice to the landscape.  Next time I will be bringing a full range of yellows, from the lightest yellow/ green to a saturated yellow/red.  For foliage I will bring a variety of blues including the most saturated blue greens, also some violets for general shadow colors.  If you are taking oils, viridian, or a phthalo blue green, cadmium yellow medium, and permanent rose are a must for your palette.

Yes, you did read words, “next time,” in this blog.  We are currently making plans with Artensity to return to Italy for another portrait/ figure painting workshop in 2015, it will be similar to this year’s adventure but with some very exciting changes.  If you would like to join us, please let me know and I will add your name to a list of people who will be contacted first when all the plans are set.



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Season of the Bucket List


Spring 2014 was the season of the bucket list.  When I first began painting, I would pour over articles in the Pastel Journal and wonder about the featured artists, fantasizing about their studios and lifestyles. When I began teaching, I would look at advertisements for overseas workshops and imagine teaching a workshop in an exotic locale.  When I began entering shows I wondered what it would be like to take the top prize, or to take the top prize a couple of times in a row?

When it rains is pours and this spring my bucket list runneth over.  Last year at the International Association of Pastel Societies conference I met with Anne Hevener, the editor of the Pastel Journal.  I had sent her an article about how raising my children had influenced my artistic journey.  When I showed her my portfolio her comment was, “Let’s make you a featured artist:” I spent last December creating a demonstration painting titled “Two Hearts” and I photographed the progression.  Then I was interviewed by a woman named Michelle Taute.  Her and Anne did a wonderful job of taking my hour long blah-blah and turning it into an entertaining and informative article.  It is still on the newsstands or can be purchased online by clicking here. 

Next on the list was my award for the Great Lakes Pastel Society National Juried Show.  I submitted the painting I had created for the magazine article and was lucky enough to take Best of Show.  This was especially exciting because I had taken the same prize last year at the members show.  The award was given during the GLPS conference in Traverse City.  I did a demonstration on light and color and heard a great talk by William Hosner on plein air painting.  The GLPS is full of generous and talented artists and it was great to visit with so many of them in one place.  I would have liked to paint up there but had to return home quickly to prepare for the third bucket list event, teaching a workshop in Florence, Italy. 

This was my demo for the GLPS  Oneida Light, 16x20 Sold!

The workshop in Italy was a life changing experience.   If my blog and newsletter have been quiet, please forgive me, but I have spent a lot of time trying to absorb and process all that I saw and learned during my three weeks in this beautiful country.  We left for Florence four days after the conference.  The “we” is my husband and daughter, also known as schelpper and model.  This was our first time traveling outside of North America and after months of preparation all I could hope was that I was ready for it.

Our friends and workshop hosts, Debra and Ivano Zamperla, did an remarkable job of making the nine day workshop exceptional. The days were filled with focused hard work, and trips to museums.  The nights were full of great food and wine, laughter and singing, yes, I said singing.

 We stayed in the heart of Florence in a lovely family owned hotel right across the street from the workshop room.  There were eight students, who were eager and enthusiastic to learn and we covered a vast amount of information in a short amount of time. I thank each and every one of them for attending and adding their personal touch to the workshop.  Usually when I teach figure and portrait we take breaks and I show examples of master works in books. During this workshop we would break and have a guided tour of one of the great museums of the world.  Nothing like looking at a real life Raphael, Caravaggio, or Michelangelo to see how it is done!  The workshop also included side trips and group dinners that included some of the best food I have ever eaten. 

  The workshop started with a city tour.  Ended with a paint out in Fiesole.

The workshop students and model.  Out to Dinner!

After the workshop ended my husband and I stayed on and traveled through Tuscany.  We visited Sienna, and Bologna, stayed at an organic farmhouse in the country side, rented a villa with Debra and Ivano in Pisa and traveled with them to Lucca and spent an afternoon at the sea.  I spent a couple of days plein air painting but mostly I looked and enjoyed what Italy had to offer.  It is an old and proud country, where beauty is an integral part of everyday life.  I am still absorbing all that I saw and experienced and now that I am home and settled I would like to share it on this blog.  I plan on writing a couple of posts each week describing what I learned: how the light there changed my palette, how design is paramount to great work, and why an Italian phrase book should be left at home.

I appreciate those of you following my blog and leaving comments.  I am off to paint and write a new bucket list!




P.S. If you would like to read the Pastel Journal Article click Here


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The Art of Not Blogging in Italy

I have been in Italy for over two weeks now. I taught a portrait/ figure painting workshop in Florence the first week.  There we also visited the great museums of the Uffizi,  the Piti Palace, and the Academia.  After the workshop we explored Siena and stayed at a beautiful farmhouse in the Tuscan countryside.  The experience has been more than I ever hoped for, rich with new insights about art and lifestyle.  In the planning stages I thought I would be blogging and posting pictures along the way.   I had amazing students and planned to show their progress through the week.  The workshop kept me very busy and I was scolding myself for not sharing the experience through my blog and Facebook.  As time stretched on my attitude began to change.  This is my first time traveling overseas and experiencing another culture so everything was new to me.  I noticed how the Italians savored life experiences. Beauty is integrated into everyday life, meals are a source of pride to be enjoyed with purpose, and conversation is shared with passion.  I decided it was more important to experince Italy than to worry about WiFi connections and the havoc of auto correct. When I return home I will write about about the experiences and post the photos.  That will allow me to relive all that I have seen and share the adventure, but right now I am going out for lunch with my husband and friends in the beautiful town of Lucca.  Ciao!

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Painting Air-The Illusion of Dimension

When I first began painting I was concerned about making stuff.  Teapot spouts and handles, eyes and noses, trees and houses.  My focus was on painting the things correctly then filling in the background around the stuff.

I have been fortunate to have some generous mentors in my life.  One artist friend would come over to critique my portraits saying “The figures look great but you are painting around them, you need to paint the air.” 

“Say what?”

She would sit with me while I fiddled with the background, shaking her head until one day I made a mark on the background where I dragged the pastel stick on its side up to the edge of the head, lifted it then continued the stroke on the other side.  I will always remember what my friend said to me next “That’s it, you did it!  If you touch what you just painted I will break your arm!”  She is a peaceful person so I took her remark seriously.  What was it I had done that was different than before?  I had painted “through” the portrait instead of around it and the 2 dimensional surface took on the illusion of depth.  After that I was hooked, dimension and air became the focus of my art.

Painting dimension creates an illusion of light and space.  It’s easy if you think of your painting like stage scenery where there is a foreground, a middle ground, and distance.  Each plane has its own quality but they work together to create a complete setting. The depth of illusion can be shallow like in a portrait with a backdrop, or the depth can be vast, such as portraying a landscape vista.  No matter the depth, addressing the following visual elements will help create atmosphere in your paintings.

Overlap – Overlapping objects in correct perspective immediately lets the viewer know that one thing is in front of the other.  I find it interesting that when people paint “things” they will often line them up on the same horizon line.

Size – as objects go back they get smaller. 

Value – distance brings values closer together

Color- Colors dull and lighten as they recede.  A highly saturated red/ yellow in the foreground will become a lighter and bluer red as it recedes.  Painting an equally saturated color in the background and foreground will place them on the same plane and flatten the depth in the painting.

Edges- the transition between color values are critical to creating the illusion of depth.  The eye will focus on areas where there is a big difference in adjoining values; this is called a hard edge.  The eye will pass over areas where the values are close together; this is referred to as a soft edge. This is why an artist must choose where to put the detail in their painting carefully. Artists tend to paint details with lots of sharp transitions.  If there are too many hard edges in the different depths of field the eye will jump around the painting and the sense of atmosphere will be destroyed. 

This is a short synopsis of the visual tools you can use to create depth.  Once you understand how to apply them effectively it becomes a skill that sticks with you, like learning to ride a bike.  When you see how to create dimension will never fuss over “stuff” again.


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The Zorn "ish" Palette

Close up of "Departure"

I love to experiment with limited palettes.  It feels like magic to take three primary colors and mix them together to create a rainbow of color harmony.  One of my favorites is the "Zorn" palette, from Swedish artist Anders Zorn.  He used yellow, red, black and white, to represent the primary colors. I have read different accounts of what the the exact pigments were but it is agreed they were dull.  No screaming vibrant colors to steal the scene.  The combination of dull colors are what I call an "ish" palette.  This means that the resulting paintings will not be brilliant in color, but be represented by red-ish, yellow-ish, and blue-ish tones. If you trust this and use the simple equation of primary + primary =secondary, and mix as you would with any limited palette you will end up with a subtle color harmony that is rich and nuanced.

A self portrait by Anders Zorn, showing his "ish" palette


Below is a demo of a recent painting using the "ish" palette.


Here is what to keep in mind to make a limited palette work for you.

1.To create a full spectrum of colors you need the three primaries, red, yellow, and blue.  I chose yellow ocher, venetian red, ivory black and titanium white serve as my blue. 

2.You need to know your palettes value extremes how light you can go and how dark you can go.  Again, black and white are my value extremes.

3.You need to know how saturated or bright you can go.  With this particular palette I will never mix a brilliant purple, but when I mix red, black and a touch of white I will get a convincing purple when compared to the other colors on the palette

4.Once you set the parameters of value and saturation, mark them on your painting then make every decision within those parameters.



  Here is the palette, ivory black, yellow ocher, and venetian red.  I added a touch of cadmium red medium into the hat at the end to give it a pop of color.

The light source was cool, so I blocked in the painting using a wash of venetian red and yellow ocher.  I plan to leave parts of the warm under-painting showing through the shadow areas of the finished work.

Here I mark the extremes of value and saturation.  The white of the scarf is as light as I will go, under the hat is as dark as I will go and the front of the red hat is the most saturated color.  Once this is in I can begin to build the painting by comparing all my decisions to these.


I construct the painting like a jigsaw puzzle seeing how the colors and values fit together.


The background is in and I check the composition by placing it in a frame.  The hands have not been painted yet and the warm under-painting makes them glow compared to the surrounding cool tones.


The painting is blocked in and I can begin to see what it will look like.  I had to stop for a while to teach a workshop, and was not sure I liked the brush work on the coat so I scraped it with a palette knife. When I resumed painting I spent alot of time on the transitional areas of light to dark.

  Close up of the hands in the finished painting. 

Close up of the finished painting.  I spend a lot of time working edges and sculpting the form.  At the end  I mixed a tiny bit of cadmium red medium into the venetian red to make the front of the hat brighter.

  The final painting, "Departure" 30x20 oil

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Look what viridian can do!

I am a sucker for a limted palette.  I love to try out combinations of "primary colors" to see how they relate to each other. I titled this painting "Viridian Blues"  because the only blue that was used in this painting was viridian.  Technically it is a green but without any other blues on the palette viridian became my all purpose blue color.  The other colors used were, yellow ocher pale, lemon yellow, cadmium red and permanent rose.  I began this painting on a toned canvas of permanent rose and indian yellow.  I wanted to leave bits of this tone showing to give a feeling of sunshine.


I found the value range by marking the lightest light (shirt) and the darkest dark (eyes).   Also found the midtone which will be the most prevalent value in this painting.  Once those decisions are made all colors are assinged to one of those values..  You have to really trust your decisions on the palette because all colors will look cool compared to the warm tones of the canvas.



I painted the figure since he was the focus of the painting.  Then made all the other decisions compared to his color values.

Working in puzzle fashion I placed one decision next to the other, building the painting from the figure outwards.

Ah, finally the bright undertone is mostly covered and I can start to see what the painting will look like. The viridian with permanent rose makes the most beautiful violet.  It can be bluer with more viridian and red violet with more permanent rose in the mixture.  The greens start to go in with mixtures of viridian and yellow ocher pale and an occasional bit of lemon yellow.

Finishing takes a long time.  I softened edges and played with texture using a palette knife.  Finally scumbled white into some of the shadows to give a sense of atmosphere.


Viridian Blue, 18x24  Oil

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Listen to the Muse


Every artist is touched with intuition.  It comes in the form of a voice, a feeling, a nudge that tells you to follow a path.  It is what led you to the brush and keeps you working at the easel. You must recognize it, respect it, and sometimes rein it in.

Your ability may be in composition, drawing, application, or any number of gifts.  My intuitive voice is literally a voice, I hear color.   It is not a voice outside my head (thank goodness!) but rather an inside voice that will announce a color that is needed to move the painting forward.  The voice is clear and demanding.   It is there when I am making my initial decisions on the palette, and counsels as I create the painting.   Patience is part of intuition and if the colors begin to lose direction it is time to sit quietly and listen.  I learned long ago to pay attention to that voice and heed what it says.  The voice quiets and there is a sense of relief when colors are in sync.

When I first began painting in pastel, I knew nothing about color and asked advice from my instructor about flesh tones.  His answer was “Look at what you see and put it down.”  This was as freeing as it was frustrating.  Staring at the model I saw colors that were not typical “flesh tones.”  There was a full spectrum of hues I did not expect. When I went to paint my blonde toddler I found his hair was a grayed green and not yellow.  The world was far richer in color that I had realized and I laid down all the vivid tones I saw with gusto.  Color was my muse but I lacked knowledge in design and value.   It wasn’t until I learned to control the colors within the value structure that I understood the power of color. I walk a fine line between technical proficiency and intuition.  Having the practical knowledge gives me the means to explore the intuitive voice

As an instructor, there is no greater reward than to watch someone else discover their voice.  Sometimes a talent is apparent from the start, often it emerges with diligence and trust. I have had countless conversations with students who are frozen at the easel, battling their intuition and what they think they should do.  The conversation starts as “I feel I should…. but I know ……”  My reply is to follow the feeling.   The worst outcome is that it doesn’t work.  That does not mean the intuition was wrong it may be a case that the student does not have the practical know-how to make it happen. The satisfaction of enlightenment comes from struggle.   I work with them to hone technical mastery so I can encourage them to follow when their voice comes calling.  

Become skilled in the foundation of painting so when the muse calls you will know how to listen.


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