July: Memories

One reason why many people are attracted to certain artwork, especially a realistic painting, is because it evokes pleasant memories. An artist friend once told me that he paints dead people - my immediate mental image of him over an open casket didn't sit quite right! He went on to explain that after a death the survivors would provide him with photos of their loved one for my friend to paint a portrait. My friend has a great talent for capturing the person in a way which provides great comfort to the loved ones.

I shy away from doing portraits (see my post about my "character" paintings), but I've had the opportunity to provide happy connections to the past by doing custom paintings of other things: special places, important events, beloved pets, and other subjects dear to the heart. I did a painting of a private airplane for a wife as a surprise gift for her husband, the pilot/owner. I've painted many home portraits, both for current residents as well as for those with childhood memories of where they grew up or visited. A special couple has had me do many commissioned paintings of beautiful wildlife they photographed on their African safaris. Going through my files I realize I've done more commissioned 'memory paintings' over the years than I can show here, so this post highlights just a few examples and these links provide stories of others.

One of my first commissions was from a couple who were part of a flying club with whom we were traveling. We were taking a long weekend trip from Florida to one of the Abacos Islands in the Bahamas. Our destination, Hope Town, was a favorite place which the couple had visited previously, and its harbor has a distinctive lighthouse they asked me to paint for them. It was my first visit to the quaint village of Hope Town, but I jumped at the chance to do the painting, particularly because I'd have the opportunity to take lots of my own referencer photos while there. Often, out of necessity, I work from photos provided for me to paint from. Some are better than others, but I've had challenges when scenes are not photographed in the best lighting, or important details are not in focus, or the photographer's point of view is not the from the best location. My resulting painting "Hope Town Harbor Light" has brought years of enjoyment to the couple I painted it for - who long ago became dear friends of mine and have purchased many more of my paintings.

A notable home I painted was the farmhouse where sweet Miss Shirley had grown up. Her parents were deceased and the home was no longer lived in, but family members often returned for gatherings and the house came alive again. I had actually visited the farm a few years before Shirley asked me to do a painting of the farmhouse, so I had a good feeling about all the happy times attached to it. When I do a house portrait, it is fun to add special personal details, like the owner's dog or a tree with initials carved. Shirley provided me with photographs and specifics about the flowers she'd like to see growing, the old building behind the house, the porch chairs, and other details. Shirley and her husband Frank have built their own retirement home on another part of the farmland and hung my painting in a place of honor over their fireplace mantle. Sadly, the farmhouse painting became even more precious a few years later, when the building burned to the ground from an electrical fire, fortunately with no one present.


Wedding anniversaries have prompted the commission of a few of my paintings. One couple, celebrating 25 years, had been married in a rose garden at a state park. They asked me to paint the setting, and, with their feedback, I added pink and blue to the two adirondack chairs in the foreground. When floodwaters from Hurricane Matthew destroyed most of their home last fall, they let me know how happy they were that the painting was not damaged, since it gives them great pleasure.

For information on my commissioned paintings, including tips on providing reference photos, please visit my website.








It's Red Bug Time!

I remember my first ride in a Volkswagen Beetle. I was a young teen and my friend Cindy's sister Martha was driving me home in her "bug." To an impressionable teen, she seemed to be one with her car. I remember the left turn from Main Street onto the street where I lived; with no on-coming traffic she didn't slow down much as she cut the corner. I watched her pull the steering wheel with her two hands right next to each other. and it felt like we were turning on only two wheels - wee-ee-ee-e! Lots of people I know have fond memories of their "bug", as it fulfilled its original objective as a cheap, simple car for the masses. I never owned one, but perhaps Herbie The Love Bug makes me attracted to the humble Volkswagen Beetle more as a character than as an automobile.

The effects of aging on vehicles and buildings are a favorite theme in my artwork. The more beat-up, rusting, and falling apart, the more interesting the textures. Last fall when I saw an old Volkswagen parked in a pasture just outside a local junkyard, I knew I had to paint it. The worn paint, streaked windows, rusted wheels - fabulous! I took lots of photos for reference, getting as close as I could, as the pasture was fenced with barbed wire. I was actually on my way to the farm market in our local Mennonite Community at the time. The old car was still on my brain when I finished buying my veggies, as I imagined what setting I might create for the vehicle. I wandered behind the farm stand building, which is on a hill overlooking some of 400+ acres of the community. The distant hills, green fields and winding road were so picturesque on this sunny day, and I pictured how the Volkswagen could be set in such a scene. I took a bunch of reference photos.

All my paintings come together in my mind long before I do any sketching or painting. I loved the chance to paint the red vehicle in a very green setting, letting these two complementary colors work to emphasize my focal point. To create some distance in the landscape, I wanted to add a barn, and I really wanted one with old red paint. Once I was ready to take the painting from my brain to reality, I sifted through my large digital reference photo collection of local barns. I needed one with the right lighting too - the car was lit from the right with a long morning shadow, and the trees in the farm photo threw shadows in the same direction. I found the perfect old red barn in my files, one I had photographed a few years ago. I could position it in my layout so the winding road would lead back to it. I also have lots of photos of old cedar fenceposts and many, many photos of wildflowers, so these became helpful in planning the painting. I use my own photos in my paintings, and this is often one of the rules in painting competitions I enter.

When I thought of "Red Bug" to name my painting (before I even started it), I knew that would fit. I like to create double meanings with my painting titles too. Queen Anne's Lace is a pretty summer wildflower  which we picked for floral bouquets in New England when I was young. Here in the south, the same flower harbors a nasty bug. The minuscule red spider mite gathers under the plant's umbrella-like flower cluster. These spiders are the mothers of "chiggers," a microscopic creature which causes itchy, pussy, swollen bites in the most disturbing places on your body. Queen Anne's Lace is sometimes referred to a "chigger-weed," and chiggers are sometimes called "red bugs". Long story short, I decided to paint Queen Anne's Lace flowers in the foreground of my painting, so the title Red Bug hints at more than just the Volkswagen!

I've worked professionally with Photoshop software for decades, starting with version 1.0 (yes, I'm a graphic arts dinosaur), so I sometimes use this software when I arrange my reference photos. Of course, I wanted the Volkswagen to be my focal point, using the other elements to lead the viewer's eye through the painting. As a rule of thumb, you shouldn't put the focal point smack in the center of your painting - it's too boring. You can see how I arranged and sized the different elements, putting the vehicle left and below the center. You can almost zig-zag from the top left, as the mountain slopes lead down to the barn, the tree shadows bring you back to the left, and your eyes land on the car. Using Photoshop, I can easily change the sizes of the various components and move them around until there's a good balance and a pleasing composition. The composite image I create can be rough, since the photo is not my finished product. If the black background of the Queen Anne's Lace still shows around the flowers, or the grass around the car doesn't match the grass of the farm setting, no problem. You can see how I combined the various reference photos into my final composite in the collage of photos above.

I did this painting in acrylics on a 20" x 16" canvas. My photos show how it progressed, with my initial pencil sketch guiding me along in the early stages. My greens are a bit brighter than in the Volkswagen reference photo, since I took those in October and I wanted this scene to depict June. Also, when I first painted the Queen Anne's Lace flowers in the foreground, they were too white against the green grasses. I didn't want to let them take emphasis away from the Volkswagen, so I glazed over the blossoms with transparent green and yellow tones to dull down the flowers, remembering the brightest brights belong on the focal point. I probably put more detail into the barn than I should have, since it's off in the background, but I was having too much fun to stop!

Voila - the debut of "Red Bug," right at the same time the Queen Anne's Lace is blooming all around me... and the red bugs are biting!

June: Small World


I was flattered recently when my friend Charles said that my artwork reminds him of the work of Andrew Wyeth - wow, one of the artists I most admire! If you are not familiar with the three generations of the Wyeth family of painters, they are foremost among American artists. N.C. Wyeth (1882-1945), father of Andrew, was a highly successful artist and illustrator, creating over 3000 paintings, illustrating 112 books, painting historical murals for noted public buildings, and supporting his family with his commercial art work and commissions. Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) and his siblings grew up mentored by their father and stimulated by his art, his collections of props, costumes and artifacts, and his visits from other creative artists of the day, such as writer F. Scott Fitzgerald and actress Lillian Gish. Andrew, the youngest child, began many years of intensive art training with his father when he was 15. His first one-man gallery show in New York in 1937 brought him acclaim. Andrew's most famous early work was "Christina's World" (1948), which depicted his Maine neighbor Christina Olson, who was paralyzed from polio, shown sprawled in a pasture, pulling herself back toward the distant farmhouse where she lived with her brother Alvaro. Andrew Wyeth's art career was given a boost when the painting was quickly acquired by the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, and it since has become an American icon. Andrew's son Jamie (b. 1946) established himself in the art world at a young age; his success in portraiture resulted in a portrait of President John Kennedy when Jamie was in his early 20s. Andrew's sisters, brothers-in-law, and nieces and nephews have had successful art careers as well.

In response to Charles' compliment, I told him the story of how my artwork became connected with the Wyeth family. It's a story I've shared often, but never recorded it, so I'm taking this opportunity to do so.

Rick and I were visiting our good friends Becky and Bob in Maine in May 2001. Their summer place was not far from Cushing, Maine, and they suggested a day trip to the Farnsworth Museum, which had an extensive collection of Wyeth family art, and to the museum-operated Olson House, the setting of many of Andrew's paintings. I had previously attended two fabulous museum shows of his work which left me in awe of the detail and emotion he incorporated as well as of his mastery of watercolor and egg tempera.

While at the Olson House, we had the good fortune to learn about the artist and his work by the curator, 88-year old Dudley Rockwell. He introduced himself as brother-in-law to Andrew Wyeth (their wives were sisters, so the men had been friends and relations since their courting days). We learned that Andrew Wyeth had divided his time between his birthplace in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and this area of Maine where his wife's family had a home. Andrew had spent 3 decades producing about 300 works of art with the Olsons and their home as subjects. Mr. Rockwell was a colorful character; he had had a successful career as president of a company in Connecticut which his father, an inventor, had started. In his retirement, Mr. Rockwell seemed to relish an air of an "old salt" character, sharing interesting and personalized stories of Andrew Wyeth, laced with his great sense of humor. As he lead us through the house, he would point out spots where Andrew had painted and vantage points which had inspired his artwork, such as the window where he had viewed Christina in the field. I asked Mr. Rockwell if he would mind if I photographed him as we toured the house together; I had been wanting to do a 'character' painting and I could tell he would be an interesting subject. He graciously allowed my photographs. We had a lovely visit, ending with a relaxing one-on-one chat with Mr. Rockwell on a bench outside the house.

Back home in Florida, as soon as I reviewed my photos I was inspired to paint Mr. Rockwell seated in the Olson's kitchen, in a rocking chair next to a window of geraniums. I was familiar with Andrew Wyeth's paintings showing the same room. Right away I completed a watercolor painting which I titled "Dudley Within Christina's World" and posted a photo of it in my online gallery.

Fast forward a couple of years.... one day I received an email from a woman from New Hampshire named Ruth. She said her husband had been doing an internet search for his grandfather, Dudley Rockwell, and my painting came up in the search results. She said they loved the painting and the way it captured Dudley so well. I responded to Ruth that I had the original painting available for purchase. Our email exchanges continued; she said she was a teacher and her husband James worked for a printer and they were raising young daughters Rachel and Emma - circumstances which didn't leave much extra money for purchases like fine art. I told Ruth I fully understood; years earlier I had been an art teacher as well as an employee of a print shop (where I first learned commercial art), also in New Hampshire, and my income had been nothing to brag about at the time! She asked where I taught and my reply included my final teaching stint, for grades 7-12 in Bristol, NH. Ruth sent me another note right away. She said she had read my email and quickly fetched her junior high yearbook, discovering that I had been her art teacher! What a small world. Long story short, I priced the painting to make it affordable to Ruth and James and I will always be honored to have it in their home. It's my little claim to fame to have a connection to the Wyeth family.

Over the years, Ruth and I have continued our exchanges and she has shared some interesting stories. When her family went to Dudley's 90th birthday celebration she wrote:
"There were a few hundred people at the party.  It was pretty informal - people came and went.  A tent was set up on the field near the Olson House (right where Christina sat in the painting) and he soaked up all the attention he got. For days after he was still smiling and adding up all of the people who were there…. I was trying to take a picture of Dud and Busy Bee (his wife) as they sat in their guest-of-honor chairs, and I was interrupted by this man leaning over and talking to Dud. I just sort of sighed and thought, 'Get out of the way, buddy!' Then I realized that those skinny legs looked vaguely familiar. I remembered who owned those legs, too. I had been anxiously waiting for Andrew Wyeth to get his butt out of my picture! Needless to say, I didn't mind him standing there after that. In fact, I ended up having the PERFECT spot because he and his wife Betsy stood right there facing me during all the speeches and I was clicking away like crazy!!!!"
     "What the Farnsworth [Museum] ended up doing for Dud was wonderful. First of all they gave him lifetime membership (he was very happy - he had been complaining about the fact that the annual fee was going from $65 to $85 a year!) and then they told him that they're raising $1 million in his name. That will go toward funding a curator to oversee the Olson House in his stead (his big concern was that once he was gone no one would have the interest in keeping it going like he has).... he's thrilled to pieces about it!"

Dudley Rockwell died on October 1, 2006, at the age of 93. Up until 2 weeks before his death he still went to the Olson House and presented his lecture on a regular basis, drove himself around town, enjoyed life with his wife, spent time in his workshop, and loved doing crosswords and watching Jeopardy. He was buried in a coffin which he built himself, inscribed with the words 'Handmade by Occupant.'

I am grateful for my memories of a sunny afternoon in May, walking in the steps of Andrew Wyeth, sitting on a bench by the flowering lilacs outside the Olson House, and chatting casually with Dudley Rockwell.

Painting With Just 3 Colors

I've done many paintings in watercolor using a "limited palette" - basically mixing all the colors from the primary colors of red, blue, and yellow. One of the first times I tried this was for "Americana". More recent examples include "Grandpa's Fiddle Break,"  "Jerry Van, Music Man," and "Jesus Saves." For some reason, I never thought about doing the same thing with my acrylic paints until recently.

I was exhibiting at an outdoor show and I wanted to set up a small area on the end of a table in my booth to do some painting. Passersby like to see artists at work, but the artist usually spends more time talking than painting. So I wanted to work small and I didn't want to bring lots of art supplies - an ideal chance to experiment with a limited palette of the acrylic paints I use, Golden Fluid Acrylics. Golden Paint has great resources for artists and their website is very informative. The website even has a "color mixer" so you can test various colors. I also have a "Golden Acrylics Color Mixing Guide" booklet in which they recommend an artist's palette using eight colors:
  • Hansa Yellow Medium
  • Quinacridone Magenta
  • Phthalo Blue (green shade)
  • Quinacridone Red
  • Naphthol Red Light
  • Phthalo Green (blue shade)
  • Yellow Ochre
  • Titanium White (or Zinc White for more transparency)
In theory, red, blue and yellow, called the primary colors, mix to create all other colors. In reality, you have to be careful which hues you use. It's easy to end up with brown instead of green from mixing an orangy-yellow with a redish-blue, like the sample I picture here, in which I used ultramarine blue and diarylide yellow. This is because both the yellow and the blue have red tones in them, rather than being more "pure." I highly recommend Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green - an excellent practical book on mixing artist's pigments.

 With Golden's recommendations, I chose 3 colors I already had in my collection: Quinacridone Red, Hansa Yellow Medium, and Phthalo Blue (green shade) and packed a bottle of Titanium White also. Remember, mixing all colors from the primaries works in theory, but the reality is not perfect. The three colors I chose are high chroma or bright colors, and that's why the others in Golden's recommended 8-color palette listed above are used, to tone down the hues and make more natural earthy colors. Also, the Hansa Yellow Medium in my selection is not a strong 'tinting' color, so I have to use more of it than the other two primaries when mixing. For example, to mix a medium orange I need more of the yellow than the red, rather than equal amounts of each. Golden mentions this in the Mixing Guide and recommends Hansa Yellow Opaque instead, but since I was using the colors transparently I didn't go that route. Notice that black is not included in these palettes; mixing complementary colors (colors opposite on the color wheel, like red with green) yields black and grays which are rich and vibrant; black just tends to dull a color. Mixing complements also reduces their intensity. Before packing my paints for the show, I made a color wheel and also mixed white, black, and complements with my 3 primaries, as helpful guides.

It's springtime and I am overwhelmed with the beauty of the blooming wildflowers on my land, so I decided to do a small flower painting, using my limited palette of acrylics on watercolor paper transparently. My subject was a bloodroot flower, which is one of the first flowers which open in late winter, with pure white petals against the forest floor. When I paint with acrylics on watercolor paper (vs. on canvas), I mix the colors with water and Golden Acrylic Glazing Liquid. The latter slows the drying time, facilitates blending, and allows for transparent layers of color. Golden paints are very rich in pigments, so I literally put out one drop at a time on my little butcher tray, and mix away. This proved to be a good setup while in my show booth, since I wasn't filling a palette with loads of different colors only to have them dry up while I stopped to talk to a shopper.

I was surprised to have enough painting time during the 2-day show to complete this small painting. The limited palette experiment was successful; I was able to mix all the colors I wanted to use, including the variety of warm and cool browns in the background leaves. The primaries did prove to be bright colors, so I used the white, thinned down with water, as a top coat on the flower petals, to tone the colors down. I consider this painting more of a 'study' than a finished work of art, and decided to leave the rough edges of the image.

May: My Kind of People



I greatly admire the work of portrait artists, since I know it takes a high level of skill to capture the human face. My 'portraits' are largely limited to dogs, cats, and wild animals. However, I occasionally include people as the focal point in my paintings - what I call 'characters.' Rather than depicting a face in a formal pose, I prefer to show people involved in some type of activity. Sometimes the character is anonymous, like the little girl on the beach I featured for my watercolor painting called "In Her Own World." At the opposite end of the scale, some of my figures are recognizable for who they are, as with my award-winning painting "Jerry Van, Music Man."

One of my first character paintings was "Cleaning The Conch." Rick and I were vacationing in the Bahamas and had just returned from a session of scuba diving. Our boat driver Greg was under the dock, brushing off a conch shell which one of the other divers had found. I was immediately taken by the scene, intrigued by the way the sunlight was streaming through the wooden boards above, the fabric folds in Greg's clothing, the variations in his skin tones, the sunlight on the shell, the smoothness of the wet sand, and the textures in the post and rocks. I took lots of reference photos (so long ago I was using film) and used them to create one of the largest watercolor paintings I have ever done, 28" x 36". This painting won awards in both the Jacksonville FL Watercolor Society Exhibit and annual exhibition of the Florida Watercolor Society. The original sold long ago.

"Molly-By-The-Sea" holds a dear place in my heart since it depicts my niece as a little girl (she's now in her 20's). We were all visiting my parents in Hampton, New Hampshire, and walked to the beach where the low tide exposed interesting pools of water reflecting the blue sky. Molly's striking red hair created a perfect accent to the blues in the scene, particularly because the complement of blue on a color wheel is orange. Her skin tones were close to the hues in some of the rocks and her turquiose/white top fit the color palette perfectly. I was inspired to photograph her for a future painting, and have long since been happy that I captured the moment.
    Molly is the youngest of her generation in my family so I decided this painting might please my parents (her grandparents). I surprised them with it as a gift for their 50th wedding anniversary. My parents have now passed away, so Molly's mom, my sister Jean, displays this painting. Someday it will likely belong to Molly!

I was attending a re-enactment at Fort Loudoun State Park in East Tennessee, back in 2001. A costumed soldier was at the open window of one of the rustic period buildings, with his head bowed, deep in thought. As always, the irregular weathered boards and rusty hinges appealed to my senses, and the young man's red vest was just the right flash of color among the otherwise neutral tones. When the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers occurred just 2 days after I had photographed this re-enactor, many prayers and soldiers were on my mind. I titled this painting "A Soldier's Prayer."  From a technical point of view, I painted the wood siding in cool grey shades then used warmer grey/brown tones for the window shutters, to draw more emphasis to the figure. The original painting, done in acrylics used transparently on watercolor paper, is sold.

"When She Was Three" turned out to be a dynamic painting which always gets comments when I display it. Little Aubrey was innocently playing at the edge of the gently flowing Tellico River. The sunlight on her soft hair was the first thing which caught my eye, and I crouched down to her eye level to photograph her quietly, so as not to distract her. I painted this in acrylics on canvas, using a lot of pure white for the bright highlights in her fine whispy hair, the folds of her shirt, the sparkles on the water, and the pebbles under foot. You can see a time-lapse slide show of my painting process for When She Was Three on the home page of my online art gallery.  The original painting sold to her family, but I have giclee prints on canvas for sale which matched the original perfectly.
    Image Size: 16" x 20" for $225 unframed; $325 framed
    Image Size: 8" x 10" for $75 unframed; $125 framed

I've written lots in this blog about my painting "In The Spotlight" during the last year, since it won a major award for me in the Tennessee Watercolor Society biennial exhibition then traveled around the state for the remainder of the year. I actually sold the painting to someone who was reminded of his own son by the image of my friend Mike, showing that my 'characters' can have a broad appeal, perhaps more so than a real portrait. I have 8" x 10" open edition prints of this painting for sale for $18.