The Burden of Doing Something Right

uceny 2

When you finally do it right. When all your hard work culminates in that great piece. When you feel you were finally on your game. When it felt almost easy. What happens next?

Well, for me it boosts my confidence — as it should, right? I mean, I’ve been working SO HARD for this. It finally happened. Yay, Me! So this means I can do it again, right? I just did it. So, of course, I’ve reached a new level in my skill set. I broke through the barrier. I can do it again, can’t I?


Maybe not.

What has happened to me so many times when I reach that new level in a particular piece is I set myself up for failure. How? Because I’m an optimist — especially after doing something great. I launch into that next project as though I were invincible. And…I tank. Ouch! Don’t let your successes side track you. I’m not saying you shouldn’t launch into your next project with confidence and optimism. You should! But if you fail, as I have so often after a performance windfall, don’t let it get to you.

I’m writing about this because I know how sensitive we artsy types are. We can be downright bi-polar at times. One moment we are going to conquer the world with our art. The next we are contemplating giving it all up to go do something easier. So don’t give up. If we were to graph our progress as artists the upward curve would not be smooth and consistent. It would be as jagged as a crosscut saw. Of course, in the big picture we are getting better. So don’t let those little failures bother you too much. And they are little. Maybe “failure” isn’t the best word to use here. Maybe “setback” or “speedbump” would be better. Just keep going. Progress in art is much like anything else in life: relationships, parenting, learning any highly skilled activity. We succeed, we fail, we succeed…etc. But the persistent and optimistic ones make steady progress. We grow. We mature. Believe it or not I have to talk myself through this quite often.

So keep going, My Friends. Don’t let your successes set you up for failure. Realize you’re GOING TO FAIL at regular intervals…unless you’re super human or something. Learn from it, take it in stride, and enjoy the journey.


PS — When I say “realize you’re going to fail” that doesn’t mean you should expect failure when you start a painting. You should expect success. Start each piece thinking you’re going to nail it, because that’s probably the only way you will nail it. But if you don’t…you know what I mean. When I tank it still seems like a surprise. “What do you mean I screwed up?!” It kind of hits me hard. But I pick myself up and go after it again. Perhaps just a little wiser this time.

Questions About Color? Visit

I want to introduce to you what I consider an absolutely indispensable source of color knowledge for the realist painter: All of you who have asked me about color really need to visit this site and get this information into your artistic thought processes. It’s going to be a little rough going for some who shy away from technical language. It’s also going to challenge some of the conventional color “wisdom” that has been taught in art schools for years. I personally find the information fascinating and VERY USEFUL.

This site is not going to give you recipes for perfect skin tones or how to paint silver, but it will give you a grasp of light and it’s relationship to how we see color. It will give you a vocabulary and some key knowledge about what you are seeing in nature and how to apply it to painting. So check it out. If it seems a little hard to grasp at first, stay with it and give it a chance. Some of you are going to find this the very thing you have been looking for. Color was really an enigma for me until I was taught some similar information by a great mentor Douglas Flynt. Color is definitely still a challenge for me but it is not the elusive ghost it once was. It’s still up to me to continue my studies in color and experiment. Having the knowledge presented here puts my experiments into a context. I hope HueValueChroma will give you more control over your color choices as it has me.


Real Time Underdrawing in Oil

Today I am starting a painting with a slightly more advanced method of beginning. No toned canvas and no careful drawing in charcoal. I am using Raw Umber thinned with OMS on acrylic primed hardboard. You can see that I am measuring but in a different way. You can tell that every mark I make is executed with extreme care. I am visually measuring distances; constantly comparing the spaces between such landmarks as hairline, bottom of the chin, etc.

I really wanted to give you the gist of how careful I am when I start the process. During the last workshop I taught I was just amazed by how quickly (and inaccurately) the students were laying down paint. If you want to be a realist you must train yourself to sssllooooooowww down and make marks that you can be reasonable sure are accurate. Double check and triple check your measurements before moving on to the next one.

If you are still relatively new to this type of painting I still advocate careful comparative measuring with some sort of measuring tool such as a knitting needle (my preference) and drawing with vine charcoal (also my preference). When you have many paintings under your belt with this method you can start to try the way I am demonstrating here in this video.

Below is an image of the finished painting entitled “De la Tour’s Child”.

ws_delatourschild (720x535)

Dave’s Tips to Becoming a Better Artist

Self-Portrait, ca. 1630
Anthony van Dyck (Flemish, 1599–1641)

The other day I received an email from someone asking me what were the practices that made me a better artist. I thought it was a great question. My answer may not have been exactly what the writer was looking for, but I was grateful for the opportunity to think about what it was that really helped me in my artistic journey. Most people write to ask about skin tones, or materials, or how to sell paintings, or the like. Knowing those things is all well and good, but they are not key to getting you anywhere in the long run if you want to master your craft. Don’t get me wrong. It’s good to know those things (and I hope you are asking more artists than just me). They are all pieces to a huge puzzle. But what I hope to offer here is what I think are some really important things to consider if you want to maximize your potential.

1. Get some good formal training if possible. I think it’s a mistake to try to teach yourself everything. Even a workshop now and then is better than nothing.

2. Try to strike a path with your approach. What I mean is, if you are really serious about painting you can’t do a little of this and a little of that (a little impressionism, a little watercolor, a little photorealism, etc.). If you still need to explore before you define your path, that’s fine. Don’t rush it. But do make a decision. May I submit to you that once you get a good handle on one type of expression your other experiments will be much more meaningful.

3. Related to point #2 — Identify for yourself what you want to paint, why you want to paint it, how you want to paint it. Describe to yourself what you hope to communicate in your artistic expression. (if you can do this you are well on your way)

4. Also related to point #2 — Pick three artists (minimum) that you want to emulate in your work. Study everything you can about them. Try to identify what it is about their work that you like. Do some master copies of their work.

5. Get serious and schedule regular time in your week to paint.

6. Have a methodical approach to your work. Formulate a step by step method. Take into account both your strengths and your weaknesses.

Happy Painting,


7. Teach, or at least be able to articulate your approach as if you were going to teach it.

Advice to an Aspiring Artist

Today I received an email asking for advice about how to proceed with improving his painting. This person sent me a couple of images to look at. I did so and responded with the following. I hope it may benefit some of you as well:

“It’s always a little difficult to know just how to direct an aspiring artist because I can’t really know what your vision is as an artist and what exactly you wish to communicate in your work. I’m going to assume that because you contacted me that you see something in my work that you like and would like to acquire some similar character in your own work. I took a look at the two images you sent me and they are both quite touching. They both definitely exude a certain spiritual quality and reach out to the viewer — so congrats on that. Even with less than great technique and knowledge of realism you have managed to make two pieces of legitimate art which communicate. And that’s the key. To my way of thinking art MUST communicate something to the viewer, even if it’s something as mundane as “I like purple”.

So…where to go from here? Again, I’m going to be making some assumptions here about what you want, so if it doesn’t resonate with you then that’s okay with me. In my own work I am greatly concerned with the form. With convincingly translating what the light is doing to the form in order to communicate a “realness” or “solidity” to the objects I am painting, whether figure or still life. This quality is lacking in your work. That concern doesn’t seem to be apparent. So my first advice to you is to study translating three-dimensional form on a two-dimensional surface.

How does one do this? Have you heard of the basic shapes? Sphere, cube, cone, cylinder. Begin by finding or purchasing objects that represent these shapes. If you can, spray paint them with matte white spray paint. Create an environment where you can control the lighting and set up your object with a single strong light source. You want to achieve an obvious light side of the form, and an obvious shadow side. I also recommend using some sort of reflector to create a nice reflected light in the shadow. Now draw the form with your choice of drawing materials. My personal choice would be graphite on paper, though some prefer charcoal. Also concern yourself with the cast shadow. Study what is happening to the form as the light travels across it. I know this sounds ridiculously basic but this sort of thing has been out and out ignored by many aspiring realists and consequently they still do not have an understanding of light and form. And consequently their work looks flat and unconvincing.

Once you have mastered — and I mean MASTERED — the basic shapes you can move on to more complex objects. Simple casts from Greek or Roman sculpture would be my advice. From there you can move on to even more complex casts, lighting each one in the same way as the basic shapes. One can purchase such casts online, or sometimes you can be lucky enough to find something adequate in an antique store.

If you are very good with your drawing materials and would like to work with painting materials then you can use monochrome paint to do the studies. My choice would be to use raw umber and white only. The reason many should start with drawing materials is because it’s easier to control than paint. One must have the understanding of the form first before adding trying to learn the complexities of paint handling as well.

What is the goal of all this laborious study? The understanding of light and its affect on form. But we must have that understanding. With this understanding we can then make convincing art with less than adequate information. For example, I often paint from photographic reference, but my understanding of light and form help me to augment the limited amount of information in the photo. Instead of being a slave to the photo, I use it only as a reference. It gives me basic light and shadow info, and basic color info. But in my painting I do what I want. I make the form turn and feel real (if I’m doing what I should be doing). I also make the color more convincing. I play up the warms, or make other colors more neutral, or whatever I please. Sometimes in the life studio the lighting is not what you would prefer. There may be multiple light sources, or more commonly, too much ambient light in the shadows. If you understand light and form you do not have to be completely at the mercy of the lighting situation before you. I’m not saying you can completely change the lighting setup in your painting, but you CAN alter it somewhat; making the shadows darker, or whatever.

I know you are on a tight budget, but I highly recommend the purchase and study of Tony Ryder’s book and Classical Drawing Atelier by J. Aristides. Both on my book list. While doing the basic shapes studies, or even before you do them, read and understand chapter 5 of Tony’s book. It’s all about light and form. Know it. Own it. It’s got to be part of your thought process.

Once you get into full color painting I recommend any and all the other books on my list — particularly Problem Solving for Oil Painters by Gregg Kreutz. Excellent draftsmanship does not seem to be a key point with Gregg, as it is with me, but everything else he says is spot on. Very insightful. To me Gregg is a painter’s painter so to speak. He’s all about working out pictorial problems, planning ahead, and to the devil with having special ability or “talent”.

Let me leave you with a masterpiece by Juliette Aristides — “Sutherland Resting”:

Oil Transfer

Here is a great way to enlarge and transfer a study drawing to your canvas. It’s one of many ways to do this, of course. You can also use graphite or charcoal transfer paper, or you can project your image.  I’m sharing this method because a lot of people don’t know about it and it’s probably the most archivally sound method of transferring a drawing. I learned this method from a great artist and teacher Douglas Flynt. The advantage of an oil paint transfer is that it’s just paint. You don’t have to use any unhealthy fixative or worry about the graphite eventually migrating to the surface (you may have seen this phenomenon in the museums from time to time).

Once your drawing is transferred and dry (24 hours should suffice) you can proceed as you like. Many people will do some sort of grisaille or underpainting before tackling the real business of the painting. An underpainting is my usual method and highly recommended.

One other thing…since this process can sometimes involve a fairly large dollop of paint, I suggest using a cheaper student brand such as Winton, made by Winsor & Newton.

Below is an image of the finished painting, “Paris”, 36×24, oil/canvas:

The Richard Schmid Color Charts

In this video I’m simply illustrating how to make the color charts as explained in the book Alla Prima by Richard Schmid. This exercise will not teach you color theory or how to see color, but it will teach you what your colors can do in terms of mixing. You will have to invest some time and materials but what you will learn makes it all well worth it.

I’m using my chosen palette of colors, of course. You need not feel that you have to use my palette. In his book Richard Schmid is using a slightly different palette. His choice of colors works for him. The colors I use work for me and they can do virtually anything I want to do in the way of mixing color for my particular expression.

My palette consists of:

Titanium white
Cadmium Yellow
Yellow Ochre
Cadmium Orange
Cadmium Red Light
Terra Rosa
Transparent Red Oxide
Raw Umber
Ivory Black
Quinacridone Violet
Ultramarine Blue
Pthalocyanine Green

By the way, if you don’t have Alla Prima you should. There is a new expanded version of the book available entitled Alla Prima II.

Tips, lessons, and other musings on the art life