Category Archives: painting instruction

Blind Painting – or Painting from Memory

Blind painting – Sunrise before the Storm 1, 8 x 10, Kit Miracle

I’ve been clearing out a lot of junk from one of our attics lately.  A few weeks ago, my husband and I were taking several large bags to the dump one morning.  A big storm was moving in from the west so we put the rush on to get it delivered before the skies opened. 

The dark clouds were rolling up behind us.  As I was hustling along the road, I made a note of how beautiful the early morning skies were, especially the dramatic contrast between the rising sun and the storm clouds.  I wished I could take some photos but kept my hands on the steering wheel.  I decided to use an old trick which I haven’t practiced in quite some time.  This is to memorize the scene.

Blind painting – Sunrise before the Storm 2, 8×10, KitMiracle

Landscape and plein air painters often use this device.  That is, to set their easels up facing away from the scene, then study the scene for a bit and try to commit it to memory.  The point is to try not to capture every detail, but to make note of the key aspects.  Then turn around and, facing your easel, begin to paint what you remember.  It sounds difficult but you get better as you practice. 

We made our deposit at the dump and scurried home.  By this time, the skies had opened and a torrential rain was beating the car. 

As soon as I got home, I went to my studio and did two quick pencil studies of what I had seen.  Of course, I couldn’t remember every detail, but I think I got the jist of it.  Noting the main colors which had attracted me in the first place, plus some primary shapes.  I fired up these two small paintings (8 x 10) and am pretty pleased with the results.

I think the best part about using this technique is that it forces the artist to focus on the main shapes and not get lost in the weeds of details.  Certainly worth a try if you have never done so before.

Sketches from memory

Water themes as a painting subject

Waterlilies at the Spillway, acrylic, 12 x 12

Many lists of the most popular painting subjects include landscapes and seascapes.  I must admit that I’ve painted quite a few pieces with these subjects.  Although I live in the Midwest, many of my landscapes include some water feature – streams, rivers, ponds, lakes.  And my travels have taken me to the ocean in various places.  There is something very primal and soothing about hearing ocean waves…most of the time.

Fishing at Patoka Lake, acrylic, 12 x 16

Recently I painted a couple of paintings based on the very large lake nearby.  Lake Patoka is 8,800 acres and is a major water and recreation source for the area.

Leaving the Cove, Cape Breton, NS, acrylic, 9 x 12

But I also cruised through old photos of places we have visited, particularly Nova Scotia, Cape Breton, and New England.  Such beautiful scenery that it was difficult to choose.  Many more subjects for future paintings.

White Wharf, Rockport, MA, acrylic, 12 x 16
Fishing Shack (or Motif #1), Rockport, MA, acrylic, 8 x 10

And, of course, I did an entire series of beach paintings but those are mostly about people and children with the ocean being a common denominator for each painting.

Beach Readers, Intimate Spaces series, acrylic on linen, 24 x 30, Kit Miracle The whole attraction of this subject with the irony of the two young women who are reading and totally ignoring the beautiful day at the beach. I also love the way the red beach chairs draw the viewer’s eye into the scene.
Wet Reflections, acrylic, acrylic, 24 x 30

This is not to say that painting water features is the only subject that I tackle, but it is one of my favorites.  So many opportunities if I take my time to look for them.  

Ritter Creek, oil, 24 x 30
French Lick Creek, oil, 24 x 30

What are your favorite subjects to paint?

See more paintings at my Etsy shop KitMiracleArt or my main website ContemporaryImpressionism

Series Paintings

Tire Swing, Park Series. Kit Miracle, acrylic on canvas, 24 x 30.

I have introduced several series of paintings over the years here on my blog.  It seems that I’ve started another one, the Park Series.  This will focus on, what else, scenes from the park.  A park.  Many parks.  Parks are usually filled with scenic landscapes and people doing activities, two of my favorite things.

Most of the series paintings are a little larger than some of my other pieces.  They also tend to concentrate on the same color palette.  In fact, I’ll often make a schematic of the colors I plan to use.  Using the same color family adds a cohesive theme to a series of paintings.

Some of the series paintings I’ve created over the years include Westerns, particularly The Grand Canyon, Intimate Spaces – Beach Series, Intimate Spaces – Breaking Bread Series, The Food We Eat, Lucky Red and Alley Views.

I might have an idea for a series of paintings at the beginning but more often I just cruise through my extensive batch of snapshots until something catches my attention.  I’ll write about using photos as an art subject in a future post. 

I’ve created a step-by-step page for the painting above, Tire Swing for those who are interested.  Click here for more detailed information.

Compositional framing

There are many rules and ideas for composition.  No one idea is perfect for all situations.  You may have your favorites or you may like to try new ideas frequently.  Today I’m going to discuss the idea of framing.  I’m not talking about the frame of the painting but using framing as a composition device.

Plein Air Painting, Birdseye, Indiana

I most often use framing in landscapes, cityscapes, and sometimes interiors.  This means that I’ll often place a large tree or bush near the front of the picture frame, usually on one side or another, with the main view in the middle distance.  This leads the viewer’s eye into the painting and directs its focus.

Sometimes in cityscapes, the view might be between two buildings or down an alley. 

In a recent couple of paintings of the same subject – a child flying a toy airplane at the park – I first explored just the child and the plane.  In the second painting, I used the framing composition to lead the eye from the near subject matter, to the large tree on the left, to the child and plane in the background.

In another couple of paintings, I painted a straight view of a Grand Canyon vista.  The second landscape shows the Grand Canyon framed by tree in the front.

Here is an interior view using compositional framing.  The doorway, chair and plant, lead the eye through the doorway to the desk in the distance.

There are no hard rules on when to use compositional framing.  It’s mostly a matter of what you feel comfortable with, what helps your painting.  I’ll often do several thumbnails or even larger charcoal drawings to test the feel of the subject. 

Drawing trees

I’ve been busy since the holidays so haven’t spent much time in the studio. I have a show which opens later this week so much of my time has been spent sorting and rounding up artwork for the show. We’ve also had some pretty chilly weather with temps in the single digits but only a couple of inches of snow.

So I decided to take a break from new painting work to practicing drawing some trees. Winter is a great time to capture the skeletons of the trees as the leaves are long gone. I didn’t have to go far, actually just my own front yard.

The sketch of the hackberry tree is charcoal on pastel paper. Approximately 13.5 inches by 11.5. Winter is a great time to draw tree skeletons.

The first tree is a large hackberry. I had never heard of this tree before we moved here but it’s a very nicely shaped tree, tall with up-reaching branches, medium-size leaves (so no raking) and small dark berries which are popular with the birds. It also is distinguished by its incredibly knobby bark.

The hackberry has a striking limb structure with large limbs reaching for the sky.

The other tree that I recently drew is a giant sugar maple near our woodshed. It has been home to several treehouses over the years, supported by it’s wide-spreading branches. I just love the beautiful scarlet foliage in the autumn. We don’t sugar the tree but there is/was a whole double row of them when we moved here. Unfortunately, they tend to die off at about eighty years. This one has a large hollow on the other side but I’m going to enjoy it while I can.

Sugar Maple charcoal sketch, approximately 13.5 inches by 11.5. The late afternoon shadows emphasize the limb structure.
Sugar maple, detail. This poor old maple by the wood shed is huge and has been host to many tree houses. I’m not certain how many more years it has in it as there is a hollow on the other side, but we still enjoy the brilliant orangey-red foliage in autumn.

It’s nice to challenge myself with some drawing. I think drawing is great for building that important eye-hand coordination. I should do more of it, but brandishing a brush is even more alluring.

Useful art tools

Five useful art tools. 1, Composition aid. 2. Proportion scale. 3. Red gel. 4. View catcher. 5 Painting bridges.

It seems hardly a day goes by that I don’t get a catalogue or an e-mail trying to sell me art supplies and gadgets.  Oh, look, newer, better, scientific!  You’ve got to have this latest gizmo!  This will ensure your success and you’ll be the best in your field.

This is true not only for artists, but golfers, automobile enthusiasts, bikers, campers, what have you.  It seems as if the only people getting rich are the ones who keep trying to sell you things. 

But as an artist, I always like the challenge of trying to do things myself.  I guess that’s why I’m in a creative field. Here are five very simple tools that I use in my studio or outside.  Three I made myself and the other two can be purchased for less than ten dollars each.

1. The first tool is a simple composition aid made from a small 4 x 6 frame with the glass taped in.  On the back side, I’ve divided it into nine sections with a permanent marker.  I got the idea from an old drawing (Durer) of an artist who had created a standing frame divided into squares by threads.  He then divided his paper into squares, and then transferred what he saw in each square as he was viewing an object, into the respective square on his paper.  This same technique is used today for blowing up drawings. 

Woodcut of Durer’s perspective drawing tool.

In this case, I take the little frame and hold it up in front of a landscape, and draw with a felt pen on the front side.  This can be used for still lifes, figurative works, street scenes, whatever.  The trick is to keep the frame and my eye at the same level for the few minutes that I need to sketch on the glass.  Then I transfer the image to my paper or canvas.  Sometimes it’s amazing how different the actual drawing looks from the way my eye wanted to read it.  I’ve used this technique in teaching third graders up to adults.  Now, of course, you can buy a similar ready-made frame but these were not available when I first made mine.

Proportion Scale with several 20 x 16 equivalents marked by red arrows.

2. Proportion scale.  I’ve had this little plastic tool for so many years that I forgot where I bought it.  It is so easy to use for both reducing and increasing sizes proportionally.  Just line up the numbers of say, a 20 x 16 and then everything else on the scale will be proportional to that, 10 x 8, 5 x 4, 40 x 32, 80 x 64 and everything in between.  Or maybe you have a canvas of a certain size but you need to make adjustments in your drawing to fit; the proportion scale can help you do this.  Less than $10 online.

3. Red gel sheet.  I used to have access to colored gels (used for lights) when I worked in the theatre business.  These scraps are useful, particularly this red gel.  Hold it up in front of a green landscape, and it immediately grays everything out so you’re only left with values.  Commercial products are available now but you can probably get gel scraps from your local theatre or playhouse for free. See previous post here.

4.  The View Catcher has been around for a long time.  Made of grey plastic, the little slide opens the window to a variety of sizes from square to rectangles.  Marks on the plastic indicate the scale of the window (8 x 10, 11 x 14, etc.)  Less than $10.  We used to use old film slide windows but no one knows what those are anymore. 

5.  Painting bridges.  When I painted a lot of watercolor, particularly architectural images, it was helpful to have a steady hand when drawing the lines.  I made these two bridges from some wood scraps.  They kept my hand off the paper and from smearing the paint or ink.  Also, they were very helpful for guiding my pen when drawing lines.  My cost was nothing but now you can buy plastic ones for about $35.  I like free.

I hope these useful art tools will inspire you in your quest to be more creative.  And don’t be afraid to make something of your own invention, too.

Four categories of painting subjects

Central Park, acrylic on canvas board, 8 x 10. This was created from a sketch that I did while on a business trip to New York.

Do you ever feel like making some art but you just don’t know what to paint or draw?  For some people, this is a common frustration.  You have some free time and then what?

In my case, I keep a list.  I’m very fond of lists.  I often have many lists, here, there, everywhere.  I have a couple of lists in my studio, but I also keep an idea notebook. This is actually to just capture an idea which might flit through my mind…and then flit out.  These days I’m working on a lot of seasonal paintings for the upcoming holidays so I just brainstorm and write things down.  I also use this technique when I’m thinking about another series of paintings.

Most of my ideas fall into three or four broad categories:  still life, landscape, figurative and non-objective.

Nine Apples, acrylic on canvas, 12 x 12. A variety of views of two apples. This could be a still life or an abstract painting. Not all paintings fit neatly into one category.

Still life.  This can include any single or group of objects.  Fruit, flowers, vases, skulls, musical instruments.  The list is practically infinite.  Some artists select a group of objects and then keep rearranging them and paint them for their entire lives (Morandi).  Others choose themes – types of objects like all glass vases, or natural objects, or sports equipment.  The really nice thing about still lifes is that the objects stay put (usually) and you can come back to work on your painting another day if you run out of time.  This is a really good way to develop eye-hand coordination, composition, and learning to tell a story if that is what you choose to do.  Instructors start beginning art students off with still lifes to help build these skills.

Schnellville Rd, September. Acrylic on canvas, 8 x 10. I used to drive this road on my way home from work. I loved the hills and small farms along the way. Sure beats fighting a few million people to work every day.

Landscape.  Just about anywhere in the world can be a subject of a landscape painting.  Painting outdoors (en plein air) is both challenging and fun.  Cityscapes, your house, your dog’s house, beautiful scenery, or even things that aren’t so beautiful.  Landscape painting can be a bit more challenging as the time of day and the seasons often dictate how long or when you can paint.  Many artists make quick sketches and bring them back to use as subjects for larger or more detailed paintings.  If you are painting out doors, then you have about two or three hours before the light and shadows change.  You can always return another day to finish your work, or start another painting while you’re outside.

I loved this small marble bust of a boy with a wreath in his hair. Sketched at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. You have to get used to people leaning over your shoulder when sketching in a crowd, but really, most people are very polite and may not even notice you at all.

Figurative.  This entails studying a figure, body, part, or group.  It can even encompass pets and animals.  For many people, this is one of the most difficult categories to approach.  Why?  Because your subjects move!  Stand still, dang it!  Again, the more you do, the better you become.  Building that eye – hand coordination.  A trip to a museum helps if they will allow you to sketch their sculptures.  Those usually stay still.  Or sit at your favorite eatery, a park, library, or any public space.  Plenty of subjects there.  The trick is to be stealthy but really, not everyone minds someone sketching them. And don’t try to make a finished piece if you only have a few minutes to just jot some sketches. 

Abstract or non-objective.  This is the anything goes category.  Do you want to make circles or squiggles?  Fine.  How about several canvasses of lines or shapes?  Add some sand or affix some found objects.  Maybe your favorite music will inspire you.  Ask any four year old and they’ll teach you how.

So next time you’re searching for something to paint, pull out your notebook or 3 x 5 card and check it for ideas.  Just keep it nearby, maybe by your reading or TV chair, to jot down ideas as they come to you.  You’ll always be ready for those times when you have a few hours to get creative.  Good luck!

What to do with a bad painting

Let’s face it, if you’ve been an artist for any length of time, you will inevitably create some bad paintings. Crap is the professional term.  (Just kidding.)  Not everything that comes off your easel, your brush, from your pencil is wonderful.  Actually, few pieces of art fit that description.

I remember when I was first getting back to my art roots after several years’ hiatus that I sat at the kitchen table one night and created a cute little flower painting. It was pink, I think.  I was so proud of that piece.  When I showed it to my husband, he said, “Oh, that’s nice, honey.”  Such a sweet supportive liar but I certainly needed the boost to my ego. 

I kept that painting for years, long after I realized what a wreck it was.  I would drag it out when teaching a class and point to it and say, “See, this is where I came from.  You can learn to paint, too.”  I have searched the studio for the piece as I would definitely show it but can’t locate it.  I’m sure that I never threw it away.

The point is, that we do the best we can with the skills we have at the time. When you know better, you do better.  I have painted plenty of really BAD paintings.  And still do, although not quite so many. 

So what do you do with a piece of art that just didn’t turn out the way that you wanted?  Here are several options.

  1. Examine the piece carefully and determine just what you are unhappy with.  The color, subject matter, composition, execution, the method of painting, etc.? 
  2. Ask yourself if there is some way to correct the mistake?  Not all mediums can be corrected but many can.
  3. Ask a friend for input.  Sometimes we know something is off but just can’t see the mistake although it may be glaring to some new eyes.
  4. Scrape off the paint or paint over the mistake.  You may even need to paint over the entire canvas.  I have done this many times and just started over. Or even explore a new idea rather the one you were pursuing.
  5. Trash it.  Burn it, destroy it.  Some people recommend that you keep your bad work to inspire you but I think it will only haunt you.  Use it as a learning experience and move on.  It can be very cathartic to throw your canvases into the burn barrel.  I’ve had very few regrets over many years.

One thing that I don’t recommend is to donate the bad artwork.  It may come back to haunt you as when someone picks it up a resale shop or flea market.  And don’t pawn it off on your friends and relatives.  They’ll be too polite to tell you and will resent moving it around from place to place over the years.

Finally, don’t stress about a bad painting.  It happens.  That’s OK.  We learn from our mistakes and just promise yourself that you’ll do better next time.  It’s only a painting, after all. 

Preparing for the big exhibit

Intimate Spaces: Breaking Bread series. Hung on the side of my studio. It sure helps to have all the canvases the same size. At least for ease of framing and wiring.

The good news is that we were able to escape to warmer climates for a brief respite.  After two years of being stuck at home, we had a delightful and restful vacation.

However, upon returning, I had to start scrambling to prepare for my upcoming solo exhibit in May/June.  Fortunately, all the paintings are completed.  The frames were on hand.  So I jumped into the presentation process.

Framing back. Fortunately with gallery-wrapped canvases (where the canvas is stretched around the supports), there is no real need for frames. The sides are painted. The canvases only need to be wired.

All of the Intimate Spaces: Breaking Bread series are on two inch deep gallery-wrapped canvases.  This means no framing, only wiring.  Actually, the process went rather quickly, especially after I bought special wire snips to cut through the plastic-covered wire.  My professional wire scissors wouldn’t work.

Then I began the process of working on the Intimate Spaces: Beach series paintings.  About half of these canvases are also the deep, gallery-wrapped type.  Those went quickly.  BUT….when I began to frame the rest of the paintings. I realized that I didn’t have the correct hardware.  Plenty of Z clips, but no L clips.  They’re on order. 

Wait. Wait. Wait.

Fortunately, they’re due to arrive on Tuesday.  It won’t take long to finish once they actually arrive.  Remember, I’ve been framing my work for nearly forty years now! 

Anyway, the show is coming together. The marketing materials have been ordered.  The paintings will be delivered on Friday, April 30th.  The show will be hung.  It opens at the new Cultural Center on Thursday, May 6th.  Unfortunately, with the COVID restrictions, there won’t be a public reception. But I will be doing a demonstration painting on Saturday, May 8th from 10 to 2. If you would like a personal tour of the exhibit, let me know and I’ll try to meet you there.

If you’re in the area, please stop by. It’s even worth it to make a special trip.  Some great restaurants in Jasper, especially the Schnitzlebank, a German restaurant that attracts guests from miles around (closed Sundays). Plus, there are many other fine restaurants in the area and lots of neat shops downtown.

Address:  Jasper Cultural Center.  100 Third Avenue.  Turn right (North on Mill Street) and then right again (East) on Fourth street. Plenty of free parking in the rear of the building.

How to improve your art skills

One of Van Gogh’s sunflower paintings. Many artists explore a subject in a series of paintings of the same subject. Van Gogh did at least twelve paintings of sunflowers.

I’m often asked, “How do I get better at my art?”  Hummmm….well, I have several suggestions.  They aren’t anything new but maybe they’re new to you.  In no particular order.

Make a LOT of art!  Studies have shown that students who create a lot of art eventually get better, especially compared to those who seek to create one perfect painting or poem or story or pot.  Like almost anything else, the more you do, the better you get.  This is the time to explore.  Try new things, new styles, new subjects, new mediums.  Just make a whole lot of it. Don’t worry if it’s any good yet.  Just do it.  The old adage that practice makes perfect applies here. While you are testing new things, your mind will begin to make connections and build on what you have done before.

Make it easy.  Make it easy to make art.  Do you have to clear the children’s homework from the dining table?  Drag out all your equipment and easel every time you want to paint? Find a space where you can keep your materials at hand.  Set up a corner in the bedroom to work.  Use a portable screen if the clutter annoys you.  Keep a sketchbook next to your TV chair.  Or in your purse or pocket.  I’ve often drawn mini-sketches while waiting for dinner or in the theater.  If your materials are nearby, you’ll be more likely to use them.

Don’t worry if it’s any good.  So many people worry about if their work is any good.  Stop that right now!  Refer to the first suggestion.  Just do it.  Do a lot of it.  ALL artists make some really bad paintings.  That’s Okay!  That is what preliminary work is for.  Try it out.  Maybe it will be brilliant. Maybe it won’t.  But you will have learned what works and what doesn’t.

Copy other artists.  Yes, I recommend studying other artists, your favorites perhaps.  Go to the museums or the library or even review their work online.  What do you like about their work?  What don’t you like?  Try making a few copies in the style of the artist. How does that feel to you?  Does it feel natural or awkward?  Look at what attracts you most.  Their subject matter?  Style?  Brushwork?  But do NOT EVER try to pass off someone else’s work as your own.  That is dishonest and plagerism. You won’t feel comfortable about it and you’ll be found out eventually.

Do a series.  A series is a group of artwork of, perhaps, the same subject or style or theme.  This helps you to dig deeper.  Find out what attracts you to this subject.  Van Gogh painted twelve sunflower paintings.  I’ll bet that he got better at them towards the end.  Monet painted thirty haystacks, 250 waterlillies, and over thirty of the Rouen Cathedral. Different angles, different times of day. 

My concluding advice is just keep at it.  Don’t let anyone discourage you. Only you know what you are learning.  If you have tried it before, try it again.  You’re in a different place and time.  Perhaps you have more skills and knowledge now.  Just keep moving forward. Good luck!