Category Archives: painting instruction

Alley View, Plein Air Painting, Jasper, Indiana

Alley View, Plein Air Painting, final, 16 x 20, acrylic, Kit Miracle. This shows the final view of the scene. I might tweak it sometime later after I live with it for awhile, but so far, I’m satisfied.

Although I do a fair amount of plein air painting, I don’t do too many competitions.  Today I participated in a local event which is always fun.  I’m familiar with the area so it’s always a challenge to find new and interesting things to paint.  Yesterday I scouted out a few locations. I don’t like to do what everyone else is doing but seek to highlight a vista that might make people see their own space in a new way.

Alley view, initial scene, very early in the morning.

So this morning found me sitting in an alley. I was drawn to this blue garage and the alternating light and shadows as I looked up the alley.  It was very peaceful on a Saturday morning at daybreak.

Alley View, 1st step. Using a red-toned canvas, I painted in the basic shadows and main shapes.

Alley View, second level. Here you can see more added colors. This is the point in a painting that everything looks like a real mess. But I’ve learned to just keep pressing on and it will come together.

As you can see, I started with a red-toned canvas, 16 x 20.  First I blocked in the main shapes and the darks.  Then I started to lay in the markers for the greens.  The last colors to go in were the lightest colors – whites, off whites, and the sky.  I don’t always work in this order but usually.

Alley View after two hours. Notice how the shadows have changed. Usually 2 – 3 hours is the most time I have for a plein air painting.

Despite the heat and humidity, my acrylic paints kept drying out quickly.  I didn’t bring a retarder with me so I kept having to spray the paint and add layer after layer.

But I enjoyed the peace of the scene.  A few dog walkers, a couple of interested passersby, the occasional bunny rabbit, and inevitably, the Saturday morning lawn mowers all created the peaceful atmosphere.

I might review the painting later to see if I need to tighten it up, but actually, I like the feel of a warm summer morning. How about you?

Alley View, Plein Air Painting, final, 16 x 20, acrylic, Kit Miracle. This shows the final view of the scene. I might tweak it sometime later after I live with it for awhile, but so far, I’m satisfied.

Studio lighting options

In over thirty years of working as an artist, I’ve tried many different types of lighting. While none is perfect, I thought I’d review what I’ve been working with lately.

Daylight from north window. Pretty even cool light, but, of course, not good for working at night.

First is just plain north light through the window.  This is often considered the gold standard for artists.  It is a cool and pretty consistent light.  My studio, the summer kitchen building of this old house, has four windows in the main part of the studio.  Only one window is on the north side, two on the east, and one south facing.  Using natural lighting is great but not always practical, especially if you want to work in the evenings or at night.  But it has come in handy on occasion during power outages.  If you’re working in a centuries-old medium, you can just carry on without electricity.

Fluorescent lighting fixture with a cool bulb and a daylight bulb for balance. Great for a broad work space such as framing and matting.

I am unusual in that I actually like fluorescent lighting (most people don’t).  I think it provides good light and is great for working, such as, cutting mats or assembling frames.  I have two standard light fixtures in my studio but have opted to pair a cool bulb with a warm (daylight) bulb.  Although this is difficult to see in the photo, it provides a nice balanced illumination for the studio.  However, if I’m working on a still life, I want aimed lighting without the overhead fluorescents.

Old can lights on a track lighting strip. These get pretty hot but are useful for studio painting displays. I’ll probably replace them in the future with smaller LED or halogen lighting.

Another lighting option in the studio are the can lights.  As you can see, they’re pretty old.  I’ll probably replace them with the smaller halogen lights in the future.  But these are really great for highlighting hanging paintings, such as when I have a studio show.

I also have several clamp-on lights (not shown) which I have used with photography tripods.  These are inexpensive and great for lighting still lifes.

A standard goose-neck clip on lamp with a daylight balanced bulb. Some flexibility but not so suitable for larger paintings, creating hot spots again.

Most of my painting in the past few years has been done with a clamp-on gooseneck lamp.  It has a daylight bulb.  Unfortunately, it sometimes causes “hot” spots on the paintings (uneven lighting).  I’ve tried placing it behind me but then I’m working in my shadow.  This is especially a problem when working on larger paintings.

Recently I investigated some new easel lighting.  First I tried the Phive LED desk lamp.  This is made especially for drawing tables and has a really wide lamp head. It also adjusts to many color temperatures and intensities.  Although it has a somewhat flexible head, I just could not get it affixed correctly to my easel.  This was not a cheap lamp so I returned it and ordered my current favorite.

The Phive LED architectural light attached to my studio. The first part of the lamp is stiff and only the top part is articulated. I could not find a way to attach it to my easel without the actual lamp getting in the way.

This was my second option for attaching the Phive lamp sideways.

As you can see, the Phive lamp has a very wide head, but because I couldn’t center it, it threw hot spots on the painting area. I thought about trying to remove the clamp and affixing the lamp to the easel with bolts, but it still wasn’t articulated enough. Also, the clamp was not easily removable.

The most recent lamp that I’m using is by IMIGY with a super long and very flexible 24 inch gooseneck.  This LED lamp has several settings for cool, warm and mixed lighting with several dimming options.  It also has a delayed timer for turning it off.  The clamp is much smaller than the Phive but I may also remove it entirely and attach it directly to the easel with some two-hole plumbing clips.  However, the flexibility of the lamp means there are many options for aiming the light.  The light bar is shorter than the Phive but the output seems at least equal.

The IMIGY lamp with a 24 inch gooseneck and many lighting options. Very flexible and stays where I put it it.

It is important to have good lighting in your studio.  I discovered many years ago that if I worked under a warm light, then my paintings turned out too cool.  Now I usually use a cool light which mimics north light which means that I paint a bit warmer to compensate.  If you are unhappy with your current work space illumination, you might want to try out some of these suggestions.

The IMIGY light with cool light display.

The mixed lighting setting on the IMIGY lamp.

The warm lighting setting for the IMIGY lamp. A little too warm for painting but good to test the display.

Phive LED Desk Lamp link

IMIGY LED Desk Lamp link

Stretching canvas

The current series of paintings that I’m working on calls for some unusual sizes of canvases.  I could have ordered ready-made canvases but decided to spend some time stretching my own.  I already had plenty of rolled canvas so I just ordered stretcher bars of the sizes I needed.

Stretcher bars awaiting assembly. You need two of each size unless you’re doing a square, then you need four the same size.

Assembled stretcher bars and tools, scissors and rubber mallet.

Stretcher bars can be ordered in various widths, depths and lengths.  These are 1 ½ inch bars. The canvas that I’m using is cotton duck.  I also use linen for some of the really special pieces.  This canvas is already preprimed which I would not recommend or order in the future.  I’d prefer to gesso and prime my own canvas.

The tools for stretching canvas are pretty basic.

  • Rubber mallet
  • Scissors
  • Tape measure
  • Staple gun (electric) and staples (1/2 inch)
  • Tack hammer or framing hammer
  • Canvas pliers (not shown) I don’t usually use these, just grip the canvas and pull really hard

The bars are prenotched and will fit together with a little effort.

This is what the corner should look like after assembly.

Assemble your stretcher bars by aligning the grooves and using the rubber mallet to pound them together.  This might take a little trial and error until you get the hang of it, but don’t be afraid to put some muscle into the pounding to make the bars go together.  Of course, if you’re assembling a rectangular canvas, remember to use the two short and the two longs on opposing sides.  After you’re happy that the bars are assembled, measure diagonally from corner to corner to make sure they’re pretty square.

Measure diagonal corners to ensure the canvas is square.

Lay your assembled stretcher bars on the canvas and cut around. Leave a few inches in all sides, enough to wrap around to the back of the bars.

A roll of pre-primed cotton duck canvas. I prefer the unprimed canvas but was using this up.

Lay the assembled stretcher bars on your canvas and cut around leaving enough canvas to wrap around to the back of the frame.  This depends upon the depth of the frame you are assembling.  Then, making sure that the primed side is out, lay the assembled bars on the canvas face down. Make sure the canvas has the same border all around the bars. Starting in the middle of one bar, add a staple.  Then on the opposite side, pull the canvas really tight, making sure it’s not puckering, and add another staple. Then do the two sides.

More tools for actually stretching the canvas. Electric staple gun, 1/2 inch staples, tack hammer, tape measure.

Start in the middle of one side, put a staple in. The do the opposite side, pulling tightly. Then do each end, same thing. Then go back and add a couple of staples on either side of the first staples. Keep working around the frame, always pulling tightly. When you get to the corners, neatly fold the corners in. You don’t want a bunch of canvas on the corners as that will hinder framing.

Work your way out to the edges all the way around until you get to the corners.  The corners are a little tricky but try to wrap the canvas as neatly as you can.  Then go around the canvas and set in the staples with the tack hammer.

Drive the frame wedges into the slots in the corners. These are plastic wedges but they also come in wood and in various sizes. You will need to pound them in with the rubber mallet. They should be pretty tight and your canvas will be very tight.

The canvas will appear pretty tight but you need to tighten it even further by driving in the wedges into the corners with the rubber mallet.  Align the straight edge of the wedge with the corner frame as pictured.  Then put in the other one going the opposite direction.  This will really tighten the canvas.  If it should loosen over time, you can readjust the wedges or even re-stretch the canvas.  As you can see here, I am using plastic wedges but they also come in wood.  You will need eight pairs per frame.

If you have never tried stretching your own canvas, I urge you to give it a try.  It seems a little complicated at first, but you will end up with a better product and save some money in the long run.

The importance of preliminary work

Green and Yellow, 20 x 20, acrylic, Kit Miracle. Intimate Spaces series

I recently posted a step-by-step outline of my painting A Day at the Beach (4-10-2019). A critical part of creating a significant panting is the preliminary work. I sincerely believe that the more thought I put into the piece at the beginning, the more I can work out the problems ahead of time, and the better the final result will be.  Well, that’s my theory anyway.

Green and Yellow, detail.

This is another painting in my series Intimate Spaces, all about the territory that people carve out when they visit the beach.  In this painting, I was sitting behind a couple who staked out their space early in the day with two chairs and an umbrella.  They didn’t show up until mid-afternoon.

NOTAN sketches for Green and Yellow. This is where I work out basic shapes and composition. As you can see, initially I intended this to be a rectangle shape but then changed it to a square shape.

I liked the near silhouette of the couple with the contrast of the kids playing in the surf in front of them. Maybe they were grandma and grandpa.  I don’t know and never did figure it out.

Large graphite sketch of the main characters for Green and Yellow.

As with most of my paintings, I begin with a NOTAN sketch, just hard contrast of black and white to get a feel for the composition.  Then I did a large graphite sketch of the couple.  I didn’t feel a need to sketch the kids as they’re just notes really.  They were painted directly.

NOTAN sketches of past couple of paintings. Working in black and white allows me to focus on the shapes and composition.

Here are a few more examples of NOTAN sketches.  You’ll notice the one from my last post of A Day at the Beach and how I was focusing on the interlocking umbrella shapes.

More NOTAN sketches from Jump.

And the two pages of NOTAN of Jump which I created in February.  With some of the bigger pieces, I’ll also do a color sketch but not always.

The final conclusion is that no matter what style of art you create, you will often have better results if you put in more thought and work into the beginning of your work than having to correct problems later.  Indeed, sometimes you may discover that the scene or piece doesn’t merit following through.  Or you may decide to attack it from a different direction.

A Day at the Beach – Painting a Series

A Day at the Beach, final. 24 x 36, acrylic on canvas, Kit Miracle

As a working artist for over three decades, I find keeping interested in painting involves challenging myself. Sometimes this means new subject matter or new materials. Even a new location helps.  The challenges keep me inspired and allow the mental juices to flow.

My latest challenge is painting a series of paintings revolving around a day at the beach.  I love slice of life subjects, catching people going about their lives without thought of an audience. One thing I’ve noticed is that when people are at the beach, they stake out their territories, bringing the chairs and the umbrellas, the coolers and the toys.  Beach goers seem to operate under the illusion that no one can see them in their little sand kingdoms.

But the artist’s eye can.

The planned series includes vignettes of life at the beach.  Families, couples, kids playing, people just enjoying the sunshine…or totally ignoring their surroundings with their noses in books or napping.  My inspiration for these seaside paintings are John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla, and Burt Silverman.  It took a lot of effort to make their seaside paintings seem so, well, effortless.  Unstaged even though they often were. And that is the aim of this current series that I’m working on.

The painting above depicts the settling in and establishing of territory by a family.  Mom gets the lounge chairs ready while son is waiting patiently for her attention.  The composition with overlapping umbrellas and tents is like a little city, each with its own slice of life.

The beach walkers and people playing in the surf add distance and perspective to the scene.  I also chose to flatten the color of the sky (no clouds) and the foreground.  This allows the emphasis to be placed on the middle plane where all the action is.

A Day at the Beach is number six in the series.  I have sixteen planned but we’ll see.  A series is an exploration of an idea and I’ll keep at it until I don’t have anything else to say about the subject.

If you’d like to see how this painting was created, click on this link or go under the tab Artworks and click on A Day at the Beach for step-by-step photos.

Thanks for stopping by.

Mixed Bouquet

Mixed Bouquet, original painting, 20 x 16, impressionistic style, Kit Miracle

Spring is finally ready to pop here in Southern Indiana.  The early daffodils and crocuses are out in force.  The tulips are up but not yet blooming.  I’m not sure if the narcissus will make it after the deep freeze  a week ago but the forsythias are ready to pop.

Meanwhile I’m still in the mood to paint flowers which finds me scouring my old photos.  This painting was based on a small bouquet of mixed zinnias from my garden.  I think the greens are sprigs of coriander with added bits of phlox and sweet peas.

Painting flowers is much more challenging than most people realize.  Some artists are so talented in painting every pistol and stamen but that is not my style. I prefer to capture the feel of the flower.  This is called impressionism.

As you can see if you view the detail photos, brush strokes are a mix of bold and soft.  It takes some practice to achieve this effect but all I can advise is to keep at it.  Or, wipe it off or paint over any less than desirable areas.

Mixed Bouquet, detail 1. Another closeup of the flowers. Loosely painted in impressionistic style.

Mixed Bouquet, detail 2. Notice the loose strokes and variegated painting.

Mixed Bouquet, original painting, Kit Miracle

This painting can be viewed on my Etsy shop here.

When you take a flower into your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else.  Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower.  I want them to see it, whether they want to or not. 

      Georgia O’Keeffe

Yearning for Spring

Yearning for Spring, framed, 16 x 20, acrylic on canvas, Kit Miracle, contemporary impressionist

I am just so ready for spring.  Living here in southern Indiana, the winters are usually rather mild, at least compared to my years in Michigan.  We will often get a little snow but not much to worry about.  I think winter here is really like a long fall.

However, this year Mother Nature seems to have taken a fit.  Warm one week just enough to tease the early bulbs out of the ground.  Then the next week, temperatures diving for the bottom of the thermometer.  Last week we saw lows of 10 degrees which meant our wood furnace (The Beast) was doing its best to keep up.  Yesterday we saw a high of 62 with some 70s predicted for next week.  Last evening the peepers could be heard in chorus in the bottoms.  Did I mention that I am really ready for spring?

I felt an irresistible urge to paint some spring flowers. With few early flowers out yet except a couple of bedraggled crocuses and some hardy daffodils, I turned to my photos of some spring bouquets.  And to step outside my usual style.  Same old, same old, gets boring in my opinion.

Yearning for Spring, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20, contemporary impressionist, Kit Miracle

The first bouquet consists of forsythia, double fancy daffodils and some branches of flowering quince.  I like the subtle colors here and aimed at coordinating the background to the flowers but to subjugate it to the foreground.

Dancing Tulips, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20, contemporary impressionist, Kit Miracle

The second flower painting took me in a different direction.  I aimed for bold colors and lively strokes.  This painting certainly accomplished that.  It almost looks as if the tulips are dancing.  To see the step by step for this painting, click here or go the Artworks tab and click on Dancing Tulips.

With the warming temps coming this week, my real tulips might be blooming. They’re already up several inches and it will just need old Sol to entice them out.  I’m ready!

Of course, both paintings are for sale at my Etsy shop.

Thanks for stopping by.

Spring is Nature’s way of saying, “Let’s Party!”       Robin Williams

Yearning for Spring, detail 1

Yearning for Spring, detail 2

Dancing Tulips, detail 1, Kit Miracle

Dancing Tulips, framed, acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20, Kit Miracle

Afternoon Shadows – another painting beyond the photograph

Afternoon Shadows, acrylic, original painting, 14 x 18, contemporary impressionism, Kit Miracle

I thought I’d post another painting created from a photograph for my class. This photo was taken of our patio and arbor with the fire pit on sunny autumn afternoon.  I like outdoor scenes with a human element.  This will often include at least some kind of man-made item whether a building, fence post, road or path.  In this case, the setting gives the feeling of comfort and ease.  The chairs, the smoke from the fire, the dappled sun and shade all contribute to the atmosphere.  The turtle sandbox adds a touch of whimsy.

When using a photo as inspiration for a painting, it’s important to remember that it is a tool and a road map.  Take inspiration but don’t be afraid to change things.

Afternoon Shadows, detail 1. Click and enlarge the photos to see the brush strokes. Notice the background tree is just painted with a few strokes. And the smoke is just a glaze on top of the background. See the indication of the sun and shadows on the chair.

In this painting, I was trying to capture the feel of the afternoon sun. The smoke and fire indicates that there could be a chill in the air with a slight breeze.  The location and setting are inviting; it looks as if someone has just left the area.

Afternoon Shadows, detail 2. Zoom in on the vines and leaves to see just how loosely they were painted. The sandbox turtle adds a note of whimsy.

My style is not photo-realist but contemporary impressionist which works well for conveying the feeling of this scene.  The chairs beckon the viewer to sit in the sun or warm themselves by the fire.  Will a child come walking into the area to play in the sandbox? I love paintings that tell a story.

Afternoon shadows, detail 3. Zoom in on the posts and the background trees to see the brushstrokes.

As you can see by the detail images, I use loose strokes to indicate the branches and leaves.  From a distance, the painting appears to be much more detailed than it actually is.  It takes some practice and confidence to make just the right stroke to indicate a branch.  Or, if you make a mistake, just scrape it off and try again.

Afternoon Shadows, original photo. If you compare this photo to the painting, you can see areas that I have emphasized, changed or deemphasized.

Normally I would have painted a scene like this in plein air but I was busy that afternoon and only had time to capture the view with my camera.  That is one of the benefits of using photographs as inspiration.

Afternoon Shadows for sale

Peace is the beauty of life.  It is sunshine. It is the smile of a child, the love of a mother, the joy of a father, the togetherness of a family. It is the advancement of man, the victory of a just cause, the triumph of truth.  Menachem Begin

Painting beyond the scene

West Wind Blows, original painting, 12 x 16, impressionistic, Kit Miracle

Artists are known for traveling over the world seeking new things to paint.  I have done so myself and have captured many scenes of my travels over the years.

I don’t know why travel is so inspiring but maybe it makes us see the world with new eyes.  We return home refreshed and look at our surroundings in a new way.

However, we don’t need to go away to appreciate what we have.  It is often right there before us.  A new light, a different angle, maybe the same scene in a different season.

This is a scene that I have passed thousands of times. I’ve always liked this valley with the hills but on this particular day, it really pulled at my attention.  Maybe it was the backlit clouds scudding across the sky.  Maybe it was the farm in the valley.  I even found the shadows of the trees across the pasture interesting.

West Wind Blows, detail, painting, Kit Miracle

Of course, I took some artistic license….like I need a license…and edited the landscape to suit myself. But compare the original photo to the scene that I captured. A little editing maybe but any local person would recognize this place.

West Wind Blows, original photo for painting

I’m teaching a class on painting from photographs.  One of the points that I’ve been trying to get across to my students is to use a photograph as a tool, a place to start, but you don’t have to be religious to the exact photo.  It is up to you, the artist, to change it to suit your needs and desires.

It’s a warm wind, the west wind, filled with bird cries.

John Masefield

West Wind Blows 

Little Stone Church, Provence – demonstration painting from photographs

Little Stone Church, Provence, France – final. Acrylic, 12 x 16. As you can see, I made the sky more interesting and edited the road a bit, too.

I thought I’d share another lesson from the class that I’m teaching about painting from photographs.  Frankly, this process can be as complicated or as simple as you want to make it.

Little Stone Church, Provence – original photo

In this example, I have a real photo – you know, the printed kind – from a biking trip that I took through Provence, France many years ago.  I like to browse through the old photos and inevitably I see a new subject that I overlooked before.  In this case, I remember exactly how I felt cruising through the olive groves when I passed this old stone church one morning.

Little Stone Church cropped.

The original photo included more subject matter than I wished to include in my painting so I cropped it to fit my canvas size.  This is easy to do if it is a digital photo, but in this case with a real picture, I used paper L-shaped pieces to manipulate the photo (not shown here.)  I don’t usually need to do this anymore since I’ve been painting for so many years but it’s a good hack for new painters.

For the purpose of the class, I actually scanned the photo and used these images to demonstrate.

Little Stone Church – photo divided into thirds. The center of interest – the church – is at the intersection of one of the thirds. Also, notice how the road leads the eye into the painting and points towards the church.

I divided the selected picture area into thirds each way and then placed the church on one of the intersections.  This generally makes a nicely balanced composition.

NOTAN Here I changed the photo to black and white, then pushed the contrast to the extreme. This helps one get a better idea of the basic shapes. Notice how the stone church (center of interest) also has the greatest contrast with the trees framing it.

The prior week we had discussed NOTAN – the theory of making your image extreme black and white in order to seek balance in the composition.  Here, I manipulated the image by computer to show a high contrast in black and white which is essentially NOTAN.  Here is a link to a very good explanation of NOTAN by artist Mitchell Albala.

A black and white image of the same photograph. This helps the artist gain a better handle on values, lightest to darkest. The same effect can be achieved by viewing the color photograph through a piece of red gel. See a prior post on the subject at the link.

I then showed a regular black and white photo to the class so they could get an idea of the values.  Again, you can use the trick of a piece of red gel to get the same effect.  (Click here to see an earlier post about using red gel.)

The next step was to demonstrate to the class my procedure for painting the scene in color.  In oil or acrylic, one usually starts with the darks and works towards the light.  Watercolor usually proceeds the opposite way with laying in the lights (or reserving the lights) and adding more and darker color as the painting progresses.  There are several demonstrations of both of these methods under the tab Artworks at the top of the page.

The takeaway here is that composition can be enhanced for using old photos as painting materials by manipulating the size and shape of the photos, taking care of the placement of the center of interest, and selecting pleasing balance and contrasts of lights and darks.

Little Stone Church, Provence