Thoughts on Process


I recently taught a class, “Painting by Process” at the Cedarburg Cultural Center. The purpose of the class was to take students step by step through planning and execution. Often my students ask me in such classes, “Do you really work this way?” The truth is no, but I should. The class involves composition studies and value studies on the first day. The second day we do a study focusing on color. The last two sessions are spent executing a larger final painting. Each day also involves journaling with prompt questions. While this is not the only way to work- it is a beneficial one. Not all people are planners. I know I am not (at least when it comes to painting). Many painters are spontaneous and in the moment and I think that is important too. But at least once and a while it is important to slow down and plan. Even if it does not result in a masterpiece. The process will force you to think more critically about your art and that habit will carry over even when not intentionally utilized.

A Typical Day in the Studio

Making art is a deeply personal process for an artist, and I would imagine every artist has their own rituals and routines.  Of course, anything that becomes too routine fails to break new ground and so part of the process is always looking for a way to change things up.  In reflecting on my own process, I can take note of the things that have perhaps become to ritualistic and also the things where some new depths could be explored.

I am typically a morning person.  That is when my brain comes alive with energy, ideas, and inspiration.  By sunset I am usually spent and not interested in use of mental energy.  Despite being a morning person, coffee always helps.  I decide over the first cup what I will be working on, what my goals for the day are.  The best place to start is often at my image folder on the computer.  I have hundreds of landscape photos I have taken over the years.  I usually look for one I have not painted yet or have not painted in a while that strikes me in the moment.

Once I have a picture chosen I often do a quick sketch in my sketchbook, but not always.  If I don’t quite feel ready to dive into a painting, I may tape down some paper to do a pastel drawing.  This gives me a chance to play with color relationships for a while.  As I work I often listen to podcasts.  I listen to a wide range of talks and interviews on science, art, literature, philosophy, news, etc.

Eventually I get to painting.  I select the size canvas or panel I feel is appropriate for the image.  I usually put down a base coat of acrylic that is colored the compliment of whatever color dominates the photo I am working from.  Then I put on my apron and gloves, lay out my paints and medium, and get to work.  A painting sometimes takes hours, sometimes days.  I work from back to front, blocking in the sky first, then middle ground, then foreground.  I use a large painting knife.  Once the canvas is covered I switch to smaller knives and occasionally brushes to build any desired detail.

When the painting is complete to my satisfaction, I sign it and leave it to dry.  I clean off my palette completely.  If time permits I will sit back and think about the painting and write about the experience of painting it.  Over the next few days I will pass it several times.  Sometimes I will change my mind and decide it is not finished after all.  But usually I allow it to be as it is and move onto the next thing.

Pastel Landscape Process

Inspired to do a larger pastel piece, I worked on a 22″ x 24″ sheet of red Canson paper to create this drawing.  I took photographs along the way to illustrate the process.  First I began with a simple value focused watercolor underpainting.  It’s important to not overwork this step and stress the paper.  In landscape, I almost always start with sky.  Once the sky is established it is easy to build in front of it.  I may have to tweak colors in the sky later for cohesiveness, but I shouldn’t have to do much.  The most difficult part of this piece was the large expanse of grassland.  It was hard to be consistant without it being too boring so I tried to vary of the colors and marks.  However in doing so I walked the line of making it too “chunky” and imaginary.  After  a few days work on this piece I am happy with the end result, the balance of warms and cools, of ground and sky.

The Yellow Line

This is a drawing, a chalk pastel, and an oil painting done over the last two weeks.  All reference the same photo    The original photo was taken a few months ago, obviously before fall was in full swing.    The image is titled The Yellow Line after the thick band of sunlight that breaks free of the treeline and runs at an angle across the picture plane.  To me the sunlight is the focal point of this image.  I have drawn and painted this image several times, here are just three examples.  As with the pond series, there is a benefit to focusing on one image or scene for an extended period of time.  This allows the painting process to become more sophisticated and refined with each attempt.  This is also of course why artist do studies to be more familiar with the subject.  However, I have never been comfortable with the word study and consider each of these to be individual works of art.

New Painting

I began this piece a few days ago. These are two “in progress” shots. This image is based on photograph, as well as a few drawings I have done. I also have a smaller painting of the same image, which will provide an idea for where this is going. Chromascape 45 was completed a few months ago. It will be interesting to see how a similar composition will translate to a larger scale (the piece I am doing now is 20″ x 30″). I am aware in distinct differences in paint handling at this size. Also, of course, I am using a larger painting knife. The size however gives me the freedom to have a wider range of mark making. I could make more use of this freedom perhaps.

More Progress

Remember that painting I blogged about a week or so ago? If not, view it here.

The piece continues to evolve, and I continue to document the changes I am making. The palette has now shifted a bit. I think it is almost done now, I don’t expect to do any radical changes at this point. It is interesting to look back at where it has been. These two versions were done in the last three days, the bottom image is the most recent state of the work. I think things are falling into place.


This is the painting I have started based on the drawing I did last week. I am referencing the colors of a photograph. I am doing the painting in stages. These images are from two different studio days. I anticipate one more studio session will complete the piece. I have kept the paint thin as to avoid too much surface build up. The palette hasn’t quite come together yet, so I am looking forward to getting back into it.