Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Art Supplies and Equipment Recommendations

The studios of other artists have always held a certain fascination for me. I like to see and learn from others.  It occurred to me that perhaps some of my own studio "finds" would be of help to blogger's.  So, here goes....

Still life stands are not as easily found as I thought they would be. After I spent literally months searching and finding nothing that would work for me, I found this gem (left) by Mabef at T-Square, a local art supply store in Grand Rapids, MI.  It's a sculpting stand that is adjustable right and left as well as bringing the subject up to near eye-level.  I'm tall and it was really hard to find a stand that raises high enough plus one that didn't take up a mile of floor space. This stand may be available through a local store near you  and/or via one of the many art supply catalog companies for about $125.

For "Over Abundance" (below) the stand was placed close on the right of my easel so that I could sight/size my work.

"Over Abundance",
14x11", oil on canvas panel

Website development was a huge mystery to me.  After hiring and struggling through working with this and that designer and spending an inordinate amount of money and time away from painting to work with these folks I decided I had to bite the bullet and find an easy way of doing it myself.  The answer, after a lot of research, was Fine Art Studio on Line (FASO). Their simple template method and superb tech support, available 24/7, made it a snap for even a computer dummy like me  to quickly and easily present my work professionally. I'm not alone.  Any number of artists that we've all heard of such as Mian Situ, Keven MacPherson, Laura Robb, Matt Smith, Ron Rencher and William Schnieder  are among the users of FASO's website template system.  You can Google these artists to see their sites and contact FASO at to start your own easy to do website.

Last  but not least, I prefer to paint on canvas and later hand-mount it on panels, when working plein air or small in the studio. This offers me an easy way to travel with many studies/paintings in my suitcase without the bulk of panels or stretched canvases. To do this I require a high quality reversible archival adhesive.  Again, after a lot of research I found Lascoux's 498 HV Adhesive to be the best possible option. However, it's  hard to find.  Recently my source dropped it from their inventory and I had to web-search of another distributor.  The only one I found was Museum Services Corporation available at:

385 Bridgepoint Way
South St. Paul, Minnesota 55075-2466
PHONE 651-450-8954
FAX 651-554-9217

A liter costs $60 plus shipping but this will mount a lot of paintings and I know that those I choose to mount are archivally sound.

I hope the studio information above helps and cuts you some slack in research time. If you found this of use but have other studio questions/needs let me know and I'll post what I'm doing to resolve the issues for me and/or my students.  Good luck!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Inspired and Breathless in Utah

 While I don't have to travel to find subjects to paint I must say our western U.S. holds my heart and takes my breath away. Until recently I have to say that of all the National Parks, Teton and parts of Yellowstone have  been my number one favorites.  That was before I experienced Zion  in the snow.  This beautiful magical wild place gave me an experience that I will hold dear to my heart for the rest of my life.  Beyond its ageless heights of limestone and sandstone, amazing in their own right, the beauty of the Virgin River canyon was compounded with unexpected snow.  Hiking the canyon last Sunday morning, in blizzard like conditions, I felt a personal joy for the richness of all that nature can offer.

Side pools collect water from the heights and feed the river. The water shows teal green and red color in contrast to the white snow.

A monolith near the entrance guards the canyon.

Wind and the Virgin River created the canyon over millions of years. Seasonal run-off and flash flooding carves out the soft rock.

Other special experiences on this trip included Thanksgiving with my daughter Renee and her family in their home, hiking and playing with grandkids in 18" of snow at Snow Basin in the Wasatch Mountains near Salt Lake and gallery hopping in Park City, Utah's ski capitol.

At Bryce Canyon I stopped to help a Chinese family  with their camera so they could all be in the picture.  They in turn did the same for us.  In spite of the language barrier, after much gesturing, smiling, and bowing, we all went away happy. Later, with the exception of a lone Steller's Jay for company, we picnicked in the 27 degree weather.  What fun!

Steller's Jay waiting to clean up any crumbs that escaped our mouths.

Left to Right: Renee, Ian, Roger and Maddie. The black-headed gnome is...Me!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Holidays vs. Art

I love the upcoming Holiday season but know that every year it puts huge limitations on my time normally devoted to art.  There were even a few years in the past when I didn't paint, draw or even think much about art for a number of weeks because of heavy personal and family commitments at this time of year. Each time this happened I found that my ability to perform regressed. I lost my working momentum, the rhythm of my process and even became unsure in my skills. It took weeks to regain all that was lost. This lapse combined with others of shorter duration throughout the ensuing year delayed my growth as an artist.

I finally came to realize that I could not afford to allow this to happen.  Instead of beating my breast and feeling guilty I decided to break my time into small segments that were manageable and develop a schedule I could keep.  My formula was simple, it consisted of deciding what I needed time wise to maintain my skills and rhythm at a working level. 

In general, I knew personally I needed at least 4-6 hours a week to just keep my skills honed to a passable working level.  That broke down to doing quick studies for at least 30 - 40 minutes each day. That was reasonable and something I was able to do even on the most busy of days

One of the biggest misnomers among my students is that they feel  they must create "paintings" whenever they pick up a brush.  That's wrong!  It is far more important to do studies and small exercises to keep up skill, grow and be able to preform when called upon to do so. Anyone can do a drawing, a series of 4-5 thumbnails, work on a value or color study, etc., etc., in a 30 minute period.  That is far more important than waiting until you have a "block of time" (which may never happen) when you can "paint".  Part of all this is simply mind set.

The bottom line is that if you do nothing with your art over the holidays you will most assuredly regress.  If you dedicate 30 minutes per day you will maintain for a few short weeks before regression begins and if you work an hour or more each day you might even be able to build more skill in certain areas.

If, throughout the year, you take art classes and/or work regularly in your studio then why jeopardize that investment? Isn't what you do important to you...important enough to maintain it through a busy time?  Surely you can tweak your schedule to guarantee just 30 minutes a day for your art?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Fall Trees Looking Garish?

Last weekend I painted with a group of artists on a west Michigan farm where the trees were nearing their peak autum color. During our afternoon critique, several artists commented that they find it difficult to control fall colors in their work so they don't appear garish. I believe the answer to that is transitions created by soft edges and carefully used neutral tones between color shifts.

"Fall Color", 12 x 9" plein air oil study on canvas

The hues, in "Fall Color", above, read well and are pleasant to look at. Notice how the bright instense colors are juxtaposed with neutral hues of less intensity giving the eye a place to rest. Notice also how soft the edges are within the tree's color shapes and how they help the eye travel from one area of the tree to another.

Fall is a wonderful, albeit brief time, to paint outdoors. For those of us tired of painting summer's green the challenge of a warm autumn palette is creatively exciting and most welcome. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Painting a Rainy Day

"Rain or Shine?", 8x10", oil on gessoed panel

"Woodland Path", 8x8", oil on gessoed panel

This past Saturday, I awoke to a torrential downpour, lightening and thunder outside. With only one eye open I was sorely tempted to roll over and play dead. However, after having been sick with a virus for over a week and a bad case of cabin fever I determined to struggle up out of sleep and dress for painting out-of-doors.

I'm a member of the Great Lakes Plein Air Painters Assn. better known to its members as G.L. PAPA. The all day event was scheduled at Sleepy Hollow State Park about a 40 minute drive from my home. I decided, due to the weather, to at least enjoy the drive up and back if nothing more. After downing a quick breakfast I headed out. The weather was so awful that I was convinced I would be the only one crazy enough to make the effort. Much to my surprise I found six other painters at the park who also shared a desire to paint. With no other option, we began painting from inside our cars and were finally able to migrate outside about an hour into our day. After a very damp, cold morning we broke at noon for fellowship and a hot lunch of grilled brats and salads provided by a couple of members. One of them were organized enough to bring a spouse along who likes to grill. It doesn't get better than that.

The two studies above were the result of a good dose of determination and no matter how wet, the inspiration of Michigan's early fall color. One was finished on site and the second touched up at home later. All in all, a fine day...if not a bit damp.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Back to Basics

"Onion Study", 11x14", oil on canvas

It's been a good but busy summer and I see that I've been remiss in adding new posts. Sometimes it is just plain hard to stay focused. I find that is true of my work as well. When I have periods of not being able to paint I find it difficult to get back into the swing of my normal painting process. It's at times like this that I force myself to go back to the basics. Last month was one of those times.

To jump start I often do a simple still life. This allows me to focus on the process and not the subject. "Onion Study" was successful in getting back to thinking the process including my use of brush work and edge control. This was a fun piece, no pressure since it was a study, ending with success. It gave me the encouragement to begin several larger paintings that have been on a back burner for awhile.

Speaking of which, I often have a handful of paintings stored in the studio in various stages of completion. This gives me time to think problems through and also to keep my interest level on any given painting at a peak. I don't get bogged down feeling the pressure of having to finish a painting unless of course I'm working on a commission deadline, which is another story.

What do you do to get jump started? You may email your comments or questions to me by clicking on the small white envelope below.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Forget Me Not!

"Forget Me Not!", 11x14", oil on canvas

My summer has been chopped up as far as painting vs. social interchange and family commitments are concerned. I find it nearly impossible to keep focused on my art when schedules and people come and go and change constantly. The only thing that seems to get me centered and technically back on track is to drop large projects and go back to either doing small simple studies or finishing smaller works that seem to accumulate in my studio in droves. "Forget Me Not!" is one such painting.

I started but didn't get too far with this as a plein air piece when painting one evening near Harrisville, MI in early summer. Usually, I wipe such a brief start off the canvas but this had a good feeling and the subject remained in a somewhat sketched in mode. After returning from Mackinac Island this year I was looking at this canvas and realized how much it reminded me of the unique woodlands of Mackinac Island. I decided then and there to alter it into a studio painting of my favorite Island wildflowers which grow there profusely. As I love the more intimate parts of Mackinac Island, not what the tourists usually see, it was fitting that the painting be titled with its double meaning, "Forget Me Not!"

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Beating the Positive to Death!

I had lunch the other day with several friends who are also students of art. The topic of negative and positive space came up. Their general agreement was that their focus gets caught up on the positive and that they often forget about negative shapes. My comment to that was, " of my frustrations as a teacher is seeing students ignore the negative while beating the positive to death". Well, this made everyone laugh and they all agreed that this had to be the subject of my next post.

"The Road to Somewhere", 18x14", oil on canvas
by Sharon Griffes Tarr, copyright 2009

First, let's assume that everyone, at least intellectually, understands the difference between negative and positive shapes in art, ie: the horse, the tree, the building, etc. vs. the negative space that surrounds these shapes. Due to the way we have been trained to see since childhood, we humans naturally focus on positive shapes. This is our nature. This is also where unskilled painters get into trouble. Because they see only the positive they will continue to erase, redraw (repaint), erase, redraw (repaint), erase, redraw (repaint), or incorporate fussy fussy, dibby dabbing, and mindless pencil marks or brush work to correct a positive shape until it is beaten into submission. Unless reminded they will never look at the negative as a moderating or correcting tool.

There are certain truths in art that are, unto themselves, self evident. This is one of them... if a negative shape is not correct, the positive shape next to it will also be wrong. It cannot be otherwise. So, for seasoned artists, when a positive seems wrong the first thing they do is look at the negative space(s) and correct the shape.

James Reynolds is an American icon of western art following in the footsteps of Remington and Russell. Formerly a Hollywood screen illustrator and later fine artist extraordinaire, Reynolds passed away this past year. What I find interesting about his beautiful oils are the small passages throughout his paintings that show slightly altered color shapes and brush strokes in negative passages that clearly demonstrate his attention to correcting and enhancing positive shapes. His style of work makes it easy to find these alterations. His positive shapes remain clean, crisp and fluidly beautiful by comparison because they are not beaten to death. His adjustments are most often made in the negative. His negative shapes are as interesting as his positive shapes. Reynolds work is well worth studying, if no other reason, for this one aspect alone, simply because his brushwork is so readable. However, I would hope anyone taking the time to study his work would also recognize his phenomenal command of draftsmanship, sense of color and composition. He was clearly a master of his craft and should be studied seriously.

In "Road to Somewhere", above, I spent as much time if not more creating interesting negatives. My positive shapes are the small hills on both sides of the road and the road itself. All the remaining shapes including the fields, roadside grasses and sky are subordinate or negative. However, note how interesting each of these shapes are. They are quite clearly, part of the whole and what creates the "finished" quality and unity in the painting. Without them, this painting would have very little impact. The are effectively important to the overall look of this work.

So, the next time you find yourself struggling with your subject, take a moment and look at the negative space around it. You just might improve that tree or building by creating a better negative.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Summer on Mackinac Island

Each summer I am blessed to spend time on Mackinac Island visiting my family at their summer cottage. This year was no exception. I love being there and due to the family and home-style experience may view the Island a bit differently than casual visitors. With time, the Island offers so much more than hasty bicycle rides and touristy shops. For me the family situation is the best.

Some say my sister, Barb, and I look alike. Actually, in looks, I take after our Mom and she takes after our Dad. But, I guess there is a family resemblance. I often remind her though that I'm the better 1/2 of the two of us. She claims I'm the spoiled one and she's the favorite. We have a good time razzing each other and know it's all in good fun. I'm shown here relaxing one afternoon at the Grand Hotel.

Family is what makes Mackinac Island special to me and sharing time with my sister, Barb, IS the best fun I know as we are usually only able to see each other once or twice a year. We always have a lot of catching up to do. I took this picture of her and she took the one of me above. Not too bad for a couple of amatures.

"Sophie" was a new addition to the Island this year and she decided that "Aunt Sharon" was OK! We became great pals. Sophie has a great and gentle personality with just a tad bit of "naughty" to make life interesting for her humans. She is not allowed to be in the chairs....get my drift on naughty? How could anyone possibly get upset though with a face like that to discipline?

Painting with friends is always a joy for a plein air painter. This summer I met several new artist friends and had a great time sharing this beautiful garden with them. Other times, I sketched local scenes with my watercolor sketching set-up or painted with oils in the side yard of the cottage.

Early morning adventurer's find all kinds of fun things to photograph and paint. I fully believe that getting up early to experience the awakening of the Island is the best part of each day. For instance, it's always a treat to stop by the horse barns just up the hill from the Grand Hotel and watch the hustle and bustle of horses being fed, washed, hitched to surreys and wagons for their work day. Animal lovers can be assured, the horses are well taken care of as they are "king" on the Island where no motor vehicles other than emergency services are allowed. A stroll down Main Street at dawn when the street lights are still on is lovely. Crews in bright yellow slickers and boots hose down the streets and they and the lights flicker their reflections on the wet pavement. The island is still, hushed like, and yet pockets of "busy" of a different nature from the daytime crowds make it intriguing. And...finally at 8 a.m. the first boats of the day bring dock workers and others from Mackinac City and St. Ignace, along with early visitors, to begin the tourist day.

Boats from the annual Bayview Yacht Club's Port Huron to Mackinac race arrived at the harbor a couple of days before I left for home. I missed the Chicago to Mackinac race this year. The Island virtually hops with excitement when the crews arrive and there is plenty of partying and fun for all....

...and, sometimes if we're lucky, even fireworks to end the day.

Be sure to visit Marcia's new extensive Mackinac Island website: to see all there is to do and enjoy.

Friday, July 2, 2010

More on Sketching with Watercolor

Sorry! This workshop is full. A wait-list for a possible repeat class in late summer, early fall is availabe. Go to "Contact" at to be included.

I've had several students requesting a photo of the color sketching system I use. Above is a photo showing the field watercolor book, my water supply which is a bottle that originally held seasonings (the cap is what I dip my brush into), one of two field boxes (palettes) that I use and my trusty Cheap Joe's Dream Catcher #10 brush...couldn't do it without this brush. All supplies are available at Cheap Joe's Art Supplies at

See examples of field sketching with this system below in the next post.


Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Color Sketching Workshop

My unique no fuss, no muss, one brush method of sketching strengthens the intuitive use of the three value system in all other areas of my work as well as honing the ability to work quickly and capture gesture effectively. Below are examples from my various sketchbooks. YOU CAN DO THIS TOO.

Color sketching is my favorite way to accumulate knowledge of subjects and understand color mixing while keeping up my drawing skills. I decided to offer a color sketching workshop out of my Williamston, MI studio on July 8/9, 2010 to help other artists learn the simplistic approach to color sketching that I've developed over the years. This workshop is of great value for all artists...not just watercolorists. Because of the simplicitiy of technique, it is especially helpful to those folks who have little time to devote to their painting and especially helpful on vacations when time to create is limited.

All sketches show here are approximately 5x8" or smaller.

Contact Sharon Griffes Tarr for workshop info via

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What's Happening with Your Process?

It occurred to me today that I've been writing this blog now for six months and have received precious little input by way of "comments" from my readers. Why is that? I wondered this aloud to myself then went back and re-read some of my earlier posts. seems I've been so busy talking about me and my experience(s) and haven't clearly indicated that I'm really, sincerely, dyingly (I think this is a great word and should be in the dictionary) interested in gaining some insight into YOUR experience(s) as well. After all, give and take is a great and better way to spend a life. Don't you think?

So......"Painting in Progress vs. Progress in Painting", posted below on June 12th tells about my processes in painting in the studio vs. painting en plein air. The big question about you? What is your process and does it or does it not work well for you? Does reading about my process help or hinder you? Are you even an artist or are you a non-artist interested in art? Does knowing my process help you understand how artists think, see and plot our destinies? What are you doing to find/help/hinder your own?

HELP, help, help! I'd like to know what you think about "process".

Boy! Do I feel better now? You bet I do, but I'll feel even better as soon as I read your comments about the joys of and/or frustrated lack of a process.

Have a great day and don't forget to click on the envelope below so you can email/post your thoughts and ideas for me to read. I'm waiting with bated breath and heart racing.....

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Paintings in Progress vs. Progress in Painting

I believe the beginning of a painting is the most important creative phase whether an artist jumps directly into his/her known rhythm to "find" a subject, or carefully plans with thumbs. Personally, I feel so strongly about this that I set a time to start when there will be no interruptions...sometimes even in the middle of the night. I've come to know that if the painting doesn't connect for me at this point then it never will and there is no point in continuing.

"Sound of Water" (a work in progress)
30x40", oil on canvas

The "Sound of Water" is a work in progress that is currently on the easel. My studio work has evolved over time into applications of light filled opaque passages over the all important initial transparent layers to evoke contrasts in texture, color and depth. Notice the transparency of blocked-in passages. These strong transparent passages are super important to the opaque layers to come. This method of painting takes longer and is in direct opposition to how I paint en plein air.

"Kate and John Exploring", shown here in progress...see finished painting on website.

When painting outside on location, I usually work alla prima which means "all at once". This is due to light changes caused by the traverse of the sun throughout the day. "Kate and John Exploring" is an example of this approach. Somewhat unusual for me, this particular painting was created alla prima, in the studio, simply because I felt it was the best approach for the fresh and crisp feeling I wanted to achieve for the children. Never-the-less, it is a good block-in example of all prima. Each brush stroke of color is placed with the knowledge that it will stand on its own and will not be covered with subsequent layers of paint as in the studio approach. See the difference?

As an artist, my work and procedure of painting continually evolves. These two approaches have, over time, become more separated in my working methods to the point that today I clearly utilize each to the advantage where they work best for me. By in large, I've come to separate what I do outdoors from what I do indoors in the studio and am finding more consistency in my work because of it. Sorting this out has taken time but it has certainly been a wonderful and satisfying experience.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Perils of Plein Air Painting: Hee Haw Round-up!

I awoke yesterday morning with anticipation of a peaceful day outdoors painting en plein air. The night before I had planned on a site at a nearby farm where the view was pastoral, quiet and angled correctly for the early morning light.

Still not fully awake, I drove into the farm yard with coffee in hand and was greeted by six free-roaming donkeys. I parked and eased out of the car so as not to frighten them off and went in search of someone to get them back into a pen. I checked the house and several barns only to find that I was alone. Not even a friendly dog in sight....just donkeys. Each of the nearby fenced enclosures had either cattle in it or more donkeys and all visible gates were closed.

It was clear that I was going to have a problem trying to get the six donkeys into an enclosure without other animals getting out. If you've ever tried to herd animals into an enclosure you know it's almost impossible to do so alone if there are already other animals in the pen. Where one roams free they all want to roam free. I could see the writing on the wall and knew there was a strong likelihood that I was not going to be painting the early morning light as planned.

I tried calling the owner on his cell phone, the only number I had. All I got was a message that said "...thank you for calling. Please leave your number and I will return your call as soon as possible". Great! I left a jumbled message and hoped that he'd show up soon. In the meantime, the donkeys were on the move.

I don't know a lot about donkeys, but I found out three things mighty fast. First, for being such small animals they can move remarkably fast. A LOT faster than this artist. Secondly, they have a mind of their own (they don't care for or listen to strangers). Third, they don't respond to "here, donkey, donkey, donkey", "cluck, cluck, cluck" or "tch, tch, tch" was clear I didn't know any magic words. Well! What to do now?

After 20 minutes of racing back and forth, fancy footwork and sweet talking, I finally got one donkey in a pen. Unfortunately, "my" donkey was not particularly well received by the current residents. After a lot of braying, kicking, biting, etc. he ended up in one corner of the pen and the others in the opposite corner...all with ears back (unfriendly sort of...not unlike boxers after a grisly round of fighting. I was now down to five free-roaming donkeys. Roughly figuring, if I allotted 20 minutes per donkey, things were not looking good, and still no help in sight.

It was at this point my charges (notice that they have become "mine") decided to head down the lane at full speed headed for a busy side road. Having a bad foot, I didn't even try to keep up. I jumped into my car and the race was on. Would I be able to catch up, make it past the donkeys, and turn them before they made the road or not? I gripped the wheel and drove like a mad woman with stones flying as my tires bounced over the uneven stony ground. Luckily I was able to outdistance the herd just short of the road and turned them (doesn't this sound like a movie plot?) back the way they had come.

The only good thing I could find about this morning was the fact that donkeys are herd animals and are not inclined to separate from each other. I can't even imagine the scenario of them going off in five different directions. Horrors! Returning back up the lane, they stopped short of the barn to graze on a grassy knoll. Leaving well enough alone, I prudently decided to stay in the car and watch them while I explored my options. It was with welcome relief, that about 10 minutes later, the owner and his wife showed up and the three of us herded the five donkeys into a pen. Hee Haw! Round-up completed in just under an hour of high jinx.

For more "Perils of Plein Air Painting" stories be sure to see posts at right for March, 2010.

Monday, May 3, 2010


"Clara", 16x20", oil on canvas panel
Copyright, 2010 by Sharon Griffes Tarr

Balancing artistic integrity and a clients vision in a commission can be a daunting task for an artist. In "Clara", as compelling and endearing as the subject was, the painting of it offered numerous unique problems that had to be dealt with prior to and during the painting process. I'd like to share these with you.

First, the photograph provided by the client did not include the entire figure of the child or in her reflection. Secondly, she had already grown past this age and was no longer available to me as a model. To resolve the lack of legs and feet in the photograph, I simply hired another child as a model to replicate her extremeties. While not perfect these references were sufficient to at least create a believable reflected image.

The second issue to be dealt with was which to emphasize, the child or the reflection? I chose to down play the main figure except for the face around the nose and eye and to increase the color and light contrasts in the reflection, thus directing the viewers eye to the mirrored image. Keeping edges appropriately soft between the two was also a delicate balancing act. Consequently, there was, in my mind and in my brush, an ongoing yin yang between the two images. Throughout, I had to constantly consider and reevaluate relationships so as not to lose the original intent.

On the choice of pigments, I chose to modify what has come to be known as the "Zorn Palette". In reality, it is a Victorian palette of Ivory black, Titanium white, yellow ochre and red (Zorn used Vermilion). To this I added Cobalt blue, chose Permanent Red Medium for my red, and changed to yellow ochre pale. I used thinned down Transparent Red Oxide to establish shapes and suggest features during the initial block in. This slightly expanded palette allowed me to execute the warm and cool contrasts of Zorn and Sargent while effectively capturing the child's warm flesh tones. Overall, I am well pleased with the outcome of this painting feeling it captured all that was intended. The plus side of this is that my clients were delighted and that validates my creative efforts.
Footnote: This from the client who commissioned "Clara". "Your 'Clara" still takes our breath away." So lovely!"

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Recent Pastels

While oil remains my medium of choice for its tactile properties I often use pastels and watercolors for developing ideas and sketching, such as in "Fergie" (below) of an eight week old pup.

"Fergie", 9x12", pastel on sanded paper

Unlike some instructors, I prefer to keep enrollment in my classes and workshops limited to 12 students or less for several reasons. Small classes ensure that each student receives plenty of individual attention from me during painting sessions. In addition, it allows me to work along with my students so they can watch me develop a piece to completion over a period of time. The still life's below were painted in such a way. Each took several weeks to complete in my pastel classes, not because of their complexity but rather because I work only for a few minutes at a time between making rounds with my students. This method of teaching has proven extremely valuable to students.

"Still life with Fan", 9x12", pastel on sanded paper

"Still life in Orange and Blue", 12x9", pastel on sanded paper

All images on this blog are copyrighted by SGTarr with all rights retained by the artist.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

A Demonstration: Studies vs. Paintings Workshop

In a recent workshop for the Great Lakes Plein Air Painters Association I demonstrated the value of preliminary studies by working out problems prior to painting a larger work from plein air and photographic references. To make this concept as realistic as possible for the students I chose to go for broke by conducting this demonstration without the usual planning prior to the demonstration. This left me open to explore any and all possibilities (good, bad, or indifferent) in front of the audience providing them a more honest view of the give and take mental and visual processes that an artist goes through. Frankly, it also left me, as an instructor, feeling more than a little vulnerable.

Six of my plein air studies showing considerable variation of subject matter were presented to the students. After discussing the merits of each, I asked the group to pick any two as the vehicles for the development of a larger studio painting. What ensued was the process of how I elected to choose, discard and rearrange the various elements of the two plein air paintings. This was of extreme interest to the students resulting in a good interchange of ideas, as well as, questions and answers. Over the years, my students have often expressed that the manipulation of subject matter for studio paintings is the single most difficult and confusing step for them.

Finally, with an idea of what should be included in the painting I began the process (see photo above) of doing composition, value and, color studies. In reality, the painting itself was almost anticlimactic. In fact, I have yet to finish it. The real value of the entire demonstration was the thought processes involved in the selection of subjects and the resulting development of various studies to support the proposed painting.

I must say, I love it when students leave a demonstration or the classroom visibly high on excitement and eager to get home and begin doing their own work. This level of enthusiasm tells me the class experience was a winner and the students gained considerable knowledge and understanding from the experience. That is, for me, what teaching is all about and why I do what I do.

My workshops are always designed around the idea of what my students are struggling with and realistic solutions to solve these problems. In other words, the focus is on the student, not on teaching my style of painting. For this reason, every workshop, demonstration and/or classroom experience for students is topically current and packed with useful information and tips.

My teaching method is never canned. This approach certainly keeps me, as an instructor, on the edge, but effectively provides students with plenty of valuable practical information they can use now, not six months, a year, five years down the road. I've never been interested in developing clones of my style. I am truly put off by the number of clones I see in every art magazine I pick up today. As an instructor, my goal has always been to encourage students in developing a working process that supports their individuality and the development of their own uniqueness of expression with the very best tools available.

Note: EASyL easels by Outdoor Essentials at

Thursday, April 8, 2010

"No Magic Formulas"

I've never considered the purpose of this blog to be tutorial. However, students in my classes often ask how to paint "things" such as water reflections and buildings. I feel this student concern is universal and therefore it might be a good idea to address it here. My usual answer to students, other than novices, is "if you have had good instruction from a qualified teacher and learned to 'see' more than likely you already know what it takes to paint these subjects. What you may not have is the confidence to put what you know into meaningful order".

First of all, I want to make it abundantly clear that contrary to popular student opinion, there are no magic formulas for painting a subject. Just like there is no perfect brush for doing an entire painting. For any instructor to suggest otherwise would be highly misleading. Representational artists who paint still life's, landscapes, figures, and/or portraits, all rely on the very same basic principles of art and painting techniques. The very same! Therefore, my answer to the questions "how does one paint water reflections with amorphous shapes", and "how to paint buildings with angular shapes" is essentially the same.

Besides basic drawing and compositional skills, artists, who work in color, have several simple but very important tools that have stood the test of time in creating great works of art. They are well placed color notes, edge treatments, and texture. The combined effect of these three elements define the impression of any subject.

The color note consists of the local color of a subject (ie: red, yellow, blue, etc.) and it's relative value (lightness/darkness), temperature (warm or cool), and intensity (saturated color vs. greyed color). Each of these elements of the color note, listed here in the order of their importance, must be correct in the various passages of a painting. If any one element is wrong the passage will not fit with its surroundings (hence the word "relative"). I tell students to check their color note(s) when something doesn't read right in their painting. Invariably one or more of the elements, value, temperature or intensity will be wrong. Corrected, the passage will then "fit" with other nearby notes.

Traditionally, edges are one of the last tools students pay attention to on their way to becoming accomplished at their craft. By way of definition, a hard edge exists where two contrasting elements meet. Conversely, soft or hard edges apply where contrast does not exist. It is the effective use of these variable edges that create the so called "poetry" in a painting. By in large, a painting should be made up of primarily soft and/or lost edges leaving the hard edges, which catch the attention of the eye, in important places such as the focal area.

And finally, texture. We know that contrast is elemental in creating interest in a painting. This is never more true than with texture. Contrast titillates the eye and textural diversity is exciting, such as: rough vs. smooth, thick vs. thin, and opaque vs. transparent.

It is not unusual to see student works that are all hard edges, all smooth surfaces, etc. Students often get so caught up in the "thing" or the immediacy of what they are doing they forget to diversify contrasts. The next time you paint, think about color notes, edges, and texture. Even a small improvement in any one of these will add up to huge gains in the overall look of your work and help in painting that building or the water reflections correctly.

The best advice I can give is to draw on what you have learned...what you know. Think about how you can apply these tools to create your subject. Remember, if there is a magic formula, it is YOU. You in combination with a few simple tools. You may be surprised at just how much you already know. Have the confidence to try without looking for easy answers. I know you can do it!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Advantage of Light

"Emergence of Spring", 12x16", oil on canvas

Last week, a friend commented that the area we were painting would be quite "spectacular later in the season when there is some color". Her comment surprised me as, I must say, for weeks, I've been quite happy painting at this and other nearby locations and never considered them to be anything but colorful. Later, looking at the small study I did that day between 11 AM and just after the noon hour it was brought home to me that the light was probably the reason for her comment.

Today, from a hillside, I painted "Emergence of Spring" (above) of the marsh below, filled with last year's grasses and dormant bushes and trees. This was a similar environment to last week's site. Was the landscape devoid of rich color? Not at all, as this painting testifies. However, there was a difference between the two painting sessions. Instead of the mid-day light we had last week, I painted "Emergence of Spring" today between 4:00 and 6 PM when the sun is low on the horizon and casting a golden glow on all it touches.

As anyone knows who paints outdoors from life mid-day light tends to flatten shapes and wash out color. As a seasoned plein air painter, I've developed two options that work for me when forced to work the so called, "noon day shift". First, to help eliminate that flat washed out look I face into the sun, as much as possible, to create a sense of back lighting and form, or if that's not possible, I'll very slightly heighten visible colors to create more temperature contrast. While not ideal, these options help an otherwise lack luster middle-of-the-day lighting situation.

Artists who, for what ever reason, elect not to paint the early morning or late afternoon light do themselves a serious injustice. If just once, they would work early or late they would be amazed at the difference the light makes in their work. They would never want to paint mid-day again.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Dogs in the Field

Sporting and working dogs will take to the fields in April to begin learning the fine art of tracking, retrieving and herding, from their trainers. If you've never watched

"Friends", (detail), 16 x20 oil on canvas

them work you've missed one of the greatest joys in the life of these dogs. Joy is the only word I can think of as you watch them work a field. Their eagerness and quick thinking belies their remarkable natural abilities. They are bred to work and work they do with wonderful enthusiasm.

The detail of "Friends" above, shows "Jack", a farm dog, who, trained as a puppy, herded his owners cattle to the fields and back to the barn at the end of the day for milking without human commands other than, "Jack, get the cows". He did this daily with eagerness and joy for most of his life without human intervention. It is dogs such as "Jack" that gave me a life-long sense of awe and respect for their intellegence and for the folks who love working with them.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Miracle of Spring

There is so much more to painting outdoor then simply adding paint to canvas. Taking time to wonder and to really see the world around you is one of its greatest joys. The truth of this was brought home to me today as I sat in the sun next to a pond painting the tree study above.

Spring is such an extraordinarily exciting time of year. The air virtually vibrates with energy as days lengthen and new growth emerges from earth nourished by life-giving water moving through the ground on its march to the sea. As I painted near a muddy seep at the bottom of a hill I thought of the miracle of life that lay at my feet.

The movement of water in the mud was nearly invisible to the eye. Only by sitting and staring at a water filled deer track did I begin to be aware of its gentle flow ebbing towards the marshy pond in front of me. This particular pond, several acres in size, has no visible outlet. It is encircled by higher ground all around. To leave this pond water must either evaporate or flow underground.

To the east about a quarter of a mile is a large marsh with open water at its center that wildfowl love as it has been set aside as a sanctuary. On its eastern edge is a small freshet that falls quickly to a channel running north and south. Water in this channel flows north towards Vermilion Creek then to the Looking Glass River and finally the Grand River which empties into Lake Michigan near Muskegon.

As I considered the muddy deer track, I envisioned it's scant cup of water flowing along underground eventually merging with the waters of the nearby sanctuary, then racing down the eastern freshet to the channel and beyond on its trip to Lake Michigan, over 100 miles away. As a child, the book "Paddle to the Sea" fired my imagination and today, many decades later, water oozing in a muddy deer track reignited the miracle of a Spring thaw for me.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

A Last Hurrah of Winter?

"Snow Tracks", 8x10 plein air,
oil on panel

We've had a remarkable run of good weather in Michigan. For more than a week the days have been warm and sunny with snow remaining on the ground. This weather condition has been key to Mother Nature providing phenomenal abstract shapes for our enjoyment and material for artists to capture.

During this time, I've been busy in the studio working on several commissions but have made it a point to head out to my favorite location to paint en plein air from 4:00 PM until sunset each day. Being familiar with the area I usually have a feel for what I might want to paint before arriving which cuts down on set-up time. I get right into it and paint until just before 6 PM then stow my gear and wet canvas in the car. Then, with camera in hand, I enjoy the next one-half hour of the most extraordinary light imaginable.

The conditions have been remarkable. I'm not a scientist so have no idea what the official explanation would be but it must have something to do with the low trajectory of a very warm sun on moisture laden air and snow. It's at times like this that I wish every student I've ever had who has said, "I don't see all those colors you put in your snow", was with me. In these brief unique sunny days the snow has been a kaleidoscope of color. Strange colors have even shown on other objects as well as I was able to record below. Note the turquoise fence shadow on the side of the barn. This is accurate and has not been digitally altered. Unbelievable!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Experimenting with Technique

"Untitled" (detail), oil on canvas

Winters are seemingly endless in Michigan and at times I feel a need to scratch my creative in the studio during the white months. I have always enjoyed applying "what if" to my work. This winter I've jogged myself a bit by alternating techniques. To begin, I considered my normal process and the various techniques I use. I then switched the emphasis to lesser used techniques and found that my work took on a fresh look.

For instance, in "Summer Remnants" (see January, 2010 post entitled, "Winter Painting") I dramatized soft edges. In another, as yet untitled work in progress (see detail above), dry brushing dominates. The direct opposite of what I normally do. It's been fun to redirect my process in opposing ways that have created unexpected and happy results. I've not really changed my process, simply altered the emphasis.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Why Studies vs. Paintings?

"Early Warm Up", 18 x 24", oil on linen

"Winter Cattails" (below) is a small study of last seasons intermingled grasses and cattails and is a good example of how valuable a "from life" reference can be during painting sessions in the studio. I create and keep many such references and use them frequently. This particular study gives me all I need to know of the natural angles of the stems and leaves and the transitional edges at snow level. I referred to this study often when painting "Early Warm Up" (above), a painting in progress (notice the lower left uncompleted corner). Without this from life study experience in the field I would have no knowledge or understanding for portrayal of grasses in the studio.

"Winter Cattails", 12x12" study, plein air oil on panel

Inexperienced artists are often confused over the differences between studies and paintings. To me, a painting is a performance. In other words it must express all the elements of painting that an artist has perfected at the time of the performance. Therefore, as a general rule of thumb, which makes perfect sense to me, one should not tackle elements in a painting that are unfamiliar or unknown to the artist.

Studies on the other hand, are executed as an examination, a lesson, if you will, of subject matter, light, texture, technique, etc. A study supports experimentation, the option of trying new things, perfecting a technique, or gaining experience with a process. There is a heightened sense of freedom for the artist in creating a study that is not evident in a painting where one is expected to perform.

It is this learning process that develops artistic acuity in observation, knowledge, understanding, and mastery of medium technique. These four elements must be thoroughly developed on the road to excellence. The only way I know of how to do this is to work often, study hard, and create miles and miles of studies. I tell my students to practice ninety percent of the time and perform ten percent. Those who take this advice advance their skills much faster than those who continually belabor over creating paintings.

Watch this blog for a one day workshop on "The How and Why of Studies" to be announced for Spring, 2010 at my Williamston Studio.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Silverman on Sensationalism

For a number of years the art world has been in a flux casting about trying to figure out where we should go from modernism. In reviewing Burton Silverman's exceptional website (link at right under "Websites of Interest") I noted on his "Commentary" page a section entitled, "Realism in the Century of Modernism". He succinctly describes the turmoil the art world has been in over the past 50 years and the current trend to sensationalize.

Keeping true to ones self as an artist is a truly difficult thing to do as we are bombarded by external factors every way we turn in our daily lives. TV, movies, the media, magazines, etc. all impact what we do, what we think, and how we feel. It becomes ever more difficult for artists to focus on their own internal message and to express self. Finding a quiet place within and outside of ourselves to contemplate who we are and what we have to say as artists is ultimately essential if we wish to follow our own unique individual path. I can only say, "Bravo" to Mr. Silverman for understanding this and having the foresight and courage to stay the course throughout his career. His example of individualism is clearly an ideal towards which we should all strive.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Sketching From My Car

There are times when the weather is too cold, I have too little time to set up and paint, or I'm just too tired to work on location after a hard work day. It's times like this that I set in my car and draw in comfort. I've found that good drawing paper clipped to a sketching board and Tombo pens work best for me. I like the Tombo's because they come in a variety of values in both warm and cool tones. Most often, I work with a black pen for my dark, a 50% value for my mid-tones and the white of the paper for my lights. This gives me all the information I need to record a subject. The thumbnail sketches ABOVE were done in this way after a day spent at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania.

Perils of Plein Air Painting: Where the Buffalo Roam

In an earlier "Perils of Plein Air Painting" I related my experience with a stalking bull. I'll compound that singular episode with this tale which includes a whole herd of bison. It seems I have a penchant for hoofed animals.

In the late 1990's I was privileged to go on an 18 day painting trip in the west with three artist friends that included painting in the Grand Teton N.P. We traveled west from Michigan in a relatively new Subaru loaded heavily with painting gear and very light on personal effects. We were crowded but happy as we looked forward to our grand adventure. One day, we were painting along Mormon Row in the park, a dirt road where a few abandoned historical farms are back dropped by the Teton Mountains. We'd been painting for sometime in an open area and, needing a break, I volunteered to take the car and drive approximately 5 miles back to the Visitor's Center for refreshments for everyone. This done I started back to the group only to find, as they came into view 3/4 of a mile away, a herd of about 20 free roaming buffalo headed straight for them. Realizing their peril, I gunned the motor on the car not sure if I could reach my friends before the buffalo did. Stones flew as I drove like a mad woman along that road. It should be noted here that such big animals cover a considerable distance quickly even when walking. Don't ever let their girth and short legs fool you.

I literally reached my friends just as the first cow reached the road opposite them. The gals were backed up as far as they could go against some brushy saplings and an old rickety wire fence. With the car between the bison and my friends, they piled in with arms and legs flying, leaving all our gear outside. I quickly moved the car down the road a bit giving the buffalo plenty of room.

Laughing somewhat hysterically with relief we watched the herd checking out our easels and overturned chairs. Somewhere we have a photo of a cow with her nose in my painting smelling the wet paint. Apparently finding nothing to be anxious about they left everything in good shape and slowly moved off headed for their destination, on our side of the road, a lush grassy park.

We returned to our gear, finished our paintings and packed up the car. The afternoon was early so instead of turning and heading back towards pavement, we decided to do some exploring and continued further down the road. We were to find this was an unfortunate choice.

The road ends at the last farm house next to a large wilderness area. We drove into a turn around and discovered that a second wave of bison were following us down the road. This group of about 30 bison had blocked the road from side to side. We backed up into the front yard of the abandoned farmhouse next to a tall bush and rusty windmill to await their passing.

Just then, a ranger driving a truck seemingly came from nowhere and made an attempt to ease through the herd. He wisely gave up the idea turned around and went back the way he'd come. The four of us looked at each other and said, "great!". To our dismay, the herd turned towards the farmhouse where we had taken refuge. Things were definitely not shaping up in our favor. We were cut off and totally surrounded by huge hairy beasts. If you've ever had such an experience you can appreciate how small you feel in a compact car when you are looking directly into the eyes of enormous wild beasts that could conceivably turn your car over if they decided they didn't like you. We very much wanted them to like us.

At this time, I had a cell phone conversation with my elderly parents back in Michigan. My Dad was delighted to hear about our predicament. He always did have a weird sense of what was "fun". Laughing, he said, "I hope they don't bed down to chew their cud, you might be there for a few hours". As I was the driver, I didn't dare look at the others. I was sure by this time they hated me and if looks could have done it I'd be dead. Somehow, the fault of this day was becoming solely mine.

That day I learned several things that I didn't know before. First, I developed a greater appreciation for how zoo animals must feel with people looking at them in their cages. Second, I was shocked to see a cow buffalo lift her front legs and sail over a four foot fence as easily as an agile deer. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it myself that an animal that big could become so easily and gracefully airborne. Obviously, a fence is no protection when buffalo are on the move.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Think Spring!

Fresh off the easel...

"Buckets of Color", 18x24", oil on canvas

The itch to paint lots of color usually hits me about this time each year and "Buckets of Color" was my 2010 winter cure. It borders on whimsy but that's OK in my book as it greatly improved my annual longing for warmer weather. I've got it out of my system and I'm good to go now for another month or two of the white stuff.

(Painted from reference photos)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Painting Oil on Paper

"Grand River: Humble Beginnings", 11x14", oil on paper

I have often asked myself why students feel compelled to perform by doing "paintings" instead of practicing which makes so much more sense if one is trying to learn. I've always felt there must be some logical reason but have been hard pressed to figure it out. In my classes I stress the need to practice ninety
(90) percent of the time and perform ten (10) percent. I'm sure I must sound like a broken record sometimes as I try to get this point across.

It occurred to me that cost might be at least part of the problem. The psychological need to justify the cost of paint and canvas, ergo, finished paintings vs. practice sketches. If this is true, then there is a solution. Paint on paper! It's cheap and certainly readily available in every household. Proper preparation on archival paper combined with correct painting procedures studies thus created may stand the test of time for permanency.


Any kind of paper may be used but it must be isolated from the oil paint or the oil will eventually rot the paper. When working this way, I personally use high quality archival watercolor paper but have also been known to create quick color workups and sketches on cardboard, mat board,Foamboard, Bristol board, copy paper, etc. Here's how.

First, for paper that buckles when wet, slightly dampen the backside with a damp sponge (do not saturate) then lay the paper, wet side down, on a Masonite panel that is some larger all the way around then the size of the paper. Tape the edges down with brown packaging tape and make sure all edges are secure. Brush a thin coat of Acrylic gesso onto the paper with a craft brush making sure that all surfaces are completely covered. Gesso may be thinned a little with water for easier application. I use a scumbling movement with a craft brush to make sure the gesso gets into the minute valleys of the paper. Allow to dry. You may recoat with a second thin coat if necessary. The paper is then ready for painting after it has dried and is smooth as a drum.

A word of caution, paper, by its very nature, is an unstable surface, in other words, it expands and contracts as it absorbs moisture from the air and as it dries. For this reason, do not paint heavy layers or your paint will eventually crack. It's best to use no more than 2-3 thin layers of paint. For my initial lay-in of darks I use a small amount of Liquin to thin the paint preserving transparency in my dark passages and encouraging quick drying of the first layer. By personal choice, artists might add color to their gesso to establish an even mid-toned support.

With this easy inexpensive method, many studies may be created for the cost of a single canvas. The low cost of paper should help everyone to practice, practice, practice. How else do we become skilled and masters of our medium?

In "Grand River: Humble Beginnings", above, I was concerned about color relationships and did this study quickly to see how various color relationships would work for a near to sunset painting. This study shows more delineation than is usual for me because it was done between classes and I had time to do a little more before folks arrived. In general, compared to a completed painting, my studies are painted quickly and simply.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

"John and Kate" a Painting in Progress

Sometimes it's helpful to see how a painting has developed. I wanted to capture the sibling relationship between John and Kate as well as the sense of discovery children have when playing in shallow water. John is intent on moving boldly ahead while his sister shows her concern for him by her slightly turned head and upraised hand reaching towards him. Both poses imply the personality of these siblings.

"John and Kate" was a commissioned painting completed this past year. It was a fun painting for me to do as it brought back many wonderful childhood memories of my own and that of my children and grandchildren. Those memories helped me to relate to the children as I painted them.

To start the painting I used a warm orange based color to suggest the placement of forms. Some of this color was allowed to peak through subsequent layers of paint which helped to harmonize the flesh tones with the cool tones of vegetation and water. The overall effect was one of sparkle and freshness.