How to Adjust to New Painting Subjects

Curt Walters painting at the
Grand Canyon.

None of us want to be stuck in the rut of painting the same subjects over and over again, so we try different landscape locations, select new groups of still life objects, or join a sketch group that hires models to pose. We discover that it takes a while to adjust our palette of colors, method of working, and selection of drawing tools to become comfortable with the new challenges. That’s what happened to me recently when I painted along the South Rim of the Grand Canyon with a group of professional artists.

Most of the 20 artists participating in the Grand Canyon Celebration of Art plein air painting event were experienced at painting western landscapes. In fact, Curt Walters, David Haskell, Elizabeth Black, and other participating artists have painted the Grand Canyon for decades and know all the best locations, the appropriate colors to use, and the most effective ways of dealing with the complex scenery. I have to admit that I failed miserably in my first few attempts, because I was unprepared for the vast spaces, the dramatic lighting, and the subtle color changes. After scraping off a couple of painting panels, I was reminded how hard it can be to tackle an unfamiliar subject.

So what did I learn from my failures? First, I remembered the advice every good teacher offers: simplify. You should never attempt to paint every ridge, tree, cloud, or flower. Second, those same wise instructors would advise me to plan my paintings by making compositional studies. A quick evaluation of the important shapes, values, and lines will always help an artist realize a better painting. Finally, my 19 painting companions would remind me that a painting is all about relationships. Our perception of a color or value often depends on what it is near in the painting, not what it looks like when isolated on a palette.

I should have remembered all of this good advice, because it is frequently offered in the issues of American Artist, Watercolor, Drawing, and Workshop magazines. My excuse is that I was so overwhelmed by the Grand Canyon and excited about having the opportunity to paint it that I forgot what steps I need to take when dealing with a new subject.

P.S. I’m writing about a class Curt Walters taught in the Grand Canyon for the Winter 2009 issue of Workshop magazine.

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M. Stephen Doherty

About M. Stephen Doherty

I've been interested in art since I was a child,  and I was fortunate to be able to take Saturday art classes at the Cincinnati Art Museum from the time I was 9 years old until I finished high school. I majored in art at Knox College and graduated summa *** laude, Phi Beta Kappa (proving artists can use both sides of their brain!).  I then earned a Master of Fine Arts degree in printmaking from Cornell University; taught art in public schools, a community college, an adult education program, and a college; worked in the marketing department of a company that manufactured screen printing supplies; and was hired to be editor of American Artist in January, 1979.

Thomas S. Buecher introduced me to plein air painting and it immediately became a passion of mine because it got me outdoors and allowed me to continue learning when I traveled to judge art shows, attend conventions, give lectures, and interview artists. Over the years I've exhibited my paintings at Bryant Galleries in New Orleans, Trees Place Gallery on Cape Cod, and in a traveling exhibition titled From Sea to Shining Sea.

I've written 10 books on artists and art techniques and contibuted articles to magazines, websites, and exhibition catalogs. Now as I prepare for semi-retirement, I'm trying to hone my painting skills -- especially those related to painting portraits.

I've been very fortunate to have met thousands of talented artists who have enriched my life with their art, their friendship, and their advice. I am grateful to Jerry Hobbs and Susan Meyer who hired me in 1979, to the talented people who worked with me on the magazines, and to the artists and advertisers who supported American Artist, Watercolor, Workshop, and Drawing  magazines and the related websites.

I've also been blessed with a supportive, talented wife, Sara; a daughter, Clare, who works for an insurance agency; a son, Michael, who is a computer enginner in Austin; a son-in-law, Shawn, who can fix and carry anything; a granddaughter, Amanda, who has me wrapped around her finger; and my mother, Dotty, who has advised and encouraged me from the beginning.

2 thoughts on “How to Adjust to New Painting Subjects

  1. I can understand the difficulties you encountered painting in the Grand Canyon, especially if this was your first visit. The canyon is so vast, while we, not to mention our canvases, are so small. The task of capturing any part of such magnificence is daunting. As a resident Arizonan, I suggest taking some time to simply absorb and ponder before attempting to paint. Give yourself a chance to experience the canyon before trying to interpret it. Then I agree with your advice – go back to basics. Get the big shapes and values first. Above all, treasure the time you spend there, even if your efforts are less satisfactory than you might have hoped. The process is just as important as the result.

    Lynn Carey