Colleen Howe's 4 Steps to Building Stronger Paintings

11 Sep 2008

Howe Convict Lake pastelUtah artist Colleen Howe is an accomplished pastelist and workshop instructor who is widely known for her sensitive and colorful landscapes of the West. Here she shares four helpful steps to achieving successful works of art.

by Colleen Howe, as told to Collin Fry

Howe Zion Overlook pastel
Zion Overlook
2007, pastel, 30 x 24. All artwork this article collection the artist.

Growing up on a ranch in the Big Hole Valley of Southwestern Montana, I developed an early appreciation for nature and a love of painting the great outdoors. Along the way, I have been inspired by several great artists—Degas, Andrew Wyeth, Clyde Aspevig, and Scott Christensen among them—and I continue to study the books of John F. Carlson, Edgar Payne, and Richard Schmid. These masters, so varied in style and technique, each present beautiful color relationships and truthful representations of nature in their work.

From years of studying these great artists and from my own experimentation, I have concluded that successful painting can be achieved by paying close attention to a few basic principles. Each one of these steps builds on the previous one, resulting in a system that virtually guarantees satisfactory results. With this approach, one establishes a solid foundation and mistakes are dealt with early, leaving one free to move into the final painting stages without later disappointment and frustration.

Step 1: Establish the Concept
Starting with a strong concept is essential to a painting’s success. The picture’s concept can be a scene, an object, or a person, or it can be a color scheme or composition. For example, I love painting the West. The light and landscape are wonderful, and there is a wide variety of subjects from which to choose. In both my studio painting and my plein air work, I like to create a sense of place or a moment in time, perhaps capturing something spiritual or poetic about a location. For my painting concept I look for unique light, shadow shapes, or moods at different times of day or during various weather conditions. My goal in painting is to make the landscape breathe by depicting the atmosphere and energy of plant life and terrain.

Step 2: Experiment With Small Sketches
After my picture concept has been decided, I create several small sketches, working out my ideas, composition, values, and color plan for the painting. Experience has taught me that I can confidently move into a finished painting if I have first worked out an interesting composition and pattern of values and color with small studies. I also find that ideas come more quickly and creatively when doing quick, intuitive sketching.

Howe Convict Lake pastel Howe Convict Lake pastel Howe Convict Lake pastel
Convict Lake
2007, pastel, 26 x 35.
Sketch for Convict Lake Color and Value Study for Convict Lake
This plein air-workshop demonstration began with 9"-x-12" value and color studies to work out the light-and-dark pattern. At 5 p.m., when Howe was painting this scene, the normally white mountain was receiving a lot of reflected color from the sky, and a patch of snow was reflected in the water. A watercolor wash was applied over a charcoal drawing of the main shapes, and shadows were suggested by differences in color temperature rather than value.

Issues of design, structure, and color harmony are much more easily dealt with when painting in a small format (usually 9" x 12" or smaller). It may seem time-consuming or laborious to include this step at first, but with practice one learns to quickly put down the important information from a scene that will be needed. Improvement in one’s work can be dramatic, with unforeseen breakthroughs happening through the sketching process. Any artist, no matter how experienced, will benefit from taking this vital step.

Step 3: Develop the Sketches Into Value and Color Studies
I continue thinking about composition in this stage as I explore value and color possibilities and try different approaches. To complete the preliminary stage, the flat value shapes are indicated, without trying to depict specific objects or things. Next, these various shapes are connected into a simple pattern of light and dark values. After this is finished, I work from the value study to make a color study of the same size, translating the values into color. When these studies are complete, I have a plan and am ready to start a finished painting.

Howe Waterlilies pastel Howe Waterlilies pastel Howe Waterlilies pastel
2007, pastel, 28 x 22.
Sketch for Waterlilies Color and Value Study for Waterlilies
Before beginning this work, the artist first did a value and color study in her sketchbook. She then began the finished pastel by creating a watercolor underpainting on a 28"-x-32" sheet of Wallis paper using blues and violets. Next she painted directly, frequently referencing the small studies. Colors were chosen for value and temperature, with violets contrasting with the yellow leaves. The artist applied soft Schmincke and Terry Ludwig pastels to finish the work.

I’ve noticed in my workshops that many students want to skip over these preparatory steps and don’t give enough thought to the basic issues of composition, value, and color. With patient effort and repeated demonstrations, I win them over to my practice of preliminary planning and sketching, which I’ve come to rely on after years of painting and trial and error. It’s wise to invest in planning at the beginning because it will pay back handsomely later, saving considerable time and allowing for much more freedom when creating the final painting.

Step 4: Paint Confidently, Using the Value and Color Studies as a Guide
I keep my studies close for reference and use them as a road map as I move into the final painting. Sometimes dramatically increasing the scale from the preliminary sketch can prove difficult, and it can be hard to maintain the freshness achieved in the original. For this reason, care must be taken to avoid a labored or overworked look when translating the subject to a bigger surface. Strokes should be spontaneous and shapes kept simple while constantly referring to the preliminary studies.

Howe Les Trois Amis pastel
Les Trois Amis
2007, pastel, 14 x 18.

For my own paintings, I work in both pastel and oil and find both media to be wonderful for building rich hues, beautiful light grays, and subtly colored whites. Always using my preliminary studies as a guide, I usually start with a wash of acrylic or watercolor. A drawing of the scene is either put down before the first washes are laid in or after, depending on whether the washes will be a general background color or an underpainting. I do my finished pastels on museum-grade Wallis paper, working with a variety of hard and soft pastels.

As my art evolves, I seem to be gaining a stronger interest in color harmony and strong composition. I’ve been doing further experimentation with my preliminary small sketches recently, and that has really helped me to progress and develop in this area. I have also been increasing both color and value contrasts in my paintings, which I feel are creating more visual impact and interest in my work.    

About the Artist
Colleen Howe grew up on a ranch in the Big Hole Valley of Southwestern Montana and now lives in Utah. She studied art and design at Brigham Young University, in Provo, Utah, and the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, and also trained with Michael Workman, Sally Strand, Doug Dawson, and Ken Baxter. She has taught workshops around the United States and Europe, and she regularly teaches in Salt Lake City. She is a former president of the Pastel Society of Utah and is a signature member of the Pastel Society of America and American Women Artists. Her work has appeared in The Pastel Journal and The Artist’s Magazine, and she is represented in Utah by Apple Frame Gallery, in Bountiful; Authentique Gallery of Art and Design, in St. George; Bingham Gallery, in Mount Carmel; Montgomery Lee Fine Art, in Park City; and Williams Fine Art, in Salt Lake City. For more information on Howe, visit her website at

A former illustrator and graphic designer, Collin Fry lives in Norton Shores, Michigan.

View an online exclusive gallery of more work by Howe.

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Judy Stines wrote
on 12 May 2008 10:27 AM
This is a very good article, and is another reminder that I do not spend enough time on the "front end" of my painting projects. I was watching another artist on a live cam, and I commented to him that I realized that I need to spend more time in "preliminaries" -- so this is further reinforcement of that observation. Thanks so much.
Jack Moore wrote
on 19 May 2008 10:47 AM
You're posting excellent articles. *This post has been edited for content.
Elsie H. Wilson wrote
on 19 May 2008 12:03 PM
Great article. Good lesson learned. I need to spend more time planning before I start a painting! Thanks. Elsie Wilson
Ruth Hurd wrote
on 19 May 2008 12:24 PM
Great article. I'm going to have to re-read it periodically to keep me on the right track.
Carol Putman wrote
on 20 May 2008 1:56 PM
I think this interesting article would have made an excellent video interview with the artist. I hope American Artist will consider doing more online video interviews.
Jo Slaight wrote
on 25 May 2008 1:32 PM
Thanks Colleen, American Artist; In agreement with the artists' postings, I needed to be reminded of preliminaries! The basics of my art education seem to evade me now that I'm a working artist... Time to go back to thumbnails, value & color studies-- the drawing board!
Penny Creasy wrote
on 31 May 2008 2:11 PM
"Preliminaries" are as important as "location,location,location" in real estate. Had a painting on the easel that needed that reminder. Thanks Colleen. You are an AMERICAN ARTIST!
Herb Barrer wrote
on 7 Jul 2008 11:50 AM
I enjoyed Colleen Howe's Pastel Landscapes so much that I would go back and reread it again. The seperate steps were very informative, but I do have one concern...I don't know if I missed it or was it mentioned, but what method does Colleen Howe use to preserve her finished products? Thanks!
John Ries wrote
on 14 Oct 2008 6:26 PM
Having been born and raised in the Beaverhead and Big Hole area,I can attest to your fantastic capture of the light especilly in the sky and on the hay.
John Ries wrote
on 14 Oct 2008 6:26 PM
Having been born and raised in the Beaverhead and Big Hole area,I can attest to your fantastic capture of the light especilly in the sky and on the hay.