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Drawing Inside Out                        

You may have noticed that, in several of the more recent demonstrations, I elected to begin the paintings without doing any preliminary drawing on the canvas. This is an approach that I often use when I’m working in the studio from photos, or painting on- location, and although there are occasions when this is simply impossible (paintings with extremely complicated subject matter), I find that this plan of attack generally affords some interesting results.

By skipping the initial drawing and working a painting from light to dark, thinner paint to thicker paint, and constructing positive shapes by painting the surrounding negative shapes, I’m often able to produce some unexpected edges and effects that are unavailable when I take a more mannered approach.

By eschewing an initial linear drawing, you allow the painting to unfold in a “discovered” manner. Your unconscious self becomes a bigger player, and more of your personality shines through.

I found a photograph of some swans that I thought that I could use to demonstrate these principles.


Step One:

I choose a small 12x9 canvas and give the entire canvas a light-middle tone value, using terra rosa and cobalt blue. This is applied very thinly, and swiped lightly with a paper towel to blend the pigments and remove some of the wetness. This tone will allow my first application of white paint to be the lightest element in the painting, and give some cohesiveness to the entire piece.

Step Two:

Using white paint, with the slightest touch of Quinacridone Gold, I scrub in the area that will eventually become my swans. White, straight out of the tube is the coldest color you can put in a painting. The reason I added some warmth to my white is that I know that I’m going to have some warmth in the background, and I wanted my swans to relate. This application of paint is still very thin, but thick enough to cover my undertone. Notice that my initial canvas tone has pretty much dried, and as a result it remains undisturbed by my white paint. I’m not too particular about definition, because I’m going to define them when I paint my background, and I want my background paint and the swan paint to integrate.


Step Three:

I make a spontaneous decision to make the birds’ bills an orange tone, rather than black, as in the photo. I think this color note will add some interest to the final product. I also make some rough indications of where the water will meet the shore, and bottoms of my swans.


Step Four:

This is where the fun begins. Using warm, thin green mixtures, I start to paint the background, and carve out my swans at the same time. Where the green paint overlaps the white of the swans, there is a very subtle echo of light. This is one of those unplanned effects that can add so much life to a painting. I want retain some of this in the final product. Notice that I didn’t cover the entire foliage area. Some of that gray/violet under painting is still showing through, and I like the vibration of the violet against the green. I’m going to extrapolate on that color combination as I proceed. So, using another gray/violet mixture, I paint in some shadow areas on the swans. This gives them some volume, and establishes my light source.


Step Five:

I do more modeling in the background, using various combinations of greens, violets and cool, rose reds. I strengthen the lights and shadows on the geese, and I introduce some of those rosy tones into their shadowed sides. It’s always important to relate all the objects in a painting by integrating colors from various areas of the painting.

When you have two roughly equal objects in a painting, it is important to make one more dominant than the other. Since the swan on the right is slightly ahead of the one on the left, I choose him as my major player. You notice that the value of the one on the right is slightly lighter, and the light-struck area is slightly warmer, creating the illusion of pushing him forward.

It is important to have a variety of edges on the objects in a painting. If all the edges are hard, things can look like they are pasted on. This is especially true when you are painting one object up to another, with no overlap. I leave some of the hard edges on the swans, and I drag brush some of the edges to soften them. I load up a brush and drag some tail feathers into the wet background. The dry brush effect give me another edge, and adds further interest to my subjects.


Step Six:

I do a little drawing on the heads of the swans, strengthening the shapes and eyes, and I add some highlights on the bills. I go into the background for the last time, adding some punchy colors and selected highlights.

Notice that I have yet to do any work on the water. Although there are exceptions to every rule, I generally do not paint the water, and what it reflects, until I have finished all the objects that will be reflected. Most often the reflections of objects will be darker than the objects themselves. The exceptions might include muddy, or silty water. Saving the water until last enables me to better judge the value relationships.


Step Seven:

Now, using darker values, I begin handling the reflections much the same way that I painted the upper half of the painting. Using thin paint, I mass in the light and dark reflections of the swans.

Step Eight:

Using mixtures of dark green, I mass in the water, cutting out the reflections of the swans. Although there is a vertical feel to the reflections, a good number of the strokes are horizontal. I want to maintain a sense of depth, but I’m also conscious that there is a surface to the water.

Step Nine:

With a soft Langnickel brush, I make some horizontal sweeps to soften the edges and simulate some surface tension on the water.

Step Ten:

Now I put in some finishing touches. I add some of the color from the shoreline into the water. I drag a few more of the darker greens through the reflections of the swans, and I add some ripples near the base of the swans and into the dark areas of the shoreline.

Because the reflections in the water are out of focus, the hard edges on the swans give the birds a greater sensed of presence.


As you can see from comparing my original photo to the finished painting, I have taken a lot of liberties. In actuality, I have essentially allowed the painting to lead me along, instead of me forcing my will on the subject. Had I started with an under-painting that leaned towards red, yellow or a blue, I would have had a similar composition, but an entirely different mood.

When you approach a subject, allow yourself some latitude. Let the paint show you the way. Don’t be afraid to find objects by painting everything that’s not them.

Here are a couple of pieces that I applied to which I applied the same approach.

“Devonshire Geese” 9x12 oil “Monastery – France” 9x12 oil

Happy Painting!