Improve Your Paintings! Today’s Tip

I thought that I would start to share some of what I’ve learned over 13 years of painting in oil and almost seven years of picture-making as an illustrator through a new on-going series, Improve Your Paintings!.  We’ll start today with…


There really isn’t a better or faster way to check your drawing or composition for accuracy. Almost any decent mirror will work. I happened to have an old full-length mirror that I found for $15 at a yard sale many years ago. I mounted it onto my old easel, which lets me roll it to different positions and also out of the way.

A mirror is particularly useful when you have to get two sides of something that are similar to match up and need an “extra eye” to evaluate it. Do those butterfly wings match? Are the eyes of that wolf lined up properly?

It is also very valuable for checking the overall drawing. Do all the parts fit together accurately in that 3/4 view of the mountain lion’s head? Have you compensated correctly for the foreshortening and flattening effect in an image of a bighorn sheep, also in a 3/4 view? Is the body of that horse too big for the head or vice versa? In the example below, I’ve used my mirror to get a fresh look at the relative value pattern between the horses in the foreground and the background landscape.

Do you use a mirror? If so, what do you find it most useful for?

(And yes, you’re getting a sneak preview of my newest painting, “Mongol Horse #5-Afternoon Romp”. It’s almost done and I’ll post it next Friday)

Coming up soon! North Coast Open Studios. I’ll be doing Weekend 2, June 12-13.

My Reply to a Comment on the Previous Post About Using Photoshop + Mongolia Trip Photo of the Week

I started to write a reply to the (partially quoted) comment below and realized that the topic was worthy of its own post since, as you will see, I have strong opinions about the subject (Who, me?).

“I found your process very interesting…especially because I tend to ‘jump right in ass-first’ and not do any studies to figure out composition etc. I have no idea why I hate doing that…perhaps I am just impatient to get to the fun. of course this does cause problems!!…..Does Photoshop help you a lot in planning paintings? I have never once used it, I must admit…..You can re-position items in your photo using Photoshop? Man, Maybe I need to get a Photoshop For Dummies book!”

My response, which is intended to address the general issue, and not in any way the individual commenter who I quote above, is as follows:

I never use Photoshop for planning paintings in the way you describe. IMHO, it’s a pernicious trend that’s been used by way too many artists as an excuse to avoid the hard work of actually learning to DRAW.

It’s also very obvious a lot of the time when that’s how a picture has been put together. It looks like a bunch of bits with no cohesion. Animals that look pasted onto the background. Animals the wrong scale. Animals in a position that is impossible given the perspective of the setting. Light sources that don’t match. Uncorrected distortion from shooting the subject with a wide angle lens in which you end up with a back end view of something like an elk with a tiny butt that has an overly large head sticking out of it. Slavish adherence to the reference. Lack of variety of edges,with  every edge same from front to back. No emotional punch or a point of view that’s unique. No exercise of the craft of painting. Just tedious rendering of Every Single Thing In The Photograph.

I’ve been in workshops watching artists beaver away at moving an animal around in a landscape on their computer and then transferring it directly to their canvas. Kind of pathetic, really. There’s a power and a mastery that comes from entering your subject directly into your brain by drawing it over and over. It’s how you learn what something looks like.  Photoshopping short-circuits that. Look at who the top wildlife artists are and have been. They can all draw like crazy. Some stay with highly detailed work, like Carl Brenders, or push the limit of looseness, like Julie Chapman, but being able to draw lets them make the choice.

Copying a Photoshopped composition without having solid drawing skills cheats the artist out of all that is most important in the creative process, i.e. the creativity.

A painting is really just a series of judgments and choices. The better an artist gets at those, the better the paintings. Photoshopping images into a montage short-circuits this part of the painting process, too.

I realize that the struggle is a drag, but there isn’t any easy way to do good work that I’m aware of. The best work comes out of the struggle. I long ago lost count of the times I hit the wall on a painting, slid down to the floor, picked myself up and soldiered on until I broke through. It doesn’t happen as often now, but I know it could happen at any time.

What I do is go through a lot of paper. What you see in my posts are just a small sample. Since one of the reasons I’m an artist to begin with is that I always loved to draw from the time I was a little kid, it would defeat a main purpose of the exercise for me to eliminate that step. I also use a mirror to check my drawing for accuracy. It’s almost magical how errors jump out at you. Can’t use Photoshopped photographs for that.

I’ll just flatly say it- If you want to be any good, much less excel, as a painter of animals (or any other representational subject, for that matter), learn to draw. And draw live animals whenever possible. Period. No excuses.

Mongolia Photo of the Week

Start of national Naadam ceremony at Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar; the band
Start of national Naadam ceremony at Sukhbaatar Square, Ulaanbaatar; The band

Best Band Uniforms Ever.

Art and Kittens, How Can I Lose?


I have spent most of my professional life for the last ten years trying to gain some competence in the craft of oil painting. Although some artists proudly describe themselves as “self-taught”, I’m not one of them except in the sense that, in the end, we all have to figure out for ourselves what marks to make on the canvas (or other support) and how and with what to make them in order to express our vision. I’ve found that good instruction is a great timesaver, so I’ve tried to learn from those who have gone before me, either as a student in art school or workshops or by gathering a small collection of “how to do it” or “how I do it” books to learn from past and present masters. It’s those books that I plan to “draw” on in order to share some of what I have found useful, valuable and thought-provoking over the years.

So, we will begin with a quote from Robert Henri’s (pronounced Hen-rye) The Art Spirit:

“Technique must be solid, positive, but elastic, must not fall into formula, must adapt itself to the idea. And for each new idea there must be new invention special to the expression of that idea and no other. And the idea must be valuable, worth the effort of expression, must come from the artist’s understanding of life and be a thing he greatly desires to say.”

(Note: many of these quotes date from a time when women were barely tolerated in the fine arts, so the male pronoun dominates; however, that does not invalidate the content)


These three came into the shelter on June 4 and weren’t in very good shape, either health-wise or willingness to be handled by people. In fact, they started out labeled “feral and fearful”. Shelter staff was able to get them to the point where they could be picked up and petted. I brought them home a week ago on the 17th and will have them until they weigh 2 pounds plus a few ounces, which is the minimum for neutering. They were at around 1 pound, 3 oz,, their coats were dry and I could feel their rib cages since they had no fat. I could feel the vertebrae on the littlest one, who was visibly weaker than his two sisters.

It is one week later and they are much improved, thanks to room to play and high-octane wet food everyday. Coats are soft and tummies filling out. They come running, demanding to be petted now and like tummy rubs. They also have names (fosters get to name their charges); Raven, Kestrel and Merlin. So, here they are at age seven weeks or so:

Raven, whose name suggested the bird theme:

Kestrel, who has vocal opinions about almost everything:

And Merlin, quieter so far, but he was the weakest of the three when he arrived