I paint from reference photographs

I would love to paint from life but it would have to be very still life. I have tried to paint from life several times. On several occasions I traipsed off with my gear to paint “from life”. I found a wonderful location with great light and interesting subjects. I set up my easel, my paints, my brushes and medium. And it was gone. The subject and light that first attracted me was fleeting in the extreme. I tried to do this several times to no avail. So I became a photographer. I actually did become a photographer. It helped me a great deal in Graphic Design and it helps me now when I paint. Photography is one of the most technical arts (it’s also the easiest since everyone has a camera). Painting is much less technical however I tend to think about it in a technical way but that’s just me. I don’t for a moment believe that you need to think of painting as a technical art; its likely better if you don’t.

The technical way I perceive painting started in painting class when we were presented with one or several still lives. Sometimes we could only use one colour and sometimes we got to choose. Sometimes two colours and hallelujah sometimes we could use our whole pallet. We were always constrained by time. Sometimes as long as an hour. My worst nightmare was the 10 minute one-colour sketch class. I dreamed that I ran out of paint. As a result of all of this, I want as much time as possible to paint. I’ve attached the only one of these quick studies that I actually like. The only problem I have using reference photographs is that it is easy to fall into the detail trap. So I spend a lot of time simplifying my subjects. A huge advantage of photographs is when I am blocked. I can always find some area that I can add more detail and this often leads to different interpretations. The detail trap is always present.

My colour pallet is small

I have a lot of colours but I rarely use them all. I’ve forgotten why I bought most of them. The main ones are Titanium white, Ultramarine blue, Mars black (I used to use Panes Gray but Mars black is warmer), Yellow Ochre, Burnt Umber, Hansa Yellow, Quinacridone Crimson and Dioxazine Purple. Dioxazine and Quinacridone are pigments that were not used in oil colours (until recently). They are new (turn of the 20th century new). Dioxazine is particularly welcome because purple is difficult to mix. In my attempts to stay away from dangerous elements I have also used Naphthol crimson, which I like.

I’ve tried modern colours in an attempt to get away from Cadmium. My father had Cadmium poisoning (quite nasty) during World War II from repairing military aircraft. It’s a component in the dope applied to wing fabric. I’m sure there are lots of other nasty chemicals in our many other artists colours but ignorance is bliss.

My chief problem with acrylics is transparency. Sometimes it works great but at other times it’s a royal pain. Sometimes I put down a heavy coat of Titanium white then apply the colour on top. This usually works. The alternative is multiple coats of the transparent colour.

If I have too many colours I have difficultly determining exactly which ones to use. Sometimes a colour is difficult and requires a different pigment to keep the result from becoming muddy. It isn’t always necessary to exactly match a colour. I often try playing with the contrast rather than the colour and it usually works. Expectations also play a part. Water is often gray and muddy but I prefer it blue, so I use ultramarine and sometimes darken it with Mars black. I like the resulting blue water even though it isn’t accurate.

Pricing my work

I do price my work even though there aren’t any prices shown on my Website. I’m on disability so I am in the enviable position of not needing to sell my paintings. I paint what I want in the way I want and I enjoy it.

I don’t think that an artist should limit themselves to particular sizes of work. Every customer will have a particular location in their home that they are looking for something to put in it. I have no idea how big or small that location is. I believe that if they find something they can’t live without they will find a place for it. When I start a painting it demands a larger or smaller canvas or sometimes a particular shape and that is what I use. I’m limited to what my studio can hold (studio is a highfalutin name for a little space in my basement). But I do believe that there needs to be some consistency in pricing.

If I struggle with a work it is not worth more. Maybe it took two or three times as long as another work but that doesn’t mean that someone will pay more for it. Some time ago I decided to take all that struggle away from my work. I now price by adding the horizontal measurement to the vertical and multiplying the result by an arbitrary number to come up with a price that I am OK with. I could also multiply them together to come up with an area measurement and then multiply it with a dollar amount. This means that smaller pieces will be a lower price and larger pieces will be a higher price. I believe that customers think this is logical. Commissions are different. Commissions should always be a higher price because the customer will change their mind and add work. I don’t take commissions!

Now the trick is to stick with it. If I sell everything then I charge more money. If I am annoyed with how little I’m making then I charge more money. If I sell nothing then I cry or become a graphic designer and work on salary. I enjoyed graphic design; it’s just different.

Here is a good article about pricing:


How accurate is your drawing?

A better question is how accurate does it need to be? If it’s a portrait and you want a likeness, it needs to be pretty accurate. Humans are very good at recognising faces. A slight difference in the angle of the eyes, or the distance between the eyes can make or break a likeness. This just takes practice. Since we are so good at recognising faces we are equally good at seeing the differences when we draw them, so practice.

I am reasonably good at getting a likeness but I struggle if it’s someone I know well. I usually use a photograph and replicate the relative dimensions as accurately as I can. I am very jealous of artists who can draw a face with a few deft strokes and get a recognisable likeness. With plants and landscapes accuracy isn’t really an issue. If it really doesn’t look right I paint over it with as many iterations as it takes to fix it. With animals accuracy can be an issue but it just has to look like a horse, if it’s someone’s pet that gets a little different. Years ago I did a pen and ink drawing of my wife’s dog. I didn’t like it at all but I’d worked on it long enough that rather than throw it out I just finished it quickly. I went back to it later expecting to toss it out and start over but it was great. One of the best I have ever done and my wife loved it. I’ve attached a photo of the drawing to this post. It looks almost unfinished however it looks exactly like my wife’s dog.  I worked for a long time on the eyes and nose. The fur and ears were added very quickly.

The moral of this story is; if you have been working on a portrait for hours, don’t assume that you can see what’s wrong with it. Put it aside or get someone else to look at it. As artists we become visually fatigued and we need a fresh viewpoint. Many artists set the work aside and go back to it a few days later. I’m too impatient for that so I use my wife and daughters to critique it. This is hard (my family is brutal) but it works.


I don’t use a sketchbook. I did years ago and I still have one of them but I rarely use one now. I decide what I’m going to do based on pictures that I have; either mine or something I’ve picked up on the Internet, then decide if I need more. Many of my works are amalgamations of several images. I’d like to give some credit to a photographer if I’m using their image but often I don’t have a name. If you are going to upload a photograph to the Internet then make sure your name is somewhere in the metadata. If I’m using several images it doesn’t seem reasonable to give credit to one. I often decide that a plant needs to be changed or something needs to be added so I will go out and photograph what I need. I’m presently working on a picture of a pelican. I don’t know when I collected the image and there is nothing in the metadata. I have flipped the image horizontally several times and I’ve probably done some colour and contrast manipulations as well. No metadata, and I can’t find the original image on the Internet. I’d like to give a ‘based on’ credit but am unable to. It’s amazing how many pictures of pelicans there are out there.

I use my computer as a sketchbook. If I’m going to modify an image I often do it quickly in Photoshop then print out an image. Printing isn’t very good (even if you have a very good printer it will never look as good as the screen image) I usually paint with the image on my computer screen where I can look at it while painting. The painting can’t exactly match the screen but it is better than using a printed image. You don’t have this problem if you paint from life. The computer gives a slight advantage in that I can tweak colours, saturation and detail somewhat but you can learn to do that from life too.

Getting back to sketching, I don’t do much preparatory work for paintings. Once the canvas/board size is established (usually what I have or what’s on sale) I grab a brush and start right on the painting surface. I am confident that after a few false starts and fixes things will start to appear. I’m showing an early image of Dying Swan here. This is as far as the sketching progressed before I started applying colour.


There is actually a story behind this one. A few years ago my Wife and I were walking the Stanley Park seawall and just west of Siwash rock noticed that the tidal rocks were almost completely covered with purple sea stars. This is a very common species in our local waters. There were tens of thousands of them. They completely covered the rocks.

In the last couple of years there has been a huge die-off of Sea Stars on the west coast of North America. It appears to be caused by a virus. There have been other die-offs that may or may not be related and I’ve also read that it may be a virus that is present in all Sea Stars but has become lethal lately for some reason. Research is ongoing. I’ve read estimates of the die-off between 80% to 98%.

Handling Criticism

So the question came up how do I handle criticism? This wasn’t about my painting but rather graphic design and it was some years ago. The trite, simplistic answer is that I ignore it. But it really depends on where it is coming from.

My wife and daughters give me lots of criticism. It’s helpful, I use it to determine where an image needs more work. After looking at a painting for weeks I can no longer see what is right and wrong in the image.  I could put it away for a few weeks and then look at it again, but I want to know NOW! I hate going back to a painting to fix or change things so I use the people I trust to give me insight that I am missing.

I’m not naive enough to believe that everyone likes my work. It’s nice that some do and I appreciate it, but if they don’t it’s not going to change what I’ve done or how I do things in the future. I paint for myself and if you like what I do, thank you very much. I don’t like most of my own work because all I see are the problems. It’s nice to know someone just likes it.