Monday, October 13, 2014

Create Compositions That Work

So... just what is it that makes one painting work, and another one fall flat on its face (so to speak)?

Have you ever worked on a painting that was not coming together, no matter what, and you just couldn't figure out what the heck it was that was not working? It feels pretty frustrating, doesn't it?

Chances are the painting has got a problem with its composition. And if a painting's composition isn't working, it doesn't matter how beautifully parts of it are painted. Those parts are like lipstick on a pig... no matter how nice the lipstick, underneath, it's still a pig. (My apology if I offend any pigs!)

Composition study — why isn't this working?

For instance, if you were to sum up what's not working in the composition study above — or why it's not working — could you do it in one word?

Is it easier to identify when you look at it upside down?

Is it easier to see why it's not working upside down? Give it a good, long look.

There are so many variables to take into consideration when you paint — there's line, there's color (although it's not in the study above), there's value, there are the relationships between the shapes in the painting, there are questions about drawing and whether the drawing works, and more... and then there's composition, which incorporates all of them.

That's what we'll be focusing on in the workshop I'm teaching on October 25th and 26th, 2014, Create Compositions That Work, at the Calistoga Art Center, in Calistoga, California. Because if the composition ain't happy, ain't nobody happy....

And that's why we'll be looking at — to start with — the painter's intention; the two basic kinds of paintings, compositionally speaking, no matter what the subject matter; and how to identify and manage the elements of both kinds of paintings, and make them work.

The same principles apply, whether you're looking at landscape paintings, still lifes, portraits, abstract work, or work in pretty much any other genre.

If you come, you'll go home with specific, practical tools and know-how that you can use to get out of, and avoid, those painting predicaments from here on out. Join us, and learn to create compositions that work!

You can find out more about the workshop here, at

So, how would you sum up what isn't working in the composition study above — or why it's not working, if you only had one word?

Here's the one I would choose to explain why it doesn't work: confusion. The painter hasn't decided what's important about the painting. Is it the sheep? The trees on the hill? The pattern of the rows? The painter hasn't decided. It's a decision that is absolutely basic for the painting, and determines how the painter needs to handle everything else as a result. Its lack causes confusion.

Does that make sense? We'll talk about more about it at the workshop!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

I've been working like crazy to prepare for my new color workshop on January 26th, Secrets of Color Harmony - Part I. I've taught workshops on color before, and I teach color in my Acrylic Painting classes, but in this workshop we'll be taking a slightly different approach.

So I've been painting new examples, and finding new examples, and creating new handouts – and  figuring out just how much I'll be able to pack into this day. Each participant will create their own book to take home and refer back to, to make this as practical and applicable as possible. The idea is that you go home with specific ways of creating color harmony in your paintings that you can put into immediate practice.

If you'd like to find out more, here's a link to my art workshops website with all the info.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Blogging, again

Karen Lynn Ingalls in the studio
It's hard to believe it's been well over a year since my last post.... Fewer posts on this, my art teaching blog, has partly been the result of a change in the schedule of my teaching.

Previously, my acrylic painting and mixed media classes were taught through Napa Valley College Community Education, on a semester basis. We would develop skills over time, and the lessons were based on that – building a foundation, developing skills, and then building on those skills over time, and adjusting them depending on what everyone in the class wanted and needed.

The classes now are four-week long, taught through the Calistoga Art Center, and, since instruction varies based on who is in the classes and what their needs are, which may change each month, it's harder to write a blog that addresses everyone's needs. Well, challenging, anyway.

I do still teach workshops, and I've been writing about them at But I'll be posting here again, too - at least every now and again, about things that come up both for me in the course of my teaching (and my own learning), and for my students in the process of their learning.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Napa Valley Open Studios 2011

Napa Valley Open Studios 2011  •  cover art by glass artist Ed Breed
The next two weekends, Napa Valley Open Studios artists (including me) open up their studios to visitors, sharing their work, talking about their processes, answering questions, and sometimes giving demonstrations. It's a wonderful time to learn about different artists and how they work.

You can download a catalog online at, and you can find out what demonstrations you might see here.

Jocelyn Audette painting on location (in the middle of a lake)

Here's a photo gallery of artists at work (our workplaces often look a little different than most people's!), at NVOS Photo Gallery, including my favorite of Jocelyn Audette painting in the middle of a lake.

If you come – between 11 and 5 on September 17-18 and 24-25 – I hope you'll drop by and visit me at Studio #9 in St. Helena. I'll be at Ed Breed's studio. Ed, this year's cover artist, will be giving glass blowing demonstrations during the day, too. You can find us at 1734 Scott Street in St. Helena – and you can download a map here. I hope I'll see you!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Underpainting with values – the art of grisaille

Diego Velasquez's portrait of Juan de Pareja, 1650

Grisaille (pronounced grizz-eye) painting – creating an underpainting with light and dark values, generally using white and black paint – was used by many old masters, including Diego Velasquez, also spelled Velazquez, whose portrait of Juan de Pareja you see above. The color is created by layers of thin glazes painted on top of an underpainting in white, black, and grays.

The method is ably explained and demonstrated in Free Art Lesson – James Sulkowski – Underpainting, a five-minute YouTube video.

Notice first how Sulkowski holds his brush – far enough back – and paints using his whole arm, not just his hand and wrist.

"The reason for this technique," he explains, speaking of the grisaille, "is to get more depth and luminosity." He also demonstrates, briefly, blending edges with a fan brush (yes, fan brushes are meant for blending, not for painting generic "foliage"). This is a wonderful demonstration of painting light and shadow on a form using darks and lights. Although he is using oil paints rather than acrylics, you can get a longer drying time with acrylics by either using a retarding or slow-drying medium, or by using Golden's Open Acrylics, which give you three to four days of blending time before the paint dries.

Painter James Sulkowski demonstrates the process of glazing over the grisaille

He continues demonstrating how glazes are used over the grisaille in Taking the Mystery Out of Glazing, a second five-minute video, showing how classical painters like Velasquez used this process to create paintings like the portrait of Juan de Pareja. He also demonstrates using a mahl stick on the painting's finest detail. If you are interested in classical realism, you definitely want to watch these two videos – they will definitely help you in your painting process.

You can also see James Sulkowski's work at his website

Monday, September 12, 2011

Notes on Plein Air painting

Anitra painting  •  class plein air painting field trip  •  photo © 2011 Karen Lynn Ingalls
If you're planning on being a part of the Calistoga Art Center's first plein air paintout (the entry fee is only $25 if you sign up by September 15th), you may want a few tips on painting en plein air (in the open air). So, for you – notes on plein air painting:

  • Make quick thumbnail sketches of your composition before you begin
  • Bring your camera to take photos – the light will change, and it will give you a record of what the scene looked like
  • Wear a hat to provide shade
  • Bring a mister bottle to keep your palette from drying out too quickly (if you're using acrylic paints – Open Acrylic paints give you more drying time, and work much better on a hot day)
  • In some places, mosquito repellant is advisable
  • Don't take too much gear along, especially if you have to carry it a ways from your car
Jennifer painting  •  class plein air painting field trip  •  photo © 2011 Karen Lynn Ingalls 
  • Be prepared for wind – you can tape your palette paper down and brace your easel
  • Although limiting your gear is good, an old ironing board makes a useful place to put your palette and water, if you are setting up close to your car
  • If you don't want people to talk to you, and you're in a busy area, ear plugs and a portable radio/iPod helps – even if you're not listening to it.
  • Most plein air painters work very small on location – perhaps 4" x 5", 8" x 10", or 9" x 12". This is because light and weather conditions can change so rapidly - it's easier to get everything down rapidly when you work small. Often, they will use those studies as the basis for larger paintings later. 
  • You can also return to the same scene at the same time a couple of days in a row, to catch similar light as you work on the same painting.
Victoria and Jennifer painting  •  class plein air painting field trip  •  photo © 2011 Karen Lynn Ingalls  

Monday, September 5, 2011

Calistoga Art Center Plein Air Paintout

Jim Hour painting at our Acrylic Painting class field trip at Judy's house, 2010
The Calistoga Art Center is planning its first plein air paintout – October 7–9, 2011.

(Its what?) The term "plein air," pronounced "plenn air,"is french for painting outdoors. "Painting en plein air" means painting in the open air. It's different from painting in the studio. You have the elements to think about (heat, wind, cold, rapidly changing light, inclement weather) and none of the comforts of the studio as you work. But you also have the great outdoors – you are right smack dab in the middle of the scene that's inspiring you.

Claude Monet painting in his garden, from short film, Impressionists Live, on YouTube
Plein air painting was difficult until the invention of tube paints in the 1870s – and the invention of the French easel, which allowed one to carry the easel off the beaten path and set up outdoors (the wooden easels you see in these photographs are French style easels). In France, the Barbizon School and the French Impressionists began what has become a painting tradition.

Diana, Sharon, and Anitra, painting in last week's Acrylic Painting class field trip
We're lucky that in California we have such good weather – so it may not surprise you to learn that California (the Bay Area, the Central Coast, and Southern California) has been a hotbed of plein air painting for over a hundred years.

Victoria painting in last week's Acrylic Painting class field trip
And with the beauty of the vineyards in the autumn, we'll have lots of beautiful spots to choose from for this paintout.

So what's a paintout?

A paintout is a competition and show (but for us, it also will be an excuse to get out into the vineyards and do some serious brushwork). You begin on Friday, and get your canvases, panels, or papers stamped on the back (that's to make sure you haven't gotten a head start). Then you have two days to paint, en plein air, and you turn your painting, or paintings, in on the second day. On the third day, everyone comes to the show, and you celebrate. Fun, eh?

Sharon painting in last weeks Acrylic Painting class field trip
Most well-known paintouts draw professional painters from all over the country, and participation is juried. But this is a first for Calistoga, so everyone who wants to be a part of it is welcome. Does it appeal to you? You can learn more at the Calistoga Art Center website. There's a $25 fee for participating if you sign up by September 15th – after that it's $35 – so sign up soon!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Painting Trees - IV

Craig Nelson demonstrates painting negative spaces in trees

More on painting trees! In class, I've particularly emphasized using the negative space to create the shapes of the trees. (Remember how we talked about "sky holes"?) Here's a YouTube video by Craig Nelson demonstrating that – Painting Negative Spaces in Trees and Foliage.

Craig Nelson using an "egbert," or long filbert, to paint foliage

He demonstrates using a particular kind of brush - an "egbert" – also called a long filbert. Notice how very long and slender the bristles are? It gives a delicacy and flexibility to the brush strokes that he is particularly looking for.

Nathanael Provis makes sure you never use a fan brush again

And if I haven't already discouraged you from using a fan brush to create generic-looking foliage, here's an artist who may help you see the light... See Art Disasters 3: How to Paint Trees - artist Nathanael Provis. Be sure to watch all the way to the end - you don't want to miss his rant on fan brushes. (Note: he is using oil paints, which dry much more slowly than acrylics.)