Friday, April 8, 2016

Making a Painting With Heart

Planning a painting with "Heart"

I have been thinking about painting oysters for ages; the shells have such interesting texture, the insides are translucent; the "mother of pearl" shimmer - a very intriguing combination.

I also wanted to use this plate. It was a wedding gift for my parents, and my mother always used it for the birthday cakes for my four brothers and me.

And to top it off, our friend is raising oysters just down the road from our house! He not only gave me the oysters, but came down and opened them for me, which was no easy task. So, all the ingredients are in place for a very exciting project!

My reference
First Decision: The Paper

I choose my paper depending on the subject. I knew that hot press paper would be my choice for this painting because the smooth surface would make it very easy for the different pigments to mingle on the surface, and also create texture.
Where to start? With the oysters? I decided to begin with the plate. Sometimes I like to do all of the background first; in this case, the plate was not the background of the painting, but it served as the background for the oysters.
I lightly sketched the oyster shapes, the fork, the inside rim of the plate, and the light struck shapes on the rim. This was all the drawing that was done for this composition.
Completing the plate
I wanted to include this photo so that you can see how the pigments mingle on the paper. 
Moving On to the Stars of the Paintings
I am using a combination of transparent and iridescent pigments.

I like the way the iridescent pigments  help create the texture of the interior. Just a bit of shimmer!
Each Oyster is a Small Portrait
It was really enjoyable to work on this painting. Each oyster is different, not only in subtle color changes, but also in the inner shapes. I made a conscious effort to vary the colors so that each oyster would have its own personality. 
Oysters on My Mum's Plate

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Keeping Your Plein Air studies Open and Airy OR -

How to avoid "locking the painting in on all sides".

Sometimes when we are painting out of doors, we find ourselves facing a solid wall of trees leading into the part of the landscape that we are really interested in painting. What to do? Obviously, we want to keep the feeling of the place, which seems to require some degree of faithfulness to the reality. 

Here is an example that I think suggest ways to surmount the problem.The photo below shows the actual scene. Two medieval tenant farmers' houses nestled in a virtual forest of greenery.,

Looking at this scene, I am sure you can imagine that there was a real possibility of totally enclosing those ancient farm houses in dark green trees. 

Here is my solution:

I chose a vertical format for my painting, and included the top of the far mountains plus a bit of sky to help lighten the mood of the painting. The mountain ridge right in front of me was rather flat so I looked to my right and used the more interesting profile. It is important to create an interesting negative space of sky.

 I opted to leave the trunks and some foliage on the tree in the foreground white, by painting around the shapes, and then left soft-edged forms at the bottom of the page. 

The other major change from the reality was so put some of the warm tones of the roof tops into the forested hills above, as a unifying element.

And there is the question of “should we put in a blue sky” or not? There was a blue sky in this scene as well. I think it works much better with a peachy-colored sky.

This painting could be done with several color plans; but I feel that the challenge is using the real scene and creating a "painting" - rather than faithfully copying just what we see.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

A Voice From the Australian Outback

When I invited comments on my last blog discussing Gale Bennett's opinions on "Spatial Tension", I hoped to hear some challenging thoughts, and perhaps a few images as well.
I've heard from several people, and one of the most interesting discussions have been with Meg Vivers, Australian historian, author and artist. This is one of those times when one feels an instant kinship with another person. I am hoping to meet Meg in person - perhaps even in Havana......

Examples of Meg's paintings can be found on her website:  

Meg writes:

The paintings I have done of our outback country and desert seem to need lots of what perhaps could be termed negative space. In fact the space is what evokes the huge sense of distance and timelessness out in that country.
Evelyn:  Exactly.....the question could be "does the line that separates one part of the negative space from the other have "life."' Does it require a smooth, continuous line or would a broken line, a line with some irregularity add to the image? Perhaps not - but a good question.

Meg:  Does your Raphael portrait have that effect?  I wonder. 

Evelyn: I see the line that defines the hat, collar and shoulder as being very much "alive". And on the other side of that line, the negative shape is strong.

Try this exercise: draw the shape of the background just using the line. Then draw the line that defines the hat, collar and shoulder with no suggestion of interior shape or subject.

Turn your paper on its side. Does the line suggest "life", movement, interest - or is it static? 

Meg: This portraIt is, one would suggest, a very static painting (timeless?) Does negative space when it dominates or competes with positive space  present something timeless?


Evelyn:  I like the uncertainty of "static vs. timeless". Which is it? Bennett Gale suggests that the powerful line that defines the negative and positive space (of the figure and hat with background) creates a "locking" of the background shape with the positive shape - resulting in spatial focus". It's the LINE that makes the difference. Imagine the painting with a smooth, curved hat and shoulder. 

Meg: Is there tension in my outback paintings? Or is there a mysterious sense of deja vu as the seasons repeat. More importantly, does the negative space become the most important aspect? 

Evelyn: I find the sense of mystery to be most powerful in your work. The sense of space is especially vivid. 


I obviously feel the need for strong lines, especially in my stronger paintings, to bring them to life. Never thought about them being a separation, rather than a way of defining shapes.

Evelyn:  It's more that the line creates a shape on EACH side, rather than thinking of it (the line) as a separation

Meg:  On the other hand, I now feel more and more the need to enter the negative space with softer lines and shapes, which introduce extra layers and evoke movement throughout the painting.

Rain On Fire

Are these paintings more representative of my immediate surroundings on the Eastern tablelands - bush, rocks, trees, etc.?   Perhaps.

  Below is another where negative space has been populated with more detail. Does this painting still have negative space?  Or is it just a series of layers?  


Mist Not Rain
Evelyn:  I see layers of color, interesting negative shapes within the larger shape.. and great lines.

I am convinced that the value of studying ideas like those espoused by Bennett Gale is in provoking conversations like the one we are having here.I think the value is in the questions and then how the artist responds to them.  

For some reason, recently my hand can't help moving into the spaces, using lines that later become vaguely familiar shapes.

Of course, once you start this, the sky has to move as well! Not only does the  sky have to become more fluid, the trees must penetrate the horizon and break into the sky.

Am I eliminating neg space because I have not been out into the centre of Australia for some time, and I have forgotten the space
which impacts on you, especially at night?? Out there in the desert,  the space is the reality.  You have to look closely for the detail! It is there, but you do not notice it at first. 
Another artists' thoughts on the next posting; join in the conversation!
Leave a comment or send me a note at with your thoughts.

Happy Painting!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Tension: Is It Good for Your Painting?

As you know, next to actually painting, I love studying about painting, color, design, methods - anything and everything about our favorite subject!

Last night I came across a comment that I want to share with you.  It's by Gale Bennett (GALE BENNETT (1939-2008),Founder and Director of ArtStudy Giverny in Giverny, France).


"If we want to isolate the one single element that makes a painting a masterpiece, it is spatial tension."


Raphael: Portrait of "Count Baldassare Castiglione, C. 1514"

What is "spatial tension?"

When I looked at this portrait, I saw what I would describe as a really great "negative space" that separated the hat from the background.
As Bennette described it, this portrait is a perfect example of one of the "formal" elements of masterful art" which is spatial tension.  

Bennett says Raphael arranged the subject's hat and collar to create one of "most memorable background shapes in the history of art". Wow!

In my workshops and classes, I talk about "intersecting shapes, linking shapes, over-lapping shapes in order to make an exciting design.

And in my landscape paintings, I always concentrate on the "negative shape between horizon line, tree line and/or sky" as that can be fairly uninteresting in real life and one must create variation in shape, size and height in order to eliminate tedium.

I was so happy to realize that what Bennett is saying so eloquently, means that I am on the right track. This is how he put it:

"The visual locking of the background into the subject matter creates extreme spatial tension, ia also known as spatial focus.  When combined with the universal elements of form, composition, color, value and size, it helps answer the question: what makes a masterpiece."

Black Beauties

Right now, I'm saying loud and clear that I am NOT comparing my eggplant painting to Raphael's portrait!!

But - I do think this composition contains very interesting negative shapes.

Can  you think of any painting that you have seen that meets this level of "memorable background shape?"

Let's do some research!

Please send me a painting that you think is a good example. It could be one of yours!

I'll post them in my next blog.

Here is another site that has some good information on how spatial and visual tension can affect your painting.

Leave a comment or send me a note at with your results.

Happy Painting!

Sunday, June 28, 2015

PB & J? Really?

It's a rainy Sunday morning here in Maine and I'm thinking about a very cheerful subject to write about. In my weekly classes, I often set up a still life arrangement. Believe me, I really search for objects that I know will get artists excited! We've had mackerel, high-heeled black sandals with accessories, high tech tools, all-white subjects .....too many to name.

Food has always been a great source of inspiration for artists. I knew that sooner or later, a butter and jelly sandwich would be a great subject. My set up was not one I would want to eat, as the hearty grain bread was cut really thick and the peanut butter and jelly were really ladled on - especially so that they would ooze out of the sides. 

Here are a few things that we learned from this subject:
- everyone had good results with creating the texture of the bread. No two were alike, but overall, getting the value and warm temperature of the sides of the bread in the light and the crust was the key.  

- it was surprisingly difficult to get the color of the jam to look as if you would want to eat it! I deliberately chose the darkest violet-red jam, knowing it's very easy to mix vibrant violets with alizarin crimson and thalo blue red-shade. But these mixtures just didn't look tasty at all! The best results came with adding bits of ultramarine blue - cutting down a little on the brilliance.

- it seemed obvious that yellow ochre would be a good color for peanut butter. But again, it was not quite that simple. It took some experimenting with the ochre, sienna, and touches of darker brown to pull it off. 

Patti's painting turned out really well. Here it is; the photo has the glass of milk a bit "off" - just ignore that.  Doesn't it look as if you could just take a big bite out of it!

Just think of the famous still life paintings of food - I just made a strawberry-rhubarb pie and it could be a perfect subject for a painting!  So off I go; hope you are having a great day, and I'd love to see a photo of your next painting. Leave me a comment and I'll get back to you right away.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

How Many Shades of Yellow?

I've just finished teaching a four day "Introduction to Watercolor" and once again, I am reminded of how really important it is to re-visit the basics.

Even though I am mixing different combinations of pigments and painting all the time, right in the middle of demonstrating to the artists in the group, I had one of those "aha" moments. A certain combination of red-violet and yellow was exactly what I needed for a commission I'm working on.

I have often suggested that you make a color chart of all of your pigments so that you know what "color" they really are, and how they look when diluted with a little water. Be sure to label them with the manufacturer and the pigment name.

Although the primary reason to do this is to know exactly what you have, it also shows you just how similar many pigments are, even with different names. I think I have eleven yellows that are almost identical.

This has worked very well for me. I ruled out 3" squares on a full sheet of Arches cold press paper, leaving a narrow border
 between each square.
This was my first chart. I made it when I started painting. It has all of the pigments that I owned at the time, except the yellows, which were on another sheet.  Each one has the pigment name and the brand. 
Some of you have seen this photo. "Tea And Sushi" had been given the Daniel Smith award in the Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour's International exhibition. The prize was one of every tube of watercolor pigment that they make. I really wanted to have a good photo to celebrate this bonanza of paint! So I dumped them all of the table, and let them fall through my hands as if it was a pile of jewels!
My next thought was  "this is going to be so confusing that they will be useless". You can't tell the color from the swatch on the tube, and this collection of 297 tubes included duochrome, iridescent, "genuine", metallic - plus all the others.
So, for the next week, each morning, I spent an hour or so making charts. I did all of the yellows, then the sienas (there must be 20 of them), then on to the reds, violets, blues and greens. I made six sheets altogether.

This is one of the "green" charts. The three bottom rows are pigment straight from the tubes, mixed with a little water.

On the top you can see two rows of neutral greens and the third row of all of the blacks in the collection, as well as indigo and sepia. For the second row, I mixed each black, indigo and sepia with aureolin yellow.

The first row on the top three is the same dark pigment with more aureolin yellow. These were not as satisfactory; they lost their glow.
It was very interesting to see how lunar black especially, resulted in a heavily granulated mixture.
We don't usually mix black and yellow to make green in watercolor the way we do when using oils, but I wanted to see what the result would be.

I use these charts constantly. They have saved me so much time when I'm planning the palette for a painting.

During the workshop, we mixed the grays, greens, darks and found the complements to each one. This is another very valuable refresher for all of us. It's so important to use our knowledge of color theory to enhance our paintings.

Thank you for reading my blog, and if you have comments or questions, please do leave a comment or send me a note at and I'll respond right away.

Happy Painting!

Evelyn Dunphy
596 Foster Point Road
West Bath, ME 04530

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Can I Fix This?

How many times have we heard  watercolor described as being "the hardest medium to use"....."you only have one chance" and so on. I'm the first one to say that there are times when you've lost the glow, the transparency is gone, the colors are "muddy" - and it's a lost cause.  BUT - my experience is that there really is a lot that you can do to resolve problems, and rescue a painting. 

Here's an example that happened to me this week. In my illustrations for the book 'I Am Coyote", one of the paintings shows a young coyote leaving her parents to move out on her own. She has moved away from them, across a stream and is looking back at them. 

Since the painting is 22 x 30" and it is going to be greatly reduced for the book, I felt I couldn't make her too small, as she would become too indistinct. Here is the result of that decision:

You can see that her head as well as the body where it joins the head are both too large - what to do? There was only one solution. Lift out the head and some of the body and repaint. Scary? YES!! I have many hours invested in this painting already. But, no choice.

After I let the paper dry completely, I redrew the head and chest and began again. Here's the result:

Now she is back far enough that she is in the correct proportion to the foreground and yet still visible when reduced to the size of the page. This was an interesting problem to solve, as I was dealing with not only the perspective sizes of the three coyotes, but the need to keep her a bit larger than I would otherwise would have done. 

My real point in this post is that when something isn't right, there's only one choice, and that is take whatever risks are necessary in order to make it right. And you would never know that I lifted all of that pigment and re-painted. This painting is on 300# Arches hot press paper. I have found it to be very forgiving and the love the texture I can create on it. If you haven't tried it, you may find that you enjoy it as well. I choose my paper that I think will be best for my subject matter.