Learning How to Paint in Oils by Elaine Ostroot

Archive for the ‘Light’ Category


  A big word.  Probably the word for the most important tool the artist has.  Another word for composition is design.  I like this word better.  It’s more descriptive.   For me, this is the real deal.  It’s what I have the most problem with.  It’s the first thing I look for, not only in my own work, but also in any painting by anyone.

   Many books have been written about this subject.  If you are in to landscapes, one of the best ones is “14 Formulas for Painting Fabulous Landscapes” by Barbara Nuss. I started out painting portraits of children.  There’s not too many ways to arrange a child’s face in a painting, so when I wanted to branch out into flowers and landscapes I found myself in trouble.  Where to put what?

 So – the best way to show you what I’m writing about is – as usual – paint a picture!  I have chosen a 30 x 40 canvas, My son, Scott has decided to showcase my work in our dining room, which is large enough to house a bar – so it’s more like a room for intertaining and has several large walls. St. Louis zoo fall colors

The first photo is one my son took on his cell phone.  As you can see the center of interest (the waterfall) is dead center.  It’s a beautiful picture, but for a painting that waterfall is going to have to move.  I took a copy of the photo and drew lines dividing it into four equal sections both horizontally and vertically (we did the same thing in Portraits, part one).  The center of interest should not be in the center – any one of the four box shapes surrounding the center is the logical place for our waterfall.  I have cropped the picture to move the waterfall to the right upper box.  Now we have some editing to do.   I want more water than sky, so I will crop the sky down a bit.  I also want to retain the orange tree on the left side to balance out all that red.  I will eliminate the rock in front of the waterfall and move the rock at the right far edge closer to the rock adjacent to it. Or leave it out altogether. 

I have a program on my computer called Picasa 3. This allows me to straiten a photo, crop it and even add more light to a dark photo. To make the grid more visible to you I have used black fishing line taped to the edges.  Normally, I use a 6H pencil to put the grid in lightly, so that the lines can be erased more easily.blog 005-001blog 003-001

 I used some leftover paint from another painting to do the drawing.  It is very loose and sketchy, but that’s all you need to start.  Just an indication of where things are.  Don’t get too caught up in details at this stage. blog 009-001

 Most of designing – especially using photos – is leaving out stuff.  My rule is generally, if it doesn’t contribute to the painting – leave it out.  That’s hard to do.  We have a tendency to paint everything in and that results in a cluttered and scattered painting.  My initial lay in will simplify as much as possible.  First notice (or decide) where the light is coming from.  This is critical – your light source must come from a single direction.  That is not always the case – in portraits and still life paintings the light can come from other directions, but in landscapes, the light will come from one direction.

 Now I will decide what elements to retain. Which ones to leave out and if I need to change some elements to create balance.  I don’t want to lead your eye out of the painting – especially out the corners.  I also want to lead your eye to that beautiful waterfall.  I want to use my brightest colors, my sharpest edges and my highest contrast near or on my center of interest.  My darkest dark is the cave behind the falls and my lightest light is the top of the falls.  So, let’s begin. I have my initial lay-in and my decisions are made.  I’m going to add my first darks – you will notice that my darks are larger than they will end up. blog 021-001 Darks have a tendency to disappear very quickly, so this is a hedge against that.  I will start adding more values of green to the trees and add the orange and darker values to the trees behind the green trees.  I think some are evergreens. blog 022-001  

As this next photo shows, I’ve blocked in most of the elements, keeping the darks as much as possible.  The red I’ve chosen for the red trees is a transparent one.  I chose it primarily because it leans to the blue a little and the green behind it will help serve as my darkest reds. blog 029-001

Now I will pull this painting together by adding all the other values.  I will also add some lighter tones, but not the lightest quite yet. blog 032-001

Now I’m ready for the lightest lights. So here is the finished work.blog 037-001

 Composition is worth your careful study.  It will make or break your paintings.  You will notice when you look at paintings that most of them are dull and uninteresting.  Then there are those that knock your socks off.  Make more of those.  Good design is the answer.




         One way to spotlight this subject is to do a small demonstration.  So pick a subject – an apple, a vase, any object.  Set it in front of you and really look at it.  Hopefully, you’ve set it on a table next to your easel and it is lit, by the light from your window, more on one side than the other.  In my new studio, I have three windows facing due north and two windows facing east.  I will close the mini blinds to limit the light from the east side.  If I leave the east windows uncovered I would have a light source from two sides, which would make my project confusing.  Note the side lit by the light and compare it to the side away from the light.  My object’s lit side seems to have a sharper edge.  The side away from the light seems softer.  Also the turning edge seems to feel softer.  So – edges are important.  If we paint them correctly, our object will appear three-dimensional. Softening or hardening an edge or “losing” the edge completely, we give the illusion of form.

 I have chosen to paint a portrait of my granddaughter Caity.  I am using a photo that I took outside in the bright shade.  Caity loves pink so I will surround her with various shades of it.  I plan to do this small portrait in a relatively loose and painterly style.  I will start by painting her in not more than three values of each area.  Then I will modify and adjust the values and colors as needed.  I will also pay particular attention to the edges.  This first photo of the work is the initial lay-in. 

Note the soft edges on the left side of Caity’s face near the hairline.  Also as her cheek turns away from the light the edge softens.  That edge makes her face look more three-dimensional. Now I will adjust the values (see the posting on values to refresh your memory).  Notice that Caity’s face has many different edges.  The left side starts very softly shadowing into her hair – a “lost” edge.  It dosen’t firm up until it reaches the right side of the jaw line.  This edge and the line of  her adjacent neck are probably the hardest edges in the painting.

The bright light on the left side of her hair has a nice crisp edge.  The lost edge on the right side of her hair blends with the background.  All these various edges add volume and form to the portrait and add reality.

To summarize:  edges are important.  They help define and add shape and form.  They create the illusion of three dimensions.

Apology for the Interruption

Lots of things have happened that changed our comfortable lifestyle in the Ozarks to a more dynamic big city style.  We’re not sure we like it yet, it takes some getting used to before it be comes our new normal.

Moving from our home of seventeen years in a laid-back retirement community has induced culture shock. We moved from a community of other artists and friends into a bedroom community where most people are gone most of the day.  We feel a bit isolated as the freeway commuter system is intimidating, so we don’t do much “going”.  We seem to have more of a “horse and buggy” mentality in a modern high-speed area.  I have not yet been able to connect with other artists, but I will do so as soon as I can. Now Gerry has to walk Kato twice a day and carry a plastic bag to pick up the ubiquitous droppings from our neighbor’s front lawn.

We are remodeling my son and daughter’s home to accommodate us (and Kato).  The studio/study is in the last stages of completion.  I hope to be back at my easel next week.  After two months of enforced idleness it will be so good to get back to work.  I plan to start with a small series of still life paintings.  After that we will get into “edges”. Look for a new posting in November.

using photographs – part two

So – here we are, the finish of our Cheyenne Chief.  I found some information on the peace pipe.  The newest ones made by contemporary indian artists were a bit over the top, so I used the information I found on older photos.   I found the buckskin shirt and pants to be the most troublesome  to paint.  Getting all those variations and subtle color changes seemed to take a lot more time than I expected.   Here he is – and I’m happy with him.  I will now set the painting aside and look at it for a few days while it dries to see if I’m still satisfied and nothing “jumps” out at me.  When I’m completely content that I have done all I can I will sign it and varnish it with a coat of Liquin and hang it up on my studio wall to dry thoroughly before framing (if you do not allow a few weeks of drying time your painting will stick to the frame – not  good).  Keep in mind, this is my vision, my way of portraying these unique people, your vision is just as valuable.  You may see these photos in a different way.   Good!  Do your thing, but please do your homework first.  Decide what your goal is and follow it.  Look at all the possibilities and paint your vision.

My final advice on using photographs is be sure that the photo you are using is “in the public domain”.  If it is copyrighted and you use it without permission you may find yourself in a heap of trouble.  To be absolutely safe take your own photos, but use them creatively, with caution, being aware of the camera’s limitations.  Your own two wonderful eyes are your best tools.  Learn to see with your “artist” eyes and you will make beautiful paintings.

Before we close out this post, I want to tell you about a wonderful discovery I’ve made.  Soon after I posted ” Using Photographs – Part One”, I recieved notification that several people had found my blog and had “liked” it.  One in particular I want to refer you to: http://liamrainsford.com/.  He is an Irish artist painting  his countryside.  This stuff is wonderful!  I’ve never seen time-lapse video before.  What a wonderful teaching tool!  I recommend that you go to his site and watch as many as you can. I certainly intend to.  His work is beautiful, very impressionistic  and well worth the time, besides it’s really fun to watch him paint!   Another site;  go to youtube.com and type in the search bar “oil painting demonstrations”  you will find page after page of artist’s videos – some very good and some not so good.   They are short and fun to watch and you just my learn something from them.   So – till next time – paint something wonderful and have fun doing it.

using photographs – part one

Photos are wonderful!  I do not know any other thing that has been as helpful.  I could not go to Kenya, but I had friends and students that did.  Another pair of good friends traveled a lot and I was the recipient of many of their photos from Mexico and Central America.

There are a few problems we must keep in mind.  The camera “sees” differently.  It flattens objects.  It distorts.  The shadows are usually too dark and it records EVERYTHING.  An artist friend said that the only problem he had with photos is learning what to leave out.  If it doesn’t contribute to the painting or what you are trying to say in the painting, leave it out.

  So in my new series of paintings about Native Americans, I will use Edward Curtis’s photos as I would a photo I took myself – selectively.  I will begin by showing you the photo I am using and detail how I plan to use it.   I will lighten the shadows on our chief’s face and open his eyes a little more.  I will put an evening sunset behind him; the lightest yellows low, gradually deepening to orange and rose colors ending with the darkest around his ceremonial bonnet.  I will change the stick with the scalps – I will make it a Calumet (a “peace”  pipe).   I will also remove the shadow on his hand.  I will also edit out the curve of the cape below his bonnet as well as the metal buckle on the saddle blanket. 

Curtis “staged” a good many of his photos.  He acquired a sizable wardrobe of clothing, bonnets and other artifacts to assist him.  The man was an artist – I have no objection to his methods, but I don’t have to use all of his details in my work.  If you copy a photo exactly – what are you saying?  You are “saying” what the photographer said.   Where is your input?  I want to “say” something different.  I want you to look at that wonderful face.  I want you to see the nobility of a God created creature, created in His image.  I do not want you distracted by a bunch of “details” that do not contribute to that goal.  Curtis had a different goal – so do we all.  Choose your goal for your painting and stick with it.  Don’t let someone else’s idea change your plan.

 We begin as I always do by selecting the size of the canvas.  I think a 24 x 30 will do nicely.  I want this painting to be the centerpiece of the series.  This size is large and it will command attention.  Now I will take a smaller photo and place my grid on it and the canvas and do the drawing (just as we did in “Portraiture One” post back in October).  I will not use a toned canvas for this, as I want the white of the canvas to help illuminate the  colors.  I will start with the sunset, my pallet will consist of white, lemon and cad yellow, cad and permanent red and maybe some quinacridone rose (quinacridone colors are relatively new and worth trying out – so far I like them and this particular rose is beautiful).

I plan to show you a different method from the one in “Portraiture One, Two and Three”.  In those posts I did a value study.  In this painting I will paint the face and figure directly.  I will paint the entire painting with an underpainting.  I will start with a “local” color.  To get this color, I usually squint my eyes to obscure the details of light and shadow.  What’s left is the basic color of the object.  Since we have no color in this photo I will simply use what I think the local color would be and paint that in.  It will look like a poster with a  little shading, but hang in there we will model all these objects with light and shadow.  This is simply another way of organizing a painting.  I will get the sky and some of the local colors and take photos as I go so that you can see the steps.

  I will add more shadow and this will shape the body under the buckskin.  I will add the pipe and it’s decorations.  I will also shade and model the feathers and our chief’s face.  I will do this with opaque color and with glazes.  A glaze is a color thinned with Liquin.  Take a small amount of color with your knife and place it on your glass pallet.  Now add a small puddle of Liquin next to it.  With your brush in hand, add the Liquin to your color – a little at a time – until your color is almost transparent.  This is a glaze.  For the face I will shadow it with raw sienna and burnt umber mixtures.  For the feathers, I will use burnt umber and ultra blue mixtures.  For the buckskin, I will use raw sienna, white and burnt umber with a little cerulean blue added in to gray the mixtures.  I will further model all these objects with lighter mixtures of the local color to shape them and to add interest.  My last step will be to add the lights and highlights.  This is my plan.  We will see how it all works out.

First, the basic block in – the sky and the local color of the chief and the objects around him.  

 OK,  now the real work begins.  Modeling the face – get rid of those dark shadows.  I want a clearly defined face.  Those dark shadows on our chief’s face make for a good photo – but I want to focus on the person, so we will use much lighter shadow colors.  As we’ve done before, start with three mixtures, using raw sienna, burnt sienna  and burnt umber.

I will step down the values, using white, just as we have done before, untill I have at least three distinct values.  I will work with these, mixing them as I go to paint our chief’s face.   I will also add a little permanent red to some of the mixtures to bring a little color to our chief’s face.

I have found that using raw sienna instead of yellow ocher to skintone mixtures adds a little grayer tone to hispanic and indian peoples.

I will now start to model the figure’s bonnet and buckskin clothing and start the process of finish work.  This is going to take some time.  So I will show you the painting as it is now. 

There’s much more work to be done.  I will continue and post as I go.  Next time – finish work!


Where does inspiration come from?  Where do you get your inspiration? 

My son returned a trio of paintings of Indians (a trip to an Indian pow-wow was this result) that I had given him some years ago (he had decorated his home in the southwestern style).  As time went on he wanted to change the décor so I got my Indians back. Inspiration hit.  Now – I went on line to see if I could find any photos.  I found a treasure trove of photos by Edward Curtis that the copyright had expired.  These photos were taken in the late 1800’s.  So!  I can use them.  I’m off and running.  I also found more photos on a government research archive website.  Whee!!

 Inspiration can come from almost anything – anyone – any circumstance.  Sometimes I feel I have more inspiration than time.

 So, let’s explore where I want to take this new inspiration.  The three paintings I “loaned” my son are focused on the color and excitement of the dancers at the pow-wow.  These paintings do not do much for the faces.  Now I want to take it in a different direction.  The next group will focus on close up portraiture.  I’m going to really look at these people, their culture and their uniqueness as a race.  A look back into the past and the time that made them so interesting.  This is going to be so much fun!

 OK – I have the photos printed.  Most of them are about 3”x 4” to about 5” x 7”.  I need to translate those measurements into a standard canvas or board.  I use standard sizes because it’s just easier to find frames at reasonable prices.  Looking at the shapes of the photos, I’m seeing that the “Chief Sitting Bear” will work well on a 16”x 20. We’ve done this before – the glass with the taped edges, the lines marked in thirds (like a tic tack toe game) the drawing on the canvas (review Portraiture Part One).  Now we will follow the steps, one by one, just like we did before.  I will take each photo and do exactly the same thing. 

 The photos are in black and white so I’m going to have to do a lot of imagining for color.  Most of my research indicates that the American Indian’s skin color is close to the Hispanic.  I will also look at how other artists have handled this color.  Harley Brown’s book will probably be my best bet.

 All this is the prep work to do a reasonably good painting.  In looking at the photos I have, I must now do a little preliminary deciding.  How many paintings in this series?  If I’m going to reveal culture, how to do that?  Why do I want to do this series?  That’s the hardest question to answer.  I want to do this because I’ve seen the American Indian portrayed in so many ways, some downright silly, some in a brutal manner, some in a way that just wants to exploit them.  Who are these people?  I look at these pictures as a portrait artist to find the heart, maybe the soul of them.  There are faces I want to explore – to try to find the person the picture portrays.  As a portrait artist I find these faces interesting, fascinating.  I want to explore these people and their culture.  I can only ask for the Creator’s help and hope I can measure up to the challenge.

 I’ve chosen 12 photos that I really like.  The best way to do this is to lay out all of the photos (I have about 40 of them) and start eliminating them until you have a reasonably cohesive group – some men some – women – at least a couple of children.  I found some pottery and a painted deerskin.  So, the tentative number of paintings is about 15 (including the three I’ve already painted.  I may paint them all or I may not.  This is all very tentative. 

 I painted “The Lion of Judah” in the summer of 2002, which was the start of “A Missionary Journey in Africa”.  I had no idea that that “start” would result in 27 paintings of the animals and people of Africa.  That series is in Minneapolis, serving a mission called Agora to immigrants from Africa.  So, you never know what’s in store for the paintings you do when you are inspired.

 I will start with five photos.  Chief Sitting Bear, another man with a buffalo headdress (horns and all!), a lake scene complete with canoe and reeds, a young woman in a beautiful buckskin dress and finally a wonderful elderly chief sitting on his horse.  I will use these photos carefully and with respect toward the photographer who took them so long ago.  He was trying to show these people with respect and true admiration of them and their culture. His name will go on every canvas that I paint of his work.  I only hope I can do him and the work justice.

 So, with the first of five paintings I present “Chief Sitting Bear”

a christmas card

I’d like you to meet someone special.  Her name is Bonnie.  She is a dear friend.  We were talking one day and she mentioned that she had always wanted to learn how to paint.  She is about my age and has a tremor that she felt precluded that endeavor.  I told her to come to the studio on Mondays (I have “open studio” that day) and we would see what we could do.  She agreed and that was the start of Bonnie’s art career.  This woman has an eye for color.  Fine detail was difficult for her so we settled on a style that was loose and very colorful.  I wish you could see the beautiful paintings she has created.  So beautiful that she took first place in painting, best of show, plus viewer’s choice the first year she entered our Labor Day show.  She won enough money to set up her studio at home.  I nearly burst I was so proud of her.  The two judges commented that this woman should be chained to her easel and not allowed to do anything but paint. 

My point is this – it’s never too late to start to learn to do something that you love.  There’s always a way.  This is the reason I’m attempting this blog.  If I can assist another “Bonnie” it’s worth the effort.  I know how much I have been blessed by assisting others to find the joy I get from painting.

We celebrate Christmas because of the  birth of the Son of God on this, the world He created.  We celebrate in thanksgiving that He took on the job of delivering His creation.   I, personally, am so glad  that He did.    So we celebrate His birth and look forward to His return.   I hope your Christmas time is full of joy and renewed faith.   We will get back to the study of oil painting after the new year.  We have much more to cover.   Happy Christmas to you all.