Showing posts from 2009

12 Week Oil Class

I'm teaching a beginners oils class starting in January and still have some spots left.  Is there a better way to spend Wednesday evenings than playing with paint?  Not for me!
The course outline is posted below.  Hope to see you there!
STARTING IN OILSFat over lean?  Dark to light? Mediums?  Supports?
If learning oil painting seems as hard as learning a foreign language, this is the course for you.

In this 12 week course, we'll demystify this sumptuous, traditional medium and give you a solid foundation in the technical and creative aspects of oils.
You'll learn how to apply layers of pigment to create luminous, rich surfaces which will stand the test of time.

Our painting subjects will include still life, landscape and figurative and there will be plenty of demonstrations and individual instruction.

Cost: $300 for 12 weeks
Class size: Maximum of 10 students

January 6 to March 24
Wednesday evenings from 6pm to 9pm
TO REGISTER:  go to the Calgary School of Art website OR …

People Watching

Everyone loves to look at people.  We watch them
in malls and surreptitiously on buses. We photograph them in foreign countries and, sometimes, we hang pictures of total strangers on our walls.  Such diverse painters as David A. Leffel and Malcolm Liepke have made great careers out of this fascination.
My favorite commissions are portraits for this very reason.  I know that, more than anything else I paint, these works will be looked at for a long time.  A picture of a person is never wallpaper in a room.  It has a presence; almost like a real person would.
Today I had the pleasure of delivering two portraits of young children to their mother. 
As with all commissions, I had a case of nerves before showing the paintings to her but, happily, she loved them.  The personalities of the children, as much as the likenesses, were clear to her eyes and she was delighted. 
I've included them here.  They're on copper and there is a lot of the warm, brushed metal visible in the works.

Painting on Copper

Like most artists that I know, I'm never content with my work.  I feel there are always ways to improve and new things to try in order to improve my paintings. 
Lately I've been experimenting with a new support to paint on: copper.
Copper painting has been around for hundreds of years.  Oils used on this surface don't crack the way that they do on more flexible supports like canvas because copper doesn't move with changes in humidity and temperature.  I've seen photos online of 400 year old paintings which look as fresh and bright as a 4 year old work.  And a painting on copper has great glow!
Degreasing is vital for the paint to adhere properly and, like everything to do with the technical aspects of oil painting, there are as many recommendations for preparing the metal as there are writers on the subject.  It's best to spend some time researching and pick a method that suits your own comfort level from rubbing the plate with garlic to sealing with alkyd or …

Expression takes work

Parallel Play 12 x 16
Available at Collector's Gallery of Art

Last weekend I taught a workshop at the Calgary School of Art entitled "Expressive Oils".  I found that defining "expressive" was the most difficult part of preparing for the workshop!  The term became slipperier and more ambiguous the more I thought about it. 
What I finally decided was that "expressive" meant that I could see more of the painter than the subject in the final painting and I could see what the painter wanted to show me the most.  Expression is a complex mesh of composition, colour choices, brushwork and editing.  It uses the reference image as a starting point only and goes its own way from there.
Once I'd decided this, it was easy to prepare for the class.  The most important thing then became, "what do you like most about the image that you've chosen and how can you emphasize it in your painting?"  If you know this, you're half way to a good paintin…

Getting a Glow On

"Fishing",  Oil on gallery wrap canvas , 30" x 30"

What the heck is "glow"?
Some paintings have it and some just don't.  Glow is an amazing quality that many painters completely ignore or don't even know about.   It's a vibration in the painting which is revealed with the change in lighting conditions and gives up more colour and depth the more you look at it.  It's what makes some paintings magical. 
One of the most magical painters that I know of has mastered this glow: HE Kuckein.  A real painters' painter, Kuckhein's works are deceptively simple in subject and composition and don't photograph as particularly special paintings and yet, when you see them in life, you can't stop looking.  He's represented throughout Canada but whenever I'm in the Okanagan, I make sure to go to Tutt Art Gallery in Kelowna and check out his pieces.  The obliging manager has turned the lights off over his paintings to show me how th…

Switching Mediums

A few years ago I decided to abandon watercolour and try painting on canvas instead of paper.  I wanted to go bigger and brighter and to get away from having to frame under glass.  I also really wanted to be able to touch the surface of my paintings without fear of ruining them with any traces of oil or dirt on my fingers.  Paper is not easy to keep pristine. 
I thought that acrylic would be a natural choice so I went out and bought a full complement of colours, and some canvases and set optimistically to work.  It was a slaughter.
The paint fought me all the way.  It dried quickly and flatly like house paint; it covered the colours beneath it very opaquely unless I started fiddling with different mediums to make it more transparent or more rigid or more something or other; and it wouldn't glow for me no matter what I tried.  I started to question whether I was capable of being a painter at all.  This was not a good time.
Luckily a friend suggested that I try oil.  I'd avoid…

Artists' Models Online

Sometimes there's a pose that I want to paint but I don't have a model or one of my own reference photos to refer to.  If I want to know just how a leg would bend in a certain seated pose or how a torso twists and affects the shoulder alignment, I can go to a few websites to find out.  shows computer generated figures in action sequence poses.  The figures are, unfortunately, under flat light so this isn't useful for discovering shadows but some of the poses are useful.  I like the dancer series.  shows real people - not all nude or perfectly toned, which is nice - in a huge variety of poses.  Also good is that the poses are photographed in rotation so that you can view them from all angles.  As well, some of the shots are done with more dramatic lighting so that the form is clearly modelled.  The drawback is that you have to pay $5.99 to download the images that you want. is a very c…

Vive la Difference!

I recently photographed the still life paintings produced by some of my students at the Calgary School of Art.  They were all working from one of two set ups of jars of jam and apples and that's where the similarity ends. 
As you can see, each artist brought a very personal style to the subject and made it her own.  Though everyone used the same limited palette - Cad. yellow pale/light, yellow ochre, alizarin crimson, vermillion hue, ultramarine blue and titanium white - and began in the same manner with a purplish grisaille, not one painting resembles another. 
Personal aesthetics take over pretty fast when you start a painting.  One artist likes pure, clear colours, another person prefers to gray down all but the focal point area in her painting; one artist uses a few large marks, another uses lots of small marks.  Both accomplish the same thing: they filter the reality of what they see through their own consciousness and give us a glimpse of they way that they see the world.…

October 31 Workshop Fast and Focused Landscapes in Oil

I'm teaching a new workshop at the Calgary School of Art this Saturday from 10 am to 4 pm!  We'll be focusing on finding the essence of a landscape and distilling it to make a strong, dynamic painting.  Students will be bringing their own photo references to work from and I'll walk them through the steps from picture to painting.  Workshops are always high energy and lots of fun and I'm looking forward to this one.

There's still room for more students so please call Lisa at 403 287 -7448


A lunch!  Never paint hungry.
Also bring a variety of small and large (size 4 to 12) brushes, a sketchbook and pencil, and 4 landscape photos.  We'll provide the paint and a canvas.   In this class, you'll finish an 11 x 14 painting.  Speedy painters might do two!

"The First Quality that is Needed is Audacity"

I read an interview with Roz Savage, an amazing woman who has rowed(!) across the Atlantic Ocean and is set to row the Pacific in a few months.  She said that she had been living the good life in London - husband, big house, good job, sports car - but she was discontent.
One day she wrote 2 obituaries for herself: one that could be written if she continued to lead the life that she was living at the time, and another obit that reflected a totally different, exciting and ideal life.  She compared the two and realized how far from her ideal life she was.  In a move that not many could make, she left everything behind and pursued her ideal life.  Now, years later, she is happier than ever: a single,  homeless, jobless ocean-rowing soul.  Clearly, as my students pointed out, a childless woman.
However, reading this interview had a huge effect on me and it's still percolating.  One of the first things that I did after I read it was grab the painting that I thought I'd completed and s…

Recycling a Failed Painting

Sometimes I paint over an unsuccessful (okay: failed) painting when I feel the urge to experiment. 
The canvas can't be wrecked anymore and somehow that takes the pressure off and frees me to paint in a relaxed and loose way.  The paintings don't always work out but when they do it's because of this playful and low-pressure approach.
This series shows the original canvas - a smeared-off still life of some jars of jam - and it's transformation into a floral. 
I find it's easier if you rotate the work from its original orientation so that there isn't an established top and bottom to the piece when you start.  It's not a blank slate but it's interesting tone and colour which allows you to paint over it in a surprisingly free way.
When you do this in acrylic, it's a simple matter of just applying fresh paint, but it's different in the world of oils.  You have to either paint over a very old, dry work (a year of more), or know the "leanness&q…

Art Visions 2009 Awards

I just got back from Kelowna, BC where I attended the FCA Art Visions 2009 Exhibition awards.  This is a juried show which is held in 3 local galleries: Gallery 421, Hambleton Art Gallery and Turtle Island Art Gallery.
85 works were juried in out of more than 200 submissions and my "Galiano Girl" got the gold medal and a prize of $2009.   She now hangs in Gallery 421, an elegant space in Kelowna's Rotary Arts Centre.
The evening opening was fun and exciting with an opening address by Mayor Sharon Shepherd and the presentation of awards followed by a chance to tour all three galleries, drink great Okanagan wine and chat with artists and art lovers alike.  I'm pictured receiving my award from presenter Jim Laing.
The entire exhibition is online at and it's worth a look.

Speed Painting

I only had about 11/2 hours to paint today before I went to teach my course at the Calgary School of Art so I took the opportunity to try a fast and loose portrait.
Instead of working long and hard for the exact colour that I was after, I approximated it, focusing on getting a colour to the right temperature in comparison to the temperature of the colour next to it and also focusing on hitting the correct value.  For example, the cheeks are a warm colour and the chin and forehead are predominately cool: the eye socket area is darker and cooler than the nose; and the right side of the face is warmer than the left which had natural, cool light falling on it.
Like the portrait in the previous post, this one was done from a low-contrast photo.  The child's face was creamy and monotonously-pale against a warm, reddish wall and a dark blue scarf.  It could easily have become too flat and graphic so I exaggerated the few value changes that I observed in the face in order to create dimens…

Something Wrong with the Mouth

John Singer Sargent is reported to have said that, "a portrait is a painting in which there is something wrong with the mouth."
I recently finished a portrait of my son and found myself agreeing with John in a big way. One stroke of paint was enough to make my handsome son look smug or chubby or simple minded. I was worried about the state that he'd find it in when he got home from school. I didn't want to scar him for life.
This was my third attempt at the picture. I'd taken some photos of him which had nice colours but very flat, direct light so there were no shadows on his fair skin. He looked like a creamy oval with eyes, nostrils and mouth. Not much to work with there! I had to exaggerate the tiny value changes that I observed and play up the warm and cool parts of his face to create variety and modelling. Around his cheeks and up toward his eyes, his complexion is warm and rosy but around his mouth, chin and forehead, his skin is cooler and paler. …

Embracing you Inner Hermit

“One of the problems in having plans (appointments, meetings, visitors, travel etc.) is that it just might block out some creative act. In the process, some creative act may never get done because the mood has been broken, never to be recovered according to the original inspiration.This is why it is necessary to place a heavy guard around your thoughts and your time, so that they can't be interrupted at a crucial moment. You cannot afford outside commitments if you expect to do your real work. Those seconds, minutes, hours, days, months and years are ticking away and there is no going back. You can never regain them”Quotes from RFM McInnis' unpublished biography

I keep this quote by the painter RFM McInnis on my desktop and look at it whenever I've just ducked another chore or stayed home instead of going out. It's my justification and reassurance that I'm not embracing isolation out of eccentricity, it's because I'm trying to make good art.
I've rea…

Gallery Opening

On Saturday my work opened at Collector's Gallery of Art in Inglewood. The timing was terrific- coinciding with Art Walk - and we had steady crowds all through the afternoon.
The show introduced me and 3 other artists: Kari Duke, Bowabon Shilling, and Barbara Hirst to the gallery. For so many painters, the show was remarkably cohesive and looked stunning. Bowabon Shilling was unable to attend but I got to meet Kari and Barbara and found them both, as tends to be the case with good artists, generous and open people, interested in talking about painting and sharing tips and techniques. Kari and I ducked out to my car to look at some plywood panels that I had shellacked with amber shellac in preparation for plein air work. She does a lot of her gorgeous back alley scenes on panels and these boards interested her.
One of the nicest things was the fact that unexpected people came to see the show. Neighbours, past and present, seldom-seen friends (one with her two young children in …

And now for something completely different...

That's not a painting!
It's a still from my husband, David Christensen's, documentary which will be screening on Friday night at the Calgary International Film Festival.
"The Mirror" is a gorgeous film about a tiny medieval town in the Italian Alps that receives no sunlight for 3 months of the year because the mountains block the low winter sun. As a creative solution to this problem, the town erected a giant mirror on a mountain to reflect the rays of the sun down into the town square. David captured this event and the quirky inhabitants of the town as well.
The film is screening at the Plaza Theatre on Friday at 9pm. Hope you'll come out and see it!


I spent this weekend at the opening of Diamond Willow Artisan Retreat about an hour from Calgary in Turner Valley. There were 10 artists there for 3 days, painting and giggling madly in the rugged green landscape and it was a blast.
We discussed "values" at length and it had nothing to do with personal beliefs. Brushstrokes were admired, pigments were compared and the art business was scrutinized from 10 different perspectives which was enlightening for me.
I think it's important to get together with other serious painters now and then. Painting is a lonely business and it's easy to become a total recluse. Knowing that it's good for me isn't always enough so I often have to push myself out forcibly into the world rather than stay in my little studio and paint.
On the first day at the retreat, I set up behind the painter Alice Helwig and did a painting of her as she was painting. I've done this before while painting with Sharon Williams and it combines w…

Still life, active painters

I met with my oil painting students for the first time yesterday at the Calgary School of Art. It's a diverse and dedicated group of painters, most with some oil experience but some without.

We dove right in with a still life painting, beginning, as I always do, with a transparent underpainting. The things that I found myself stressing throughout the class were: colour outside of the lines; stand back from the work; and hold your brush at the back, like a wand rather than near the bristles like a pencil.

I see that these are some of the ways that I achieve the looseness that I strive for in my work. If I hold the paintbrush near the bristles, I create a tight painting, best seen from up close. But if I hold the brush way back on the handle and stand an arms reach from the canvas, the work stands a chance of looking loose and spontaneous. It will come together coherently at a distance and melt into individual brushwork and colour up close. When lots of people are painting i…

School of Art Opening

The Grand Opening of the Calgary School of Art was great fun.
The food and wine were abundant and lots of people showed up.

The demos showcased the great variety of art that will be taught at the school: oil and watercolour painting, palette knife painting, encaustic, abstract mixed media and more. It was stimulating stuff, not least because there was a drawing demo with an unflappable, nude model.

My course begins on Tuesday afternoon at 1pm and I still have a couple of openings for anyone who wants to give oils a try. We'll be starting with still life work and I'm excited to see what people do with it. Hopefully there will be lots of unique takes on the same set up of objects and fabrics. I'll keep you posted!

Correcting Colour

The Internet is a great tool for showing your paintings to a wider audience but it's tricky to accurately represent it.

I photograph every painting that I complete under even light - an overcast day is great as the colours are not warmed up and made overly vivid as they are on sunny days - and then I colour correct it. This step is crucial because what the camera sees is never what my eyes see when I look at the painting. I have to make the photo match the work.

I use some freeware called GIMP. It's very similar to Photoshop but I prefer the price!
Usually I have to balance the colours and sharpen the image a bit but sometimes it takes much more work. Unless you've got a good set up for photographing artwork (which I don't), you run into a real problem with light reflecting off of the painting's surface. This is especially true of the dark areas which can look greyed and dead though they are colourful and transparent in life. In these cases I have to use the bur…

Trying Again

The original photo

Version 1 "Lingering Rays"

Version 2 "Before Dusk"

I subscribe to Canadian painter Robert Genn's blog "The Painter's Keys" and today's posting set the tone of my day. He advised taking one of your typical works and repeating it in different styles: impressionistic, realistic, primitive etc. and also trying new methods for dealing with edges, contrast, detail and so on.

I didn't have a definite painting in mind this morning so I was open to his suggestion. I repeated a work that I'd already done once but did it in a more abstract style. It's from a late winter afternoon when the sun is just lighting one distant part of an otherwise shadowy landscape. The photo keeps calling me back because it has everything that I like: back lighting, long foreground and lots of blue. I think it's blue that made a painter of me because I'm so crazy about it.

Before settling on this final painting, I did 2 more: one brigh…

Everybody needs some support

Artists love to experiment and one of the things that painters often play around with is different types of supports. That's technical language for the things that you put the paint on. Canvas is common and there are many different types and weights of it. For smaller paintings - under 24 x 24 - I usually buy ready-made canvases which tend to be lightweight but for larger works, I buy a heavy-weight cotton by the roll and stretch it myself. It seems daunting but it's actually easy. All you need are the stretcher bars (the four wooden frame pieces that you knock together with a mallet), a pair of canvas pliers, and a staple gun. Stretching the canvas as tight as a drum and planning what I'll paint on it later is very satisfying, meditative work. Unwrapping a purchased canvas is anticlimactic in comparison.

Linen canvas is a traditional, sturdy support which makes smooth, durable canvases but it's very expensive.

Another common support is a piece of wood. I've…

Painting Support

I love a very smooth surface when I paint because it allows me to make long, elegant marks and calligraphic details without the strokes breaking up on the canvas weave. I have no interest in the actual texture of a tree, it's the big picture stuff: the value, shape and placement of that tree that grabs me. If I use big brushes on a smooth support, I'm more likely to produce the big picture and avoid the tightness of strict representation.
My usual support is a canvas with 4 coats of gesso on it. If I've stretched the raw canvas myself, I put the first 2 layers on with a credit card (knew I'd need that Sears card for something) to ensure that there are no pinholes in the gesso which would allow the paint to rot the canvas over time. A credit card also makes the surface quite smooth but you have to watch out for the slight raised drag marks from the sides of the card. After the final coat, I lightly sand the surface and wipe off the gesso dust. The finish is luxur…

Painting with Water

I recently searched an artist who was a huge influence on me when I started painting, the Australian watercolourist Joseph Zbukvic, and discovered that he's posted a beautiful website. It's well worth a look.

Like so many new painters, I started out in watercolour. It seemed more accessible than oils which have the intimidating mystique of the Old Masters clinging to them. I wish I'd known then that I was choosing the most challenging medium there is. Watercolour painting is an edge-of-your-seat art: you lay down a stroke of wet paint, making it much darker than you want because it lightens by 30% or more when drying. While it's wet, you drop in other colours, soften edges in key places and tilt and move your paper to achieve runs and bleeds. You blot, splatter, spray the mark with water and generally do everything that you can to make that mark final and interesting but not overworked. And you do it all in the minute or two before it dries. If all goes well, yo…

A Painting System

Recently I taught an introductory oil painting workshop in one of the bright, new studios at Cactus Art in Calgary. There were 10 students of varying ability but huge commitment and we had a wonderful day.
We painted 11 x 14 landscapes alla prima on gray-toned canvases that I'd prepared earlier in the week by adding 2 extra coats of gesso and a gray ground.
One of the things that I stressed was that no matter what the subject, I always start my paintings in the same way; it's a formula that saves a lot of waffling and indecisiveness.
First I coat the entire canvas with a thin wash of a warm, transparent colour. This sets the tone for the whole painting and also eliminates the drag of a dry canvas.
Next I do a value painting of the subject using dark, warm colours - often a reddish-purple. I use size 12 brushes for this or house-painting sized brushes if the canvas is very large.
After that, it's just a matter of going back in with local colour of varying translucence and bui…

Starting in Oils: a 12 week course

Starting on September 15, I'll be teaching a 12 week oil painting course for beginner and intermediate painters. The course will be held on Tuesdays from 1 to 4 pm at the Calgary School of Art, a spiffy new facility attached to Cactus Art Supplies in SE Calgary.

I taught a one day workshop there a few weeks ago and it went really well. The studios are bright and new and there's the convenience of having an art supply wholesale store attached to them; just the thing when you discover, as I did, that you've forgotten a key colour!

The course will cover: composition, colour choices, brushwork, and the technical details of solvent-free oil painting. As well, we'll experiment with a number of different subjects including landscape, still life, and figurative and we will work both from life and from photographs.

I've included more details on my website, so if you're interested in signing up, have a look and contact me through the site.

Happy painting!

Work, work work

The most common comment that I hear from spectators when I paint on site at an exhibition is a variation of this:

"I wish that I could paint but I don't have any talent. I can't even draw a stick figure."

It's a sentiment that I don't believe for a minute but there's nothing that I can say to change that person's mind. She's decided that you're born with or without talent and that's that. It's an easy out and a self-fulfilling pronouncement. Telling yourself that you can't do something is the best way to ensure that it's true.

Looking back a few years at my first paintings is enough to convince me that I don't have a natural talent for it, but I do love painting above all other pursuits and I've spent lots of time trying to improve my work. Malcolm Gladwell noted in his book The Outliers that it's the time and the quality of the time that a person devotes to a discipline that determines his or her level of profi…

Transparent, Translucent, Opaque

When I look at paintings, I'm drawn to the variety in brushwork and paint consistency more than the subject matter. Paintings in which each mark has the same level of opacity as every other mark are ultimately boring for me to look at no matter what they depict.
The artist Stephen Quiller teaches that a painting can, and should, have a full range of paint consistency from transparent to translucent to opaque.

Transparent areas are the first ones that I lay in. They have pure pigment with no white whatsoever. The paint is thinned with a medium or scrubbed in with the brush but either way, it is see through. It acts like a glaze in watercolour, allowing light to penetrate to the lower layers or to the canvas beneath.

Translucent layers come next. They also allow show through but less so. The paint is modified slightly by the addition of white or an opaque pigment such as cerulean or yellow ochre. These layers give body to the colour and cut the raw look of a totally transparent …

Painting for a Crowd

I was painting at the Calgary Stampede recently in the "Artists' Window". It's the 3rd year that I've done it and it's always worth the trouble of packing up my paintings and art supplies, fighting the rodeo traffic and setting up in the Round Up Centre. For the 4 hours that I'm there, I paint (never anything worth keeping as it's a very short time) and chat with the many people who come to watch and look at my work. The appeal of watching someone apply paint or draw seems to be universal. As the object of this attention, it's hard not to try to give my viewers something worth seeing: a definitive brush stroke; a dramatic value change or a bold new colour passage. The temptation to be worth the attention is strong. However, fighting that temptation and trying to maintain flow and pacing despite the presence of people standing behind me is a discipline worth undertaking. I figure if I can tune these spectators out, and make a decent painting…