Do you struggle with composition in your paintings, especially when using photo references? In this blog post and video, I share some tips about what I look for in photos and what I ignore or toss out to make the design stronger.

With the assistance of several of my aspen tree paintings from the last 20 years, I will show you how I compose my paintings while using photo references. The key is to not become a slave to the photo.

If you want to read a comprehensive post about most of the principles and theories of composition, I completed a 70-page article here: The 31 Top Composition Concepts for Great Painting

Remember too, if you prefer to read, the full transcript is below.

The Trouble with Painting from Photos

Photos rarely turn out with amazing compositions and are missing a lot of crucial subtlety. When we’re out Plein Air painting it’s easier because all of the information is right in front of us. We can see clearly what the atmosphere is like, how dark the shadows are compared to the value of the sky – our brains can process all of the information accurately. Photos, however, don’t have the same capacity – they lose a lot of nuances.

So how do we use photos in the studio without losing the sense of realism we experience when we paint outdoors? Also, how do we fix a boring composition when we like everything else about the photo?



There are NO Composition Formulas – Follow Your Instincts

Taken from my previous post on composition I thought this would be good to repeat:

We don’t need to obsess over the theories and details of composition ‘rules’ or guidelines. Once we have a decent grasp of what has been discussed and discovered by artists thus far we can move forward and follow our instincts.

We need to enjoy it – have fun and don’t fret.

Richard Schmid summed it up nicely “Most compositions rarely involve all the elements of design. For example, many paintings do not contain large simple masses, strong lines, or even a noticeable pattern, yet they satisfy us.”

And Edward Weston stated “to consult composition before making a picture (or painting a masterpiece) is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk. Such rules and laws are deduced from the accomplished fact; they are the products of reflection.”

Have a great time experimenting with your own unique approaches to composition and design.

Composition Tips with Aspen Tree Oil Paintings.mp4 – Transcript

[00:00:00] Design or composition, whatever you want to call it, what are your struggles with it? What are the difficulties that you have, especially when painting from photos? That’s what I want to talk about today.

[00:00:14] Using some of my Aspen tree paintings, I’m going to go through and talk about some of the things I think about when I’m designing a painting. To see if maybe it’ll help you with some of the things that you struggle with as well. All right. Let’s get started.

[00:00:36] OK. So I’m going to use Photoshop today to show all the pictures, that way you can see what I’m doing when I’m talking about things, I’ll mark on there and all that. But I want to go through…I have…I’ve been painting aspen trees, oh, I don’t know, 25 to 30 years or better. We lived in the mountains of Colorado and we were surrounded by them. And I just grew to love them. They’re such a fun subject to paint.

[00:01:05] But they can also be challenging because, well, I noticed this when I was going through a lot of my photos here recently. We had one of our members that wrote in and said, hey, I’d love to see an Aspen tree painting, one of the videos be about Aspen trees in the spring or when there are lots of green leaves everywhere. Everything’s green. How do I tackle green? And I’ll do that in a video here sometime. But I thought I love that. I like that idea. I love tackling greens because there’s so much we can do with them. And I love green. I think a lot of artists do. Not so much the collectors as much as the artists, though.

[00:01:50] So when I was going through these photos, they were from…we lived in Rye, Colorado, up in the mountains for about 12 years. And we take trips out there still quite often. And I like to take a lot of photos of the Aspen trees. And I love being right there painting right in the midst of them out on location, Plein Air, whatever you want to call it. When we’re out on location, we can kind of pick and choose and we see so much more when we’re right there painting.

[00:02:23] But then if we come back to the studio and we’re going through our photos, there’s something that gets lost there. And part of it is just the life. It’s the atmosphere, the experience of it being there and hearing the sounds, smelling things. Everything that’s surrounding us. And the camera doesn’t capture that experience. And it also loses a lot with the atmosphere in translation. So we have…That’s something important to remember when we’re working from photos.

[00:02:57] But there are some other things when it comes to design that can be very tricky if we get too dependent on our photos. So I want to show you, I thought going through some of the Aspen trees that I’ve done over the years, the Aspen Tree paintings that I’ve completed might help to show kind of what I think about sometimes when it comes to design and for I don’t have it for all of them, but for several of them, I have actually the reference photo that I used to do those paintings.

[00:03:27] So I’m going to go through showing you the reference photo and the painting itself and show you just what I eliminated and what I was thinking about while I did that. So let me jump over here to Photoshop.

[00:03:41] All right. So this was actually what spurred this whole idea about this video today. I was looking at this and I thought there’s a lot of great foliage in here, all of. Let me get my pen for you or brush so you can see where I’m doing. You can see that I’m a whole lot better with a paintbrush than I am with Photoshop, which is pretty sad considering I bought Photoshop back in ’95 I think when it first came out, or thereabouts, pretty quickly after it first came out. I was using Photoshop, I just haven’t used it very much. I use it for the basics to be able to do my artwork and I’ve bought so many courses I just don’t have time to go through them. So I’m not a photoshop expert as I go through here, but I do know how to use a brush. OK, so here we go. That’s not nearly big enough.

[00:04:35] So I loved all this foliage out here and my…there we go. Now you can see it. All the foliage in here is beautiful. Beautiful stuff right here.

[00:04:49] I love Aspen leaves because there’s so much contrast and texture in there between the highlights here and the darker areas behind it. That’s where it gets a lot of that reputation for being the quaking aspens. The leaves just looked like they’re vibrating when the wind starts to drift through their a bit, those leaves all rustling together. That’s just amazing to look at.

[00:05:20] But that’s why I love a lot of what I do with aspens. For one, the curving of these aspen trees and not just sticks, it goes straight up and down through here. So there’s so much fun stuff to do with Aspens.

[00:05:36] But if you notice, even in this photo, oftentimes Aspens will do this. They grow in this nice little line all the way across there. We’ve got some of these back here behind. But really, as far as the design goes, this is kind of an awful thing right there. We really want to avoid straight lines across the bottom of our painting here.

[00:06:02] So when somebody is starting out painting, that’s not necessarily something that they’re thinking about. So when it comes to design, I have a huge, I think it’s about 70 pages, it’s a blog post but it turned out to be about 70 pages long. It’s on our website. If you go to look for…I don’t remember what I called it. Just put ‘composition’ or ‘design’ or something in the search bar. You should be able to bring it up. And I go through about every major design principle that’s out there or theory or idea. The golden mean, the Fibonacci numbers, all that sort of thing.

[00:06:50] And there’s a lot of…Knowing those things can be helpful, having them in the back of our minds, but that’s really where they should stay, in the back of our minds. Because when it comes down to actually painting, getting into it, we just need to go for it. Just start with something and go for it.

[00:07:08] But understanding something like this, that’s a horizontal line going across there. And it becomes very static. It’s almost like a wall. And it kind of blocks the viewer from moving into the painting. So if we took this tree and put it up that way and we took maybe this tree and we brought it down here or even all the way off the painting, what that does is it makes a movement. Suddenly we have a line like this instead of a line going straight across and it becomes more interesting for the viewer.

[00:07:42] The other thing that I noticed about this photograph is this guy right here. It almost looks like a full-grown aspen tree growing off of the side of that tree. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s kind of like this one over here, this one splits into two right here. And this guy is just as thick or thicker looking as the one to the other side of it. Now, sometimes we might think that that’s too and it might end up being a tree that’s off here, going like that to the side. But in this case, it looks like it’s just a V off of that tree right there. Now, a V like this can be really interesting. And limbs coming off the side over here like this can be very interesting to look at. But when you have a limb this big in a painting, it almost becomes obnoxious in a design because it looks, it happens so rarely, that it looks unnatural.

[00:08:44] And so when we’re going through deciding how to design our composition, if we get too stuck in with the photograph, we might end up painting that limb in there and having this really obnoxious looking, unnatural limb coming off of our tree and not realize how hokey that looks. So it’s important to get outside and paint on location as often as possible just to get the understanding of how nature works and how what an anomaly something like this is and how most people when they look at that, are going to think that limb looks awfully big. And besides that, look at this. It’s right in the middle of this tree right here.

[00:09:29] So, yes, there are some principles that are really helpful to understand when it comes to composition, but overall, when we’re composing or designing a painting. Most of that stuff is just it’s just slightly helpful. In the end, every great painting out there is just something that if you look at most great paintings, they don’t incorporate all of the principles of design. They might have they might focus on large shapes and really simplified larger shapes as the main thing that they did, but not anything else. It might not have any S-curve. It might not have – like the rule of thirds.

[00:10:16] When you talk about something like the rule of thirds – people use that in photography – they use that in painting – and they think it’s almost…between that and the golden mean, it’s almost like the golden goose or something. Don’t pay too much attention to that. What happens when somebody gets stuck into “this is the golden goose; always do it in the rule of thirds; always do it this way or that way;” then pretty soon, all of your paintings will look the same and you’ll get bored with them and consequently, your viewers will also get bored with them.

[00:10:52] So with something like this, I would either trim that branch way down or cut it out entirely. It really depends on how I’m trying to lead the viewer through the painting. So it comes what it comes down to with design is figuring out what is it that you really want to emphasize in this painting? What made you want to paint it in the first place?

[00:11:16] I would hope that you didn’t come into this thinking, oh, I like that photograph. I want to paint that photograph because then you could just leave it as a photograph. There’s no reason to paint it. But if you looked at that photograph and the first thing that you saw was, wow, I love the Greens, I really want to focus on the Greens in this painting or. Wow, I really love the contrast. There’s something about the depth in here, the way that the shadows recede as they go into the distance and the strong light and dark up here in the foreground. Or maybe there’s something about a particular composition that you just think, I love the way it moves me through there.

[00:11:53] Find what it is. Whatever it is that first caught your attention that made you think, wow, that’s really cool. I like that. And then make that the focus then that will help to inform how you compose your painting because everything then should be supportive of that initial concept, that initial idea that you had, the initial spark that made you want to paint it in the first place. So here’s another piece right here. Notice this huge road right here. I actually love the texture in this road. All this stuff in here, wonderful texture in there. But what’s the painting, if I painted this, what would it be about? Am I painting it because I love the trees back here? Am I painting it because of the grasses? Because I like the contrast between the sky and the shadows down in here. Or is it because I love this road? If it’s not about the road, then that road is way too big. It takes up too much real estate and too much attention.

[00:12:59] But if we were just focusing on the photograph and were being tied to that photograph, then we might end up leaving that road in there. And that’s not going to work, because then the painting really becomes about this where we need to decide what is the painting about. So if I was doing this, I would end up maybe keeping remembering some of the color and texture in this road and using that somewhere in my painting, but not the road itself.

[00:13:29] But it really depends on each of us individually and what it is that we are interested in.

[00:13:35] So. In this piece, I love a lot of what’s happening in this one, I love the backlighting, especially behind this dark tree. Some of the light that’s coming through there, the light coming this way, the shadows that are coming off of that. Some of the shadow in here with the grasses and the light on top of it. I love the actually a lot of what’s happening in this design I enjoy.

[00:14:01] This tree comes down lower than this one here. I like that. I like that these ones go even farther back. One comes a little bit forward. This one coming down here. I might end up moving this maybe a little bit farther down or this one over here a little bit farther down, just so that they’re not both so close to each other on the same area of the plane. Other than that, I like how it kind of leads me back into I can go back into the painting. I can move, you know, I can keep moving back into the distance, into the background. So much of what I can do in here I like about that.

[00:14:46] The texture on the Aspen trees, the actual color of them, I’m not a fan of it. These have some kind of…aspen trees get a lot of different diseases between the deer bites and the actual fungus that they get. I can’t remember what that’s called. They get all kinds of diseases and so they’re always having problems. The nice thing about Aspen’s is there are they grow rapidly and there’s this big old network. They’re all attached to one another. They are considered the largest, I think, living organism on the planet because they just keep on spreading. All of these trees are actually connected to one another by a root system. And so they’re all part of the same organism. It’s really fascinating. But they do get a lot of diseases. So this stuff right here. I love aspen trees because of the light and shadow aspect of them, but not that particular texture. To me, that’s not very appealing. To somebody else, it might be. So I would probably change that as well.

[00:15:50] I have to, when I get a photo like this, I have to look at it and think, what is it about it that I like and what do I not like? And then eliminate those things that I don’t like and get them out of my head or even come into something like Photoshop and change things around. I don’t do that very often. Actually, hardly ever at all. But I do it in my head a lot.

[00:16:11] So this photograph right here, this fence is obnoxious. It doesn’t add anything to the painting. I love the white the contrast of these trees back here. I love a lot of the variety in the bushes back in here. The large shapes that I can get from that. These the different foliage, color and texture in the foliage. But I don’t like this fence because to me, the fence doesn’t add anything to the painting, to the image. So I would take that out.

[00:16:43] Those are some of the things to think about when deciding whether to use a photograph or not or if we do use it, how to use it. So if we start getting to some OK, this one right here, too, I’m almost to the paintings themselves and how I think about some of these things. So this one right here, this long, this line and the shape. See I try to break everything down into shapes. We’ve got this shape right here. That’s the first thing I do when I’m painting is I think about shapes. So we’ve got basically those shapes right there. And then the trees. They kind of become a shape, but there is a lot of times trees, branches, and things like that, they become more shapes within the major shapes. So to me, these are the major shapes right here. And there’s too many of them that are kind of similar to one another, like this one right here. This one right here. And this right here is pretty close to being very similar in size. So I would change up the shapes in here a bit if I was painting this. And it is kind of cut off right in the middle, which isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker because that idea that you can’t separate a painting right in the middle I can show you super successful artists who have done that over and over again. It depends on what we do in the rest of the painting.

[00:18:07] There are no rules when it comes to design that somebody can say, oh, it’s going to be a bad design because you cut it in the middle. Now, sometimes cutting it in the middle like that can make it a lot more complicated to make a successful design, but it doesn’t mean it’s not possible. That’s the point to all of this. So for me, though, this strong line right here with all this contrast, those shadows, I don’t like that because it feels to me like these are separated from one another and I can’t get back into here very well. There’s a little bit of a break right here. And this tree moves me up in here a bit. But it’s still, just this triangle right here like this, I’m not a fan of that shape. I’m not a fan of how that matches up with this and moves us through the painting. It feels a little bit too much like a barrier right there. So I would change that up a little bit. I do like, though, that it does have a little bit of a move in right there.

[00:19:11] OK. So here’s one of the paintings I did. It’s similar. It has, if you notice, a kind of a green bush right here. And often what I’ll do is if I’m going to paint an Aspen tree scene, I might get…I have two monitors they’re about 12 feet from my easel so I don’t see a lot of the detail, the small detail, but I see the overall shape, atmosphere, contrast, things like that, the things that I’m really interested in from those photographs. I see that when I’m standing at my easel, but I’ll usually put like maybe a dozen or twenty, or however many images I can fit on those two monitors. I’ll cover my monitors with images just to give me sparks of ideas and inspiration. Memory boosters from when I was there, that sort of thing.

[00:20:02] So, for instance, in this, I might have very easily used this image right here. This is from when I was in Snow Mountain Ranch. We were painting with the Plein Air Painters of America. I got invited out to paint with them. It was a great time. This is, I think, around the year 2000. And it was just such a beautiful place to be. This is Snow Mountain Ranch near Winter Park, I think. Something like that. I haven’t been there for quite a while.

[00:20:36] But anyway. This right here. I might have taken from an image like that. Just this little idea right here as it’s up on my monitor. I see that. I see the contrast. I see some of the coloration in there and I might pull from that to use over here. But you notice, I want to have quite a bit of variety of things, oranges and yellows and greens, constant variety going throughout it. And then I break that up with things to lead into that. So hopefully it doesn’t become a barrier to the viewer. Although this one I mean, it’s not one of those where we really the viewer just wants to go walking through there and move all the way into the background. That wasn’t the intent of this painting. It wasn’t about moving back into the distance in it. It was more about the Aspen trees themselves right here in the front. So this is really what it was all about. The texture and the shape are what I was going for in those Aspen trees.

[00:21:41] And then I have a little bit of a path right here, which is an, I mean, now that I look at it, this painting was done quite a while ago. And when I look at it now, it might be a little bit awkward. But at the time and in the when I see it outside of…looking at an image, when I’m seeing the original, I really liked the textural quality I had down in this whole area. And, the painting sold quickly, so I guess somebody else liked it, too. You know, it’s so easy to look at our old pieces and start picking them apart. When I look at his brown tree back here, it’s a little obnoxious. It kind of stands out quite a bit. But then it did act as a little bit of a disrupt to just the Aspen trees everywhere. So it worked out all right.

[00:22:32] In any of the paintings I’m going to show you, there’s nothing perfect about anything with the design. But you can see that when I’m thinking about how to break up, how to make the line, you know, the overall line like this of the plane, more interesting. I’m taking some off of the painting plane and then some over. They move back like this. I’m trying to disrupt that line. So it’s more interesting than just all of those trees in a straight line going across. Sometimes it might work to have them in a straight line going across. But that’s something to watch for.

[00:23:07] One like this. You notice I put a lot of thought into the placement of these so that each one is a little bit different in its placement, from the others in here. So that’s not by happenstance. That’s very thought out as far as how to position those. And sometimes that means that I have to go and work at them several times to really get to a point where I like it, where I like the design. I like the movement.

[00:23:42] And then I’m also thinking about well how am I leading the viewer into the painting. So this is a big part of leading the viewer in there. These rocks coming off the side, I have them moving down in with light and shadow pointing almost to this. So that leads to that. These rocks move down to the same thing and it all moves into the painting this way, because in this one I was trying to lead the viewer back into this space more. Part of doing that is to have something like contrast back there, little bits of contrast here and there, having something a little bit darker, like a tree trunk or something like that to move the viewer back into the distance.

[00:24:23] And then having not just a tree like this with dark in one spot, but making sure I have it in a few places so that it’s not like an anomaly. Because if it was just by itself, if I had just this one tree right here by itself, then that would be kind of the bull’s eye. Because of the contrast there, it would be really difficult not to keep looking at that over and over and over again. But if I have something like these spots over here and especially over here, then that helps the viewer so that they don’t feel compelled to keep looking right over here. Hopefully, at least that was the idea behind it. Sometimes it works out a lot more successfully in my mind than it does in actuality, but that was the thought process in it.

[00:25:09] And then something like this, you know, a rock that has a little bit more contrast as well to move the viewer through it.

[00:25:16] With something like this piece, these are really going in a straight line across there – called it Aspen Ridge. It’s the top of a hill. But you notice even with that, I have to have some trees that are spaced differently as far as where they’re at on the picture plane, the bottom of them so that it does give some variety. And it’s really just it’s this kind of a line that we’re looking at. See there’s more interest in this kind of a line then there is in that line that goes straight across the painting.

[00:25:54] And all of this stuff in the background, this was all – I left that very simple back in here with this shape, because I wanted it to be minimal. That’s not the focus of the painting. That was just to give people the idea that there’s something back there.

[00:26:11] But really, the emphasis of the painting was all this foliage and texture with the Aspen trees all the way through there.

[00:26:22] Here’s one where – this is again, Snow Mountain Ranch, one of the images I, one of the photos I took there. And then I like to – actually the placement of these Aspen trees is fantastic. This usually doesn’t happen where they are spaced out in such a fun way.

[00:26:41] But overall, I thought the image was a little bit lackluster. I did change some things up. It was the initial punch of those aspen trees and the movement of them, the placement of them that grabbed me. But I wanted a little more contrast and strength in the color. So I changed to more middle values throughout the painting, brought in some stronger contrast in the background back in here, so those aspens would really stand out and change it up a bit.

[00:27:16] But really, I kind of messed up on this one because this one, this one and this one are really close to each other as far as where they’re at on the picture plane. I should have. It was actually better in the photograph almost. Well, I guess these two are kind of along the same lines right there. But, you know, as this one comes down quite a bit farther than this up here. So I could have probably done a little bit more of that. But like even I don’t know, pulling this one down a little bit farther, something like in that area. But overall, it’s it was still a fun painting. I still enjoyed the outcome of it.

[00:27:58] But I also used shadows from trees that might be somewhere out this direction. I use those – the shadows of those trees, I use the shadows of the other trees to kind of pull the viewer back in. And then all of this to keep moving us through and hopefully the placement of the brighter leaves in different spots to keep moving the viewer around and through the painting. It’s really about, see like this, this tree branch right here hopefully moves the viewer back in even though the initial thrust is kind of going that direction. I’m hoping that little things like this, like this tree branch over here, will help pull the viewer back in.

[00:28:41] And really that’s all a design is about, is to keep it somehow the viewer back in the painting, even if something moves them out, use something else to pull them back in. It’s just how can we move the viewer through there and keep them in, keep them engaged with the painting? That’s all, that’s really all it comes down to. That’s what it’s all about.

[00:29:05] With a piece like this, this actually was, I think, entirely from my imagination and memory, just from painting aspen trees. I decided I wanted to do something with a lot of color. I love strong saturated color. And that was it. I just wanted to have a lot of fun with color. And Aspen trees are one of those things that are so interesting to paint like, with all the little lines coming off, you know, all the quirkiness of those. I love that. Instead of just straight lines up and down. I love all the movement I can get with an Aspen tree. So that’s why I decided to use Aspen trees for this. But I really could have used any number of things. My real emphasis wasn’t necessarily aspen trees, it was all the color that’s back in the background and throughout it – all the different layers of color that I got in there.

[00:30:02] And that’s why we have to decide what is our emphasis? What is it we’re going for? So in this one, I use kind of an obvious lead-in with that little bit of a trail right there. It probably could have been a little bit less obvious than that. But I – this is a large painting, a 30 by 40. And I still had a lot of fun with it. I like the way it turned out. Especially if you get up closer on it, there’s a whole lot of texture all through this, as far as, and layering that goes on in here, a lot of little thick bits of texture and stuff all through it. That’s what I was going for with this painting was that, just all the textures, the layering and aspen trees again made it so that it could have something – I like the vertical nature of them and how I can put movement, I can really take an aspen tree and bend it any way that I want to, so that I can have it point to this thing over here so that it goes from here, and then it suddenly curves and points the viewer to go over to here. I can use aspen trees to move the viewer around the painting so easily because they can go into any configuration. There are some trees that don’t have nearly so much possibility with them because they are more rigid. But Aspen trees aren’t one of them. They curve and twist and dodge all over. So, so much we can do with them.

[00:31:40] Then let’s see where. Here we go. This one right here. I. I love this photograph. I loved the backlighting of it, with these shadows coming off of it like that. I just thought that was just so fantastic. So that was the emphasis. I loved the back-lighting, but this tree right in the middle, right here, that doesn’t work at all. And then it comes so close, it ends just barely before the bottom of the image. That is just a terrible design to me. Somebody else might make it work. But for me, I didn’t like that about this. So that meant I needed to change the design a bit. So this is what I did with it.

[00:32:21] And in some ways, the photograph is actually a little bit more successful maybe than the – because I like the darkness of the photograph, being in the shade, being back in here away from the light and the light being more out in the outside. I didn’t emphasize that nearly enough with the foliage in my tree up here. There’s so much light coming through it that it really lightened up the whole painting. But if I look at the painting once I’m away from that photograph and I just look at the painting for itself, there is a lot that I liked in this painting.

[00:32:54] But you notice I did use that big old Aspen that was in there, but I moved it to the side so that it wasn’t straight up and down in the middle of the painting right here. And then I used the middle more open so that the viewer could move back into the painting. And I kept what it was that initially intrigued me about it, which was having the sun somewhere about right here so that we get these shadows coming off of there. I love that. That’s to me what it was all about. Just that, that movement in the backlighting of it.

[00:33:32] Then this is a little 8×10 that I did for – I used to have some classes here in my studio – and I just did this as a quick demonstration. So this one is all from imagination as well. Just made it all up. But what I was going for was this, the foliage in these where we use the little bright spots, we have the dark shadow areas in the foliage and then just a couple little spots of light on top of that to give it that that feeling of the Aspen leaves. And that’s really a big part of what I love about Aspen trees. So everything else in here, was really just so that I could play with this right here. That was what was intriguing me and these, a lot of times it’s those little tiny branches on the aspens coming out, the white ones, the dark ones, the combination of that contrast that you get between them, that’s really what I was intrigued by. That’s what I was going for.

[00:34:37] And I use different groups. Oh, I just blew that one. I use the different elements inherent to lead the viewer in like this. So once I pull it, once I grab something and pull it off. I cannot get back in the same spot. So I’m just going to minimize this in a second. So this was an image from Rye, Colorado where we lived. And what I loved about this. Was this stuff in the background? Back here and the atmosphere that was back there and I knew because when I took the photograph that there was a lot more interest in it than what you see in this drab photograph. This I took this photo back in around the late 90s and I think I did the painting in about 2000. So there’s the photograph. But what I didn’t like about this as well was there’s so much texture from the branches, the little twigs, the grasses coming through, there’s just so much texture that it almost feels overwhelming. And I can’t move back into the distance very well. So I got rid of I eliminated a lot of that when I did the actual painting and I spruced up the color a little bit more with it also,.

[00:35:54] It’s still a very minimal color as far as color goes, very minimal. It’s more on the lavenders and blues. But I liked that because I was really emphasizing when with the aspirin’s being backlit, being a little bit darker and more of those yellows that are in it. So that’s why I liked the blue background too, for the contrast, the color contrast, that that would afford the yellows in those trees.

[00:36:27] And then I just changed things up. Now without all of that, I still put a lot of those little branches and actually more than I normally do, because I did like some of that in that image, but I eliminated a lot of it so that we can see through to the background. So with all of these things, when we’re going through photographs, we just have to make sure that when we go to paint from a photograph, that we know that that we really have a good understanding of what is our intent, what is it we’re going for and focus on that.

[00:37:06] Don’t focus on all the details in the photograph. I suggest to my students, to our members, look, it doesn’t matter if you’re on location or if you’re looking at a photograph, squint. When I’m twelve feet away over here, even though my images are so far away, I still squint so I can get the overall shapes, the overall contrast, the feeling that’s there, rather than getting too focused on the details – on all those little details.

[00:37:39] With a piece like this, you know, we’ve got this is such, I think this Aspen tree right there is just so cool. The way it just curves like that. I think that’s really fun. But you notice that we’ve got a little one here and a bigger tree right here, and they’re both right at the same spot right here where they end in the picture plane. To me, that’s very static and not interesting at all. And that they now compete with one another becomes kind of like a tennis match. Which one do I look at? Do I look at the little guy over here? Or do I look at the big one over here? And there’s really, there isn’t one over the other that takes precedence. They both demand almost an equal amount of attention. I mean, the first thing we see probably is the bigger one over here. But once we notice the little when they’re just in direct competition with one another. So we’ve got to figure out a way to use something like this, if we’re intrigued by that, without it becoming a tennis match or a competition between elements.

[00:38:38] So this is sort of how I would do that. I take one right off the bottom of the picture plane and then I have another one over here, basically about the same size. But this one I use in order to get it so that they don’t become hopefully a tennis competition, this one over here is much more in shadow. And this one has the really bright light on it to pull the viewer in. So this dark one first pulls the viewer into the painting. It helps us to move into the picture plane, past, moving past this one over here. And then the light, the contrast, that brightness on this one is really the focus. And then I use some strong color in these maples, or whatever they are back in the background, to pull the viewer into the middle of the painting. Some reds and oranges down in the bottom, that sort of thing, to help still move the viewer throughout the painting.

[00:39:42] But really, the emphasis of this painting was really this right here. Just I loved the idea of how that the light comes down on some of these aspens and they’re just glowing and so beautiful. And I love the soft color and textural transitions that we can get in that because the Aspen tree bark is so soft, it can get a lot of those little soft transitions as well in it. So that’s part of what I love about Aspen trees, painting Aspen trees. Something like this right here, I do have a big one here and a smaller one over here. But the strong colors and contrast back in here and the other Aspen trees that are all around hopefully get it so that they aren’t in direct competition with one another.

[00:40:37] There’s plenty of other things to look at so that it’s not just this tree and this tree, but there are other things around to help pull you into the rest of the painting. At least that’s the idea behind it.

[00:40:54] And we are getting closer. So clear skies right there. All right. So this one was up in Estes Park, and I loved the overall idea of it. But to me, I know that Ponderosa pines like these right here, those are so bleached out. And that’s what happens with that Colorado sun. Oftentimes, especially in the mid or late day, it really bleaches out the colors. There’s hardly it’s just everything becomes dull looking. And I love color. So I know that just from being around Ponderosa pine so often, I know that there’s a lot more color that that is possible in those trees. And this is still an aspen painting because of the Aspen trees back in here. Not so much though as an aspen piece.

[00:41:44] But I wanted to point out this right here. I love the contrast here in this shape, but I don’t like how big that is and how much real estate it takes up in that photograph. And I love the way the river moves here and the shape of it. But I felt like this almost is a little bit. It almost comes over this direction a little bit too much for me. So I used a lot of what’s in here. Plus, you can see this is a road up here going across there and there’s a car right there. Well, I don’t want to have that car in there because it’s not adding anything to the picture. It doesn’t tell any more of a story by having that car in there or even having this as a road.

[00:42:29] So I can use, though, some of this the plane change that the textural changes, changes of geography or topography. I can use some of that to my advantage in breaking up shapes, but I don’t necessarily need to say that it is definitely a road back there. I can change that. So when I did the painting, I used that, kind of like a rock shelf or something like that. But I don’t have it coming all the way across. I don’t let people know, hey, there’s a road back there, by the way, if you were wondering, yeah, that’s a road. No, it doesn’t matter. Nobody cares. And it’s not integral to the story in the painting.

[00:43:10] But you can see I did bring in more oranges, more color and contrast into those Ponderosa pines, a lot more color into the grasses and trees and bushes into the river itself. And I did change, I didn’t have quite so much of a jog out right there or curve in that I. I curved it more simply down. I added a couple of rocks down here in the bottom because it felt to me like it almost led me, I don’t know, at the time when I finished it, I first did it without any rocks down there. It just didn’t feel right, when I did it. So I ended up adding some rocks in here to break that up, just to break up the shape of it. But, you notice I really love, I love the lavenders and the yellows, that color combination contrast. So I added more color into this than what was in the photograph. And I also shrunk this tree down so it wasn’t coming out nearly as far into the river.

[00:44:15] And those are some of the things we can do as an artist. We don’t have to, there’s nothing wrong with using photographs or any other tool that’s going to help us create better paintings. But we don’t want to become a slave to the photograph itself. A photograph is just a tool. Most photographs, the design in the photograph, isn’t going to work by itself. We have to change something to make it work.

[00:44:42] And so in this, I changed up the size of this tree. I changed up things like taking out the car and not caring if that was if that looked like a road or not. I used it more like a rock, just like some of these other rocks in here, just for the way that I could have that kind of pattern going up and down and diagonals. I like diagonals in a painting because it gives energy to the painting. And it also gives me some contrast to the bushes. So different kinds of textures in there. That’s really what it’s all about. That’s what I’m going for when I’m looking at these compositions.

[00:45:22] With this. I used a couple of Aspen trees, but they’re really kind of subservient. They’re just there as a backdrop to give some variety into the overall horizontal nature of the composition. But really, the composition is about this out here, that vastness being able to look out and see far into the distance. But I can come in and give it a little bit more interest or something, maybe by adding in a couple of trees right there.

[00:45:51] But in this case, the Aspen trees aren’t the focus of the painting. It’s the background that’s the focus of the painting. With this, we can have just the trees and their vertical nature where they go in those rows like they often do, but break them up a little bit. And I didn’t focus on the foliage of the aspens so much as I did on the tree trunks. So this one is not about the foliage in a lot of the paintings it’s about the foliage. In this one, the trees, are really they’re there to add interest. But again, it’s about the background, not about the trees themselves. The trees just add something – to me – interesting. In this one it was really about the vertical nature of everything using those trees to emphasize the verticality of the painting and pushes back. And then you notice that the Horizon line isn’t too far off of center in there. But there’s a big difference between this area of it and this area. And this one was really about creating a peaceful feeling to it. And that’s actually what the person who purchased it, that’s what they loved about it. They said they just felt a great peace when they were looking at it’s a large painting, I think a 24×36, something like that. I have it on there. 36×24. So it was a little bit larger.

[00:47:21] And I just wanted to go for kind of a soft atmospheric quality that created a sense of calm to it. With this, I was experimenting in the early 2000s with some different things about Aspen trees, these got a little bit almost creepy here, a little bit kind of like Halloween. But I was really trying to see what I could do with all of the highlight. Just the way that the branches come off of Aspen trees and how it changes the planes with light and dark. I was playing with that and that’s what came out of it. But what I loved about the painting was this back here. Just the background. I really like that much more so than I did with the trees. Although the trees are the emphasis of it. My favorite part of the painting was the background. This is all about color and texture, actually, the texture of the paint and I just used aspen trees to emphasize that because I love the yellows, the bright yellows and cream colors we can get from Aspen’s compared with the lavenders that I had in the background. And that’s really what it is.

[00:48:42] It’s a contrast of those cream-colored cream colors in the Aspen’s against the lavenders that are behind them and the textural quality that was throughout it. And the leaves were a big part of that. I didn’t want the leaves to be overly dominant because I wanted it to be a little bit more of a calm. Like those. It’s called Twilight Aspen’s because I wanted it to feel like It’s a little bit later in the day and things are starting to quiet down, that sort of thing. So when we’re thinking about these things. I’ll come back to the first one. It’s really what is it we’re trying to emphasize? What are we going for?

[00:49:27] And that will help us. If we can get that firmly established in our mind, that will help us to know what to get rid of in the photographs and what to leave. What’s useful in the photo and what isn’t. And we can change anything as artists.

[00:49:41] Painting on location.- I don’t know of anything that works better for training our minds. So we can change things so we don’t become a slave to a photo. Because if we paint – we don’t have to go out and finish a painting on location. That’s really to me, that’s not what it’s about- It’s about learning how nature works, how to recognize atmosphere and our light source and seeing what happens with a warm light source compared to an overcast day where it’s a little cooler light source. Seeing how all those things work, that starts to get lodged in our brains in a way that it will inform everything that we do doesn’t mean we won’t make mistakes. Painting on location is tough. Don’t get discouraged if you go out and paint outdoors and you think, oh man, that was terrible. That was awful. That’s not what it’s about.

[00:50:41] Some people finish a painting every time they go out. But my favorite artists usually don’t do that. Some of those like T Allen Lawson… Even Richard Schmid, he did paint on location exclusively for about 20 years. But a lot of his larger pieces, he did finish in the studio because sometimes it’s just not possible to get all the nuances. Now, in the early days, I painted a very Russian impressionist bravura kind of work and I could finish a 30×40 in a matter of three hours out on location and be done. That’s different. It’s a different intent with that kind of painting I wasn’t going for subtle nuances. I was going for large shapes and very vigorous brushwork. And that was my focus. It really was the nature of the way I painted more than trying to get any kind of nuance.

[00:51:47] And that’s when I started to actually shift from painting more outdoors to painting and outdoors with more intention of just getting information rather than completing a painting. Because I got to the point where I actually wanted to start getting more nuance in my work. But I still love to paint on location because photographs are deceptive and if we paint them too much and too often it starts to lodge in our brains and we get confused between what we know from just being a human being walking outdoors to what we’re seeing in the photograph. And if we’re not outdoors enough, then we won’t realize all the other things that are wrong in the photograph. All the things that are confusing our minds. So I have a couple of quotes here. I thought you would enjoy.

[00:52:49] This is really what it comes down to when we’re talking about composition.

[00:52:54] Richard Schmid, this is from his Alla Prima book. He said, “Most compositions rarely involve all the elements of design. For example, many paintings do not contain large, simple masses, strong lines or even a noticeable pattern. Yet they satisfy us.”

[00:53:11] And then Edward Weston, I think he was a photographer. He said, ” To consult composition before making a picture or painting a masterpiece is a little like consulting the law of gravitation before going for a walk. Such rules and laws are deduced from the accomplished fact. They are the products of reflection.” They are the products of looking back at our painting and seeing, oh, you know what? I used the law of diagonals and the action that the movement that comes from using a diagonal line or I use the law of thirds right here. But it’s much more successful if we’re not focused on a rule of composition when we’re doing it, but we’re focused on the intent of what it is we want to paint. And then the composition, the design will create itself. Or at least that will inform what it is that we do in our paintings. And then in reflection, we’ll look at it and think, oh, you know what? I can recognize some of those principles that are in here.

[00:54:16] But don’t be confused by these individuals who say that every great painting has these principles in it. No, that is not true! There are no rules here. There are no patterns, no formulas. You can follow where it works every time and every great painting uses them. The only reason why we know a lot of these principles of design is because somebody worked out a problem they were having with their painting. And then it became a rule. It became a principle of design. And now we know it and we can use it as part of our toolbox. But they are not the end-all of design. Not by a long shot.

[00:54:59] Just look at a Klimt painting where they’re mostly flat. And yet he has so much texture in there. He uses some of those big shapes, one big massive shape here, a little matte, a little shape up here at the top. And then he has all the vertical trees in there. ( I’m talking about his landscapes, not his figure paintings.) Then he has all the trees there. But a lot of the trees, they get lost in the texture because it’s not about the trees. It’s not about any of that. It’s about the texture in his paintings. So he was really focused on the intent. And that’s what it’s all about.

[00:55:39] So when you’re out painting either on location or you’re working from photographs, make sure before you get too involved in that photograph, make sure you know what it is that you’re going after. Is it the color? Is it the contrast? Is it the atmosphere, the light, the shadows? What is it that really intrigues you about that and made you in the first place want to paint it? And then just take everything else in your painting and make sure that it’s subservient to that and you’ll be successful with it. So have fun. Enjoy painting either from photographs or out on location and have fun just getting in there and making some interesting compositions that thrill you. And if they thrill you, you’re going to find an audience that is also gonna be thrilled by the same thing.

[00:56:33] All right. Have fun. Happy painting.