Ask the Expert…Jean Cauthen

Question:  How to gain inspiration from another artist and then create work that is truly your own?

Taking Inspiration From The Past

Jean Cauthen, Because it was Grassier
Jean Cauthen, Because it was Grassier

Like many, I have happily, messily, cobbled together an arts education that consisted of university study, workshops, generous teachers, fellow painters, insightful blogs (thank you, Kelley) and the requisite “miles of canvas.”



Hyacnithe Rigaud, Louix XI
Hyacnithe Rigaud, Louix XI

But most consistently, I find myself looking backward toward those wonderful painters came before. I come by this honestly; as an Art History professor nudging students awake from trance states with an exaggerated tale of a scandal (don’t judge. It’s hard to keep an 18 year old interested), or shock them into alertness with the Baroque violence in a Caravaggio painting (did you know blood could spurt like that when a main artery is severed?)

Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets
Edouard Manet, Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets

But while projecting these images in a dark room (you remember that class from college, don’t you?) I find I easily lapse back into the role of student. Often finding a nuance I had never noticed before. The thoughtful consideration of an admired painter can become the first step in a self-guided ‘course of study’ for any artist, any level.

I’d like to suggest a simple 2–step curriculum for improving skill and finding your own ‘voice’ as a painter.


1. Review and practice the basics by copying a painting. Not slavishly. Think of it as’collaboration’ with a famous person.

Copy paintings
Copy paintings
  •  Find a painting or even just an aspect of a painting you want to challenge yourself with. (Is it the value shifts in a Manet portrait? Arriving at the color fabric of Louis XIV’s mantle?)
  • Get out of your comfort zone. If you are a landscape painter, try a figure painting. If you are a painter, recreate in collage.

    Copy Paintings
    Copy Paintings



  • Have fun. Consider working on paper and creating an interesting underpainting or even collage. In my case, I added some found poetry.
  • Use shortcuts so that you can just concentrate on the challenge you chose for yourself (trace, grid, etc.)

2. Finding Your Voice: Make an “Art Buddy” of a past painter to bring you closer to your own voice.

Edwin Dickinson, title unknown
Edwin Dickinson, title unknown

This sounds counterintuitive. But consider looking at art as a way to expand your own visual vocabulary to create something fresh. Actively engage with a painting. That is, look at paintings with specific questions in mind. Try to identify what it is that resonates with you. Your goal is not to imitate, but to inform your own aesthetic. Below are some examples of the types of questions to pose.


Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape #1
Richard Diebenkorn, Cityscape #1
  • Does an Edgar Degas or an Edwin Dickinson painting capture an essence and mood you could see yourself strive for? If so, is it the limited palette, or the minimal detail that speaks to you?


Julia Beatrice How, Feeding Time
Julia Beatrice How, Feeding Time


  • Do the solid, soft forms and subtle design of Julia Beatrice How resonate? Could you paint in a high value key?
Degas, Woman at a Window
Edgar Degas, Woman at a Window
Egon Schiele, Old Houses in Krumau
Egon Schiele, Old Houses in Krumau


Fairfield Porter, The Driveway
Fairfield Porter, The Driveway
  • Could you see your world with the geometry of Richard Diebenkorn or the expressive calligraphy of Egon Schiele? Or perhaps the abstraction of a Fairfield Porter? Or does the quiet mystery of George Inness speak louder?



In my case, I needed a nudge to“Break a Rule”.  For me, it was Gustave Klimt’s Birch Forest that validated my impulse to paint woods interiors with thousands of small shapes in obsessive repetition. (This from the teacher who quarantines little brushes from students).

Gustave Klimt, Birch Trees
Gustave Klimt, Birch Trees

I recognized that a large part of me was drawn to small, patterned shapes in an abstracted format. I had also been looking at the optical color mixing of Seurat’s pointillism.

Jean Cauthen, I Doubted if I Would Ever Return, 5'x4'
I Doubted if I Would Ever Return, 5’x4′
Jean Cauthen, Road Not Taken, 36x36
Road Not Taken, 5’x5′

Later, a viewing of Klimt’s “Pear Tree” provoked a series of paintings in which I sought to use some of the bones of his orchard, but in my own palette. In one, I included my good dog, Blue.

Klimt and Cauthen
Klimt and Cauthen
Into the Yellow Wood, 36x36
Into the Yellow Wood, 36×36

Everything evolves. My first “Klimt-inspired” canvases would transform in palette with simpler shapes as in “Into a Yellow Wood”. Other influences are present in this series, including my work in the Healing Arts in which I recognized the comfort patients found in making or even viewing repeated, similar shapes.


But for their contributions to my education, I send out humble ‘thank you’ to Manet,Van Gogh, Morandi, Thiebaud,Porter, Klimt, Seurat……

Who are you looking at?

Click here to learn more about Jean and her work.

Art Cafe, In Sargent’s Footsteps

John Singer Sargent is probably my favorite painter as I’m sure he is high on many artist’s list. When I find anything “new” on JSS, I have to share. So join Richard Ormond, grandnephew of John Singer Sargent and Erica Hirshler, co-curator of “John Singer Sargent Watercolors,” for an evening of conversation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. I think a glass of wine and a hour about JSS is the best way to spend a Monday evening.

Ask the Expert…Elizabeth Robbins

Question: What are the key elements in making a strong still life painting?

1: Concept.

It’s important to have a strong concept of what you want to paint before you lay the first brush stroke down. Many people feel that this means that there has to be some inner, deep, meaning to a painting that only a docent can explain to the viewer.

Although this is one concept, it’s not the only one. Many times a painting can be just about a memory that you cherish, a favorite vase, or it can be as simple as your favorite rose is blooming and you want to capture it. Having a strong concept also means planning a strategy for your painting. Do you want to have a very dramatic painting with a dark background and a lot of color or do you want to paint something ethereal and high key. Is this painting going to be a horizontal or a vertical? Do you want a lot of negative space so that the few elements in the painting take on a strong importance or do you want to fill up the space with positive shapes?

Example: painting that has little negative space.  The elements
take up most of the canvas.
Lilacs and Apricots 16_20
Title: Lilacs and Apricots
Example: painting that has more negative area than positive.  This makes the main element have great importance. This painting has a “Z” shape composition.
A Lyrical Line
Title: A Lyrical Line

2. Value

Value is King. Being able to recognize the correct value is a process that is learned by squinting. When I teach, many students judge the shadow value way too light. It’s because we are drawn to the light and when we look at the shadow value with our eyes wide open the light area affects our perception of how dark the shadow is. Squinting diminishes the amount of light that enters our eyes and is transferred to our brain. This enables us to more accurately judge the values.

Example: painting with values connected. Notice how the cast shadows of the apples connect to the value of the vase. Notice how the majority of the lights are connected in the upper half of the painting.
Ruby 3 values
Title: Ruby Red, 3 Values
Example: color version of that painting
Ruby Red opa
Title: Ruby Red

3. Temperature

If value is king then temperature is queen and in my opinion just as important as value. Students learn to paint something with a value range but seldom in my experience do teachers explain the important of temperature change. Where there is light, there is temperature change. This is what separates an average painting from an incredible painting. Nature follows laws of light that say when there is a warm light, there will be cool shadows and where there is cool light there will be warm shadows. It is often mistaken that you change planes with a value change when it can be more effective to change plans with a temperature change. I set up most of my still life’s with a 5500K light. This is a cool light, which is considered to approximate the temperature of a North Light window where the blue sky influences the light. When painting outdoors at sunrise or sunset, you will have a very warm light and cool shadows. As students we learn that Yellow, Orange and Red are warm and Blue, Green and Violet are cool. What you need to learn is that a greenish yellow will be warm next to a green but it is cool next to an orange. All colors/value are relative to what they are next too.

Example: warm and cool tones in a painting.

Love at first sight
Title: Love at First Sight

4. Composition and Connectivity

A powerful painting will have a strong connectivity through out the composition.What this means is that there will be a lyrical line that draws you from one element to the next instead of hop skipping and jumping all over the canvas randomly. Just as a music conductor stands before the orchestra telling the musicians where to increase their volume creating a crescendo and when to soften the tone so we listen harder, you are the conductor of this painting. You need to strongly say where an area will be exciting and where an area will be quite. A strong composition will follow shapes such as a “L” “S” “T” “V” and “C”. These shapes can either be drawn backwards, sideways etc to create the line that you want the viewer to follow.

Example: painting with good harmony and “S” shape composition.
Home Grown
Title: Home Grown

5. Shape

We are so accustomed to painting an element by thinking about that element as what it is. Often students paint an eye by thinking of what we think an eye looks like instead of just seeing that eye as shapes of light and dark, warm and cool, organic or abstract. Seeing things in the abstract puts you in the right side of your brain and you’ll be better able to draw the shape more accurately. When setting up my still life I am looking at shapes. I want a variety of shapes from large masses, medium masses and smaller masses. I look at my negative shapes to see that they are interesting and not repetitive. Also look at the positive shapes and determine the same thing. The key to shapes is having variety. Too much repetition is boring and static.

6. Texture and edges

A good still life will have a variety of textures and edges in the paint application. If everything is painted with similar strokes and blended all the same and all your edges are hard then you’ve created monotony. Have areas that are thin and areas that are thicker to create excitement. Great paintings will have a variety of edges. Some will be lost and some will be found. Some will be hard and some will be soft. If you want to draw someone’s attention to a certain area, which will be the focal point, then have more exciting, thicker brushwork and harder edges to that area. If you want an area to be quiet, then have quiet, thin brushwork with softer edges. Again, the key word here is variety.

Example: painting with a variety of edges and an “L” shape composition.
Silver and Cantaloupe
Title: Silver and Cantaloupe

7. Harmony

There should be a harmony throughout your painting, A similarity of color relationships. When you sing a song or play one on a piano, you establish the key in which you will sing or play. We all can hear in a song when someone is off key or a wrong note is played. The same is true for a painting. If you paint most of the painting with all soft high key colors then paint one element that is screaming in intensity, you’ve just painted a sour note. Make a decision in the concept stage what your harmony or key that you will be painting in is going to be.

 Example: painting that has a harmony with intense color.
Sunflowers and Jade
Title: Sunflowers and Jade
Example: harmony with softer colors.
Peonies and Roses 20x24
Title: Peonies and Roses

8. Color

The most often question asked by students is also the most irrelevant. “What color are you using?” Don’t ask yourself what color is it. Ask yourself what value is it? What temperature is it? How bright or dull is it? These are the three questions that constantly go through my mind as I paint. Am I too light or too dark, am I too warm or too cool, and am I too bright or too dull? Whether you paint an orange with a pure orange or with a yellow orange isn’t as important as that you have your value/temperature/intensity relationships correct.

9. Paint what you love.

I can’t over emphasize the important of painting what you know and what you love. I love my flowers. I grow all the flowers I paint. I have a connection to them. I have cared for them and they bloom for me. When I go out to my garden its as if they all shout “Paint me, Paint me!” I can paint a pig if I want to but I’m not really into pigs so when I paint one you can feel the lack of emotional attachment to it. There are many technically perfect paintings out there but they lack emotion. I would rather look at a 100 imperfect paintings where an artist put their heart and soul into the painting than look at 1 perfect unemotional painting. Good art comes from the head; great art comes for the heart.

Liz Headshot cropped

To see more of Elizabeth’s work, please visit her website. We are grateful to have generous artists sharing their experience and knowledge with us. Please visit their websites, facebook, etc. and thank them.

Art Cafe, Henri Matisse and a new form of art

I enjoy the CBS Sunday Morning show particularly when art is featured. Somehow, I missed seeing this piece on Henri Matisse. Toward the end of his life, he put down his brushes and picked up scissors and found a new form of art. It made me wonder why any of us should wait? Pick up a different tool today and a discovery might just be around the next corner. Click here to watch.

henri matisse2Henri Matisse

Ask the Expert, Plus 3

Experts Answer Your Questions

Each week Kim VanDerHoek  and Kelley Sanford will be taking questions you submit and seeking out professional, knowledgeable individuals in the industry to answer them. Questions can range from artists’ techniques, art materials, seeking inspiration to how to market your art and anything in between. While our “experts” probably wouldn’t use this label to describe themselves, we consider them professionals in their field and have knowledge to be shared. So, this is your opportunity to pose that question that you’ve been wanting to ask.

Our Ask the Expert post is slightly different today in that we have more than one expert. It was one of those questions where just one response wasn’t quite enough, so we reached out to a few more artists. Our Experts include Ken DeWaard, Margaret DyerMichele Usibelli and Francesco Fontana share what works for their studio. Each are award-winning artists and paint in a variety of mediums and genres.

Today’s Question:

What is the best kind of overhead light to have in a studio? Pam Holnback


Ken DeWaard Studio Lighting:

ken dewaard profileI have had a number of studios over the years and prefer natural North light because the color clarity is by far the best to work under. When I built my studio, I built it with this in mind. Photo Oct 09, 4 24 15 PMMy two main windows are over 6 feet high by 3 feet wide each and are 12 feet at the highest point on the north side of the building. From that high point on the north side the ceiling is slanted down to 8 feet to channel light towards my easel. With north light in mind, I did not install any other windows on the east, west, or southern sides. Where I live in Wisconsin we loose the light during the winter months at about 3:00 p.m. so, alongside of both windows as well as in the middle there are 4 foot Shoplites with color corrected fluorescent tubes. Photo Oct 09, 4 25 09 PMThat’s 3 Shoplites with 6 fluorescent tubes total. I rarely paint at night but these lights provide enough light for me to do so if I wish.

The sides of my studio ceilings are 8 feet high and in that area I have track lighting for exhibiting purposes only, I do not use them to paint from. Every now and again on one of those dreary Wisconsin winter days I may have to utilize a back up Shoplite that is positioned behind me on the slanted ceiling shaft area to add a little more light to my easel.

Besides lighting, one of the most important elements in my studio is the 14 foot runner I use to step back from my work. I keep my turp. at the end, away from my easel so that I must step back continually to see my painting from a distance.

Margaret Dyer Studio Lighting

Margaret Dyer

Like most artists I know, I have had to work in so many lighting situations, I have learned to make do with almost anything. But I am currently converting a garage into a studio, and I will have large windows facing north for steady light all day long. That will prevent me from having to deal with blinding sunshine pouring directly into the room and creating that dreaded light that crosses the room throughout the day. I will have halogen overheads.

margaret dyer yellow bucket

The nature of my work doesn’t require me to balance the temperature of my lighting. When I paint with pastels, I am constantly glazing warm over cool, then cool over warm, and I’ve discovered that the temperature of light in my studio does not affect my work as much as it might other artists’.

Michele Usibelli Studio Lighting

michele usibelli
I use full spectrum fluorescent lights in my studio.Usibelli Studio 3
Usibelli Studio 2Usibelli Studio 4
I also have each light bar on a separate electrical feed so I have the option of keeping some off and some on and playing with the light. My windows face east so, sometimes I paint with natural light only.
Usibelli Studio 1

Francesco Fontana Studio Lighting

francesco fontanaWhen I got my studio space six years ago I had to set up the lighting system from the scratch. It is a large enough a space to hold classes. I did not want to have cast shadows on the canvas, no matter where my students would set up their easels in the room. The decided to use 13 double fluorescent tubes each of 36w with cool light.

960x640_bestfit_40 2015-05-09 11.27.04

The whole 1000 sq. ft. space is illuminated by about 1000 watts. The light is a cold white (4000 kelvin), a little cooler than the average daylight at midday, to ensure a greater volume of lumens. I needed extra power since the studio is located in the shadow cone of a building and to compensate for the fact that the existing windows do not face north. To warm it up a bit I recently painted the walls a warm dove gray. A good compromise all in all!

Kim and I appreciate the tremendous response from all the experts we have asked to contribute to our blog. Each of our guests are working artists like us, just a bit further down the artistic path. Please show them a little “love” by visiting their websites, blogs, facebook pages and letting them know how much you appreciate their willingness to share their knowledge.

Do you have a burning question you’d like us to find an art expert to answer? CLICK HERE to submit your question today!

Art Cafe, Powerful Portrait

I’m never quite sure where my search to find new and different Art Cafe moments will land me, hence this week’s post. When I look for inspiration, electricity isn’t what crosses my mind. Definitely not adding this to my list. I’m dangerous enough without adding the element of being electrocuted. But it seems to work for this guy. Power ON!!!!

Ask the Expert…Greg LaRock

Greg LaRock

This week Greg LaRock is our Ask the Expert. Greg is a member of LPAPA, AIS, ASMA and an artist member of the California Art Club. He has participated in many plein air events such as Maui Plein Air Invitational, Florida’s Forgotten Coast, Door County Invitational and has won numerous awards including the Grand Prize at Plein Air Easton. He lives in Newport Beach, California and is one genuinely nice guy.


When I’m painting Plein Air, how do I edit everything I see in order to create a good composition?


Magic! … well not really. Most of it is hard observation over a long period of time and lots of thought before I commit to a scene.

I believe a painting should be built from the ground up. So coming up with a plan as to how I will construct the painting is my first goal.

When I arrive at a painting location, I don’t just jump at the first beautiful view that presents itself. I’ve learned long ago that taking my time will result in a better painting. I walk around with a viewfinder and look at the area from many angles and when I see something promising, I start the process which goes something like this:

Florida Boatyard
Florida Boatyard

First question I ask myself is “is the scene about the earth or the sky?” If it’s about the sky or items in the sky area (like trees, buildings, etc. or boats in dry dock as shown in my example) then I will place my horizon below center. If it’s about the earth, then a high horizon will be drawn. Dividing the canvas in two without putting the line dead center is thought one. Next, I will start to decide how the biggest shapes in the scene will divide the canvas. Since all paintings are really just an organization of shapes, how those elements are placed in an interesting, non-symmetrical way will be the key to a good foundation. These big shapes can be divided into four or five masses that I’ll play around with. These might consist of the four light planes (as described in John Carlson’s book “Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting”): Sky, ground, slants (hills or distant mountains) and uprights (trees or structures). Thinking and seeing these items as individual units and figuring out how they will be placed on the canvas in a pleasing way. I also might change my viewpoint moving right or left, back or forth 10-20 feet to see if those masses make better patterns. When I’ve got an idea of which spot will be best, then I’ll set up.

Next, I will loosely draw in pencil those largest shapes first, being very careful as to how they divvy up the canvas. If it makes sense to extend the tree line, let’s say so that it doesn’t end in the middle of the canvas, then I’ll make it larger or shorter depending on how I see the composition. I don’t always depict nature exactly as I see it. I’ll enlarge, shrink, change, fudge or simply delete or move items if I think it’ll create a better painting.

How these first few elements are introduced are crucial. I will then decide where my focal point will be. I like to leave myself some options of a focal interest as there is usually several things in a scene that drew me to it, not just one element.
Get 'er Done, Flat Shapes
Get ‘er Done, Flat Shapes

The images included show a scene I painted out in Florida earlier this year. While the scene is very complex. I’ve shown an example of how I first see it in about 5 basic elements that make up the bones of the painting. The attraction to this scene was light and dark patterns as big shapes. Once I’ve got this idea down, the rest is just execution and good drawing. Keeping in mind that every time I break up a large shape into a smaller one, it’s attempted in an interesting way. Notice how the back tree line was painted lighter than it was to create contrast for the boat. And also how I kept some of those dark trees on the far right for the contrast on the lit back end of the boat. Also adding a few of those dark notes on the other boat at the far left adds balance with the dark tree at right.

Get 'er Done
Get ‘er Done

This scene was painted over three days. The first day was only figuring out the composition and completing the drawing of the boat on my canvas — all in all about 3 hours. Days two and three were completing the painting.

A lot of planning at the first stage is the key to success!

greg larockTo see more of Greg’s wonderful work, please visit his website.

Art Cafe,The Sketchbook Project

Mention the word sketchbook and a smile will appear on my face. I don’t know what it is about them but given entry into artists’ studios and I’ll search for their sketchbooks. Some artists readily share them, others deny their existence. So when I came across the Brooklyn Art Library and their Sketchbook Project, well what can I say…it’s now on my list of places to visit. They have over 26,000 sketchbooks from around the world.

sketchbook project

Click here to watch a short video about the Sketchbook Project. You can also view the latest collection of sketchbooks online.