Ask the Expert…Gladys Roldan de Moras

Question: How important is it to have discipline in painting?


“The distance between dreams and reality is called discipline” Author unknown

48x48_adjust blue
Devotion, 48×48, private collection

I find it difficult to believe that I have been on this art journey for over 30 years. This is a trek that started early in my life. As a little girl, I would beg my parents to let me attend art classes. As a student at the school of medicine, I would love to draw and sculpt models for my Embryology/Histology classes. I used to think that medical school was such a long journey… I never imagined that the time spent in the arts would be even a longer one…a lifelong journey indeed.

I must say that at times this art journey has been a hard, time consuming adventure, and at times, even frustrating. Admittedly, it is a journey I would not change for any other one.

Through the years, I have had the opportunity to meet a plethora of wonderful aspiring artists, be it through workshops, classes, seminars or informal get-togethers.

Many times I would stand in awe as I watched these gifted artist paint. I knew that some of these artists were beyond gifted; I must admit that at times their masterful artistry would make me feel a bit insecure about my own work and progress. Time went by.

Many years later, I wondered about some of those budding artists. Where were they?

Had they achieve the great heights I had predicted? Surely, I thought, they have become prominent and well known. Perhaps they are hanging in the best galleries and participating in the great competitions and exhibitions. While I was not sure about me and my own work, I knew they would continue to paint beautiful paintings. However, many left the art world to pursue other venues.

Gladys b
At the Rose Window, 33×18

I realize now that, as an artist, it has taken much perseverance, dogged determination and dedication and relentless discipline to continue on. I have attended countless workshops and lectures, visited all kinds of art museums and assiduously participated in life drawing sessions. I made up my mind to continue on until concepts became easier for me to understand and brush mileage was all I was interested in.

Many times I would spend a whole day in the studio working on a painting, only to realize that the fruits of my labor would not meet my expectations. Back in the day, I would senselessly keep those canvases. Today, when things do not work out, I wipe the canvas clean and, without hesitation, start over. There is no need to keep work I am not happy or proud of.

Discipline has indeed been pivotal in my growth as an artist. As Jim Rohn aptly stated, “Discipline is the bridge between goals and accomplishments.” I constantly share this fundamental principle with my students. I emphasize the fact that failing to produce a masterpiece after a life drawing session, a paint-out, and even a month-long effort should never be taken as a ominous, catastrophic sign, but rather as an indication that discipline and hard work are always needed.

The Good Book, 24×30, private collection

I am truly grateful that I have been able to create paintings that people appreciate. I am convinced that it has been discipline, persistence, and determination have helped accomplish these goals.

Early on in my career, I made the decision to work Monday through Friday. On those occasions when a painting was not going the way I wanted, I would stop and perhaps read an art book, research an artist I admire, read their biography, and attempt to figure out that artist’s troubleshooting philosophy. I would also resort to studying nature in an effort to learn essential principles of design, color harmony, color temperature, etc. I feel privileged to live in the era of internet. The ability to spend a couple of hours looking at high resolution images of paintings is something many artists would have loved to have. Other times, I would gain much inspiration by visiting the local art museum. Those fine artists who are now hanging on the museum walls were able to achieve their aspirations; I too must work hard to accomplish my dreams.

The Visit, 40×30, private collection

I have come to realize that many of us who continued working day in and day out on our craft perhaps got better and achieved some goals not necessarily because we were more gifted and talented as compared to some other students, but simply because we developed a scrupulous discipline, a rigorous and meticulous routine and an unswerving sense of perseverance. My advice to you is never to give up, to continue on, to persist. You have my assurance that, sooner or later, you will be rewarded.



Gladys is an instructor at the Coppini Academy of Fine Arts, San Antonio, TX and visit her website to see more of her work.







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Ask the Expert…Mark Laguë

Question: How important is the pre-planning stage of your work? When you start painting, is it in a more detailed and accurate fashion, then lose the information, or vise versa?


Sacre Coeur, Paris

At the risk of being wishy-washy, I would have to say that I do it both ways. The short answer to how much pre-planning I do is none. If you look at the main dome in the progressive demo for “Sacre Coeur, Paris”, I established it very early on in the process, and left it untouched right through to the end. Other parts of the painting, however went from being very suggestive to being firmed up with detail and hard edges, only to be wiped out again with paper towel or a large brush.



I don’t do a lot of still life, but this genre would probably be the only time where I do any pre-planning at all. Even then, the planning is exclusively done in the arranging of the objects, not in the execution of the painting. I prefer to dive right in with the painting, introducing the full range of values and colour intensity right from the start. From there it’s a constant battle to keep things fresh and painterly, while at the same time, integrating the figure/ground relationships so that nothing looks cut out and pasted own. I also try to be mindful not to over-blend, so as to avoid an overly misty and ethereal look.



Nothing lends to a fresh, spontaneous painting quite like transparent paint does, and no medium exploits the beauty of transparent paint like watercolour does. Having worked for years with watercolour before getting serious with oils, I find it has had a significant influence on how I approach oil painting. Obviously there is no pre-planning for a little five minute watercolour sketch like this. When working this way, it’s all about sacrifices in drawing and composition, but these sacrifices are worth it for what you get back in freshness and spontaneity.


New York Sun, detail

There’s a myth among students that opaque media like oil and acrylic are easier to use and much more forgiving than transparent, water- based media. I don’t think this is true. Granted, you always have the option to scrape and start again with oil, I feel it’s always best when you can achieve the effect you want in the first pass, regardless of medium. In the detail of the painting “New York Sun”, I painted the side of the taxi with a large knife in a single slow but confident stroke. Again, as in the watercolour wash, what’s sacrificed in good drawing is more than made up for in freshness and exciting paint quality.

Not Being Precious:

Montreal Turquoise Rain, detail

The distant buildings in the detail of “Montreal Turquoise Rain” went through many manifestations and levels of detail before I settled on this. That’s not to say I’m satisfied with the end result, but years of experience have taught me that virtually any part of a painting is improved by boldly blasting through an area with lots of painstaking details with a large flat brush to simplify it. Have I ever scraped or wiped away an area and immediately regretted it? Absolutely! This is the price you pay taking the approach I do to painting. That’s why I almost never go back and touch up a painting I have deemed finished. I’d rather scrap it and start again. Charles Reid once said that when he feels that a painting he’s working on is going really well, he worries that the end result will be disappointing. This happens to me all the time.

When I’m really excited about a painting that’s only a quarter way done, I inevitably get too precious about it and everything becomes tight and contrived.


Symphony Three

It was very difficult to leave the distant musicians in “Symphony Three” in such a state of “unfinish”, but I knew it was worth sacrificing them to allow the one violinist in the lower center to be the focal area. I guess it all depends on what we deem most important in our work. When I look at it now, the draftsman in me wants to go back and paint eyes and fingernails on all the musicians, while the designer in me knows that the overall painting is better for leaving them be.

The Struggle:


All painting comes with a certain degree of struggle, no matter how much experience you have. I find this struggle is magnified when trying to compose ambitious aerial paintings. Even with these, however, I try to avoid too much pre-planning. It used to be I would never begin a large ambitious painting without doing numerous value studies and a small oil sketch. In recent years I’ve gone away from that, as I found that I was using up all my spontaneity on the sketch. I now find it best to work out my compositional problems right on the surface, usually beginning with a monochrome wash of value patches. No lines. I then work from front to back, introducing the full value range right from the start, to be able to judge relative values right away. All the while I’m painting in details, and scrubbing them out, all with the intention of losing edges and consolidating values.

In My Studio


Visit Mark Laguë’s website to see
more of his art.




We are excited to announce that Mark will be our September judge for Art Muse Contest.

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Art Cafe…A Day in the Life of a Museum Curator

At one point in my life, I thought that being a museum curator would be a cool job. Then I started painting and realized that I couldn’t even deal with my own stacks of art. Here is a short video about the Day in the Life of Nancy Blomberg, Chief Curator and Curator of Native Arts at the Denver Art Museum.

Ask the Expert…Iain Stewart

Question: What are the daily practices you incorporate to make you a better artist?


This is typically one of the first questions asked in all of my workshops.
13Regulier 6” x 6” a quick watercolor done on Stillman & Birn (noted as SB from now on) Beta paper with Daniel Smith paints.

For one, I don’t like to describe myself as an artist, I am a watercolor painter and believe that if others choose to use that particular label when describing my work then they are welcome to do so. That is not a title I bestow upon myself. I do know what I do to become a better painter, and within that process begin to look at the world with an artist’s eye, which I think is the more important distinction of the two.

Barcelona,Spain. A typical sketchbook double page in my SB Alpha series sketchbook.
So how do I become a better painter?
This is the question that I am driving at and have been giving thought to for years. My belief is that my painting is grounded heavily in my sketchbook work, and in particular, my drawing habits. At times, the simplest of solutions provide the most promising results and drawing and painting from life, with regularity, is my one and only rule of thumb. Before heading off to read about the latest “world’s worst tattoos” on buzzfeed or other such gripping subjects please hear me out. You can be a workshop junky, self taught, or just starting your journey to put your thoughts and dreams on paper or canvas, but this one habit will deliver results from the start and which will only become more pronounced the more you practice them. Let’s also dispel the entire ideology of 10,000 hours of practice make you a master in your field of study. It’s 10,000 hours of the right kind of practice. You could easily waste 9,999 of those hours on habits that point you in the wrong direction.
2013DowntownLA- a plein air piece I did while painting with my friends Tom Schaller and William Hook down by the LA river. Very gritty, dirty, big machines, loud noises. All the things I love.
2013DowntownLA- a plein air piece I did while painting with my friends Tom Schaller and William Hook down by the LA river. Very gritty, dirty, big machines, loud noises. All the things I love.
A favorite book of mine on drawing that my friend Richard Scott recently wrote is Sketching from Square One to Trafalgar Square and I recommend it to all of my students. With the lessons in hand from this book, and the will to better your drawing skills, you will certainly improve. I also offer the following advice. Do not skip a step from lesson one on. Square one is not a metaphor. The big ideas are realized through the understanding that drawing is mainly an understanding of shapes and relationships. By breaking down seemingly complex scenes in to their basic forms before you start to think of detail you will begin the important steps in understanding how to teach yourself and start to feel the great freedom from the want of an instructor standing at your side. Most importantly you will begin to learn how to critique your own work.

So what is daily drawing?

Instanbul Rooftops Another sketchbook page in the SB. Our view from the rooftop of our hotel toward the Bosphorus in Istanbul.
Instanbul Rooftops.  Another sketchbook page in the SB. Our view from the rooftop of our hotel toward the Bosphorus in Istanbul.

Simply put it is the practice of observation and recording your surroundings on a daily basis. In a deeper sense it is you beginning to train yourself to “see” the heart of your subject and how to ignore all of the unimportant elements within the view that steal its purity and those that lend power to the composition. It teaches editing, organization, composition, and will power. It is not an easy task to fail at something you want desperately to do well, but fail you must, if you are going to get better. All of my successes are built upon failures and the solutions to them more than any decent painting I have ever done. Good paintings do not teach. They are like drinking buddies they just slap you on the back and say “atta boy.” A failed attempt makes you look inside yourself for where you went wrong and why. It hurts and you remember the sting. You begin to find ways to avoid that by beginning again and taking a different route or you give up. For me giving up is not an option and neither should it be for you. Another piece of advice I would give to those starting out is do not look at other artists work and remember, at some point, they were just where you are. It may have been at a younger age, it may have been a quicker and seemingly easier accent to where they find themselves now, but I can guarantee that everyone of them has struggled with the same things you find yourself struggling with now. As a friend of mine, David Rankin, said so eloquently. “Everyone has a great painting in their mind. They just lack the technical proficiency to put those ideas on paper.”

So far we’re off to a very light hearted article.
13Westvillagenyc another typical sketchbook page done on the street. I love painting in New York. No one cares. They just walk on by.
13West Village, NYC,  another typical sketchbook page done on the street. I love painting in New York. No one cares. They just walk on by.

Let’s look at the plus side of things for a moment. If I were to win the lottery tomorrow you would not see me for a very long time. That is not to say I would not be working. I would just be doing so in a way that pleases me for my own sake and as I traveled from place to place I would have my sketchbook, paints, and family with me. The practice of recording my surroundings is no longer something I can physically choose to do or not. I am a junky. I live for sketching and painting in different locations and the joy that brings. How so you say? I began keeping a sketchbook in earnest when I was an architecture student and have kept up with that on and off for the last 26 years. In the last 5 or so I have redoubled that effort and record and sketch everywhere I go. That record and practice in your life will become incredibly precious to you. As my wife will attest, when I am in a new place I get twitchy and uncomfortable until I am able to get out and begin working. I often rise quite early and to sketch on location and bring back coffee and breakfast long before the real day has started. I also tend to go to bed early when on vacation so that I can repeat that process. To be completely honest you have to understand that this way of living is in many respects selfish behavior. I carve my day up in to the parts that are mine (sketching and painting) and those that I will spend with my wife sightseeing and taking pictures. It’s a good sort of selfishness though in the same way exercise is “you time” sketching is my time and I can become quite petulant without enough of it. I might add that it takes an understanding partner and I’ve put that one to the test more than a few times to her credit.

Bistratmazarin. A little challenge sketch my wife gave me. She asked what can I draw in the time it takes her to drink a glass of sparkling white wine in Paris on a hot June day. One of my favorite sketches as it’s so loose and free- only the necessary information. A good bit of editing and all done in 7 minutes.

I have 3 rules regarding the use of a sketchbook. Number one- never tear a page out of it regardless of how well you think your efforts were rewarded. Number Two- review rule one and apply it again. Rule Three- review both rules one and two and don’t disappoint me. The beauty of a sketchbook is in it’s importance to its owner and the record of your journey. As a favorite writer of mine, P.G. Wodehouse, puts it “you must learn to take a few smooths with the rough.” The other, more important aspect, is a sketch need not have any other aspirations than itself no matter it’s worth to yourself or others. If you apply the three rules it cannot be framed, be rejected or accepted to an exhibition, and your sketchbook survives to be a place of refuge for your innermost thoughts and ideas.  In short a sketch can not become precious or something more than itself. A page in a sketchbook.

Bluemosque a quick sketch done from a rooftop bar in Istanbul. Whenever I get the chance to have a cold beer on a hot day and sketch in the shade I take it.
Blue Mosque, a quick sketch done from a rooftop bar in Istanbul. Whenever I get the chance to have a cold beer on a hot day and sketch in the shade I take it.

Maybe it’s a good one maybe not. You also get to choose to whom and what pages you share. If you don’t want anyone to see then simply don’t show them. I find that the most intimate qualities of artists that I admire are so clearly defined in their sketchbooks and they fascinate me. I can see the glimmers of ideas and how they become more solid and mature leading up to the finished pieces we all see on display in exhibitions and shows. There is a truthfulness to a sketch that is rarely seen in studio work. The little mistakes, the construction lines, the notation. All of these combine to create the first attempts to bring a vision to life and they are so very wonderful to observe.

14PierreLoti2 A studio piece done from a photograph- The study is lost to the netherworld of my studio but survives there somewhere. This received 2nd Place in last years Mississippi Grand National Exhibition.
14PierreLoti2.  A studio piece done from a photograph- The study is lost to the netherworld of my studio but survives there somewhere. This received 2nd Place in last years Mississippi Grand National Exhibition.
15Venasquedwg a little study sketch done prior to a larger watercolor. I do these value studies with all my paintings.
15Venasquedwg,  a little study sketch done prior to a larger watercolor. I do these value studies with all my paintings.

My goal as a painter is to  bring the immediacy and vibrancy of the sketchbook in to my studio work. It is an ongoing struggle and one that I am determined to see through to the end. I take energy and joy from the act of drawing and that is transferred to the painting. A good drawing can carry a poor painting and the opposite is never the case.

Naval Arch Brooklyn A sketchbook painting done right after I saw the Sargent Exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. The essence of what I try and achieve in my painting. Editing down to it’s bare bones, simplifying shape, suggested detail, et al.
Naval Arch Brooklyn, a sketchbook painting done right after I saw the Sargent Exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum. The essence of what I try and achieve in my painting. Editing down to it’s bare bones, simplifying shape, suggested detail, et al.

To sum up my goals in writing this I dearly want you to understand that there are many other factors that will improve your painting and there are plenty of books and DVDs out there that will indeed introduce you to different techniques. Workshops and hearing differing points of view are also extremely useful. Allow me to most shamelessly promote my own DVDs and workshops here as well. I have taught and traveled extensively over the last few years and I have seen students struggle or be intimidated by what they perceive their skill level will be put up against the rest of the group. I always say a workshop is not the place where masterpieces will be done. They are the first step in a long journey of understanding the ideas and techniques presented by the instructor. I ask that they free themselves of this worry and embrace the void. We are all here for the same reason. To learn and enjoy ourselves, and by doing so, create without fear of failure. If you are going fail do so spectacularly. Never go down with a whimper. Embrace those failures, learn to love them, and they will serve you better than any lesson I can give.

Draw. The tools are simple to find and easily transportable. I carry a Stillman & Birn Alpha Series sketchbook, a Palomino Blackwing pencil, a sharpener, and little else. If I am painting in the sketchbook I carry a small travel palette and my Escoda travel brushes. There are few pleasures greater to me in life than that moment when I press pause on my day and begin a drawing on a new street or in the landscape. Everything slows down, I can hear ambient sounds, I take time to notice the light and shadow, the people, the tourists, the place, the smells. When I review my work I remember all of those things so much clearer than any photograph can replicate.
In the words of a dear mentor of mine, the late Samuel Mockbee, “Proceed and be Bold.”

Iain Stewart is an award winning watercolorist and a signature member of the American Watercolor Society and the National Watercolor Society.

Selected Awards, Exhibitions, and Publications.

  • In to the Quarter, New Orleans- 3rd Place overall. International Watercolor Society 2012
  • From Pierre Loti Hill, Istanbul- 2nd Place Mississippi Grand National Exhibition 2015
  • The Chestnut Vendor, Istanbul- Dorothy Brown Award 2014 National Watercolor Society Members Exhibition.
  • From Thurlow Dam Tallassee, Alabama- The Cheap Joe’s Purchase Award 2012 National Watercolor Society International Exhibition
  • Apse End Notre Dame- selected for inclusion in the First NWS / China small works Exchange 2015.
  • Works selected for the Shanghai Zhujiajiao International Watercolour Biennial Exhibition in 2012 and 2015
  • Splash 15 and 16
  • The Art of Watercolour- Feature article Issue No.10 “Art in Constant Evolution” Watercolor Artist March 2012- Feature Article and Cover Artwork
    Pratique des Arts- feature 2011
    3 DVD Instructional Set- Northlight books.
    Masters of Watercolor No.2- by Konstantin Sterkoff

Iain maintains a studio in Opelika, Alabama, and in addition to being a sought after workshop instructor and juror, is an Architectural Illustrator with an international clientele, and an adjunct professor at the Auburn University School of Architecture.

Find out more by visiting his website,

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Ask the Expert…Maggie Siner

Question: What does “seeing” like an artist really mean?


Pont Julian, 2015, 11x13ins oil on linen,©2016Maggie Siner
Pont Julian, 2015, 11x13ins oil on linen,©2016Maggie Siner

To me, the word ‘artist’ only applies to a few people who’ve reached the highest degree of mastery, so it’s not a word I use very often.  But when it comes to painting, I think the most important thing is learning to see shapes instead of objects.  Maurice Denis said it beautifully  in 1890: “Remember that a picture  –  before being a war-horse,  a nude, or some other subject, is essentially a flat surface covered with colors arranged in a particular order.”  

WW 692 Hand on Neck, 2015, 13x20, oil on paper, ©2016Maggie Siner
Hand on Neck, 2015, 13×20, oil on paper, ©2016Maggie Siner

This means objects and scenes must be broken down to their constituent color planes, one color next to another, in order to create the illusion of three dimensional objects and space.  Shapes of color are the only tool we have.

With such limited means, how are we to make air, space, three dimensional forms, light, movement, weight, temperature, surfaces and all the qualities of our real experience?  The way is to use those flat colored shapes in the same way our brains take the colored shapes of real light stimulating our eyes to create a picture of the real world outside our bodies.

Green Blanket, 24x30, oil, ©2016Maggie Siner
Green Blanket, 24×30, oil, ©2016Maggie Siner

Study visual perception.  Take our clues from how we actually see and become an exceptionally sensitive seer.

Just as a musician has to become an extremely sensitive hearing creature, with ears attuned to the finest shades in order to communicate auditory experience, so the painter develops his or her sense of vision to a very nuanced degree.  That doesn’t mean having good eyesight, but it does mean knowing how we actually see, how we respond to color and shape in a physical and emotional way, how our eyes move and travel, stop on an edge or leap to a point of contrast, how we react to verticals and diagonals, how one color alters another color, and how shapes create weight, movement and lead our eyes along a path.  This is the visual language.  If we see it, we can translate it into paint.

In ordinary life our brains mostly bypass the mechanism of ‘seeing’ and take us directly to the conclusion. That means we think we see objects, nameable things and events;  here is a sunset, a dinner plate, my husband Harry,  but in fact, we only see colors and shapes. It is our brains busily putting these bits of light together that make the world comprehensible and alive. Basically, a painter must learn to see the world before naming;  to see the abstract world of color and shape.

Laundry,11x15, oil, ©2016Maggie Siner
Laundry,11×15, oil, ©2016Maggie Siner

For example, we have a basic instinct to put a line around an object, to identify and separate it from it’s surroundings, but it only takes a little visual education to see that there are no lines around objects.  A line is simply the meeting of two different areas of color. Earth meets sky and we see a line.  The line around an object is a conceptual event, not a visual event (unless the object is silhouetted against a starkly different background). Three dimensional objects are made of several shapes depending on the change of surface direction, toward or away from the light. These are planes. We learn to see how each plane changes direction and color, and where these planes join or separate from their surroundings, in order to understand our perception of three dimensionality. Learning to see patterns of light and dark, value, color and position, the painter quickly discovers that all these visual events are related and relative. The visual system depends on the brain constantly comparing one thing to another: This thing is light because it is near a dark, this is small because something else is big, this is red because it is redder than it’s surroundings. The entire visual field is interconnected and interdependent.

Lido Bathers,10x15, oil,©2016Maggie Siner
Lido Bathers,10×15, oil,©2016Maggie Siner

In seeing, our brains are busy eliminating most of the information we receive, because it is habitual or it is not important at that moment. In painting, we have to learn to do something similar, to focus on the important bits of information and eliminate the rest. Otherwise all is confusion and clutter. Inevitably, the most important bits of information are not what we expect. Rather, they concern what is absent from painting, namely, three dimensionality, space and movement.

Our eyes are constantly in motion, comparing and selecting. We see very quickly, and we paint very slowly! While painting we gather a vast amount of visual detail, most of which just confuses the original impact of the thing we saw.

Seeing like a painter also means knowing one’s way around the rectangle.  Boundaries have a critical effect on what happens inside the painting. It is the same for any designer (stage, interior, architect): What can be done in this space? The boundary of the rectangle creates four walls against which everything in the painting moves. Different places inside the rectangle have different weight and meaning. (For example, shapes at the bottom seem heavy.  Shapes meeting the edge imply continuation of space outside the rectangle.) Each mark and each direction set up movements that affect everything else in the painting.

Deserted Island,6×16, oil, ©2016Maggie Siner

As an aside, many people use photographs as a shortcut for seeing. Although photos can be useful visual reminders, they pretty much prevent any kind of real understanding of vision or three-dimensionality, since a camera doesn’t ‘see’ the way humans do. Painting from photos is the best way to retard your ability to see. I could go on about this at great length.

Ways to push beyond technique to create engaging and powerful paintings?

Perhaps it’s mistake to focus on ‘technique’ by itself.

Maximillian,19x23, oil, ©2016Maggie Siner
Maximillian,19×23, oil, ©2016Maggie Siner

If there is technique without honest emotion, then it is not good technique. Even the simplest line drawing should come from a direct sincere physical source. In other words, technique shouldn’t be separate from intent. Of course a painter wants to develop skills, and this takes many years, but skills should always be at the service of the painting’s expressive meaning.  To put it in another way, technique should reflect your passion. If you love the human form, you will want to develop your understanding of anatomy, and if you love color, you will want to learn about color relationships. Technique is at the service of larger goals. Painting is a continual process of development, not a series of techniques learned and then applied. My training (at Boston University) was seriously technique-based, so I don’t mean to downplay having good foundational skills. They are essential. But I think they should always be connected to the source, and that way you will never have to “push beyond technique” for powerful paintings.

How to find beauty in unexpected places?

That is easy!  Just look at the world in terms of colors and shapes. Stop looking at objects.  Look at the patterns made by shapes of light and dark, see how beautiful they are and what they say. Look at textures. Look at the interactions of forms.  Look at the spaces between objects (the negative shapes). Look at the drama among shapes.  Change your scale. I think the easiest way to find something beautiful is to put a rectangle around it. Hold up your viewfinder to just about anything and it will suddenly become interesting, rich with pattern and meaning, because the addition of boundaries brings shapes more clearly into view, and emphasizes their gesture and energy and creates a structure. Limits are the source of invention.

How to build or develop your own visual language or style?

Van Gogh, Cypresses, 1890, 37x29, oil, Rogers Fund 1949
Van Gogh, Cypresses, 1890, 37×29, oil, Rogers Fund 1949

Style, in a way, is like handwriting. It comes naturally from one’s own body and hand; an expression of one’s interaction with the visual world and the materials used. It’s not something applied from the outside, but something that comes from within.





Van Gogh, Meadow in the Garden St-Paul Hospital, 1890, 64.5x81cm, oil, Nat Gal London
Van Gogh, Meadow in the Garden St-Paul Hospital, 1890, 64.5x81cm, oil, Nat Gal London

At first one learns from a wide range of approaches, but eventually one’s interests will focus and guide stylistic choices. Sometimes painting requires the invention of new styles. When Van Gogh put down his brushes and squeezed paint directly out of the tube onto the canvas, it was out of necessity. There was no other way to get the saturation of color and movement of paint that he needed.  (Unfortunately many of those pigments were fugitive and so what we now see are not likely the colors he intended).

There are many aspects to the visual world, many ways to see, and many materials to use. All of these take the artist in a different stylistic direction.

The best way to find your own voice is not to look at what people around you are doing, and to be honest in your own responses.  Degas put it very well: “It seems to me that today, if the artist wishes to be serious – to cut out a little original niche for himself, or at least preserve his own innocence of personality – he must sink himself in solitude.”

Rembrandt, Woman Bathing in a Stream, 1654, 62x47 cm, oil on oak, Nat Gal London
Rembrandt, Woman Bathing in a Stream, 1654, 62×47 cm, oil on oak, Nat Gal London

We are all unique individuals with different life experiences. This is one of the amazing things about painting and why it continues to be a vital means of expression in spite of contemporary views telling us painting is old hat. If you were interested in atmosphere and the substance of air and light in the moment it filters through the space between eye and distant objects, then you might develop a style of broken brushwork and eroded fuzzy edges, like some Impressionist painters.

Monet, Rue Montorgueil Paris, 1878, 81x50cm, oil on canvas, Musee d’Orsay
Monet, Rue Montorgueil Paris, 1878, 81x50cm, oil on canvas, Musee d’Orsay

If you were passionate about tactile physicality of forms as they come into being when struck by light, then you may end up painting like Rembrandt (we should be so lucky!) If you felt the clarity of timeless silent moments, you might end up with smooth surfaces of verticals and horizontals, painting like Vermeer.

Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, c.1664, 39.7 x 35.5 cm, oil on canvas, Nat Gal DC
Vermeer, Woman Holding a Balance, c.1664, 39.7 x 35.5 cm, oil on canvas, Nat Gal DC

If you were urgently trying to measure the distances between and around objects in space, you might paint like Giacometti, and so on. Style is your response to the world.

Giacometti, Annette, 1951, Leopold Museum
Giacometti, Annette, 1951, Leopold Museum


It comes directly out of paint handling; it’s not really about subject matter. Paint handling means developing a physical relationship with the material of paint so that it is responsive to your every breath – to use it generously, respectfully, honestly, and to let it have it’s own way. Too much control of the paint itself makes a surface that is stultified or facile. It takes a long time to develop that kind of relationship, but that is where the individual voice sings.

Years ago when I was teaching painting at a Chinese university, the students, in their final year of painting, all had exceptionally perfect technique in the classic sense of drawing and rendering form. They also all painted exactly alike – in the style of 19th century Salon Academies applied to social realism subjects.  That is how they were taught. No one had ever suggested that they develop individual handwriting or personal style and yet that is what they all wanted to accomplish. I set them out on a series of painting exercises, each one focusing a different aspect of painting. Each approach greatly simplified the available visual information and the painting elements used. One painting used only flat shapes, another only broken brushstrokes. One painting using patterns of light and dark, another painting used straight lines and parallel angles, and so on. Each of these emphasized a particular way of seeing. By the end of a few weeks, each painter had very acutely discovered which aspects of perception and the visual world were most moving to them.  Out of this they pursued and developed their own styles.

Copying and studying the Masters is a great way to experience different world views and ways of painting. It’s not that one is trying to paint ‘like Rembrandt’, or ‘like Cezanne’. That would be impossible and anachronistic and not honest to oneself.  It’s more that one learns how different perceptual minds work by re-living the visual experience and world of the painter. Through this one discovers what parts of reality and painting truly resonate with oneself and what one is trying to communicate. The more painters you copy, the better, but only copy the really good ones!


View more of Maggie’s wonderful work by visiting her website.

Ask the Expert…Margaret Dyer

Question: I’ve hired my first model to shoot reference photos for future paintings. How do I make the most out of the photography session?

Answer: Working with Models

Margaret Dyer with Model, Dakota
Margaret Dyer with Model, Dakota

I am a figurative artist. I work from life and from photo reference, which I get from my photo sessions with models. I am often asked how to work with a model. People want to know about poses, backgrounds and lighting. In the pastel classes I teach, I often set up a photo session for my students so they can get familiar with photographing a model and working from their own photos. Here’s a brief description of how I work with models.




margaret model imageI use a Nikon D80 DSLR. I never use a flash. If I don’t have strong natural light coming from a window to illuminate the model, I’ll use my spotlight with a 200 watt bulb, placing it close enough to the model to create strong lights and shadows on her. I am not concerned about the warmth or coolness of the bulb; I make my temperature decisions while I’m painting. All I want from my photographs is stronglights and shadows that define the subject and create a sense of depth.


Denise with Striped Fabric
Denise with Striped Fabric

I pay a model $50 for a one-hour session. From that session I may get as many as 400 shots. If 1/5 of them are good for reference, I’ve had a successful session. A good shoot will keep me busy for months.


No matter how attractive or photogenic a person may be, some people are stiff in front of the camera.

Maria's Pedicure
Maria’s Pedicure

It may take you a while to find a model who is relaxed and not self-conscious, but it will make a world of difference in your final paintings. One thing I usually tell my models is that I don’t even have to see her face; I am only looking for a story. I never pose the model; I let her act naturally. I may tell her to fold laundry, draw a bath, disrobe, make cookies with her children, and ask her to do it slowly enough for me to get lots of pictures that won’t be blurred. I make sure the spotlight is very close to her, creating the strong lights and shadows that I need. If she moves away from the spotlight, I pick up the spotlight and place it next to her in the new position. I also move around her
continually, photographing her from every angle.

If I need costumes, I go to thrift shops and purchase colorful flowing robes; I’ve bought beautiful Japanese kimonos on ebay, surprisingly cheap!


The Cutting Garden
The Cutting Garden, detail

I prefer to call it the environment. Background suggests it is something to consider later, an afterthought. I want the model to be an integral part of her environment, where I can lose edges between her and her surroundings. I like the clutter you find in a normal home, which can become abstract shapes and strong colorful elements in my paintings, adding to the mood of the piece. I am constantly hunting for fabrics and interesting objects that might help make a painting more interesting.



Margaret Dyer ProfileTo see more of Margaret’s work, visit her website and her blog.