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Fine Art Paintings

I enjoy illustration with all my heart.  Telling stories with images satisfies me like few other occupations.  However, my art training taught me as a fine artist with acrylic in high school and oil in my higher education.  So now and then, I enjoy painting a landscape, and I’ll be painting a series of still lifes in the future.

Each medium is special in its own way.  While I paint full-time digitally and love the intuitiveness that the digital medium has, it cannot compare to traditional media in many ways.

First, I can work with more colors with traditional media.  With printed media I have four colors: cyan, magenta, yellow and black (excluding specialty colors).  With traditional media, usually artists will squeeze six or more colors on their palette.  I can play with warm and cool reds, blues, yellows, greens, violets, greys, browns, and an assortment of other colors.  The artist that uses many colors creates artwork with much more depth than an artist who uses few colors.

Second, traditional media have a three-dimensional quality to them.  Not only can oil paint be painted thick in an impasto way, but the buildup of color creates interesting juxtapositions of color variations.  Even flat media like pastel and colored pencil build up color, laying one color on top on the other.  The effect cannot be imitated by printed media yet.  Also, an artist must impose texture in the digital realm, but it appears naturally with actual media.

Third, with the right materials a work of art will last for a very long time.  At worst a digital illustration only lasts the longevity of the printed material.  This can be as long as a magazine is printed and sold to someone needing fire starter.  Or it can last as long as historic prints.  But paper yellows and inks fade.  Paint pigments fade too, but they last several hundred years before doing so.  Also, file formats constantly change, and as programs become outdated, some file formats, and thus works of art, become inaccessible.

Fourth, when dealing with fine art, the artist is hard pressed to identify the original of a digital painting.  Is the first print the original?  Is the digital file the original?  Art historians have argued over questions like that for years with found art and other non-original genres.  The difference between found art and digital is that the artist has created a truly original work.  The original is merely intangible.  I’m sure art theoreticians will enjoy thinking about the question of originality as pertains to digital painting.

Last, authenticity is difficult to establish.  The ease of copying other peoples images causes some people to be suspicious about the legitimacy of the artist’s claim to ownership.  An artist who creates traditional oil paintings, even if he copies his source images, has a more of a convincing claim than someone who creates digitally and uses no sources.  The tangible paint seems to have a credibility that digital media does not have.

So why do I work in digital media?  I love the speed, the flexible precision, and the intuitiveness.  I can think in Photoshop in a way that I cannot think with other media.  I can get details on the computer that I can't get with other mediums.  I don't have to wait for paint to dry to send my painting to my clients.  So, while I recognize the superiority of traditional media over digital, I will probably never switch back entirely.

Sometimes when out painting plein air, the painting rises to the level of fine art.  I feel that this is one of those rare times.  I loved going out that morning before dawn.  I loosened up by painting the sunrise at 5:45.  The sunrise happened so fast, I had only a few minutes to paint it.  Then I painted this sketch.  The colors in the morning glow danced in the open field and the shadows of the tree.  The glow lasts a couple hours, but my painting buddy and I had things to do and couldn't stick around too long.  The "mountains" in the background are actually distant buildings.  The non-literal interpretation of them worked out better than I imagined. 


I needed a painting for an art show, and ran out of time.  The day before the show, I drove out to a dock with my painting buddy, John Ball, and painted this in a couple hours.  Some of the most interesting experiences happen while out painting.  While we were out there, a truckload of guys drove up and inquired into having a smoke under the same bridge.  We requested that the do it upwind from us, but they decided against it and drove off.  Later they probably enjoyed laughing about my green rubber gloves, smock, and other painting gear. 


My grandparents have lived on this farm for most of their lives.  My dad grew up here and we kids played in the haymow and fields.  I painted this from a little plein air I had painted in the summer.  I was having difficulty with hay fever, and almost couldn't see clearly.  The half hour plein air turned out so well, that I painted this larger painting for my grandparent's anniversary.  The corn is just a few inches high.  A storm promises to bless the growing grain with a gentle rain.  And the ancient farm overlooks the good land.


By my grandpa's hog barn, they have an abandoned hogshed.  They would separate  a new mother hog and her piglets from the rest of the hogs for a few weeks for the safety of the piglets.  Now that grandpa no longer raises hogs the shed just sits there, unused.  Even the old tractor ruts run by the shed, seeming to pass it by.


This painting shows inside my grandpa’s hayloft.  As a child, my cousins and I would construct forts in the bales and play all kinds of games.  I enjoy the textures and play of light across the bales of hay.  Though the hayloft is abandoned like the hogshed and the bales have begun falling apart, the loft still holds the wonder that we kids would feel with each visit.  Also, a hayloft is a beautiful place to paint.


For my master's degree I painted this marsh triptych.  Every morning for a week, I would drive out to a bridge that overlooked the water and paint the sunrise.  No sunrise was the same.  The amazing amount of variation in the play of colors over the sky and water awed me everyday.  From that experience, I created these three paintings.  They signify the unpredictability at the beginning of a brand new day.  The left painting stands for a peaceful day, and the far right stands for a day full of adventure.  Who knows what a day holds in store for us?

I painted my family’s house while home for Christmas in 2005.  The conditions may not have been the best for painting outdoors, but the painting that emerged is a family favorite.  We did not actually have a fire going in the wood stove, but my family did not a problem with the liberty I took in adding the wisp of smoke emerging from the stove pipe.  We have since moved from the house, so the painting preserves the memory of our beautiful woods and the wonderful snow up north.

This isn't an oil painting.  I painted it on my computer from a collection of old family photos and heirlooms.  My sister had dried a rose in a vase and the petals had not fallen out.  The dead flower was beautiful and provided the inspiration for this.  I wanted to express that every life is precious, even those long gone and forgotten.  I placed the photographs and heirlooms around the flower in a carefully lighted environment, and then painted from life.  The print now hangs in my grandpa's house.



A good sports player needs practice, and so does a good artist.  He can get this practice in a number of different ways, but most artists practice figure painting and plein air painting.

Figure painting:  I have heard that a good artist should paint one head from life every week.  While many good artists currently do not do so, they have done so in the past.  The studies from life have given them knowledge in the play of light over three-dimensional features.  If an artist does not have an understanding of the human form, he is crippled as an artist.

Over the past six years I have met often with fine artist John Ball for head studies in his garage.  The practice is great, and the camaraderie is always wonderful.  Because of my constant study, I can paint the human head with confidence.  I can get a finished face in a relatively short amount of time: an hour.

 2004 - 2.5 hrs.

 2004 - 2.5 hrs.

 2005 - 2.5 hrs.

 2006 - 2 hrs.


 2007 - 1.3 hrs.

 2007 - 2 hrs.

 2007 - 1.25 hrs.

 2008 - 1 hr.

 2008 - 2 hr.

  2009 - 1 hr.

Plein Air: A French term, en plein air means “in the open air,” and refers to artists who paint the landscape outside, instead of inside their studios with photographs or memory.  Because the dramatic change of light over the course of a day, plein airs must be painted within a short amount of time.  Historically, collectors have not considered them finished fine art, but recently a market has developed for smaller, less finished works like plein air paintings.  The real value with painting en plein air is the technical proficiency of painting fast.  An artist must observe correctly and paint carefully in order to preserve the impression of detail in a landscape under a shifting light.

This painting reminds me of some of the Hudson River School painters.  I really enjoy the work that they do, and perhaps looking at their work has affected my own work.  I hope so.


When my family took a vacation in the Appalachian mountains, I eagerly took my easel with us.  The beauty up there is astounding.  Because we kept very busy, I was not able to sketch as much as I wanted.  However, this sketch at a camp site somewhere in Tennessee gives a small indication of the incredibly beautiful area.


I have painted at Alan's mother's house only a couple times, but I look forward to getting out there in the future.  They have some beautiful woods out behind their house, and I have not been able to do justice to it yet!


I loved the way the birds perched on top of the old dock posts.  There were several different kinds of bird, and the mix was fascinating.  I also liked the way the verticals cut right down the composition.  Some paintings are just fun to look at.


As my master's show approached, I needed more art.  So I set aside an hour or two to paint whatever I could.  So I set up my computer and painted the view out my back window.  This needed to get done to finish a group of sketches, and it worked well in the grouping.  I love meeting objectives.


I created this special plein air sketch from the cockpit of a two person airplane.  A friend of mine took me up while he was getting his pilot's license.  The sunset was beautiful.  I rested my Wacom tablet on my lap and held my Macbook above it with my left hand.  My right hand would paint a few strokes, then hop up to the laptop keyboard to change the brush size, and then hop back down to the tablet again to move color around.  It was very exciting!  I love the painting, but it cannot fully portray the amazing experience of painting airborne.

Imaginair:  A term of my own making, imaginair refers to a landscape that is constructed from memory or the imagination.  Every once in a while I will see a sunset or cloud formation that catches my eye, but be unable to set up and paint it immediately.  I will make note of the general effect, remembering every detail and color that I can.  Later, I will find a good time to paint my impression of what I saw.  It may not result in the most incredible art, but the practice keeps the mind sharp . . . and helps me remember fascinating images that I have seen.

On the way home from vacation, we drove through rain in southern Alabama.  Whatever people may say about the state, their pine trees look so beautiful obscured by the misty rain against a dusk sky.  I tried to remember how everything looked and painted it as soon as I could.


A couple summers ago I traveled by train to visit a friend in El Paso, Texas.  The trip through the vast barren Texas landscape struck me as awe-inspiring.  This painting, the second of my imaginairs, resulted from the experience.  Someday I hope I'll go back, if only for the train trip through God's beautiful creation.

Detail in Illustration

When I graduated from college, I vaguely recognized that something was wrong with my illustrations and paintings but I could not identify the problem.  As I gained professional illustrating experience, I realized the issue: attention to detail.  I soon learned how detail adds credibility to an image.

Especially with historic and educational illustration, detail makes or breaks the illustration.  With historic illustration, the clothing and the environment indicate the era, and the reader should never wonder when and where the story happens.  Textbook illustration, of course,  teaches through the pictures, so the pictures need to be well-researched with a lot of visual data.

Detail is difficult for most artists to create.  It takes time and thought to produce accurate, appropriate detail.  My first detailed illustration took too long to paint, but the next one went much faster.  Now detail has become a part of my working method.

If it looks as if I spent too long on this illustration, it’s probably true.  I also squeezed just about every toy that I have ever played with or ever wanted to own.  The illustration showed a big problem that most kids understood: a messy room.  The successive images showed how the boy broke his problem into smaller steps to clean up the mountain of a mess.  The detail not only provides an interesting viewing experience, but it also makes the boy's problem very tangible.


This illustration shows how the thylakoid membrane in plant cells help change light energy into stored energy.  The detail is necessary so the students understand the process.  However, the detail must be managed so the students do not get overwhelmed.


I enjoyed creating this series of birds and plants based on the state birds and state flowers.  This small sample shows Nevada, Arizona, and Delaware.  Other illustrators contributed to the whole series.


Charts and graphs can become uninteresting to students so detail helps create interesting moments like this.

Some charts, like this one showing the herbivore-carnivore-detrivore food cycle, can be reduced to one interesting image with arrows and a brief explanation.


Not only do scientific illustrations need detail, but historical illustrations also need a significant amount of detail.  If historical illustrations do not show real detail, misconceptions can occur.  I try to find photos or paintings of famous people’s faces and use their proportions in the illustrations.  (To see how I would do this, consult the end of my demo.)  I would hope that a historian that studies Helen Keller would recognize her immediately in this illustration.  I also researched the furniture in the house to get everything correct.


I wanted to show the conflict between two different worlds in this illustration.  The Catholic cross contrasts with the Aztec shield.  I rendered this as a traditional pen and ink illustration with a simple color wash.


This story did not have a particular setting.  However, based on the names in the story, I set it in ancient Sweden to give the story visual validity.


This is set in a large city in South America, so I had a friend translate "Do not shoplift" into some equivalent Spanish phrase.  I hope it matches the rough part of the city and the rough rendering of the painting.  Detail does not have to consume the whole painting.  Instead, the artist provides just enough detail to establish the believability of his work.


A favorite illustration of mine, above, shows the ancient Israelites traveling to Jerusalem for a yearly festival.  Though the style is simple, the precise detail in what is portrayed and the amount of simple detail shows the world at the time of Christ.

Style is About Proportion

Style is often misunderstood in art.  Intelligent artists have a difficult time understanding the term, because it is related to personal concepts like perception and intuition.

Originally the term had more to do with an author's distinctive writing hand than with art genres.  One person’s writings could be differentiated from another’s by the differences in their writing styles.  The term jumped into painting when people noticed that one artist could be differentiated from another by the small variations in the artist's strokes.  So each artist had his own style or way of handling the paint.  Style meant something about the individuality of the artist.

Then, two things happened.  First, style began referring to a high level of refinement.  Some artists brushstrokes looked more graceful or more subtle.  Second, art philosophers noticed that different groups of artists in history shared similar characteristics, or a similar styles.  Art history, historically, looked like an evolutionary tree with the primitive art at the roots and refined art at the top.  To Enlightenment thinkers, Egyptian art paled in comparison to Enlightenment art.  The style of the age differed, and as man had progressed through history, the style had gotten better and better, too.

Artist's became self-conscious about the possibility of further refinement or further styles.  What would the next level of progress look like?  Romantic artists had taken the imitation of reality as far as it had ever been taken, and used their imaginations to create grand masterpieces.  (In fact, artists like Fredrick Edwin Church and Bouguereau were later criticized heavily for both representational skills and imagination.)  Different artists strove to be that missing link that bridged the gap between the exacting Romantic style and whatever style remained beyond, waiting to be discovered. 

In the place of the very refined fine art, a group of less refined artists emerged who emphasized the power of color over the power of representation.  Monet had not the representational skills that Bouguereau commanded.  Cezanne did not know anatomy like Sargent.  The camera had taken over art's role as visual historian, and art theorists argued that detailed representation had ceased to be an important function of art.  Artists no longer needed to preserve history visually and thus relied less on reality and more on their particular style.  Style ceased to refer to representational refinement, but rather referred to some visual refinement like better use of color.  After the impressionists and post-impressionists came a melee that we now call the modern art movement where a wide variety of artistic styles were created.  In the modern art movement, style became something theoretical.

In the present post-modern art milieu, style refers to the common proportions shared by a series of artworks.  In one cartoon, the eyes are halfway down on the face and are two black dots (like Charlie Brown); in another cartoon the nose is halfway down on the face and the eyes are two giant bubbles that take up most of the space from the nose to the top of the head (like Jon Arbuckle, Garfield’s owner).  In one painting the artist uses a lot of texture to imitate the texture of reality; in another painting another artist barely uses any texture at all.  One illustrator employs lines to define his shapes; another uses value; still another uses color.  The size of a man's facial features, the placement of the features, how much color an artist uses, what colors an artist uses, the relationship of the colors to each other, and many other proportional issues differentiate one style from another.

For more information on different styles that I have used, see my article on A Beka Book Styles.

To illustrate proportion, notice in the family tree illustration above how, though each person looks like a unique personality, each family has a certain look.  I made the family on the right to have shorter faces than the family on the left.  Each face is an individual expression, but the faces in one family look similar to each other.

Style acts in the same way.  The characters within a picture must share certain characteristics, so they look as if they belong.  The elements within the painting must share certain characteristics, so they look like they belong.  If an illustration looks like an old photo through color use, it be odd for the next illustration in the story to use the colors of a modern advertisement.  The proportions of yellow to blue would be off, and the illustrations would look like they didn’t belong together.

This is the first illustration in a series on the heroic exploits of a german shepherd in WWI.  To create the look, I used a limited color scheme and kept the amount of detail to a maximum for the small amount of space each illustration occupied.


 The next illustration, showing the german shepherd finding his master in a trench.


The last illustration showing the dog at home again, herding the cattle.  Though this is the first time I introduced green, the particular shade of green fits with the other colors I have been using in this series.


In these colored pencil illustrations of tadpoles growing into frogs, I used the medium, the colors, and a realistic-yet-cartoony character shape to relate these illustrations together as a whole.  Overall, I enjoyed this project most during my time in A Beka Book.  The project presented a deadline challenge.  Not only did I get it done, but I contributed to the book beyond what had originally been assigned to me.


The next illustration showing the landing stork and some frogs jumping off the fallen log on the other side.


The next illustration showing the tadpoles watching the stork eat a fish.  Drawing the water with colored pencil took much longer than the computer would have taken.


The next illustration showing the tadpoles as almost adult frogs with their tails still.  At this time I explored any way to play with the illustration.  Pictures that show half in the water and half in the air fascinate me.


The last illustration in this batch, showing a frog in mid-hop.  I love the awkward flailing limbs of the amphibian in flight.


For the story of Gwen I chose to mimic old pen and watercolor sketches.  I kept the illustrations simple and used a limited amount of colors.  I also developed a brush in Photoshop that imitated a quill pen that kept running out of ink.


While the water does not fit the illustration style, the rest of the illustration helps keep the illustration in the stylistic family.  Sometimes little concessions like this are necessary, but illustration as a whole should not look out of place.


Of course, I looked up the exact Native American group that lived in the area referred to in the story.  I made sure the details were as accurate as possible.


This illustration never made it into the book for obvious reasons.  I still enjoy the idea of hanging from a tree spinning in the wind.  Perhaps some people are disturbed by such treatment of babies, but I imagine that it was cosy.


Notice that each illustration looks unique, like a new work of art, and yet each conforms with the overall style by using the same proportions in anatomy, color and detail rendering.  Style refers to the common proportions shared by a series of illustrations.