Tuesday, January 24, 2017


Photos by Saunders Fine Arts.
When I tell someone I've just met that I'm a painter, they often ask "what do you paint?" My answer is always the same - "Everything."

Variety in subject matter is essential to any representational painter wishing to further their skills. There are painters known for landscapes, portraits, flowers, nocturnes, dogs, or even "painters of light." Painting only one subject can quickly make an artist's work formulaic and eventually devolve into a gimmick. It's natural for us to find "rules" that govern our approach to painting certain subjects, but in so doing it's also easy to drift away from painting what we actually see. When faced with a challenging subject, we tend to fall back on the rules rather than truly painting the scene before us.

The choice to be or not to be formulaic is a personal one, and many great artists utilize formula to create beautiful and moving works, but it can be limiting. A new formula is required for each and every subject. I know many landscape painters who are afraid to paint portraits and portrait painters who are afraid to paint landscapes. How is painting a landscape any different than a portrait? Aren't they both just a collection of shapes, values and colors laid out in a specific pattern that creates the illusion of the physical world?

It's easy to fall back on the shorthand our brain creates for everything around us. We remind ourselves that eyes are a certain distance apart, flowers are made of petals or that water reflects, but these things do not always visually appear the way we think they should. When we rely on the "formula," paintings can become disjointed, as we might have a clear understanding of the thing we're painting in one portion of the canvas but not in another.

Painting a variety of subjects can improve the ability to paint what one actually sees, as it forces us to confront the unknown which we do not have a formula or shorthand for. Forget that you're painting a face, or a tree, or a flower. Paint shapes defined by differences in value, edges and color. Every subject should be approached the same way.

In my own work, I tend to go through periods of painting different subjects, and when I shift gears the effects are astonishing. Last winter I painted a number of portrait studies at the Coppini Academy of Fine Arts in San Antonio, Texas. That experience provided me with a tremendous improvement in accuracy - which is required to capture a likeness. The nine months that followed was spent painting landscapes on the plein air circuit. It's very easy to stylize a landscape without the painting looking inaccurate, but stylization can also create issues when elements such as architecture are added. The practice of painting portraits made it much easier for me to quickly and accurately capture the landscape before me, whatever it consisted of. Now, I'm once again painting portrait studies at the Coppini, and I can now see the effect landscape painting has had on my portraits. My brushwork is more exciting, colors are more varied and the compositions are far more spontaneous.

In reality, I may be painting a variety of subjects, but in approach the variety is only in shapes, values, edges and colors.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Music, Rhythm & "The Zone"

Wearing my Beats (which are now falling apart) while painting. Photo by Saunders Fine Arts.

Music is a top priority for me when painting. Unless I'm in the midst of a demonstration, I never paint with out it. I know this is true of a lot of my fellow painters, although our taste in music is as varied as our painting styles. The reasons I rely on music so much - rhythm and "the zone."

Music puts me in a rhythm and sets the pace of a painting. The pace is all a matter of personal preference. While many prefer a calm and soothing melody, I listen to a more intense soundtrack with a driving beat. I want intensity and energetic brushstrokes. Faster, louder music keeps me moving quickly and keeps my energy up during the painting process.

More importantly, music puts me in "the zone." When you really get into a painting groove, and everything seems to be going right, that's "the zone." It's that point where you are so focused on painting that all distractions fall away. Painting becomes instinctual. I find myself reacting directly to the values, shapes and colors before me rather than thinking about the "thing" that I may be painting. The zone keeps me from overthinking, overpainting and overworking. It's a kind of dance (and sometimes that literally happens). I find my brush moves more fluidly and I instinctively handle decisions regarding what to do next in the painting.

I tend to think too much, and music brings my focus into the moment. It blocks out all distractions. When I was younger, I would crank up the stereo and take a nap. For a couple of decades, I played in punk rock bands and the music was a way of blocking out everything else. That feeling remains while listening to music and painting. Music helps me relax so much, that I don't worry about the final painting and focus on the experience. That's "the zone," and one of the main reasons I paint.

Sporting the 70's Goldtop (and a full head of hair)
before realizing I was better suited for painting.

I get a lot of questions about what I'm listening to every time Kimberly posts a photo of me painting with headphones, so below are my latest top 15 bands by number of plays. I'm not recommending these - to each their own, but it works for me.

Arctic Sleep
Iron Chic
No Trigger
Red Fang
Death From Above 1979
California X

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Prints & Cards Available

For those of you who may have missed the opportunity to own an original painting that I've already sold, I'm offering high quality prints and cards. Choose from a wide selection of images in various sizes. These prints ship directly to your door and are very affordable. Find your favorites.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

Plein Air Streaming: Year of the Dogs

Some of the wonderful dogs we met in 2016.
All reference and paintings photographed by Saunders Fine Arts.
The year of the dog is not until February of 2018 according to the Chinese zodiac, but 2016 was a big year for dog paintings for me. It seems that almost every place we visited this year, there was a dog we fell in love with that I had to paint. Read more at PleinAirStreaming.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Trying New Things: Paint Annapolis

"Morning After the Holiday" (oil on board, 16"x20") by Patrick Saunders. Photo courtesy of Saunders Fine Arts.

As the unofficial kickoff to our East Coast tour, The Maryland Federation of Art's Paint Annapolis was as good a place as any for us to try some new things and expand our comfort zone. Kimberly wrote about some of her own experiences on her blogpost "Yaaahhhr Not Fraahhm Maaaahhhhland, Ahhhhhrr Yaah?", and I stretched myself as a painter as well.

Read more at the PleinAirStreaming blog...

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Getting the Pose Right: Photography vs. Painting

"Gene" oil on panel, 18"x24." Photo by Saunders Fine Arts.
Gene is our Boston Terrier neighbor who comes to visit us every day. He's a sweet guy with a great face, and from the moment we met, I knew that I wanted to paint him. There's just no way that Gene would sit still for a painting from life. He's incredibly photogenic, and Kimberly was able to shoot a lot of great photos of him in numerous poses.

I chose the photo that I felt captured Gene's demanding personality. He's the kind of dog that will stare us down until he gets what he wants - usually treats. After spending a few hours on the painting, I realized that something just wasn't working. He looked flat and awkward. I realized I'd made a bad reference choice. Time to scrape it down and start over.

The photo vs. the painting. Excellent photo and very much "Gene."
I could tell very quickly after the initial block-in (even with my inaccuracies)
that the painting could not capture the same emotions.

Sometimes, a great photo doesn't make a great painting. Photography can depict things that a painting might struggle with. Our brains tell us that the photo is correct, and we don't question the accuracy of the image. That's not necessarily true of a painting. Paintings make us question odd proportions, and Boston Terrier's can have somewhat unique body proportions. It was clear that I needed a different angle to emphasize the forms of both his head and body.

Thankfully, as I said, Kimberly shot a lot of great photos. I looked for one that clearly showed his stubby muzzle and placed less emphasis on the imbalance between his body and legs. The second painting went quickly, and I am much happier with the finished result.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Portrait Class at Harold's Art & Framing, San Antonio

"Huey" (oil on canvas, 14"x14")
Yesterday, I held a portrait painting workshop with a wonderful group at Harold's Art & Framing in San Antonio, Texas. In the morning, I painted a full demonstration of Huey. I opened up the entire process to questions and comments from the students, inviting them to help decide what was working and where the painting needed additional work.. It was great fun for all of us.

In the afternoon, the students painted from the live model. It's always exciting to see the varied approaches of the individual students. Thanks to all of you who participated.

I'll be teaching one more class at Harold's next month.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

New Posts On PleinAirStreaming

I've been posting over on PleinAirStreaming this past week. Please check it out. It's more of the travel blog that I share with Kimberly as we trek across the country. I'll still be posting here, but this will be more thoughts on painting and studio work.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Why are you NOT using Turpenoid Natural?

I love this stuff, and you should too.

There was a time when I hated cleaning my brushes. I would use either Ivory soap or Masters Brush Cleaner and Preserver. Either way, it was a tedious chore that never fully cleaned the brushes. If I was in a rush, brushes didn't get cleaned and were ruined forever.

No more. 

Turpenoid Natural makes it a snap. I keep some in a Silicoil Brush Cleaning Tank (you can really use any container) and just swish my brushes around for a few seconds when I'm finished painting. Wipe them on a cloth and done. When I'm ready to paint again, give them a swish in mineral spirits to remove the excess turpenoid natural, and they're ready to go.

Best of all, it removes hardened paint. Let a hardened paint brush soak overnight, and it just might be saved the next day.

One note: never use it to paint with. Your paint will fall right off the canvas.

I received no compensation for this review!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Looking Backward to Move Forward

Two months of portrait studies - some good, some bad. 

There was a time when I wouldn't dare paint a portrait from life. The model moved too much. It took time to capture a model's likeness. Layers of paint needed time to set up. I had a number of excuses for why I would only work from photos, but none of them were legitimate.

My reluctance all stemmed from my time as an illustrator. As a student, life drawing and painting was an everyday event. I enjoyed it, and the practice built confidence. Moving into the professional illustration world, I often had to paint people or places that I didn't have access to. This changed my work habits. I became reluctant to take chances, and my confidence in working from life slowly eroded. I noticed a change in the energy of my work. 

After ten years with Hallmark cards, I decided to leave commercial work behind and focus on portrait and studio painting exclusively. I had the opportunity to take a workshop with Carolyn Anderson, and painting from the model every day was a real breakthrough. Carolyn would ask me questions about why I made certain decisions during the process and forced me to recognize repeated failures or successes. When I returned from the workshop, the paintings I brought back were filled with a life and energy that I hadn't produced in many years. My wife, Kimberly, declared that I should never paint a portrait from photos again unless I had no other choice. She was right, but it took me many years to fully embrace the idea.

For a number of years, I continued to produce portraits from photographs. The results were mixed, but the process was always a struggle. When frustrated, I walked away. Some paintings literally sat unfinished for years. 

During this time, I taught portrait painting classes at the Kansas City Art Institute. At the beginning of every session, I would paint a demonstration from the live model. I was always a bit anxious prior to the demo, but it always went smoothly, and I was usually happy with the results. The more classes I taught, the more my confidence returned. Most importantly, teaching forced me to analyze how I painted. I had to be able to explain every decision I made to my students.

I started analyzing the issues I had when painting from photos. Working from photographs allowed me to walk away at any time and come back whenever the urge struck. This can be a double edged sword. Yes, the subject is forever frozen in time, but it completely changes the approach. Without the urgency of changing light or a moving subject, brushstrokes can look boring and calculated. It's very easy for portions of the painting to look disjointed, as some areas are dry before others are even touched. Wet paint into wet paint is very different than wet into dry. Even color can be less harmonious, as mixtures on the palette from the first session are long dry before the second session.

Fast forward to today, and I find painting a portrait from life far more rewarding than working from a photo. Although I still work from photos when necessary, I look forward to every opportunity to paint from a live model. For the past two months, I have been lucky enough to find places like the Coppini Academy of Fine Arts, and the San Antonio Portrait Painters where I can paint from the model every week. 

At every model break, I take progress shots, so that I can go back and determine what I did right or wrong. Below are just a few things I tell myself (with some examples), after looking back at my progress shots. Remember, there's no wrong or right way. This is just my approach, but I do encourage everyone to analyze their own process.

• Forget drawing with lines. Block in the light and dark values with thin paint. This will create form in the first session that can then be pushed and pulled into a likeness.

This is about 20 minutes. Very thin paint
just to establish where I want everything.
It's very easy to move if necessary.

• Get the values correct. The shadows are almost always darker than they initially seem. Without a proper value change, the form is lost.

Also about 20 minutes. I had to get the shadows,
lights and dark of her hair established quickly
to evaluate every other intermediate value.

• Don't go for detail in the eyes too quickly. Tightly rendered eyes tend to pop out of the image and look strange. In the end, the eyes might not need any detail at all.
Almost no detail in the eyes.
In the end, it wasn't necessary.

• Color temperature is far more important than local color. Are the lights warm or cool? Are the shadows warm or cool? If the temperature is correct, it doesn't matter what color it's painted. Getting the temperatures right also avoids "muddy" color.
I really pushed the color intensity on this one,
but it works because the temperature differences
between the light and shadows hold it together.

• Pay attention to the edges. Too many hard edges, and the eye doesn't know where to look.
I kept her right eye softer than the left
to drive the focus to the left side of her head.

• Don't paint when the model is on break. There's nothing to refer to, and you'll just screw it all up!

• Don't be afraid to paint over any area. There might be a passage that I initially love, but it's never safe if it doesn't fit with the overall painting.

• Even if the final painting is a failure, the practice was not.

There's far more to be concerned with and always more for me to learn and practice. There will always be circumstances where I need to work from photographs, but regularly painting from a live model makes me better at it. I even pretend that the photo is a live model, and set artificial time limits.

In the end, I realize that I need these opportunities to make mistakes and push boundaries. I don't believe in natural born talent (that's an entire blogpost itself). Practice is what truly brings confidence and growth, but reviewing what went right or wrong during the process can take my paintings further, faster.