Work In Progress: Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park, Update 3

Work in Progress: Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park, Update 3

            I came up with 3 more possible compositions – for a total of 8 for this painting. There may be more possibilities but I’m satisfied with these 8.

Composition 6, a horizontal format, keeps the group of people at the lower left but adds a dark mass to the lower left corner. I thought it might help to frame the people on the beach, adding to the darks to the left and top of them. However, it adds to much dark to one side, I think, and is out of balance. It would necessitate another dark mass on the right and I think that would be too much dark mass. It would also decrease the amount of light mass at the bottom, which is balancing the light tone of the sky.

IMG_2257 Ruby Beach Toanal Sketch Update3

I went back to a vertical format for Compositions 7 and 8. In Composition 7 I stuck wit more wave action, a breaking wave on the lower right and a slightly lower rock mass on the right. I like this composition but wondered if the breaking wave competed with the group of people. Maybe not.

IMG_2258Ruby Beach Tonal Sketch Update 3

            In Composition 8 I decreased the wave action by bringing the beach closer to the last of the waves rolling up onto the beach. The lower part is residual water, fairly still and reflecting the sky, the rocks and the tree masses. I also raised the height of the rock mass on the right, which seems to have emphasized the vertical feeling of the painting.

IMG_2259 Ruby Beach Tonal Sketch Update 3

            So, which one of these compositions seems the best? Which one am I drawn to? The 3 I like the most are numbers 3, 4, 7 and 8, two horizontal and 2 vertical formats. I have to say I like the horizontal formats more. The vertical formats, I think, emphasize the people because the group of people take up nearly a third of the width of the picture. The sky and clouds also play a bigger part. The horizontal formats emphasize the scenery, the expanse of the beach, the tree masses and rock. I’m drawn more to the scene. The people are seen nearly first in the vertical format while the scenery is seen first in the horizontal format. However the construction of the rock masses pointing to the people on the beach, as well as the white mist behind them draws the eye to them. “Oh, what a beautiful scene. Hey, look, there’s some people on the beach!” That’s what I hope I’m creating here. I’m leaning toward Compositions 3 and 4.

IMG_2247 Ruby Beach Update 2c            IMG_2248 Ruby Beach Update 2d

In Composition 3 the rock mass on the right is larger than in Composition 8. There is more wave action also. There is much wet sand in Composition 4, especially on the left side. The thin layer of water reflects the sky and rock masses and, I think, creating some balance. I like the slightly lower rock mass in Composition 4. The lines of the waves rolling in as well as the edge of the surf points toward the beach combers, helping to draw the eye in that direction.

My composition choice is either 3 or 4 and I’ll have to do some more ruminating. I’ll make that choice this week and then start on the color studies. Meanwhile I’m finishing up a graphite drawing for exhibit and post that next week as well.

Work In Progress:Ruby Beach, Update 2

Work in Progress: Ruby Beach, Olympic National Park, Update 2

Progress is slow on this project. It’s not because I’m having problems with it, though. It’s because spring is here, and the plants (and weeds) in my garden are beginning to grow. That means my painting projects will have to share time with my garden work (and, of course, home projects). I love my garden, and I love horticulture. I did it for a living for thirty some years. My wife and I have invested a lot of time and money creating the gardens. We have a great number of shrubs and perennials that need tending to. Trimming, edging, weeding, planting, fertilizing, watering. In addition, I’m still converting an attached room on the back of the house to a studio. That’s coming along nicely and I’m excited about it.

So, as you can see, my time will be divided up among a number of tasks. And, I didn’t mention, I’m doing a graphite drawing on the side that needs to be completed in less than a week. That’s coming along nicely, also.


As always, my first step in the process of creating a painting is developing a composition. I try to plan out my paintings so I don’t have to contend with surprises. That’s not to say that I don’t like some spontaneity in my work – I do, – but the basic plan for me has to be laid out. Once I get into the painting, I can make changes. But, I have to have a somewhat clear path to the goal. I don’t like to leave too much to chance.

The photos I presented during the last session were closeups of another, farther view. I noticed on that original photo a grouping of people walking on the beach, backlit by early morning mist, and felt that group of people would make an interesting focal point for the landscape scene. The eyes are drawn to people, even though they are small and unidentifiable.

From that photo I worked up some thumbnail sketches in gradations of gray to get a feel for the arrangement of tone and masses. The first sketch was pretty much a copy of the cropped photo. I liked the idea of the darker masses surrounding the lighter area of people. The dark mass of the rock in the lower left seemed out of place and was distracting, so I removed it. That helped but the composition seemed unbalanced. All of the masses are on one side.

IMG_2245 Ruby Beach Update 2a

In the next sketch I increased the size of the rock mass on the right. That seemed to help but it still seemed a bit unbalanced, with the weight of dark masses still on the left. And, the masses were all too similar in size. It made the composition a little static. Another problem was that the focus area was more in the middle of the picture. That wasn’t good. I had to move that focus area.

IMG_2246 Ruby Beach Update 2b

My third composition was better. I moved everything down some and a little to the left. That helped. I also increased the size of the rock mass on the right much more to better balance the dark masses on the left. It felt better. One reason I moved the masses down was to better divide the horizontal plane into thirds. Another reason was to get more of the sky in. The cloud formation was interesting and I wanted to keep as much of it as I could.

IMG_2247 Ruby Beach Update 2c

The fourth composition is similar to the third but is shifted even more, placing the group of people close to the intersection of lines dividing the picture into thirds. To further point in the direction of the people on the beach I emphasized the dark line of the hill side on the left so as to point to the people. I did the same on the right by making the sloping side of the rock formation curve down and toward the people.

Another change I made in this fourth composition was to explore the idea of a beach at the bottom, rather than rolling waves. This way I could make the waves curve in the direction of the people. I was originally drawn to the action of the waves rolling in off the sea, so I’m not sure I want to eliminate that.

IMG_2248 Ruby Beach Update 2d

The fifth composition was a vertical format. This keeps the beach goers down on the lower left but gives me more sky. I’ve kept the beach in the lower left corner. This is an interesting view also and worth exploring.

IMG_2249 Ruby Beach Update 2e


I’ve come up with five compositions and made some improvements along the way. I’ll be looking at these and thinking about other possibilities. There may be other arrangements that look good. No reason to rush at this point. I’ll have to make a decision on whether to keep the beach in or not, how much of the sky to show, and the format, vertical or horizontal.

A Discussion on Detail

A Discussion on Detail:  Continuing with some observations on edges

My discussion this week is on edges. Judicious use of detail is closely related to the handling of edges. Edges, as most of you know, refers to the junction between two shapes – where one shape ends and another begins. Objects that have clearly defined edges usually are more detailed than objects that are not clearly defined. So, detail and edges have an intimate relationship.

In my love affair with detail I never gave edges any thought – or very little thought. I remember references to edges but I never stopped and said “Hey, that’s important”, not until recently, when I began to think seriously about why my paintings seemed unprofessional to me, not until I thought seriously that I was copying scenes rather than interpreting them. I’ve found lots of information on edges and how important they are to a composition. How they can be used to draw attention to the important places in the painting. I’m amazed that there have been discussions about the importance of edges and detail in all my books and I somehow missed them, or overlooked them all this time. It’s mind blowing. It’s been almost like an epiphany!

I mentioned in my previous post that, as artists, we try to emulate to some degree, in a painting, how we see, and therefore focus attention on specific subjects. When we are looking at a scene before us, we normally focus on a particular object of interest in our field of vision. That object, the thing we’re interested in, is in fairly sharp focus. Everything else around it is a bit hazy or fuzzy. Everything in our field of vision is not in sharp focus and detailed. That is interesting and makes a lot of sense. When we paint a scene, we want the viewer to focus on a particular aspect of that scene, and we use various compositional methods to get the viewer’s eyes where we want them. By having everything in sharp focus, by having sharp edges everywhere, we are fighting against all the other tools we’re using to guide the viewer’s attention.

Edges come in a variety of forms – hard, soft, lost and found, and everything in between. Depending on how edges are used they can define primary focal points, secondary supporting elements and areas of lesser importance. Hard edges draw the most attention. They stand out because they contrast sharply with more diffuse or hazy objects next them. The eye is naturally attracted to hard edges, so hard edges at the focus further delineates the subject. In most of my paintings I unconsciously used hard edges everywhere. By doing so, I was calling attention to everything, even though I was trying to draw the viewer’s eyes to a particular spot. It was like drawing the viewer’s eyes to a focal point and, at the same time, throwing obstacles in the path. I was making it harder to get to the destination. Look at my painting “Withlacoochee Flight” There are hard edges everywhere. It makes it harder for the egrets to stand out. You tend to look at everything when the focus should be on the birds. I especially should have softened the edges of the palms in the middle ground. Their sharp edges shout for attention. The fewer hard edges the better.


Soft edges are the most common. Look at the portrait of “Raine” below. I’ve included a detail of the cheek. The change in tone is gradual – no sharp delineation. That’s a soft edge. Soft edges don’t draw attention.

Raine soft edge


Lost edges are edges that are so close in tone that you can’t see where one edge ends and another begins. Here, again, I show a detail from Raine illustrating the lost edge. (I see that I haven’t totally ignored edges in my paintings, even if they were unconsciously included). Notice how the side of the jaw blends into the neck near the blouse. The edge is lost. The tones of each are so similar that they blend into one another. Where the edge begins to show, out near the chin, can be considered a found edge. A found edge is the reappearance of an edge that has been lost. It can be soft or hard. In this case it is somewhere in between.

IMG_2144a Raine lost edge


The focal point of the painting is first established through composition. The focus can be enhanced by the use of edges. So, if you follow good composition principles and use a variety of edges, your painting will improve. That’s exciting.


As I go back over some these paintings I see that I have edges – more than I thought. But I haven’t used enough. And I haven’t been consciously introducing edge variety and consciously limiting detail. When I am creating a painting I must think about edges, where they can be used to best advantage. I must limit detail to the most important areas. If I am going to add detail, I should be judicious and stingy about it, and add it only where I want my viewer’s eyes to be attracted – in other words, where the focal point is. That’s not to say that I should have everything except the focal point fuzzy. I just have to be sure that I am not drawing attention away from the focus. I have to be more attentive to edges and detail in the creative process and avoid just copying a scene. A painting is much more than a picture.

A Discussion On Detail In Painting

Normally, I would be launching into Update 2 of my latest painting here but I wanted, instead to discuss an important crossroads I come to in my art, a personal enlightenment or awareness of sorts that has been developing for some time. It affects directly the piece I’m currently working on, as well as all the pieces I’ve created in the past and hopefully all the ones I will create in the future.


When I plan out my paintings I do my best to incorporate the principles of good composition. I usually go through my books and notes and refresh myself before each painting. I feel the more I go over those principles the more it’ll become part of my subconscious thought. I take my craft seriously and do the best I can to produce the best painting I’m capable of. I also have a tendency to put a lot of detail in my paintings – it’s just a natural predisposition on my part. I put detail everywhere. I’ve been under the impression that good composition includes lots of detail. I’ve always taken it for granted and never questioned the thought that the more detail I included in my paintings (along with following all the other composition principles) the better my paintings would be. And yet, when I finished a painting, there was something about it that made it appear to me less than professional. It was good – but there was something missing. I didn’t quite know what that something was.

I surely tried my best to incorporate all the principles of good composition. What was I doing wrong? Not enough detail or realism? I also knew that when I saw meticulously drawn portraits, ones that looked like photos, I was impressed by the technical skill, but unimpressed by the artistic nature of the drawing. As far as I was concerned, the drawing was leaving the realm of art and entering the realm of photography.  I preferred paintings and drawings that looked as if they had been painted and drawn. If a drawing was completed to that extent, why not just photograph the subject. So, it wasn’t more detail that was the answer.

Of late, however, emerging from the deep recesses of my mind is the thought that I have been putting too much detail in my paintings and, instead of making the painting better, I am actually doing the opposite. Many of you out there may already know that detail must be judiciously used, but it’s a revelation to me! I wonder if the amount of detail I include is cancelling out or masking some of the other design principles I’ve worked so hard to include. My paintings are too technical, emotionally lacking. In his article The Power of Suggestion, written for Artists Network, Richard McKinley, a noted pastelist, in talking about “painting the essence”, recounted an early experience in his career when he was completing a portrait: “After spending meticulous hours placing every strand of hair on a head, the instructor pointed out to me that I couldn’t really see all of those hairs, especially from root to tip. Instead, I was putting in what I knew about hair, instead of what I was capable of seeing. By showing me that the texture of hair was more evident where there was contrast, facilitated by the presence of intense light, I was able to let go of what I knew to be true about hair and paint what I was capable of seeing, which was the “essence” of hair.”

But, how much detail is OK and when does detail begin to work against the painting? Too much detail can make the painting confusing and busy. It makes the eyes stop everywhere on the painting, rather than where I want the viewers eyes to concentrate. It draws attention away from the point of interest. You can get detail overload.

I’m attracted to detail in paintings, but at the same time I admire looser, more painterly paintings, paintings that rely more on the emphasis of shapes, value and color relationships, contrast and lighting, with minimal detail. They seem to elicit more of an emotional response in me, rather than an admiration of technical skill for copying detail. I prefer the emotional response. A landscape artist whose paintings I’ve come to be very impressed with is Peder Mork Monsted, a Danish landscape painter who lived and painted in the late 19th and early 20th century. When I first came across images of his landscape paintings I was emotionally drawn to them – they seemed so poetic – and, at the same time, I loved the level of detail in them. However, thanks to an article by James Gurney about detail in paintings, when I looked more closely at them – when I looked at that detail – I was surprised to see that the detail was an illusion. Monsted was so skillful at painting that he could produce a convincing suggestion of realism. Wow!

I’ve mentioned before that paintings are meant to be viewed from a distance. No one gets up close and personal unless they want to see detail. Detail can’t be seen from a distance. Why produce detail that has to be looked close up, when you will be looking at the painting from a distance and all you need is the suggestion of detail. If you can give the impression of detail that looks good from a distance, there’s no need to put in real detail. At least, that’s the way I’m beginning to think. The illusion of detail, such as was done so expertly by Monsted, seems the best route. James Gurney was spot on when he wrote about Monsted’s handling of plants “One can be faithful to the character of the plants without copying or imitating every detail. Instead, nature must be re-created or represented in paint on the canvas.”

Other compositional elements of a painting are more important than merely being skillful at copying details. Details are OK to include in a painting but they must add to a good basic underlying structure, rather than be the focus of the painting. While I’ve been attentive to other aspects of composition to draw the viewer’s eyes to the center of interest, such as the rule of thirds, sweet spots, contrast, value and flow, I’ve completely forgotten about the importance of detail, and how it fits into a good painting. I really don’t want to create a painting merely to impress others about my skill at painting detail. I don’t want to create a picture. I want to create a painting. But where do I draw the line? How much detail is too much detail?

In an interesting article in the July/August 2015 issue of Artist Magazine entitled “Painting without Painting”, Jimmy Wright, a notable pastelist, interviewed Duane Wakeham, a famous landscape pastelist in his own right, on the subject of detail in landscape paintings. Wakeham recounted an en plein air outing between two painters in 1930’s  Santa Fe. “At the end of the session”, Wakeham goes on, “ Gustave Baumann turned to the other, Louie Ewing, and commented that Ewing’s painting had too many details. ’Louie’, he said, ‘yours is a picture. Mine is a painting.’” Wakeham was impressed by the story and said that he wanted to create paintings, not pictures. Me, too.


Detail should be confined to the areas where the focus is intended and less so in the rest of the painting. Elsewhere, suggest detail, don’t do detail. A painting should be composed in such a manner that there is a tight focus and more detail on the center of interest and less emphasis on the periphery. This is, supposedly, the way our eyes perceive the world. We focus in on things of interest and all that surrounds it is less detailed. However, we do look over a scene often and, although we focus on a single object in one instant, we look elsewhere and focus in on something else. It still remains that, in a painting, there is a center of interest. Something we want the viewer to see, and that is where we place emphasis.


This is an important point in my love affair with art. With your indulgence I hope to continue this discussion in the next installment. Articulating these thoughts in writing is very helpful to me and I hope some of this will be helpful to you as well.