Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Friday, October 19, 2012

Winters Demo: A Sequence

I did another workshop in Winters –Paint the (small) Town– last weekend, and was wondering what to write about it. I only had a photo of the finished demo, and really, was there anything new and interesting to talk about? Hmmm.

That's when my friend Tony, who was in the workshop, let me know that he had these sequence shots of the demo. Aha! I've got my blog post!

OK, so we were situated in the park at the center of the town, and across the street was the famous Buckhorn restaurant, which was the subject of my demo. I had planned on doing a demo on structuring the painting with light and shadow patterns, but as luck would have it, the day was overcast. I had to switch gears quick and started to talk about working with local values; a little more difficult (I think) but hey, contending with the weather and the light conditions is the name of the game in plein air painting.

I started, as is typical, by doing a thumbnail sketch to nail down my composition. Experience tells me that by far, the biggest problem most students have is with their drawing. Sure, color, value, edges, design are all very important, but without good drawing, none of it matters. And yet, how many people actually practice drawing on a regular basis? I have a sketchbook in my car, so whenever I have a few minutes (waiting for my kids at the end of the school day, for example), I sketch whatever I can see.

But I digress. Here I'm showing a few basic things to help students get a more accurate drawing. How to find the eye level / horizon and the vanishing point, starting with a simple visual element and using that as a unit of measurement, and just plain slowing down and being careful about angles and alignments.  Angles and alignments are SO EASY to get right, (just hold your brush at an arm's length and line it up with whatever angle or alignment you're trying to draw) there really isn't any excuse for not doing a fair job at it. You just have to slow down and take some care doing it. Just because it's a plein air painting and the light is fleeting, one may be tempted to rush through this thumbnail process. But the truth is, ten minutes spent on thumbnails will save you a lot of time and unnecessary grief on the canvas and very possibly the painting.

Pay no attention to the thumbnail at the top. That's from another class. One method I employ a lot is to just start drawing on paper and find the cropping afterwards. At least for the first thumbnail. It's a lot easier and faster to do it this way, especially when dealing with man-made, tricky-to-draw things.

Here's my transparent block-in. This is basically a three value organization. The sky is the lightest, most of the building that is receiving a lot of ambient light is medium, and areas which get much less ambient light are indicated with a darker value. Keeping it waaay simple, is THE key. How simple can I get, and still be able to tell what it is?

I don't remember why there's an X in the sky. I might have just been saying "The sky, right here, (draw x) is going to be the light value, so I'm just going to use the white of the canvas."

Next I move on to opaque colors and block in the big shapes, right on top of the transparent block-in. I am trying to maintain the value organization, but am also aware of shifts in values that define structure, so if that seems like an important element, I go ahead and put it in at this early stage. (the awning is now blocked in with two values, whereas it was only one in the transparent stage)

Blocking in all the other big elements. Again, trying very hard to maintain the original value organization and keeping it simple.

After all the areas are blocked in, I start working with smaller shapes, subtler variations within the big shapes, manipulating edges, tweaking colors, refining harmonies, etc. etc.

If the original organization was sound, the viewer doesn't need more information to understand what it is he or she is looking at. So any additional stuff you put in – in this case the plants and the hydrant and window trim and all that detail – helps to make the painting more complete, but the painting shouldn't be dependent on these small details to define the foundation of the structure. 

Thanks for taking these photos Tony! I owe you a beer.


  1. Great Post, Terry! So very instructive and quite clear. You make it seem so easy! ( and it is, if the student can just not think about anything else but your terrific instructions ).

  2. Thanks Mike! Thanks Edward!

    It was a fun weekend with a great bunch of students!

  3. I'm very green if it comes to plein air painting (still getting the hang of it) and I must say that doing thumbs will drastically decrease the tendency to want to put too much information on a painting. Sometimes, being selective in what to paint is also where creativity is required. Thumbnail sketches are an excellent tool to come to a creative composition.

    Great to see this confirmed by a pro :)

  4. Nice Demo Terry, you always make difficult things easy, I like that about your work.

  5. Thanks Johan~! Yes, thumbnails can make or break a painting. or at least reduce frustration by a whole lot.

  6. thanks Jesus~! your comments always appreciated!

  7. Good chronological post of your workshop subject, especially since you had to compensate for the weather being overcast.

  8. Great post! You make it look so easy.