Is it a Bad Habit to Trace or Project an Image?

There are 3 schools of thought on tracing or projecting an image.

  1. It’s a sin
  2. It’s a timesaver
  3. Sometime it’s OK and other times not

Let me go through the 3 thoughts.

Starting with “It’s a sin”:

When you trace you aren’t really learning to draw and you can become very reliant on tracing or projecting. Drawing freehand is hard. It’s a lot nicer to have something that looks like it’s supposed to. When you trace you are giving the impression that you can draw because you have a relatively accurate image, but in reality you may not be able to draw as well as the tracing. So, in essence, you are giving a false impression, unless you fess up.

Another challenge to tracing is that if you do it a lot, any free-hand drawing is going to look ‘bad’ to you. This starts a cycle of only drawing when you can trace or project without learning how to translate what you are seeing in 3-D to 2-D. It’s a very false economy.

“It’s a Timesaver”

There is no doubt that tracing saves time in getting work onto a canvas or paper. If you goal is to work on a particular technique (other than drawing), this might be a good way to go as it allows you to get right to the exercise allowing you to focus on that. It is a great timesaver which lets you get right to the job you need to do. One thing to know about tracing….You can still lose your drawing. There is also a tendency to stay between the lines keeping your drawing tight. The trace should be guide only.

“Sometimes it’s OK and other times not”

From the two previous pros and cons you can see when it might be useful and when it’s not. I have a class I’m teaching where I am allowing my students to trace because I’m teaching them about color and I want them to have confidence in their start. But they’ve already also had a lot of drawing classes with me. Interestingly most have decided to draw freehand instead of tracing.

When I was in school I never traced as I knew drawing was essential to my understanding. When you take the time to draw you are actually learning about the thing you are drawing. Every time you draw it, or a section of it, you gain a deeper knowledge that you wouldn’t have by tracing.

On the other hand, if you are keeping the scale at the same size as what the tracing would be, it’s nice to be able to lay a piece of tracing paper over your work to see where you’ve gone off the rails. In this instance you are using tracing as a learning tool.

Tracing and projecting is a tool. Just as you wouldn’t use a screwdriver to tighten a bolt (you would use a wrench) it’s still helpful to have a screwdriver in your toolkit. I consider tracing and projecting part of my tool kit. I just use it very judiciously.

Artist Sets vs Individual Paint Tubes

“When buying artist grade oil paint, should you buy a set or buy them separately by tubes? If buying separately, what are some good/essential colors to get?”

I got this question on Quora, and it’s a really good question.

It might seem that if you get a pre-packaged set you will have great colors to start with. And you might. But then again, you might not. When I see these sets there are a couple of red flags for me. The first is that the colors, while often are very good, often the colors are also extremely strong, meaning they have a very high tinting strength. This can completely overwhelm a palette and make it truly frustrating for the beginning painter. The other red flag is that often these colors come in smaller tubes so not enough to really work with to understand each colors working properties.

As a teacher, I have a suggested list of colors I want my students to have for my beginning painting classes and I always suggest buying the colors separately. 

Most Basic Palette:

If I was starting out and just wanted the minimum 3 colors plus white, I would get the following:

Cad Yellow Pale: This is a color that is closest to a ‘true’ yellow and therefore can be bent toward the warm (orange side of yellow) as well as cool (green side of yellow) while still staying yellow.

Cad Red Medium: This is a middle value color and is relatively unbiased, meaning it is pretty close to a true red without an orange bias nor a violet bias. For example, Alizarin Crimson is a red that has a violet bias, and Cad Red Light has an orange bias.

Ultramarine Blue: This is a mainstay on almost all palettes. It is a clean blue, dark in value, and can help make clean secondary colors of green and violet, though the violet won’t be as chromatic (it will be a more brown violet) unless you also have Alizarin on your palette.

Adding more colors:

Double Primary Palette: Is a palette of 6 primary colors each having a warm and cool relationship to each other, plus white. The following is what I would suggest for a Double Primary Palette: Cad Yellow Lemon/Cad Yellow Medium, Cad Red Light/Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue/Cobalt or Cerulean Blue. 

With a double primary palette you have the opportunity to create the most chromatic secondary colors (orange, violet, green) as well as duller versions of these secondaries. Each of these colors has a particular bias which will affect your color mixtures.

Additional helpful colors:

Burnt Umber or Burnt Sienna: These are considered dull Oranges. When mixed with Ultramarine Blue, give you beautiful greys to black. Also, when burnt umber or burnt sienna is mixed with Alizarin you will create lovely warm darks.

Viridian: This is green that has a blue bias.  Yellow added to it will bend it toward the cooler greens until it goes to yellow or, by adding a bit of Ultramarine Blue, will get slightly warmer versions of green. Mixed with Alizarin you will get another version of greys.

Black: I rarely have this on my palette, but if you switch your palette for Black, Cad Red, and Yellow, then you will get a modified Zorn palette. Black substitutes for a very dull (low chroma) blue. So mixed with yellow you will get greens, mixed with reds  will yield versions of violet (though you will need to add a bit of white to see the true hues.

Anders Zorn was a wonderful landscape and portrait painter from Sweden and was the John Singer Sargent of his country.  The Zorn Palette is called that because Zorn has a self portrait of himself holding his painting palette and on it are the colors, yellow ochre, vermillion, black, and white. While this set of colors is attributed to Zorn, it was, and still is, a common palette. The portrait below was painted using the Zorn palette.

I hope this helps. For more information on color you might want to take my self-paced online class, “Understanding Color and How to Mix It: Teaching Your Colors to Play Well With Others”

But Wait…..I Think There is More….

How do we know when an art piece is done? There are times when we just want to keep adding things/details/color…..whatever……because we can and because we are having fun and, maybe, because we are testing ourselves. But when is the piece actually done? Well, in truth, it depends on you and what your intent is.

If you look at Hieronymus Bosch paintings, for example, many are filled with lots of details. “The Garden of Earthly Delights”, below, is just one example.


But if you look at many Eugene Carriere painting, they are simple in composition and color.

A question you can ask yourself is, “what is the least amount I can put in and still have it work?” But to do this, you need to know what you want to evoke at the beginning. Sometimes it will change as you are working, but you need a start. For example, I had an idea for a painting, but as I started working on it, it was more interesting as a somewhat abstract work. It was really, really hard to not continue and I added more and more details until I had to physically walk away from the piece. While it’s cool now, I liked it better when it was more abstract.

I then painted a second painting and included more detail, though not as much as I often do.

It’s up to the painter and the viewer to decide which is more pleasing to look at, and I am often surprised that what I like and think is a better work, a collector will totally overlook.

From my perspective less is more as the viewer will fill in what’s missing and make the artwork more their own. But in the end, it’s up to you and your particular style and personality. Experiment and see what happens. Honestly, not every piece you make will be a success, but every piece should be considered an experiment.

Mother & Calf

It’s spring time and that means all kinds of new babies. This baby cow, with it’s knobby knees and mom licking it clean, looks like it pretty recently made its entrance. This small painting is part of my regular daily painting practice.

Mother and Calf is available here and shipping is included

Ebay Mother & Calf 5.jpg

Mother and Calf

Oil on Canvas

7 x 5

Bidding begins at $95 and includes free shipping

Daily(ish) Painting

I’ve been painting for a pretty long time on a regular basis, but having announced that for at least the next year I would be doing a daily(ish) painting and then posting it for sale on Ebay and other sites, I find I’m both addicted to this practice and also a bit in a quandary to keep coming up with fresh ideas. But let’s back up and see where I’ve been and what has happened, just in case you want to follow a similar path.

My postings began in very early January. I planned on doing small works, mostly 5 x 7’s, some 6 x 8’s and a few 8 x 10’s. I ordered over 200 panels and started to paint them mid December so that I would have a stock to fill in gaps when I was on holiday or teaching and couldn’t get to my easel. I was nervous and excited, but mostly nervous about posting so often. I have a fair email list but would this consistent in-box posting put people off??

After letting people know this is what I was going to do and the date I was going to start, and then encouraging my peeps to either look and bid or just delete – no pressure- I started with a very strong painting that I hoped would sell and sent the first email. It sold with multiple bids!

#1 Ebay Honey jar small.jpg

And then I sent a second painting, and a third, and a fourth……day after day……It was too much. I was getting a serious number of ‘unsubscribes’! It freaked me out.  I know from reading other blogs that we need to find our own ‘tribe’. But it reminded me of all the people we think are our friends on FB, but they aren’t really. OK, no problem. Re-think how I might feel. So I went to every other day.

After 2 weeks I needed to take deep breaths before opening my email to see who else was, ‘no longer interested’, but then things started to stabilize and fewer were opting out. After a month (and several more sales) people were dropping me notes to say how much they enjoyed seeing what I was doing. People at my local Trader Joe’s would talk to me about what they saw. It was very encouraging. And now I didn’t want to let anyone down!

It’s been just over 50 paintings and this is what I’ve learned so far:

  • People will unsubscribe and that’s OK. I lost about 12% of my list, but when I really looked at who unsubscribed they often didn’t open any of my emails.
  • People are watching….way more than I thought they were.
  • People have let me know they are encouraged by what I’m doing.
  • Sales will happen, but not always directly. One client bought 3 paintings after the auctions ended, including one which was a larger piece.
  • It’s hard to stay motivated. It’s just a given. But create regardless.

If you have a daily or almost daily practice, I would love to know how this has changed and affected you and your work. I will post about this again in a few months.


Daily(ish) Painting – Avocado and Tulip

I will have a bit of catching up to do as I’ve been on Colorado visiting and studying the Degas exhibit at the Denver Museum. If you have a chance, GO! I will write about it, and also my visit to the abstract painter’s Clifford Still Museum, which is right next door, in a later post.

But for now here are a couple of paintings that I have on Ebay as part of my Daily(ish) Paintings.


Ebay Avocado 5

And Tulip

Ebay Tulip 5


Using Pastel to Quickly Lay In an Underpainting in Oil

If time is short, or the scene will quickly change, or I want to experiment with underlying color, I will lay in an oil painting using a hard pastel such as a NuPastel and then ‘melt’ the pastel with OMS (Odorless Mineral Spirits). Pastels have the same pigments as any other colored product but the binder is different. OMS will dissolve the binder and allow the pigment to adhere to the canvas whether it is oil or acrylic primed. You can see where I’ve done this in another posts here.

In this painting I was after one major goal….to get the grapes to really glow. I thought the best way to do this would be to lay in the grapes with a color that is analogous to the general hue (color) of the red grapes. I chose a reddish plum because it is in the red family and the lighter, brighter orange would pop against it.


In this image you can see the still life I’m going to paint in the upper left corner. The orange pastel is where the lightest part of the grapes will be.

For the green bottle I used a brighter pink as I wanted to dull down the green. I could have used an analogous color such as Cobalt or Cerulean which would have pushed the green better, and I might in a future study.

Notice that I just mass in large blocks of shapes. It’s these large blocks that I will make more specific as I move through the painting. At this stage I want to establish where things will go and their relationship to each other. One thing I ignored in laying in the pastel is the light/dark relationship. In fact, the bottle is darker than the grapes which are, for the most part, a dark middle and a dark value, and the background a light value. The lines that you see in green are compositional lines that I often use to help with the design and to quickly lay in an accurate drawing.


I’m starting to lay in the dark dull green of the bottle and in the next photo I’m starting to add the lighter yellowish green elements of the bottle and the background


Once I’ve set the value and hue I can start to move on to the grapes. The biggest challenge is getting the grapes to glow. Grapes are semi-translucent and I want to emphasize all the warm rich colors that are in them. One way is by using a green bottle as that is the opposite of red/orange. The other way will be to play warm/cool of the grapes and to add bits of grey. Because grey is so neutral it is a wonderful color that will help the color shine.


Im still keeping the grapes rather blocky and loose, only establishing large shapes and light/dark relationships. I’m starting to make more distinctions in the dark areas by adding some darker and cooler spots of color as well as darker and warmer spots of color. Because I want to highlight the warmth and glow of the light part of the grapes I’m making sure to make the darker masses cooler in the area closest to the bright and light section. In the end, the goal is to have it read as true even if it isn’t exactly what my eye might be seeing.

The next step is to start refining the shapes of the grapes and the background. I keep checking through my viewfinder to make sure I’ve not lost my compositional structure and one of those is the triangle shape that is created from where the grapes lay on the ground plane and then start to move up.


Finally, I will add any other details that will help the final result….color, temperature, drawing, highlights, and hard/soft edges.


If you want to see a time lapse video of this click here.

My, What Big Eyes You Have! – Drawing Realistic Eyes

Drawing eyes, or any part of the face is tricky because we are all so familiar with the human face. We start looking at faces from birth. We look at babies and they to us. So what we tend to do when drawing the face, especially eyes, is to exaggerate. Eyes get drawn with dark lines instead of emerging out of a darkish area of the socket which end up looking more like an Egyptian kohl eye than a more naturalistic eye.

To draw eyes well there are some physical considerations. The first is the skull itself and the socket. When you see a skull (and at halloween you can see lots of skulls) there is a hole where the eye ball, muscles, and skin will fill. Notice the shape of that hole. It’s not round! It’s kind of shaped like a pair of sunglass lenses, more of a rectangle shape. Notice the slope of the eye brow bone. Each side bends down toward the ear. Notice also at the bottom where its lower and higher.


Inside this cavity sits a ball. To start the drawing draw a ball shape, but fill the cavity. Remember, we are seeing just a small section of the orb of the eye. If you take a ping-pong ball, you can start to visualize it sitting in the ‘eye-glass lense’ shape. In fact, you could make a model using a ping pong ball as the eye ball.

The bone of the brow ridge, the top of the socket sits FORWARD, or IN FRONT OF the ball. So how do you show this?  By remembering that there is going to be a shadow created by the brow ridge and socket bone. To render this, lay in a middle to dark middle value in the whole eye socket area, but still keep the ball lightly visible.

eye ball massed in

Over this lightly draw in the eye lid. When drawing the lid, notice, again, which is higher, which is lower in both the top and bottom lids. The ball is now being covered by the skin (and muscle) on both the top and bottom of the sphere.

eye lid

When drawing the lid, but make sure you draw it lower than the top of the circle. Note where the corners of the eye are. The top of the circle of the eye ball is where the lid dives back in to the socket. It’s the area where one would apply eye shadow.

The lid will make it’s own shadow on eye ball, and the iris is often darker, even in pale eyes. When drawing the iris, notice what master painters have done – they use straight lines to depict the shape. The reason is that we, the viewer, will round it. And as an artist it’s easier to create the illusion of round with straight lines, especially in a small, tight area such as the eye.

eye iris

Add the lighter, highlight to the lid(s) as it’s also a ball on top of a ball and needs to show form. You can also add a highlight to the eye itself, but be judicious. See what really there and make sure the highlight is not too dark, nor too light. It has to be in the correct value.

eye finish

Remember that all the prep work you do underneath the drawing should be light, but dark enough for you to see, and most especially accurate. If it’s not accurate, what ever gets laid on top will be off. So take your time to really observe and get it correct. To go fast, go slow. Take your time. You will live with the drawing way longer than it will take to make it, so be really thoughtful about your lay-ins.

This is just a basic lay in and can be taken further. One book that I use often and travel with is John Vanderpoel’s “Human Figure”. In it he breaks the figure down in to their separate parts. Copy them until you can do them from memory.