Light From Above, 18" x 12"

(With thanks to The Pastel Journal where this was originally published as "It's Not Easy Being Green" )

Red is intense, yellow is cheerful, blue is peaceful, pink is romantic and green is -- a problem. Artists often express consternation over using the color green. It’s as though this one color, so predominant in the landscape, holds some mystery that artists must master. Despite its connotation as a restful, natural color, it can be tricky to use.

Green is found at the very center of the visible spectrum and is the hue to which our eyes are most responsive. We’re able to distinguish more shades of green than any other color, therefore, people have an intuitive, experiential understanding of green, whether consciously or not. This innate awareness can make using accurate and interesting greens a challenge. The most na├»ve observer can easily spot the wrong green used in a painting. Often the artist knows something is off, but has trouble finding the correction.

Santa Fe, 9" x 18"

Residing between the primary colors yellow and blue, directly astride the cusp of warm and cool temperatures on the color wheel, green cannot easily be classified as simply warm or cool. Ask anyone to divide the color wheel in half, with warm on one side and cool on the other, and almost invariably they will draw a line placing yellow on the warm side and yellow-green on the cool. But isolate this same yellow-green and they’ll identify it as a warm color. In the surrounding colors of a painting green may function as either a warm or cool color. This variety of temperature may be part of what makes green challenging to use.

If temperature is the primary issue, why is purple -- made from warm red and cool blue -- not subject to the same complaints among artists? Perhaps part of the reason is that purple resides squarely in the cool half of the color wheel. Add to that the fact that the yellow component of green adds intensity to the mix, while the red factor in purple is related more to temperature. Intensity and temperature are separate issues. The red in purple makes a concentrated color, but not one that’s necessarily intense, while an emphasis on yellow can make green extremely intense. The intensity of yellows used to make green may sometimes make for garish, surrealistic greens. As a result, some artists charge pastel manufacturers with making unnatural or brassy greens.

“So what?” responds Bob Strohsahl, maker of Great American Artworks pastels. “As long as manufacturers are making a full line of reliably standard greens in addition to the ‘garish’ ones, ‘unnatural’ greens might be useful to some artists.” However, he notes that when making pastels, green pigments tend to drift toward blue as they lighten. “The trick is to keep greens green as we make lighter values.” An overabundance of cool, light greens can limit the pastelist’s choices.

Some artists feel overwhelmed at trying to find the correct shade of green. My experience with this problem might be instructive. Years ago I found that I had quite a collection of green pastels, perhaps three times as many sticks as any other color. But when I organized my palette I discovered that instead of having more greens I had multiples of every green made. My dissatisfaction had led me to purchase more and more, trying to find the “right” green.
Wet Sneaker Morning, 12" x 18"
The cure came when master pastelist Albert Handell, who has been so instructive to so many emerging pastelists, urged me to paint only green subject matter. He suggested I paint trees, bushes, grasses or any other subject that was solely or predominantly green. As I progressed in this experiment, bored with the same old greens, I quickly reached into the rest of my palette to add interest to the work. I soon discovered that I could use red, lavender, gold, orange, purple, magenta, blue, yellow and any other color I had on hand to enhance my greens. Using green became an adventure as I explored these many variations.


Like so many, I was convinced that because the local color was green I had to begin with and continue using green there. Instead, a great variety of colors under, over and next to green make it far more interesting and believable. Think, “warm in the sunlight, cool in the shade.” Sunlit greens contain somewhat more warmth, hence yellow, so begin the warm areas of green using yellow, orange, red or pink. Greens in shade are cooler, so use blue, purple or magenta.

Evening Complements (detail)
Experiment with this idea to find the combinations that please you most. To paint foliage try putting down a light, bright orange next to a dark, cool purple. Then cover both with soft strokes of medium green. Or, first put down a very light stroke of green and then go into it with touches of orange and purple to make sunlight and shadows. Try yellow and blue or red and blue-violet beneath or on top of green. You might also experiment with making your own greens by blending blue and yellow on the paper or use bold broken strokes of blue and yellow.

Be careful not to over-green areas. If you need to strengthen the colors in and around green, you might begin with a grisaille underpainting or an underdrawing done in charcoal and choose colors based on the light to dark values needed. Based on value alone you can use a great number of different colors together. Color is then predicated on the tone first, which can make for exciting color choices. This can strengthen green by adding a host of colors of the same or similar value alongside or mixed into the green.

Instead of trying to find the green that most accurately matches what you see, use another color to mimic, replace or strengthen it. In an area of shadow use the darkest blue or a very dark burgundy or purple -- and no green. In the sunlight, choose bright orange or magenta, rather than green. Force yourself to think about value before color, as well as the temperature of the color.


Won’t all those different colors make mud? Many artists theorize that the recipe for a muddy, grimy color is one part warm mixed with one part cool. However, mud is a function of temperature and value. If you mix warms and cools the result will often look muddy, but mud is most affected by the use of differing values. When you’re careful to retain analogous values in an area you can avoid dirty color. For example, look at the greens in Evening Complements. The lighter areas of foliage are made using orange, copper, gold, lavender, yellow-green and green. These warm and cool colors are of the same value, resulting in an exciting, clear warm green that isn’t muddy or gloomy. Likewise, the shadowed side of the foliage is made up of red-violet, cool purple, blue, turquoise and green. Again, the similarity of values allows clear color even though the temperatures are both warm and cool.
Lavender Sky (detail)
According to artist and pastel manufacturer Terry Ludwig, over-blending colors is the main culprit in making mud. “Some blending can be useful, but if you don’t keep the colors somewhat separate they become mud, and if they contain too much white it gets pasty looking too.” Using light layers or broken color can create optical blending that’s far more interesting than the single-note, ordinary colors that result from too much blending.


In a landscape the goal is to create an impression of space and distance. As green fades into the distance the yellow component is filtered out by the atmosphere. To give your painting a sense of air, remember that the farther away they are, the cooler, bluer and paler the greens. This is true of all colors, of course, but this makes green particularly challenging because it’s made primarily of warm yellow, which appears close, and cool blue, which creates distance. Use warm yellow-greens in the foreground, and cool, blued greens for the background. Don’t allow olive green to become too blue in the distance, or blue-green to become too yellow in the foreground.

Significant humidity can increase the number of values perceived and necessitate a greater palette of greens since a wet climate is usually a green place. Sometimes this can baffle even a green connoisseur.

Ludwig, whose set of 85 greens have become foundational for many pastelists, was heard to remark while painting on location in sultry Atlanta, Ga., that he didn’t have the right green. His greens, which run the gamut from intense warm yellow-greens to the darkest cool blue-greens, enhanced with additions of cool reds, pale blues and warm yellows, were made to fill colors he felt were missing from his palette. “But there are a lot of nuances in Georgia in August,” he chuckles, noting he’s from Colorado, “and I still didn’t have enough with me.”

Certain greens characterize different areas of the country, but does that mean more artists in Vermont use Vermont Green, one of the Great American colors? “There’s some regional preference,” Strohsahl says. “Blue-greens for the northeast, yellow-greens in the southwest, although this is a generalization. There are lots of exceptions.” Vermont green is called that simply because, “I like Vermont,” explains Strohsahl. “Green sales are fairly consistent across the board. I think this is so because green occurs everywhere and not just in vegetation.”


No photograph can possibly represent the variety of greens you see in the world with your eye. The experience of painting on location will teach you more about green than any photograph. The human eye can see some 7,000,000 colors, a variety no film can begin to approach, so to appreciate the diversity of color it’s best to spend time observing and recording what you see in nature.

Final Touches, 12" x 9"
Our eyes have millions of light-sensitive photoreceptor cells called cones. When saturated with one color, the eye automatically supplies the complementary color as an after-image. You may have experienced the effect of staring at a green square and, upon looking away, seeing a mysterious red square floating in its place. The after-image provides the complement of the color. While you’re on location, search out the red after-image of green and record it in your painting. This is guaranteed to enliven your colors, since complements invariably heighten visual contrasts.

As you practice seeing in a very green environment you will begin to perceive all the colors of the color wheel. Look for the yellows and oranges of green in sunlight, the blues and purples of the shadowed greens, and the afterimage of red amid all of the numerous greens there.

Use warm and cool greens to add depth. Enhance green with all the colors in your palette, paying attention to how much you blend or leave the strokes visible. Layer colors together to boost the power of the greens you have on hand. Seek the ways that you can record all the beauty of green, the restful and useful color of nature.


Hot Afternoon, 9" x 12"

What does the temperature of a color do in your painting? It may be as simple as warm colors advance and cool colors recede, but perhaps there is more. What happens when you place a warm color over a cool one -- or vice versa? Does anything different happen if you place a hot color beneath or on top of a cool one?

Let’s begin with a definition of warm, cool and hot. There are three primary colors: red, yellow and blue. Two of those colors – red and yellow – are warm, and only one – blue – is cool. Where you divide the color wheel into warm or cool is usually a personal decision, yet what artist has not used warm purple or cool orange? Nonetheless, basically two-thirds of the colors on the wheel are warm.
When we describe a hot color we usually refer to temperature only to a degree. More often the word “hot” means intense, and applies to more colors than just those in the red and yellow range. Usually, however, these intense colors are warm in nature. For instance, you might have a hot orange or red, but what do you picture when I say hot green or hot blue?

If you pictured a green with dashes of red beneath it or a blue with orange peeking through, you are thinking like an artist. When we put complements together, whether on top of one another or side by side, we are using temperature to affect color.

If you place a hot color beneath one of lesser intensity, say layering a bright yellow under a pale blue, you often achieve an optical mix that results in green. Doesn’t the same thing happen if you place a pale yellow beneath a pale blue? Yes, but to a much lesser degree. The result of that combination is usually described more as a slightly bluish green.

Much of the effect is dependent on how you choose to lay down your strokes. For instance, you might decide to put down a soft layer of yellow and then cover that with another soft layer of blue. The result blends on the paper into bluish green. If you put down a thick impasto stroke of yellow and cover it with choppy strokes of blue it results in broken color that suggests green. Think of the difference in layering the sky or the grasses -- soft, smooth layers of sky versus broken strokes of grass. If you use the side of your pastel to slightly blend layers you achieve a very different look using temperature than you do if you use the end of the pastel to put in lines. Both become green but to varying degrees.

Experiment with putting down different colors. What happens?

Try hot over cool.

Cool over hot.

Warm over hot.

Hot over warm.

Warm over cool.

Cool over warm.

Cool over cool.

Warm over warm.

Hot over hot.

Next, how about using a split-complement, the color to each side of the complement, beneath or on top? How does that affect things? That’s too many color experiments to count – I'll let you make that chart.

I challenge you to simply experiment with colors and see what happens when you try different combinations. The charts you make will help you remember what you discovered. Then apply what you learn to layering colors in your paintings.

Almost Spring, 12" x 18"


Hillside Progression 2, 11" x 23"

Color is the lifeblood of a painting. It’s the energy and animation, the element that inspires the heart and touches the core of the viewer. It’s extremely personal and yet has universal overtones. It has been codified and studied, yet always seems to escape definitions that restrict its use. Out of the frustration of creating muddy color in pastels, as well as successful attempts to use compelling color, arises the greatest growth. In the hands of the master pastelist color can have more depth and excitement than any other medium.

The rules of color use must be respected and understood so that they may be skillfully utilized or more skillfully broken. As youngsters we came to know that yellow and blue make green, whether we learned it from a gentle teacher or from a television jingle. Yet teaching children further basics of color use are often neglected, left to the realm of play alone. The art student often comes to color in her studies last, after studying composition, drawing and value, which are somewhat more easily taught. Color seems more mysterious, a bit perplexing and hard to explain.

There comes a time in each artist’s career when she must question green and define it as both yellow and blue -- and perhaps think of green in terms of red (its complement) or orange and violet (its split complements.) That’s when color becomes personal, intuitive and truly useful to the artist. It’s also the time when questions come, doubts rage and real learning begins.

Glow, 12" x 18"
The student approaches the master to ask how to make color succeed, how to use it to freshen the expression of a painting, to escape the dreaded dulls of personal habit. “I want to loosen up the way I use color,” she declares. She’s read the books and considered theories in the abstract. She knows the color wheel and has become apprenticed to the master in her head. Yet nothing replaces the pastel-beneath-the-fingernails work. The master says, “You want to learn about color? Use it! Paint, paint, paint!” These questions cannot be answered by theories or rules, only by experience.

So what questions are best? What might the student do to learn from her work? Each journey is individual, with its own moments of growth and personal dissatisfactions. Questions often beget more questions, yet good questions finally result in some answers. We must share the answers, which no doubt will show in the master’s final body of work. Even more valuable might be sharing the questions, which is the ultimate role of the teacher.
California Skyline, 12" x 18"
General color theory holds that cool colors recede while warm colors advance, complements laid down side by side excite the eye, dark colors have more weight than light colors and intense colors should be used to accent not inundate. There’s no denying that color is relational, that it works in association with surrounding colors. These have becomes rules because they commonly hold true. But may they be abused and broken, and thereby made to work for different reasons, to other ends? Why might I not flood the paper with the most brilliant color imaginable to achieve a somber mood? Is it possible? How can I know if I only accept traditional wisdom?

Color and value are inextricably linked. Years of traditional thought hold that one should structure a painting from a drawing and value standpoint before adding color. Begin with a great rendering, sort out the values and stay true to those decisions, laying down accurately matched colors over your chosen values, and you will have a successful color painting when done. Argue with this and you can spend hours at any pastel convention deep in philosophy over lunch. Argue it on paper instead and see where you end up.

Try structuring the painting solely on color first -- no drawing at all, nothing on that paper but the gaping, empty surface. Begin with the most neglected and unused pastel of any color in your palette. Do you neglect magenta? Put down a definitive swath of it across the paper. How about that brilliant yellow-green, the one you’ve only used one time to touch the tips of sunlit leaves in the final dabs on the summer trees? What happens where a splotch of it touches the magenta? Does it make your heart race or add a hint of moisture along your upper lip? Go there anyway. Now find another exciting color, one that’s dangerous in combination with these two, the last one you would choose. It doesn’t matter if the reason you avoid it is because in the past you’ve learned it makes mud. Mud can be beautiful -- and fun to play with, especially when you aren’t worrying about the result.

Day's Angry End, 9" x 12"
Rather than abandoning yourself to the anxiety of some self-imposed goal, let color become the goal. Do you love the rich, deep-dark hues of reddish purple or the lyrical strains of lavender and orange as they link? Put them down on your paper. Respond spontaneously to your color choices without asking or analyzing.

Perhaps the best advice is to stop painting somewhat sooner. Instead of abandoning yourself to the experiment and putting all the color onto one soon-beleaguered page, hold back, experiment and breathe a little between each rush of excitement or fear. Take time to think and formulate the next questions. Make many such experiments. Do a hundred of them! Allow time and experience to become the teachers and your new questions to determine the next try.

Then just go paint.

Hot Summer Night, 12" x 18"

Mesa Encantada, 9" x 12"


Rio Snow, 12" x 9"

Snow settles over the land with a shimmer and weight that blurs and softens the shapes of everything it covers. Its startling whiteness shifts the values of the landscape painting, forcing the artist to paint the ground, rather than the sky, as the lightest plane in the picture, and to structure the painting carefully to achieve a clean, bold whiteness. Although many think snow a simple subject to paint, it presents special challenges to pastelists because of the medium’s inherent tendency to blend on the paper when applied in layers and the fact that colors that are not crisply applied and left untouched can become muddy looking. Avoiding these pitfalls takes forethought and planning, as well as knowledge in handling the medium.

The first hazard the artist encounters in painting snow is that of value shift. It seems simple enough: In a snow painting the land becomes the lightest plane, the sky is medium-light and the trees are dark. But does the fact that the land plane becomes lightest perhaps force the sky to become a medium value? No! The sky is still the same light value it has always been, but the ground is often lighter in value when covered with a fresh blanket of snow. Value relationships are the key. Another casualty of the shift in values is often the colors in the snow. It’s very easy to see the snow scene as overly black and white, neglecting the chance for surprising color, as well as simplifying the value range far too much. This can result in unrealistically strong contrast, which omits medium-dark and medium-light values entirely.
Mountain Snow, 8" x 11"
Photographic prints, especially those taken by amateur photographers, often validate oversimplification and lead the student artist astray. Because cameras average the light coming into the lens, in all but the most expert of hands a print will be overly dark in dark areas or overly light in light areas. All detail and nuance of color is lost in the shadows or washed away by the light. Spend time observing the values and colors of snow without relying on a photograph to portray it for you. As you step outside on a cold, snowy day you might first notice the whiteness of the snow, and then perhaps the color of the sky. Spend time looking for the subtleties of color in the snow. Generally you will see warm colors in the sunlight and cool colors in shadows. When the light is one color the shadows are usually the opposite, but the color depends on many variables. Remember aerial perspective holds true. Distance flavors all colors, strewing the light around the landscape so that colors become lighter in value and cooler in color as they recede from the viewer in all instances -- except that of white. As white recedes it becomes slightly darker and duller. It remains its whitest in the near foreground.

Sunlit Snow, 12" x 12" (underdrawing, charcoal)
Shadows on snow will shift with distance, generally from greenish-blue in the fore to lavender-blue in the middle ground to pure blue in the distance, as the air progressively filters out yellow and red. Shadow colors on snow often depend on the color of the sky. Look for a shadow crossing new-fallen snow. See how the sky color is captured there, dark beneath its source and lightening slightly with distance. Snow is extremely reflective. Because it’s light in color (literally containing all colors in white light), snow reflects a greater percentage of light. Consider a snow-covered hillside that forms a soft bowl at its foot. Depending on which way it faces, the shadowed face may contain subtly different colors because the sky reflected in it will vary slightly. The sky is somewhat darker at the zenith and paler at the horizon, as well as slightly warmer in the quadrant near the sun and cooler away from the sun. This means that the colors in shadows on snow may be some permutation of warm or cool, very pale or somewhat darker, and range in color from blue-green to lavender to pure blue depending on the distance from the viewer. This allows for exciting color possibilities in both sunlight and shadows on snow. Reflections in snow can also be found in more intimate surroundings. Look for the color of a wall or fence reflected against the snow bank beneath it. Bounce colors from nearby objects into the shadows, thereby creating particularly beautiful temperature changes. A reflection can season the color of the shadow nearby, causing another dimension of color in the snow. Layering colors creates subtle variations, particularly in deep shadow areas. Even the darkest shadows in snow are fairly light in value.

After a heavy snowfall, the outlines of objects become muffled and soft, blanketed with a thick, velvety whiteness that blunts hard edges. The barn becomes a giant pillow pointing its corner skyward, the car a marshmallow shape in the hollow of the driveway. Trees become weighed down by the wetness of the snow. Look for the way the branches are pushed down until the snow atop them becomes part of the bank beneath. Don’t miss the heaviness of snow. Also, find places where the rich, dark soil punctuates the snow as it begins to melt, forming deep pools around plants and grasses. Concentrate on these edges, which are crisp where they touch the ground but remain rounded above. Be especially careful in places where dark colors reside in front of light ones, and must therefore be painted dark over light. It’s best not to overwork these spots, which is bound to cause muddy-looking patches. Plan your painting carefully so that you can use one deliberate stroke of color, then stop while it’s fresh.

A snow drift is an exercise in hard and soft, sharp edges and blended slopes. Find the direction of the sun and the defining shadow. Without any shadow, drifts are seen as subtle variations of warm and cool. Look for the crisp line along the top edge and the soft slide of snow, like a mountain in miniature. See how you can define this slope using colors that are layered and softly blended together to create the shadow side, adding a line of light color where the sun blazes. If there is a cornice where the snow has blown over the top and frozen in place or a cast shadow crossing the drift, you have an added chance to define the shape of the drift with color, blending and edges.
Winter Sun and Shadows, 12" x 18"
Although there are generalizations that can assist you in painting snow, hard and fast rules need to be suspended. The reflective brightness of snow changes everything. So be adventurous, try new colors, layers and new techniques. Painting snow with pastels is a very satisfying experience. Snow is light in color and value, the strongest range of colors available in the medium. Pastelists therefore have virtually endless choices of colors to use. Snow’s rounded softness is easily captured by lightly blending colors to show the swish and slide of shadows. The reflective qualities of pastel mimic the sparkle and shine of snow with ease. All in all, pastel is well suited to painting snow.


There are different techniques you can use to paint falling snowflakes, but it’s best to paint the entire image before adding any falling flakes. Choose a subject with muted light since snow falls from clouds that obscure the light. It’s not necessary to have a photograph of snow falling on the scene you’re painting since photos are hard to capture, but study such photos for evidence of how to make snow look realistic.

For instance, there will not be any strong shadows in the photo, nor will there be strong dark and light contrasts. Paint the softly muted colors that come from low ambient light. Use a palette of subdued light to medium-light colors, with an occasional dark to punctuate the painting. Remember that in a high-key painting with low contrast darks become very strong punctuation. Carefully place these darks to draw the eye. Because the light is low, your lightest colors will not be strongly white in color, so reserve the use of white for the end, assuring yourself that you’ll have lights to use if needed. Many paintings of falling snow will have no pure white in them at all. Put your white aside for the majority of the painting.

Notice how falling snow looks in a photograph. There are near and far flakes seen in varying degrees of light colors, the nearer ones bigger and brighter. The pattern of flakes is random and swirling, not evenly spaced like wallpaper. The flakes may look light against darker areas and sometimes darker against the whiter areas -- but not always. At times the light flakes simply disappear against the lightest areas of the painting. You don’t have to show every flake. Less is often more!

To make the final falling flakes choose several colors in various light and medium-light shades. Begin by dotting in a few key spots to draw the eye, adding colors judiciously. Notice the angle at which the flakes are falling. Sometimes the wind whips them into swirls, although there’s usually a prevailing direction. Stop after each layer of dots, making sure to vary the sizes and colors to create the illusion of depth. Do not allow all of the dots to be uniform in shape. Fat flakes may be oddly lumpy. Small flakes may appear as short dashes. If you make the mistake of painting every falling flake as a dash of the same length and color it will end up looking like pouring rain. Take care to see how the pattern of flakes draws the eye -- and remember, it’s easier to put a few more in than take them out! If you make a mistake and feel the falling flakes must be changed, you’ll be forced to wipe out quite a bit of your painting.

You may try using white spray paint to make snow. Carefully drift the spray over your finished painting. Be cautious, however, as once it’s there any changes you try to make will be obvious and usually unsuccessful. Perhaps a more effective means to make incidental snowflakes is to use a razor blade to shave off bits of pale-colored pastel onto the surface of your finished painting, laid flat on a tabletop. A second pass can be done with a very light drift of pure white pastel to simulate the nearest and brightest snowflakes. When the results please you, place a piece of clean newsprint over the top of the finished painting and briskly rub the flat of your hand over it to burnish the bits into the paper.

Cold Blue, 9" x 12"

Last Snow, 9" x 12"


(With thanks to The Pastel Journal where this was originally published.)

Summer Hollyhocks, 24" x 18"

The lively textures and patterns, alluring colors and peaceful atmosphere of gardens have inspired many artists to paint them. People visit a garden to relax in a shady corner or stroll past cheerful, sunlit flowers on a summer day. Spending time there is delightful. Capturing its essence in a painting is appealing. What makes a successful painting of a garden? The answer to this is a varied as the innumerable artists who have painted countless gardens, yet certain generalizations can be applied.

One of the pleasures of painting a garden is the necessity to spend time observing it, studying the ways various plants overlap and contrast, the diverse textures created by foliage and flowers, trees, bushes and grasses. Spend some time examining the details of the garden. Notice the way the garden wall or fence delineates the space; look for the perspective created by the pathway curving away; scrutinize the colors that recede from bright to pale. If you take the time to do a number of sketches or color studies it will help to fix the garden in your mind, allowing you to begin to sort through the complexity to find what underlies it all. You may feel overwhelmed if you try to draw or paint everything you see in a garden, which can look like a confusing riot of tiny shapes.

As you plan your garden painting, notice first the direction of the sun and the resulting shadows. Locate a focal area, perhaps a place where certain blossoms glow in the sunlight, or a pathway that leads the eye to light flowers against a dark background. Contrasts of dark and light or heightened colors help to frame the subject of your painting. If the scope of the entire garden overwhelms you, search out a section to concentrate on so that you’re viewing only one small segment. Limit what you study to begin with so that you aren’t defeated by the feeling that there’s simply too much to paint. Face the garden wall or the nearby hedge with a flowerbed in front instead of looking out into the seemingly impossible density of the rest of the garden.


Whether concentrating on this one little part or painting the extent of the whole area, look for the depth of space, locating the boundaries of the garden and the large overlapping shapes. First make a sketch, identifying these big shapes. Then define the values and add the textures and details you plan to use. This will help you understand where each object is located before putting down any colors. It may help to study each element, doing a drawing of a part—perhaps the values and textures of the bed of flowers or the rocks and resulting shadows they cast on the walkway. Study each element, distilling the shapes to their essence. One way to help refine complex details down to more manageable shapes is to squint until your eyes are almost closed and look for the patterns of dark and light only, then record them on your paper as larger areas of value.
Flagstone Garden, 18" x 24"
Another helpful way to simplify things is to search out negative shapes. Most of the time when we consider negative shapes we think of drawing the sky to define the shape of the tree, but you might also record the dark shapes of the plants behind to define the light shapes of those in front, or the light mass of the flowers in sunlight to define the medium mass of other plantings. In this way you can begin to distinguish the simple light and dark relationships. Then you can work from the large shapes to smaller ones, finally adding details, defining values and colors as you go. If you begin with nothing but details it’s easy to become confounded and miss the underlying organization of the garden.


Consider the dirt—a good foundation for a garden as well as a garden painting. Just as it’s necessary to have good soil to plant, so you need to record the color of the dirt that lies beneath the plants and trees. In some cases, toning your paper a color that mimics the soil can be a good beginning, although this color should not become overly formulized. It may be beige but perhaps it could be lavender, ochre, or rusty orange. Whatever value or color you choose to tone your paper, be sure to consider adding a suggestion of dirt to any area that’s not completely obscured by plants, such as the areas between flagstones or around the edges of flowerbeds.

Whether you’re painting a civilized, formal garden or a more natural looking country patch, it’s necessary to understand the terrain on which it lies. Most gardens are planted on flat ground—but not always. Look for slopes or small mounds, raised planters or beds that elevate the level of plantings. Determine where pathways cut through foliage, whether they are paved with flagstones or are simply a dirt track, in order to indicate how the garden is laid out. Grasses and bushes may make a backdrop to a particularly showy plant or flower. A skillful gardener will plan contrasting colors, textures and sizes of plants to feature their special qualities. Don’t ‘fake it’ when it comes to the underlying layout. You must understand even what cannot be seen in the finished painting in order to be able to adequately explain it, such as where the path turns away or the ground slants. You may use cross-contour lines in your underdrawing to help indicate the different directions of the planes of the ground, plants, walls and sky, if they can be seen, so that as you begin to paint you have no difficulty understanding and explaining these to your viewer. Additionally, seek out and strengthen directional elements, such as the upward movement of tall flowers, the horizontal course produced by vegetation creeping along the ground or a wall, or the downward sweep of overhanging branches, as well as the differing levels created by various kinds of plants. Carefully shift your viewer’s eye using these to create pleasing movement in your painting.

In the sometimes-intimate spaces of a garden, value patterns can be a bit different from those of the typical landscape painting. Where you can construe a landscape as generally containing light values in the sky, medium-light values along the ground and dark values in the trees, the garden often resists such simple classification. Close quarters make for deeper shade, while the complex relationships of intersecting plants, trees and other elements defy formulizing. This requires you to seek out the underlying value structure that characterizes the garden you’re painting, recording the dark, medium and light values you see there.


Flowers are undoubtedly the stars of a garden painting. There’s nothing more striking than the blaze of colorful beds of blossoming flowers. All the colors of the rainbow can be discovered there, cheerfully nodding their heads in the sunlight or softly decorating a shady corner. Focus on one dominant color to unify your painting rather than trying to include every color you see, which can sometimes result in a painting that is disjointed. Use flowers with complementary colors such as purple and yellow pansies to make a jazzy, bright painting, or choose analogous colors such as soft blue, violet and pink flowers to achieve a quieter serenity.

Bright Garden, 14" x 11"
To paint different blooms, identify the characteristic shape of an individual flower. Study the flounced edges and flop-eared sides of irises. Look at the rounded depths of roses. Notice the spiky cups of daylilies. Every flower can be characterized by series of shapes, which can then be designed into typical strokes, whether flounced, rounded or spiked. The idea is to paint masses of flowers broadly, making a recognizable flower using a carefully shaped stroke. Pay attention to the growth habits of different species, whether they are open and loosely arranged like hollyhocks, or densely packed together in a mass like daisies. Use these strokes, in the proper shape and scale, to create the effect of flowers rather than trying to paint each petal, stalk and leaf.

Color creates energy and depth in a painting. Dashes of brilliantly intense colors should be reserved for the blossoms in the main focal area. Cool, duller shades in the receding portions create a sense of distance, however shallow the space may be. This does not mean that you can’t include flowers peripheral to the focal point, but any further blooms must play a supporting role to direct the eye back to the stars of the show. Keep these co-stars less intense to indicate their relative distance, as well. Soften edges and diminish contrasts of secondary flowerbeds.

Edges, shapes and values are all important elements, but color is essential to the garden. One key to featuring the exciting colors of flowers is the steady influence of green. Green is a color that people sometimes find challenging to use. While it’s

necessary to have a good range of green pastels on hand, from dark to light values, it’s also helpful to have a variety of blue-greens and yellow-greens in your palette. Various pastel manufacturers offer a large selection of greens to choose from but the wise pastelist will think of ways she can layer an exciting assortment of warm and cool colors over, under or amid green to give a lively or subdued effect.


As in painting the foliage of a tree, plants are best painted with a spare hand. Rather than trying to laboriously render every blossom, bud, tendril, shoot and leaf, which can quickly become visually boring, find different strokes that will effectively suggest these details in areas peripheral to the focal point. Use this suggestive stroke where a dark mass of foliage meets a lighter one, or where there’s a dramatic color change. These areas of interest indicate the amount and types of leaves. Use a quick squiggle, a slanting repetitive stroke, or repeated dots and dashes to represent different kinds of foliage. Vary textures to mimic different kinds of leaves, from the long, strapping stroke of the iris leaf, to the rounded dinner plate shaped hollyhock leaf, to the repeated, quick slashes of grasses or stems. Keep in mind that if you detail the painting to the same degree all over the page, visually there will be no detail at all. Only where there’s a deviation in size, boldness or tone is the eye stopped. Detail should reside at or near the area of greatest interest in your painting, drawing the eye to the stars of the show. Here is where you can place dramatic darks and lights, bright colors, interesting highlights or strong individual touches.

Spend time in the garden studying the shapes, contours and values of your upcoming painting, then carefully plan and delineate the space in order to take control of a very complex subject. Develop different strokes that will simply and capably describe foliage and flowers, and then add dramatic contrasts, exciting colors and interesting details to those elements that are the stars of the show. Enjoy the time you spend learning how to paint gardens.

Garden Trio, 18" x 12"