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Choosing Colors For A Painting…Less Is More!

There is more than one way to choose colors for a painting. Your first impulse might be to use colors that as closely as possible approximate WHAT YOU SEE. Sometimes this approach works well.  You can learn a great deal about mixing colors by taking this path.

ESTABLISH COLOR UNITY.

However, there are dangers in striving to paint exactly what you see. Sometimes an artist will use too many unrelated colors and a picture can become disjointed and appear confused. Therefore, to create a pulled together look, try to use fewer colors in an effort to establish COLOR UNITY in a picture. Don’t use every color you own!

You could also choose colors for your paintings to reflect HOW YOU FEEL about the subject. As an artist, you probably hope to share your reaction to a scene and use color to reach a viewer on an emotional level. What is the overall feeling or mood you want in your finished picture? For instance, would warm colors (or cool colors) better establish the mood of your picture? Is it a clear, sunny and bright summer day at the beach, or a misty, damp and dark winter afternoon? ( See my related blog “Get In The Mood”, published September 4, 2018, for more information about creating mood in a painting.)

Dusk.jpg

A third way to choose colors for a painting might be to pick a set of colors that would represent what you believe to be the BASIC CHARACTER of your subject. Let yourself think about the subject in colors totally different from what appear in reality. An unusual set of colors might better suit what you are trying to get across about your subject. You don’t need to move too far away from actual colors of an object to give it your own take. Exciting color variations can create interest in a dull, monochromatic area of your picture. Clouds are not always puffy and white, and trees are not only green.

Meadow Road.jpg

 

CONSIDER COLOR TEMPERATURE, LIGHT QUALITY, VALUE.

Regardless of the way in which you choose paint colors when planning a painting, give your picture a distinct COLOR SCHEME. Consider emphasizing a particular color combination (or temperature) for your image. Again, keep in mind the overall feeling you hope for in your finished picture. (Mood can be achieved, in part, through your choice of colors.) Start with using COLOR TEMPERATURE to charge your picture with emotion. Consider several specific colors or a range of colors making sure to include both warm and cool colors for use in your picture. It is important that ONE temperature dominates. The other temperature will contrast, counterbalance, and neutralize the dominant color for variety.

Rusty.jpg

Continue to establish the mood by considering the LIGHT QUALITY that will be in your painting. Will you use intense, pure paint colors or more dulled, diffuse colors? Keep in mind that bright sunlight is suggested by pure, bright colors. (Think of the look of a Greek landscape.) As light becomes more diffused with moisture or smoke, colors appear duller. Dulled colors hint at subdued lighting, poor visibility, less detail, and lowered value (light/dark) contrast. (You see much less detail, for instance, at night.) Remember that you can create duller colors by adding a bit of a color’s complement (it’s opposite on the color wheel).

River sunset winter.jpg

Also, always consider VALUE (light/dark) in planning the mood of your picture. Would mostly light colors (or mostly dark, or a balance of values) enhance the mood or feeling you plan to establish? (For more information about values, see my related blogs “Dusk,Evening, and Moonlight… Oh, My!”, published February 5, 2019, and “Why Should I Bother To Use A Gray Scale?”, published May 21, 2019.)

LIMITED PALETTE.

Reducing, or limiting the number of colors used in a painting has some distinct advantages! By creating a LIMITED PALETTE you SIMPLIFY decisions that need to be made during the painting process. It becomes easier to preserve HARMONY and COLOR UNITY. A limited palette encourages greater balance in your work. You will be able to maintain more CONTROL using fewer colors. Color mixing becomes easier and less frustrating. Painting becomes more efficient!

IMG_0128.jpg

 

Further, painting with a limited palette allows you to think less about color choices, while letting you focus more attention on other important components of painting, such as shape, value (light/dark), and warm/cool balance.

CREATE A LIMITED PALETTE OR COLOR SCHEME.

How do you choose the right color scheme? Well, there is no “right” or easy answer! There is not one perfect combination of colors. But there are many good choices. (By the way, you DO NOT have to use the exact colors recommended in a demonstration!) Still, it is important to actually CHOOSE A COLOR SCHEME while you are in the planning stage of painting. (Remember that different color combinations create different feelings or moods.) Without choosing a color scheme before beginning to paint, you will be in danger of creating a mess of unrelated colors. So, choose a color scheme that suits you!

 

A limited palette is made up of two or more colors. Your choice of colors can be as simple as Burnt Sienna with Indigo, or Brown Madder with Cobalt Blue, even Permanent Rose with Viridian, in a COMPLEMENTARY color scheme. Or create a limited palette using the three primary colors, in a TRIAD color scheme. Perhaps your choice would be New Gamboge/ Cadmium Red/ Ultramarine Blue, or Winsor Yellow/ Permanent Rose/ Cobalt Blue, or Perylene Maroon/ Indian yellow/ Phthalo Blue. You might want to expand just a bit by adding Burnt Sienna or Perylene Green or one of your favorite convenience colors to the three primaries.

Boat Float.jpg

Another common limited palette includes six colors – a warm and a cool version of each of the three primary colors. Daniel Smith Extra Fine Watercolors offers a very good example with their “Essentials” kit, which includes Hansa Yellow Light, New Gamboge, Quinacridone Rose, Pyrrol Scarlet, Phthalo Blue Green Shade, French Ultramarine Blue. Using these six colors can be described as using a SPLIT PRIMARY color scheme.

A few additional ways to combine colors into a color scheme include choosing several colors based on their position on the color wheel and their distance from each other. For example, in an ANALOGOUS color scheme, three or more  colors are chosen that fall next to each on the wheel, possibly yellow-green, green, blue-green, and blue. A SQUARE color scheme employs four colors evenly spaced on the color wheel, such as Permanent Mauve, Viridian, New Gamboge, and Pyrrol Red. A TETRAD color scheme uses colors whose placement on the color wheel form a rectangle, perhaps Permanent Rose, Ultramarine Blue, Light Red, and Viridian. Yet another possible scheme is a SPLIT COMPLEMENTARY scheme, made up of one color plus the two colors on either side of its complement. A possible split complimentary scheme could be Quinacridone Rose, Viridian and Green Gold.

Orange pumpkins.jpg

So many choices! To simplify, first choose a dominant, then one or several subordinate colors to give an overall mood to your painting. Decide on cool or warm dominance. Think about possible color schemes that might highlight your subject, and experiment on test paper until you find one you prefer. For color ideas, you might have a dramatic photo with an appealing color combination or a saved magazine image to use for color inspiration, or use your imagination.

Color is fun and amazing, but often less is more! Use fewer colors! Enjoy!

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Painting…On the Edge.

If you are a painter, or just enjoy looking at paintings, you cannot avoid edges. Every shape in a painting has an edge, boundary, or margin that provides information about the subject. By altering the characteristics of edges, you can make clear what is most important in your painting.

As a painter, it is important to use the appropriate edges to pass along accurate information to your viewer. The right type of edge makes your subject recognizable. For example, a rock, house, or boat should have mainly hard edges, while a cloud, fog, or smoke should have primarily soft edges. Edges can suggest a sharp transition or soft blending. While each object can be essentially hard- or soft-edged, there should always be some variation in edge treatment in each shape or object to add variety and interest. While clouds will be predominantly soft, a few hard edges will attract the viewer’s eye and encourage a closer look.

TIRE SWING PAINTING.jpg

Edges can also create distance and separation between objects in a picture. For instance, a hard-edged object will appear separated from and in front of what is painted near it, suggesting space. On the other hand, a soft-edged object tends to blend in, to appear to touch, be close to, or be surrounded by nearby shapes.

Tiny Waves series - crashing wave.jpeg

TYPES OF EDGES.

There are a variety of different edge characteristics. Try to include many kinds of edges in each of your paintings!

HARD, abrupt, or sharp edges stop the movement of your eye. Your eye focuses on the hard edge and moves along the line’s edge, hopefully, to the most interesting part of the picture. ROUGH edges also attract attention, particularly if value contrast (light and dark) is high. An OVERLAPPED edge is a variation of the hard edge. To create an overlapped edge, paint a shape and let it dry. Paint another nearby shape by just overlapping the previous edge to create a small section of a third color and a transitional edge.

A SOFT, faded, or blurred edge allows the eye to easily move from one shape right over the edge to another shape. Soft edges can suggest movement or allow the viewer to imagine and interpret parts of a picture. A LOST edge is a variation of a soft edge, where the edge or boundary of an object can’t be seen although the viewer knows it must be there based on other parts of the painting. A BROKEN edge, or lost-and-found edge, keeps a painting from being static; the edge appears and disappears.

VT Farm Snow Scene(166).jpg

HOW TO PAINT EDGES.

To paint a HARD edge, make a stroke of paint on DRY paper and let the paint dry. ROUGH edges are painted on dry paper with somewhat thicker paint. By using the side of the brush, paint skips over the bumps in the paper (similar to a dry-brush mark).

In contrast, a SOFT edge is created by painting on WET paper (wet-in-wet). The degree of moisture on the paper affects how soft the edge will be. The wetter the paper, the more the paint will soften and dissipate. A soft edge can also be made by charging or painting one color next to a second color. (See my related blog post published June 4, 2019, “Charge Ahead and Mingle: Blending Color On Watercolor Paper”.) Or form a soft edge by applying paint, then softening the edge with a damp brush, while the paint is still wet. If the paint has dried before you soften, you can still run a damp brush along the edge of the paint, but let the wetness soften the paint briefly before gently tickling the edge to get the edge paint to start to soften. It’s much easier to soften BEFORE paint dries, however. (See my related blog post published October 23, 2018, “Softening An Edge or Fading Out”.)

Winter Is Coming.jpg

HOW TO PLAN YOUR EDGES.

How can you decide which edges should be painted with a hard edge, or soft, or rough, or lost? Why can’t you just make all the edges hard and detailed? I encourage you to go beyond copying every detail of a reference. Instead, improve your painting by thinking ahead and planning edges before you begin painting. If you are going to paint from a reference photo or from real life, SQUINT your eyes so that you can better see values and simplify the important details in your scene.

Decide on your painting’s center of interest. Your focus will generally be painted as the area having higher value contrast and harder edges. As you squint, you should also look for areas where there is lower value contrast and probably softer or lost edges. Try never to decide on your edge treatment without squinting and thinking about VALUES. Remember that light and the light source affect how you see edges. Make a note to help you remember! Direct or bright light will form harder, sharper edges, even lost edges in extremely bright light. Shadowed areas, distant objects, or darkness will suggest softer, perhaps lost edges, with less detail.

Strive to NOT have only hard edges! INVENT some lost edges if you have to. In other words, don’t define or detail every boundary. Plan where you’ll need to lose some edges. When drawing, you could leave out some lines entirely where you would like to lose an edge. Plan for each shape in a painting to have VARIED edges, not totally hard or totally soft.

The End of the Day.jpg

IN SUMMARY.

Edges provide much information about a subject. As an artist, you can provide the viewer with the correct information by using appropriate edges. A few  of the things that edges can tell you about are how strong the light is and from what direction it is coming, what the weather is, what the center of interest is in a painting, and distances of objects from the viewer.

To avoid a rigid painting, vary your edges! Remember that hard boundaries indicate the importance of an object in your picture. A hard edge stops the eye and directs the viewer to follow the edge. Value contrast also makes a hard edge more obvious. Yet, too many hard edges and too much detail can be confusing and monotonous. By varying edges, you create interesting things to look at and you encourage the viewer’s gaze to wander and flow from one part of your picture to another. Have many kinds of edges in a painting. The greater the variety of edge treatments, the more interesting your painting is to look at!

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How Do You Know When a Painting is Finished?

Knowing when a painting is ‘finished’ depends on the goals you establish before beginning to paint. There is no obvious point at which you know a picture is complete. But there are tips to help you decide; choosing your goals and being aware of your painting approach will help to insure that you meet those goals by recognizing when you’ve achieved them.

Some painters may start to paint before they have a goal, instead seeing where the painting process leads them. Other painters are moved by a vision of where they want to go in a painting and they plan ahead to get there. At some point in the process, all good artists connect with their painting in an emotional way and become aware of why they chose to paint what they did.

By clarifying for yourself why you want to paint a subject, you begin to know what is important for you to get across in the painting. You can better develop a composition that effectively creates a center of interest that moves the viewer’s eye to focus on your emphasis. Decide what to include in your picture and what to leave out! A painting should have only one center of interest to avoid confusion. Surrounding areas in a picture will be made less important by using different values, less detail, fewer hard edges, etc.

Be clear in your own mind why you want to do a painting. What am I painting this picture for? What do I find most interesting about the scene? Is it the subject itself that I like, the weather, colors or contrasts, the effect of the light and shadows?

Having a plan before beginning to paint does not mean you can’t experiment or change your mind as you proceed. Painting should be a process of trying out your ideas and evaluating as you go along how well your techniques are achieving your goals. If something doesn’t work as well as expected, by all means, try something else. Improvise!

The following two paintings were well planned, yet as painting proceeded, changes were necessary to achieve goals. In the yard of ‘Pepperell Relic’, the fading rays of sun were not bright enough initially, and a glaze had to be added. The background for ‘Apple Blossoms’ was too strident and intrusive at first, requiring toning down with a blue glaze.

Pepperell Relic painting.jpg

Pepperell Relic.

Apple Blossoms LAMH.jpg

Apple Blossoms.

By choosing a center of interest, you can easily make decisions as you paint. You’ll have some idea of what you’re trying to accomplish. You’ll know where your focus is. Knowing your focus will help you judge when your painting is finished. Usually you will reach a point in painting when you realize that you have got down on paper the main things that you wanted to include. If you find yourself starting to be fussy with small details, then you should probably stop painting. Take a break, step back, and evaluate your work. Return the next day when you may be quite satisfied that your work is complete. Try not to risk overworking in an effort to achieve perfection.

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Glaze To Mix Luminous Watercolors!

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Watercolor painters learn many different ways to combine and paint color to produce varied effects. While color can be mixed ON THE PALETTE, single colors can also be added to and partially blended ON THE PAPER (as in wet-in-wet, or charging). Adding single colors to paper tends to create lively and vibrant color mixes with lots of variety. (See my recent blog post titled “Charge Ahead and Mingle: Blending Colors on Watercolor Paper,” published June 4, 2019, to learn more about ways to mix color on the paper.)

Glazing is a somewhat more advanced variation of altering color ON THE PAPER. Colors are NOT mixed! A glaze is a transparent wash of color over another (thoroughly dried) layer of color. This stacking or glazing of pigment modifies the underlying color to create a full range of interesting values and colors. (A simple example would be a glaze of pink painted over a layer of yellow to create an orange or peach color.) Glazing can be done on large wash areas or on smaller parts of a painting. Often the light-value colors are applied first, but reversing the order of color application can affect the final appearance in interesting ways. Under most conditions, a painting also progresses from large general areas of light washes to small specific areas of darker washes. When you glaze over only part of your work, try to avoid hard edges left from the glaze by softening or fading out the edges with a clean, damp brush. (See my blog post titled “Softening an Edge or Fading Out”, published October 23, 2018, for more information on softening an edge.)

Ford:Footbridge LAMH.jpg

Ford and Footbridge (Glazed water).

Strive to use only fairly pale mixes of color in glazing. If a glaze color is too intense, the underlying layer will have difficulty showing through. By properly applying a glaze, in pale transparent layers, an artist can achieve a “glow” of light as the white of the paper and the colors of lower layers show through later layers of color. Stop adding layers when you have arrived at your desired visual color, because painting too many layers will eventually cut down the amount of light reflecting back from the paper and will deaden any glow. Be careful about using more than three or four glaze layers.

End of the Day LAMH.jpg

The End of the Day (Glazed sky,  buildings, and snow).

What specific pigments work best for glazing? Most often, the best artists use the three primary colors and make sure their pigments are transparent. Specifically, you might use non-staining Aureolin or Hansa Yellow Light, Permanent Rose Quinacridone or Permanent Rose, and Cobalt Blue. If possible, avoid using transparent, staining pigments such as Indian Yellow or Gamboge Hue, Winsor Red or Permanent Alizarin Crimson, and Winsor Blue, which tend to dye the under layers and start to dull or destroy glow or translucence. If you must use staining colors, make sure they are quite diluted (unless, of course, your intention is to revive a dull dark).

Glazes are most effective when the colors used contrast with each other — e.g., warm over cool, blue over orange, etc. The farther away from each other the chosen colors are on the color wheel, the more dramatic their glazing impact on each other. A beautiful, luminous gray can be created by layering yellow, then red, then blue.

A soft brush (often a large flat) will give the best results as it disturbs previous layers of paint less. Layer each wash gently in a smooth, even application over a dried surface, and DO NOT scrub. (If the first layers of color are still wet, the colors can blend and not stay in the separate layers that you are aiming for — you will not be glazing.)

Remember that if the colors you use in glazing are transparent (NOT opaque), the colors beneath will continue to glow through glazes laid on top. Colors will appear to be mixed even though each is in a separate layer. These layers are more luminous than colors mixed on the palette because light passes through each separate layer and takes on each color’s characteristics. (NOT all watercolors are transparent! Cerulean Blue, Indian Red, Cadmium Red, Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Orange, Payne’s Gray, and Yellow Ochre are some of the opaque watercolors in common use.)

 

Mating Season LAMH.jpg

Mating Season (Glazed background).

With glazing, you have to think ahead and in layers of color. As you draw your picture on watercolor paper, plan the white areas to be saved. Further, also determine where you DON”T want your first glaze to be painted. (Often the first glaze is yellow, which is relatively light and does not readily cover other pigments.) If you planned a cool section for your painting, you might not want to cover that area with your warm yellow glaze. (You needn’t apply glazes over your whole paper.) Once you have applied your yellow glaze, evaluate whether it is too light, too dark, or just right. Adjust color intensity NOW, before adding a second color, by lifting lightly with clear water to lighten or by darkening with a second yellow layer.

While waiting for the yellow glaze to dry, plan ahead and consider what areas you want to cover with the pink (red) glaze. Will you paint some of the white areas with pink as you work to a final lavender color? Will you leave a snowy area untouched by this pink glaze? Will you still preserve some white paper to ‘pop’ in the final image? Paint a layer of pink, saving all areas as planned.

While waiting for this layer to dry, plan for the next glaze. Decide which areas of the painting will be covered by the blue glaze. Glaze some of the white with a layer of blue —  for example, in a snowy area or a shadowed  space. Avoid painting the blue glaze in a sunlit spot, ending the blue glaze and then softening with clear water into a sunny field or sunlit side of a building.

Finish your painting when the blue glaze is dry (or drying) by adding mid-tones and darks. Strive to preserve a good deal of your glazed area, however, to maintain the luminous, clean color mixes created by glazing.

Paintings with problem areas can often be rescued by using glazes. You can adjust and improve a painting that may lack mood, unity, or focus. Painting a thin, pale wash can add mood to a foggy scene. A single layer of color over the whole painting (or some parts) can add unity by giving all the colors a similar flavor. Further, darkening a section of a painting with a glaze can urge the eye to focus on more important and lighter areas. In the painting below, all of the background was glazed with Ultramarine Blue to tone down and bring more unity to disparate colors as well as help the background fade away and frame the center of interest (i.e. the blossoms).

Apple Blossoms LAMH.jpg

Apple Blossoms (Glazed background and shadowed buds/blossoms).

Glazing can also help you avoid muddy, opaque, or dull shadows. Bring a dull dark back to life with a glaze! To create a luminous shadow, first paint the subject (through BOTH the light and shadow side of the object) with the same local color. (In the above apple blossom picture, the buds and blossoms were painted with varying amounts of pink.) Then, when the first layer has dried, glaze a shadow color over the portion of the image in shadow. The first (local) color will show through the transparent shadow glaze (mixed in this case from yellow, red, and blue to create a transparent gray).

Transparent glazes applied separately change the colors under them. Color is built up optically on the paper by layering instead of mixing color on the palette  prior to painting. Learn to overlap your glazes to produce satisfying colors. Develop your glazes from transparent watercolors, preferably non-staining. Begin with your lightest pigment, usually a yellow. Keep your washes diluted and pale. Remember to dry the previous layer before painting a new glaze. Always use the three primaries — don’t eliminate a layer! Instead, control the final appearance of color by strengthening one or two of the three primary colors. To create interesting, vibrant color, avoid making all three layers equal in intensity (which  instead would produce a dull neutral).

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Simplify Your Watercolors By Focusing On Shapes!

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As an artist, you have the opportunity to improve a composition before you paint it! Don’t be tempted to merely copy what you see before you. Instead, change an ordinary scene into an extraordinary painting. If you just paint what you see, without thinking, evaluating, or redesigning, you may end up with a painting that has no “WOW!”

But how do you go about improving the subject you want to paint? How can you make your image better and design stronger? What should you do to create a painting with impact? Wouldn’t it just be a lot of work, especially if I don’t know how to improve my image? How do some artists create an exciting painting about a mundane, everyday subject? Copying is NOT enough! But, the answer may be, at least in part, to use interesting SHAPES!

While you may think that most artists begin their paintings by drawing LINES that represent objects to be painted, this is often NOT the first thing that they do to prepare for painting. Instead, an artist usually looks for or tries to compile a strong composition. One of the best ways to plan a composition is to reduce a scene to its essential or most basic components, to cut out distracting details, to simplify.

To help you simplify and reduce distractions, squint your eyes. Then look for the dominant shapes in the scene. Some artists SIMPLIFY by limiting the number of dominant shapes that they focus on to three, seven, or twelve, no more than fifteen. Evaluate and think about what shapes you could rearrange or emphasize, which shapes are important and which provide support for the other shapes. For instance, should the house in your painting be moved closer to or even overlap the barn? Should you remove that distracting tree? Are there too many cars in the image – they don’t add any helpful information?

Contour sketch Forsythia House.jpg

Forsythia House copy.jpg

The relationships of the interlocking shapes in a picture will determine balance and interest. Good painters make more interesting shapes!

Contour sketch Primroses.jpg

Primroses small.jpg

 

Try to see the world around you as made of shapes, and you will find it easier to become an arranger of shapes. Make an effort to avoid focusing on drawing or painting ‘a tree’, ‘a boat’, ‘a dog’, ‘a car’, or ‘a streetlight’. Paint what you ’see’, not what you think you see. (Check out my related blogs “Avoid Painting Lollipop Trees – Part I, II, and III”, published March 13, March 19, and March 26, 2019.) Beginning painters can get so preoccupied with NAMING details (“Is this a tail?”, “Are the feet crossed?”, or “I can’t tell what this is!”) that they forget to look at shapes and their relationships to each other. You need to paint SHAPES!

Contour sketch Dog.jpg

Dog small.jpg

One way to define shapes is to think about their geometric form. Are they circles, squares, rectangles, triangles? These are simple shapes, but very static and dull. They should be improved and made more dynamic by varying their size and shape contour, connecting two or more shapes together, overlapping shapes, avoiding symmetry. A building is much more interesting when viewed from an angle, as opposed to looking at it straight-on. Don’t forget that skies, shadows and reflections are also shapes. Interesting and unusual shapes are better than regular or precise shapes!

Contour sketch sunset River.jpg

Nashua River Glow.jpg

Once you have selected your scene to paint, simplified, rearranged and refined the dominant shapes, then choose one shape to be more important than the others. This shape will be your center of interest, what you want your viewers to notice. There can only be one center of interest in a painting. Plan how you will arrange your values (lights/darks) to highlight the most important shape for more emotional impact. More impact can also be created by the skillful use of color. White paper, for instance, can be a luminous and striking unpainted shape!

Contour sketch Floating Xmas tree.jpg

Floating Xmas tree small.jpg

Then, finally, having completed your planning for the best composition, by simplifying shapes and perhaps sketching out a couple of different arrangements of shapes in a black & white thumbnail sketch, it is time to carefully draw your shapes (not merely the outlines of specific objects) onto watercolor paper in preparation for painting.

In summary, everything has a shape! We tend to want to paint shapes just as they are, without changing them or making them more interesting. This can, however, lead to busy and confusing, static, or just perhaps even dull and boring paintings. It’s important to be able to conceptualize flat shapes for your flat watercolor paper, rather than just to think about three-dimensional objects (such as “mountain” or “boat”). When you can focus on shapes, it becomes easier to change shapes to suit your painting, move shapes to improve your composition, and remove clutter (get rid of boring or poor shapes), and add different colors to highlight certain shapes. So, strive to create simple but exciting paintings by making dynamic shape combinations.

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