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Now I've heard there was a secret chord

That David played, and it pleased the Lord

- Leonard Cohen

Of all the tools available to a painter, none is more exciting or evocative than color. Color conveys the illusion of light and shadow, mood, and can suggest atmosphere or space.

Like playing the violin or writing haiku poetry harmonic color is a skill you acquire only through study and practice.

Think of your palette as an instrument, with each color representing a different note on the keyboard. A painter with an understanding of color relationships and color moods can play visual music without needing to think about the technical aspects of the colors. Many painters simply and confidently play the visual chords, major or minor, and lose themselves in self-expression.

Raised in a musical family, the artist Paul Klee was fascinated by the structural similarities between music and art. Klee’s painting above “In the Style of Bach” reimagines a musical score as an arrangement of graphic symbols like foliage, a crescent moon, and stars. 

Many scientists and artists have diligently and unsuccessfully explored the synesthetic relationship between music and color hoping to match each color with a sound. Even Vincent Van Gogh started piano lessons in 1885 in an attempt to link color with notes and chords. His teacher soon became tired of his continual comparisons and dismissed him.

Vincent Van Gogh is renowned for his exciting and masterful expressionistic use of color. Van Gogh was introduced to the Impressionists and color theory relatively late in his short life. The paintings he created before he went to Paris and saw Impressionist paintings, were dark and somber.

In the last two years of his life, Van Gogh’s work exploded with color. He did close to ninety percent of his total work during this time. He had a passion for color chords. He said “There is no blue without yellow and without orange”

Color Harmonies/ Color Chords

Let’s look at some paintings made of specific color chords. Below are famous paintings that feel very colorful yet each of these artworks limits the colors to just a few important color notes. Many of the neutrals you see are made by mixing the dominant hues. I've made a note below each one listing the colors included and what's left out of the painting.

Beginning Artists do this:

If your early experiences were anything like mine most of what you first learned about color and color mixing involved buying large quantities of paint. As a beginning artist in love with color, I was entranced by all the possible colors I could use and I put as many of them as possible into every painting. As you can imagine, my paintings often resembled a fruit salad or a circus - with all the intensely chromatic shapes competing loudly for attention. It took a long time for me to recognize that color is like music and by limiting my palette, and organizing my colors into chords my paintings are more appealing and color-filled.  

Most beginning painters see only flat local colors because they don't yet recognize how their perceptual systems influence what they see. My early color choices were based almost entirely on the local color of my subject. If a tree was brown, I painted it brown and didn’t think much more about it.

Once you understand how the mind perceives color, you can better select the “right” paint mix for everything you paint. You are probably unaware of how your mind adjusts and interprets colors for you every time the light changes. It is quite a challenge to break through this perception to view the color as it is. It helps to understand that the color you're looking at is a consequence of four color factors: 

1. The local color (or surface color) of the object.

2. The relative color of the light shining on it.

3. The relative amount of light shining on it.

4. The quality of atmosphere between the observer and the object.

You have to mentally combine all those factors to determine the actual color you want to mix for that paint stroke. 

This video does a great job explaining the very difficult subject of color perception in a very short time.

The Importance of Constraints

Constraints, provide focus and a creative challenge that motivates people to search for and connect information from different sources to generate novel ideas.

Music is composed of variations on a limited series of notes and chords. Writers play with self-limiting challenges. E.V. Wright wrote the 1939 novel "Gadsby" without using the letter "e." Here's an excerpt: "Now, any author, from history's dawn, always had that most important aid to writing:—an ability to call upon any word in his dictionary in building up his story. That is, our strict laws as to word construction did not block his path. But in my story that mighty obstruction will constantly stand in my path; for many an important, common word I cannot adopt, owing to its orthography." Other examples of constrained writing are sonnets, limericks, and haiku. All thrive within strict limitations of form and meter.

More notes don't make better music and more colors don’t make a better color scheme. The opposite is usually true.

The next time you go to an art museum or attend a painting exhibition, look closely at each work and note the percentage of gray, semi-neutral, and pure-hue colors. Unless the paintings are op-art or Abstract Expressionist, most have only five to ten percent pure color. The rest of the work will be an arrangement of semi-neutral and gray colors that set off the pure hues to their best advantage. The right grays make pure-hue colors “sing”. 

Every color, including gray, varies depending on the colors next to it (see my newsletter Complements - A Love Story) Depending on how you organize your neutrals and grays, you can make the color dance throughout the painting.

Old Masters used limited palettes by default because they couldn’t get the range of pigments we have now. It was a common practice to paint the whole subject in brown or gray tones and then brush a thin film of color over it to conserve expensive pigments that they had to process by themselves. 

Mixing Colors

Most of us first learned about mixing colors by studying the color wheel. The color wheel is a circle of 12 hues derived from the pure range of colors of the light spectrum produced when light is refracted.  

On a traditional color wheel for mixing paint we have three primary hues - red, yellow, and blue. Three secondary hues are made by mixing the primaries - orange, green, and violet and the six intermediate (tertiary) hues sit between each secondary and primary hue on the wheel - red-violet, red-orange, yellow-orange, yellow-green, blue-green, blue-violet.

In the vocabulary of color hue is the name of the color, intensity or saturation is the amount of pigment in the color and value is the measure of lightness or darkness of the color. 

All colors have tints and shades. Tints are lighter values of colors made by adding white to oil or acrylic paint or water to watercolor paint. Shades are darker values of colors made by adding black or complements (the color on the opposite side of the color wheel) to oil or acrylic paint and by adding less water and/or complements to watercolor paint.

Neutral colors - are muddied or grayed down. Some come that way straight from the tube. Anything that contains earth minerals is usually going to be muddy, opaque, and dark. 

The intensity (saturation) of a pure color can be reduced without muddying the color by adding some complementary color to the mix.

Notice the beautiful grays produced by mixing the complementary watercolors below.

Mixing tips:

Mixing colors becomes even more important when you limit yourself to creating all the colors in your painting from just two or three hues. I am always amazed at the array of colors I can get from just blue and orange.

Squeezing paint directly from the tube and spreading it on your canvas or paper is not a great idea. To get the color you want you usually must modify it in some way, lightening it, darkening it, or adjusting its intensity (saturation). 

If a watercolor is too dark you add water, if it’s too bright you can add the complement (the color across from it on the color wheel.)

Mud is an unrelievedly dull neutral that results when you overmix three or four very different colors on your palette and apply them to dry paper or canvas with a heavy stroke. Watercolorists can avoid this by dropping the same colors onto a wet surface so more variation in color and value results. Look at the beautiful apple below - no mud there.

Getting the perfect stroke of color usually involves a lot of trial and error. However, we remember what we learn from experimentation better than reading about it or watching a video. So get out your paints, play, and discover a chord to make your own.

Color Chord #1 - Monochrome - Value priority

Your eyes are designed to prioritize value relationships. the most fundamental of which, of course, is black and white, or value. If your painting is successful in monochrome, it will be successful with more color.

Harmonious color chords all have a common color that ties them together. The easiest way to achieve color harmony is to use only one color. Risks are certainly minimized, but it can also be extremely bland. 

Another common monochrome chord is black and white plus one pure color as a shot of energy.

Color Chord #2 - Analogous - Color families

Analogous colors are wonderful for conveying mood. Any three to five colors located next to each other on the color wheel have a common color identity. When working with analogous color chords you will vary value and intensity, neutralized by its complement.  

Color Chord #3 - Warm/Cool Complements - One enhances the other

You can’t measure the temperature of a color with a thermometer. The colors of fire are generally considered warm and the colors of ice are called cool. Because complements are found on opposite sides of the color wheel one complement is always warm and the other is always cool. Complements can be coaxed into giving a wide range of color combinations found to be pleasing over the ages and amongst many people. Each complement enhances the appearance of other. (you can read my newsletter Complements - A Love Story here) 

Arthur Guptill said, "A rich effect can be obtained with only a limited palette. A warm and cool combination affords the student the best approach to his color problems, especially as they relate to outdoor sketching."

In his book on the history of watercolor painting, E. Barnard Lintott said, "For a young student there cannot be a better way of entering upon the study of watercolour than by rigorously banishing all but two colours from his palette. It is the best and surest way to the study of full colour. The colours should be a cold and warm one; cobalt blue and warm sienna—or Prussian blue and burnt sienna—are two combinations which lend themselves to a great variety of treatment."

Advanced colorists often work with multiple complementary pairs in the same painting.

Color Chord #4 - Triads - A full spectrum from three colors

Triadic Chords are composed of three basic colors - red, yellow, and blue. They could be cyan, magenta, yellow, or any other three related colors. You could use the secondaries as your primaries - orange, purple, and green. They don’t have to be colors squeezed from the tube. 

Think of your trio as three instruments in your musical ensemble- each one of these colors will go through dozens of harmonious variations throughout your picture. They will appear in light tints, warm skin tones, dark bronzy shades, and bright foliage. 

A palette of three colors can mix nearly a full spectrum of colors, and yet, remain manageable while you’re trying to wrap your head around how to mix them. 

When working in oil or acrylic your triad will include black and white as well as red, yellow, and blue.

These are my favorite watercolor triads:

  • Aureolin Yellow - Permanent Rose - Cobalt Blue - gives pure tones and vibrant color, wonderful for skin and flowers.

  • Quinacridone Gold - Alizarin Crimson - Ultramarine Blue - deep rich darks

  • New Gamboge - Vermilion - Cobalt Blue (Phtalo Blue) (UBDeep)

  • Green Gold - Quinacridone Magenta - Cerulean Blue is great for an unexpected arrangement.

  • Notice that each triad has a limitation in the range of colors you can mix, so experiment to see if the color emphasis you have in mind will work with the triad you have chosen.  You can see the difference in the available range of greens and violets in the triads below.

Sometimes I use more than one triad in a single painting to get a broader range of values and colors.

Fort Lauderdale artist, Teresa Kirk recommends using a triad of Cyan, Primary Red, and Primary Yellow when using gouache.

Florida Gold Coast Past President, Cole Wolford uses the staining watercolors Windsor Yellow, Windsor Blue, and Permanent Rose for his layered compositions.

James Gurney wrote a whole book about using triads. His favorite he calls the “iron triad” because each of the pigments contains iron oxides - Prussian blue, light red, and yellow ochre plus titanium white.

Below are other suggestions for good triadic combinations to try.

James Gurney suggests placing a triangular paper mask over a color wheel like this and rotating the triangular window around to see the color groupings change. He doesn't feel that the colors need to be equally spaced around the color wheel as suggested above.

The colors inside the triangle are called a "gamut". Each gamut suggests the feeling of walking from a room lit by incandescent light into another room lit by fluorescent light, and then stepping outside into the blue twilight. Your brain shifts from one color environment to another and still believes the full spectrum to be present.Of all the tools available to a painter, none is more exciting or evocative than color. Yet no other tool takes so much practice or is as difficult to master and truly understand. Employing a limited selection of colors in a chord for your painting will unify your work with sophistication and appeal. Color Chords are easy to mix, portable, and require fewer supplies. I love them so much I introduce them to every group I teach.

As unbelievable as it sounds, limited color chords make your work appear more colorful than those containing more colors. The limitations make the colors present more important on the stage of your painting.

Because your brain is accustomed to shifts of light as you move from one color environment to another, your brain believes the full spectrum to be present even when it is not. I suggest you review the four color factors above and notice how the local color around you changes as light and atmosphere interact with it. That's why you can use just a few colors to convey the illusion of light and shadow, mood, or suggest atmosphere or space.

If you enjoyed this article, please review my February 2021 Newsletter - Complements - A Love Story for more in-depth thoughts on color.

I hope I have inspired you to create artwork that is more unique and personal to you and given you some tips on how to use color to develop your artistic taste and style. My mentorship, guidance, and advice are available to you for creating more realistic art. I am happy to share my insights and my knowledge with you.

If someone shared this newsletter with you and you'd like to subscribe, please reach out to me with your email address. I promise, no spam, no overloading your inbox, just the good stuff.

 I welcome the opportunity for connection, conversation, cooperation, collaboration, and commissions. 

With Light and Delight

Susan Convery

Add Realism, Life and Details

If you'd like to read this newsletter in its original format along with all the accompanying illustrations please follow this link:

Resource image for orchid pool
Orchid Watercolor with pool

“I know what a tree looks like, but when I draw one, I want there to be a realistic feel to it. I could wait for the right time to sit in the yard and draw that tree, but in reality, I have deadlines so I use photo references to get the realism I am trying to achieve.”

- Greg Land

From the moment the morning light pouring in through my windows awakens me until the soft yellow glow of the houses reflected in the lake darkens I see subjects for my art everywhere - my breakfast cups and bowls arranged just so, the rainbows shining through the crystals on my back porch, the sumptuous orchid blooms, the dear faces of my children, the antics of my animals, the change of the seasons. It’s a visual feast! There is beauty everywhere I look and I want to savor every moment. I take thousands of photos in an attempt to record these moments. Yet, less than one in one hundred of my photos are worthy subjects for a painting.  

On my phone, there’s a folder for everything that inspires me to create and I wander through it when I am ready to start a new painting. 

There are two different types of images in my reference library - other people’s work that I would like to emulate in some way and my own photos pulled from my daily life. 

Most of the photos I take detail the memory of the moment; who was there, where we were, what we wore, and when it happened. I can relive the emotions of the moment when I look at them but very few are artfully arranged to engage an unknown viewer to share in the experience of that moment. 

It excites me when a photo jumps out from the crowd with all of the “right” elements for a strong painting.

Taking resource photos for your art is an important part of developing your artistic taste and style and tapping into the emotions you’d like to relate through your art. You may discover when you look through your pictures that you love photographing people engaged in their work, creating portraits of animals, or finding abstract patterns in the streets. 

Look through your photographs and you will begin to pinpoint the subjects, colors, and general moods you are drawn to. My personal library of reference images ensures that I always have something to work on that is truly unique and inspiring.

What kind of artist are you?
How you use reference photos will depend on the kind of artist you are. You may paint only from life and take days to set up a shadow box in your studio, or you may paint only plein air, setting up your paints in a park or on the street to paint as people walk past. You may create collages using magazine cutouts or ready-made supplies. Or, you might be a cartoonist/comic book artist using exaggerated models for your action scenes.

Your techniques and your media are part of the way you get your message out into the world. Perhaps you will use other people’s, or your own, photos as inspiration only or to document the details in a scene you might paint sometime in the future. Knowing what you need will help you to determine the kind of photographs to collect.

The debate over references:
Have other people’s comments about your art ever made you feel guilty or less of an artist? It’s easy to judge the way others do things as wrong. As you can see in the commentary above, an idea is floating around the internet that artists who draw from memory are superior to those who use reference images. In my opinion, there are too many elements to drudge up from the depths of memory to rely on visual recall for an exact and lively representation of anything. 

Too often we allow judgments like these to restrict us from creating where we are, with the skills we have. If you paint for the pleasure of it, then paint anything that inspires you regardless of its source. However, if you paint for competition or if your artwork will be sold or seen by the greater public you may want to give more thought to how you incorporate references into your work.

For an artwork to be truly your own everything in it from inception to planning, to execution should originate from you. Using your own photographs gives you control of your process. It eliminates any problems with copyrights should your painting win major awards or recognition. If you constantly adhere to other people’s photographs as the basis for your art because it's convenient, take the opportunity to reflect on your comfort level and how you may be holding yourself back from artistic growth.

I also think it’s a bad thing to be a slave to your references. I use and modify references to serve my drawings, not the other way around. 

I incorporate ideas from my inspiration library, color arrangements, still-life setups, poses, anatomical references, lighting, etc into every artwork. My standard for appropriation is that if the photographer would not recognize their image inside my work, then it’s OK for me to use. 

This sliding gray scale of appropriate appropriation is going to be different for each one of us. Choose where you stand on this issue and don’t let others make you feel guilty for your choice.

How I use Reference Images 

I use two types of reference images for my work. Inspiration images are grabbed from everywhere on the internet - Pinterest, Google Searches, Facebook, etc. If an image excites me and I want to study it further I set it in a folder where I can go back and find one or two elements that I can pull from it to add to my work. I call this “Stealing Like an Artist”. I have no intention of copying another person’s work and calling it my own, but I am interested in allowing other people to contribute to my work in ways that keep my work fresh and I had not considered before.

Source photographs can be resources for an entire painting or references for elements within the painting. My primary image is almost always a photo I took myself. I generally change things inside my photo, maybe the pose of a figure, the clothes, the color arrangement, or some magical details I want to add. 

I incorporate a whole selection of images even while I am drawing from the main one. Photo references remind me of details I might otherwise forget and they speed the process of getting from concept to a successful drawing. 

How you transfer your drawing to the final paper or canvas is another area where judgment prevails. Should you project your drawing onto paper or canvas? Should you print and trace your photo and then use or FedEx to make it larger? Should you use a grid? Should you look at your photo on a computer screen only and commit it to memory? Or should you allow yourself to be inspired by the image and freehand your drawing in a personal interpretation? Time, drawing ability, and style will determine which is right for you. To me, this is another gray area where only you can decide. Make your choice and stand by it without guilt, recognizing that other artists have thought long and hard about this question too.

Famous Artists who use reference photos

Artists have used references to engage in believable flights of fantasy since Baroque times and probably before. Before photography artists would construct, drape, and light small sculptures to see how their arrangements would look in a variety of lighting arrangements. NC Wyeth, Alphonse Mucha, Toulouse Lautrec, Norman Rockwell, and James Gurney are only a few of the artists who rely on reference photos for their art. As the twentieth century progressed artists in America and Europe perfected sequential forms such as comics, animation, and video games using an even greater variety of digital and photo integration. 

North Carolina artist Ivy Dolamore says "Listening to professionals proudly saying they use reference has helped me immensely. Learning that work I admire isn't created out of thin air gives me the confidence to think, 'Oh, I can do that, too'. I've stopped thinking as much about the purism and more about how I can achieve that initial vision. Why not use the tools available?"

Building a library of reference images doesn't have to be complicated, or time-consuming and you certainly don't need any fancy equipment. You just have to be creative with what you have and remember to take advantage of situations that you may be in on a day-to-day basis.

Types of Cameras
Most cell phones have great cameras and you just have to remind yourself to take photos when you're out and about of subjects that call your attention. 

Digital Cameras - Perhaps you already love using your DSLR camera to take high-quality images. If this is new to you you might want to learn from experts. One website I know of to help you learn how to use your camera is Digital Photography School.

Taking a good photograph depends a lot on what you are photographing. Figures, portraits, animals, landscapes, children, still life, motion, nature, and machinery all require different skill sets and ways of looking. I am going to give you some tips that I find helpful for my own photography, feel free to discard anything that doesn’t apply to what you need.

Planning a good photograph:
Some amount of planning and preparation goes into an effective artwork. Aside from deciding on a subject, think about what you want your final piece to transmit. Is it a detail, an idea, or an emotion?

Choose a subject that attracts you but is also the right level of complication for your patience. My son asked me to make a painting out of this photograph he took in Lisbon.  It’s a wonderful photo but there are too many small shapes and details for me to enjoy painting it.  Someone else might find it ideal. 

Have an idea/emotion in mind when selecting a color scheme and creating the general mood for your photograph so that it can later be translated into a drawing or painting. Color has many emotional associations and I find I rarely paint the colors from my photograph for my final painting.

You will probably need to shoot dozens or even hundreds of images to get exactly the right one, no matter how careful you are in setting up an arrangement. This is especially true if you’re taking pictures of children or animals. The bottom line is that no matter what you photograph or how careful you are in preparing, you really can’t take too many pictures—the more you take, the better your selection of good reference photos will be.

If at all possible, vary your position in relation to your subject. Play around with the perspective, try shooting from above, or below, from very near and very far away. Notice where the light is coming from and try moving yourself and the objects so they are lit in a variety of ways. If you can move yourself or your objects try to rearrange them in such a way that the viewer’s eyes naturally move towards the object of most importance

Composition - Rule of Thirds
Your center of interest looks best located away from the center or the edges of the image.

The ideal location is in the “rule of thirds”. The rule of thirds divides each side of the image into three equal slices and where the dividing lines cross is an ideal point for your center of interest.

In the studio - When setting up a subject such as a still-life, in your studio, you have control over the elements you include and exclude. You can make use of blank walls or use a backdrop of some type to simplify the background. Stripes and plaids clash in your wardrobe and the same thing happens in your photos. The simpler your background, the better, unless you’re looking to integrate a contrast of complex designs.

Outdoor shots - You may not be able to do anything about the background or the foreground if you’re shooting on location, since whatever’s in the landscape will be in the landscape no matter what you do. Just remember that you can always take a few steps to your right or left to minimize the environment's distractions and keep the focus on your subject.

Light Source 
A strong light source is the most important factor in any photo. If you do most of your photography outside, you already have a strong light source (the sun). If you’re shooting inside, it’s best to use just one primary light source to provide strong light and shadow on your subject.

Setting up a weaker light source from a different direction can provide “reflected” light and help keep shadows from getting too dark. You can also make use of reflectors to redirect light into the shadows or make use of white or light-colored walls to create reflected light. Be aware that any colored surface other than white will influence the color of the reflected light on your objects.

Photographers get very excited about the effect of “golden” light at dawn and dusk. Everything and everyone looks more attractive in this light so it makes it worth timing your outdoor shots for this hour of the day.

Even on a cloudy day, the sun will provide all the light you need for most photography. Position yourself so the sunlight comes from either your right or left, giving you clear contrasts in light and dark. Your painting will be much easier to interpret if the image has easy-to-read form shadows and clear cast shadows.

When photographing people or creating portraits, “Rembrandt” lighting is the easiest to translate into paint. In this type of lighting one side of the face is in the light and the other in shadow with a “triangle” of light on the cheek on the dark side.  When painting people I find you can get a believable image in just a few quick strokes with only this typical shadow pattern on the face. 

Be very cautious when using magazine or fashion photographs of people for your resources as most of them have been retouched and the shadows have been removed. Fashion photographers purposefully eradicate shadows on the face to give the model a pristine flat look. This covers a multitude of flaws in the face but provides the artist with no information on the structure.  Depth gets wiped out in flash photos too so avoid using these as a resource for your portraits.  Without cues for depth, your portraits end up looking flat and washed out and you think it is your lack of talent that caused the problem!

Range of Values 
Value is a measure of lightness to darkness in steps usually from white to black (not monetary worth). A good photo has a full range of values. The value pattern is the first thing people notice about your work and the most common element judges use when separating award-winning from ordinary art. 

Photographs naturally harden the edges of different values, unless a filter is applied. A soft transition from shadow to light on a model’s cheek will often look quite harsh in a photo. When you draw or paint from a reference, make sure you err on the side of soft edges for your form shadows. That little bit of compensation will help keep your art from looking flat and unrealistic.

Be aware you may fall in love with a photo because of its associations for you.  You may love the subject so much you want to paint it even though the image is not ideal.  One way you can check your photo to see if it will make a good artwork by creating a Notan of the value pattern.  

Notan is a black-and-white pattern that documents how light falls in the image. This abstract image will indicate if the picture has enough contrasts to make a good painting. A strong Notan tells the entire story of the image in just two values. Abstract artists can find great shapes and sources for strong pattern arrangements using just the Notan from their photos or famous paintings.

You can play with this inexpensive app to create two and four-value Notans of your photographs. NotanIzer App: Google Play Link Apple Store Link You can also use a pen and ink to create a hand-drawn Notan the old-fashioned way in your notebook. 

Color Study

You want strong colors but not too many colors. Look at these two photographs of flowers in a vase. The first one has too many clashing colors. The second will make a better painting. 

I rarely paint the colors from my photographs directly. I prefer to select my color references from other artists’ paintings or advertising images.

Leaving things out/ Adding things in

The temptation to copy every pixel of a photo reference is always there for an artist. People and things don't look the same in a photo as they do in real life, so remember that a reference is there for you to gain information about the proportions, values, edges, and colors.

To get a realistic result, you will most likely have to deviate from the reference. Don’t be afraid to remove things that don't add to the final composition.

I normally use two or three separate references to create one artwork by cutting and pasting separate elements and combining them into one image using tracing paper or Photoshop. In the painting below I subtracted most of the building and added an umbrella, a man, and a dog to make it more lively.

Visualizing and modifying references gets easier the more experienced you become. 

Create a catalog of references

Once you start doing your own photo shoots it's in your best interest to keep your reference photo library organized. Even if you don't end up using the photos in the next few months, you could create art or studies with them in the future. I like to name my folders according to the subject type: Portraits, Still Life, Cityscapes, Indoor Scenery, Landscapes, Animals, etc.  

As I stroll through the tiny thumbnails of my resource images on my phone the really strong images tend to jump out at me even better than when I look at them full size. I start to get excited now when I notice a great photograph that will make a wonderful painting.

I like these four images a lot but they won't make successful paintings for me. Each one is problematic for different reasons. The car in the first picture blocks the boat and I don't think I can fake it in realistically. The red flowers are lovely but the lighting and the arrangement of the objects are less than ideal. I would like to have more contrast and to be able to see the little bottles in more detail. The rocks have great lighting but everything is gray - not enough color variation to keep me interested. The On-Time image has some wonderful elements, I love the moonrise and the movement, but this image would be a test of my patience to paint.

Taking resource photos for your art is an important part of developing your artistic voice. As you direct your photographic eye to the world around you, you build a library of the subjects, colors, and moods that light you up.

Your drawings improve when you look at photographs rather than relying on memory. Photos add realism, life, and detail to your art. Using your own photographs gives you control of your process, it eliminates any problems with copyrights should your painting win major awards or recognition. When everything in your artwork from inception to planning, to execution originates from you then the artwork is truly unique and truly original to you.

In this month's essay, I shared some tips that I find helpful for my resource photography. Different skill sets and ways of looking are needed to photograph resource images for portraits, landscapes, still-life, nature, and even abstraction. Yet good photographs and good paintings share common elements such as a strong light source, a range of values in a pattern, the positioning of objects, and related colors. A personal library of reference images will ensure that you always have something inspiring to work on that is 100 percent your own.  

I hope I have inspired you to create artwork that is more unique and personal to you and given you some tips you can use for taking resource photographs that develop your artistic taste and style. 

My mentorship, guidance, and advice are available to help you create more realistic art. I am happy to share my insights and my knowledge with you.

If someone shared this newsletter with you and you'd like to subscribe, please reach out to me below with your email address. I promise, no spam, no overloading your inbox, just the good stuff.

 I welcome the opportunity for connection, conversation, cooperation, collaboration, and commissions. 

With Light and Delight

Creativity for Well-Being and Mental Health

If you'd like to read this post in its original format with all the illustrations please follow this link:


The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see."

- John Ruskin

For thousands of years, arts like singing, painting, and dancing have been used for healing purposes. The act of imagination is an act of survival that prepares us to imagine possibilities and hopefully survive those possibilities. Through creativity and imagination, we become better, and more whole human beings. 

Artistic creation is the elemental human act. Artists construct a complex, coherent representation of the world when creating pictures, poems, plans, strategies, or stories. That’s what all of us are doing every minute as we’re looking around. We’re all artists of a sort. The universe is a silent, colorless place. It’s just waves and particles out there. Using our imaginations, we construct colors and sounds, tastes and stories, drama, laughter, joy, and sorrow to interpret our experiences.

Paintings, poems, novels, and music help multiply and refine the models we use to perceive and construct reality. By attending to great perceivers, such as Louis Armstrong, Jorge Luis Borges, and Jane Austen, we can more subtly understand what is going on around us and become better at expressing what we see and feel.
Our way of perceiving the world is also our way of being in the world. Once our eyes have been trained to see, even just a bit, the way Rembrandt saw, if our hearts can feel as deeply as a Leonard Cohen song, if we understand people with as much complexity as Shakespeare did then we enhance our ability to live full lives.

In 2019 the World Health Organization, 2019 wrote,  "The arts contribute to core determinants of health; playing a critical role in health promotion; helping to prevent the onset of mental illness and age-related physical decline; supporting the treatment or management of mental illness, noncommunicable diseases and neurological disorders; and assisting in acute and end-of-life care.”

Arts support healing by bringing emotional, somatic, artistic, and spiritual dimensions to complement the biomedical view by focusing on not only sickness and symptoms but the holistic nature of the entire person.103 

Health psychologists are studying how the arts can be used to heal emotional injuries, increase understanding of oneself and others, develop a capacity for self-reflection, reduce symptoms, and alter behaviors and thinking patterns. 
Practicing art we discover and explore our identity and our reservoir of healing. The more we understand the relationship between creative expression and healing, the more we will discover the healing power of the arts.

Chronic illnesses are a national burden, with cardiovascular disease being the leading cause of death and the incidence of diabetes continuing to increase to the point where more than 20 million Americans now suffer.3,4 These diseases are associated with psychosocial challenges such as depression5 and chronic stress and are primary contributors to negative cardiovascular outcomes.6,7 By alleviating stress and depression, creative activities can reduce the burden of these and other chronic diseases.

What’s compelling about creative arts is its accessibility. Anyone can make something meaningful, there are countless outlets for expression.  The good news for those who didn’t excel at art during childhood is that the beneficial effects happen during the art process. They are not based on the end product.
Social Science Research:
The hard sciences help us understand the natural world. The social sciences help us measure behavior patterns across populations. There are clear indications that artistic engagement has positive effects on health. Studies reviewed indicate that creative engagement can decrease anxiety, stress, and mood disturbances.

  • Research shows that creative expression changes the same parts of the brain used for social connections

  • Making art has powerful physiological effects on our bodies: reducing blood pressure, bolstering our immune system, improving brain cognition, and fighting inflammation.

  • Increases serotonin and cortisol levels.

  • Increases blood flow to the part of the brain associated with pleasure.

  • Creative expression has the power to improve well-being by helping us understand ourselves and shifting perspectives that reinforce positive behaviors.

  • When people are invited to work with creative and artistic processes that separate their identity from their illness, they are more able to “create congruence between their affective states and their conceptual sense making.”104(p53)

Laurel Healy, LCSW, says, “Engaging in a creative process, like singing, dancing, painting or drawing, has full-body benefits. When we focus on something challenging and/or fun, we make new neuropathways, increasing connectivity in the brain…Increased connectivity, especially in the left prefrontal cortex of the brain, makes us more emotionally resilient in a way that is similar to what occurs when we meditate. The release of dopamine brings an enhanced sense of well-being as well as improved motivation,”
Arts in Healthcare
Arts in healthcare can be approached in two ways: Arts in Health and Creative Arts Therapies.

  • Arts in Health involves trained artists who help patients have positive creative experiences in healthcare settings. It can also refer to art displayed in physical spaces where healthcare is provided, such as hospitals, care facilities, etc. This may include art on the walls, musical performances in the lobby, and healing gardens.

  • On the other hand, Creative Arts Therapies involve licensed professionals who use different types of art, such as visual art, dance, music, poetry, or drama, to engage patients in addressing specific conditions or health goals. There are corresponding licenses for each type of art specialization.

Patients of all types overwhelmingly express comfort with the process and a desire to continue with therapy. The minimum effective art dose is thought to be around two hours per week

Medical Students:
Several recent studies have shown how effective art education can be in training future doctors. Professors argue that engaging in the arts during medical school, whether through required courses or extracurricular activities, is valuable in developing essential skills that doctors need, like critical thinking and observational and communication skills, as well as bias awareness and empathy.

While medical students traditionally enter their first year with very high levels of empathy, after three years, research has shown, that exposure to content around death and suffering can cause those levels to plummet. Engagement in the humanities can rectify this problem. Courses in art appreciation and painting helped them to stop, slow down, and be more intentional while seeing; to pick up on details that could easily be missed; and to better articulate descriptions of things that “at first seem indescribable.”

Students’ capacities for personal reflection, tolerance for ambiguity, and personal bias awareness all increased. Most significantly, however, was their improvement in reflection—their ability to understand a situation from different points of view, to empathize with another person’s dilemma, and to acknowledge different ways of thinking.

One particularly original exercise asked students to partner up to paint. One student was given a postcard with a famous Impressionist painting on it, while the other student, who could not see the card, stood at a canvas with a paintbrush in hand, and had to ask their partner questions about the painting to reproduce it. “The painter becomes like the physician who’s taking a history and trying to get information from the patient,” Dr. Flanagan said. “They experience firsthand how much easier it is to gain information when you ask open-ended questions when you stop and let that patient tell their story.”

Aging Adults:
Older adults who engaged in any recreational arts in the previous 12 months had significantly better mental well-being and physical health than those who did not engage in the arts at all. 

The title of a recent documentary film, I Remember Better When I Paint, sums up the findings of a growing body of research into the cognitive effects of making art. The movie demonstrates how drawing and painting stimulated memories in people with dementia and enabled them to reconnect with the world. People with dementia aren't the only beneficiaries. Studies have shown that expressing themselves through art can help people with depression, anxiety, or cancer, too. And doing so has been linked to improved memory, reasoning, and resilience in healthy older people.

Expressing yourself through artistic and creative activities is like a prescription for your mental health. Turning to creativity has been proven in extensive research to relieve both stress and anxiety. Creativity also helps lessen the shame, anger, and depression felt by those who have experienced trauma.1

The Walter Reed National Military Medical Center has an art therapy program for soldiers with PTSD. Veterans often find it difficult to express their trauma verbally. Art therapy manager Tammy Shella, Ph.D., ATR-BC, says, “Through art therapy, patients can convey how they feel on the inside and reveal things that they weren’t comfortable sharing with the world.”1

Art therapy provides a metaphorical way to address the complex inner struggles of service members. Through art, they can slowly begin to communicate more openly about previously unsayable, shameful, or even taboo topics. They are better able to name their emotional experiences, and they use more words to express themselves.

But... Such is War
A few years ago I saw an exhibition by Martha’s Vineyard artist Steve Maxner at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum titled “But… Such is War”. It documents Steve’s processing of his Vietnam experiences through found objects washed up on the beach near his home. I found it extremely moving and I invite you to take the time to follow the link and peruse the artworks below as well as the catalog from the show.

Art helps people express experiences that are too difficult to put into words, such as a diagnosis of cancer. Some people with cancer find that exploring the meanings of past, present, and future during art therapy, helps to integrate cancer into their life story and give it meaning.55  Participants said it helped them focus on positive life experiences, relieving their ongoing preoccupation with cancer. They felt it enhanced their self-worth and identity by providing them with opportunities to demonstrate continuity, challenge, and achievement. Third, it enabled them to maintain a social identity that resisted being defined by cancer. Finally, it allowed them to express their feelings symbolically, especially during chemotherapy.

Are you lonely? You are not alone. Being lonely is more than just being alone. It is an emotion you experience when there is a gap between the social connections you desire and what you have. It often carries a stigma and a feeling of being flawed or an outcast. More than half (58%) of U.S. adults reported feelings of loneliness in 2021. Social isolation and loneliness are associated with a 30% increased risk of heart attack, stroke, or death. 

Creativity is uniquely suited to address our current pervasive loneliness. Art engages, inspires, empowers and connects. Making things allows us to connect with ourselves and others more deeply. The same part of the brain that controls social connections is stimulated by making things. When we are curious about the world and others we invite new perspectives, new possibilities, and authentic conversations about what matters.

Art can be a refuge from the intense emotions associated with illness and loss.65 There are no limits to the imagination in finding creative ways of expressing grief. Working with clay can be a powerful way to help people express these feelings through tactile involvement at a somatic level. Creativity in its many forms can enhance verbal communication, produce cathartic release, and reveal unconscious materials and symbols that cannot be expressed through words.66

The Search for Meaning:
The search for meaning and relevance from our personal experiences of depression, stress, anxiety, grief, and loneliness is one of the fundamental forces in all artistic creation. The highly sensitive artist is almost a stereotype. Our artwork becomes a reflection of ourselves, sharing our unique perspective and individuality. What we create becomes a symbol of who we are, a personal artifact that tells our story. Engaging in creativity connects us to a deeper search for meaning in the world. 

Just looking at art can be healing. Creative expression can sometimes articulate what words can’t, helping to bring complex or difficult thoughts and feelings into view. When you go to the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, you don’t just see Picasso’s “Guernica”; forever after you see war through that painting’s lens. You see, or rather feel, the wailing mother, the screaming horse, the chaotic jumble of death and agony, and it becomes less possible to romanticize warfare. We don’t just see paintings; we see according to them.

Art Therapy:
There are multiple studies documenting the benefits of art therapy for a variety of conditions. It is especially helpful for stress, anxiety, depression, personality disorders, and cancer diagnosis.

The goal of Art therapy is to change the way you see yourself. To enhance your self-worth and identity by providing you with opportunities to demonstrate continuity, challenge, and achievement.

Art therapy is founded on the assumption that everyone is creative and capable of self-expression. The art therapist's job is to create a safe environment that allows clients to express themselves and communicate without worrying about whether they have great visual arts skills or whether their artwork is technically brilliant. Art therapy clinicians focus on the process of making rather than the artistic product, which allows clients to gain insights into their situations and develop inner emotional resilience. Therapy sessions—in groups or with individuals—provide time for engaging all the senses and integrating these aesthetic experiences so that participants can reimagine and rework established neural pathways to establish new ways of seeing, thinking, and experiencing.

Art therapists can channel maladaptive or dangerous instincts into creative products allowing clients to communicate and work through difficult thoughts and complex emotions. They guide a person toward taking risks in art making rather than engaging in risky behaviors in their outside life. These creative choices fulfill the brain’s desire for novelty without compromising personal safety. Rather than punch another human being, for instance, someone with aggressive tendencies could work with materials such as clay and wood that can absorb their energy and transform it into a creative product.

But what about most of us who don’t ever go to an actual art therapist? Can art help us? Many artists will tell you that making art is therapeutic and calming, that it helps you calm distracting, negative, and unhelpful thoughts, and that it gets your hands and body working as opposed to only your mind.

Every child knows that making art, singing songs, playing games, and moving the body feels good. Science has also proven that each of those things has multiple cognitive, emotional, and physical benefits. Some of the healthiest, most well-balanced adults are those who remember a bit about being a child while living in an adult body. 

Scientists have established that having fun increases dopamine and that engaging with art (as a viewer or creator) is a healthier way to raise dopamine, compared to many other pleasure-reward sources.

There are many ways to incorporate the benefits of creativity into your life. We are all creative in some way. Your creative impulses may show themselves through cooking, decorating, gardening, social media, business, and other not-overtly-artistic (but still creative) expressions. These are all wonderful and have benefits! You may be bohemian, whimsical, or artsy and it's OK if you are more sporty or more practical. Get to know your unique expressive style. Adjust your expectations for the kind of creative output that may come more naturally, depending on your experiences and your personality. 

Choose an art form that makes you feel good. For one person, this may be listening to music; for another person, it could be singing, dancing, painting, or photography.  Whether it’s a poem, a doodle, or a musical, art – in all its forms – captures ideas, conveys emotion, unpacks experiences, and reveals perspectives reflective of individual and collective circumstances. Art unifies us with a shared sense of reality that helps us feel connected and make sense of the world. 

Ask yourself, “What am I inspired to do with my life, right now?” “How can I contribute to the collective?” “What can I create with my unique ideas, energy, attitude, and talents?” I am passionate about art and love helping others open up creatively, which is why I write this newsletter! 

Aim to find YOUR growing edge, where you can stretch yourself a little--design something, make something, write something, teach something, or start a new program. We all have something we can share, something to offer the world. Putting your ideas or your actual physical products into the world is a creative act.

Sing or Play Music
Music bonds us. According to researchers, when we harmonize or synchronize with others, we have more positive feelings toward them.3 This occurs even if they aren’t in the same room. Singing raises oxytocin levels in both amateur and professional singers. If you’re not enamored with singing, you might just listen to music. Simply listening to music releases oxytocin. Music directly impacts oxytocin levels and oxytocin affects our ability to trust and socially connect to others.

Dancing is not only fun, it’s healthy for you to move with music. Studies have shown that dancing relieves anxiety, improves the quality of life for breast cancer patients, and lowers the risk of dementia for older people.

What is surprising in the research is that the benefit wasn’t due to physical exercise alone. Compared to other forms of exercise, dancing was the only exercise that made a difference.4

Play isn’t just kid stuff. It’s also beneficial for adults. The National Institute for Play underscores the research that already exists on play: “A huge amount of existing scientific research—from neurophysiology, developmental and cognitive psychology, to animal play behavior, and evolutionary and molecular biology—contains rich data on play. The existing research describes patterns and states of play and explains how play shapes our brains, creates our competencies, and ballasts our emotions.”5

While playing or storytelling might seem unimportant in the moment, there are long-lasting psychological and developmental benefits that accrue from play. Jennifer A. Perry, former VP of worldwide publishing at Sesame Workshop and executive director of Perry Educational Projects Consulting, says, "By exploring imagination and creativity through art, storytelling, interactive games, music, and all kinds of play, children learn lifelong skills... how to express themselves, communicate with others, problem solve, develop self-confidence, appreciate diverse ideas and cultures, and find things that make them feel fulfilled and happy."

Poetry is consoling in times of unrest and pain, illness and grief. The poet Richard Wright wrote more than 4,000 haiku during his last year of illness in Paris. Wright’s daughter Julia said he continued “to spin these poems of light out of the gathering darkness.” Art works like that and serves like that.

Making Art
Creating art provides a simple, tangible opportunity for a person to accomplish a task and build confidence and self-esteem. Many people realize that the process of creating something is soothing, a sort of meditation. You might use art to support your well-being without even thinking about it. For example, you might doodle when you feel stressed or enjoy playing an instrument at the end of a long day. Artistic expression and appreciation are not only enjoyable but also have the potential to benefit your well-being. 

Making things is a great way to feel more empowered and connected to ourselves and others. allow us to understand and share our story. Even the simplest art, like a Japanese Enso, is layered with complexity. It's like William Blake’s idea of “the world in a grain of sand.” The more you look, the more ideas reveal themselves, whether the art is simple or complex. It takes time and patience to find, examine, and consider the endless options art offers.

My favorite things about art are the JOY of inspiration, the meditative calmness of making something, and the thrill of seeing the end product. There are many ways to experience those rewards, however, each reflecting our unique personality.

An interesting study looked at how novel media such as virtual reality can promote creative expression and physical activity, while also breaking down fears among many participants that they are not good at creating art. People don’t seem to associate the same stigmas and fears with creating in virtual reality as in traditional art media. This, in turn, helps participants engage in self-expression that they might not otherwise have had the confidence to explore.

Virtual reality provides an alternate universe where participants can move through objects, create structures that defy gravity, and step in and out of their creations. After creating in such a space, people often feel energized with a sense of creative possibility that they had not previously imagined. Though intangible, these digital experiences can help people appreciate the physical world in new ways, and technology such as 3D printing could soon help us make some digital creative experiences more tactile. As a result, virtual reality art therapy could be useful for patients with debilitating injuries and those who feel psychologically stuck in their life patterns.

Looking at Art:
It isn’t necessary to create to be changed by art. Experiences with great artworks deepen us in ways that are hard to describe. Great art connects you to a moment, yourself, and others. To visit Chartres Cathedral or finish “The Brothers Karamazov” is not about acquiring new facts but to feel somehow elevated, enlarged, altered.

Perception is not a straightforward act. You don’t open your eyes and ears and record the data that floods in, the way in those old cameras light was recorded on film. Instead, perception is a creative act. You take what you’ve experienced during the whole course of your life, the models you’ve stored up in your head, and you apply them to help you interpret all the ambiguous data your senses pick up, to help you discern what matters, what you desire, what you find admirable and what you find contemptible. 

Consuming culture expands your emotional knowledge and wisdom; it helps you take a richer and more meaningful view of your own experiences; it helps you understand, at least a bit, the depths of what’s going on in the people right around you. It provides ways to imagine a more hopeful future.

A 2019 study published in the British Medical Journal looked at both passive (viewing) and active (participatory) arts engagement. More people in the study engaged in passive art experiences, and those experiences resulted in statistically significant improvements in quality of life, perceived health, and sense of belonging. Those who made art experienced even greater improvements in quality of life and perceived health. The art-makers additionally had statistically significant improvements in spiritual well-being, sense of meaning, and peace.

A study from the University of Westminster in England proved this with a lunchtime art intervention. The research team had people come into a gallery over their lunch breaks, look at art, fill out a survey, and have their salivary cortisol (a physiologic indicator of stress) levels checked. Looking at art dropped cortisol significantly—to levels it would have taken 5 hours to reach otherwise. Survey results indicated that this simple intervention also enhanced mood and relaxation. The conclusion: looking at art results in rapid normalization of stress.

If you’re not feeling the way you want to feel, Ask yourself which creative actions you might take to shift your emotions in this moment. Bake cookies, walk on the beach, paint, dance, sing? Start simmering an enlivening stew of possible actions that light you up.

You might find that classes are the best way for you to find a safe space to explore and share your thoughts and feelings, even the ones that are hard to talk about. A single Google search will turn up dozens of inspiring classes at local museums, guilds, colleges, and community centers. There are hundreds of opportunities for you to foster new ways of thinking, and new connections, and to enlarge your heart and your mind. The world of art is inviting you to explore and join in the very human search for meaning.

Surround Yourself with Beauty
Looking at art, having art in your work/home space, and surrounding yourself with plants and natural light can make a profound difference in your quality of life. Making art, playing music, dancing, writing, or doing another creative activity can take the benefits even further. 

A study titled “Creativity in the Wild: Improving Creative Reasoning Through Immersion in Natural Settings" showed how nature affects creativity.6 A group of hikers who spent four days immersed in nature and disconnected from technological devices increased performance on a creativity/problem-solving task by 50%.

Nature in this study provided emotionally positive stimuli. By reducing the usage of phones and computers, those in the study weren’t switching tasks or multi-tasking, attending to sudden events, maintaining task goals, or inhibiting irrelevant actions. Therefore, spending quality time in nature improved their creativity test scores.

So, when you are stumped by problems, feeling low or frustrated, move away from the computer. It helps to think creatively about solutions and alternative options while walking in the garden or hiking in the park.

Data from Environmental Psychology literature tells us that employees are happier, take fewer sick days, and feel more productive (up to 15% more!) if their workspace includes natural light, art, plants, and attractive design elements. Beautiful environments are inspiring places to work. The energy of a space matters, and surrounding ourselves with attractive things has a calming, pleasing effect on the mind and body.

Heal yourself, Heal the world, Make More Art…

Please take the time to read this wonderful article by David Brooks from the New York times on How Art can Save a Sad, Lonely, Angry and Mean Society

We are all artists in this life, constantly creating with the different tools and talents at our disposal. Self-expression is good for stress, mood, and anxiety. Making art may additionally reduce inflammation, lower blood pressure, boost the immune system, and improve mood and resiliency. So, step away from your routine, indulge yourself in playful and fun activities. Creating art, singing, dancing, and playing will not only make you feel good, it will renew and revitalize you.

Creativity is inspiring, and feeling inspired is fun! Fun enhances our sense of connection (to others, self, and life). It reduces stress and increases happiness. 

Creativity guides you to your purpose and to your ideal clients. It can help your business bloom, and your life stay fulfilling.

Creative self-expression is a part of being a balanced, self-actualized human. It doesn’t matter what sort of creativity you express or if you consider yourself artistic. Making art is ultimately just a clever way to benefit from your own LOVE. Put your heart into any artistic process, and joy and healing will result.

I hope I have inspired you to use your imagination and creativity to fully express and heal yourself. My mentorship, guidance, and advice are available to you for creating new possibilities for healing and expanding yourself through art. I am happy to share my insights and my knowledge with you.

If someone shared this newsletter with you and you'd like to subscribe, please reach out to me below with your email address. I promise, no spam, no overloading your inbox, just the good stuff.

 I welcome the opportunity for connection, conversation, cooperation, collaboration, and commissions. 

With Light and Delight


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