Art ~ Writing ~ Life

From Handprints To Footprints


June 13, 2017
Steve Campbell

I awoke today with an intention to write something profound. Then I got out of bed.

There are moments between sleep and consciousness when our minds are busy creating. For me, whether when I’m falling asleep or awakening, that’s when stories play out and I see artwork happen in my mind. Psychologists call this stage “hypnagogia,” a borderland between sleep and wakefulness characterized by surreal visions and strange sensory occurrences.

I learned to use hypnagogia to my advantage when I was a teenager, which sometimes resulted in “trippy” art while I was in high school. I also used it to form story ideas. The best times to do this were those waking moments, which left imprints in my mind that I recorded as best as I could into drawing pads and notebooks I kept by my bed.

Cloud Ruler

Cloud Ruler, Acrylic Painting

A routine sleep schedule helped me to have hypnagogia occurrences during the same time every morning. I was most creative with my art and writing during my school years and later when I worked a routine 9-to-5 day job. But when my sleep schedule was everything but routine, my creativity was at its lowest. This occurred when I worked as a steward, baker, cook, mess hall manager, truck driver, bartender, and housing manager in the Navy, and again when I became employed in retail.

My current retail employer insists but doesn’t demand that I make myself available to work at any time and day … except Christmas (subject to change, I’m sure, by a growing mental illness among CEOs called Wealth Accumulation Disorder). Luckily, my department is a “day department,” so I have been able to stay away from what the company used to call third shift. I’m a “day person,” which means I don’t have to work past midnight, but I should be available to begin working at 6am. Luckily (and I’ll take all the luck I can get), my department doesn’t open until 9am, which means my days begin at eight thirty. Quitting time is 10pm, so each day is fractured into two shifts: 8:30am–5:30pm, and 5:30pm–10pm.

Hypnagogia rarely occurs when I’m scheduled a 5:30pm–10pm shift followed by an 8:30am–5:30pm shift. I’m certain the lack of hypnagogia happens because I’m used to going to bed at 10pm and waking at 6am. When I go to bed later than 10pm, I struggle to fall asleep and end up reading until midnight or later. My mind is blank at 6am on these nights, and so I spend the hour reserved for recording ideas hitting the snooze button before I have to take my morning dose of Synthroid before I can eat a proper breakfast.

Without hypnagogia occurrences, especially right before I awake, I find myself less alert on the job as well. Perhaps it’s because experiencing hypnagogia is a condition I’ve grown accustomed to. When I miss out, I’m like a junkie without his fix. I need my moment to be creative. And when I’m feeling creative, I do more than make art or write stories, I function better at socializing. My brain’s gears are working best and in full throttle. I’m that smiling guy who greets you with a friendly hello because I got a night of good sleep bookended with hypnagogia.

Maybe someday big pharma will sell it over the counter. For now, I’ll take it when I can get it, and call myself lucky on the days—I mean nights—it happens.

Rock Sketches In Acrylic

February 1, 2017
Steve Campbell

It was time to be a visual artist again, so I spent a couple days getting my artist’s eye back in shape by working on some sketches. I decided to look at rocks and study their shapes and colors. I’ve chosen 3 better ones to share.

They’re all acrylic paintings on scraps of canvas prepared with gesso and glued to cardboard—something I started doing years ago when I painted field studies of wildlife. They’re cheap and easy to put together and lighter than canvas boards.

I love earth colors. But they can be a bit dark, so I punched them up a bit. One facet of art is the exaggeration an artist puts into their artwork. I had fun with color and tried to be as painterly as possible too.

When I’m a bit rusty with my craft, I tend to draw with my brushes instead of painting with them. Squinting blurs the image and keeps me from seeing edges. Then I load my brushes and lay down paint and color, mixing values on the canvas. That way the objects look like they haven’t been cut and pasted to the canvas.

I exaggerated the colors, which was a lot of fun to do. No masterpieces here. But, oh well. I needed a break from writing and this was the perfect escape.


My Color Triangle

December 29, 2014
Steve Campbell

This is part of a lesson plan I used when I taught my young students how to mix colors on their palettes. If this is new to you, give it a try.

I keep the colors on my palette simple: 4 yellows, 4 Reds, and 4 blues. I have listed these 12 colors in the color triangle below.  This simple tool enables me to know which colors to use when I want to darken a color effectively without creating mud.  Some artists refer to the process of darkening colors as “cooling,” “shading,” and “graying.”  This tool is also useful for lightening the darker colors effectively.  “Brightening” and “warming” are other terms artists use for lightening their colors.

Color Triangle

My Color Triangle for mixing clean colors.

My 12 colors consist of 4 yellows, 4 reds, and 4 blues.  My 4 yellows are Cadmium Yellow, Lemon Yellow, Yellow Ochre, and Burnt Umber.  My 4 reds are Alizarin Crimson, Cadmium Red, Indian Red, and Burnt Sienna.  My 4 blues are Cerulean Blue, Ultramarine Blue, Prussian Blue, and Payne’s Gray.  The outer triangle represents my highest intensity colors based on a split-primary color wheel.  Split-primary colors are colors of the highest intensity (brightest) that are warm and cool colors of the same family.  Cadmium Red is a warm red; Alizarin Crimson is a cool red.  If I want to cool my Cadmium Red, I add Alizarin Crimson, and if I need to warm my Alizarin Crimson, I add Cadmium Red.  Ultramarine Blue is a cool blue; Cerulean Blue is warm. Lemon Yellow is warm; Cadmium Yellow is cool.

I mix my own secondary colors: orange, green, and violet (purple).  To make a bright, vivid orange, I mix Cadmium Yellow and Cadmium Red.  To make a vivid green, I add Lemon Yellow to Cerulean Blue.  And to make a vivid violet, I add Alizarin Crimson to Ultramarine Blue.  If I need to darken my orange color, I can add a mixture of Lemon Yellow and Alizarin Crimson.  To darken green, I add Cadmium Yellow and Ultramarine Blue.  And to darken violet, I add Cerulean Blue and Cadmium Red.

Of course, there are other ways I can darken both my primary colors and secondary colors without making muddy mixes.

Small Color Triangle

Think of the colors on the outer part of the triangle as colors with lots of light.  The next triangle has colors with less light.  These are my middle intensity colors.  I use these colors to shade or “gray down” my highest intensity colors.  I use Yellow Ochre to lower any of my two highest intensity yellows, Indian Red to lower either of my highest intensity reds, and Prussian Blue to lower my highest intensity blues.

The innermost triangle or third triangle has my lowest intensity colors.  These are colors with the least amount of light.  They further lower the intensity or brightness of my outer colors.

As I mentioned, I can darken my secondary colors this way, too.  To further lower/darken my original orange, I can add either a mixture of Yellow Ochre and Indian Red, or a mixture of Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna, depending on how dark I want my orange.  To lower/darken my original green, I add either a mix of Yellow Ochre and Prussian Blue, or a mix of Burnt Umber and Payne’s Gray.  And to lower violet, I add either a mix of Indian Red and Prussian Blue, or a mix of Burnt Sienna and Payne’s Gray.  This way, I keep my colors from becoming dull looking and muddy.  This happens when artists try to lighten their colors with white, and try to darken their colors with black.

Keep this handy color triangle with you when you’re mixing colors and looking for the right lightness and darkness.

Happy painting. 🙂

Painting with Knives

December 21, 2014
Steve Campbell

Another old art piece of mine. This article was first published in an art newsletter dated 1998. The photos of my artwork that I’ve shared for this post range from the same year to 2001.

While oil painting this month, I’ve been having fun painting with knives. Frosting the cake is what I call it when I spread thick paints of color on my canvases, and then add flicks and swirls like a jolly decorator in a bakery.

Using a painting knife on canvas board.

Using a painting knife on canvas board.

Anyone who hasn’t tried painting with knives should give it a go. All you need is either a painting knife or a palette knife of your choice and several rags to clean your knife. I prefer using one knife to keep my painting area uncluttered. And the knife I prefer most is the painting knife. I enjoy the painting knife’s flexibility over the palette knife’s rigidness.

Just like brushes, knives come in a lot of shapes and sizes that lend themselves to various uses. The Dick Blick Company, where I buy my art supplies, explains the differences between painting knives and palette knives.

  • Painting knives are blunt with a slightly flexible steel blade and no sharpened cutting edge. They are used in place of a brush for applying paint colors, paste, pigments, and so forth directly onto the canvas or painting surface.
  • Palette knives are blunt with a very flexible steel blade and no sharpened cutting edge. They are primarily used for mixing paint colors, mediums, additives, paste, pigments, and so forth directly on the palette before applying them to a surface. Palette knives are symmetric, like a kitchen spatula.

I prefer using a large painting knife simply because it allows me to be freer when I apply paint to my canvas, leaving a variety of edges in the finished work, giving the artwork life and engaging the viewer with the painting.

Hard and soft edges and color contrasts.

Hard and soft edges and color contrasts.

Although I prefer painting on canvas, there are various kinds of surfaces to paint on. Stretched canvas allows me to dance the knife across the surface and create a variety of irregular shapes. This is why I use the less flexible painting knives because I prefer some control when I paint. Canvas board and Masonite let me control both knives better, but my pictures sometimes look motionless when I use a painting knife on them. I recommend using the more flexible palette knives on hard surfaces.

More hard and soft edges with color contrasts.

More hard and soft edges with color contrasts.

Whichever knife you choose, painting with knives gives your pictures abrupt color changes, making edges in the paint appear razor-sharp, which is nice when contrasting areas of your major focal points. But when an unimportant edge looks too sharp, a zigzag of the tip of the knife through the paint breaks any edge and puts it in its proper place.

Edges can be hard, soft, and lost. Using a variety of edges engages the viewer’s attention by preventing the picture from looking monotonous. I like to alter the edges in my paintings to enhance the rhythm and composition.

Lost edges look good in snow scenes.

Lost edges look good in snow scenes.

When hard edges are placed horizontally, they accelerate the movement of the viewer’s eye. When placed vertically, the eye of the viewer comes to a sudden stop.

Soft edges slow down horizontal lines and allow passage through vertical ones. Creating soft edges with a brush is easy; with a knife, not so much. That’s where the flicks and swirls I mentioned earlier come in play.

A mixture of hard and soft edges creates a type of movement like a driver operating a car with both the accelerator and brake at the same time. These stop and go edges are called  broken edges and are sometimes described as a Morse Code type of painting.

Lost edges are in water and atmosphere.

Lost edges are in water and atmosphere.

Lost edges are almost invisible edges and help keep the viewer’s attention focused on where the hard edges are. Lost edges play a major role of supporting hard edges, which, as I mentioned earlier, are often found in the main subject. You can see lost edges in the shadow areas of my paintings as well as in the main subjects. Using lost edges with hard edges lets the main subject look as though it is truly part of the scene, and not like it was cut out and pasted on. And equally important, lost edges keep the viewer’s eye flowing evenly from one area to another.

When painting lost edges, I find it’s important to use colors equal to or close to one another in value to keep contrasting values from creating hard value edges. Plus, to avoid hard chromatic edges, I use colors in the same temperature range. This unifies the elements of a painting and creates pathways, like light flowing from one room into another.

The paint dances across the field grass.

The paint dances across the field grass.

I recommend that every artist try doing an entire painting strictly with palette knives. Go ahead and give it a go. And most of all, have fun.

Using Canvas Stretcher Bars To Stretch Watercolor Paper

December 13, 2014
Steve Campbell

You may, like I do, have stretcher bars normally used for stretching canvas waiting to back your next canvas. But have you ever considered using those bars to stretch paper instead?

A sketch of a wooden stretcher bar

A corner of a wooden 20” stretcher bar

Here’s an easy technique for stretching watercolor paper with those bars—a technique that has many advantages over other ways. One, it avoids the awkward weight of a solid board. Two, the paper will dry faster because both sides are exposed to air. Three, you’ll have to be gentle while painting (which is what watercolor painting is about). And four, the clean-up time consists of simply removing pushpins from the frame. Afterward, the frame is ready for you to attach a new sheet of paper.

  • To begin, you will need to assemble your four stretcher bars into a frame. (I use 16”x20” because they’re easy to assemble and carry.) I glue my frame together and allow the glue to dry overnight before I begin attaching watercolor paper to the frame. This makes the frame permanent, but you can choose not to do this.
Once the stretcher bars are assembled, you can tack watercolor paper over the front

Once the stretcher bars are assembled, you can tack watercolor paper over the front

  • You will also need a box of pushpins and a soaking tray filled with room temperature water. My soaking tray is a shallow 24”x30” Formica baking tray that I bought from a bakery, but a large aluminum baking tray or a clean bathtub work just as well. Fill the tray or tub with a half-inch of water (I use the distilled kind).
  • The dimensions of your watercolor paper should be two or three inches longer than the height and width of the stretcher frame, which means I use 20”x24” sheets of paper.
  • Before attaching your paper to the stretcher bars, draw any information you intend to use in your painting on the paper’s front side. Do not draw on the paper after you have stretched it.
  • Next, soak the paper for a minute or two by submerging it in your water. Do not soak the paper too long. You may end up washing off the sizing and your pencil drawing.
  • When both sides of the paper are completely wet, drape the paper over the stretcher frame so about two inches overlap the edge on all four sides. (The frame should be laying flat on a tabletop or workbench, with the stretcher frame’s front facing up.)
  • Once the paper covers the frame evenly, attach the paper to the sides of the frame using your fingers GENTLY, and your pushpins to wrap and fasten the paper around all four edges. The stretching sequence goes:
  1. Wrap and pin the paper at the top center of each length (the side that would sit flush inside a picture frame). Start with the top bar. Place a pushpin in the paper and bottom bar, then the left side, and finally the right.
  2. Return to the top bar and place a pushpin half an inch to the right of the first pushpin. Then place a pushpin half an inch to the left of the first pushpin. Proceed to the bottom bar and do this until you have three pushpins on all four sides.
  3. Return to the top bar and pin again until you have five pushpins half-an-inch apart on all four sides.
  4. Continue until you reach the corners.
  • When attaching the watercolor paper to the frame it is best to gently tug the paper taut while pinning. If the paper is not taut, you may end up with a warped surface to paint on.
  • After you have attached the paper, allow about three hours for it to dry. Or, you can use a portable hair dryer to speed things up. Just don’t scorch your paper in the process. Keep the frame lying flat in a horizontal position—resist the urge to lift the frame and chance knocking it out of alignment (even if you glued it earlier) and warping the paper.
  • Once the paper is dry, you’re ready to paint. Use gentle touches when applying your paint so as not to tear your paper.

Give it a try, happy painting, and let me know what you think.

Being a Painter

October 26, 2014
Steve Campbell

I was twelve years old when I saw my first real paintings. I didn’t see them at a museum or an art gallery—I didn’t know those things existed until I was seventeen. I was naïve to art until my parents bought a house and I was exploring the attic. There, past boxes of old books and dusty knick-knacks and behind a rack of clothing, I found large painted canvases in gilded gold frames leaning against a far wall. I saw portraits as tall as me, and landscapes wider than the breadth of my arms. As I studied and felt their painted surfaces, I was awestruck. These weren’t like the decorative vegetable pictures that would soon hang in my mother’s kitchen; these were alive with paint and brushstrokes and the smell of linseed oil and turpentine. When my parents explained to me that someone—an actual person—had painted them, I knew I wanted to be a painter.

I took art classes in high school and fumbled with learning all the mysteries of painting. I lived in Small Town, USA, where good paints and brushes were never a priority in any of our schools. But the dream of painting canvases never died.

Going to college was out of the question until I heard about the GI Bill. So I pulled a six-year stint in the Navy and was fortunate to visit some Italian, French and Spanish art museums. Once again, seeing manmade beauty and magic on canvases mesmerized me and burned brighter the wish to be a painter.

I painted watercolors in sketchbooks until the Navy released me in 1982. By then I was married, so I chose my academic training at a local college. Most of my art teachers there were leftover abstract painters from the 1960’s and ’70’s who stressed personal expression in art—not reality. In other words, don’t paint what you see, but how you feel. I became unhappy with these classes because I didn’t see how this approach could teach me how to paint the realism of landscapes and wildlife—two of my favorite subjects. I wanted to copy nature exactly as I saw it in the photographs I took.  But, as one instructor told me bluntly, “Painting is not photography. Forget about technical tricks and learn to see and express the world around you that is genuine and exciting to you.”

It took a year for his advice to sink in. I saw every painting as a new adventure—a struggle of course—to be expressive as well as showing realism. I learned how to marry abstract expressionism with photo-realism to produce paintings with elements of both, and to use color and design to express mood, all the while keeping the paint looking fresh and dramatic.

But I would be lying if I said every painting was a success. Even now, twenty-some years later, I paint failures … clunkers, as we called them in art classes. “No one ever masters the art of painting,” a teacher told me. “Every day we discover something new that shakes us from our mindset and reminds us that we’ll always be students.”

I am still a student. I have many years of painting behind me, but I still learn new things. It’s the fun of the chase that keeps me going—still learning my craft.

I never fuss over my work like I used to. If a painting is not working, I scrap it for a new one. I see too many artists with their noses against their paintings fussing over their work. If it isn’t working, scrap it. If you’re a fussy artist, learn to step away from the art and stop judging critically with your nose against the work. Stand back and judge your art by the progress you’re making at the moment and keep gauging your progress as you continue with your studies. Yes, I said studies. Never stop being a student. And please don’t try to paint pictures that look the same as your contemporaries. Where’s the originality in that? Be inventive—be creative!

Stay committed to keep learning the craft no matter how hard the struggle. Every artist has gone to the grave still learning his or her craft. We strive for aesthetic progress and perfection—that is human nature, and we will destroy pieces of work if we believe them inferior. In all our paintings, we find mistakes. Mistakes are human nature, too, so don’t be the artist who destroys everything he or she paints. Accept your limitations for the moment, frame your better paintings full of mistakes, and send them off to juried shows. Someone will love your artwork in spite of all its flaws.

Those paintings I found in that attic when I was twelve years old speak as strongly to me now as they did in 1969. I got hooked on painting that began a wonderful ride through the exciting world of being an artist. It’s a ride I refuse to get off of—there’s so much more to be discovered.

Keep on painting and making art.

Comparing Fiction and Art

August 23, 2014
Steve Campbell

Writing fiction, whether it’s a short story or a novel, is very much like painting a picture. Once I have an idea of what I want (usually after doing several sketches), I stand/sit before my easel/word processor and begin painting/writing quickly while the idea is fresh in my mind. A line is drawn and a sentence is created. A color is placed and a paragraph is written. A series of tonal marks are made and paragraphs become pages, and pages become chapters. Quickly, the skeleton of that earlier idea is on canvas in a preliminary, underpainting stage I call “scribble art” and in a first draft on paper I call “the naked man begging to be clothed.”

Both art and fiction strive for one thing: Realism. Realism clothes both with maturity. The lack of it results in whether our paintings or books look or feel true to life. To get there, the artist and writer must never hide their emotions from their audience. If they never shed a tear or burst out laughing while painting or writing a mood, neither will their audience.

Various design principles weave through the fabric of art and stories. Utilizing these principles is stage two and the battle of every artist and writer because this is where he or she must decide whether to follow or disregard any of them. When I do disregard the principles, there is usually some compensating merit achieved by the violation. In other words, I don’t break the rules until I know the rules. Beginners are best off to abide by the principles.

I find that the design elements of art and writing are related. In both, we have to know how important roles are before we can conclude the project we’re working on. This is where I ask, “Where does each element in my picture/story stand in relation to each other?” In art and in writing, I do the work by always thinking of Shape, Texture, Space and Form. My subjects need to look a certain way and exist a certain way in relation to others. As I create them and the world they live in, I keep in mind how important Unity, Harmony, and Balance are, as well as Hierarchy and Dominance, and Similarities and Contrasts within the environment. All this construction leads the viewer’s eyes when looking at art, and leads the reader’s curiosity through the story. Therefore, I always ask, “Where do I want this scene to go?”

Earlier, I mentioned realism as the major function of art and fiction. Fiction is all about tension, conflict and resolution for the main character. The forces of man, nature, religion, politics, and society push and pull at him or her, and they struggle with these forces to find their place in the story. The same is true in art. The important elements of art show themselves like the important character conflicts in a story, with each major element weaved into a unified tapestry. Plus, if you can convey the symbolism and metaphor in your art and fiction, it can further help with unifying the design elements across your canvas and book.

I mentioned also that I don’t break the rules of design until I know them. This is when I become creative and inventive with my work. As with my paintings, I try to show in my stories the early and middle stages of their creation. I leave some of the “naked man” and “stage two” writing visible. (You can see this in the apple orchard painting below.) Showing these different levels of finish or completion prevents a slick, mechanical looking product and enriches the work (both art and story) with multiple levels of interpretation. Isn’t it wonderful to look at a painting again or reread a book and find something new?

A Brief Pause in an Apple Orchard

A Brief Pause in an Apple Orchard, Oil Painting

If you’re an artist and/or writer who struggles with your work, remember to learn all you can about the rules of design. But know that following all the principles of design can result in that slick and mechanical looking work I mentioned. If your art and/or stories end up like that, the contemporary American painter Helen Van Wyk (1930 – 1994) said to “make it, break it, and make it again.” In other words, if it looks or feels wrong to you, do it over. Just don’t overdo it. Let the painting with all its blemishes (not carelessness) speak for itself. Let the story with all its scars (not poor grammar and spelling) speak for itself. If you were honest and true to yourself, your art, and your audience during the entire process, someone will see your honesty and truthfulness and find them beautiful. Anything else will be a lie.

Painting Alla Prima, Part 2 of 2

July 22, 2014
Steve Campbell

Many years ago, I taught wildlife and landscape painting classes. This is a lesson plan from those classes.

Understanding and controlling values should be one of your first goals as a painter. When I began painting landscapes from life, I realized that the objects in my finished paintings lacked convincing form. When I understood how light reveals form and began looking at the world with this in mind, my work began to improve. So will yours when you learn to see light and understand what it does to show an object’s form.

Recognize value in color. An object’s form is made of valued tones of color. It’s imperative while painting to be able to see a color in your subject and translate its value into paint.

Think about the picture and its center of interest. Think in terms of composition first. Plan where the center of interest will be located and how you will emphasize that area. Make your center of interest stand out with color and value contrasts and an interesting shape.

Inside, Looking Out

Inside, Looking Out, Oil Painting

When painting a center of interest, keep your eyes on that area of landscape (or model or still life) and nowhere else. Use your peripheral vision for the rest of the subject, but keep your eyes on the focal point as you finish the rest of the painting. This will help you make the rest of your painting harmonious with the focal point.

What can you cut? Are you saying too much and cluttering the picture space with too many details? Is there anything extraneous that you can remove from the picture? Can you cut detracting background by moving in closer or by cropping the subject with a viewfinder?

The overall design. When composing your painting, do not think “up and down” or “side to side.”  Rather, consider the depth you can create within the “cube” I’ve talked about in class—that three dimensional rectangular space that will be your painting. Then work with the overlapping forms within your vision’s periphery as part of the overall design.

A Brief Pause in an Apple Orchard

A Brief Pause in an Apple Orchard, Oil Painting

Put it on and leave it alone. This rule is often mentioned to oil painters, but I’m suggesting it to painters using acrylics, too. Fussing with passages of acrylic paint can be more damaging than reworking the slower-drying oil paints.

When putting in the lights mix up thick, opaque color and put it down with simple strokes. The amount of paint on the brush and proper brush pressure is vital when applying your paint. Putting thick paint down boldly forces you to make definite decisions. Believe your first impression. Paint quickly; if you look too long, your perception may change. Be decisive. A boldly applied stroke looks right because the artist made a decision and stuck with it. Putting down a stroke and then restating it once or twice pushes the paint into the underlayer, making the color muddy. If the underpainting is too thick, scrape it off. You can lay paint over a thick area by painting the next layer even thicker.

Oil on canvas board

Oil on canvas board

Criticize your work from afar. Step away a good distance from the canvas and decide whether some shapes and edges need more emphasis. Judge artfully from a distance, not critically with your nose against the canvas. From Leonardo da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting we learn that from a distance “…the work appears smaller, and more of it is taken in at a glance, and [any] lack of harmony or proportion in the various parts … is more readily seen.” Remember to emphasize major areas—do not stray far from your painting’s focal point.  Add detail, or sharp edges at the end of the process.

Sketches in the Sun

Sketches in the Sun, Oil Painting, circa 2002

Impressionist Claude Monet described painting alla prima as this: “When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have in front of you, a tree, a field. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own naïve impression of the scene.”

Painting Alla Prima, Part 1 of 2

July 14, 2014
Steve Campbell

Many years ago, I taught wildlife and landscape painting classes. This is a lesson plan from those classes.

Alla prima is an Italian expression that translates into “at the first try.” The technique of alla prima is a wet-on-wet direct method of painting that completes the painting in a single session, without previous preparation or later stages. TV artist Bob Ross paints alla prima.

The Impressionists introduced the technique of direct painting; however, Rubens used an alla prima style when he mixed his colors directly on the canvas itself without waiting for the paints to dry. The Impressionists painted their landscapes in a single session taking only three or four hours to begin and finish a picture. They tried to capture the impression of the moment by painting directly. They did not allow themselves to go back over what had already been done.

As when using any painting method, ask “Why am I painting this picture?” as you prepare to paint alla prima. If you have no answer, then you’re not ready to paint that picture. When you are ready, sketch in the drawing with a round bristle brush loaded with a mixture of blue and umber thinned with turpentine. If you’re using water-based oils or acrylics, thin your colors with water. Simplify the scene’s complexity by sketching in the main elements. Once the initial drawing is done, it’s now a question of filling in the spaces with color.

Oak Sketch Oil on canvas board

Oak Sketch
Oil on canvas board

Establish the mood first, before worrying about creating depth. The mood is determined by light, so observe the color of light, then consider how to alter that color to create elements in deep space.

What color is the lightest light? A white shirt drenched in warm lamplight may be pink, orange or slightly yellow—not pure white, as you might think. Never use pure white, but white with a small amount of color in it.

Waterfall Study Oil on canvas board

Waterfall Study
Oil on canvas board

What is the darkest dark? What color is it? How dark is it? Darks have light in them, so double-check your first impression. Put the lights in later.

Pick the easiest color to get right without a lot of mixing. If an object is the same color as Cerulean Blue straight from the tube, that is easy. To check a rich, bright color in nature, hold up a pure color, such as Cadmium Red Light, on the brush. Compare how lighter or less brilliant that color may actually be. When it looks right, put it on your canvas.

Establish shadow patterns. It’s easier to control light colors by first placing in all the shadow shapes accurately. When they’re in the right place, this step is done. Laying in the shadows first guarantees clean color throughout.

Cow and landscape study, 1990; oil on canvas board

Cow and landscape study, 1990; oil on canvas board

Lay in the lights. Keep all the colors of the light family lighter than the shadow shapes. Lay them down flatly and simply. Cover the whole canvas while thinking about shapes. Step away and recheck your color choices. Don’t hurry to produce a finished painting.

See objects in terms of simple shapes. Focus on shapes, not things. Think of your paintings as mosaics of interlocking shapes, some larger, some smaller, but all related. Make all shapes interesting, and pay special attention to negative shapes. Start with flat silhouettes of color.

Describe the effect of light on forms. Use hard and soft edges to convey the character and solidity of objects. Start your painting by keeping edges soft.  Hard edges attract the eye, so keep shapes and edges loose and fluid in the early stages.

All surfaces reflect color on any surfaces facing the light’s reflection. This is called reflected light and reflected color, and we see it when the blue sky reflects off water and snow, as well as when green grass reflects from the base of a white house.

A study from the 1990s; oil on canvas board

A study from the 1990s; oil on canvas board

Always Busy

February 4, 2014
Steve Campbell

Anyone following my blog would assume that I’m rarely busy writing or making art, simply because of the lengthy gaps between my posts. But that’s far from the truth. I’m busy every day working on my stories and art, from creating new chapters and editing old material, to sketching in my sketchbooks or actually composing and finishing a drawing or painting. All this takes time, leaving barely a few minutes to blog about it.

Blogging is often the last thing I do when I visit the Internet. Reading my email is top priority, followed by answering it, and then checking on family and friends at Facebook. I usually spend an hour a day at Facebook (sometimes two hours or more), and I often add my latest achievements there, leaving me little time to post anything here at WordPress other than a blurb before I turn in for the night.

That is a good description of my posts: BLURBS. They may never be anything poetic, but they’ll certainly keep you, my fans, abreast of my latest news.

For anyone wishing to read more of what I have done lately, visit my official Facebook page here. Or copy this address:

Deer Sketch, circa 1988 Acrylic paint, white gesso, and graphite

Deer Sketch, circa 1988, Acrylic paint, white gesso, and graphite

Above is my latest post at Facebook: a deer sketch from 1988 or so. Old news, but it was a treat for me to find this photo among my old art photographs.

In the meantime, I promise to blurb more often here at WordPress. I just have to learn to schedule my time better.

Tiny Watercolor

November 16, 2013
Steve Campbell

Tiny watercolor

A little sketch in watercolor when I should have been writing.
Sometimes the mind needs to switch gears.

Now, I have a book to finish writing.

Evolution of a Painting

September 26, 2012
Steve Campbell

This is a re-post from my Facebook page, March 1, 2010.

In 1988, black bear weren’t a common sight around Corry, PA. I had caught a glimpse of one during the spring while I was on one of my many field hikes into the swamps in and around Corry. I was sketching a beaver dam when I saw the big bear ramble through less than 50 yards away. I stayed as still as possible for several minutes after it disappeared into the underbrush, then I disappeared in the opposite direction.

The sighting stayed with me throughout the summer; I purposely scanned the woods and waterways for another glimpse of the bear. I planned to photograph it, but we never crossed paths, although it may have been out there, nearby, out of sight, watching me. Swamps have a plethora of hiding places. That’s why deer take refuge in them during hunting season.

From this near encounter came the idea for my next painting.

The hardest thing for me as a painter is getting my signature right.

Although the painting looks done, I wasn’t happy with it. I changed my signature again and got rid of the halo around the front of the bear.

As you can see in the above photo, I glazed the water with Ultramarine Blue. I decided that it looked too “vivid” so I changed it back (see photo below). Now I had a finished painting. Here it is at the gallery, April 1989.

Allow Mistakes

August 17, 2012
Steve Campbell

The three paintings shown below are from 1986 when I wanted to show a deer running through a winter landscape. They are painting sketches filled with mistakes I made while learning about deer and the art of painting. Each painting sketch gets better, but they all contain obvious errors that detract from each picture. Fortunately, I was never afraid to make mistakes while I painted, which helped me grow as an artist. After all, making art is a lifelong process of making mistakes.

"Deer Running, Sketch 1"

Deer Running, Sketch 1, Acrylic

"Deer Running, Sketch 2"

Deer Running, Sketch 2, Acrylic

"Deer Running, Sketch 3"

Deer Running, Sketch 3, Acrylic

While mistakes are often blows to the ego, they’re also beautiful learning lessons. And learning art is achieving the knowledge of which mistakes to correct and which ones to keep. Did you know that good paintings are full of wonderful accidents that the artist refused to fix?

TV painter Bob Ross called his mistakes “happy accidents” because they sparked his creativity and urged him to try new methods. As you study your subject and the painting process, you must not worry about the results or be afraid to paint something “ugly.” As you grow, you will learn how to spot errors and mistakes and problems in your art and find solutions for correcting them. There are many how-to books and Internet sites that will teach you. Just look for their banner headlines:


While you paint, learn not to think too much about the result. Set yourself a goal, but don’t force the painting along. When you’re painting, lose yourself in the act of applying a variety of dark and light and big and small brushstrokes of color that tell different stories within the big picture. Painting, like writing or making music, is about emotions and the landscape they create. The result won’t be perfect, but it will be true.

"People Reading Stock Exchange"

People Reading Stock Exchange, Norman Rockwell

No matter what, allow yourself to make mistakes and learn from them, like Norman Rockwell did when he mistakenly painted the three-legged boy in this picture of an illustration he did for The Saturday Evening Post. Yes, the boy in the red shirt has three legs. Two with their knees locked, and a third with the knee bent so that he can rest his hand on it. Rockwell was embarrassed, naturally, when the error was printed for the multitude of Post subscribers to see, but he never repeated this mistake in any of his 4,000-plus paintings.

Never stop learning.


July 24, 2012
Steve Campbell

"Road Traveler"

Road Traveler, Watercolor/Gouache on paper, 1985

My first job was selling the Grit newspaper on weekends. I was 9. During that time I began selling greeting cards for a company that advertised on the back pages of my favorite comic books. I made enough money to buy a bicycle and a pair of roller skates. I used the bike to help me deliver newspapers faster. The skates were shared with my younger brothers; they had no income other than their weekly 25 cents allowance.

I sold enough cards to purchase some colored pencils and drawing paper. Then I made my own greeting cards—Merry Christmas, Happy Easter, Get Well Soon, etc.—and gave them out for free to my newspaper customers. Later I learned my handcrafted cards were treasured by many customers for the artwork.

I gave away a lot of my art as gifts, even when I became an adult. “That’s not a good business venture,” an acquaintance told me when I started my career as an artist. He asked how I thought giving away my art could be profitable.

All my gifts are given with love, and my profit is the smile on people’s faces when I give them my art as gifts. Being an artist isn’t always about making money.

On the other hand, the painting I’ve included in this post is one I gave to a brother for his birthday. That was 1985; I was 28. Twenty-seven years later it is proudly displayed in his home with the other paintings he has received from me. During that time his friends told their friends about my artwork, word got around and I made money selling my art to them and their friends, and then to their friends, and so on.

Not profitable? I suppose it’s how you define the word.

A Brief Pause in an Apple Orchard

May 21, 2012
Steve Campbell

Apple Orchard

Apple Orchard, Oil Painting

In small acreage on a hilly clearing,
Sunny morning shines golden on chalky-pink blossoms;
I pause and prolong my hike to watch sunbeams lick away dewdrops
Soaking in shaded greenery of an apple orchard.

Craggy, crabby branches nod jaggedly at a breeze dashing across the way;
Wasps complain from gray papery hives swaying above me;
A hummingbird pauses and peeks inside a blossom—
Perhaps she smells the jellies, pies and cider clearly on my mind.

I head away on journey once more,
Longing to return and sample ripe fruit from the trees.

© 2006

Canada Geese, Swamp Geese

May 5, 2012
Steve Campbell

Canada Geese

Canada Geese, Swamp Geese, Oil Painting

Painting 1991: Winter Cabin

December 29, 2011
Steve Campbell

Winter Cabin

Winter Cabin, Oil Painting, 1991

Autumn Woods Sketch

December 5, 2011
Steve Campbell

A study from the 1990s; oil on canvas board

Hungry Fox

November 19, 2011
Steve Campbell

Hungry Fox

Hungy Fox, Acrylic Painting

Inside, Looking Out

November 11, 2011
Steve Campbell

Inside, Looking Out

Inside, Looking Out, Oil Painting

Buck Portrait

November 3, 2011
Steve Campbell

Buck Portrait
Watercolor/Gouache on canvas board
Circa 1985

Cloud Ruler

October 26, 2011
Steve Campbell

Cloud Ruler

Cloud Ruler, Acrylic Painting


October 18, 2011
Steve Campbell

Cow and landscape study, 1990; oil on canvas board

Spirit in the Woods

October 10, 2011
Steve Campbell

Spirit in the Woods

Spirit in the Woods, Acrylic Painting

Church and Field Study, 1989

July 30, 2011
Steve Campbell

Copy of a painting I saw in a magazine photo, Oil on canvas board

Sketches in the Sun

July 22, 2011
Steve Campbell

Sketches in the Sun

Sketches in the Sun, Oil Painting, circa 2002

Howling in the Sky

July 14, 2011
Steve Campbell

Spirit in the Sky

Spirit in the Sky, Acrylic Painting, circa 1996

Creek and Rocks

June 28, 2011
Steve Campbell

Creek and rocks study, watercolor

Acrylic Skyscape Painting

June 12, 2011
Steve Campbell

Country Sky

Country Sky, Acrylic Painting, circa 1990

1999: Artist at Work

June 4, 2011
Steve Campbell

Artist at Work

1999: Artist at Work

Painting 1991: Allegheny Evening

May 19, 2011
Steve Campbell

Allegheny Evening

Allegheny Evening, Oil Painting, 1991

Painting 1989: Beaver-Dam Bear

May 11, 2011
Steve Campbell

Beaverdam Bear

Beaver-Dam Bear, Acrylic Painting, 1989

Waterfall Study

April 17, 2011
Steve Campbell

Waterfall Study
Oil on canvas board


April 9, 2011
Steve Campbell

Watercolor on paper

Clouds Study

April 1, 2011
Steve Campbell

Clouds Study – Storm clouds, sunset
Oil on canvas board

Oak Sketch

March 24, 2011
Steve Campbell

Oak Sketch
Oil on canvas board

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