Posts Tagged ‘acrylic painting’

Art takes balls header

May 24, 2013



The title isn’t meant to imply anything about the gender of an artist. (Most female artists I know have cojones at least as big as the male ones.)

I’m talking about courage and stamina.

I used to say one of my goals with painting was to get looser and freer with my use of paint. A fellow painter pointed out that ‘looseness’ is not actually an end in itself, and I realized that’s true. So I restated my goal: I aim for boldness, authenticity and courage in my work. The tendency among most of us humans is to attempt to get it right, and get approval for having done it right. Being an artist requires one to give up the need for approval (as much as that’s possible while living in relationship with other beings) and to look instead to your own heart and instincts as the arbiter of what is good and satisfying in your work.

I don’t say that’s easy or that I’m always successful at it, but I have found that I’m most excited and happy with my art when I’m painting in bold, expansive strokes, rather than using a small brush to get some tiny detail just right.

Or, to put it another way, big and bold allows me to say what I want to say with more honesty and power than little and careful.

This is not easy. It takes, like I said, courage and stamina.

To complicate things, as an artist you’re fighting on two fronts. One is the battle at the easel, where you’re always aware of the risk that your next big, audacious brushstroke could destroy hours of work (but playing it safe is even worse!). The other is the battle to stay bold and courageous and keep painting, year in and year out, even when nobody is buying your work and it appears to you that nobody even likes it.

It takes courage and stamina. Or, more succinctly, balls.

It’s true. If you’re doing it right, Art Takes Balls.

I guess I’ve just announced that I do, indeed, have a pair. So with no further ado, allow me to share with you the latest examples of my, uh, ballsiness…


Thanks not only to my growing boldness but also the encouragement of my friend John, an artist and gallery representative (who reminded me that big paintings look much better on gallery walls!), I paint a lot bigger than I used to. When I decided to do a painting of my old friend and 1990s-era model Ramses, I cut a BIG piece of canvas and tacked it up on my easel.

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This pre-digital 1993 shot of Ramses was on a 35mm slide, so I had to scan it. Not the best image quality, but good enough for me to work from.

It takes a lot of determination for me to let go and just splash paint onto the canvas. Letting go of control has never been easy for me! So I prepare by looking at lots of artists whose work is full of expressive power. Not only does this inspire me and get me excited, it also gives me permission to let go of the need to do it right and the need to get approval. If they did it, I can do it.

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As usual, I drew the outlines of the figure onto the canvas with pencil, then painted over it with a wash. Sometimes I do a single color over the whole painting; other times, as here, I start laying in some of the actual colors I’ll use in the painting.

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Here (above) is where I diverged from my usual routine: Taking inspiration from the works of other artists I’d been looking at to prepare for this painting, I used medium to thin my acrylic paint way down, so that when I applied it to the canvas, it would drip and run. I did this with some purple mixes along the top edge, so they would drip down across the entire canvas. I’ve seen this in lots of other artists’ work and always loved the energy of it, but never before had the balls to really commit to it in my own painting. As I stood back and watched the paint run, I felt triumphant. I also felt apprehensive because I’d never done this before. Could I really pull off a painting this loose and out of control?

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It turns out, yes, I could, but only by staying really conscious of what I was doing every step of the way. I did this by constantly referring back to the works of other artists I’m looking at while doing this painting. Their works are inspiring and guiding me through this process, and providing me with constant reminders to take chances and be willing to totally mess up the painting in return for a big, bold, energetic series of brushstrokes.


Above is the finished painting. I’m pleased with it and proud of how much energy it has. I perhaps over-finished the figure a bit, but not too much. This painting was a definite step forward for me and I notice that I don’t get tired of looking at it…definitely a good sign.


It’s not an easy thing to do, given the way the human eye and mind work, but it’s essential to creating good art. I’m talking about seeing the big shapes. We’re so used to looking at detail, focusing on the parts that interest us most, that seeing the big picture is a challenge. So I use technology to help me.

I like to tweak my source photo in Photoshop to help me see the big shapes and skip the details. I do this by using a filter called Median to blur the image in a way that I like. I can still see the big shapes but the details are mostly gone. Then I use another filter called Posterize to reduce the number of colors (or values, if you’re working in black and white) in the image. I’m left with a nice simplified bunch of basic abstract shapes.

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Left side is the untweaked photo. On the right, the Median filter then Posterize have been applied.

My source image for this painting was a photograph I shot of Eduardo lying on a blanket on the lanai of the Ipanema Towers apartment in Rio. I liked the pose, the composition, the lighting, the colors of this image, and as I tweaked it in Photoshop, I liked it even better.

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Above, you can see the pencil sketch on canvas. I’ve used the tweaked photograph to map out the basic areas of color. My goal is to keep to those simplified shapes all through the painting.

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In photos 2 and 3 above, you can see my progress. I began with a purple wash, then after that dried I began painting in flat areas of color. As always with this approach, I’m staying aware that acrylic paints are lighter when wet than when dry, so sometimes I have to repaint an area that’s turned out to be too dark, or not dark enough, once it’s dried (5 to 10 minutes later, unless it’s very thick). In this painting I had the most issues with the blanket and had to repaint some areas a couple of times. But I’ve gotten a lot better than I used to be at gauging the amount of value change that’s going to happen after the paint dries.

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In the above photo everything is in place, pretty much. What needs to be done now is balancing. Especially balancing the values (light vs. dark) and the colors (warm vs. cool). In a painting like this that’s a dance that can take a while, with lots of painting or repainting an area, then waiting for the paint to dry, then standing WAY back to see if it worked.


Above, the final painting. As you can see, one of the big changes I made was to make the middle tones of the body warmer, both the reds and greens. It’s just a matter of trying stuff out, and keeping what works. I call this one “Ipanema Towers 15.”


When I was in the Dominican Republic doing the Caribbean Boys Gone Wild shoot, my favorite model of the 4 turned out to be Leandro. There was just something about him that was my type: a sweet, shy, handsome boy, with a devilish exhibitionist lurking just underneath. I shot several images of him with a towel over his shoulder, leaning against a coconut palm, and they captured him in a way that I really liked. I chose one of these shots for my next painting.

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This image is not a great photograph (it’s not even in focus!), but I like the feeling of it, the way it captures Leandro and that moment in time, and that’s what I’m going for as I turn it into a painting.


No in-progress shots on this one, since it happened in one feverish burst of creativity. One of my new artistic tools is acrylic colors that are not in a tube but in a squeeze bottle . The dripping I accomplished in the Ramses painting above was done by adding lots of medium to tube paints. But I’ve since begun using these very liquid acrylic paints. They’re formulated to be runny and drippy and just messy as hell…which is exactly what I need. That’s the type of paint I began using in this painting, and I love what happened. In the past when I’ve painted with tube colors (which are a lot thicker and not at all runny), I like the buildup of paint, the impasto possibilities, but what I don’t like is the way the paint kind of fights you as you’re applying it. Discovering these new more-liquid paints has been wonderful! I love the ease with which I can apply a big, runny splash of paint. There’s one fewer barrier between me and just PAINTING. Which worked out very well for me in the above work, which I entitled “Dominican Boy with Towel.”


The painting that followed Leandro on a Dominican beach was a painting of a Dominican beach itself. I shot lots of pictures of beautiful young men in the D.R., but I also got a lot of wonderful photographs of the place itself. So many, in fact, that it was hard to choose one for a landscape painting. I picked one almost at random, since there were so many good ones. The one I chose is of a place called Playa Bonita, near the town of Las Terrenas. It’s late afternoon so the shadows of the coconut palms are long, and there’s a purpling of the distant sky—great ingredients for a rich, atmospheric painting.

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Here's the original photograph of Playa Bonita in the late afternoon.


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Here's the photo prepared for painting. As usual I've blurred it with median to remove detail, then posterized it to narrow down the range of colors and values.

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Here's a greyscale (de-saturated) version of the tweaked photo. This version is very useful for reference while I'm painting. Removing the color makes it that much easier to see the big shapes and nothing else.

As I’ve said many times in many blog entries, tweaking the image in the way I’ve done above makes it simpler and removes details, which makes it easier for me to see the BIG SHAPES. If you can get the big shapes right, and get the values (lights and darks) right in relationship to each other, you’ve pretty much got it made, painting-wise.

Playabonita inprog1

To my surprise, after laying in the basic shapes and colors rather quickly, I stood back and everything had kind of fallen into place. This is what happens when you get the big shapes and the values right---everything falls into place.

When you’re painting big shapes and painting energetically, a painting can come together pretty quickly. Of course it can also completely collapse pretty quickly, and that happens to me too (I just don’t usually put those in a blog!). This was one of those that came together pretty quickly. A lot of that was because I was pretty disciplined about painting only the big shapes, almost no small details—maybe a palm frond sticking up here and there just to suggest what kind of trees you’re seeing, but everything else is big, broad brushstrokes. Another help is the black-and-white version of the image. Sometimes color gets in the way of seeing the big shapes, and a greyscale image can clarify things.


Above is the final painting, “Playa Bonita.” As you can see, I didn’t have to do too much after the basic block-in. When a painting comes together this quickly and almost efforlessly, it’s like magic. It makes you forget (almost) all those times when everything just falls apart and you don’t have a clue why the painting didn’t work!


I’ve done quite a few paintings and drawings of Kaimana, but every time I go back to my photographs of him, I discover great images that I haven’t painted yet. Below is one of them.

1615 sourceimage

I approached this painting in the same way I’ve been approaching all my paintings lately: as an abstract work that just happens to have some recognizable realistic elements. Of course when I’m finished it usually looks pretty realistic, but what’s important is that while I’m painting, I’m paying more attention to how the colors and shapes and paintstrokes are feeling and interacting than how close the painting is to the source photo. This is another great advantage of paying attention only to the big shapes: there are no details to cramp your style. Or very few, anyway. As I keep saying, when you get the big shapes right, the details fall into place. Or put another way, the details end up getting filled in by the viewer.

1615 inprog1

You can see by the above in-progress shot of the painting that I’m not focusing on any one area; I’m working all over the painting. This used to be something I had trouble remembering to do. Nowadays I do it without even thinking about it. This is great progress for me, and more evidence that I’m looking at the big shapes, the entire composition, almost constantly. Which is great because there’s much less chance it’ll get out of balance.

An interesting thing that happened in the course of this painting was what I did with the water. When I looked at the photograph, the water looked kind of uninteresting and I thought, uh-oh, what am I gonna do with that water? But as I was painting, I was thinking abstractly, and I knew the area needed some visual interest, so I found myself breaking up the water area with bold brushstrokes and strong darks and strong lights. Not accurate but turned out to be totally right for the composition.


Above is the finished painting. (Difference in colors between in-progress shot and finished painting is due to the difference between shooting something with a camera and scanning it. The finished work, which was scanned, is much closer to the true colors.) I call this one “Hawaiian Nude with Surfboard.”

Painting buzios header

March 21, 2012



I did a Brazilian beach painting and cityscape back in 1995 called Barra.

Barra is the name of my favorite beach in the Bahian city of Salvador. I liked the painting a lot at the time, and over the years I’ve grown to like it even more. Many times I’ve thought, I wish I could do one of those again.

Meaning, another tropical cityscape with that kind of strength and visual interest and just the right amount of whimsy.


Looking back at my own work for inspiration: Barra, a 1995 painting I did of a beach in the Bahian city of Salvador.

But painting doesn’t work that way. At least it doesn’t for me. Capturing the magic that happened with Barra again was something that would happen when it was time for it to happen.

As you know, I’ve recently been living through a Nebraska winter for the first time in 41 years. And as you also know if you’re a regular reader of my blog, it’s been a blessing in disguise, both forcing and allowing me to focus on my art in a way I haven’t for over 20 years.

I’ve been painting or drawing every day for many months now, and to say I’m warmed up and in the groove would be an understatement. I’m hot. I’m cooking. But wait! That doesn’t mean everything I try works out. What it means is, I take bigger chances, and more often. Consequently I’m growing like crazy.

So painting ideas that would have scared me or put me off in the past, I now look at and go, okay, WTF, let’s try it. That’s how I came to do a painting of Búzios.


I’d visited Brazil lots of times, but it wasn’t until my 2008 trip there with my friend Steph that I visited Búzios (if you want, you can read about that trip—Búzios is just a small part of it—here).

Búzios was a little fishing village in the 1950s when French movie star Brigitte Bardot discovered it and soon the rest of the world did, too. Now it’s a bit different, with Gucci and Prada stores instead of little fishing shacks. But it still has charm and a lot of natural beauty. Steph and I enjoyed our time there a lot, and I shot quite a few photographs.

I was looking at some of those photographs a couple of weeks ago when the idea struck. Looking at the way the houses climbed up the hill, with palm trees peeking out, I started to see something that excited me. I could picture the kind of painting I wanted to do, and it was definitely the same flavor as I’d found when I painted Barra back in 1995. But the photograph was lacking something. There was no beach in it.

Buzios top

This was the photograph that first triggered the idea of a Búzios painting. But it needed something.

So I found a second photograph taken at about the same time which did have the beach in it. Then, using one of my favorite creative tools, Photoshop, I cut and pasted the 2 photographs together.

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This photograph of the actual beach gave me the rest of the visual elements I needed.

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I put the houses on the hill and the beach together into one image.

The result was not strictly realistic, of course, but it did capture the image of Búzios I’d had in my mind since my visit there. It gave me a starting point for my painting. Below is the first rough sketch I did of my idea for the composition.

Buzios sm 01 border


I’ve never been much good at drawing buildings. They’ve just never excited me. But I knew that in order to make this painting work, I needed to improve my house-drawing abilities. I didn’t need to learn to make an architectural drawing, but I did need some practice in capturing the personality of a house, and of a group of houses on a hill. I had a picture in my mind of the kind of whimsical, crazy-angled houses I wanted to put on that hill, but I didn’t yet know how to draw them. So I dived in and began sketching.

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The first sketches I did were fairly realistic, since I needed to get a feeling for which details should be left in and which could be left out and still keep the feeling of the building.

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As I continued, the buildings got less detailed and more fanciful. And I gradually got more confident. I did another compositional study:

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This time I indicated some boats in the foreground.

Then, as I got closer to actually tackling the painting, I decided to do a color acrylic sketch.

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With this acrylic sketch I got to try out some of the sketch ideas in painting form.

I wasn’t that happy with the acrylic sketch, but it helped me by showing me where I didn’t want to go with the painting. I wanted less detail and less 3-dimensionality. I wanted the painting to be flatter, more about line and color, and less about realism.

Despite that, I still felt the need to do a house painting that showed what I’d learned over the past few days of sketching, so I took a piece of Strathmore bristol stock and tacked it up on my easel and did a little painting of a tropical house (below). It was kind of fun, but it was pretty intense, too…lots of precision and detail—the exact opposite of what I was intending for the painting I was about to do.


If you take another look at the pencil sketches above, you'll find the inspiration for this little tropical house.

For some reason I still feel like I have to ‘pay my dues’ from time to time by doing something detailed and precise, thereby earning the right to do something light, fluid and whimsical. Silly, I know. But I still do it.


Now that I had paid my dues I finally felt ready to begin the painting. I got up knowing that today was the day. It was with great trepidation that I began sketching onto a big piece of canvas that morning. I felt like I was biting off a lot with this one. But I knew I had to take the plunge.

And magic began to happen. The drawing almost did itself. I was thrilled that all the preparatory work I’d done seemed to be paying off. I know I wouldn’t have been able to keep things so bold, simple and clean if I hadn’t done all those sketches of buildings that weren’t bold, simple and clean.

When I finished drawing the trees and buildings and began on the beach, I ‘saw’ a guy working on his boat and another tourist-type guy standing watching him, and it was as if I’d always known I would put those figures in. Except I hadn’t known it consciously. But there they were, and they fit perfectly.

The next step was to ‘ink’ it, using black acrylic paint to go over the lines of the drawing.

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The next step, as usual, was to paint a wash of purplish-brown over the inked drawing, and wait for that to dry. While it dried I began mixing colors.

Often in these step-by-step recountings of my studio process, I talk about the difficulties I encountered in a particular painting and how I overcame them. But sometimes, everything just falls into place. This was one of those (magical) times.

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Not that I wasn’t making decisions all the time as I went along. For instance, I knew that I wanted to reserve the whitest white of the houses on the hill for the lower center, because I knew that white would draw the eye. So I consciously chose which group of houses would be the focal point on the hill. Another thing that happened in the course of the drawing was realizing I needed one of the palm trees to be another focal point, so I made the lower right palm tree the biggest, closest tree and made it stand out slightly in front of the background. There’s always gotta be this dance between the foreground and the background, or between the focal point and the stuff around it that makes it the focal point.

Of course all those subdominant focal points are there to make an interesting path for the eye to end up at the dominant focal point, which is the guy in the hat standing on the beach. Which I didn’t even put in until I was actually laying in the final drawing on the canvas. This is why I sometimes say, I really don’t know what I’m doing. I mean, I do know what I’m doing, but it’s like my body knows, not my conscious mind, and somehow, more often than not, I end up doing what works.

There were little adjustments that needed to be made as I finished the painting, but the big stuff had already been worked out. Just about 1 week after I first started doing rough sketches, I completed the painting I call “Búzios.”


The finished painting: Búzios.

LINK: Douglas Simonson Gallery: Paintings

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Click here to access all entries in Douglas Simonson’s “On the Road” Series

October 18, 2012

I had such a good experience painting “Steve with Towel” using sponges (see Painting Without Brushes), I decided to undertake something more challenging.

I was looking through my photos of Rob in Palm Springs and found one that I really liked. Not a nude, but that’s okay with me; these days I’m thinking more about gallery shows and I’m liking the idea of doing works with a broader appeal. I’ve painted so many frontal nudes in my career I finally feel I can do something less confronting without feeling like I’ve compromised.

Source 1

Above is the photograph I decided to use for my next painting. This is an image I wouldn’t have undertaken not too long ago. You know I love painting the figure with just a plain blue (or yellow or orange or whatever) background, so all I have to deal with is the face and figure. There’s a whole lot more going on in this one.

But there’s been a tectonic shift in my painter’s view of the world in the last several weeks, and that’s because of my new understanding of color. The previous two paintings and lots of practice pieces in between have really cemented my new awareness of color temperature (warm vs. cool).

Because of this, I look at this image and see relationships I wouldn’t have seen in the past. Instead of just seeing dark greens in the background, I now see COOL dark greens. And I see the warmer greens against the cooler ones. In the middle ground I see the cool purples and the warmer greens and oranges. In the pool I see the difference between the cool blues and the warmer blue-greens. And on the figure, I see the purples and greens in the shadow areas. What used to be a sea of complexity that overwhelmed me is now a set of puzzle pieces I feel competent to put together!

Source 2

But to make it even easier for me to see and deal with all the puzzle pieces, I did my usual Photoshop tweaking of the image. Using the Posterize filter, I altered the image so that I had a clearer breakdown of both values (light and dark) and hue (colors). Then, with both the unaltered photo and the tweaked version as references, I have more information available. (Compare the water in the pool in the unaltered photo and the tweaked one and see how much easier it is to see what’s going on. Now it’s possible to see it as abstract colored shapes. That is the way you have to see it in order to paint it.)

This was to be another big, bold sponge painting, so I cut myself a piece of canvas that would give me plenty of room to work. The dimensions for the painting are 36×48 (91x121cm), or 3 feet by 4 feet. A big painting, for me.

(One of the issues for me in the past with attempting a complex image like this was that there was a lot of detail, and a lot of differing kinds of detail. That’s no fun when you’re painting small. But until recently I hadn’t even allowed myself to consider painting really big. Thank goodness I got over that! Because an image like this becomes MUCH easier (and more fun) when it’s big enough that you’re not having to work into tiny, detailed areas to get something right. Of course with sponges you don’t even have the option of doing tiny, detailed areas—and that’s a good thing.)



Above you can see the initial reference drawing, then the next stage where I’ve done a brownish wash over the whole painting, then begun laying in the background and some of the water in the pool. I’m using sponges for all of this and doing my best to keep it really loose—although I got a little carried away and did more detail than I intended on some of the plants. They didn’t need to be that finished this early in the game. But that’s okay; that will all be changed when the painting is more complete anyway.



In the above in-progress photos you can see I’ve blocked in more of the pool and begun laying in some flesh tones to see how it’s all going to fit together. It’s never a good idea to finish one area of a painting at a time—it’s much better to skip around and work in several areas of the painting, because every time you add color or values to one area, it changes the areas around it. A painting is a dynamic thing; you can’t expect it to ‘hold still’ while you’re finishing one area of it. When you work all over the painting there’s a much better chance it will all work well together in the end.


At this point I have been working on the painting for a couple of days. You can see it’s starting to come together. Mixing the colors has been a challenge. Knowing what I now know about warm and cool and how they alternate, it’s been much easier than it would have been in the past. But it’s still been challenging, and often I’ve found when I apply the shade I’ve just mixed on my palette, it’s not right and I have to try again. This has been especially true of the fleshtones, because in this painting, mostly they’re not what we think of as flesh tones at all. Instead, they’re cool blue-greens and warm lavenders, with a bit of orange and some yellows in the highlights.


The next day, I bring the work further toward completion by finishing more of the background, the water in the pool (notice I’ve added the white splashes), and continuing to work on Rob’s flesh tones. I had to paint, and repaint, and repaint again, to get just the right colors and values in his body. The light is rather complicated, plus with acrylics they always dry darker so sometimes it’ll look right when it’s wet, but then it dries and you realize you have to repaint it—AGAIN.

Approximately 5 days after beginning it, I finish the painting.


The finished painting, entitled 'Palm Springs, 6 PM.'

Final touches included getting the flesh tones just right (FINALLY!), adding the chrome railing, and adding some final touches in the foliage in the background. I’ve decided to call it ‘Palm Springs 6pm’. I feel it’s a big breakthrough in several ways: the size of it, the fact that I did such a complex work using only sponges (and not getting caught up in detail!), and the fact that I was able to use my increasing awareness of color temperature to bring more life to the image.

Click here to access all entries in Douglas Simonson’s “On the Road” Series

Paintingwithoutbrushes head

Click here to access all entries in Douglas Simonson’s “On the Road” Series

October 12, 2012

This is the story of a large figurative painting I did using no brushes, only sponges.

I’ve found sponges help me with one of my major challenges: getting too careful and picky with my paintings. Just having a big sponge dripping with paint in my hand instead of a brush puts me in the right state of mind to place big, bold strokes and take my chances rather than trying to control everything.

This wasn’t the first time I’d used sponges instead of brushes. I did a painting in June 2009 called “Late Afternoon at Queen’s Surf” (below) which was painted mostly with a single small kitchen sponge (I did use brushes for the finishing phase of this painting).


More recently, just a few weeks ago, I did a piece called “Octopus Plant” (below) which I painted entirely with sponges, except for a very few final-touch brushstrokes. I loved the way using sponges kept my paint application free and energetic in this piece. It gave the finished work a nice, light-filled vitality.


Also, in the week before starting the painting discussed in this blog, I did several small acrylic-on-canvas studies using sponges, exploring the possibilities. So when I began this painting I was feeling fairly confident of my ability to put paint on the canvas with a sponge, and my willingness to give up some degree of control in return for a bold vitality.

However, as it turned out, what I learned in the process of doing this painting went way beyond expanding my sponge-painting abilities.

There are 3 major painting challenges that came up for me in the course of doing this painting:

Values (Light vs. Dark)
Color Temperature (Warm vs. Cool)
Edges (Hard vs. Soft)

For this challenge I chose a horizontal image similar to my previous large painting, Eduardo na Luz (which you can read about in my Going Big blog entry) in that it’s just the head and upper body. The image I settled on was a photograph of Steve Chen taken during our Malibu photo shoot last year. 

Stevechen source 3up

As usual, I printed out several versions of the reference image: one conventional continuous-tone color version, one posterized, and a greyscale version of the posterized image. As I’ve explained in other blog entries, the posterization allows me to see the color breakdown in ways I might not see so well just looking at the conventional photograph. It also makes it easier to see the warm colors and the cool colors.

(A very condensed note on my understanding of warm vs. cool: When you’ve got warm light—a sunny day, for instance—you’ll have cool shadows. So if your highlights go toward yellow or orange, your shadows will tend toward purple or blue. The reverse is also true: cool light—a cloudy day, for instance—tends to produce warm shadows. I’ve known about warm vs. cool for many years but only recently have I really admitted to myself how important it is, and I’ve started paying a LOT more attention to it. That wound up making a big difference in this painting.)

The greyscale version of the image lets me see values more clearly. This, like warm vs. cool, is something of which I’ve always known the importance, but only recently have I expanded my ability to see and focus on the really subtle value differences you find in an image. In the painting I did previous to this one, Eduardo na Luz, I really had to pay attention to values. (See Trying to Hit a Moving Target in the Going Big blog entry.) In the course of that painting, I spent a lot of time getting better at SEEING the differences in values. I was determined to cut down the number of times I had to repaint different passages in the painting. Because I was so focused on this, I really made progress in my ability to see microscopically small variations in value. That made a big difference on Eduardo na Luz, and an even bigger difference on the painting you’re reading about here.


Here's the selection of sponges I used for the painting.

In the image above you see a variety of kitchen sponges I bought at a grocery store. I bought small and large sponges, and some I cut in half so I would have more variety to work with…since I’m still discovering what it’s like to paint with sponges. The variety you see here has proven to work pretty well.

When I paint with a brush, I tend to use 1 or 2 brushes throughout the whole painting, which means that every time I change colors I have to rinse the brush clean and dry it, then dip into the next color.

With sponges, I have 4 corners on each sponge, so I can move from sponge to sponge without cleaning them; one sponge corner is for the darkest purple, for instance, and another one for the lighter purple, another for medium flesh, etc. I end up with a pile of sponges beside my palette, each one carrying different colors of paint on its corners. I paint with the sponges damp (but not soaking), so the paint on them tends to stay wet for quite a while, which is nice.

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I started out in my usual way, drawing the image roughly onto the canvas, then doing a dark wash (dioxazine purple + burnt umber) over the entire area. Using a sponge, of course. In the above image you see the beginning of my application of the wash.

1549 inprog2

Here’s the next phase. I decided to use the brown-purple wash for everything but the figure itself; for that I chose a burnt-sienna (with a bit of ultramarine blue added to grey it down a bit) wash, thinking a reddish-brown tone under the fleshtones would probably be a good idea. By the way, applying a wash over a big area is a whole lot faster and easier with a sponge!

1549 inprog3

Next I mixed up a blue for the background. My favorite blue mixture these days is ultramarine blue with a touch of phthalo blue. So first I took a sponge and laid that in. What fun to have that big, broad sponge to lay in those large areas. I used big, broad movements, using my whole upper body. And was rewarded with some nice-looking ‘brushwork.’ Then I mixed some fleshtone—a medium, not too light and not too dark—and laid in the first fleshtones. I was VERY determined to not get too careful, to keep the strokes big and bold, and I think I did pretty well. One thing I’ve always been good at is squinting—my mom taught me that—so that I see how it’s looking without the distraction of the details. And I really had to do that even more than usual with this stage of this painting.

As soon as I laid in the fleshtones, I stood back (WAY back) from the painting and thought, “YES!” I really liked the energy of the work already. A good sign.

Next I mixed some colors for the towel. Usually painting something like a towel is boring for me. But this time I actually had fun! Using sponges, I was able to paint whole big sections of the towel quickly. Plus, I was less tempted than usual to get picky with it. And because I’ve gotten much better at judging values lately, I was able to better manage a difficult part of the painting, the greys on the towel (the shadowed areas of the white stripes). I took a couple of strokes with my carefully judged greys and boom, the towel started to look three-dimensional. Having a little bit of that kind of ‘magic’ happen early in the painting is very encouraging and really helps!

1549 inprog4

After painting the towel I went into the shadows. In my photograph I saw some very warm reddish tones in the shadows on the left-hand side of the body so I put some of those in. At this point I was not yet sure about those, knowing I would need to wait for them to dry, and to get some other color in around them, before knowing whether they would be okay without further work.

At this point I felt the painting was looking pretty good. I still wanted to do a lot to it, but I also felt that I could stop totally at this point and still have something I liked. That’s a good feeling. But I was having too much fun to quit. I wanted to see what this would grow into.

1549 inprog6

Next I tackled some of the more subtle areas, like the reflections within the shadows. You’ll see I added some cool (bluish) lighter tones within the shadows, specifically on the left side of the face, in the center of the chest, and under the nearer arm. If you don’t get the values exactly right on these reflection-within-the-shadow colors, they won’t work—so you really have to pay attention. I actually had to repaint these a couple of times before they worked.

1549 inprog7

By now I was actually moving into the final-touches phase. The basics were working so well that very little ‘detail work’ was required to bring the painting to a near-complete level of finish. I’m talking about the eyes, lips, the smaller patterns of lights and darks in various areas. I also went in and added more blue to the background so it was more ‘finished’-looking. I could’ve left it alone but just wanted to finish it more.

Here are some closeups of the final touches I put in to finish the painting.

1549 CU1

I mixed up a very light yellow for highlights, then used an even lighter pink on top of that. Sometimes I do the reverse, with the highest highlights yellow (warm) and the near-highlights a cool pink. I just experiment and see which one works better. Here you can see (on the underarm) the purplish shadows and the warm yellowish-greenish lighter areas within them. Cool shadows with warm reflections within them (which happened here because the sand was reflecting upward) can be magical!

1549 CU3 abs

In the detail above: I enjoyed defining the serratus anterior (the rippled area between the nipple and the lower right edge of the body) with just a few quick strokes of the sponge.

The face became kind of a symphony of warm and cool values. The really reddish shadows are next to the dull greenish in-between shadows which are next to the medium fleshtones which are next to the lighter fleshtones which are next to the yellow and pink highlights. And then there’s the purple triangle under the eye on the right side…a happy accident I knew enough to leave alone.

1549 CU2 head

Notice also on this closeup of the head, something I discovered when I thought I was finished with the painting. I stood back from it and I realized that the whole figure had hard edges all around. This is something that wouldn’t have bothered me even a few weeks ago. But for years I’ve read about how it’s good to lose some edges, to have some edges really sharp and others very soft or even nonexistent, and how that makes things appear more three-dimensional…I’ve read it for years and seen it in others’ work, but never got to the point where I was able to really apply it. But in the moment when I stood back from this painting and saw that it was a bit too ‘cut-out’ looking against the background, I knew I needed to soften some edges. I didn’t do much. I just softened the outline of Steve’s hair on the upper left and on the right just a bit above his ear. Those two very small, subtle touches made a world of difference. I stood back from the painting and suddenly it was more three-dimensional. NOW I decided it really was finished, and I was really happy with it. This one went fast—only took two days!


The finished painting, entitled 'Steve with Towel.' Click on the image to see this work on my website.

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4faces heading

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October 1, 2012

I can never predict what people’s reaction will be to my artworks.

Sometimes a work that I absolutely love doesn’t get much reaction and takes a long time to find a buyer (although I have noticed that there’s always SOMEONE out there who winds up loving the piece as much as I did!). Other times a work that I was lukewarm about turns out to be wildly popular. What do I know? I’m just the guy who paints them, and though it may sound disingenuous, I’m being totally honest when I say, sometimes I don’t know what the hell I’m doing, I just let the painting flow through me. I’m often surprised at what the painting looks like when I’m done.


Forest Spirit, an acrylic-on-paper painting I did in June 2009.

That was the case with a painting I did in the summer of 2009 called Forest Spirit. I kind of made it up as I went along, and I felt some magic happening as I did. I thought, will people like this? And they did! Whatever the painting’s magic is, I’m not the only one that feels it. Just a few weeks after I completed it, the painting sold to a longtime collector of mine, a doctor in California, who fell in love with it.

Three years later, and just a few weeks ago, I got a call from that same doctor telling me he was opening a new private clinic and wondered if I would consider creating several paintings for the lobby/waiting area. He wanted something with the same vibe as Forest Spirit.

Well, this was pretty exciting for me, because I liked Forest Spirit so much myself. So of course I said yes, that sounds like fun! He wanted four faces, two men and two women, representing a fairly wide ethnic diversity.

I got right to work, and this is when the trouble began.

I had conveniently forgotten that I had created Forest Spirit pretty much by accident. It kind of just happened. And here I had committed myself to creating four new paintings with a similar look and feel.

If you’re not a painter or an artist of some kind, maybe you think that once you’ve created something, you can do it again whenever you want to.

Uh…no. It ain’t like that. At least it isn’t with me!

So recreating the energy I was feeling when I painted Forest Spirit was not something I quite knew how to do when I started. But I figured, what the hell, I’ll just start trying stuff and we’ll see what happens! So I started sketching. I used my Wacom tablet and did the sketches in Photoshop because that way I could make lots of changes easily, and try out different color schemes easily and quickly. Below is a sampling of some of the first sketches I did over a period of several weeks.

8up sketches

Some of the first (digital) sketches I did, looking for the magic.

I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting. I knew these were kind of fun and interesting, but I also knew they weren’t yet what I was aiming for. The client was happy with the direction I was going, though, so I kept on sketching.

(One of the things that really helped me, because I liked it so well in Forest Spirit, was making the eyes asymmetrical—or to say it another way, not level. One eye way the hell up there and the other one down here. Calling on the spirit of Picasso, I guess. Anyway, I really liked that, and I decided to stick with it as the one really consistent feature of these images.)

By about the third week I was starting to wonder if I was ever going to get something I really liked, and was also right for the commission. And that’s when some of the magic started to happen. This is how it works when you’re being an artist for a living. You don’t wait for inspiration and magic to strike. You work and work and keep producing so that when the magic and inspiration strike, you’ve already got a pencil (or a digital pen) in your hand. You’ve got the bottle in which you can catch the lightning when it strikes, so to speak.

Below are the first sketches I did that really felt exciting, one of a black man with a shaved head, the other of a blonde woman.

2up tuscan blkman sketches

I finally came up with some sketches I really liked.

With the black man, I just loved the lines and the way they came together. But it wouldn’t have mattered how beautifully they came together if there hadn’t also been a real personality there, and there was.

With the woman, I wasn’t sure exactly what I had, because I’m so not used to drawing female faces! But I felt her personality, and I knew that was the key.

I started on the painting of the black man first, and it went fairly well, until it was almost done, and then I realized I didn’t like what was happening. I was using a naturalistic light-and-shadow approach that made the head look rather 3-dimensional. But what I loved about the image was the way the face came together because of the lines themselves, not an illusion of light and shadow. So I repainted the whole thing and this time made the face flatter. No more light and shadow, just areas of color that allowed the lines to shine forth. And this time I got what I wanted. I call this one “Noble Black Man.” My first painting for the commission was done, and when I sent the image to my client, he liked it. That was great, and gave me energy to tackle number two, the blonde woman.

2up nobleblkman

The light-and-shadow approach (left) didn't work so well for me on this one, so I repainted it with flatter color areas (right), and found I liked it much better.

Painting the woman was really interesting! As you know, I paint male faces and figures almost exclusively, so this was a different experience. One significant change I had to make from the sketch to the painting was the line of the jaw. In the sketch I was doing what I’m used to, giving the face a strong jawline because I’m used to painting men. It took awhile, but I did finally realize that this is a woman, and that jawline and the angularity of the face needed to be softened a bit. She can still be a strong woman and a strong personality, but let’s make her look like a female instead of a male! So I softened the jaw and made the whole shape of her face more feminine. That worked.

I wanted something kind of romantic and soft to go with this beautiful but very strong female face, so I found some pictures of Tuscany and made that the backdrop. I decided to call this one “Tuscan Woman” and when I sent the image to my collector friend, once again he was pleased. Two done and two to go!


Tuscan Woman

There were two left and we decided one would be an Asian woman, and one would be a Caucasian man. I decided to tackle the Asian woman first.

Since I’ve painted so many beautiful Asian men in my career, I thought it shouldn’t be that difficult to paint a beautiful Asian woman. Wrong! This turned out to be a real challenge. I had a kind of feeling for what I wanted, but I just couldn’t picture it. I went online and searched and searched for images that would give me ideas, and I wasn’t able to find what I wanted. I sketched and sketched and sketched, and it just wouldn’t come. Finally, after several days of frustration, I basically just gave up, said fuck it, and started playing, using my imagination rather than trying so hard, and guess what…there she was.

2up exotic jungle girl

On the left, the digital sketch I came up with for the Asian girl. On the right, the finished painting.

My client liked the results of this one as much as I did. I was thrilled. I’d found the magic.

But now I had to do #4. The white guy. The white guy we had decided was going to be a surfer dude. Or maybe I decided that, I don’t remember. Anyway, that was the image I was going for. I had a picture in my mind of what I wanted, a Caucasian guy, probably Australian, with the kind of sun-bleached crazy hair that hot surfer boys have.

I put this one off for several days. I didn’t even start sketching. I was too nervous. I decided to just let myself be and it would happen when it was time.

And sure enough, one morning without even thinking too much about it, I found myself sitting down and sketching the Surfer Dude from some photos I’d found online, and like magic, there he was.


The sketch for the Surfer Dude painting turned out so well I was afraid to paint it for fear I'd lose the magic of the sketch....

And he was gorgeous! I don’t even know how I created this boy but just looking at that face made me melt. That’s pretty amazing.

I so fell in love with the sketch I came up with, I was afraid to paint it for fear I wouldn’t be able to keep the magic of the sketch. But I didn’t let that stop me; I just plunged right in, and started the painting the very next morning after the day I did the rough sketch.

I painted all day, and it was one of those rare experiences where the image seemed to paint itself. I just held onto the brush and let it flow! When I finished I stood back and said, “Wow! Did I paint HIM?”


Surfer Dude, my personal favorite of the 4 paintings. Did you notice one eye is green and one is blue? Just for fun and to make him even more interesting...

I wasn’t surprised, but I WAS relieved and happy when I shared this final image with my client and he loved it as much as I did. Which meant I had successfully completed the commission.

4faces heading notype

Here are all 4 of the paintings together. As I write this, my Noble Black Man, Tuscan Woman, Exotic Jungle Girl and Surfer Dude have all been rolled up and put in a tube (a big tube—each of these works is 2 feet by 3 feet) and sent off to their new home. I haven’t seen the room where they’ll be hanging but I know one thing for sure—they’ll add a whole lot of energy and personality and beauty! I’m grateful I got to explore this side of myself—and proud that I was able to rise to the occasion and create 4 works that I like and were also just what the collector was hoping for.

Click here to access all entries in Douglas Simonson’s “On the Road” Series

Getting big with eduardo

Click here to access all entries in Douglas Simonson’s “On the Road” Series


September 25, 2012


After building a 32-year art career with minimal gallery exposure, and proud of my independence, I now find myself thinking about galleries in a new way.

I’ve never had much luck with, or truck with, galleries, for one simple reason: I’ve focused on the male nude my whole career. And not quiet, discreet male nudes, no. Full-frontal, in-your-face male nudes have always been my specialty. I felt it was my duty to be the artist who dared to paint what others were afraid of.

It’s been very satisfying and I wouldn’t change a thing. But obviously a career like mine was not built on gallery shows.

All that said, my attitudes in this area are changing. Recently I’ve noticed I feel less need to be the standard bearer for the male nude in contemporary fine art. In many ways, I’ve said what I had to say. I find my range of subject matter is expanding and opening up—as I’ve been expanding and opening up.

And it’s been pointed out to me by someone who knows me and my work, and also has a lot of experience in the world of galleries, that a relationship with the right gallery could not only achieve more widespread recognition for my work, it could also make my life easier and give me even more freedom.

It’s not so much about making more money. I’ve survived the hard times and my business is beginning to prosper again, and I’m grateful for that. No, it’s more about being in a whole new phase, and letting go of old prejudices and limitations.


It was also pointed out to me that galleries like an artist who can give them big, dramatic works that jump off a gallery wall. BIG PAINTINGS! This totally makes sense but it just hadn’t occurred to me—I was always so focused on doing work that would be easy to ship. Anyway, when I heard that, something clicked inside me. I got excited about doing something BIG.

Edu9733 fullimage source

This was the image I chose to start with for my REALLY BIG PAINTING.

Sometimes you have to stop being sensible and just go for it. You’ve heard this from me before. My whole journey is about those moments when I wake up to another area of my life where I’ve been playing small, and decide to get big. This is another one of those, only in this case it’s literal.

So I took out my roll of canvas and cut out a 3-foot by 5-foot rectangle. This was the biggest piece that would fit on my easel. Wow, I thought, as I wrestled with it, tacking it onto the corkboard, this is big!


I cropped the image for a nice horizontal-format closeup that focused on Eduardo's mood. Then I posterized the image to break the values into flat areas of color.

I had already picked out an image I wanted to do, a closeup of an Eduardo photograph from our photo shoot in Rio. This quiet, contemplative moment had just the feeling I wanted. I was excited to see what its impact would be as a huge painting.

As I penciled in the underdrawing, I started to get nervous. I realized how much resistance I had to painting something this big. If it didn’t work, it would be a BIG failure. That was scary. But I also know that SCARY is just a label the mind sometimes attaches to EXCITING.

Edu na luz inprog1

Here I've just finished the pencil drawing and I'm ready to start putting paint onto the canvas.

I really wanted to do something loose and bold and filled with dramatic brushstrokes, but as I drew the image onto the canvas, I realized that I had bitten off enough just by choosing to do something this big. My goal was to make the painting work at this size, and the loose, bold brushwork would have to wait for upcoming works. So I chose to use an approach I’ve had some experience with: specifically, a posterized look, with flat areas of color. This is the approach I used with one of the few really large paintings I’ve done in the past, Gato, a closeup portrait of Marcus.


One of the biggest paintings I'd done previously, a closeup of Marcus entitled Gato.


With a painting like this, where the areas of color are discrete and distinct from each other, the values (lightness/darkness) are very close. That makes this a big challenge when you’re painting in acrylics, because acrylic paints change value significantly when they dry. That is, they’re light when they’re wet and darker when they dry. So laying down one color next to another on the canvas, unless they’re both completely wet and fresh, will show you a deceptive relationship. With acrylics, you can’t know how 2 areas of color are going to relate until they’re both totally dry.

Edu na luz inprog1a

The beginning of the painting.

What that means in practice with a painting like this one is that every color must be mixed, applied to the canvas, and allowed to dry before you know whether it will work or not. And because the differences in tone are so subtle, usually it doesn’t work the first time—it will dry a bit darker or lighter than you wanted—and you must remix the color and try again. Sometimes an area of color will need to be repainted 3 or 4 times before it’s just right. And THEN, sometimes one of the colors adjacent to it will no longer work and you have to begin the process again with THAT color.

So it’s a real bitch to get the colors right in a painting like this. Or I should say, get the values right—because the colors don’t have to work all that well if the values do. Because acrylics change so much when they dry, it’s like trying to hit a moving target.

Nevertheless, I had some early success with the Eduardo painting, and that gave me energy to keep going.

Edu na luz inprog3


One thing that really helped was, I started using a floor lamp to accelerate the drying. In the past I would be waiting so long for the colors to dry so I could see if they were right, that I would get impatient and start working on something else. Then I would forget exactly what I’d been doing in the other area of the painting. But using a lamp focused right on the wet paint dries it in a minute or two, so I was able to work in real time rather than on a 20-minute delay.

Edu na luz inprog4


So while I was speeding up the drying of the paint on the canvas, I was trying to keep the paint on my palette wet. Because acrylics dry so fast, when you’re doing a big painting that takes several days or even longer, it’s a major challenge to keep your mixtures wet. I have a plastic box I place over my palette at night to keep the paint wet. I even place a really wet sponge inside the box with the palette to keep the paint from drying. Another trick is to put the whole thing inside the refrigerator, since cool temperatures keep the paint from drying as fast.

Edu na luz inprog5

All of this helps, but only up to a point. In practice, I had to keep re-mixing my colors over and over again. When a mixture started to run out, I had to mix more before it dried and darkened, so I could match wet paint to wet paint. Even then it’s really difficult to get it to match exactly. In the 5 days I worked on this painting, I probably spent 75% of my time mixing paint, and 25% of the time actually putting paint on the canvas.

Edu na luz inprog6

The painting is almost complete here--just some final touches remain to be done.


Just in case you’re interested, my flesh tones were mostly Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Orange and Titanium White. For the middle tones, I reddened that mixture with a bit of Cadmium Red Medium and Alizarin Crimson. The cooler tones are a grey-green made of Yellow Oxide, Ultramarine Blue, Dioxazine Purple and white. For the background I mixed Ultramarine Blue and Phthalo Blue with Titanium White.

Edu na luz w ds

I posed myself in front of the painting so you could get a better idea of just how big it is.


The first couple of days were difficult, but once I got my colors working, I got into a kind of rhythm, and by day 3 I was moving along pretty smoothly. There were many areas of the painting I had to repaint 3 or 4 times to get the values just right, but with the lamp-drying trick and my growing familiarity with the mixtures I was using for this painting, I was able to work pretty efficiently.

By the end of the 4th day I was done with everything but the final touches, and I was feeling really proud of myself. I’d tackled a huge challenge and pulled it off!


Here's the finished painting, Eduardo na Luz. Click on the image to see this artwork on my website.

I don’t know if this will end up on the wall of a gallery or not. But I love the fact that opening up to the idea of showing in galleries inspired me to create this big, exciting painting! “Eduardo na Luz” (Eduardo in the Light) is now showing in my gallery online. Click on the image above to go there.

Click here to access all entries in Douglas Simonson’s “On the Road” Series