Finding Your Focus

As much as possible I like to paint outside. Its not always possible to do this of course, so I spend a lot of time taking photos of things. These form a collection of visual notes that I can scroll back to, looking for ideas and inspiration.

While great for reference, photos often don’t really capture what excites you in a scene. If you can, its helpful to make some sketches or notes soon after. What was the quality of the light? What caught your eye and inspired you to stop and look? While the camera sees and captures a whole scene, our eyes will focus on that one detail that excites us. Often this detail is obscured by the myriad other details surrounding it in a photograph. Refining your vision and focus is an important first step in creating a painting.

When I was driving home from a plein air workshop this past summer I was struck by the beauty of the late afternoon light on the water on the bay. Shades of pink and mauve alternating with silver lines of light on the water faded into mist at the horizon. The pink sand was punctuated closer to shore by the graphic lines of reeds.  It was a stunningly beautiful moment. I pulled my car off the road and quickly took a few photos. While capturing something of the design of the scene, the photo below is a poor replica of the scene before me. I filed it away, but the memory of that pink evening light stayed with me.


One day this spring, I pulled out the photo and began to do some preliminary sketches for a painting. I made the sketch below with some color notes.


I decided that getting the color right was really going to be the challenge, so it would make sense to start with a smaller study to refine the color palette.


First I transferred the sketch onto a small piece of  UArt and laid in some color for an underpainting. I wanted to set up the play of warms and cools from the beginning, so used oranges and purples. After washing this color down with alcohol, I began to lay in pastel over the underpainting, establishing the lightest lights and darkest darks.


More detail and texture is added to the sand and grasses, playing off the colors in the underpainting. My goal was to add as little pastel as possible, and yet make the scene come alive. I experimented with layering colors on a scrap of paper to create the effect I was looking for.


Perhaps because I was doing a study, it was easier for me to stop before going too far and losing the spontaneity of the piece. I developed a working palette, and with my notes began to think about tackling the larger piece.

As I began the larger piece, I used both the study and the original source photo as reference. In the image below, the final painting sits on the easel with the photo reference on my ipad above, and the study below. At this point I have completed the underpainting, and have established the dark and light.

Inevitably as I worked, the larger painting took on a life of its own, and I found that I needed additional colors. I struggled with the color of the grasses in the foreground, wondering whether to keep them very neutral  and dark as they appear in the photo, or follow my memory of the pink and golden glow.


The final painting developed over several days in which I worked back and forth between cool and light. I also was fighting the tendency to tighten up too much, and get too specific. At times I brushed out areas to soften them, and reapplied layers of fresh pastel.

The larger size of the final piece allowed me room to explore the color of the sky and atmosphere, and sharpen details in the grasses and water. While I miss some of the spontaneity of the sketch, I think the final painting is richer for it. Working on the sketch first allowed me the opportunity to develop my color palette, and refine the focus of the piece. The image below shows the piece as it was close to being finished. I had decided to abandon the lighthouse on the horizon, as I thought it was distracting. I was trying to resolve some issues in the foreground with the grasses and line of the dip in the shoreline, which was true to the photo.


In the final piece, I reinstated the lighthouse, although I relocated it to the left. I simplified the shoreline to allow your eye to pass over it, and go right to the orange grasses and water beyond, the focal point of the painting. I also added sparks of light in the grasses, because in my memory, the dance of the light on the water was such an important part of the beauty of the scene.


I find that keeping a record of the progress of a painting like this is a great way to review your process and learn more about what what works and why. As the painting progresses ideas are lost and found. Seeing them again in the photo record allows you to return to them in another painting and push them further.

Happy painting!


  1. Anne · April 25, 2013

    BRAVA – Loved following your process, I do so miss sharing plein air moments. . . kudos to your continuing rich process and luminous surfaces!


    • Sawyer Design Associates, Inc. · April 25, 2013

      Thank you Anne! I miss working along side you too! We’ll have to remedy that in the next year! It is so interesting to be able to go back and review the progress of a work. I think a big take away is, you’re often done before you think you’re done.


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