Monday Morning Art School: do you have a return policy?

Seafoam, 9X12, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 framed.

“Have you written about original art sales being final?” a reader asked me this weekend. “Do you ever accept returns? If so, why or why not?”

My late friend Gwendolyn used to regularly shop on what she called ‘The American Plan.” Gwendolyn wasn’t an abuser of the system; she didn’t wear clothes and then try to return them. Instead, she’d bring things home from the mall in a variety of sizes and colors, hoping her family would like something she’d selected. The rest would go back.

Main Street, Owl’s Head, oil on archival canvasboard, $1623 includes shipping and handling in continental US.

American retailing encourages this, with most sellers offering very liberal return policies. That makes sense for large corporations in the highly-competitive world of online consumer goods. It makes less sense for custom goods made by small workshops, like jewelers, painters, or seamstresses.

Before you start selling paintings, you should think through your return policy, or you may be asked to do something you’re not willing to accommodate.

Since I have a commerce-enabled website, Google requires that I have a clearly-articulated return policy for both my paintings and my workshops, which you can read here. Without it, Google won’t rank my website, which means nobody would ever see it.

You determine what your policy is, but I think “no returns at any time, for any reason,” would be unreasonable. Art does occasionally arrive with damaged frames. Even though I always ship with insurance, it’s good customer relations to manage the repair or reimbursement myself.

Apple Tree with Swing, 16X20, oil on archival canvasboard, $2029 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

It’s devilishly difficult to photograph paintings. There’s inevitably some difference in color. A person with a very tight color scheme might realize the blue of my ocean doesn’t quite match their couch. I used to worry about this a lot, until I bought some wall paint online during COVID. My husband’s office is beautiful, but it’s not what I saw on my monitor. Nobody can manage color perfectly online because every screen shows color differently. (Then there’s airbrushing and photo enhancement. Although it doesn’t pertain to my paintings, most product photography is enhanced before we ever see it.)

Having said that, I work hard to make accurate photos and I’ve never had a painting returned because it didn’t look like the photo.

The buyer has more responsibility for paintings bought in my gallery or at an event. He or she has thumped the tires and understands the work’s physical presence. There is no reason for the same return policy in a bricks-and-mortar store but whatever it is, it should be posted.

Beautiful Dream, oil on archival canvasboard, $1449 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

I and many other gallerists will send a painting ‘on spec’ if asked. That means the customer pays for it up front (as a surety). If they decide they don’t want it, they pay for its return and insurance. The time limit for this must be clearly specified in advance. Two weeks is more than sufficient to realize a painting just doesn’t work.

No matter what your return policy is, your long-term goal should be to keep your client. Start by asking why they want or need to return the item. Once you determine that, you can offer them a more appropriate product for purchase or exchange. For example, in the example I gave above, I’d show them my entire inventory of ocean paintings. (If they didn’t die of boredom, they’d be bound to find something that’s a better match.) Sometimes people simply can’t visualize size, and buy something that’s too small. If that’s the case, offer them a credit toward a larger one, and don’t be afraid to offer them layaway if the price scares them. A painting is a lifetime investment, and we want to do everything possible to help people able to afford art.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: why is a workshop important?

Sand and Shadows, 8X16, oil on archival linenboard, private collection

I had a long chat with Olena Babak last week, where we mostly discussed how much we value our artist friends. The plein air world, in which we’re both deeply planted, fosters a sense of community. Many of my friends are artists whom I met teaching or at events. There is something unique in the experience of pitting ourselves against our own unreachable goals that binds artists together.

At the same time, I texted with someone considering my Towards Amazing Color workshop at the Sedona Arts Center.  “What is the most important thing I will take away from this workshop?” she asked. I’ve been mulling that over ever since.

All painting starts with observation and perception, and Sedona is in a natural setting so preposterous that painters can’t fall back on what they think they know. The landscape is vast and the air is so clear that none of the usual tricks of aerial perspective apply. This creates distinctive lighting conditions, especially at sunrise and sunset, which in turn bounces what we think we know about color on its head.

Peace, 8X16, $903 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

That’s a great thing, since none of us should be painting stereotypes anyway.

In most of our world, the dominant color scheme is green, brown and blue, with flashes of warm colors. There is nothing wrong with that, of course; I paint it and love it deeply. But Sedona flips all that on its head. Its giant rock massifs are red and cream, set off by a ferocious azure sky and accented with dull greens.

Meanwhile, the intense warm light forms equally intense cool shadows. A week of painting that light will bleed back into our paintings of the more-delicate lighting elsewhere, helping us capture the nuances of light and shadow. Painting what we don’t know is invaluable for developing a keen sense of observation for when we get back to what we do know.

Early Light is 11X14, oil on archival canvasboard, $869 includes shipping and handling in the continental US.

That raises the question of how accurately we mix our colors. Just as I discourage eastern painters from using premixed greens, I discourage Sedona painters from using premixed reds. Yes, the rocks may be close to burnt sienna, but slathering that on will just make for a flat painting. We need to learn to mix colors to match the subtle variations in the landscape. That’s a skill you can take anywhere.

My personal painting challenge right now is in representing what I’ll call, for lack of a better term, deep space. It’s easy enough to paint an eastern mountain that’s a few miles away, especially when I have aerial perspective to fall back on. The giant rearing rock formations of Sedona, set like massive eroding jewels, are eroded like hoodoos but bigger than skyscrapers. They create their own special drafting problems. They teach me how to convey distance, perspective, and dimensionality. Once you’ve seen that kind of depth in a painting, you can’t go back to using mere layering to create the illusion of distance.

Pensive, 8X10, oil on archival canvasboard, $522 includes shipping and handling in continental US.

I am both a committed plein air painter and outdoorswoman (although I can’t tell you which came first). Painting outdoors fosters my connection with the natural world. It’s not just the landscape and atmosphere; it’s also the weather, the creatures and the plants. (That relationship transcends words, which is why I loathe writing artist’s statements.) Sedona has all those things in spades. If you haven’t ever been there, it’s worth the journey.

I hope this answers my correspondent’s question, and by extension, yours too.

My 2024 workshops:

Four most useful types of paint brushes

Alla prima oil painters usually favor hog’s bristle brushes. These are far less expensive than softer hairs like sable. They are the only brushes that spread thick paint smoothly and evenly, making for the freshest alla prima technique. There are some good synthetic brushes on the market, but none of them are quite as stiff as a good natural bristle brush.

Bristle brushes tend to form a flag (a v-shaped split) at the end over time. However, if the brush is made properly, with good interlocking bristles, it will have a natural resistance to fraying. Because field painters often go long periods without being able to clean their brushes, durability is important.

Don’t use that as an excuse to not clean your brushes thoroughly. Rinse and wipe out all the solids and wrap them tightly until you can get to a sink. When you do wash them, use a good fatty soap and make sure all the paint is out of the ferrule (the metal part), or they’ll lose their shape. A brush that’s got paint clogging the ferrule is impossible to resurrect. (My daughter’s brush soap, which is very good, is available here, but she will not be shipping more soap for the next few weeks.)


Flat brushes make an immediate, energetic mark. They’re excellent for fast, powerful surface work, long sweeping strokes, and blocking in shapes.

Used on their sides they also make great lines, far more evenly than a small round can do.

I like an 8-10 flat, because I tend to paint with large brushstrokes, but what size you use will depend to some degree on your painting style.

A bright is a just a stubbier, less-flexible version of a flat. It’s great for short, powerful strokes or situations where you want a lot of control. Your painting, your choice.


A round is a more lyrical brush than a flat, and is a classic tool for painterly surface marks. It can be used to make lines that vary from thin to thick. You’ll need a big one (perhaps an 8 or 10) for big, bold brushwork, and a wee pointed one (such as a 2) for fine detail.

My uncle used to say, “be true to your teeth or they’ll be false to you.” The same is true of small bristle rounds. They lose their points very quickly if you don’t clean them carefully.


If I was stranded on a desert island with just one brush, it would probably be a size 8 filbert. Its great advantage is the variety of brushstrokes it makes. It’s can make single strokes that taper, such as in water reflections. Its rounded edges are good for blending. Set on its side, it makes nearly as good a line as a flat.

Double filbert or Egbert:

This is a ‘novelty’ brush like a dagger or fan brush, but it’s one I use all the time. It’s a lyrical brush that has a lot of expressive quality. Hold it at the butt end and swing it like a baton, and suddenly your painting will sing.

However, if you don’t clean it carefully it will splay and develop a split at the end, which renders it useless. I speak from sad experience here.

A bonus: I’ve been painting walls for the last week, and my favorite new brush is the Wooster Shortcut. Better control than a long-handled brush, easier to clean than China bristles, and with modern latex paint the coverage is just as good.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: what should I charge?

Dish of Butter, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping in continental US. I was discussing transparency with my drawing class on Saturday, so here are some transparency paintings.

In 2018, I wrote, “Does anyone ever tell Christian Louboutin that $995 is a bit much for a pair of platform suede pumps? No; they either understand Louboutin’s market or they don’t buy designer shoes.” I was stunned to learn that you can still buy a pair of Christian Louboutin suede pumps for $995. Meanwhile the price of a loaf of white bread has risen 33.69% during the same period.

Luxury goods-which paintings very much are-do not follow the general rules of retail pricing. Since people don’t need them, they can be as fickle and subjective as they want in their purchasing.

Stuffed animal in a bowl with Saran Wrap. 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

A proper price is the intersection of how much you can produce of the product and how much demand there is for it. If you can’t keep your paintings stocked, you’re charging too little. If your studio is jammed with unsold work, you’re either charging too much or not putting enough effort into marketing. Your job is to find that sweet spot. (But bear in mind that we all paint a lot of duds between the good ones, and periodically weed them out accordingly.)

A friend prices his work slightly lower than his peers, because he wants it to look like a good deal in comparison. It helps that we both know exactly who our peers are. (Of course, women’s art generally sells at a discount to men’s, despite the fact that in a blind test, consumers can’t tell the difference.)

Back It Up, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435.

Most artists are terrible judges of their own work, seesawing between believing they’re geniuses and thinking they’re hopeless. That hinders our ability to subjectively price our work. Don’t assume that because you labored for a long time over a piece, it is more valuable. Your challenges are not the buyers’ problem.

Set aside your emotions and base your selling price on the size of the piece and your selling history. How do you do that if you’ve never sold anything before? Survey other artists with the same level of experience and set your first prices in line with theirs. Visit galleries, plein air events and art fairs. Before you decide an artist is your peer, find his resume online and check his experience. Painting in a national show is not the same as painting your local, unjuried Paint the Town.

The artist’s prominence is the single biggest factor in a painting’s value.

Charity auctions are a good way to leverage your talent to help others. They also provide a sales history to new artists. Let’s say you donated an 8X10 watercolor and it sold at auction for $100. Great! You have a sales history (albeit a limited and imperfect one) from which to calculate prices. Just figure out the value per square inch and calculate from there.

Square inch is the height times the width. That means your 8X10 painting is 80 square inches. Dividing the $100 selling price by 80 gives you a value of $1.25/square inch.

To use this to calculate other sizes, you would end up with: 6X8 is 48 square inches.

48 X $1.25 = $60
9X12: $135
11X14: $240
12X16: $315

In practice, my price/sq. inch gets lower the larger I go. This reflects my working and marketing costs.

Saran Wrap Cynic, 20X24, oil on canvas, $2100 includes shipping and handling in continental US. This was the endpoint of all those plastic wrap paintings–a series on the commodification of women. Ah, to be young and didactic again!

When I first moved to Maine, one of my gallerists was also my good friend. She took a red pencil to my price list and brought it up to Maine standards. But don’t expect gallerists to do this for you; they expect artists to set their own prices.

It’s much easier to raise prices than lower them, so start low and work your way up. Another wise birdie once told me that I should adjust my prices annually, so that’s what I do. Our goal ought to be to sell at constantly rising prices. When you find yourself painting on a treadmill to have enough work for your next show, it’s time to charge more. Each time you show, your work will be better known, and over time your prices will rise.

And, by the way, I would never spend $995 on a pair of shoes.

On Friday, I released Step 5, the Foundation Layer, of my Seven Protocols for Successful Painters. This is the heart of painting, where the first layer of color is applied. It’s the next best thing to studying with me live.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: representing volume

Home Farm, 20X24, oil on canvas, $2898 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US.

Volume is the three-dimensional space occupied by an object. For example, in Home Farm, above, each of the buildings has a height, width, and depth, and the product of those three things is its volume. Form is the artist’s representation of volume, and shape is the space enclosed by a line or lines.

The Dance, Henri Matisse, 1932-33, courtesy the Barnes Collection.

Usually, we start with a line drawing (shape) and then use modeling to create form. However, there are many instances in which form is implied with no modeling at all; see Henri Matisse’s The Dance, above, for just one (superb) example.

Before you can progress to modeling, you need to create accurate shapes. This starts with measurement, which is most often done with the pencil-and-thumb method and with angles. A theoretical understanding of perspective helps as well. (I am convinced that anyone of normal intelligence can learn to draw, given patience and perseverance.)

The Laborer Resting, oil on linen, 36X48, $4,515.00 framed, includes shipping and handling in continental US. Satin, linen and lace each reflect light differently.

When we think about modeling, we think of shading, which is the technique we use to represent light and shadow on an object’s surface. Start by observing how light interacts with the objects’ surfaces. If they’re shiny, the value range (light to dark) will be much greater than if the surfaces are matte. Likewise, if the light is close by, shadows and highlights will be harsher than if the light source is far away or filtered.

Our first task is to identify where the light is coming from. The direction and intensity of the light will affect how shadows are cast, and where highlights appear on the object. But to confuse the issue, light can bounce around and shadows can overlay other shadows. A good understanding of light is important, but it can never replace observation. By that I mean observation from life, for just as cameras compress color, they also compress greyscale.

Two Peppers, oil on archival canvasboard, 6X8, $435.00, framed, includes shipping and handling in continental US.

We use gradation to model changes in light levels. That can take the form of carefully blended charcoal, graphite or, indeed, paint. Sandy Quang and I demonstrated drawing globes in pencil here, so you can follow our steps to practice drawing shiny round objects.

Gradation can also be implied with the use of hatching, cross-hatching, stippling, or rough paint or lines. In the two peppers above there is no blending at all; the mind fills in the gaps.

Your specific technique for gradation isn’t as important as your observation of how the light levels and patterns tie together. This can be complicated.

Every painting has highlights and core shadows. The highlights are the brightest areas in the picture, usually facing the light. Core shadows are the darkest part of the picture, usually opposite the light source. Highlights may be absolute white and core shadows absolute black. Although we could draw them like that, modern painting tends to shy from either true white or black. (Even watercolor paper is not harshly white.) That, however, like so many other things, is a trope of our times. The Baroque masters of chiaroscuro relied on absolute black to set the dramatic mood.

Highlights and core shadows are easy enough to spot. What is more difficult is fitting the mid-tones in, in a consistent series of steps from dark to light, hitting all or most of the levels. If you don’t start with the highs and lows, it’s very easy to err on the side of being too dark or too light. This is where a greyscale is very handy, for light levels are infinitely complicated. I’ve tacked one at the end of this post; go ahead and print and use it.

Prom Shoes 2, oil on archival canvasboard, 6X8, $435 framed includes shipping and handling in continental US. The direction of brush strokes implies form.

Remember that brushwork and drawn lines themselves can imply volume by curving with the object’s surface. This is an effective technique in both drawing and painting.

Print me and use me, please!

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: how to tell people what to do

Windsurfers at La Pocatière, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $348 includes shipping and handling in continental US.

Witness this exchange:

“You should do more plein air events,” said A. “You’re a good painter.”

“I don’t enjoy them,” said B, who’s older and wiser. “I find them almost painful.”

“But they’re good for you,” insisted A.

I don’t think A’s comment was malicious. She works the plein air circuit. She can’t conceive of an art career that doesn’t involve competition. On the other hand, B has an extensive resume that includes signature membership in several prestigious national organizations. For her, plein air events are too much effort for too little return.

Early Morning at Moon Lake, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $348 includes shipping and handling in continental US.

I love plein air events myself, but they have their downsides. There are often more artists than the market can bear, resulting in bargain-basement pricing. They can encourage artists to churn out quantity instead of quality. Without a good gallerist to guide buyers, sometimes sentimental dreck goes for good prices and fine paintings are ignored.

They can be nerve-wracking. I once did an event with a very fine painter who downed four glasses of wine in rapid succession before he could go to the awards ceremony. He took first place, but that is not a healthy way to run your art career.

Marshes along the Ottawa River, Plaisance, 8X10, oil on archival canvasboard, $522 includes shipping and handling in continental US.

Underlying A’s comment was the assumption that growth comes only through pain. Sometimes that’s true, as anyone who’s been through the creative desert can tell you. (The desert is a necessary step in growth, but you don’t realize that the first half a dozen times it happens to you.)

It’s equally true that growth comes through joy, quiet reflection, prayer, thought, or going for a walk. Each time I held one of my children for the first time was a transformative moment. It was joyful, but it came with the realization that my life was changed forever. A wedding is like that; so is getting your first dog. All have the potential to make you a better person, and the mechanism for that is joy and a determination to live up to the promise of the moment.

Pensive 8X10, oil on archival canvasboard, $522 includes shipping and handling in continental US.

I had two influential painting teachers. First was my father, who was often irascible but who taught me to draw and paint with great patience. Then there was Cornelia Foss, who is as tough a nut as ever came out of the Upper East Side. I’m not easily cowed, and I learned a great deal from her. However, my friend and sometimes-roommate Peter was a much gentler soul. I don’t think he ever finished a painting in her class. He would pluck his eyebrows out in frustration and anxiety. He’d make a good start and then wipe it out, he was so nervous. Cornelia’s indisputable genius landed on stony ground because he was so daunted by her. That’s pain to absolutely no purpose.

The second problem with A’s comment is that there is more than one way to skin a cat. (Sorry, Wylie.) My own path has been very different than A’s or B’s, but it has worked for me. Chutzpah seems to be a specialty of our age, and we’re all quick to give unsolicited advice, myself included. But if someone doesn’t seek our opinion, we don’t need to give it. If someone doesn’t depend on us for support, we can let them make their own choices. There are many routes to the same goal and what works for one person may not work for the next. That’s a big part of what makes life so beautiful and fascinating.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: are your paints toxic?

Sunset sail, 14X18, oil on linen, $1594 framed includes shipping and handling in the continental US.

Unless you’re eating it, modern paint poses no known health risks. (Pastelists and encaustic painters are more exposed and should follow special rules for handling their materials and breathing fumes.)

That, unfortunately, is not the whole story.

Many people think watercolors are somehow safer than oils. That is not true. The binders for oil paints are siccative oils. The major ones are linseed (flax seed), walnut and safflower oil, all of which are edible. Some people have a sensitivity to odorless mineral spirits, but if you’re not drinking them or bathing in them, the current consensus is that they’re harmless.

What can be toxic are the pigments, and they’re pretty much universal across all mediums. That includes tattoo inks, which are a toxicological risk to human health.

Buffalo Color (foreground) and Bethlehem Steel (background), and the filth they were spewing into the Buffalo River in 1967. Photo courtesy EPA remediation project.

Making pigments is a messy business. Buffalo Color (formerly part of National Aniline and Chemical) manufactured pigments along the Buffalo River in my hometown, and pigment deposits remained along the shore as late as the 1980s. The photo above shows the condition of the river from Buffalo Color and Bethlehem Steel, now both gone.

Environmental legislation stopped wholesale polluters across a variety of industries in the US. That didn’t mean we weren’t still creating pollution; we just outsourced it to the developing world.

Cobalt, cadmium, and lead aren’t going to injure you as a painter, but they can injure the people who mine and refine them. Today’s emphasis is on mica, which gives us the glitter in makeup, car finishes and, yes, iridescent paints. Mica is mined in the US, but the top two producers in the world are China and Russia. India, the world’s eighth-largest producer of mica, is known to use child labor in mica mining.

Two Peppers, oil on archival canvasboard, 6X8, $435.00 includes shipping and handling in continental US.

Since the mid-1990s, pigment production grew quickly in mainland China and India. They are now the first and second producers of pigments in the world. The number one producer of cadmium? China. Of cobalt? Congo and China. Lead? China. Child labor is a real phenomenon in China; about 7.75% of children ages 10-15 work. So too is forced labor, using both minorities and prisoners. Congo’s child labor situation is more dire, with roughly 40,000 children in the cobalt mines, some as young as six. (The majority owners of these mines are Chinese.)

Cobalt, cadmium, and lead are all, to varying degrees, mutagenic (causes mutations), teratogenic (interferes with fetal development) and carcinogenic (causes cancer). In the modern world, we can’t avoid them entirely; for example, we need cobalt for lithium-ion batteries. But we can reduce our use of them where it’s less critical, and pigment is one of these areas.

For years, I’ve given my students a palette based largely on 20th century pigments, using the iron-oxide pigments as chasers. The one exception has been cadmium orange, because there’s still no reasonable substitute in oils; in watercolor, the quinacridone oranges are great. I’m not worried about my students; I’m worried about the children, involuntary workers, and those driven by poverty to work in unsafe conditions.

Brilliant Summer Day, 6X8, oil on archival canvasboard, $435 includes shipping and handling in continental US.

The 20th century pigments were developed first for the automobile industry, with other manufacturing applications branching out from there. Because they were intended to be used in American factories, they are safe, cheap, brilliant, and lightfast. In fact, they are far superior to their historical antecedents in almost every way.

Regardless of what pigments you’re using, waste should never be disposed of in our sewers or on the ground. For water-based paints, let the old paint water dry and put the residue in the solid-waste stream. For oil-based paints, let the solvent settle, pour off the clear liquid and reuse it, and let the remainder evaporate for disposal.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: Merry Christmas!

Beth Carr drew a concolor fir, which has a softer branching pattern than many other evergreens.

My friends (and students; the line is blurry) Diane Fulkerson and Beth Carr drove up this week to spend Christmas with me. While they were en route, I texted them to ask if they would do this morning’s exercises as examples. “I knew there would be work involved,” Diane said. The last time she visited, I had her do an exercise for Monday Morning Art School on using Pilot FriXion pens with watercolor.

I drew a Fraser Fir. If I’d been thinking, I’d have drawn a balsam, which was my favorite tree in the days when we had real trees. (I’m allergic.)

If you look at Christmas tree drawings online, the majority have boughs facing down. That is not how most young evergreens grow. Their boughs point up until they reach maturity. Even then, the upper branches tend to arc upwards. Pine boughs droop when they’re snow-laden, so maybe that’s why people persist in drawing them that way.

Moreover, every species has a unique branching pattern, needle length and color.

Diane Fulkerson did a blue spruce. She’d started out wanting to paint a black spruce, but her photo from Schoodic was too backlighted to be useful.

This is an exercise in seeing. If you celebrate Christmas, look at your tree and draw or paint it. If you don’t have a tree, look online for some of the common species used for Christmas trees, including but not limited to balsam firs, Scotch pines, blue spruce and Douglas firs. (My own Christmas tree is so fabulously fake that I used an online picture.)

Diane, Beth and I decided to use colored pencil so that we could work in the dining room next to the wood stove. None of us are expert in this medium, but we still had a great time. Pam wisely used watercolor.

Pam Otis painted a Christmas tree that was brought to the beach by a family. “They had a nice picnic and a campfire and left the tree behind for others to enjoy.”

I don’t really expect you to do much work today, but this will give you something to do if your uncles get into an argument about politics, your cousin gets stuck too deeply in the eggnog or your partner falls asleep after eating too much pie.

Above all, have a wonderful and blessed Christmas Day and Christmastide, and may God bless all of you.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: please learn to draw

The illustrations in this post were from Monday Morning Art School: Drawing a Globe, and done by Sandy Quang and me on a stormy night before Christmas. The original post is here.

Ten years ago I wrote about teaching Amy Vail to draw. She’d made the cardinal error of telling me she “lacked the gene to draw.” Since I know there’s no such gene, I challenged her to let me teach her, and she made great strides in just one week. Drawing is not a magic trick; it’s not a talent. It’s a technical skill no different from reading, writing or arithmetic.

Drawing is first and foremost a technical skill.

I know people who paint by tracing photos or photo-montages, but that prevents the non-linear part of the mind from getting involved. Art has always been about deeper things: reflection, aesthetics, ideas, feelings, spirituality and other forms of higher-order thinking. It makes no sense to shut out the part of your mind that processes these.

I’m writing syllabuses for my January-February classes (and I’m sorry, but they’re both sold out). This is the first time I’ve taught drawing outside the context of painting. What is important and how do I teach it?

Most complex shapes are riffs on simpler shapes.

Observation Skills

The ability to closely observe and analyze a subject develops hand-in-hand with the physical act of drawing. One can photograph a scene without paying too much attention. Drawing and painting from life is how skilled realist painters sort out what matters. The best way to really see something is to draw or paint it.

Details are almost the least-important part, although it’s amazing how much one glosses over them until one actually sits down to draw. What really matters is proportion and the relationship between elements. That comes down to distance and angles. That is why painters can get away with leaving out detail if they get the proportions and relationships right. Anyone interested in abstracting the landscape had better have top-notch drawing skills.

Even a line drawing conveys volume, but shading is that much more expressive.

Basic Shapes and Forms

Almost every complex shape is a combination of basic shapes like cones, boxes, spheres and columns. For example, the spinet piano next to me is fundamentally a tall box with another boxlike structure (the keyboard) attached to the front and supported by two columnar legs. Get the size relationships of those big shapes right, and the fluting and scrolls are almost extraneous.

In their 2D form that means circles, squares, triangles, and ellipses. That doesn’t mean, however, that you get to ignore dimensionality, which leads us to…


Everyone should learn how 1-, 2-, and 3-point perspectives work, and then never use them again. They’re a theoretical construct that shows you how to avoid errors, but they’re not ‘true’. The vanishing points in the real world are infinitely distant, and that’s hard to achieve on paper. However, understanding perspective will save you from lots of mistakes.

The more you draw, the more fluid your painting will be.

Volume and shading

Yes, one can imply volume with line drawing alone, but shifts in value tell a broader story. They will also form the basis of painting composition.

Expressive mark-making

This is where drawing suddenly gets fun. Expressive mark-making takes time to develop, but experimenting with different line weights and styles is the first step in that exploration.

Work up from simple objects and nothing will be too difficult for you. (Drawing by me.)

So how do you start?

Drawing is the cheapest and most liberating of all media. All you need is a sketchbook (this is the one I use, and I go through them like candy), a mechanical pencil, and some kind of straight-edge.

Then start drawing every day. It’s that simple. This is the text I recommend to those who like learning from books, but you can also find a lot of free instruction on this blog.

My 2024 workshops:

Monday Morning Art School: why you should draw

I draw every week in church, riffing off the sermon. Today’s was about persistence and hard work.

Nobody can master painting until they master drawing. That’s true for both abstractionists and realists, because drawing is how you express depth and dynamism. Painting is really nothing more than drawing with a brush. To build facility in paint, you first must draw.

Tens of thousands of years before there was written language, there was art on cave walls and cliffs. When words started being written down (around 3000 BC) they were first written in the form of pictographs. That tells us something about the importance of drawing to humankind.

I can draw things out of my head because I know how to draw from life.

Drawing is liberating

Drawing allows us to express ideas, emotions, and narratives non-verbally. For painters seeking to escape being literal, that’s critical. I can’t think of a single great painter who couldn’t draw. Vincent van Gogh famously taught himself, and his early drawings are bad enough that they should give us all hope that we too can do better. “Drawing is the root of everything, and the time spent on that is actually all profit,” he wrote.

It’s not just about putting pretty things down on paper. Drawing tightens up our observational skill. We develop a keen eye for details, shapes, proportions, and visual relationships. That helps us analyze and map both the world around us and our inner world.

All I need is a sketchbook and a #2 mechanical pencil. Anything else is just a refinement.

Much of drawing is about translating a three-dimensional reality onto a two-dimensional surface. That teaches us about structure and spatial relationships. If you don’t see the value in representing depth and space in a painting, take a deep dive into the work of Edgar Degas.

A lot of us stopped working on hand-eye coordination when we mastered cursive writing. Then we let it go when we started relying on computers, which is why so many of us have terrible handwriting. We need that hand-eye coordination for painting, and we develop it through drawing.

This is partly from my imagination, but the window is high up in our church building.

A study showed that drawing helps memory in young and old alike. Researchers speculated that it was because drawing draws on varied brain paths simultaneously. I think it’s because in drawing we must attend much more intensely. That reaps benefits not just in art but in life overall.

There is a gap between what we draw or paint and what is ‘really’ there. We like to think of that gap as a shortcoming, and to some degree it is. But it’s in that gap that we develop style, and where we do a lot of non-verbal creative thinking. Tracing from photographs will never allow for the soul to creep in like drawing does.

This was drawn when I had to sit in the foyer because there were no seats. I amused myself by imagining what was going on inside.

So why don’t we do it? The sad answer for many of us is that we’ve never been taught, so we’re frustrated and afraid to try again. We don’t grant ourselves the grace and patience to persist.

I’ve butted my head against this since I started teaching. Drawing and painting are closely related but I can only teach one at a time. That’s why I’m breaking a promise to myself to not work six days a week and offering a Saturday class on Fundamentals of Drawing, starting January 6. By Ash Wednesday, you’ll be well on your way to good draftsmanship. That in turn will lead to better painting.

My 2024 workshops: