December 13, 2007

Steve Armes: Creating Imaginative Studio Paintings

by Steve Armes

Sketch for Sierra Blanca
2005, oil, 8 x 10.
All artwork this article collection the artist.

Artists usually create landscape paintings in one of four ways: They paint entirely on location; they rely on memory or imagination; they work from photos; or they use a combination of these sources. Hopefully, each of those approaches also incorporates the artist's accumulated knowledge and experience about pigments, surfaces, procedures, and the wisdom passed down from generations of others who have recorded nature.

The focus of this article will not be on techniques artists can use to develop plein air sketches as finished works of art but rather as documents that aid in the creation of studio paintings. My recommendations may be at odds with what you have been taught or what you have read, and that's neither surprising nor problematic. All of us base our approaches to art on the personal objectives that motivate us. Like every other artist and teacher, I do what helps me create the kind of pictures I admire.

I am fortunate to have been trained by Maynard Dixon Stewart, whose father, LeConte Stewart, was a tireless landscape painter. M. D. Stewart also studied with Frank Vincent Dumond, the legendary artist and teacher at the Art Students League of New York, in Manhattan. During my studies with Stewart, I learned to paint plein air sketches that provided enough information to complete larger, more finished paintings in the studio.

Sierra Blanca
2005, oil, 30 x 36.

Because of this training, I still use sketches as references for paintings and avoid the temptation of developing them into complete works of art. They might become beautiful paintings, but I try to keep in mind the overarching need to gather information during the three hours I record the changing effects of light and atmosphere with broad notes of color.

I was able to paint a satisfactory sketch long before I could paint a successful finished landscape. But after much effort, I arrived at some methods that now allow me to use my sketch to complete a larger, definitive painting. What I have learned falls under five broad topics: understanding the difference between a sketch and a painting; matching colors to the sketch; using photographs judiciously; invention; and knowing how to sacrifice.

Path Along the Lake
2004, oil, 18 x 24.

The Difference Between a Sketch and a Painting

My primary concern when creating a painting from a sketch is to improve the overall design. This is best done in the calm environment of the studio because it requires reflection and trial and error. I was taught to evaluate various compositional schemes by making small monochrome studies, each time altering the arrangement of the large shapes. I do that by making several black-and-white gouache studies using five or six basic values and arranging the masses into the best design. This is the most important part of making a picture because the large, simple masses are what the viewer will see first.

View a gallery of additional work by Armes.

A location sketch is very different from a studio painting in its purpose and execution. The sketch is a tool to help capture the subtle tonalities of nature, making it possible for the artist to create a larger painting in harmony with the visual truths of nature. It is done quickly and usually in one session, with the artist focusing on the broadest tones and laying them down in proper relation to one another. A painting is planned and executed in stages, and it may include underpainting and layering of color.

Sketch for A Texas Landscape
2005, oil, 16 x 20.

When the sketch serves as the basis of a studio painting, the challenge is to keep the good qualities of the sketch (the breadth, simplicity, and immediacy) while carrying the painting to a larger scale and a greater degree of rendering. This can be difficult because the sketch involves mixing colors rapidly, with pigment often being hastily slurred. That wonderfully bold, gestured effect is difficult to recreate in the studio, and I prefer not to even attempt that feat. Rather, I analyze what I'm trying to capture on location, and I attempt to convey the same effect.

In order to compare the sketch to the painting, I clamp my sketch to a music stand turned upright, then move my canvas and easel back so that when I am standing in front of my sketch it appears the same size as the canvas. I make all observations and judgments from this position. This allows me to see my sketch and painting side by side, which allows for better comparison while also forcing me to view my painting from a distance.

A Texas Landscape
2005, oil, 36 x 48.

Matching Colors to the Sketch

I usually start a studio painting with a monochrome or limited-color underpainting and layer color during subsequent sessions. This requires planning to ensure that the color, once modified, will match the color in the sketch. In order to gauge the accuracy of color while painting, some artists hold up a loaded brush or palette knife next to the sketch. Because I have labored in the field to get accurate color nuances, I want to carry that over to my painting. That is why I prefer to varnish my sketch, dab mixtures of color directly on the protected surface, and then wipe off the dabs before they dry. If I do that quickly, I will have a better sense of whether or not I have matched the colors. I have learned that one color on top of another may appear different than when it is laid on the canvas. I use great care to match the colors I saw on-site, since that is usually the greatest aid the sketch affords. I will often recheck the color in later phases because it sometimes needs to be modified to match the sketch. However, there are occasions when it is better to change or modify the color in the larger painting. I find it easier to paint from my imagination once I have established accurate relationships between the tones.

In the Vineyards
2006, oil, 10 x 15½.

Using Photographs Judiciously

I regard photographs as necessary evils in developing studio pieces because I usually need the information contained in them to complete the paintings. They supply ideas not suggested by the sketch, which can be useful for enriching the details. However, I have learned to use them with caution, never copying them exactly. Instead I interpret the information and do not base my painting on the way colors and values appear in a photograph. I note edges, shapes, and other details that can aid my understanding of what I am trying to render, being careful to think of them only as suggestions. Additionally, the use of a telephoto lens can enhance details that can't be seen by the eye while observing the scene. If I use one, I study the details in the distance, but render them in the vague and mysterious way that atmosphere transforms images. Too much reliance on photographs can result in paintings that lack breadth and are broken apart by tedious detail. I know this because I have made that mistake far too many times, and I've learned the hard way that my sketches are better guides to studio painting than any photograph.

A Tuscan Hillside
2003, oil, 20 x 30.


To progress as a landscape painter, it is necessary to expand on nature because-like many subjects that are transferred to canvas-it needs clarification, simplification, and improvement. Nineteenth-century painters added foreground details such as rocks, trees, streams, figures, and animals. Their skills enabled them to pull such accessories out of their imaginations. Few contemporary artists have those same skills, and most-myself included-rely on oil sketches, notations in sketchbooks, or photographs taken under conditions similar to those of a chosen subject. I may consult that kind of reference material in order to add a tree, a road, or figures; or I will make memory sketches to help me invent what is needed.

Howe Sound
2004, oil, 18 x 26.

The practice of sketching from memory is nearly forgotten today, but it was widely practiced in the 19th century. The most common method was for artists to study a simple scene or effect, analyze the color notes, and later sketch it in the studio. I find this to be very difficult but valuable, especially in that the process increases my confidence and allows me to transfer images from my imagination to a finished painting. I attempt at least one 30-minute oil memory sketch each week in a sketchbook designated for this purpose. I have found it best to begin with painting the sky and cloud effects.

Knowing How to Sacrifice

Horseshoe Bay
2003, oil, 24 x 36.

Landscapes require artists to sacrifice and select in order to create harmonious pictures. John Ruskin (1819 -1900) pointed out the necessity of representing some facts while sacrificing others to the greater truth. Painters reach the end of their color gamut long before they can paint anything that approaches the brilliance of the sky. They are forced to choose the most important color notes, paint them simply and frankly, and add only such detail as will enhance-but not undermine-the large masses.

About the Artist

Steve Armes studied with Maynard Dixon Stewart and Herbert Perleman before launching a career as an illustrator and then transitioning into fine art. In 1996 he was unanimously voted an associate member of The American Society of Classical Realism Artists' Guild, and in 2006 he was invited to join Stephen Gjertson and Kirk Richards in forming "Triad: Three American Painters," a traveling exhibition that debuted at the Newington-Cropsey Foundation, in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. He maintains a studio in Dallas and teaches workshops throughout the United States and in Europe. For more information on Armes, visit his website at