Painting Forest Scene Interiors

Armand Cabrera

Here is a way to organize the complex information of an interior forest. This will work no matter what your rendering style happens to be. Whether you are an impressionist painter like me or a realist, the basic building blocks for the picture are the same the only difference is how far you want to carry the finish.

The challenge is to arrange the information to give you the illusion of space where no horizon is apparent. Forest scenes work best when you use clearings to establish a foreground, middle ground or background to help divide space in the scene. It doesn’t matter if you are painting jungle or alpine forests, the lush foliage of summer or the bare branches of winter trees; the abstract qualities of design still apply.

It helps to visualize the anchor points of the composition first. These objects will have the most detail and can be flagged or spotlighted for greater effect. A large tree or a trailhead or stream will help start the viewer in the painting. They will give your eye a place to go in the image allowing you to use areas of less detail as counterpoints.

After the anchor points, I always start with large areas of color keyed to the average for that mass this helps to unify the shape. I block in all of these shapes covering the complete image. Once these are established to my liking I begin to develop and refine the painting.
I start in the back and design the sky holes moving right to left.
I add some more details and branches to fill out the space and really solidify the anchor points of the larger trees. The fallen tree I was using as a lead in I move to the front of the big tree on the right

I now go back to the color of the emerging foliage. I’m always thinking about rhythm and balance of the different shapes. I want to weave the basic colors of the composition through the painting in a pleasing way.

Gallery Contracts


Armand Cabrera

When negotiating with a gallery, make sure you have a written contract. Honest people realize a contract protects both parties involved; if it is worth discussing it is worth putting in writing. Never assume anything about a business or people you don’t know. Not everyone will agree on what is fair and what is not.

Don’t let contracts put you off. While it is possible to have a successful partnership without a contract, by not having one you risk the loss of your inventory to unscrupulous people or unforeseen circumstances. Remember, you can agree to anything you like. A contract is just the written form of that agreement nothing more.

Contract items should include who pays for shipping artwork to and from the artist, framing, advertising and mailings. Negotiate what the commission percentage is for the gallery and how much they can discount, if at all. Set the retail price for your work. Make sure the gallery has a time limit on when they pay. A good gallery should pay immediately and no later than two weeks. Art work is consigned, it is your money and they have no right to hold it without your permission.

Decide with the gallery what their territory will be. Include the right to show in one or two group shows a year that might be in that area through a Museum or art organization. Paintings consigned to the gallery should always be hung in the showroom not stored in the back. State these things in writing.

A clause to dissolve the agreement between the two parties is also necessary. It should state clearly how much notice is needed to terminate the contract and how any unpaid money or debt is handled. Once you sign an agreement you are bound by the terms. This means not undercutting your sales and prices.Limit the terms of the contract to one or two years maximum. Some galleries have a hard time with an artist’s success as much as their lack of it and you will outgrow some of your galleries as your prices increase. It has been my experience that there are willing buyers for quality work at every price level. Don’t be afraid to move on if you feel the gallery is holding you back. My belief is the marketplace will let you know if you are doing the right thing.

The Value of Art

by Armand Cabrera

I was painting the cherry blossoms in the tidal basin with my friend Palmer Smith. We were having a good day; we both had sold paintings off the easel. We had started in the morning and worked all day. I was on my fourth and last painting of the day when a group of ten Amish children came up to me to watch me paint.
Soon an Amish man in his late 50’s joined them and all the children became quiet and watched him as he stood there looking at my painting.
“How long does it take you to paint one of those?”
“About three hours” I said
“How much do you want for it?” he asked sternly.
“I get $1,300 dollars for them framed” I said

All the children were impressed, “ooh $1,300 dollars” they were all saying.
The man eyed me with a cool smile “$1,300, that’s too bad, I was going to give you a thousand for it, but you said thirteen hundred.” He turned and continued walking, ending the conversation.
The children lingered for a moment s looking at me and the painting. “Is he always like that?” I asked. They looked around me to see where he was and then quickly shook their heads, yes.

The children ran to catch up with the man and I was left thinking about my brief conversation with him.
In a few sentences he showed them how to do business and the value of a thing is not fixed. It is only worth what someone will pay for it. It was sound advice for most businesses, especially for someone farming or ranching. What a great lesson he had just taught them.

Of course art is not a field of corn and I have an ethical obligation to maintain my prices, a farmer doesn’t. He gets as much money for his product as he can as quickly as he can since he is dealing with perishable goods. If I undercut my galleries by selling cheap paintings on my own the galleries would drop me. Still, the value of a thing is never fixed, it is only worth what someone will pay for it. In a good economy a lower offer is met with disdain, in a bad economy a lower offer is usually welcomed. It is a lesson worth remembering.


Greens in the Landscape

by Armand Cabrera

Green seems to be one of those colors that thoroughly baffles most artists. They tend to overstate their greens or paint them too similar, killing any chance for interest and a sense of light. I thought with spring slowly coming back to most of the country I would offer some tips on tackling green in your landscapes.

First get rid of any green pigment on your palette. The best way to make a green is to mix it. Second forget about approaches that add red or some other color as an undertone to your canvas. Its just sloppy, formulaic and heavy handed like using a chainsaw to prune your flowers. With three blues, two reds and two yellows and white on my palette I can mix any color I need.

If you’ve read this blog for awhile you know I hate formulas and any formulaic approach to painting. It is the same with greens, but there are some real world observations I can offer that might help you to see the variety and interest in your greens when painting the landscape.

Take the time to observe how things grow. As plants and trees produce new foliage the old stuff wilts and eventually dies and falls to the ground. As it does this it goes through hue changes that are observable. New growth tends to be lighter and brighter than mature leaves. It also has the greatest hue shift for the greens except in fall. Some trees and plants actually have new growth that is pink orange, red, yellow or violet and this color is slowly replaced by the green of the mature leaves.

There is a point where the leaves no longer produce green and they start towards the color they will be in fall. This gradual change happens for weeks before the big fall color change that takes place in a matter of days as the tree or plant prepares for winter. Most of this change takes place at the outer edges of the trees or plants and the cores are usually made of limbs and trunks.

Look for opportunities to design compliments and other colors in a natural way into the green landscape. This is important because more than anything what causes a paintings failure is a lack of thoughtful design.

Good design starts with good selection of the elements to create the image. Follow this with intense observation of those elements and careful simplification of them, removing extraneous information that detracts from idea behind the painting.

Pay close attention to the abstract geometric planes of the forms for value and temperature shifts. Note the different hues of the various species you are observing. Use edges to describe the character and line of action all things have that give them individuality.

A thoughtful approach trumps a formula any day of the week. Use observation and design to control your greens and stop them from controlling you.

Painting with Photos

Armand Cabrera

I’m a big proponent of working from life or memory. There are so many benefits from working from nature that it would be hard for me to list all of them and how they affect your painting. Having said that there are times when working with photos can be helpful.

Because of the lens, the background appears larger than it really is
Photos are great for capturing fleeting effects, movement or details and when used as a tool to help in the completion of a painting, they can save time. Using photo-like processes as an aid in painting has been around for probably close to two hundred years.
one type of lensflare
There are drawbacks though and one of the biggest problems with a reliance on photos is you never really learn to paint or draw. Painting and drawing from life is translating three dimensional objects onto a two dimensional surface. Using a photo is just copying, it doesn’t matter if you change it so it doesn’t look like the photo, you are still just copying two dimensional shapes and making other two dimensional shapes. This will always limit your ability as an artist.
Depth of field blur; the background trees were only a few feet away
Photos are not a substitute for thinking, so if you use photos you need to understand what the problems are with them. Watch out for mechanical photographic effects in the image; focal length exaggeration from zoom lenses which will cause the background to look larger than it really is, lens flare, and depth of field blur; these are caused by the equipment and should never be included in your painting. Shapes can be distorted too; this is usually from being too close or at an extreme angle to the object or objects. Knowing some perspective and how to draw helps correct these problems.
 perspective distortion and extreme value shifts

Watch out for values; the range is small for cameras and so the low or high end gets lopped off and things turn black in the shadows or white out in the lights. It is better to look at the relationships of the lights and darks and use that as your guide instead of copying them exactly.

the camera can’t capture the value range in this scene so color is washed out

Digital cameras use interpretive algorithms, so color is not accurate either. They have to take what are essentially continuous tones and colors of nature and chop them up into little squares of color and value, to do this they average things, sometimes this works but most of the time it doesn’t work well enough for painting things only from a photo. It is better to use photos for shapes and details and outdoor sketches and observation for color and value accuracy.

I painted the background for this painting on site marking the color notes of the boat as it passed by; 
 in the studio I painted it again on a new canvas adding the boat using photo reference for details and my outdoor painting as a guide for color

Most of my paintings are done from life or memory. When I do use photos I limit them to the things I know they are good for and use them in conjunction with color sketches and drawings. They are never a substitute for painting from life but in their proper place they can be another effective tool for your art.