How Scott Christensen saved this PA study


It has been incredibly difficult to find any time to paint over the last weeks. My job is especially time consuming right now and I’m trying to pick up the slack with the household stuff while my wife goes through her therapy. I forced myself to turn off my laptop for the weekend and holed up in our garden with my pochade yesterday.

6″ x 8″ oil on linen panel

One night, as I was trying to complete some stuff for work, I had a DVD of Scott Christensen playing in the background and I stopped working long enough to jot down a few notes from what he was saying. He was about to do a study and he was talking about the kinds of light one needs to be aware of when painting. He quoted both John Carlson who defined 4 types of light based on lightest to darkest – sky, ground plane, slanted planes and uprights. Then he mentioned John Singer Sargent. Sargent has always been a hero of mine, in fact I first picked up watercolor after seeing some of his but I’ve really never read much about him beyond some biographic material. Sargent defined these 5 types of light: light, shadow, midtone, accent (this can be either the lightest or darkest accent) and reflected light (either reflected up from the ground or down from clouds, for example). Christensen stressed that it was important to know what type of light you were painting at any given time. I wrote these notes in my sketchbook so I would have them to remind myself to think about it next time I was out painting.

Scott also talked about why he uses a limited palette of the primaries plus black and white and some greys premixed from the primaries and white. When I first started painting plein air, I used a similar palette but, over time other colors have crept in so I decided that, next time, I would go back to the limited palette for simplicity’s sake, if nothing else.

When I was out in my garden doing the above study, I got involved with trying to find something to paint and to get my canvas in the shade and my palette out of the dappled sunlight and all the things that one has to think about when painting outside and completely forgot about the notes I took but I did remember to use the primary only palette. In fact I didn’t have any black in my pochade and was too lazy to go back up to the house to get it so there was no black either.

The painting is a study of a little hemlock tree. I don’t think I captured anything of the character of the tree. I struggled with everything about it and consider it a complete failure except for one thing. Using only 3 colors forced me to produce something that was pleasing from a color harmony perspective. I can’t really take credit for it, Scott Christensen did it.

My assessment of my current PA painting skill level is that I really don’t ‘get’ foliage. I’m much more comfortable painting something man made and subordinating trees and shrubs to supporting roles. I guess that means there should be a lot of foliage painting in my immediate future.


Some artist bloggers note what music they’ve been listening to or what books they’ve been reading and I’ve always enjoyed reading that and have found some great writers and musicians from such notes. I just finished Charles Bukowski’s Factotum, which was a very bleak read but for some reason I really enjoyed it, (maybe because I’m not him!). I came across a young musician who I really like a lot, Nico Muhly. I’ve been listening a lot to his album “Speaks Volumes”. He has led me to some other wonderful music I may write about as well.

10 thoughts on “How Scott Christensen saved this PA study”

  1. Hi Bill- just the fact that you took yourself outside and pushed to paint something you’re not comfortable with, already proves you’re in the process of always becoming a better painter.

    Because, really, when are we ever done being good enough!? Does any artist ever say- ” that’s it- I’m as good as I will ever be ?”.

    Most of what you entered here today resonates with me, having just finished a workshop ( my first ) that addressed limited palettes, color harmony, lights/darks, lights/shadows and the Sargent philosophies of how many types of light there are . Coincidentally, I wrote about the same thing on my blog recently.

    I came to be aware of Sargent late in my painting life- someone directed me to this site which you might find interesting-

    Click to access sargent_notes.pdf

    They are Sargents’ notes on painting and light and color.

    You’re encouragement for me, as this plein air process is humbling to me. It’s hard to grasp in oils and even more challenging in acrylics.

    It’s just good that we keep doing what we love.

    I wish you and your wife a gentle go of things.


  2. Hi Bill. I have that DVD, and the Carlson book. That planes and light thing is one that I always think of when painting.
    Like the painting. I did not know what it was before I read the post, but there is a great harmony of color and strong design.
    Wish I could help with your plein air trials.
    It is good to just turn off the computer once in a while.
    Keep taking care of your wife.


  3. Bonnie, Thanks for your comments. Of course we never want to stop getting better at painting. I was aware of Sargent and have been a big fan of his work but was not familiar with any of his writing. Thanks for the link I’m looking forward to reading up on it.

    Frank, I have the Carlson book and re-read it from time to time. You’ve actually been very helpful and I appreciate your willingness to lend a critical eye.


  4. Bill – I agree with Frank that your painting has wonderful colour harmonies and strong design. What you yourself say of the difficulties with painting vegetation is similar to my own experience. I think it helps to choose subjects to paint where vegetation is juxtaposed against man-made structures and then to study the planar character, often of diagonal planes of the vegetation. Sometimes here the light is reflected, so colour is picked up from adjecent vertical and horizontal surfaces. The whole business of painting ‘by the seat of one’s pants” that characterizes PA painting tends to put me in a panic and I forget to be analytical and really see and understand what is in front of me. I guess awareness is a progression that now i must put into practice.
    I hope your wife weathers the storms of chemotherapy, rides out the journey gently, and you alongside with her. G


  5. Bill, the color harmonies are very nice. You must be using alizarin crimson for your primary red. It has a nice effect because it leans toward purple.

    I don’t ‘get’ foliage either. I like to simplify forms to the extreme when they look too busy or complex. My pine trees are simple cones. I’m learning to just trust putting down the large spots or notes of color (shadow & light side) instead of thinking of the tree as what it is. If I start thinking about the leaves, I’ll end up burning my pochade box!

    Something I find invaluable at the beginning of every painting is squinting to separate the darks from lights and blur out details (like pesky leaves).

    I hope I haven’t been too presumptuous in telling you what I’m learning.

    Your so good to let your wife get the rest she needs at this time. Hope it won’t be much longer.


  6. Suburbanlife, thanks for visiting. “Painting by the seat of one’s pants”, I like that. It does feel like that. BTW, my wife is not doing chemotherapy, at this point she’s only doing radiation. I appreciate your well wishes for both of us.

    Silvina, You are correct – alizarin crimson is my red. I appreciate your sharing what you’ve learned and observed and I agree with you. I don’t think I have a problem getting drawn into painting leaves. I don’t have that kind of patience. I think this was a bad choice of subject in that there was nothing in the composition except foliage – no sky, no water, no structures. I was hoping to suggest the backgroud foliage so broadly that the tree would be distinguished to some extent and it was, but not enough to recognize it in any meaningful way.

    The point I was trying to make in this post was that, even thought my goals were not met for this piece, by using the limited palette and mixing in a way that kept the saturation level in control, I ended up mixing all 3 primaries into every color I made so color harmony was pretty much ensured. Scott Christenses makes that point in the DVD I mentioned.

    My wife is amazing. She’s fought this cancer for nine years on her own terms and continues to do so. I wish there were more I could do to make it easier for her. She has less than 4 weeks to go of radiation.


  7. I’ve been a Bukowski fan since the mid 1970’S. Even went to a couple of his poetry readings in LA (Redondo Beach area). Ya just gotta read “Post Office” next. He was a U.S. mail postal sorter and mailman! Thanks for the comment on my blog…”tamed the beast”…I like that!


  8. Hi Bill,
    I got to this entry because I googled Scott Christensen! We had a conversation about him today, about how focused he is. I like that, despite the fact you aren’t able to paint as often as you would like, you are always focused too. You’re not just splashing are giving it all a great deal of consideration. The tree, even though not what you planned, has conviction.


  9. David, so far I’ve read Factotum and Ham on Rye. Post Office is now on my list. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Celeste, thanks so much that’s very kind of you to say. It sure doesn’t always feel focused from over here.


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