Sherry's painting guidelines and tips


Living in Arizona is an artist's dream. The sun shines most of the time and the weather cooperates by usually being in the comfort range for working outside year-round. The landscape here is vast and gives a wonderful feeling of openness with unending vistas and intriguing specialized desert vegetation. You can see great distances and the mountains offer endless challenges to the outside painter. The quality of light in the desert is the main reason that I enjoy painting outside. This is a landscape saturated by brilliant relentless sunlight and its resulting rich shadows. The shadows are filled with a variety of blues and purples in contrast to the orange, golds and yellows at their edges where the light has its way.

I paint both outside from nature and in the studio (with natural light) from my own reference photos, sometimes in combination; and have found rewards and challenges in both. Painting outside is exciting. There is so much to see and paint. The best time to work outside (and to photograph) is early in the morning or in the late afternoon when the colors are richer and not so washed out as they are at mid-day. There is a sense of urgency to get started because the light is changing so fast and the shadows are moving and shifting. In about two hours the light changes enough to make starting a new painting seem like a good idea. Therefore if the painting can't be completed in a few hours it's best to come back another day to the same site at the same time.

I keep neutral toned canvases of various sizes always ready. I like to work on toned canvases because they eliminate having to cover a stark white canvas and the neutral tone serves as a middle value or halftone in the painting, saving time, especially outside.

Outside, my easel is set up so that the surface of the canvas is in the shade. Sun creates a glare on the canvas, giving a false sense of the brilliance of the colors.

Painting in the studio is more of an intellectual exercise, while working from nature is more of an emotional one. The elements of light, wind and temperature are controlled in the studio. You compose in comfort, but usually the compositions of paintings done in the studio are also much more complex. When I'm working with figures or animals I often have to take photographs of my subjects in various poses for reference that relate to the composition I am working on.

Working from photographic material has many drawbacks, but is sometimes necessary when you can't paint your subject on location or if your subject is in constant motion. Photographs are best used as back-up reference material from directly observed nature. The camera also distorts proportions and is very limited in depicting color and value. The human eye can differentiate between hundreds of colors and their values while the lens of a camera will show only a few. I usually take a photograph of a scene that I have worked on outside to use as a point of reference later in the studio. Visual memory of the scene is also a tool I am constantly working on to imprint the impressions I want to retain of the scene.

A good example of this was on a hiking trip I made with some friends to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. We spent the night at Phantom Ranch and were hiking out the next morning at dawn. The light was the pale dusky blue of a sunless morning, but as we were going down the trail the sun was starting to rise behind us and washing the top of a mountain in warm glowing sunlight. I saw the dusky sky, the red-orange halftone between the sunlit top of the mountain and the rich cool shadows below and it was spectacular. I had to paint it. I recorded the scene with my camera and filed the rest away in my visual memory bank.

When I looked at the photo later, it was not at all as I remembered it. But I did record the details of the mountain face and the overall idea of the composition that was so striking.

When I'm working directly from nature I try to keep an open mind about what I want to paint and about the impressions I'm receiving from my surroundings. I'm looking for something that will speak to me personally that will inspire me to want to paint it. A certain mood or patterns of lights and dark. A focus of mine has been the depiction of light in my compositions. I always look for an interesting arrangement of light and shadow to add drama and excitement to the pictorial elements. I want my paintings to radiate light from within.

Capturing the essence of atmosphere is the unique challenge of painting outdoors. Shadows are in a higher key of value and the color of objects are grayer than they seem. I adhere to the theory of aerial perspective-that cool colors recede and warm colors advance. Distant objects are seen through layers of atmosphere that cools them and makes them lighter.

I use the light in the composition to catch the viewer's eye and move it through the painting. To achieve this light, I must also define and describe the rich darks. I find it very interesting that most of my paintings are considered "low key", because I am always working to achieve the light. To create the lights I must establish the contrast of the darks.


My palette is:

  • Yellow ochre
  • Zinc yellow
  • Cadmium yellow deep
  • Cadmium yellow light
  • Cadmium orange
  • Indianred
  • Cobalt blue
  • Ultramarine blue
  • Viridian green
  • Alizarin crimson
  • Burnt umber
  • Burnt sienna
  • Ivory black
  • Titanium white


These are basic colors that I use, but I don't limit my colors. I use as many as necessary to achieve the desired effect. I arrange my paint on the palette so that cool colors are one side, warm on the other. Arranging them in the same order each time lets me know instinctively where they are.

My brushes are bristle filberts of various sizes with a few sables for detail. I prefer the traditional medium of thirds of turpentine, linseed oil, and damar, or Winsor & Newton's "Liquin".


Some problem solvers are:

  1. Look at a painting upside down-this helps you see shapes and not subjects.
  2. Look at painting using a mirror-gives you a fresh eye.
  3. Use a Black Mirror-a pane of glass painted black on one side. Painting is viewed as in a mirror- this knocks down color and helps you see values.
  4. Squint-This softens the scene and helps you see large important shapes with less detail.
  5. If you're having a hard time seeing a color or value, look next to that color in nature, not right at it.
  6. Look at your painting from a distance, or use a reducing glass. This will help you see the large important masses.
  7. Stand up sometimes when painting. It opens up more freedom of arm movement. In the studio the tendency is to get too comfortable and close to the canvas.
  8. Use a view finder when searching for an interesting composition. A rectangle of matte board with an opening cut out. This blocks out confusing, unwanted areas and helps you see your main subject.


As I study my chosen subject, I consider the colors I will be using. With a palette knife, I mix large beds of the approximately correct local colors, with their darkest darks and lightest lights. These will serve me well when I'm busy painting and I can simply add small amounts of warm or cool colors to them and I don't have to stop and mix a lot of color in the heat of the painting process. When I'm painting, I'm lost in the search to establish quickly those things that will make this painting come alive to relate and translate those qualities that made me want to paint it in the first place.

My first brush strokes define the size and placement of the essential elements of the composition. I try to see the entire painting as a whole; where the strongest lights and darkest darks will be. I then lay in the large color masses all over the canvas. After massing in the deep shadow areas, I apply the overall dominant color areas, then the lightest light. Sky color will set a landscape's mood and generally be the lightest value in the landscape. My guide is the direct observation of the natural scene. My job as an artist is to sort out nature's variety and complexity without overloading the painting with useless detail. I always search for simplicity in nature.

Paint application is direct and bold, with generous, loaded brush strokes. Handling of the brush is the artist's handwriting, unique to that person. Paint quality is important. I paint lights with more opaque impasto, shadow areas in a thinner wash. The theory of fat over lean applies here.

Knowing when to stop is important. A painting must retain vitality and freshness. Sometimes I have to keep myself from overworking a painting.

A painting can only be pushed so far and then some of the "life" will be lost. I am basically not a detail painter. I want a painting to show life and share life, to come from the heart and have a spirit of its own.