Mirja Vahala Art Studio https://www.mirjavahalaartstudio.com Art Lessons and Workshops Fri, 16 Jun 2017 03:22:02 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Brigitte Desbois’s Self Expression Essentials Workshop https://www.mirjavahalaartstudio.com/brigitte-desboiss-self-expression-essentials-workshop/ Thu, 04 May 2017 21:05:17 +0000 https://www.mirjavahalaartstudio.com/?p=1497 Brigitte Desbois‘s classical art training was to our benefit during this workshop. Fourteen artists converged at the Mirja Vahala Art Studio to gain a greater understanding of design, edges and luminosity. 

Before beginning with pigments, Desbois covered the many ways a painting  can be designed, using ideas such as the tunnel, the steelyard, the silhouette, z-shapes and more. For interesting designs, she also suggested inverting values, to have a value dominance, and to use shadows for designing. Desbois suggested we study the art of Daniil Volkov and Emile Bernard. Some of Brigitte’s favourite design books are:

Composition for Outdoor Painting by Edgar Payne
Composition by Arthur Wesley Dow.
Composition in Art by Henri Rankin Poore

We chose images with a ‘strong idea’ for design, created notan value sketches, and then painted 3-shade raw umber notan studies. To paraphrase the artist Renoir: A strong idea equals a strong painting. Desbois taught us not to paint our darks with 100% black or our whites 100% white, but to have room to add dark and light accents. Creativity happens when we use the bare essentials of Notan. The big concept is to remember to squint when looking at reference and our paintings: a must for seeing the tonal value masses. Desbois’s demo of using only mass shapes and no line edges showed us how simplifying mass shapes – and having a main idea (design) – is powerful and beautiful.  Have the ‘big plan’!

Beginning and end stages to the ‘mass’ painting demo. An example of a ‘tunnel’ design.

Brigitte Desbois explains that soft edges belong to the background, and that hard edges detach from the background. By blending an edge, an object can be detached from the background. She states that we tend to begin with hard edges because we draw with line: it is better to begin with soft edges and choose where to use harder edges later in the process. Consider using gradations to increase contrast toward an edge for a harder line, or vice versa. Edges can be softened with transitions: a combo of the colours of two areas.  Irma Cerese uses interesting edges in her contemporary art.

Luminosity (a :  the relative quantity of light and b :  relative brightness of something)
Desbois explained other ways to create luminosity:
• to place cool beside a warm using broken colour (i.e. orange with pink). This creates more luminosity then tonal value contrasts (though it is fascinating how even an image painted in shades of Raw Umber can look luminous by using the correct tones);
• to have a light area – a halo – around the lightest spot (i.e., on the fruit in a still life);
• to refrain from going too dark or too light in mass areas (i.e., add dark and light accents);
• to begin the brightest/lightest areas on a white surface;
• to paint transparent shadows;
• that when the light source is warm: shadows become warmer as they move away from the object;
• that the local colour is found in the objects mid-tone.

 This is only a snippet of what we learned in three days. No wonder we were tired, but I could see by the end of our workshop the growth made by each of us.

Thank you Brigitte. We hope to have you grace our studio for more workshops.

How to Begin a Painting using a Colour Mass Method https://www.mirjavahalaartstudio.com/how-to-begin-a-painting-using-a-colour-mass-method/ Sun, 26 Mar 2017 00:07:39 +0000 https://www.mirjavahalaartstudio.com/?p=1405 During each monthly Saturday art mentoring session, Mirja provides a talk or demo on some aspect of art. The following is from February 2016.

An alternative to using a monochrome underpainting is to begin with varying colour masses. This can be a fun method to use when painting outdoors, as well as for doing quick studies when trying out various colour choices — whether using found or imaginative colours. 

Below: thumbnail; colour masses; layers; final painting…

Begin with your image and create a small tonal sketch.
Draw your image onto the canvas and choose colours to block in main areas. Consider the end colour you want when choosing colours for the initial masses. You can have fun choosing how much of the underpainting shows through. Play with analogous and/or complementary colours (compared to the end colour) as well. Plan ahead on where you will use transparent, semi-opaque or opaque layers.
Add layers of colour.
Finished painting, 8×10, acrylic, Corniglia, Italy. 


Begin with your design plan. Then decide on colour: this is a bright painting, so colours were chosen from the outside of the colour wheel. Initially I thought I would want a violet sky, so I chose a magenta underpainting. For the dark tree areas, violet would create great darks under green. For the brighter green bush area, yellow would keep the green from dulling; same for the magenta flowers. I  chose local and analagous colours for the building shapes. Notice it’s all mass shapes. Next I began to lay colours on top, both with transparent and opaque methods. I also used both brushes and knives. The goal was to simplify and avoid a lot of detail.

Tip: You can brighten pink with orange. To maintain brightness for cool colours like blue, don’t mix with other colours. Also, white dulls and cools colour, so lighten orange with yellow and so on.

Dividing the canvas for visual impact https://www.mirjavahalaartstudio.com/dividing-the-canvas-for-visual-impact/ Fri, 24 Feb 2017 22:59:58 +0000 https://www.mirjavahalaartstudio.com/?p=1374 How you divide the surface of your space  
will make or break its visual impact.

What do the three following paintings have in common?

1. Jan Vermeer Johannes, was a Dutch painter in the 1600s who specialized in domestic interior scenes of middle-class life. 

Mondrian art

2. Piet Mondrian radically simplified the elements of his 1920s artwork to reflect ‘the order underlying the visible world’. He limited his palette to black, white, and the three primaries. He used asymmetrical balance of vertical and horizontal lines and shapes. 

3. Frank Webb is an American watercolor painter and author, born in 1927. We can see the influence of Mondrian and Cubism in the development of his unique style.


It is interesting to note that, despite the very different style of each of the paintings to the left, they are carefully rendered in terms of division of space.

It is quite challenging to create asymmetrical balance within a painting. Helpful in this regard are exercises such as the one shown below (and have been taught for decades). See if you can apply the concept of the exercise in the development of your designs.


Division of Space Exercise, based on Mondrian’s concept of using blocks. 

Space exercise from Painting with Purpose by Morris Davidson, 1964.


Why do this exercise (many times):
• It trains you to see balance in patterns.
• It helps you learn to see asymmetrical balance.
• It will translate into better painting designs
• You will get a better feel for proportion, variation and use of positioning of blocks of space (patterns).
• You will learn how to create visual tension and/or calmness.
• You will learn to make rhythmic patterns plus orderly, pleasing division of space within your artwork, regardless of style or genre.

The steps:
1. Tone an 11 x 14 or bigger sheet of paper evenly with charcoal.
2. Using straight vertical and horizontal lines, divide the paper into about 15 blocks, varied in size and proportion. Use your imagination.
3. Usng a kneadable eraser, wipe out three of the blocks. The goal is balance without symmetry (not equally spaced).
4. Choose three blocks and make them black.
5. Vary the values of the remaining blocks.

You can do variations on this theme, using angled and curved shapes, blobs and whatever, keeping in mind the  purpose of asymmetrical balance. 

Metamorphosis by Willi Baumeister.
This is a great example of negative space and postive form patterns and asymmetrical balance.

Asymmetry: lack of equality or equivalence between parts or aspects of something; lack of symmetry.

Use Methods in Your Own Unique Way https://www.mirjavahalaartstudio.com/use-methods-in-your-own-unique-way/ Tue, 24 Jan 2017 23:44:59 +0000 http://www.mirjavahalaartstudio.com/?p=1149 Learning from other artists can move us more quickly from struggle to success. However, a lot of varied influences in a short period of time can lead to a confusion of personal style. I noticed that I put my own ways aside while ‘trying on’ other styles, especially when my skills were fledgling. My artwork varied depending on the influence:  Mike Svob‘s style, Bonnie Roberts colour choices, the ‘John Carlton’ way taught by Doug Swinton, David Langevin‘s amazing acrylic layering and so on. This is a positive part of the process: these generous artists have condensed the learning of a lifetime and shared the results. 

For learning, I think it’s great to copy the styles of the masters in order to grasp concepts and to then move on. Though it is normal to be influenced (no man is an island), my goal is to apply the learned methods to my own insights — without rendering the style of my instructors. Not easy! It feels like going full circle after traveling in a foreign land and seeing where I started with new eyes: I am ready to settle down and be comfortable in my own ways and means.

Finding our way:

Get the basic tools under your belt: drawing, composition, colour theory and so on.
Learn, apply, learn, apply.
To develop style, paint a lot and consistently.
If a particular workshop really jibes, there’s something there that flows with the real you.
Paint with a purpose: to learn, to document, to express, to tell a story…
If a method comes easily, it is still viable, and probably your thing. 
Give various methods a go. Experimenting is a part of process.
Everyone will have a different opinion: have vision.
Learn to critique your own work without ego.
Recognize weaknesses and improve on them.
Recognize strengths and capitalize on them. 
Every instructor and painter has their own ideas about methods.
Study a collection of your own favourite paintings: ask what you like about them. Is there a commonality among them?
Second guessing is futile.
Know yourself.
Trust yourself.



Why creative endeavours are worthwhile. https://www.mirjavahalaartstudio.com/why-creative-endeavours-are-worthwhile/ Thu, 15 Dec 2016 03:58:16 +0000 http://www.mirjavahalaartstudio.com/?p=1164 ‘Creativity is where love lies,’ stated Sherry, my good friend, during one of our treks in the mountains. This comment was born after our discussion about the deep enjoyment I feel while artists work at my studio, particularly when I witness a breakthrough. In five words Sherry summed up beautifully why the pursuit of a creative life is worthwhile.

There are so many benefits to the creative pursuit:
It provides continuous learning and challenge.
It holds no barriers to age, race, or gender.
It communicates and connects.
It brings meaning and beauty.
It creates legacies and inspirations.
It provides opportunities for flow states and personal growth.
It can be timeless and transcendent.
It gives the world the gift of your creations.
It adds more depth to daily living.

Rene Brown states in her book Rising Strong, ‘Creativity embeds knowledge so that it can become practice. We move what we’re learning from our heads to our hearts through our hands. We are born makers, and creativity is the ultimate act of integration — it is how we fold our experiences into our being.’

As the year draws to a close, some will be glad to see it’s tail end, others grateful for the good it brought, and some will feel a bit of both. Whatever the happenings in the coming year, creative endeavours will keep our souls afloat on that great sea of our imaginations. Keep sailing my friends. 



David Langevin’s Mastering Acrylics https://www.mirjavahalaartstudio.com/david-langevins-mastering-acrylics/ Mon, 31 Oct 2016 23:18:22 +0000 http://www.mirjavahalaartstudio.com/?p=1243 David showing glaze, veil and opaque layering.
David showing glaze, veil and opaque layering.


David Langevin’s Technical Acrylic Painting Workshop

Anyone who wants to master acrylic painting techniques will want to take David Langevin‘s technical workshops. Thirteen artists converged at the Mirja Vahala Art Studio to gain more skills in process, glazing, creating veils and opaques. The thought process required to do the layering of colour was intriguing. We gained an understanding of how David Langevin makes his paintings glow with light, which are a testament to his understanding of how bending light makes white. 

Though I have learned many of the methods that David shared with us, it was the stages and means of  when and how to use these methods that was especially valuable. He provided innumerable tips such as using fluids for transparent paints and heavy body for opaque paints; light is subtracted as we add layers to the canvas;  paint light to dark; use GAC 500 not water when using acrylics; the smoother the surface, the more light can bounce off, etcetera, etcetera. Check out my chart at the end for more of David’s ideas.

First layers of Langevin's demo painting.
First layers of Langevin’s demo painting using Quinacridone Red, Dioxazine Purple and lots of GAC 500, a medium made by Golden.
David Langevin's demo painting mostly complete.
David Langevin’s demo painting mostly complete.
David Langevin techniques
Mirja’s chart showing some of Langevin’s main concepts


35 pounds and 3.5 hours https://www.mirjavahalaartstudio.com/35-pounds-and-3-5-hours/ Mon, 31 Oct 2016 21:43:48 +0000 http://www.mirjavahalaartstudio.com/?p=1227 The lake view by Kokanee Glacier Hut in the early morning. This clear sky image makes it hard to believe there was a snow storm the night before.
Photo by Mirja Vahala


This type of view made it worthwhile to hike into the mountains, even with 35+ pound packs and 3.5 hours of mostly up. By staying overnight at the Kokanee Glacier Hut, we were able to capture the post-storm morning beauty of the area on our cameras — and in our memories. 

Brigitte Desbois, Lorraine Bell-Lebedoff, Darrin Markvardsen and myself enjoyed 3 days of plein air painting in a variety of weather. It’s amazing how the rain can turn paint into puddles of gray goo, but we managed to pull off a few paintings. And there was good weather too. We were fortunate that the snow storm that blew sideways was during the night and while we were snug in the log hut. 

Oil on panel by Brigitte.

Brigitte’s lovely choice of colours beautifully captures the feel of the area.

Oil on panel by Brigitte.
Acrylic on canvas by Lorraine.

I was most impressed by Lorraine, who completely ignored the rain storm while we scurried to cover. What concentration! 

Acrylic on canvas by Lorraine.

Note to self: don’t paint under trees with melting snow…Lorraine did not enjoy the experience.

Oil on canvas by Darrin.

Darrin is a new painter who took the summer off of work to grow his burgeoning art skills.


Acrylic on canvas by Mirja.

I managed to finish the painting below as my paints turned into puddles. 

Acrylic on canvas by Mirja
On our way back to civilization. Ahhhh, downhill and flat areas — and less food in our packs.

What’s Your Fuel? https://www.mirjavahalaartstudio.com/whats-your-fuel/ Sat, 03 Sep 2016 01:43:03 +0000 http://www.mirjavahalaartstudio.com/?p=1156 There was the time in younger days when my motivation was fuelled by angst, anxiety, approval seeking and a need to prove myself to some unknown judge. As time marched along, a new drummer arrived with a better sense of rhythm, which squelched the old motivational forces. Following this was a sense of being in no-man’s land: if I wasn’t trying to prove that I was a worthy artist (person, athlete, wife, daughter…), then what juice would get me going — and what exactly did I want to get going on?  To move on from there took soul searching and the type of self-honesty that was difficult but worthwhile, much like the artist’s journey of continuous learning.

Here are a few ideas on motivation that worked for me:

  • Define success. How else do we know if we’ve succeeded?
  • We need to believe we can reach our goals.
  • To thwart procrastination, chunking helps (break things down into manageable bits). 
  • Ticking off a to-do list gives a sense of accomplishment.  
  • Early success keeps us going. (Begin with something we can attain.)
  • It helps to be ‘sticky’ — stick to the effort it takes to reach a goal,
    which means we need to have direction and commitment.
  • Believe we can handle doing what needs to be done.
  • Have enough of a challenge to feel excited, but not so big as to be intimidated.
  • Accept that some days things will flow and some days you might as well drop a brick on your head.
  • Remember why an endeavour is worthwhile. Tap into your core beliefs.
  • Name the fear which tries to stymie efforts. (Fear of ridicule, success, disappointment, vulnerability and so on.)
  • There are many ways to reach a goal.
  • There are times to give up and times to try something else.
  • Don’t settle on the status quo. It’s boring. Try something new. Experiment.
  • Be aware of changing values, passions, and interests. 
  • We need support and that’s normal. 
  • It’s important to know that we are aiming for our goals. 
  • Reward accomplishments of any size.
  • Enjoy the process as much as possible and keep the faith when the fun factor is on holidays.

Ability is what you’re capable of doing.
Motivation determines what you do.
Attitude determines how well you do it.
Lou Holtz

Desire is the key to motivation, but it’s determination and commitment to an unrelenting pursuit of your goal – a commitment to excellence – that will enable you to attain the success you seek.
Mario Andretti

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Do What You Want To Do https://www.mirjavahalaartstudio.com/do-what-you-want-to-do/ Sun, 17 Jul 2016 20:32:16 +0000 http://www.mirjavahalaartstudio.com/?p=1108 The final TV episode of Grace and Frankie was to the point about aging, dying and living big. I loved that these two aging women felt energized and empowered, that they let go of past rules — and constraints — about themselves, and realized that they could do whatever they liked. 

Ideas of how we think we are supposed to live our lives can get in the way of our personal greatness, never mind social constraints and fear. Here are some ideas I use to replace ones that no longer function for me, especially as a painter:

  • When faced head on, fear is a great motivator and instructor.
  • I will never get it all done, yet I am enough.
  • There is always room for improvement.
  • It takes a lot of effort to get good.
  • Fretting about the past and fearing the future quells motivation.
  • Light defines darkness and darkness defines light. Both are needed.
  • Comparing and competition kills creativity.
  • Breaking the rules and challenging method equals innovation and personal style.
  • Not even experts know it all — not every ‘right’ is right for everyone.
  • I have to start to get motivated, not vice versa.
  • Inclusion and openness to differences creates inner spaciousness.
  • It’s okay not to enjoy the process, just proceed.
  • Perfectionism is boring and creates anxiety.
  • It’s okay to be eclectic.
  • Don’t hold back. Play big.
  • I can do whatever I want, and if done within my values, it’s all good.

What unties the knots in your knickers?

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.  – Marianne Williamson

Nothing is difficult for the man who puts his mind to it. – Nietzsche

Guide to Landscape Painting https://www.mirjavahalaartstudio.com/guide-to-landscape-painting/ Thu, 30 Jun 2016 04:16:38 +0000 http://www.mirjavahalaartstudio.com/?p=1099 John Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting contains a wealth of suggestions. Contact Mirja by email for a free PDF of general notes.  Meanwhile, here are a few of Carlson’s extended ideas:

We must have design in a picture even at the expense of truth. You are using nature for your artistic needs. USELESS DETAIL = BAD PAINTINGS. 

There are 4 MAIN VALUES to landscape painting (in average light on an average landscape):four values

Darkest: verticals such as trees

Second darkest: slopes such as hills

Lightest: the sky

Second Lightest: the flat ground

IMPORTANT 5TH VALUE: Beginners will paint sky too dark because of the perceived lightness of the clouds. The value between the sky and clouds is less than perceived at first. CLOUDS: On a gray day, white clouds are lighter than the sky and a diffuse light comes through. The base of clouds are cooler and lighter in the distance. The white of clouds get a bit warmer and rosier in the distance. 

For masses and forms, they need to belong to a half light or half dark — this prevents over modelling. We want varied sizes of masses. Don’t break up masses with mottling.  Have 4 to 5 large flat tones (masses) of unequal weight (values). Paint these with poster-like flat planes. Then make them beautiful with local colour — aim for essential masses, then beautify. 

Don’t begin with an elaborate drawing, which is constricting and a barrier to great edges. Use a bold, thick outline of masses, then instantly fill masses with approximate colour contrasts but with exact value. Use a full brush, and use medium (for oils) so that the painting will be dry enough in an hour to drag paint overtop. 

Cast shadows are usually lighter than the tree that casts it. The colour of shadow is determined by the local colour of the flat plane. Same colour but darker. The blue sky casts a cold light which cools the colour cast of local colour. The shadow is warmest near the tree (less exposed to the blue sky light.) 

TREES: When painting trees, don’t paint highlights on them, rather use slight variations of darks and mid-tones. Trees are lighter and cooler nearer to the sky, and darker and warmer nearer (but not at) the ground. The sky holes need to be painted darker than the sky colour.

BE AWARE: Cool colours look darker than they are and warm colours look lighter than they are.  Receding shadows in the distance get cooler and lighter. Luminosity is obtained if you paint shadows keeping these concepts in mind, as does proper use of accents within shadows. Don’t paint the shadows too dark. The only real darks in shadows are under stone edges and such. Dark accents are more pronounced in fully lit areas. Note that aerial perspective has a greater effect on darks than mid-tones in a landscape.

The most important things in a painting are Form and Value. Color comes last – like a friend you welcome.  (Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot)