Posts filed under ‘Process’

New Painting: “Multi-Colored Dots”

Here’s my latest dot painting, “Multi-Colored Dots:”

Multi-Colored Dots - painting by Barbara J Carter, 10x10 inches, acrylic on canvasMulti-Colored Dots” painting by Barbara J Carter, acrylic on canvas, 10×10 inches, framed to 11.5 x 11.5 in.

For this one, I tried something new. The background (the soft swirl of colors behind the dots) I made by pouring thinned paint onto the canvas. I poured several colors and allowed them to merge and blend together, with some encouragement on my part. I was inspired to try this after seeing the amazing (and huge) paintings done this way by a fellow Los Angeles artist named Suzan Woodruff. I was so intrigued I just had to give it a try. It’s messy: all that runny paint runs off the sides of the canvas and gets all over. You don’t have a lot of control over the final result, either, so it’s sort of like controlled chaos. It’s good fun! I’m definitely going to do more. Thanks for the inspiration Suzan!

You can see my other dot paintings on my website.


June 23, 2011 at 6:37 pm

Painting dots… lots of dots

It’s been pretty quiet around here lately, I know.

Here’s what I’m up to these days:

Due to the popularity of paintings like this one, I’m focusing on painting more like it.

People often ask how I paint all those little perfectly-round dots on my abstract paintings. This is how: by hand, one dot at a time, using a small round brush dipped into fluid acrylic paint. The painting lies flat so the drops of paint don’t run. It’s a slow, contemplative process.

And yes, I do need to be very careful not to let my hand or sleeve smudge the wet dots. Fortunately I’m good at being careful. I haven’t smudged one yet! (Let’s hope I didn’t just jinx myself by saying that.)

June 2, 2010 at 10:03 am 4 comments

Work in Progress – Finishing the Painting

After I’ve filled in all of the obvious gaps and gotten past the worst of the hard part, the next question comes up: is the painting done yet? What more does it need?

When is a painting done?

Well, there’s the famous quote (famous amongst artists, anyway): “Art is never finished, only abandoned.” (Leonardo da Vinci)

I knew an artist in Boston who caught so much flak from critics about his paintings looking unfinished that he wrote his artist statement about how much he likes the raw unfinished look. (It sounded a bit defensive to me.)

It’s up to the artist to decide. There’s no right or wrong answer. It depends on what you like.

Yeah, it sounds simple in principle. In practice, however, it’s another thing altogether. It can be an agonizing decision. I might like a painting as it stands, but then I’ll wonder if it might be even better if I just add a little more? It’s scary because sometimes when you add more the painting loses its sense of freshness or spontaneity. It’s kind of like gambling. When do you walk away from the table?

“Overwork” is a word you’ll hear artists use when they feel that they’ve ruined a painting’s charm by laboring too much over things like small details. I do worry about overworking my paintings (although small details are not so much an issue for me). In my case, it’s more about diminishing returns. For example, I like to have bits of the original red background peeking through here and there, and if I overwork a painting the red tends to get completely covered. So one big question for me is how much of the red do I want showing.


In the case of this particular painting, I decided to let just a little more of the red background show (slightly more than my “usual” amount). The painting felt balanced and I liked the effect, so I decided to let it be. I could have worked on it more, but I’m not sure I’d have been any happier with it than as it now is, so I’ve declared it finished. And I did sign it.

I’ll post more about this painting (with a clean photo) now that it is really finished.

February 12, 2009 at 12:12 am 3 comments

Work in Progress – the Hard Part

All the planning and prep work and the initial sketchy “roadmap” painting is done. Now the real work, the meat of the painting, begins.

This is, for me, the hard part. A lot of decisions come up. What color to make this area, what value for that shadow, will they contrast sufficiently, is the sky going to reflect the colors in the foreground, what shade of blue to use, whether to make the grass yellow, isn’t that tree a little too bright, maybe should tone down the green, and on and on.


Sometimes things get so messy and complicated, I call it the “ugly phase”. I can’t take credit for this phrase, but it sure is apt (at least sometimes). A few lucky paintings glide effortlessly from prep to finish, and I’m always grateful for them. Most, however, at least briefly (and sometimes not at all briefly) pass through the “ugly phase”. Lots of artists use this phrase, so at least I’m in good company. It’s the stage when the painting looks hopeless, ugly, patchy, too contrasty or too muddy or too dull or too bright or whatever it is that ails it. (By the way, “too dull” is rarely the problem for me. But you get the idea.)

This stage, by the way, is the reason I don’t normally post work-in-progress photos. It can be a little like watching sausage being made.

Sometimes I have to set the painting aside and leave it alone for a few days (or even weeks). Usually I’ll leave it out where I can see it all the time and mull it over. Sometimes, if I’m badly stuck, I’ll turn it to face the wall so I can’t see it most of the time. Then when I do look at it, it’s a fresh look.

I suppose things would be easier if I had an exact plan of how I want the painting to look when it’s finished. Most of the time I don’t have a specific plan. I don’t know which direction I’m going to take the painting until it happens. Even if I do have a plan, sometimes I’ll change my mind partway through based on how it’s going. These decisions mostly have to do with the color scheme of the painting, since the composition is pretty much fixed ahead of time.


Next: finishing the painting.

February 10, 2009 at 8:33 pm 4 comments

Work in Progress – the First Dabs of Paint

Now that I’ve done the prep work (selected the reference photo, painted the canvas red, and outlined the image on the canvas in chalk), the painting finally begins in earnest.

All artists get asked the question: “How long does it take to paint one of your paintings?” This is one of those pesky, difficult-to-answer questions because “painting a painting” isn’t very well defined. Or at least for me it isn’t. Do you count the time it took me to paint the canvas red? The time it took to draw the chalk grid on the canvas? How about the days spent hiking and taking digital photos? How about the hours spent cropping, rotating, editing, and printing out all the digital photos that never got used (along with the one chosen for the painting)?

Anyway, the one part that everyone can agree should be counted is the time spent standing at the easel, paintbrush in hand, actually putting dabs of colored paint on the canvas. This is the good stuff! This is painting!

Not surprisingly, when you paint with dots and smallish slashes of almost-random color (as I do) the beginning stages of “real” painting don’t look like much. Almost random, really. But there is a method to the madness.


First off, I need to reinforce my “roadmap”. Those chalk lines are a temporary guide and need to be made permanent with paint. Areas that are in shadow need to be blocked in as a darker color. Horizons, hilltops, and folds in the land need to be indicated so I don’t lose their place.

The other thing I start doing right away is using interesting colors. If I know a field of dry grass will eventually be a yellowish color, I might start out by putting some lavender color in, just to give the yellow something to contrast with. If the sky is blue, maybe I’ll paint some orange or yellow up there so the blue will vibrate against it and look all the more vibrant.

Of course, the one color I can’t paint is red. It’s already all over the canvas! If I were to try painting red, it would disappear against the background. So, this constrains me in a way.

Next: filling in the gaps.

February 9, 2009 at 6:49 pm 5 comments

Work in Progress – the Grid

Whenever I begin one of my neo-pointillist landscape paintings, there are several preparatory steps I go through before I lay paintbrush to canvas. The first layer of paint on the canvas is a solid red coat, all over the front as well as all 4 sides. But this is all just preparatory to the real painting process.

To get started painting, I need to get the outline of the image onto the canvas, so I know where to paint. I call this outline my “roadmap”. When painting as I do, using large dots, it’s very easy to get lost. (Is that dot part of the tree or part of the hill?)

I print out a copy of my digital reference image with a grid overlaid on it. And I draw a grid on my canvas in chalk. The two grids are proportional.


Using the grid, I then sketch the image onto the canvas in chalk. The grid lines make it easier to get shapes and proportions correct, rather than just trying to sketch the whole thing freehand. Some artists use a projector to project their reference image onto the canvas and simply trace around the image. Other artists look down on such a practice as “cheating”. I don’t have a projector (they’re expensive) so I get to neatly sidestep that particular rancorous debate.

Depending on its complexity, drawing the image in chalk might take a few minutes or an hour or two. It might be just a few simple lines to mark the location of the horizon, a hill, or a shadow. Or it might be a complex tangle of tree trunks and branches and masses of dark and light leaves. This chalk sketch (and also the first few paint marks) is my guide to prevent me from getting lost, my roadmap. I’ll leave the chalk on the canvas as long as I feel I need it. Usually I’ll rub out the grid lines before I start painting, leaving just the outline of the image. Eventually most of the chalk gets covered by paint, and I’ll erase the rest with a damp paper towel (when the latest round of paint is dry of course!).

Using a grid to copy an image to a larger size is called “gridding up”, and is a very traditional (and generally widely accepted) method for translating a small image to a large one. I’m sorry to admit that I didn’t take any photos while gridding up this particular painting. I’ll try to remember for the next one.

Next: the painting begins in earnest.

February 8, 2009 at 10:48 pm 2 comments

Abstract Dots in Detail

Here’s a closer look at my second experimental dot painting. This is one corner of the painting:

Detail of dot painting by Barbara J Carter, 2008

Detail of dot painting by Barbara J Carter, 2008

The white dots are about the size of a pencil eraser.

What I like about this painting is the partial obscuration of the underlying colors by the mostly light-colored little round dots of paint (the ones that look white and straw-yellow in the image above – none are really pure white, but that is how they look). When you stand back and look at the painting you can certainly make out the major areas of underlying color (the two red rectangles) but there’s more than that going on. I like how hard it is to make this out, as if it’s more hinted at than spelled out.

The other thing I like about the painting is the darker purple dots around the edges. I intentionally “feathered” them into and amongst the pale dots to make what we artists call a gradient around the perimeter of the painting. This really gives it a sense of depth and additional mystery. The detail image above shows one of the corners. You can see the darker dots that form the edges of the painting on the left and bottom of the detail image.

If you enjoyed this painting, don’t worry, there will be more. Just not quite yet. Right now I need to paint some more of my neo-pointillist landscapes. I’ll post some progress images in the coming days.

January 16, 2009 at 2:50 pm 1 comment

A Sense of Scale

Blank Canvases

If you’ve seen my art, you know that I tend to work at a certain scale.

I use standard-sized canvases, ranging from the smallest at 8×10 inches to the largest (so far) at 40×30 inches.

I think of these as “natural” sizes for paintings. Human-scale objects in our everyday lives tend to be measured in inches, feet, or yards. A painting smaller than an inch across would be hard to see. A painting larger than 20 or 30 feet can’t fit in the door. So most artists (myself included) tend to stick with “reasonable” sizes somewhere between these extremes.

There’s another reason to stick to “reasonable” sizes: the cost of materials.

I buy my canvases pre-made, in standard sizes, in bulk. This keeps my costs down, so I can keep my prices affordable. To me, it makes sense to leave certain parts of the manufacturing process to others. Let the paint and canvas manufacturers do their thing, and I’ll do mine. I’m not interested in making my own paints or canvases or brushes. I’d rather the experts did that so I can focus on the part that I’m good at: painting.

But I’ve discovered this only works up to a certain point. You see, I want to start making larger paintings. I want to go much larger than my current largest size, which is only 40×30″ right now. I’m thinking maybe 5 or 6 feet across. But I’m running into all sorts of issues.

First there’s cost. Pre-made canvases are pretty reasonable up to a point, but above about 4 feet across they start getting much more expensive. And on top of the material cost there’s shipping. Suddenly you’re into “oversized” shipping territory, and shipping rates go through the roof. These babies are expensive.

And then there’s availability. At the largest sizes of pre-made stretched canvases, there are only a few options. You can get 4×4 feet, 4×5′, 4×6′, or 5×6′. But if you want 5×5 you’re out of luck, never mind going larger or wanting other sizes! Oh, and there’s only one type of canvas available at these sizes, so if you don’t like that style you’re out of luck.

There are other issues, like storage, transportation, and structural (and aesthetic) engineering. Going large is a lot more involved that at first appears! But the biggest hurdles for me right now are cost and availability.

The bottom line is I have to make my own canvases. So much for my idea of letting the manufacturers do their thing! It’s just no longer feasible at larger sizes. Reluctantly, I find I have to become a manufacturer.

My task now is to find local sources for the necessary raw materials. Stay tuned, progress reports to follow.

November 14, 2008 at 1:20 pm 2 comments

Snake Encounter

Last weekend I went hiking in Malibu and met a large, angry snake.

Charmlee Park, Malibu, CA

Charmlee Park, Malibu, CA

Charmlee Park charmed me right away. I hate to admit it, but I didn’t want to tell anyone about this place. It’s gorgeous! And we had it all to ourselves!

Once you get past the nice big parking lot, the abundant and well-placed picnic tables, and the clean bathrooms with running water and flush toilets, and make your way past the hill with the old foundation, the park opens up into a broad scrubby field overlooking the Malibu coast. Clear, level dirt paths lead hither and yon, allowing a casual meander through the park without fear of getting lost.

We arrived in the late afternoon. This is the perfect time for me to snap photos that I can later use for my paintings. The day had been very clear, so the light was superb. The sun was low in the sky and casting lovely long shadows.

While ambling about, my friend and I encountered all sorts of wildlife. There were more lizards than we could count, scurrying on the dirt path almost under our feet. Birds flitted about in the brush. Two groups of coyotes briefly serenaded us from the nearby hills. But by far the most exciting encounter was the snake.

Charmlee Park path

Charmlee Park path

Casually ambling down the dirt path, I was out in front, chatting with my friend behind me. There was a sudden thrashing sound from the brush to my right and a loud hissing sound. I leaped sideways, then froze, peering into the brush to spot the source of the hissing. “Rattlesnake!” yelled my friend. My heart started pounding. Then I spotted it, a large dark snake about as big around as my wrist, coiled up in the grass aimed toward my friend and my dog behind me. It was only a few feet from me, but it had clearly fixated on them instead.

We all remained perfectly still, outside of its strike range. My friend picked up my dog, who is blind and might easily bumble into trouble. The hissing quickly subsided but the snake remained in ready-to-strike position. I watched it slowly flick its tongue in and out.

I realized that it was not a rattlesnake. It had hissed at us, not rattled its tail. Also it was a uniform smooth dark color with no stripes or patterns. Its head was the same size as its neck, instead of the rattler’s distinctive wide cheeks.

We waited a few minutes, but the snake remained coiled. Clearly it was not going to quietly retreat. We needed to get my friend and my dog past it somehow. Finally my friend, still carrying my dog, carefully skirted through the brush on the opposite side of the path to bypass the snake. I kept a close eye on the reptile during this maneuver. The snake never changed position. We gratefully beat a cautious retreat.

We decided that the snake had probably been more worried about my dog than us. A dog is similar to a coyote, which may be the snake’s predator. Once the dog was picked up, the snake no longer had a target. It hadn’t paid any attention to me even though I was much closer to it, and it hadn’t tracked my friend’s progress skirting around it.

When we returned home, we looked up common southern California snakes to figure out what it was. We finally settled on the Western Yellow-Bellied Racer, but not before a great deal of confusion. These snakes come in a lot of different colors, and the pictures we found were of much lighter-colored snakes than what we’d seen. For a while we were thrown off by that, but eventually we found a picture online that looked a lot like our friend:

Western Yellow-Bellied Racer

Western Yellow-Bellied Racer

This is almost exactly how the snake looked from my vantage point. The information we found says they don’t get much longer than 3 feet, but I thought it was bigger than that.

Yellow-Bellied Racers are nonvenomous, but they are prone to bite if irritated. I’d say the one we saw was pretty irritated. We were happy to get past it without any harm done on either side.

August 27, 2008 at 2:31 pm 1 comment

Inspiration: Stephen Quiller

Stephen Quiller is a fairly well-known American artist. He has written several how-to books about painting and color theory, and he also conducts painting workshops. And of course, he paints and sells his art.

Stephen Quiller - October Field Patterns

Stephen Quiller - October Field Patterns

I became acquainted with Quiller’s work through an artist discussion board called WetCanvas. There I discovered his version of the color wheel (he immodestly calls it the Quiller Wheel). It revolutionized my understanding of color.

Quiller Wheel

Quiller Wheel

The basic premise of the Quiller Wheel is that around the outside edge of the wheel are the pure, saturated primary colors. Primary red, bright yellow, and blue are spaced equally far apart from each other on the edge of the circle. Also around the edge, between the primaries, are the most highly saturated versions of the secondary, tertiary, and other intermediate colors, like magenta, orange, green, blue-green, and so on. So far, none of this is particularly revolutionary, right?

The kicker is what happens in the interior of the circle. Draw a straight line through the circle between any two of the edge colors (a “chord”, to use the mathematical term). This line represents all the colors you can get by mixing those two colors in varying proportions. Mix a lot of color 1 and only a little of color 2 and you land on the line pretty close to color 1. Color 2 has neutralized color 1 a little, and pulled it a little in the direction of color 2. Add more of color 2 and you slowly work your way along the line toward color 2 away from color 1. Additionally, by taking a mixed color somewhere on this line you can then create a completely different color by mixing some of a new color, call it color 3, pulling the result along a new line that aims toward color 3. And so on.

At the circle’s exact center, you get gray. When two colors can be mixed to create gray they are called “complementary”, and the line connecting them passes through the circle’s center. Points elsewhere inside the circle represent various shades of neutral colors, ranging from not quite fully saturated (very close to the circle’s edge) to very neutral (near the center).

Some tube paint colors do not land on the circle’s edge. Certainly tube greys, beiges and browns will land deep in the circle’s interior. But there are also colors that you might think of as “pure” that don’t quite make it all the way out to the edge. They’re close to fully saturated, but not quite.

This helps explain why you can’t mix cadmium red with cadmium yellow and get a perfectly saturated shade of orange. Only tube cadmium orange lands on the edge of the circle. The mixed orange lands on the straight line between red and yellow, slightly inside the circle. See? Not quite as saturated, not quite as far out on the circle.

Once you understand this idea, paint colors make a lot more sense.

This was an important step in my self-education. Armed with this understanding, I pared my palette down to just a few primaries: two reds, two yellows, and two blues (plus white, of course). Each primary color allows me to “extend” my reach to another part of the circle. (I also occasionally added in tube cadmium orange, a yummy color I wanted to use but couldn’t mix.)

With these few colors, most of the color wheel is accessible to me. I can mix nearly any color I could possibly want. The only exceptions being the most saturated secondary and tertiary colors, way out on the edge of the wheel between the primaries.

I got to test my ability to mix any color while taking a collage class a few years ago at the Museum School at the DeCordova Museum (Lincoln, MA). The homework assignment: find 3 colors you like (in magazines or catalogs), cut them out, then try to recreate each color as closely as you can by mixing paint. I chose three subtle, neutral colors that I don’t normally use in my painting, deliberately trying to challenge myself. To my delight, I got a very close match to all three. This confirmed for me the utility of a limited (but carefully chosen) palette.

I still enjoy looking at Stephen Quiller’s art, but for me his biggest contribution was the idea behind the Quiller Wheel.

August 26, 2008 at 6:07 pm 1 comment

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Barbara J Carter

I'm an artist. I make paintings with dots.

I work in acrylic paint, in a couple of distinct styles: landscapes and abstracts.

Native to California, I've lived elsewhere and only recently returned to my home state. I now live in Los Angeles.

I mostly show my art in outdoor festivals in California. I also occasionally show my work in art galleries or open studio events. You can see an up-to-date list of upcoming shows on my website (click here).

I invite you to sign up to receive my free email newsletter, in which I list my upcoming shows and talk about my latest work. I send it irregularly, a few times a year.

My links

My paintings

Follow me on Twitter: @barbarajcarter

Why I call my landscapes neo-Pointillist landscape paintings

A bunch of my abstract dot paintings

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