Simon's Blog

Notes and updates from the studio of Simon Bland

Painting a Long Haired Dachshund

Oil painting of a long haired dachshund by artist Simon Bland

Tootsie. 14x11, oil on linen. 2017

This newly completed painting ranks as one of the most demanding I've ever done: the long hair, head-on lighting, complex shadows, and strong colors all combined to make the work particularly complex.

Four iterations of design were tried out before I settled on this one (the alternate color schemes used backgrounds of solid orange, maroon, and light blue). Designing a portrait takes longer every time I do it, but the reward for being sure of my color choices in advance is that the actual painting takes much less effort.

Starting from a simple block-in I tried to paint the portrait by bringing everything to the same state of completion all at once. That meant I didn't really finish any part of the painting before any other. This approach was a great help in getting soft edges; although some parts of the painting went through a couple of revisions, the soft edges were good from almost the first day - a major accomplishment!

The palette was ultramarine blue, alizarin permanent, cad orange, cad yellow medium. As well as producing a wide range of warm and cool grays, these allowed most of the portrait to be done with opaque paint. The darkest darks were created from a semi-transparent mix of ultramarine blue and burnt sienna with a little gray added.




A Landscape Painting Based on Analogous Colors

Meadow Grove. 14x20, oil on linen. 2017

This painting features one of my favorite locations in Loudoun County. It it one of the few places in the Loudoun Valley where the landscape is flat and you have an unobstructed view across several fields all the way to the foot of the Blue Ridge.

I've painted this scene a couple of times before and I've always tried to bring something extra to the table when I've done so. This time I decided to build the color scheme around analogous colors.

In an analogous color scheme all the colors are all selected from a fairly narrow slice of the color wheel: yellows, oranges and reds in this case. Although it looks as if I've used green and blue in the painting, in fact my palette was only cad yellow medium, burnt sienna, alizarin permanent and raw umber; the greens and blues are purely an illusion. The effect is called color constancy.

You may sometimes see analogous colors referred to as a single color structure. They both mean the same thing. It's a great choice when you have a picture that's painted into the light, or where you want to cultivate a sense of unity. It doesn't make for the splashiest color drama, but it can bring a sense of quietude to a painting that might otherwise be dominated by a strong color, like green in this case.

Finding a Creative Solution for a Difficult Painting Problem

Low Tide. 10 x 17.5, oil on linen panel. 2017. Painting by Simon Bland

Low Tide. 10 x 17.5, oil on linen panel. 2017.

One of the biggest problems I've found with paintings of the shore is that it can be difficult to make them look interesting. There is a tendency (except in very specific light conditions) for everything to look flat. This headland in Magnolia is one of those scenes, an especially challenging one as it's a south-looking view and almost always against the light. To compound the problem, the headland is basically a monotone - dull green in summer and dull brown in winter.

I tried to find a solution by building this painting on an abstract idea involving color: a red/green color scheme to break up the color monotony and value variation in the background and foreground to introduce the illusion of light.

Using a coarse linen allowed the paint to be applied thickly with a palette knife throughout. This helped me to establish lots of texture in the foreground and middleground with very little effort. The headland was left lacking in specificity to add a feeling of mystery.

Painting a Rabbit

Rabbit. 8x10, oil on linen panel. 2017

Rabbit. 8x10, oil on linen panel. 2017

This rabbit is done from an older reference photo that I'd been saving (the rabbits in the local park in Seattle are domesticated ones that have been released into the wild and seem much less interesting). The palette is just cobalt blue, burnt sienna and yellow ochre over an ultramarine/raw umber wash.

Like many of my animal paintings, I decided to paint over a semi-abstract background. It may seem like a very dull choice, but it's a good way to keep the viewer's attention on the subject - there simply isn't much else going on in the picture and the rabbit is able to take center stage.

It's just about impossible to paint grass explicitly in a close-up painting like this. Oil paint doesn't lend itself to a good representation of grass at a scale where individual blades are visible, so it's best to avoid it altogether.


Safe Solvents in the Studio - Non-Toxic Choices for Artists

This 32oz bottle of d-limonene cost about $34 on

In early January I came to the realization that I couldn't go on using petroleum-derived solvents like odorless mineral spirits (OMS) in my studio. Even Gamsol and other highly refined versions of OMS proved to be strong eye irritants for me (mine are unusually sensitive), and regular low-odor mineral spirits was making me feel ill. Painting outdoors or with the windows wide open in summer isn't a problem, but in the winter months when the window is open just a crack it isn't possible to properly vent any fumes.

After doing some research I decided to start using d-limonene to thin my paint and make my mediums.

Despite anything you may have read elsewhere online, d-limonene is an excellent and safe solvent for oil paints. It is generally considered safe to the point that it is used as a food additive, yet it is extremely strong; it will happily strip away a layer of varnish with the same ease as pure turpentine. d-Limonene is a terpene, a class of naturally occurring solvents, in fact it's extracted from (and smells like) the rinds of oranges.

It is added to things as diverse as chewing gum (for flavor), natural cleaning products (as a solvent) and is also used in cosmetic products and some alternative medicines.

Unlike OMS, of course, it has a noticeable smell. That may be something that you find bothersome at first, but I found that I got used to it very quickly. There are actually benefits to using a solvent that has some odor, in particular you know when it's on your hands.

It is a very effective solvent for oil paints. The only real difference with OMS that I've noticed is that the drying times for the paint seem to be extended somewhat. d-Limonene appears to evaporate more slowly when mixed with paint than OMS does.

Price-wise it costs substantially more than OMS. I paid about $34 for a 32oz container - about 3 times the cost of OMS from the hardware store, and about 2 times the cost of a quality OMS from an art supplier.

Because of the cost and odor, I decided not to use d-Limonene to clean my brushes. I've started to used safflower oil from the grocery store instead. At supermarket prices safflower oil costs about the same as OMS. It's completely non-toxic and can be used in any regular metal brush washer pots. Disposal requirements for the contaminated oil are the same as for OMS where I live in Seattle, so no change there. The only drawback is that it doesn't get your brushes completely clean without additional washing in soap and water - and you need to pay special attention to the roots of the brush hairs near the ferrule to make sure all the paint is out.