New work on the easel …


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I thought you might like to see what I’m working on right now and some of the progress photos.

Drawing is just seeing and recording. It’s good practice to get introduced and familiar with a subject or a model.


I have a particular color scheme in mind for this painting, so I rehearse it first on a smaller scale to see if it will look the same as I imagine it. The finished piece will be 18×24, so I’m practicing on a half-size 9×12 student panel.



Satisfied in the overall color scheme and composition, I transfer the reference to the full size canvas using a grid system.


I updated two things in my process recently: 1.) I started using less colors on my palette, and 2.) I recently started putting a raw umber wash on the white panel instead of burnt sienna. Fewer colors means more harmony in the painting, and the raw umber wash looks better under the new palette colors.

You’ll notice that the model’s face in the image below looks “cool”. I’ll work on other areas of the painting until the face dries a bit, then I’ll glaze over it again and “warm” it up. Glazing warm colors over cool colors will give it a more life like appearance.



Just One More Thing …


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I don’t remember working harder on any other painting, and now, I have to repaint the face – again.

Work in progress.

Work in progress.

Correct skin tone has always been the brass ring for artists. My current painting, a young girl gathering Queen Anne’s lace, is also backlit and foreshortened. Why voluntarily choose such a hard subject? Frankly I want the challenge. I challenge myself to get better.

A painting is like a recipe, whether it’s realism or abstract, it requires basic ingredients: composition, hue, value and edges. I feel confident with composition and edges, but proper hue and values are a traditionally difficult.

Hue: the most obvious characteristic of a color: red, yellow, green, blue, etc.

Value: the lightness or darkness of a color (sometimes called tints and shades.)

Wipe that look off your face.

Wipe that look off your face.

As they say, make your weaknesses your strengths, and therefore my challenge. I’ve religiously done my homework: preliminary sketch, oil study and monochromatic underpainting. As I said before, I drew the girl to practice the foreshortening and painted an oil sketch to rehearse the hue and value. Even though, when I painted her face on my canvas it didn’t seem right. I let it sit overnight to see how it looked with fresh eyes in the morning. Didn’t help so I scraped it off. Plan B was to dig out my viewfinder.

The viewfinder is primarily used to crop a scene to determine composition, but mine also has a small hole in it to isolate a portion of the subject in order to correctly judge your reference’s “true” color. So, I looked at my reference through the hole in the viewfinder and repainted her face. Nailed it. I brought the painting into our living room to proudly show my wife. As I turned it into the light, right before my eyes, the young girl’s skin turned a pale violet. The only thing I could think of was the natural light was different than my studio’s track lighting. Plan C was to replace all the light bulbs in my studio.

I looked online and found that Home Depot® carried daylight bulbs. These bulbs simulate daylight. (The young man working the light department at Home Depot® told me that Cree® bulbs are the best quality. He said they light instantly, are mercury free, have a 10-year warranty and are American made.) I also bought a small clamp-on lamp for my easel and replaced the bulbs in my studio track lights. When I flipped the switch, the young girl’s skin tone converted to the same pale violet that I witnessed in the natural light. It’s still bad, but good to know that my studio lighting now matches natural light.

Why wasn’t this a problem before? I recently overhauled the colors on my palette. I now use only three colors and white. Ivory black is one of those colors. Ivory black, mixed with white, essentially turns into a pale blue. Because I used black and red to mix the dark skin tones in the young girl’s shaded face, it essentially turned her skin tone into a pale violet. The warm lighting in my studio washed a warm glow onto my canvas and hid the value change from me until I looked at it in natural daylight. Case solved.

In the end I did challenge myself, and through detective work, I did learn a valuable lesson. And isn’t that the purpose of this painting? As Colombo, my favorite detective, used to say, “Just one more thing …” I still have to repaint her face.


Colombo: “Just one more thing.”

Cree® Lighting



How to Title a Painting


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Ever wonder how artists title their paintings? It can be obvious and come quick, but for my titles, I make an effort to have them help explain my intent or at least make them entertaining.

For my new work, I was struggling for a title. Luckily for this painting, my son Matt and his girlfriend Chelsey where the first to see it. Our conversation went as follows:

Chelsey: “That earring looks real. It stands out.”

Matt: “Isn’t there a famous painting of a girl with an earring?”

Me: “Yes, it’s called Girl with a Pearl Earring by Vermeer. I guess mine is a prairie girl with a pearl earring.”

Bingo! There was the title. I never know if anyone wants to see behind the curtain, but here is the process and progress in creating Prairie Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Process for creating oil sketch Prairie Girl with a Pearl Earring

Process for creating oil sketch Prairie Girl with a Pearl Earring

This oil sketch is on unframed gallery wrapped linen. Click this for a higher resolution image of the completed oil sketch: Prairie Girl with a Pearl Earring


Gallery wrap – a method of stretching an artist’s canvas so that the canvas wraps around the sides of the (Stretcher Bar or strainer bars) and is secured to the back of the wooden frame. The frame is approximately 1-3/8″ thick.

Oil Sketch – An oil sketch (or oil study) is an artwork made primarily in oil paint that is more abbreviated in handling than a fully finished painting. Originally these were created as preparatory studies or used for gaining approval for the design of a larger commissioned painting. Today, they are often produced as independent works, often with not thought of being expanded into a full-size painting.

Hang Time


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While I have some “hang” time, please indulge me while I wait to hang my exhibit Barns, Bison & Bonnets. While I have had other exhibits, this particular one is somewhat of a milestone for my wife and I.

As a true born and bred Iowan, I won’t bore you with the details, but choosing a career in the arts has its fair share of emotional and financial hardships. I’ve come to the conclusion that these hardships are hardwired into the system and, as much as I detest them, they are necessary to heat, refine and test you. I’m lucky to have the support of a partner who is willing to walk this path beside me. Along with the moxie it takes to live with an artist, she endured living separately for two and half years while we navigated all the transitions.

I will tell you this about life as an artist, there is something inherently gratifying, and wholly American, about putting one’s shoulder against an immovable object and giving it everything you’ve got. You have to empty the tank, and as they say, “If it doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right.”

Each of the pieces I selected for this exhibit are curated out of the themes that I have enjoyed creating in oil paint. The barns are something I immediately began painting after I moved to Des Moines, and as a town kid who was born on a farm, they are a security blanket hot out of the dryer. The bison paintings remind me of family vacations, the excitement of wild things, unpredictability and adventure. The paintings of prairie landscapes and prairie people (the bonnets portion) are a gentle reminder of: simplicity, stewardship, and the fortitude of my ancestors. I am not a romantic or nostalgic person, and once they leave my easel, I concede any definition the viewer projects on them.

I am also not an artist who wishes to keep my work, and my biggest joy is when someone enjoys them more than I. I see them as points on a timeline. If you ask me about my favorites, I will only direct you to sections in each one of them where I had growth and inspiration. My reflections and energy are always toward the wet one on my easel and the next five on the drawing board.

Thank you for indulging me, it’s now time to get them out of my living room and into the gallery. Honey, we can use the living room now.

(WebsiteFacebook and blog.)


Two Artists, Two Paths


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Adolf Hitler was a painter. Hitler was rejected twice by by the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna – once in 1907 and another time in 1908. He went to Vienna and peddled painted postcards from 1908-1913. Hitler served in WWI and carried his paints with him to the front. Thought by critics to have average talent, Hitler gave up art and went into politics. The rest is history.

George Stout

George Stout

George Stout, a Winterset, Iowa native and WWI veteran, was required (as were all undergraduates at the University of Iowa in 1919) to take a drawing class. He was so inspired he made a career in the arts. In 1943 during WWII, Stout helped create and led a military team that saved artwork from being destroyed by the Nazi’s – including the Mona Lisa. The movie “Monuments Men” is based on the 2009 book by Robert Edsel: The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.”  George Clooney’s character in the movie is based on Iowan George Stout. Stout went on to graduate from Harvard University  with a master’s degree in art and worked with a Harvard chemist to literally write the book on art preservation. He went on to found both the International Institute for Conservation and the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works.  His techniques are still used today.

Amazing what a simple drawing class can start! Culture is very important, and as the narration in this Youtube featurette  points out, you can wipe out a generation of people and burn their homes and they will come back. But, if you destroy their history and culture it’s like they never existed.

Des Moines Register Article: Monuments man: Iowa native led the greatest treasure hunt in history

Do Weird People Make Better Artists?


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Oil painter Michael Wilson in the studio.

Oil painter Michael Wilson in his studio.

New research suggests that people prefer art created by artists who appear strange in some way.

The article proposed an artist’s character unconsciously affects the way people view their art. It finds that people like artists who are “daring” to be raffish, unkempt types, and don’t like the idea that someone who dresses like a city accountant could create anything that isn’t as conventional as themselves.

Yet, the article concludes that it’s the gap between artist’s dull appearance and their raging inner world that make artists so interesting. It’s a different kind of “sincerity”, which doesn’t flaunt itself, and actually glories in the contradiction. That’s why the psychologists’ questionnaires are powerless to grasp it. Artist Gustave Flaubert’s advice was: “Be regular and orderly in your life, like a bourgeois, so you may be violent and original in your work.”

What do you think?

Drawing Deducation


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Preliminary drawing for painting "Under Control"

Preliminary drawing for painting “Under Control” by Michael Wilson

Many people ask me, “I want to draw. Where do I start?

Even if you only want to become only somewhat proficient in drawing, you must understand that drawing is still a discipline. A disciple trains in a discipline to control their behavior and achieve obedience.

Yeah, whatever. Where do I start?

One basic skill an artist must learn is the ability to dissociate with the subject you are drawing, in order to reconnect emotionally.

The irony is that you must disconnect in order to truly connect. By disconnecting with the object, you are free to reproduce what you actually see, and not the preconceived construct of what your mind already knows about the object. Most beginners draw from a photo reference. This is fine. A great tip is to turn your photo reference upside down. Know this: your brain will sternly resist this exercise. Our brains are hardwired to be efficient. It wants to quickly identify the object and use predetermined information to reproduce it. Done, find food! But, you don’t want to draw what you think a tree looks like; you want to draw what the tree in front of you looks like. You must detach, separate and disconnect your preconceived notions of what a tree looks like in order to draw the tree before you. When you get more experienced, you can then begin to infuse your personal expression. That’s the “fine” part of fine art.

I suck at drawing.

Many people begin with a disclaimer that includes a laundry list of their shortcomings. No offense, but when artist hear this they think, “No shit? We all sucked. You aren’t special Buttercup.” Remember, most artists started very young and have been drawing from the cradle through elementary school, high school and some in college. That’s over 12 years of suck drawings. If you want to draw, it’s going to take some time and effort. Also, don’t compare your drawings to professional drawings. A great drawing that you assume was without any effort was more than likely a knockdown-drag-out battle for the artist.

Doodle, Sketch and Gesture Drawings

It’s very important, especially for “left brain” individuals, to learn to essentially switch gears to the creative “right brain.” (To be truthful, we use all of our brain at all times.) For left-brain (analytical) people, you must switch from acquiring quantitative data to producing qualitative data. Most disciplines require learning quantitative data (e.g. hard numbers, procedures and succinct measurements.) But art, including the discipline of drawing, is more about qualitative data (e.g. colors, texture, brush or pencil strokes and even smells, taste appearance, beauty, etc.) This switch is effectively done by doodling, sketching and fast gesture drawings. Doodling and sketching are pretty self-explanatory, but gesture drawing, drawing people’s gestures, must be rehearsed.

In my very first life drawing session, the model took their position in the middle of a circle of about 12 artists. The artist running the session said we would be doing about five 30-second poses, five three-minute poses and five ten-minute poses. I remember thinking, “Nope. I’m not even going to try.” (I actually considered just sitting there and waiting for the longer poses.)

What I was experiencing was resistance. My “inner editor” did not want to make a bad drawing or waste paper. What I didn’t realize was that the gesture drawings make the long-pose drawings better. Gesture drawings aren’t “keepers.” They only serve to switch your mind into “creative mode”. That’s it. Just loosen up and get the juices flowing. You absolutely do not want detail in these quick gesture drawings. Do them on cheap newsprint paper and as soon as they are done, throw them away. Don’t worry about detail; only capture the gesture or the action. If you draw them on cheap newsprint it won’t be expensive and you won’t be inclined to want to keep them. Knowing you will crumple and throw them away releases you from obsessing about details.

Note: Whenever I take a life drawing class now, I enjoy watching other artists rip the newsprint off their pads and continue drawing while never missing a beat. The newsprint literally piles up on the floor. Let go hoarders – they’re not special.

Resistance is also obsessing about art supplies and gear. What pencils? What paper? What software? What books? What tutorial? What DVD? What blogs? Many people who wish to draw subconsciously avoid drawing by obsessing about the tools, technique and what and who to study. If you can’t afford to take an intro class, there are a plethora of books and YouTube videos. Pick some to read or watch but don’t spend all your time avoiding drawing.


I made up this word. It’s a combination of dedication and education. If you aren’t even somewhat dedicated, it will be almost impossible to become good at the discipline of drawing. If you aren’t willing to self-educate yourself, it will be difficult to become good at the discipline of drawing. In the book The Art Spirit Robert Henri said, “The work of the art student is not light matter. Few have the courage and stamina to see it through.” It doesn’t matter if you are academically trained or just starting on your own, you have to educate yourself (get acquainted with yourself) as much as you can. Learning to draw comes from graphite mileage on the paper.

“Um, you didn’t tell us how to start.”

Fair enough, acquire three things: a pencil, paper and deducation.

New Work: Prairie Princess with Queen


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Prairie Princess with Queen
12 x 16

I’m excited to introduce my latest painting titled Prairie Princess with Queen. It depicts a young farm girl from the early 1900’s creating a flower arrangement for the family table. The title is a play on the plant’s common name – Queen Anne’s Lace. Legend says that the plant is named for Queen Anne of England (1665-1714) who was an expert lace maker.

I almost always use dark frames, but the high key (consisting of primarily light values and diminished tonal range) of this piece called for a lighter touch. Click here to see a higher resolution image of the painting on my website.

New Work: Family Recipe


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Family Recipe Oil on Canvas 11x14

Family Recipe
Oil on Canvas

My new work depicts a quiet moment in which an early 20th century woman studies a cookbook. This is the first painting I’ve completed on linen canvas. I love the raw color of the linen, and because I wanted to leave a little of it showing, I kept the painting loose and painterly.

I really love the frame on this painting too. I found the raw stock while scrounging around at Terri’s Frame Shop in Des Moines, Iowa. I’m not sure how old it is or how long it had been there (it has some nicks) but after a couple hours of scrubbing off years of dust I loved it even more. If you click the thumbnail of the painting (left) you can see the beautiful design.

Click here to see a higher-resolution image of the painting on my website:

I love these two together and I’m very excited to add it to my Prairie People collection. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

I Buy Them for the Articles


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I don’t buy those magazines just to look at the photos, I read the interviews too. Every once in a while, I’ll go to Barns & Noble and buy a handful of art magazines. After looking at the photos of paintings, I’ll read the artist interviews. Yeah, art magazines and artist interviews. Why, what were you thinking?

The interview questions are usually the same so, in case I ever get asked, I started working on my spontaneous, clever and thought provoking answers:

Art Education: Mostly self-taught, but I do have an Associate’s degree from Iowa Western Community College.

Style: Representational and regional.

Creative Spark: I like interaction between people and the landscape. I feel that interaction was strongest in the 1850’s to 1900’s. Although, the creative spark for me is never nostalgia but personal ancestry. I’m not a real nostalgic type (I like bathrooms, good roads, electricity and medicine.) I think my preferences and defaults were set early from bonding with the remnants of those eras through my childhood and family interaction. I’ve decided that’s why I like historical and rural subject matter.

Second-Choice Career: Art is my second choice. I had always thought of art as a hobby and never a career option. It’s embarrassing, but I was almost 30 before I learned that artists still made and sold art for a living.

Other Passions: Art is pretty much it. I enjoy many things, but they’re not a passion.

One thing Most People Don’t Know About You: I have a horrible sense of direction. I can get lost in a heartbeat.

Best Advice Received: “You gotta make your own fun.”

Biggest Fear: Not being prepared; and coughing with a mouthful of food while eating with a group.

Pet Peeve: Impossible high expectations for holidays and birthdays.

Quirkiest Trait(s): I have to set the volume on even numbers or multiples of 5; I point with my middle finger; I enjoy awkward silences and clumsy situations make me laugh uncontrollably.

Mantra or Motto You Live By: Make’m say no.

Favorite Studio Music: Lately I’ve been listening to movie soundtracks and “epic”  music on YouTube (e.g. E.S. Posthumus, Two Steps From Hell) I also like long-play piano and guitar instrumentals.

Favorite Work by Another Artist: My early favorites were the illustrations of J. Allen St. John and Frank Frazetta in the Tarzan books I read as a kid. I love Michelangelo’s drawings and anything by Andrew Wyeth.

Future Goals: To have art studios in Des Moines and Chicago and split my time between the two.

Price Range: En plein air: $50-$150; studio paintings $300-$1,200.

Representation: I don’t have gallery representation (yet) but Catiri’s Art Oasis in Amana, Iowa, has began successfully selling my work. I have also had some luck selling directly from my website and exhibits.