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My Process

Abstract Paintings

Abstract paintings are my latest obsession. For these, I will usually prepare one or more surfaces at one time (could be watercolor paper, sanded paper for pastels, or canvas for oils), with an underpainting. Those underpaintings can be of one or all three different mediums, and can be tonal (one color with different degrees of value), multi-hued (lots of different colors), or a limited palette (only a few colors). But if I'm not painting en plein air (which I love), what is the source I use as a reference in my studio? My imagination for one. For another, it could be a slide show I've put together with multiple scenes that are related to a theme of some sort. Sometimes it's the same place seen from different angles, or at different times of the year. Sometimes it's different places that evoke a certain emotion in me. Regardless, there is always music playing in the background that reflects how I'm feeling in that moment. My goal is to invite you into the painting so you find a story of your own making. This way, every time you look at it, you find another story.

Since I paint standing up 99% of the time, this gives me great freedom to let my arm control where my hand and paint brush or pastel stick or other tool land and the type of marks I make. I may use different tools to add more of a particular medium, or scrape off color, or add texture to the surface. The only "plan" I have is responding in the moment to what I'm seeing, hearing, and feeling. I have dozens of music playlists that distract my left brain so my right brain can take over and do its thing. I may start a painting, and leave it for a day, a week, or a month and revisit it later. Or I may finish it in one go. It all depends on how I am responding to the marks I am making on the surface.

Traditional Impressionist/Expressionist Style Paintings

For traditional impressionist-style paintings, there is more discipline and "rules" I follow to create the image I want. Make no mistake — this is also about story telling —it's a different way to do it and my goal is to tell you a more explicit story that you want to be a part of.

I first create a thumbnail of the scene. This lets me set the composition and work out any problems before I touch pigment to surface. If I’m in the field, I’m working directly from nature (after having taken a few photos for reference). If in the studio, I work from memory, my imagination, and/or one or more of my photos. As I do this, I aim to create a story with marks, shapes, and colors to lead you into the painting and around inside it. I often turn the thumbnail and the photo(s) upside down because that disrupts my left brain's expectations and forces me to look solely at the shapes I've created instead of what I expect to see for a tree (or mountain, etc.). It makes it easier to see and resolve these problems ahead of time.

Thumbnail for "Mountain Glory" (c) 2020, Mary Planding

Once I’m satisfied, I transfer the scene with a pastel pencil to an archival paper or do a custom underpainting. That's the background which establishes the right values, temperature, and general big shapes for the final painting. Regardless of which medium I work in, I am constantly double-checking shapes, values, and their placement to see how well they match my thumbnail and make any corrections.

In a pastel underpainting, I use watercolors or harder pastels. With pastels I may blend them using my hand, other pastels, or use an alcohol wash. I am careful not to fill the “tooth” of the sanded surface to to add more layers as needed.   

With an oil painting, I start with transparent pigments. As I paint, it’s important to get dark colors in the first layer. In subsequent layers, I use opaque colors. If I'm working wet-into-wet, the underlying pigments will mix with the the opaques, which often provides interesting colors as they are being mixed on the surface. Depending on how many layers I need to achieve certain effects, I may need to let the painting dry in-between enough so when I come back to add the next layer, it won't mix with the next one. When doing so, I add more oil into the paint to make it "fatter" so it lays down and dries properly. Each subsequent layer, as it dries, and another is added, gets "fatter" and "fatter" as I add more oil. This lets the painting dry without the surface cracking.

I will often let the underpainting peek through where I wish to add some additional dimensional qualities. This provides the luminosity and sparkle you find my work. Throughout the painting process I am constantly stepping back 4-6 feet to check how my painting "reads" at a distance. I squint a lot — which explains most artists' crow's feet. This helps keep the composition intact with values and colors in harmony. It also lets me draw you into the scene with contrasting or similar values, colors (warm and cool, similar or opposite), beautiful shapes, and soft vs. sharp edges.


Thumbnail, underpainting, value scale, and final painting for "Cliffs at Etretat," (oil) (c) 2020 Mary Planding

With watercolor or gouache, I sketch the scene using a permanent fine point marker on 300gsm or heavier watercolor paper. The same principles of composition apply. 

The primary difference between painting with watercolor versus gouache/pastel/oil is with watercolor, we start light and go darker because watercolors are inherently transparent. Pastel, oil, and gouache (think of it as opaque watercolor) are the opposite — we start with the darks and add lighter hues.

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Surfaces used in original art works are all archival material (neutral PH) as certified by their manufacturers. See: for more details. Pastels, oil paints, and watercolors are certified by the various manufacturers as to their lightfastness ratings. These manufacturers include: Sennelier, Charvin, Jack Richeson, Terry Ludwig, Schmincke, Winsor & Newton, Royal Talens, NuPastel, CretaColor, Blue Earth, Girault, Art Spectrum, Unison, Mount Vision, Diane Townsend, Bruynzeel, and Mungyo. For art print reproductions, my partner, Bay Photo ( provides information on the various surfaces and materials that they use.


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