I Am

                                                                By Rocco Campanella

I am the sparkle of sunlight on lush summer leaves.  And when the mystery of twilight hastens the moon, I can be heard in the song of the night sparrow.

I am the glint from the stars reflected in the eye of the sailor.    I can be heard in the roar of the waves as they crash against the shore.

I am the light that filters through the forest trees.  I can be heard in the wind that caresses the mountain tops.

I am eternal and I am part of All That IS. 

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I began painting at around the age of 60.  Prior to that I had little experience in oil painting except for one intro to painting class I took in college.  It started simply out of a desire to find a hobby I was willing to grow into.  I dabbled with oil and acrylic and soon discovered that acrylic was not as satisfying as painting with oil.  However,  it wasn’t until the age of 65 that I pursed it as a daily event of my life. It was at that time that I gave up painting on canvas and began using wood panels.  The acrylic panel started at around the age of 68… I am now 71.  I have no formal training and consider oil painting a hobby.  I do not spend hours drawing or discussing art.  The only drawing I do is if I have a painting in mind…I would rather take pictures with a camera than spend time focused on the art world.   Whatever information I have about oil painting came from investigating, via Google, techniques and anything (mixing color, use of different colors etc.) related to whatever I was attempting to produce in an oil painting.  By shear accident I came across such material such as art history, famous painters and use of art supplies.  For myself, oil painting is a hobby.  If you are interested in becoming an artist….then you would be better off starting formal art training rather than rummaging through my little guide book.  This guide is for those who are simply looking for something interesting to do but do not particularly enjoy the regimentation of instructions that define a craft. 

If art  were actually amenable to instruction it would not be art, but rather a craft. A craft, such as crocheting, has specific methods and procedures and lends itself easily to books of instruction. There are specific techniques which help the artist in producing convincing images. These can be taught but techniques do not define art.  The most common technique is the reflection of light and shadows. As an example, a circle begins to look like a ball by adding a shadow to one side which makes it appear three dimensional. A circle becomes a ball with some shadow added. The ball however is floating in space and to put it on the ground we add a shadow under the ball ergo, ball on the ground!




The principle demonstrated with the circle is the basic principle for painting realism. And before you branch out into the wonderful world of the abstract you need to know how to use those shadows and light to produce a stroke of genius at the end of your paint brush. Art has no specific methods or procedures and defies all rational attempts to box it into any set standard of quality control. Although there are art critics who are ever ready to tell you what is good and what is bad ‘Art’. This guide book is not about teaching any of these techniques. For that the reader will have to search the net for those answers. What this guide book will show you is how to get started in actually producing an oil painting without knowing much about techniques. Are there some oil paintings that transcend conventional definitions of quality? It is true that the smile of the Mona Lisa is enigmatic and considered by most art critics as a class act in oil painting. But how many people want a painting of a middle aged woman with an enigmatic smile hanging on their living room wall? If we define good art by demand, then some paintings are simply not going to make the cut to the major leagues (likely to be purchased to hang on the living room wall). The point of all of this is that a good oil painting is something you like and a bad oil painting is something you don’t like . The world renowned quality of the Mona Lisa rests on the technique that Leonardo da Vinci used to achieve an indefinable smile, and not necessarily on the subject matter. The simple fact of demand (within the United States) is that you are likely to find many more reproductions of the Hopi, Kokopelli than the Mona Lisa. What makes a painting in any media “good” is a matter of personal preference.




Paintings, regardless of the media used, are notoriously difficult to categorize. Some common genres are landscape, seascape, cityscape and animals. What do you call it when there is an animal in a landscape Sometimes paintings are categorized by style, such as realism, pop art and impressionism. The difference between realism and impressionism may be nothing more than the artist’s willingness to engage in excruciating detail. An art critic once described a painting by Monet (Impressionism) as something yet to be completed and in fact nothing more than a sketch. Does that mean Monet’s painting is actually ‘realism’ yet to be completed? What it means is that art critics, without exception, are mean spirited buffoons who have a reserved space in hell.

This guide book is for those novices who seek to engage their desire to create an oil painting. It is not intended as an oil painting instruction manual but it will give the basics of how to approach oil painting and what tools you will need.  Essentially it covers water, ground cover & trees, use of a fan brush, clouds and mountains.  Once you start reading you should spend time searching the net for what I have presented here.  If you are reading about supplies such as brushes then search the net for reviews and places to buy online.  If you are reading what I’ve had to say about painting water (which is really impossible) then look up on the net the suggestions of others.  Youtube is jammed with “how to stuff” on oil painting.

Now the question is can anyone produce an oil painting that rises above the practice level of smearing paint on canvas (which can be a final product, much to the dismay of art critics) There is no doubt in my mind that anyone with the desire to paint can produced a product that others would consider ‘a good painting’. What is necessary is a willingness to keep moving your skills forward in terms of manipulation of the media. And this is done not by studying the techniques of others but by developing your own set of techniques and style. The major downfall of most beginners is the temptation to engage in technique driven art which douses their own creative fire.

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Supplies: Part 1

There is a considerable amount of money to be made in the art world, and most of it is by retailers of art supplies. Most of us paint as an avocation, and we have day jobs that actually pay the monthly bills. It is not necessary to invest in expensive oil paints or brushes or the million other products available for the beginner. With a little planning you can get totally involved in oil painting for less than $250.  You will save 40 to 50 percent on all art supplies by shopping on line. And that savings includes the cost of shipping. It is just cheaper to buy on line. Look over the stock in local art stores then try to find it on line.

Since oil painting is not a consumable avocation, such as making candy, you will quickly run out of room for storing all those masterpieces. Of course if you have a good supply of friends and family you can pawn them off as gifts, which in most cases is probably not all that desirable because paintings are usually hung as a room accent. And most of us don’t want to hang up something that we believe conflicts with our own creative design for decorating a room. The simple truth about most paintings is that eventually they will wind up in a closet or the local dump. How much money do you want to dump into the local dump? Keep that question in mind when you walk into an art supply store.


1. Loew Cornell Arttec Bristle Supreme Fan 500N-6. This has a stiff bristle.

2. Winsor & Newton  (University) England  (very inexpensive IF purchased on line such as Dick Blick )

For general landscape etc. (not for human body or face).  Also Grumbacher Goldenedge are very reasonable in price.

(Long Handle)

    • # 10  Grumbacher Goldenedge Flat
    • # 8 University Flat
    • # 6 University Flat
    • # 5 University Bright
    • # 4 University Bright
    • # 3 University Bright
    • # 2 University Flat
    • # 2 University Bright
    • # 1 University Bright
    • # 00 Round

(Short Handle)

    • # 000 round

3.  Robert Simons Short Handle White Sable (for use on human torso and face, portraits etc.)You do not need these unless you want to do human figures above the impression level such as my painting ‘Dallas’.




The advantage of these brushes is that they leave a very smooth surface with almost imperceptible brush strokes.  They work well for clothing as well as skin.   These are all short handle.

  • # 10 Flat
  • # 6 Flat
  • # 4 Flat
  • # 2 Flat
  • # 2 Round
  • # 1 Flat 
  • # 00 Round

Cleaning Brushes

Use odorless mineral spirits, instead of turpentine, for cleaning the brushes.  The fumes from turpentine are really dangerous.  Also, you don’t need to buy the expensive stuff in art supply stores.  Wal Mart, Home Depot and Lowes sells odorless mineral spirits for much less than art supply stores.

An important part of oil painting is keeping the brushes clean. Never let the brush stand on end in a jar of mineral spirits not even for a few seconds!  This will destroy both the brush shape and the glue holding the head onto the shaft.  Brushes should be either laid down on their side or standing on the shaft end with the hair pointing up.

The cleaning process of brushes is not complicated but does require constant attention.  When your painting session is over give them an additional cleaning first with mineral spirits then with a gentle hand soap and water. A very good cleaner to purchase is the Masters Brush Cleaner which can be purchased online (comes in a small round tub).

Note:  you will need a small glass jar to contain the mineral spirits used for cleaning the brush while you paint.  Never dip the brush pass the metal ferrule.  The solvent will eventually dissolve the glue holding the ferrule to the wood shaft of the brush.


They look like a Qtip which is a trade name.  The swab is much cheaper (Swisspers) than Qtips but the real advantage is that the head does not puff up when dipped in solvent as does the Qtip.  Typically they have a plastic shaft rather than a paper shaft.  These are excellent for correcting painting errors.  You will find them at Wal Mart.

Oil Paint

Purchase Grumbacher Academy student grade paints.  You do not need professional grade paint.   The art supply stores are twice as expensive as those purchased online.

    • Zinc White (this is translucent and very forgiving….use it for layering or gradual change in shade.)
    • Titanium White.  (this is opaque) use it to get to a specific shade of a color.  It is a brilliant white and also used for highlights such as the edge of clouds reflecting sun light or the top edge of ocean waves, or highlights on human hair.
    • French Ultramarine Blue
    • Payne’s Gray
    • Raw Umber
    • Burnt Umber
    • Cadmium Yellow Pale Hue
    • Thalo Green
    • Veridian Hue
    • Yellow Ochre
    • Alizarin Crimson
    • Burnt Sienna (flesh tone, desert etc.)
    • Mars Black (small tube only …you will not use it very often…but great for gray or darkening colors.

Mixing paint

    • Black used for water: Mix equal parts of Alizarian Crimson and Thalo Green .
    • Desert Sand: 2 parts Yellow Ochre 1 part Raw Umber (lighten with Titanium White)
    • Purple Mountains: Payne’s Gray with Alizarin Crimson in various combinations (lighten with Zinc White directly on various parts of the wet purple (instead of the pallet) for varying the different shades).

Note:  The net is filled with information about oil painting. Just use Google to find out how to create a specific color.  You should keep a notebook on each painting and your mixing formulas for each form, such as the color mixed for a coat or hat.  A simple guide for mixing paint http://www.easy-oil-painting-techniques.org/color-mixing-guide.html

T Square and Ruler:  If you are painting a scene with a building you have to have an accurate measure of vertical and horizontal.  Draw these in with a T square and ruler, then paint over in free hand to give a more natural look. Never paint with the T square or ruler.  Also, most trees are simply not perfectly perpendicular to the horizon, but before you paint, draw a perpendicular line from the top of panel to the the base of where you want the tree.  Now you can lean the tree in a planned direction with paint.  Another major use for the T square is water level.  Water can be level or tilted down but never uphill.

Pallet:  Wood pallets are difficult to keep clean because eventually the paint soaks into the wood and plastic pallets eventually become so stained they become annoying.  If you are painting outside you may want a light weight wood pallet, but for indoors the most practical pallet is glass. Don’t get caught up in the silly fad of purchasing antique milk glass pallets. They are very expensive and no better than plain old glass. Purchase an 8 x 11 certificate frame with glass; less than 3 dollars at Wal Mart or Dollar store. Remove the back, reverse the paper so that the white is facing up. Do not use without the frame; that glass can cause severe injury.  A very good compromise (glass vs wood or plastic) is a piece of thick (1/4 of inch or more) of Plexiglas.  To get a thick piece (9 x 11) you will have to go to a glass shop….Home Depot and Lowes does not usually carry thick sheets.  I’ve used this constantly for a few years and it cleans up easily.

Painting Medium

A painting medium is used to make the paint flow easily. It is useful for layering, or making a paint thin but not lean. I use Liquin Original for this purpose.  It shortens the drying time of the paint and resists yellowing. It only takes a very tiny amount to allow paint to flow easily.  Linseed oil, or Walnut Oil can be used in place of Liquin. Linseed oil takes longer to dry and does have a tendency towards yellowing. 

Varnish Protection

After the painting is dried (about 4 months) it should be coated with some very very light coats of Kamar Varnish.

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Supplies: Part 2

Canvas (requires a coating of Gesso)

Painting on canvas is simply convention and was initiated around the 16th century because it was cheaper to produce than traditional wood panels, and also easier to transport.  One of the reasons some artists continue to paint on canvas is simply because the art buying public has an embedded mythology as to what constitutes a real painting that they would be willing to purchase.  And if isn’t on canvas it must not be a real painting.  It makes sense in terms of sales but not in terms of product durability.  A  fashionable term among the elite artists is  ‘achievability’ (shelf life).  Will time eventually erode the product?  The longevity of canvas is affected by many variables.  To begin with canvas is cloth made of cotton or linen.  It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that plain old cloth without some sort of treatment, such as the application of Gesso,  is not going to withstand the ravages of time.   However, It will not prevent insects from eating away at the canvas from the backside of the painting.

Purchasing canvas can be an expensive part of painting if you insist on buying it in an art supply store.  Go to Wal Mart…lots of size selection in their arts and crafts section and very reasonably priced.  It comes pre-framed and is coated with an acrylic based Gesso.  Gesso is necessary on all porous painting surfaces to prevent the paint from leaching through the material.

Wood framed canvas can easily warp but it is readily available in just about any art or craft store and just about any size you want.

Hard Board (requires a coating of Gesso)

You can purchase this in precut sizes online such as Dick Blick or Mr. Art or you can buy a large sheet from any large building supply store such as Home Depot or Lowes and cut the sizes you want.  Like canvas it must be coated with Gesso prior to use.  Hard board is very susceptible to warping.  One trick to prevent warping from the application of Gesso (Gesso is wet and soaks into the board) is to apply it to both the front and back.  Hard board has an advantage over canvas in that it is a smooth surface whereas the weave of canvas makes it rough (you can get it in very smooth grade but still rough compared to hardboard).

You can purchase pre Gessod hard board on line at Dick Blicks


An excellent discussion of using hardboard can be found at



Note on Gesso: Gesso comes in various grits and color.  It is very messy and requires a bit of practice in getting an even coat.  A smooth sponge roller is a must for applying Gesso.  No beginner should be attempting this process.  If you use Canvas or Hardboard get it pre Gessoed.

Acrylic Panel (Does not require Gesso)

Most people recognize the trade name of acrylic panels as Plexiglas. An acrylic (transparent thermoplastic) panel is impervious to warping resulting from changes of humidity and temperature and has a shelf life that is beyond measurement. It comes in thin gauge of .080 and .093 . I have found that the .093 gauge is a better choice because it will not buckle if you lean the painting against a wall. Acrylic if dropped on its edge on a hard surface will crack. It will not break if it falls flat on its surface. There is a product that looks similar to acrylic with a trade name of Lexan.  It is three times the cost of acrylic but nearly indestructible no matter how you drop it.

I have painted on wood panels, hardboard and canvas and now paint exclusively on acrylic panels.  It does not require gesso, can be purchased in any hardware store, is light weight compared to wood panels or hardboard (it is heavier than canvas), and will not warp such as the wood framing for holding canvas.  And the surface is smooth which allows for greater clarity and detail in the painting. The major advantage of an acrylic panel is that it is easy to correct errors.  Trying to scrape paint off of canvas can be a nightmare and often results in damage to the canvas.

Oil paint does not have a chemical bond with an acrylic base and therefore does have a risk of pealing.  I have never had this happen.  The simple fact is that if you use commercial Gesso it is acrylic based, therefore most artists doing oil painting are putting oil paint on an acrylic base.

Painting on top of the acrylic Primer requires a bit of patience.  If you just slam thick paint onto the primer you really are weakening any mechanical bond.  Build your painting up slowly with Lean paint first. Each layer of lean should be thoroughly dry before applying the next layer.   The painting must be well planned.  Once a solid foundation is built up of a few layers of lean paint you can then start using paint directly out of the tube or mixing a media into the paint.  A simple approach is to prep the panel with a few layers of one light color (such as Payne’s Grey mixed with Zinc White) of lean and paint.  Use a cross hatch in applying the paint (making 3 to 4 inch X’s instead of horizontal or vertical strokes).  

How to prepare the Acrylic Panel:

    • Remove plastic cover sheet off of both sides
    • Gently sand both sides with a 120 grit paper (use circular motion using a sanding block or orbital sander).
    • You can cover the panel with Gesso if you want a rough surface but it is not necessary.  Since Gesso is acrylic based it will have no problem bonding to the panel. 
    • Paint one side with Rust-Oleum 2x Flat White Primer (acrylic based) 
    • Paint one side with Rust-Oleum Flat Dark (red etc.) color Primer (acrylic based).  The dark color on one side is necessary to eliminate any transparency.
    • When completely dried (24 hours) VERY LIGHTLY sand the white primer with 120 grit paper
    • Prep the panel with a few layers of very lean paint .  Mix a light color such as Payne’s Grey mixed with Zinc White and a liberal amount of mineral spirits (it should look vey pale..nearly an off white and have a sort of soupy consistency) . And apply with a # 10  Grumbacher Goldenedge Flat brush.  What you want to do is use a cross hatch in applying the paint (making 3 to 4 inch X’s instead of horizontal or vertical strokes).  What you want to do is have only very fine barely perceptible brush lines.   
    • It is now ready for painting.


Example  of painting on an Acrylic Panel 18x 24

Red’s Rest by S. Rocco Campanella 2012



If you are a professional artist with many paintings sold and in process then Archivability becomes an important issue. The primary reason being that the ‘art community’ has developed standards which are considered useful for maintaining the integrity of canvas over time. The standards have absolutely nothing to do with the reality of decay. For starters canvas is cloth: yep and cloth is a prime food source for some insects. But doesn’t Gesso save a painting from that demise? Nope: insects will eat trough the back of the canvas. The only way to actually test archivability of a painting is to wait 500 years and see what happens to it. So why all the fuss over this? It’s a money issue. Professional artists are in fierce completion with each other for the limited funds available from individuals willing to purchase a painting. In order to keep out the rift raft standards are devised which are costly and consequently keep a lot of people out of the game. It really is that simple.

For the beginner, chasing after the mythical concept of archivavility (not even a real word) is a pointless pursuit.  You may have visions of your work hanging in the Louvre after you are dead but the chances of that happening are astronomical. Forget archivability and just paint. Hell, paint on a rock if it makes you happy.

A common problem for the beginner is selection of size of the painting.  Well the simple truth is that smaller is better for the beginner.  I usually paint on an acrylic panel 18″ x 24″ because it is the common size found in hardware stores and also fits perfectly into an inexpensive plastic 18″ x 24″ poster frame.

Note on poster frames:  do not attempt to hang a painting using the hanging clips that are attached to the cardboard on the back of the poster.  They will tear lose!  Thread picture wire through the cardboard.  Mark two spots with a pencil…push the point of the pencil through the cardboard.  Run a wire all the way around the holes.  Twist the ends together on the outside and not the side against the panel.

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Oil painting, regardless of the composition or the skill of the artist, is a magic trick.  Those who believe they are actually reproducing the actual event (whatever is included in the painting) are engaging is self deception.  Oil painting is one grand deception (the magic trick).  The artist attempts to have the viewer believe (SEE) what in reality is not really there.  The actual reality of the event is so complex in terms of form and color that it is beyond human skill to reproduce it with a brush stroke of color.  But what you can do is contrive lines and color that “APPEAR” to reproduce the actual reality of the event.  The only difference between an artist and a stage magician is the type of tools they use to perform a magic trick. 


Fat Over Lean

“Fat over lean refers to the principle in oil painting of applying paint with a higher oil to pigment ratio (‘fat’) over paint with a lower oil to pigment ratio (‘lean’) to ensure a stable paint film, since it is believed that the paint with the higher oil content remains more flexible.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fat_over_lean

Making Paint Lean

Mineral Spirits can be used to make the oil paint lean. Paint coming directly from the tube is the normal ratio of pigment to oil (fat) and does not spread easily.  Lean means there is more pigment and less oil (what you would get by adding mineral spirits to the paint). Thick and thin refer to the actual amount of paint used as in spreading it thick or thin over an area. Solvents such as mineral spirits and turpentine makes paint lean and reduces drying time.  Method: add a couple of drops of mineral spirits to the paint.  You don’t need very much.  What you are attempting to do is provide a foundation that is more of a tint than paint.  The paint will spread very easily but on a raw service it will not cover very well.  Lean paint is only used at the very start of your painting project.  It is useful for sketching (paint comes off very easily with a Swab that has been dipped in solvent) as well as for developing a foundation( Underpainting ).

Transparent and Opaque Paint

Paint directly from the tube will come out a bit like tooth paste…or somewhat buttery.Transparent paint such as Payne’s Grey is a bit watery out of the tube.  However that in itself is not consistent for determining which paint is opaque and which is transparent.   Examples are Zinc White (transparent) and Titanium White (opaque) both come out of the tube a bit buttery.  It is essential that the novice know which paints are transparent and which are opaque.  As the novice progresses the procedures for layering of paint becomes a valuable tool.  Knowing how to layer paint is not necessary for the beginner but it is necessary to know the concept.

Use of Painting Medium

Add a small amount (a drop or two) of painting medium (linseed oil or Liquin) so that the paint spreads easily. This only needs a very tiny amount of painting medium to get the paint to spread easily. Do not over use!  Under most circumstances a painting medium is just not necessary. 

Brush Strokes

The brush stroke is highly important and should be well planed.  As an example, when working on the foundation paint of a sky, all brush strokes should be horizontal with an avoidance of the hash marks from the brush.  The stroke should begin off the panel or canvas and end with a follow through to the other side and off the panel.  Sometimes hash marks can be useful to create variation in shades in the sky, but not on the foundation paint.

Humans: Face

Painting a complete figure on a small panel (18×24 etc) is very challenging because the slightest deviation of the paint from the original drawing, especially on the face, will drastically alter proportions.  And this deviation can be caused by nothing more than the paint spreading out from your original brush stroke.  Correction for these problems is very time consuming and usually accompanied by a lot of colorful language.  One solution is to paint the hair line around the face in the same flesh tone as the face but a bit darker.  This allows for an easier approach to correction such as the cheek etc.  The actual color of the hair should be done only after all facial features are dry. 

Flesh tones can become very complicated especially when you insist on mixing your own.  Take a look at some paintings on the net.  Not everything your eye captures is easily translated into a color mix.  On some portraits you will find the artist getting way to involved in yellow tones….for us simple hobbyists it is best to stick with one color such as Burnt Sienna. 






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Painting From The Heart


Painting from the heart means that the artist creates a reflection not of their visual sensory system, but rather a reflection from their inner eye.  What exists in the 3rd dimension can be validated by the observations of others or more precisely by use of a camera.  What cannot be validated by others or a camera is the interpretation the artist makes on the surrounding environment.  This is essentially what separates the illustrator from the artist.  And the most dramatic example of this is the painting by Vincent van Gogh ‘The Starry Night’.  There is not a camera on the planet that can capture the emotional turmoil reflected in this painting.  Was he insane?  No, but he most certainly was a man who suffered from severe bouts of depression,  Eventually this lead to his suicide at the age of 37.


You don’t have to be suffering from severe mental illness to paint from the heart.  All that is required is that you let your emotional self influence your creation.  Leaving the emotional self out of the painting, produces ‘dead art’ which is usually technique driven and mainly produced in an attempt to sell to the general public. A painting that fails to reflect the spirit of the artist is simply dead art and nothing more. A painting that relies on technique is still dead art; regardless of the fame of the artist.

Dead art is that group of pretty little paintings that are purchased not for visual impact, but mostly because they are considered as a room accent (decoration).   Dead art maintains the integrity of the subject matter with skill and precision but tells nothing of the soul of the artist.  Painting from the heart separates the artist from the illustrator.  Some paintings are so damn captivating and haunting that the painting becomes not a room accent but rather a precious possession. Now just how many paintings of artifacts (dolls sitting on a shelf, pointless landscapes,etc.) can you find that transcend from “room accent thing” to “captivating” and haunting” ? What can be captivating in dead art is the technique achievement of the artist, but the painting itself remains “dead”.  It is not the subject matter that makes it ‘dead’ but rather the lack of spirit in the painting. Admittedly difficult at best, even a bowl of fruit can transcend from dead art to captivating if the artist’s attempts to reflect their emotional self via color and shadows or sometimes by reflecting the unexpected, such as  a bowl of fruit in the process of decay.

The best place to start learning how to paint from the heart is to select subject matter in a composition that simply cannot be reproduced by a camera.  As an example, a woman I know very well can be described as curious about life, somewhat distractible, prone to fanciful moods highly spiritual and very spontaneous .  My goal was to attempt to capture these elements but also reflect how I saw her.  This resulted in the following painting title Chutzpah.



Throwing caution to the wind, Jill focuses her attention on a butterfly.  This was very much a part of her personality.  She was not an outdoors type of person, and the cliffs and surrounding mountains are really a part of my own backpacking experiences reflected in a somewhat surreal setting. 

Painting from the heart starts by first looking within yourself for subject matter. Instead of thinking in terms of a particular thing to paint, think in terms of a “theme” or story such as a personal life experience. Painting from the heart places the artist in the painting and the result is a painting that conveys the feelings of the artist.  If your intention is to develop a business from the sale of art, there is no doubt that dead art will have the larger sales volume. And for many artists, it is the sale of dead art which supports their time in painting from the heart. Too often the mistake of the beginner is to study technique, engage a production line of dead art and lose their soul in the process. Just paint from the heart and technique and style will develop as you search for answers in producing a haunting masterpiece. 

A more subtle example is in the painting Laura.  I painted this not long after seeing the movie (film noir)  Laura with Gene Tierney.  I was attempting to capture the haunting quality of the character Laura as well as the theme music that accompanied the movie. Her personality had the touch of a butterfly but left memories in others that was as unrelenting as a pounding surf.


‘Laura’ by S. Rocco Campanella


Painting from the heart does not eliminate the need for planning. The general idea should be first sketched on paper. However, the key element of this is “general” which means lines and composition, and not all the intricate shading that might occur. What you need to understand is that drawing and painting are two very different forms of art. And what might look good in a pencil sketch can be a disaster when attempted in oil. Be prepared to change ideas as you paint: and never hesitate to wipe it off the board. It is the painting you did not do, because you could not let go of the original idea, that is most likely the “masterpiece”.

The following painting is something I did in an attempt to break away from traditional landscape style.


‘Springy Goats’ by S. Rocco Campanella


.Now go in search of your heart!

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You Are Not Your Brain

A primitive tribe is found in the dense forests of South America. The tribe has never had contact with modern civilization. While the tribe is sleeping a battery operated radio with a clear plastic case is set into the middle of the village and is controlled by a researcher via a remote control electronic system. A satellite is used to monitor the tribes daily activity. When they awaken the researcher turns on the radio and the tribal members now hear a voice projected through the radio speakers. 

Of course they are stunned by the event and have no comprehension of the technology involved. No matter how they approach the radio there is simply no way to see it connected to anything else. When looking at the inside via the clear plastic case they see wiring and components that make up a radio but nothing else. And yet they know that the voice they hear is coming from the radio therefore in terms of their primitive logic (based only on the forest they live in), the owner of the voice must be inside the radio. 

Now substitute the concept of a primitive tribe with a group of modern day neurologists studying the human brain. They know that as they prod and poke different responses occur and yet they cannot actually find those responses within the brain. All they ever find is the wiring and components that make up the brain. The neurologists know that the responses they measure are coming from inside the brain therefore in terms of their primitive logic (base only on modern day civilization), the responses (memories etc.) must be inside the brain.

“My brain is only a receiver, in the Universe there is a core from which we obtain knowledge, strength, inspiration. I have not penetrated into the secrets of this core, but I know it exists.” – Nikola Tesla 

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Composition, Strategy & Perspective

What greatly affects the appeal of a painting is how the major forms are put together.  Forms are those general items that you can separate by location on the canvas as well as its defining attributes.   As an example, some forms on a painting might be the people, animals, well defined trees, sky, mountains in the background that reach up to the sky, a lake in the middle of the painting, left and right forms which frame the total composition and the foreground.  Now there is no set pattern to oil paintings but what has been described so far are the general aspects of a landscape.  The focus of the painting changes as you add humans or animals.  By adding a human form you transform the focus of the painting from a scene to a story.  This is not always the case by adding an animal form, but it can be.

When starting a painting that transcends simple landscapes, you should think through the theme and then lay out that theme as a simple raw sketch.  This should not be an exercise in pencil illustration of forms but rather rough approximations of where the forms are placed on the canvas.  As an example a simple stick figure is just fine for organizing your thoughts regarding the theme of the painting.  This can all be done on plain old scratch paper.  Remember the goal is an oil painting and not a drawing.  One overlooked composition strategy especially by those just starting out is to make sure that prior to painting a light pencil line about one half inch from the border on all four sides is drawn in.  The purpose of this inner border is to give you a guide for not painting an important part of a form under the final framing of the painting.

Placement of the forms on the canvas and their relative positions takes a bit of intuition regarding how to best represent the story theme you have in mind.  All paintings acquire eye appeal by how well the forms relate to each other as well as how the total painting is framed by forms at the top, sides and bottom.  There are no set of rules for this, but one rule of thumb is to avoid placing a major form such as a human in the dead center of the painting.  Pull the form to one side.  It does not have to be extreme, sometimes just an inch off of center is all that is necessary to maintain eye appeal.

Once the rough approximations of forms is complete the next step is to develop a more precise drawing by drawing forms with a bit more detail that are actually the size that would be on the canvas.   If you are going to paint on a canvas that is 18 x 24 inches then your paper size for the drawing of the painting should be 18 x 24 inches. If you are going to do a very large painting, such as the wall of building, then you would use graph paper so that a drawing can be made to scale.  What you don’t want to do is paint an edge with a ruler because it will not look natural.  But then sometimes you may not be painting ‘natural’ and painting with a ruler is the best way to accomplish what you want.  You can always vary the non natural look by painting over free hand.  My experience with this is that a long run of a rail road track is going to look really weird if you attempt to paint it without a ruler.

When painting trees start with a straight line that is in fact perpendicular to the bottom of the painting.  Use rulers and T squares when sketching in with a pencil, but then alter (slight variations in the line) by doing it free hand with a paint brush over the top of the sketch. What you don’t want are natural forms such as trees all standing perfectly straight. (Or maybe that is exactly what you do want!)

In the painting below (Easy Afternoon), a T square was in constant use to make sure that the lines which defined the surface level of the water (white lines against the rock walls of the inlet) was consistent from left to right (is it level).  Also an actual level is used to hold the painting to insure that everything is perpendicular to the ground when the painting hangs on a wall.   The point is to use whatever tools will give you the best result.  Do not avoid using a tool because someone said it is not right.  What is right is what works.

Easy Afternoon:  by Rocco  Campanella


Painting Strategy


The Sketch:  when using an acrylic panel coated with a white primer, sketching is easily done directly on the surface with a small round brush (or whatever feels right).  Mix a light shade of Payne’s Gray and begin sketching with the paint.  Q tips and mineral spirits are your eraser and works very well on this surface.  The following is an example.




Foreground figures such as humans should be painted in before anything else. The reason for not starting with the background then placing the figure on top is to reduce the pasted on look of a figure.  All paint leaves edges and has a thickness to it.  You want to make sure that the paint of the  central figures does not rise above the surface of the background.   I first use thin white paint around the sketch of the figure drawing by placing the edge of the brush at the pencil mark then pulling the brush back a couple of inches.  When complete there is a clear figure that is outlined by white paint.  When dried I then paint the surface of the figure.  The actual detailed figure is not done until all the background is complete and dried.

Painting strategy is not easy to describe in words on paper.  However, a rule of thumb is to avoid leaving brush edges when painting across an expanse.  As an example, with both the sky and lake in the painting Lazy Afternoon, the brush stroke always started at one edge of the panel and taken across non stop to the opposite side.  This is possible because all the background paint is first applied in thin coats so that going across the painted figure is not a problem.  While the background paint is still wet clean up inside the figure with a Q Tip to remove the background paint.

With all that said, sometimes you simply have to let go of a painting. No matter how much time and effort you put into it, some things just do not work. And learning to let go of what is not working is the path that will lead you to becoming skilled in oil painting.

Composition and Painting Strategies are learned over time and a never ending learning process.  It is only by trial and error that these improve.  What I have laid out in this article is only one example of how it is approached: there are many.  Over time you will find your own intuitive sense of composition and painting strategies.  Be patient with yourself and stay off the damn forums!



Notice how the river course in Example A seems to appear as if it is tilting. This was corrected by simply moving the waterfall forward extending the land mass and changing the shading of the water (demonstrate in Example B). Perspective is an essential part of any painting and must be well understood. Now what do you do if the perspective looks weird or odd? The best approach is to experiment or change the picture to match your skill level.


Example A

Example B


Perspective Rule of Thumb: Use dark shades in the front and gradually lighten the shade towards the back. This is just not all that complicated. To add depth the path across the bridge starts wide and recedes to narrow very quickly. The path is darker towards the front of the painting as is the dead the tree in the foreground. All of it is gradually lightened towards the back including the mountains.

To give the impression that the figures in example A and B are standing on the ground and not floating, a slight shadow is cast from their shoes. Also, notice the lighter color of the right side of the mountain and the darker color of the left side. This sets the source of light for the entire painting. Lighting (where does the shadow fall) should be consistent throughout the painting: note the shadow of shoes, mountains and the stone wall on the right.

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Fan Brush Frenzy

The use of the fan brush became addictive because I could quickly create an outdoor scene with little effort and use of three colors…Thalo Green, Yellow Hue and Zinc White all sort of slammed together in a wet on wet approach.

The painting Red’s Rest is a good illustration of the use of a fan brush.



  1. Mix Thalo green with lots of Zinc White to produce a very pale green – Using a wide Flat wash brush paint the entire ground cover area with a thin and lean coat of the pale green and let dry overnight.
  2. Mix Thalo green with a bit of yellow hue to produce the darkest shade of ground cover for the foreground.  Apply across the very bottom of the foreground  using a fan brush.


What you are about to do is pat the fan brush across the bottom using the darkest shade of ground cover then while it is still wet adding small amounts of yellow directly onto the wet Thalo Green.  Let the color blend and also use some of the yellow for the very tips of the grass.  This takes a bit of practice.  You vary the combination of color and shade to produce varying depth etc.  This is not a very delicate procedure and you are likely to splash as much paint on you as you do on the painting.  Changing the angle of the fan brush will change how the cover appears (short to long strands of grass).  Also, you have to vary the position of the fan brush so that it is not producing a chain of fan shapes.  Don’t think about it…just move and pat and twist and mix until it starts to develop the desire effect.  Think of it not as painting but doing a physical exercise with your arm and wrist while holding the fan brush.   As you move towards the background add more white to the Thallo green mix to lighten it.  The lightest color will be at the back.

Background of ground cover just below the mountains is the lightest shade of Thallo green

This is the fun part of painting.  You get to slam paint against the panel.  When you are done with a section let it dry and you will see that much of the green and yellow have blended into each other.  What it looked like wet will not be the same as what it will look like when dried.  EXPERIMENT….show your kids how to do it and let them try a few pats on the panel.

The same wet on wet technique using a narrow flat brush and a small round brush was used to produce the pine needles.  Payne’s Grey was added to the witches brew of color.. and it was Payne’s Grey that was used for the color of the tree trunks along with Zinc White highlights.



The method used to create the ground cover is exactly the same method used to make the leaves in the tree of the following painting titled Music Man using the same color mix but at different shades and using the fan brush and flat brushes to form the leaves.




The tool you use does not define the technique.  If your elbow makes a better impression of ground cover and leaves then use it instead of a fan brush.  CREATE!!!!

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What Is It?

What is it?


It is water.  Actually it is an illusion of water.  It is impossible to paint water itself because H20 (water) is clear.  How the hell are you going to paint something that is clear?  Unlike a tree which has color and shape …water is clear and has no definable shape.   What you paint is what water reflects or things in water such as rocks or the color of the bottom of the container that is holding water.  Sometimes you simply place a color in the appropriate setting and the human brain decides what it is because of where it is.

That patch of Payne’s Grey and white is actually part of a lake. 
Gypsy Fire Chocolate by S.Rocco Campanella


The only reason it takes on the appearance of water is because the human brain expects to see water when it sees the edge of a lake shore and a horse drinking.  There is nothing about that swatch of Payne’s Grey that defines it as water.  It is night and the only reflection is the moon light.  The edges of the lake are nearly black (straight Payne’s Grey right out of the tube than starts fading as the moonlight spreads out).

Let’s try that again.

What is it?


Looks like a swatch of white and blue….could be clouds…well actually it is part of a reflection of clouds.

Choice by S.Rocco Campanella


It gets interpreted as water because it is on the ground and not overhead.  By now you should start getting the idea that water in a painting is an illusion and some artists have developed some amazing techniques for creating the illusion.  This takes a lot of practice but the basics are fairly simple.  White either Titanium or Zinc defines the ripple in water.  The rest is pure smoke and mirrors…LOL

Lazy Afternoon by S. Rocco Campanella


You can see in the following blown up section of the inlet that the water is being defined solely by the white paint around the edges and also the inlet as a container.




The cliff wall extends down below the white which gives an impression of the cliff wall below the water line.  And the white in the foreground gives the impression of ripples.  That’s it….so if you want to paint a rock in a stream…paint a rock and put some Zinc White around it.  Also drag a thin film of the Zinc White across the water.  Sometimes you might want to use Titanium white along the shore line but never in the water itself unless it is the crest of a wave.  Rely on Zinc white because it is transparent and you can easily drag a film of it over the top of a rock.  This is NOT a wet on wet method and the the use of the white highlight or material that reflects in the water should only be done when the container (lake, stream etc.) is very dry.  For more information look up layering for painting rocks under water.

This really takes a lot of practice and many frustrating trial and error attempts.  Look as some of the art work of others containing water and attempt to duplicate parts of the water.  You can really improve the illusion with some simple reflection into the water of trees and shrubs around the container.

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