How to ...

Proportion a Landscape using a Homemade Viewfinder

I've been interested in geometry since high school. That I went into surveying and civil engineering was true to my core. With art, I am drawn to the geometry of flowers, which seems everywhere infinite. My painting has now taken a road into engineering and art. The last two paintings I've done are very perspective and geometric but also colorful with light. My current painting, Gavins Point Spillway, is also a study in perspective, light, and color. Getting a good drawing is key to producing a good painting.

The drawing begins on location to experience the light and shadow and even the atmosphere of what you will capture on canvas. First, I've chosen a subject with a high degree of perspective. Like the Niobrara Railroad Bridge, Gavins Point Dam is a massive structure placed by engineers. These structures inherently have the interest and perspective I'm looking for. Next is to visit the site at a time when the light is powerful. You can't go wrong with sunrise because it gives you time to study the scene, snap some photos as the light changes, see the long shadows in magic hour, and time to start your drawing without losing daylight (an option not offered with sunset).

One of the biggest challenges for me in landscape painting has been to quickly capture the essence of the scene while keeping the drawing accurate. If you are an artist who wants the feeling of a subject without the realism then this next step won't matter. I am a "simple realist". I try to get the big pieces of the picture accurate but sacrifice details in favor of a pleasing composition. I am also a civil engineer. I made a tool to find my view, zoom in or out, and to measure the visual key points of the image so they can be transferred to the canvas. For just $4 and some nuts and bolts around the house I made this device.

The bottom left corner is 0,0. Inches increase going up and to the right. The frame is set to the proportion of your canvas. In the case of a 24" x 18" canvas, I would use either a 12" x 9" frame or a 6" x 4.5" frame, or something in between of the same 4:3 ratio. I hold this viewfinder at arm's length. This is important to always keep the same distance between your eye and the scene. If you want to crop the scene then adjust the scale to a smaller view (but with the same proportion as your canvas). Next, find two key points which connect and draw a line on your canvas. The key points in the scene are checked for position on the horizontal and vertical edges of the frame. The proportionate coordinates are scaled up to your canvas and plotted: 3,2 in the viewfinder is 6,4 on the canvas for example. Choosing two connecting points at extreme ends of your scene allows you to place the extents of your artwork on your canvas, which helps you discover how the scene fits and to check the "system" of math that you will be using to map other key points. Keep doing this with more key points and the drawing skeleton will come together. You'll get faster with practice.

As you can see in the above image, the proportions do work well. The shadow study in the middle is on a 24" x 18" piece of vellum scratch paper. My canvas is the same size, in fact I traced the shadow study from the drawing. Once I get the basics of the image down, I can start trying shadows or adding details by "trying" the look on tracing paper. If I like it then I put a carbon sheet down and move that idea to the real canvas. I work in watercolor so my canvas is a watercolor board which is more permanent than paper and takes the paint nicely with some forgiveness to lift off mistakes.

The Gavins Point painting is not done yet but I made the Niobrara RR painting below with the same process. Stay tuned for Gavins Point Dam at or @OmahaFineArt on Instagram.


Trip to ...

Gavins Point Dam in Winter

Once I discovered the "engineering and art" theme of the Niobrara Railroad Bridge, I thought about other nearby subjects.  I was researching the 2011 Missouri River Flood and came across a photo of the Gavins Point spillway at nearly full volume.

The spillway is not always open.  When the Corps of Engineers decides to regulate the flow of the downstream Missouri River - or when the snowmelt from Montana and North Dakota is too much for Lewis & Clark Lake to hold - they open the gates.

My idea is to develop an accurate drawing of the dam openings in perspective, and then add the hydraulic jump used to dissipate the energy of the "falling" water.  Mist will rise from the thunderous turbulence downstream of the spillway.

Trip to ...

Niobrara State Park in October

One of my favorite spots in Nebraska is Niobrara State Park.  I'll camp overnight and then rise early to photograph the sunrise.  My first time I discovered the Railroad Bridge.  My second time I went back to draw and paint the bridge.  I discovered an "engineering" way to transfer what I was seeing through a scaled viewfinder to the watercolor board.  By setting the proportion of the viewfinder to the same as the canvas, I'm able to mathematically mark key points on the board and connect the dots.

The scene is amazing.  The west bank of the Niobrara River is LIT UP by the sunrise and commands the view.  The railroad bridge is a massive overhead structure and the sunlight streams through the steel girders.

Trip to ...

Cunningham Lake in Winter

This is my first portfolio under the plan of traveling to make art.  I'll begin with something close to home and easy to access with Lucy, my shuttle bus converted to a traveling art studio.

Each portfolio will be of one location and will document the process to build outside art.  I will capture photos, sketches, plein air, and back-of-the-bus studio final paintings.