Painting emotion


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Dan McGrath of Lexington, Kentucky, wrote, “I consider myself an experienced landscape painter, but I see advice from successful artists: ‘Paint what you feel about a subject, not just what you see.’ As an ex-engineer, I don’t have a clue what I feel about a subject except that I love being outdoors and being in the places I visit. How does one recognize or introduce emotion into a scene? Is it bright colors, strong value contrasts, or what?”


“Low Tide at Drakes Bay”
oil painting, 18 x 24 inches
by Dan McGrath

We’ve put a selection of Dan’s excellent paintings at the bottom of this letter. Like Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, Dan has a heart, he just doesn’t know it.

Thanks, Dan. Your work shows what I call the “engineer’s touch.” This means your paintings have precise, organized and well-thought-out compositions. Further, you are blessed with good drawing, colour wisdom, aerial perspective and a strong sense of light and shade. Many artists would love to have these abilities. Your work already has the bright colours and strong contrasts you mentioned. Let’s look further:


“High summer stoner creek”
oil painting, 12 x 16 inches
by Dan McGrath

Contrivances, whether conscious or unconscious, are the first place to start looking. Dan’s work, like that of a lot of other painters, often shows a formalized and conservative consistency. In his case, it’s often a stabilizing horizontality or a (generally foreground) lineup that repeats from painting to painting. To get more emotion, you need to forego some of this engineering and let yourself be a bit more of a swinger.

Further, be careful with static elements, such as rocks. These are not objects to buttress a composition. They are living, breathing, painterly illusions with latent dynamism. While your work shows care and labour, care and labour are not necessarily emotions.

Apart from the emotion one finds in masterful faces (see Rembrandt’s portraits) and the emotion connected to a sensitive place (see Edward Hopper’s lonely cafés), there’s the tactile emotion that comes out of the end of the brush. Brushwork, energetic and fresh, might be just enough additional emotion for your well-engineered landscapes. In the words of Elbert Hubbard, “Allow motion to equal emotion.”


“Snow melt”
oil painting, 12 x 16 inches
by Dan McGrath

Best regards,


PS: “Better to be without logic than without feeling.” (Charlotte Bronte) “I want to draw and study a few things closely by feeling, not thinking.” (Joanna Field)

Esoterica: Artists write daily to ask for advice on their work. Sometimes I don’t know where to start. Often I pick out one or two salient points and try to get them across in about the length of a Twitter Tweet: “Consider adding painterly energy and bravura to give a bit more dazzle and authenticity to the work.” I know the old saw is a bit jaded, but think of this one as well: “The main thing is sincerity, and when you learn to fake that, you’ve got it made.”


Dan McGrath’s paintings


Elk Lick Creek


Rain, Akers Farm


Last colors




River Dawn







Twilight qualities
by Susan Canavarro, Florence, OR, USA


“Simon’s Sunrise”
watercolour painting
by Susan Canavarro

Dan obviously likes twilight. I asked him what it was about twilight he was responding to. What does it make him feel like? Never mind the landscape, what does the quality of light do for him? Why does he want to paint it? Does twilight hold nostalgia, loneliness, creativity, romanticism…? I responded strongly to Dan’s work because I like twilight. As a young girl I always found twilight to be a quiet, creative and introspective time; a time for dreaming. I’d sit before the big double doors, looking west out to the ocean, and dream of being a writer. Now I am a painter. Go figure! I believe answering those kinds of questions can lead to expression of those feelings in the work, and often it will be what a viewer responds to, only with their own personal reflections.


Attributes to build on
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA


“Windy day on Elm hill
pastel by Diane Overmyer

I come from a family of engineers. My father and my brother are both engineers, and I have some very good friends who had careers as engineers. The very nature of most engineers is to be organized and exact in their tasks. This also seems to be the case in Dan’s art work. Rather than trying to work more emotion into his paintings, I think Dan should play to those strengths you mentioned, and look for scenes that build on the emotions that are already coming through in his work. There is a real calmness and quietness to the pieces you posted and I think those are wonderful attributes for paintings to have, especially in this busy chaotic world that we live in.

There are 3 comments for Attributes to build on by Diane Overmyer

From: Mishcka — Aug 21, 2009

Hear! Hear! Well said. He does not need Robert’s or anyone’s advice. His landscapes have the power and solidness of Rockwell Kent landscapes. He’s very good!

From: Douglas Newman — Aug 22, 2009

Your work is wonderful, Dan! In each of the three paintings there is, apart from expert technical merits, a true sense of “place” that the viewer can and will definitely feel. Change nothing, Dan. Just do more of what you’re doing!

From: Tony Vander Voet — Aug 24, 2009

I agree. Dan -you’re doing fine! The enjoyment you feel in being outdoors and painting a scene you love shows in the work and is all the emotion you need. Anything else would look artificial and contrived.


Believe in yourself
by Mishcka O’Connor, Tucson, AZ, USA


“Finches and Cactus”
oil painting
by Mishcka O’Connor

I don’t agree with you about Dan McGrath’s landscapes. They definitely express emotion. I think their qualities go far beyond “care and labour.” I see in each a powerful mood of the time and place of the event. Some also have a masculine solidness that remind me of Rockwell Kent’s landscapes.

Rain, Aker’s Farm is exquisite. I can feel the moist silver sky that gives the feeling of quiet solitude to the scene. The Slope is extraordinary in its mood and unusual composition. The colors and values are so true and the red in the dense trees make them live. I feel River Dawn has that Rockwell Kent quality more than the others. Anyway, these are the paintings I relate to the most. McGrath is a remarkable landscape painter. He expresses emotion powerfully in his paintings and he doesn’t need advice from the rest of us except to believe in himself more.

There is 1 comment for Believe in yourself by Mishcka O’Connor

From: Mishcka — Aug 21, 2009

The paintings I refer to here were shown at the top of the last clickback.


Emotion in art
by Tim Tyler

I think art is always subjective and personal. As such, what responses each work stirs in the viewer is personal to that individual. About 1920 it became fashionable in College art programs to refer to all realism as “dead art.” So the wonderful landscapes of Church, Bierstadt & Turner that have always moved me deeply suddenly were deemed soulless labors of skilled craftsman by the elitist university art teachers, who could not paint well themselves. I believe, as do you, in emotion in art. I think the creator must suffuse the art with life. But after art leaves the easel it then must live and move others and how it affects the world will be amazingly unique.


Unique ‘outsider’ art
by Carol Rosenberg, Sanibel FL, USA

You hit the target. I see this so often in the older “new” artists I associate with. They spend so much time trying to learn/refine technique that they overlook their own lifetime of experiences that could add meaning and feeling to their work. I suggest a study in “outsider” artwork like that at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. It cannot be all designated as pretty or commercial but it sure shows a lot about the uniqueness of an individual’s creativity.


Concentrate on your best
by Alev Guvenir, Istanbul, Turke


“The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”
sculpture by Damien Hirst

“Perceiving energy directly as it flows in the universe is a unit of cognition that shamans live by. They see how energy flows, and follow its flow… If the flow is obstructed, they move away to do something entirely different” (Carlos Castaneda, The Active Side of Infinity, Pg.124)

I believe an artist must be truthful and make use of his/her strong sides. If logic or analytical view is your strong side you should make use of it. Not all of us are engineers. What is easy for you is difficult for someone else and vice versa. That is how we differ and create variety and richness in our world. I have seen pieces of work in galleries and museums that amazed me with the cold and emotionless state of silence. I have seen pieces so pure and neutral that strokes me with their minimalism.

An engineer has the ability of analytical, scientific thinking. He may use this ability to push and exaggerate the perspective, geometric planes or colour fields. Abstract expressionism uses such elements. He may push the correctness of the scene depicted. These paintings have something unique in them. It is the neutral state, or silent logic. Why push it to the emotional side? May be one can use the strength of this scientific perfection to push it to the cold, motionless, yet astonishing truth of silence.

I believe an artist’s biggest enemy is the fear of failure, worries about mistakes, anxiety and self-doubt. We must get opinion from others and listen to them with big ears. However, we should never forget our strong points lay upon the things that we find easy. We should not undervalue the things we do eyes shut – and struggle with the things we find difficult. Why use time and energy? Concentrate on your best and make a difference.

There are 2 comments for Concentrate on your best by Alev Guvenir

From: Mishcka — Aug 21, 2009

What a profound letter!

From: John B. — Aug 23, 2009

I agree. Well said.


Be a little wild
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA


“Adriennes #11”
pastel painting
by Paul deMarrais

This former engineer has good painting skills, better than many who work the trade. What seems lacking to me is mystery. The paintings are ‘workmanlike’ and predictable in finish, color and composition. This painter knows the ‘rules’ of painting and this knowledge should be freeing and not constricting. Like an experienced skydiver, he ought to feel free to twirl around a bit on the way down, knowing the correct time and procedure to pull the parachute and to land safely. To me that is the point of knowing the fundamentals. When you know the rules, you can deliberately change the rules or break them. This artist could make that choice to “not do” what he normally does. Writer Carlos Castaneda talked of this concept of “not doing” in his philosophy. Break the routine. Eat lunch at different times. Be less accessible, less predictable — to create more of a mystery about yourself and restore your childlike wonder at the beauty and mystery of the world. Use diagonals in his compositions, rather than horizontals. Pick a red, instead of a brown. Leave some areas less finished and selectively finish others. Speed up the process. Be a little wild and crazy. We have no art cops handing out tickets for daring failures and leaps of faith.

There are 2 comments for Be a little wild by Paul deMarrais

From: Linda Mallery — Aug 20, 2009

Lovely advice for us all, thanks.

From: anonymous — Aug 21, 2009

You need to read the next letter by Alan Soffer.


Your true voice
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA


encaustic painting
by Alan Soffer

Painting with emotion is for those of us who are emotional. Painting with precision and organization is for those who are built that way. Ultimately, we all must find our true voice, not someone else’s notion of what painting is about. For the engineer to let go might not be an honest expression of his nature. Yet, if that is something that is lacking in his personality, I believe that the best way to overcome this problem is to deal with his approach to life through personal development and maybe even psychology. Finding some gimmick to appear loose and hip or swinging would not be the sincere way of pouring one’s heart and soul into the visual expression. I agree that he is producing really fine work and I commend his recognition that growth will not be simple.

There is 1 comment for Your true voice by Alan Soffer

From: Hugo — Aug 21, 2009

We can all change – if we want to. Seems to me Dan McGrath asked a pretty clear question that I have not seen answered yet: “How does one recognize … emotion”, and he exclaims “I don’t have a clue what I feel”. I recognize that, because not too many years ago I was there. For me – once it became important enough, I had to learn a new language, one centered on feeling. It helps to keep asking myself the question “how do I feel about that?”. It helps to search out book stores and ask for some help finding books that deal with the subject. It helps to read a lot, without judging too much. And it really helps to put myself on the spot and explain to others how I feel.


No More Secondhand Art
by Mary Moquin, Sandwich, MA, USA


“On my own”
mixed media painting
by Mary Moquin

I recommend the book No More Secondhand Art by Peter London to Dan. Peter has really explained how to find the heart Dan is looking for. I believe it is one of those things that takes a while to see, and suddenly, once discovered, you can’t imagine how you didn’t see it before. Technique is important, but insufficient. By itself it creates pedestrian and predictable work that only impresses by its skill. We want our work to seek a response directed by the artwork not at the artwork. In my own work I want to redirect the viewers’ attention toward active contemplation rather than passive recognition. When we approach a painting, we need to try and see the world as if for the first time, full of all that wonder. We have to press our paintings past the service of replicating. Art is about more that describing the world; it is about our own personal encounter with it. This doesn’t mean Dan has to go all wild and abstract. It could be his attention to detail that makes life important to him but if they are too consciously rendered, there is nothing personal about his mark that tells us this.

There are 3 comments for No More Secondhand Art by Mary Moquin

From: Martie Wagner — Aug 21, 2009

“In my own work I want to redirect the viewers’ attention toward active contemplation rather than passive recognition.”

Mary, that is awesome! I have gone round and round trying to find the words for this in my own painting. You have said it so simply! Thanks.

From: judy — Aug 21, 2009

I agree… that’s a much better way to say the “it” factor! Very well put, as is this: “We want our work to seek a response directed BY the artwork not AT the artwork.”

Your painting, too, is rock-solid profound.

Thank you. :)

From: anonymous — Aug 21, 2009

Please read the letter by Alan Soffer above.


Taking risks
by Linda Saccoccio, Santa Barbara, CA, USA


oil painting, 12 x 12 inches
by Linda Saccoccio

Dan’s paintings are not completely devoid of emotion, even if they would benefit from more expressive quality. It just may be controlled more than he prefers it to look like it is. I would say more mood would give more feeling. Go for nuances and subtleties. Before seeing his work, my instinctive response is for him to get out of his head. Meditation and yoga of course can be great tools for someone to soften the control the mind has in one’s life. Another practical tool is to do some work that is not going to be precious. Work on paper quickly doing gesture drawings; even consider working with eyes closed making abstract marks to get a feel for the process of putting marks on a paper with charcoal and then ink. Look for your innate style of making marks and gestures. In other words loosen up! Enjoy and trust in yourself when you are least in control. Delight in the unknown and discover through the adventure. Be willing to be surprised by the mystery of what the work will show you. Sense rather than think and just dive in! After all, the risks you take won’t kill you.


Clear focal point
by Ron Sanders, North Port, FL, USA


“Three friends”
original painting
by Ron Sanders

One thing that made a difference in my evolution was learning how my two eyes see versus how a camera sees. A camera sees everything in focus from top to bottom and side to side. This is called a focal plane. But our two eyes see a focal point. Learn to paint as if you are staring at the most important thing in the painting.

Here’s an exercise: Hold up a pencil or paint brush or some small object. Now stare at that object. Without moving your eyes, try to become aware of how everything else around you is perceived by your peripheral vision. You should notice that the further out in peripheral things get, the more they change in four key areas. As things move away from focal point they:

1.) Become less contrasty in values
2.) Become less brilliant in color saturation
3.) Have less detail visible
4.) Appear to have softer or more blurred edges

Or, said in reverse, the thing we’re staring at (focal point) has the lightest light, darkest dark, brightest color, most detail and hardest edges. If your “reality” doesn’t match this, try viewing non-focal-point areas in your peripheral vision and build the relationships that are needed to make a good design in your painting. Your work has certain hardness to many of the edges that are the same all across the picture. Learn to manipulate the four points of focus and you’ll start to see more depth, and more life (emotion), in your work. This will also make your focal point more clear to the viewer.

There are 3 comments for Clear focal point by Ron Sanders

From: anonymous — Aug 21, 2009

Well that is one way of painting and it obviously works well for you. Dan McGrath’s is another way of painting and that works very well for him. There are many different ways.

From: Terry Rempel-Mroz — Aug 21, 2009

Well said, Ron. Having been a professional photographer a long time ago, I agree – you are absolutely right. Most people don’t take the time to see how they actually “see” the world around them, hence their experience is flattened. It’s a matter of practice and being open to a new way of seeing, and then transferring that to canvas. Ultimately, though, it’s the artist’s choice to represent reality as they prefer to see it. Your painting really illustrates your point of view – and it’s beautiful. Bravo

From: Anonymous — Aug 22, 2009

As a novice “artist,” there is nothing much I can add here; however, as a little old lady who has long loved the creations of others – even bought some of them – I feel qualified to say that Mr. McGrath’s work shows considerable feeling to me. What I see are solitude and a sense of longing and aloneness, which is not necessarily loneliness. Perhaps that was not his intent but that is what I perceive. At any rate, I would be proud to hang any of his works above my sofa. They are quite beautiful to me and give an overwhelming sense of peace, which is all the “feeling” I’m up for these days. Everyone’s work here dazzles me and I only hope I don’t drop dead before I reach even a little level of your competence and creativity.





Deep in West Fork Canyon

oil over acrylic watercolor painting, 22 x 16 inches
by Julie Gilbert Pollard, Phoenix, AZ, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.

That includes Manuel Occan of Recife, Brazil, who wrote, “Don’t worry Dan, you either are or you aren’t emotional. Engineering is good thing to do too.”

And also Jan Ross of Kennesaw, GA, who wrote, “I was once told to never ask an engineer his opinion of my artwork as they’re trained to observe things as they really are or SHOULD be, not what they can/could be. Maybe listening to some lively music will trigger his right brain or he could work when he’s not fully awake/sober to loosen up? Maybe he can explore why other artists’ works EXCITE him and go from there?”


Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Painting emotion



From: John L Brown — Aug 18, 2009

Emotional expression is subjective, not confined or limited by any standard or any variation there in. I suggest there is no limit to the range of emotional expression, and therefore no well defined criteria by which an individual emotional expression can be judged, as to its artistic value. This fact does not bar the minimal standards by which any artistic image are evaluated. Equally, individual emotional expressions can transcend any convenient evaluative perspective, if grounded in direct perception. Direct perception is the product of living truthfully, honestly, and applying rigorous disciplines. Please, indicate an easier path. No such luck. Work, discipline, discipline, Work.Truth requires Discipline, and Work. Deep Meditation, Spontaneous Insight, Right Thinking, Right Action.

What are you thinking? Easy answers. No such luck. Emotions are the substrate of all thought. What directs your thoughts? Love, hate, envy, lust, ambition, revenge, family, personage, success, God, and so forth. Each choice reflects an emotional connection, the validity of which lies within a subjective realm, not necessary amenable to outside observers.

From: Melissa Evangeline Keyes — Aug 18, 2009

Lovely paintings, Dan. The only thing I might suggest would be to introduce small touches of wild, to you, colors. Specks of pink and purple in brown rocks, slight orange edges in clouds, brightest light yellow highlights on water, and Alizarin Crimson bits in foliage.

Just for fun, throw away realistic colors completely, and try one painting with blue tree trunks, mauve and purple leaves, yellow grass, pink and orange water, haha, just for fun.

Spend time looking at any colorful paintings, the Splash series of watercolor books are good. The odd combinations will sink into your mind, and perhaps come out of your paintbrush. Oh, and if your paintbrush wants to jump into an odd color, let it. Brushes are smart friends.

Buy Robert’s book, and see it and read it every day.

From: Melissa Evangeline Keyes — Aug 18, 2009

LOL!! 1+5=6, no, three times. I then put 7 and it worked!

From: Susan Holland — Aug 18, 2009

I can find flawless, inert paintings of my own in my store-room. These were mostly made from a single photo of the subject. Even when painting wiggley pet portraits, I learned to work from life and from multiple candid snapshots. Plein aire is good for landscapes. Enough “push ups” at plein aire painting will loosen up the paintings so you can sense wind and fragrance.

Part of the emotion is what we leave out.

Dan’s wonderful paintings leave nothing to my imagination. All the mysteries are answered already. This causes me to skip any involvement and move on.

From: Barbara DuBois Hageman — Aug 18, 2009

Thanks, Robert, for highlighting Dan’s question on painting with emotion! As Melissa suggests, reaching for other colors on your palette to rachet up the feeling is one way to move beyond the subdued contemporary tonalist approach Dan’s work seems to represent. My work experience with engineers over my career long ago led me to conclude that engineers are both designers, creators, and careful observers of detail, but are often very introspective. So, snother way to generate emotion in one’s work is to look outward: include people doing things…the gesture inherent in people moving through time and space can create a full range of emotions, telling a story all the while. Watching folks move in and out of each other’s space can create many emotions. Try it and have fun!

From: Susan Avishai, Toronto — Aug 18, 2009

Years ago I was a student where the prof was doing a demo on painting the human face. He picked a girl from the class to sit as his model and she was flattered but nervous. We watched as he built up the forms and tones of her face until there it was… an amazing likeness of a girl, both flattered and nervous! I asked him how he got that emotion to come through her features, and he wasn’t even sure what I was talking about. He said, “I just painted what I saw.”

I think the point is that he really looked.

From: Robert Day — Aug 18, 2009

Dan, I think your work is great but show some breeze blowing or current in the water. Motion is an enviromental emotion. Keep it up. I am an architect of 30+ years and a painter of 5 years so I do not necessarily consider myself an artist.

From: Decker Walker — Aug 18, 2009

Learn to find wild shapes in every scene and include then in your paintings. Nature always shows us jagged, ragged, spindly,… shapes that don’t reduce to planes, cones, cylinders — you include some at the edges of your foliage. Find them other places. It’s hard to express feeling when things fit together easily and smoothly — the result is bland. Leave more touches of wild in; by choosing which ones to include, you’ll express your feelings about the scene.

From: Jackie Knott — Aug 18, 2009

Nature is orderly. Painting with attention to detail is not necessarily a bad thing. But, a comment by a WWII technician on what she hunted for in aerial photos looking for missles, tanks, structures, etc., was telling. She said, “There are no straight lines in nature.”

Dan, rather than abandon your excellent values and well developed skills in interpreting color, maybe what you are desiring is right at the end of your paintbrush. Instead of holding your brush like an engineering pencil, back off and use the length of your brush. Holding the far end rather than close to the ferrule may free your brushwork to give a more painterly rendering.

I say this because I admire those painters who attack a canvas with total abandon and who apply dynamic strokes with such virtuosity. I won’t ever paint like that. But I can work on my technique so my brushwork is not so taut. Looking at my early work and where I am now, that was the most singular difference, and something I’m still striving for.

Exaggerating the curve of a tree trunk, the cragginess of a rock, the fluid direction of wind on a field of grass …. all are interpretive, and thus, what inspired the emotion in you to paint in the first place. Hunt for elements in your landscapes to exploit.

Don’t disregard your engineer’s mind. That’s what you are. Emotion is there otherwise you wouldn’t paint. It is only a matter of getting in on canvas, and that may have more to do with technique than lacking emotion.

From: Patsy — Aug 18, 2009

Dan, you say: “As an ex-engineer, I don’t have a clue what I feel about a subject except that I love being outdoors and being in the places I visit.”

As far as I’m concerned, you are already expressing your emotion, which is painting what makes you happy, in your personal style.

After a lifetime of being precise, it is difficult to loosen up and splash around – I know, because as a wannabe architect or engineer who became instead an engineering draughtsman, I understand the way you think.

I love your paintings – particularly Laker’s Farm and Last Colours.

From: Kevan Rupp Lunney — Aug 18, 2009

Can these arts be related to the business of attracting a mate, or are they some form of mass or private beguilement? Further, has evolution hardwired some of us to our brushes? If so, what’s the nature of this wiring, why do we plug into it, and what’s it good for?

This topic is covered in an excellent book titled The Psychology of Art and the Evolution of the Conscious Brain by Robert L. Solso. The MIT Press 2003

Essentially, our brains started out small, then grew larger and more able to see and imagine to help us find food and mates. As we found better food sources this enabled our brains to stay healthy and grow more. We could learn, recall, socialize, and imitate, live in groups, share, make new tools, dwellings and clothes. A better environment meant more leisure time. “It is not coincidental that the first vestiges of wall drawings, amulets, and stone decorations appear about this time” (pg 116)

From: Lynda Hartwell — Aug 18, 2009

I’m very much enjoying seeing Dan’s work, and I must tell you, I read a lot of emotion from this “engineer’s touch”. I see a tender reverence, a sense of awe and respect for the beauty that he steals while he’s there doing plein air. I also think he has a unique expression that I wouldn’t want to see him change. There’s a freshness to his work that gives it a different quality. It doesn’t look “run of the mill”. You mention “stabilizing horizontality”, but I’m seeing lots of fun angularity too, so there’s a good change-up. Honestly, I think Dan’s work is superb. Guess I should’ve been an engineer!

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt — Aug 18, 2009

I think emotion can be painted in different ways.They can be manifested not only in painting people with their facial expressions whether they are happy or sad like a father carrying his child on his shoulders or a child praying at his bedside. It can also be shown in a painting of a raging sea and or the painting of sunset when the the sea is calm.The raging sea may evoke the emotion of anger or conflict and the sunset reflected on calm sea may evoke contentment or being at peace with oneself.I often paint memories from my experiences as child or at work places where I felt at peace and content.Thank you again for newsletter .I enjoy them very much and the feedbacks following each topic are very insightful and helpful .

From: Dianne Minnaar — Aug 18, 2009

Over the past 9 years I have grieved the loss of my country of birth and two family members. I never dreamed that death and migration would spark such an intense sense of displacement and grief but, at the same time, an incredible amount of positive focus and fulfillment in my studio. It has made me look so much more intensely at life and what really matters, my palette, subject matter and paint application. I have had to let go of life in order to let it live. Surely we do not all have to experience such loss in order to create emotionally satisfying and expressive artworks?

From: Redge — Aug 18, 2009

I love your reviews!!first I was a student going for studio painting – then I found clay. Yet, everything coexists together and you blog is a continuous source of inspiration.

From: Kim Rody — Aug 18, 2009

… do a painting with your left hand (if you are right handed). or, paint the painting upside down. fun!

From: Kenneth Flitton — Aug 18, 2009

Funny you should say that. I was an engineer too, and had (and still have) same problem of “constructing” a painting instead of it flowing from the heart. We both have to keep working at it, although it’s difficult to nail down what that entails. I have been starting with more loose, stray brush strokes to see if that leads out of the monotonous.

From: Walter Anderson — Aug 18, 2009

“The main thing is sincerity, and when you learn to fake that, you’ve got it made.”

I understand the fake it until you make it attitude, but wouldn’t fake energy show as fake in painting? My suggestion would be to change the times you go to paint – when the lighting of the subject is more dramatic and shows emotion or energy. When the shadows and casting of light is prominent . When an ordinary landscape becomes energized in its “Magic Hour”.

“It is approaching the magic hour before sunset when all things are related…light in everything… no lost places disappearing without definition … everything needing to be considered in relating the parts to the strange and transient unity.

From: Sharon — Aug 18, 2009

Dan McGrath’s paintings are beautiful and you can definitely see the engineer’s eye. As for his putting more emotion into his painting, I’m sure you’re going to hear a lot of screaming about the “feminization” of Art. Maybe we’re taking over here too.

From: Mary Timme — Aug 18, 2009

I really like Dan’s painting as they seem in the romantic season to me. They are very formal and controlled and he has an engineer’s eye for perspective. Being trained in the sciences myself, as well as married to an engineer for 45 years, I do understand the ‘not knowing what I feel’ routine.

Actually, he does know. I’d think some of the exercises in creativity might help him to bring it out a bit. Just a thought, but it does help me when I’m stuck wondering what I really feel about stuff.

From: Cathy Harville — Aug 18, 2009

I strive to paint emotion. For me, that is what art is all about – bringing an emotional response from the creator and audience. I have seen paintings that give me goosebumps. Some of Van Gogh’s work is so touching, that I just want to be in the scene.

I try to express emotion by using color, line and texture. For me, bright, pure color ignites my brain’s pleasure center. Streaking lines of grasses feel bold and strong. Glazes soften and comfort.

People often comment that my paintings make them happy. Then, when I paint a “sad” or serious piece, they are confused. Why do I do that? Why do I create a sad moment? It is because I needed to at that time. I painted two small panels called “Lost Trees”. (I tried to attach one, but they seem to be lost in my computer!) There is so much clear cutting go on around where I live, that the poor exposed trees that are left, look scared and naked. Viewers like the environmental statement, but I will probably never be able to sell them, because they don’t make people feel good. But they do make people think a bit about the environment. Interestingly enough, other artists love them – they get it. They understand the value of a sad emotion, and that the dark side is also a part of our lives, and needs to be expressed. What about sad ballads, or sad movies? We need those as well.

From: Mary Carnahan — Aug 18, 2009

I love the stillness and balance of these paintings. As far as loosening up goes, a drawing class taught by an artist and sculptor with a wonderful gestural style (Janet Brome) helped me feel more playful with line and color, when painting.

From: Barb — Aug 18, 2009

Beautiful letter and inspiration for photography with feeling and writing. Beautiful pictures and work congratulations. http://wwwtibbyand

From: Kathryn Ikeda — Aug 18, 2009

My best advise would be to “pay attention to your edges”. Hard/soft, high/low value, high intensity/low intensity hue transitions. It may not be your style to have loose brushwork, obvious texture, or more abstract, gestural rendering, but you can still lead the eye to where you want it to go and emphasize what is was about the landscape that appealed to you and made you want to paint it. If this is what you enjoy, stay true to your self. You have a fine eye and obvious skill.

From: John Ebel — Aug 18, 2009

It appears that Dan McGrath paints tranquility – that’s an “emotion” that is common to all landscape subjects and that is my guiding “emotion”. Making statements is fine for museums but people like to hang something non-controversial on their walls and tranquility meets their need. I would say that McGrath has mastered that “emotion” as well as yourself.

From: Joe Kazimierczyk — Aug 18, 2009

I think Dan’s work is really good, and the best advice for him would be to just keep doing what he’s doing. I’m not familiar with the locations where Dan’s paintings were done, but I suspect that he is already putting a lot of his own feelings into the work – that’s something one does subconsciously in everything including choice of subject, choice of color, application of paint, even your choice of canvas size and format tells something about how you feel about the subject. Looking at Dan’s paintings, I see his love of the outdoors, and his attention to detail and precision says something about his own personality – I see the feeling and emotion which made him create these paintings. So I hope Dan just keeps doing what he’s doing, I think he’s on the right track already. If Dan does experiment with brighter colors or stronger contrasts, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with experimentation, I do hope he realizes that he’s already got something worth keeping.

From: Ron Ukrainetz — Aug 18, 2009

I read with interest Dan McGrath’s query. As a very technical acrylic wildlife artist AND an impressionistic oil painter, I’d like to share my ‘feelings’ on this matter. A great master once told me

“It’s just more important to make a great painting than to intricately copy what you see. Cameras do that, painters don’t need to,” That seems to be where the emotion comes into a painting; the artist expressing themselves outside the realm of what they see. It’s a lesson that I keep trying to learn, too, with wider contrasts, brighter colors, and looser strokes.

From: John Ferrie — Aug 18, 2009

I am pretty sure it was me who said “Paint what you feel”…

Nobody wants a painting that looks like a photograph, that is what photography is for.

This guy is smarter than he thinks. He already knows he loves to be out doors.

He sees snippets of things in nature and is capable of knowing “I want to paint that”.

The rest is just a matter of filtering out the white noise of life, phone, TV, car backfiring that can easily distract us from painting.

I know that for my approach to painting, that being an artist is first what defines me. I have gathered my gumption, self esteem and armour from being an artist.

So, when I approach a blank canvas, the work is going to come through me.

This is where you “feel” your work. While a certain shadow or colour sense might be what you want, it is only after spending thousands of hours and acres of canvas when you know that things just come out different from the snapshot you have taken in your head. Letting go of the dialog of how things look and reeling in how things feel is the essence of being an artist. It takes a life time, but it is all part of an incredible journey.

From: Liz Reday — Aug 18, 2009

This comes at a good time. Returning from India, my mind is full of images of people, color, animals, temples, traffic, music, heat and more people, more colorfully attired than I’ve ever seen. Each woman in India expressed herself so individually in color combinations beyond my wildest palette. How to convey that? Yes, i made brief sketches and took tons of photos, but I won’t be doing the spirit of the country justice by copying my photographs, however skillfully. No, India is truly a state of mind! Ecstatic, swirling, blissful, smelly, dirty and noisy. I loved it all. But back in the studio, I’m still pondering my approach. Never before have I attempted to convey a state of mind while planning a memorial service for my mother and leaving for a family wedding out of state. By the time my brush hits the canvas I’m going to be boiling over like a volcano. Is there any benefit to thinking before painting, or is it all just procrastination? How to convey the essence of an experience without resorting to depicting it’s component parts literally? I know the answer lies in music and will involve primitivism and abstraction and big brushes and wanton abandon and lots of color. Apart from that, it’s a mystery…

From: Linda Walkers — Aug 18, 2009

I seldom see artists who do not paint with emotion or not paint what they feel – possibly those who are following a fad or painting a subject they don’t respond to as sometimes happens with commission work. Sometimes trying to concentrate on emotions or feelings or any other advice by art gurus leads to erratic work or work that is untrue to what an artist actually feels. Of late, especially with the plein air movement being in vogue, I often hear that ‘the secret’ is lively brush strokes but I know of many artists who use thin layers or softened edges with little evidence of strokes that are turning out wonderful, emotional work. The list for what makes a work emotional is long & differs from artist to artist and viewer to viewer.

Dynamic composition along with a sense of cropping for optimal effect, as shown in Dan’s paintings, are as good a way of eliciting emotion as I can think of. I certainly respond to his work.

Once in college we stood with a large sheet of paper & colored markers in front of us & the teacher ‘yelled’ “Gossomer”. We were to paint our response. Some responded to the word some to the force of voice. It showed me that all we can do is be true to our individual response to the subject & paint what, how & why we are happiest painting.

From: Gregg Hangebrauck — Aug 18, 2009

Dan, your paintings are lovely. What you get when you ask a question such as you have is a thousand different opinions. Many of the works I have seen on this web site & videos are all done with a formula. Just keep painting what you paint. Your voice is strong & I would love to see them in person. As I said before, they are lovely paintings. How’s that for criticism? ( cheap plug )

From: Heather Matthews, Qualicum Beach B.C. — Aug 19, 2009

Dan: Your paintings are fabulous, and full of your love of the landscape. Stop wondering about esoteric stuff and keep on exploring. Thanks for sharing.

From: Richard Mazzarino — Aug 19, 2009

To paint with emotion, one has to be emotional. Painting is autobiographical. Painting is you, who you are and how you see things. Your paintings may seem without emotion only if this is how you feel. What you feel is what you paint. Just loving to be in nature is not enough to paint landscapes. Emotion doesn’t start with painting, it starts before you paint, when you’re not painting, when you interact with others, loved ones. I believe you want to paint and show talent, but I also believe you have not connected with your subject in a way that leaves your previous life behind. For me your paintings lack spontaneity. They are very calculated. Some of the color lacks close observation and better interpretation. Fine painting isn’t about every detail in its place. It isn’t about explaining all things in the scene. What I suggest is probably the hardest thing to do and that is let go. Find a teacher who can show you how to loosen you style, to free you brush from your brain. Your paintings seem like copies and not painted from life. I say this only because they look this way to me. When we have all the time to paint, we have a tendency to paint everything we see. This works for some but it takes the mystery of nature out of the equation. When we see a great work of art not only does the scene fascinate us but when we approach it the brushwork intrigues us, hold us and thrills us. We have to look within the painting to see things we first didn’t see. Look to Corbet or Corot to see what I’m talking about.

Whatever you do keep painting and look forward.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Aug 19, 2009

Dear Dan- you are suffering primarily from our cultural system’s demand that men shut down much of their emotional body as children- while growing up- just so you can call yourself a man. This is one of the saddest states of being that exist today and it is completely dysfunctional for an artist. You’re suggesting you are a completely left-brained thinker (male) and not a right-brained feeler (female). Although I don’t really agree with you because I think you just aren’t consciously aware of HOW you ARE feeling things. But really- when was the last time you had a good cry? Likely- never- as your engineer’s brain (male perception of reality) won’t let you. It’s not manly.

My understanding is that to be any good at any art form one has to be able to utilize both thinking and emotion- both the right and left sides of the brain. And the right (masculine) and left (feminine) sides of the body as well as the upper (masculine) and lower (feminine) halves of the body. One’s thinking ability is centered in the brain while one’s emotions are centered in the solar plexus area of the body- or the gut. And you feel from the gut- and then after you feel something- then and only then do you think about it. Feeling actually happens first. This is why one can feel danger and react spontaneously before even having time to think about how to react. It’s just how the whole thing works. And it’s just how so much feeling in men has been shut down over the ages and why it is so much of a problem today. Denied emotions build up until they can no longer be denied- and then they usually break out and go about destroying things in their path.

Jackie Knott suggests you ARE your engineer’s mind. I’d say that that is simply your current programming and your programming can be tossed out- or updated- or re-booted- or changed completely. We ARE NOT only what we think we are. But I am also a perfectionist of sorts and I love to see the work of artists who have highly developed and refined technical skills- which you surely do. Sharon however is commenting about the possible down-side of the “feminization” of art. So she’s off on the other side of the (perceived) gender based crap our culture is immersed in- and holding out for a female perspective. It is the use of both energies- both outlooks- and both facets of our being- because we are all made up of both- that truly bring forth the creative energy in us.

So while you may identify as a gendered male (or female) in fact- you are not. And to be the best artist you can be- what you need to do is simply wake up to who you are as a whole being with both thinking and feeling abilities and a learned skill-set that allows you to use both together at the same time.

Unfortunately I also have to say something about John Ebel’s comment that “people like to hang something non-controversial on their walls”. Everything I make is controversial. My opinion is usually controversial. No part of me wants to be anything but controversial- even though occasionally I make something that can also be described as tranquil. So- don’t let overt tranquility make you boring. The world needs controversial artists who are flat out willing to effect change through a willingness to challenge the status quo.

From: Bob B. — Aug 19, 2009

Hi Dan,

I think that despite excellent painting and emotion in your paintings, you have one compositional problem which manifests as lack of emotion in some cases. Most of your paintings featured here have lot of happening in the lower half of the painting and almost nothing happening in the upper half (or the other way around). As I look at them, I look down immediately and then I look up and there is almost nothing there – it feels like starting to read a story and then there is sudden silence – as if you don’t want to talk to me any more. The clean neat lines add to the feeling of a clinical definitive statement that doesn’t leave any doubt that there is nothing else to say. If there was some object or area inviting me to wonder about it, that would feel like an emotional element – as if there is a message you have put there for me.

Of course, I may be wrong, but perhaps for the sake of an argument you can try composing a piece with this in mind and see what happens.

Whether this is useful to you or not, I think that you are an excellent artist going in a good direction and you will give pleasure to many art connoisseurs to come.

From: Tim Fitzgerald — Aug 19, 2009


I think your work has got all the emotion necessary and beautiful also. Don’t change a thing except the inevitable growth we all have from practice. For some reason everyone will tell you there way is the best and only way. That’s not only false but stupid. Your work reminds me of Daniel Garbers work and know one would consider saying his work needs more emotion . It seems to me allot of the people telling you how to fix your work are people who’s painting look like clones of the current fad in painting of trying to disguise the fact that they cant draw well. A person who dares to be different has to be taken to task and brought back into the right kind of thinking and painting. Blogs are all about the the person writing them not about the people who are looking for support.

So keep working your on to a good thing and should be proud of your work. Tim!!!!!

From: Gregg Hangebrauck — Aug 19, 2009

Hear Hear Dan. Art does not need to be formulaic. It is an artist’s individual vision that makes him unique. All the criticism is elitist BS. (cheap plug)

From: Keith Bond — Aug 19, 2009

I have a few additional thoughts about Dan McGrath’s question on emotion in painting. I find that there are a few things that help me tap into that emotion.

1. When I first come upon a scene I am attracted to, I try to analyze what caught my eye. Sometimes it’s obvious, sometimes it’s more difficult. But the “wow” factor will lead directly to the emotional connection.

2. I spend about 3 or 4 minutes doing thumbnail sketches before tackling a painting. For me, thumbnails enable me to look deeper into the scene and deeper into myself. If I simply begin painting the first idea without exploring the other possibilities, I may overlook the choices which best express that emotional connection.

3. I paint directly from life, rather than from photos. By being emersed in nature while painting, I am using all of my senses and connect much more deeply to the place (I also do studio works, but I develop them from the plein air field studies rather than photos). I wrote a blog article titled “The Field Study” recently which illustrates this point.

4. I write about the place and/or painting in my journal or sketchbook. Writing about art and about what inspires my art has helped me tremendously over the years to connect on a deeper level with the subject. Sometimes I may write about the wind or bugs, but they too help me connect because they are a part of the overall experience. Searching for the words to express what I experience enlightens me as to what I am feeling.

The first step is to recognize the emotion, which these for things have helped me. Other things may help other artists. But what is important is the recognition. Then if the painting is passionately felt, emotion should naturally be part of the painting. Can you intentionally imbue emotion into the brushwork? I don’t know. But if the decisions on how to apply the paint are a result of the emotions, then in theory the brushwork should express that emotion.

From: Gilda — Aug 19, 2009

If I could advise Dan about emotion in art, I would say: If you don’t have a clue what you feel about a subject, then go on to the next one. There is nothing anyone can teach you about that. There is no way to recognize or introduce emotion to a scene. Either you feel it or you don’t.

Try to find another subject or travel to a different place to paint. Find a subject that makes you vibrate, that makes you hope that mornings come sooner so that you can go back to your canvas. Something that fascinates you so much that you cannot stop thinking about it. Once you find that particular subject that takes your breath away, then you don’t even have to think about “emotion”. Believe me, it will present in every brush stroke, every line, every shape and every color that you use.

Through years of teaching, I have encountered people who became exceptional “technicians”. What I mean by that is that they knew all the in and outs of drawing, color, composition, value, etc., etc. yet their paintings lacked “soul”. Don’t get me wrong, some of those paintings looked wonderful and I am sure they are hanging in many living rooms, but they were the kind of paintings that would have ‘’nothing” to say to other people.

Every time I won a prize in the different events I participated, I showed paintings that I was passionate about. They were technically good, but the most important thing was that I managed to leave in each one of them a piece of my soul.

From: Charles Sikes — Aug 19, 2009

I am of the opinion that the person who told Dan McGrath to put more emotion into his paintings is somewhat naive. Dan’s paintings are elegant and restrained. And as you mentioned, beautifully composed and executed. I believe that many of us who attempt to paint nature seek to order and simplify the chaos around us. Dan appears to do this but without loose brushwork and saturated color. My comment to him is :”more power to you and quit listening to these uneducated critics”.

From: Darla — Aug 19, 2009

I think Dan IS painting with his emotions. His paintings are precise, but they are serene rather than static. The colors are rich and inviting. You can see the love of nature in his paintings.

That said, there is a simple way to paint what you see while painting what you feel. This may sound deceptively easy. When you see something you love to look at, ask yourself what it is that is attractive to you. Is it the colors, repeated shapes, the gleam of a highlight on an edge? Often we don’t really know what it is we like about a scene. Once you learn to figure that out, you can emphasize what attracts you to the scene, and leave out or deemphasize the rest.

From: Dan McGrath — Aug 19, 2009

Robert..thanks for your, as usual, sage advice. I received over 50 emails from artists offering methods for introducing emotions in landscape paintings. Thanks so much for addressing this issue!

Best regards.


From: Barbara Tibbets — Aug 20, 2009

Dan’s paintings make me want to dive into that lake or stream. I’d say he’s delivered his emotion.

From: Judy Palermo — Aug 21, 2009

Dan’s paintings are beautiful and skillful; being wordy gets in the way most times, so I rely on the first burst of impression I get. Trying to enter his scenes it hit me- ‘There is no hiding place for me!’

Maybe that helps- instinct over thought.

From: David Benjamin — Aug 21, 2009

Dan McGrath may not think he feels emotion but probably does. Perhaps he doesn’t realize the emotion his lovely paintings evoke in those of us who view his work. If he could see them from our point of view he would understand my comment.

From: Candace Faber — Aug 21, 2009

Dan is painting his emotion which is linear and orderly.

From: Gary Holland — Aug 21, 2009

Dan’s work and his concern about how to deal with the concept of emotion reminds me of the work of many illustrators-turned-fine artists. Too often, their work is technically strong, and emotionally flaccid. The potential can be seen, but the marriage of technique and passion isn’t quite there.

Technical skill is such a nice goal to achieve. But too many amateur (and sometimes professional) artists never arrive at that goal, and can empathize. Although one’s art is technically strong, as are many illustrators, it’s still difficult to be taken seriously by the “collector” (read, “paying”) public who wants the artist’s human spirit to take in the scene, process it, and recreate it into a piece of art that moves them. Period. Yeah, I know, a lot of art is sold to decorate the wall. However I’d submit the real collectors, who pay real big prices, tend toward demanding passion in their art..not just a painted reproduction of a photo.

So, how do we import emotion into our work? I have fun with that challenge when I teach workshops, as my background is in Psychotherapy. To make it simple: Art is about symbolism. Anything humans do has symbology. It’s how we’re wired. Whether a “halo” shape around the head of a portrait (symbolizing holiness), or the color orange (symbolizing energy/passion,) or a woman with her pet unicorn concept (symbolizing virility), or a short thick brushstroke vs a long thin stroke (symbolizing impetuosity/impatience/or dinner is waiting for this painting to be finished) … think simply: every thing you do in your painting is symbolic. Study symbolism, learn to see meaning in everything you see or hear, and you will get in contact with emotion. Then think symbolically as you “engineer” your painting and you’ll naturally develop into a goal-oriented, emotion-laden artist.

Is that Nirvana, or what? FYI: I’m painting lots of passionate-static scenes lately if you go to my website at

From: Lynda Kelly — Aug 21, 2009

It is Dan’s expression, other engineers will eat it up. These lovely paintings will withstand the close scrutiny they will receive from these folks. I am so not in this category and love them too.

From: Hans Lussenburg — Aug 21, 2009

The comment above by Gary Holland has nailed the definition of passion in my mind, he has nailed it to the cross for all to see. Thanks for sharing Gary. Your words above struck a deep cord with me. Thank you.

From: Dorenda Crager Watson — Aug 28, 2009

I believe that the concept of “emotion” in a work need not be defined as an “emotion” in the form of a mood. Emotion can be shown through many different forms. Some artists display emotion through brushstroke…some by subject matter…some by choice of medium. The emotion of the piece is determined, (and possibly only known to,) the creator of the work. What an observer gets from the piece is their take on what they wish to see in the piece…and this may be totally opposite from the artist’s intended concept. Does it truly matter? :)

From: Aiden T. — Feb 03, 2012

The 11th painting gave me a tingly feeling or excitement. It felt refreshing.

From: nkosi — Feb 24, 2012

truly emotional



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