The Three Amigos


Dear Artist,

There are three methods of working that can genuinely enhance the overall quality of an artist’s performance. I call them “The Three Amigos.”

Working on location
Working from reference
Working from imagination

Working on location:
By inhaling the air, hearing the birds and witnessing the movements of subject and light, senses are heightened and a rosy glow is given to the art spirit. Location work injects a vitality that doesn’t happen in the studio. And while many find the quality of their outdoor work to be disappointing, no one can say it’s not valuable. Plein air is like fishing — both a pastime and an event — but unlike fishing in that you’re seldom skunked. Plein air is an acquired taste, a learned skill, and a calculated risk. In art and life, plein air finds true values.

Working from reference:
Canned reference — drawings, photos, sketches — are at their best when they’re self-generated. Quality reference permits contemplative study and in-depth understanding. From gathering to utilizing, reference is a process of discovery and an organizational challenge. Nothing beats reference for specificities — wood ducks, windjammers, Wisconsinites. Working from reference allows artists to see, learn, and process information and detail in a way that is not possible in the field.

Working from imagination:
“Art does not need to reproduce the visible,” said Paul Klee, “rather, it needs to make visible the invisible.” Imagination plumbs the well of experience, memory and dreams. This deep place is also where design is sharpened and style is honed. Without imagination, work becomes dependent on reality and lacks the magic of the artist’s personality. Unfortunately, many do not trust their wells to be deep, and by so doing, stay shallow.

These three amigos are not theoretical. They are simple, workmanlike processes that are easily switched to and fro. Keeping them somewhat in a state of equilibrium brings confidence and audacity to your work. With the three amigos, you can ride into any cowtown, shoot ’em up and make ’em dance.

Best regards,


PS: “Synthesize everything at your disposal.” (Ken Danby) “The supreme misfortune is when theory outstrips performance.” (Leonardo da Vinci)

Esoterica: Working from imagination may appear to be the most valuable, but you’ll find that all three amigos can and will work together toward the same end. As the cross-breeding of processes promotes creative vigour, all three become partners to your inspiration. Your world is enriched — so too is your art. “Do not quench your inspiration and your imagination; do not become the slave of your model.” (Vincent van Gogh)


Outdoors with Tres Amigas
by Alex Nodopaka, Lake Forest, CA, USA


original artwork
by Alex Nodopaka

I appreciate the sense of humour of your Tres Amigos. As for me I am a lone macho musketeer. I have Tres Amigas. I take Imagination to Locacion where we meet Referencia. Once there, we form a wonderful outdoor foursome despite the skunks and possums, bears and racoons. By doing this I resolved the problems of the eternal threesome triangle by upping the ante, which is every artist’s fantasy. In that manner we always can pair off and have a field day. I shall leave the salient details to Imagination who, at times, is the only one that wrestles me to the ground and wants to top me.


Methods examined
by Erika Schulz, Red Deer, AB, Canada


“Pine Tree”
original painting
by Erika Schulz

I never realized that there was a method to my madness. I have been an avid follower of the Three Amigos without knowing what I was doing. For me the imagination is my playground. Every subject I tackle has a flavour of mythos that I love. Nothing is real and yet I use all the aspects of a solid existence to create. I use reference to a great extent for subjects with people and nature (which is just about everything). I love depicting a subject that is totally unreal but has the bones of a real thing. I have to admit that I very rarely work out-of-doors. Trying to work diligently, while fighting bugs, wind and lack of materials is not very productive for me. I do however go out-of-doors to find inspiration, and take photos for that reference mentioned before. Your letters have really forced me to take a closer look at my methods. Thanks for the introspection.


Plein air dependence
by Ron Gang, Kibbutz Urim, Israel


“Thirsty Land”
oil on canvas, 28 x 55 inches
by Ron Gang

I must say that I’ve developed a dependence on plein air painting. I sometimes feel it’s like an addiction, albeit it’s not that bad. It’s convenient, because if you’re true to what you see, every number wins. Nature provides the answers, and it seems as deep as you fathom, if you remain receptive. There’s always more and more to discover. It’s an inexhaustible wellspring. I envy those who tap their imaginations; I’ve never made much effort in that area… when there’s something my inner eye sees, and I try to catch it, it seems to evaporate. Yet, the great outdoors is always there, and I suppose as long as I feel its call and I can load the stuff on back and go out there, the discovery of inner space will wait.


The too-too plein air experience
by Barbara McGee, Peterson, IA, USA


“3 Amego’s”
watercolor painting
by Barbara McGee

I do have to tell you that if you lived in Iowa and not Vancouver you would think twice about this plein air thing. I call it the too-too experience — too hot, too cold, too windy (we have 257 wind generators outside our door) and too buggy. I do spend a lot of time looking at the outdoors and trying to absorb the color. I do agree that no amount of absorbing can make up for being on the scene, but it does help. I have one place that is so beautiful when there is a haze and I have been trying to photograph it for 20 years and have never got a good color representation, so finally I just decided to paint it from the photograph and take the color from my memory. It really did turn out pretty good. Another thing that I have noticed is that the color from my new digital camera seems to be quite a bit truer than the film camera. Thank you for your twice weekly letter. I make sure everyone I know gets it.

(RG note) Thanks Barb. For more revelations from artists on painting out-of-doors go to ‘Plein Air’ art quotes


Believable images need some reference
by Devon Coles, Regina, SK, Canada


I couldn’t agree more with your 3 amigos approach to art making. All three approaches are extremely important. I am currently teaching art to all grades at 5 schools in Saskatchewan. One of the first things I encountered across the board was students who held the misconception that an artist is a person who can magically draw anything without the use of reference material. I have been teaching them to observe material, even if their drawings are fantasy, to help make the final image more believable. As an Artist, my work focuses on insects and other elements of the natural world. I look very closely and take close up digital images of my subjects. I then paint them quite largely, usually upwards of 3 feet x 4 feet. Imagination and observation (plein air and reference images) are definitely my amigos.


Building a visual library
by Diane Overmyer, Wakarusa, IN, USA


“Morning Glow”
oil painting, plein air
11 x 14 inches
by Diane Overmyer

I took a landscape class last summer with Ron Monsma. During the class he kept referring to building up a visual library. If an artist has spent enough time in nature they can go back to the studio and work more effectively due to the images they have stored in their mind. Just as a scholar trains their brain to learn facts about certain subjects we painters, often by our very nature, are continually building our visual libraries. My library also has been built through looking at other artist’s work. Our visual libraries serve as a bridge between working from reference and using our imagination. I find this to be true when I am working on location. I refer to my visual library to help me step away from only recording that which is in front of me.




A plein air trick of sorts
by Eva Kosinski, Louisville, CO, USA

Oftentimes, since I work in acrylics, plein air can be a real struggle. Here in Colorado, we are blessed with dry air, (which I consider a feature) but, for acrylics, it can be frustrating.

If I spend any time working on a drawing of an area (on the canvas), I also make up a “cheat sheet” — a bunch of clusters of colors on paper, matching the colors that I see around me. I’ve found that even with color correct lighting in the studio, some colors just can’t quite match up to what I remember. The great majority of the time, if I use this color sheet in the studio, matching the colors on the canvas to the colors on the paper, I can later take the piece outside and find that my colors that I remember are there. There are a few times that it won’t work, particularly for colors that are very subtle blends, but in general it is very helpful.


Directly to the point
by Nina Allen Freeman, Tallahassee, FL, USA


“Break of day”
casein and acrylic painting
by Nina Allen Freeman

Once again, you have put into words something I have felt in my gut. I work on location occasionally with a local plein air group and do find I have to change my method (watercolor) in order to complete a painting before the bugs or the heat drive me away. It has forced me to go immediately to that which I most want to say in the painting. I have taken this lesson to the studio and working from my photographs, I imagine the thing I am most struck by in the scene, and how it can best be communicated through color, form and value. Then, I let myself go with paint and brush. Some times it works.


Walking through a mandala journal
by Katherine Ziff, Athens, OH, USA


by Katherine Ziff

The Three Amigos! How affirming to have names for the processes that I use. A beginning artist with a day job, in the summer I’m outside making drawings of plants, indoors in winter making monotypes from the drawings and other objects, and year round trying to walk with the imagination and intuition through a mandala journal.





Sketching for the love of it
by Rodrica Tilley, Montrose, PA, USA


Plein Air in Kauai

I’ve been visiting Hawaii. Since it was not a working holiday, I had planned to leave my easel at home. At the last minute I panicked, “What if I get bored staring at the ocean, sipping Mai Tais and stalking orchids?” I threw together a complete set of pastel pencils, some small 9″ x 12″ sheets of pastel paper, some tape, chamois and gatorfoam drawing board, and a lightweight sketching set-up. The object of my drawing sessions was to get to know this volcanic tropical environment, as well as create some meditative time for myself, not to paint works for framing. My first attempt was awkward and I felt I’d brought all the wrong supplies. On a daily basis I use pastel pencils sparingly, if at all, and I normally hate working so small. I groused a bit about the lack of colors in my little set of 60 (as opposed to 600+ at home in the studio), but I was really enjoying sitting on a cove spending an hour or two sketching for the love of it. As the days passed delightfully, I became more comfortable with my self-imposed sparsity of materials. I did purchase a little box of ‘ten blues’ since that is such a predominant color in Hawaii. As my all-too-short holiday drew to a close I was feeling quite comfortable with my featherweight set-up and pleased with several of the small resulting pastel sketches.


More on The Amigos
by Trevor Sale, Athabasca, AB, Canada


acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 inches
by Trevor Sale

Reading your latest installment brought a smile to my face for I had written almost the same thing last night when organizing my thoughts for my show, titled From the Real to the Surreal and there are three groups of paintings on display. Each one is an “amigo” of yours. My thoughts on the amigos:

On location: Time is limited. You have to make a decision and go with it (right or wrong). The light is always changing, conditions are not always favourable, but the end result produces a freshness. You are capturing the essence of the situation.

From reference: Paint what you know. When you truly understand your subject, you can better portray it. Working in the studio allows time for reflection, thus avoiding possible problems.

From imagination: There are no rules here. This is the best opportunity to experiment with different shapes, brushstrokes, colour combinations. These paintings usually evoke more of a feeling than an object or place that people can relate to.

The thing that ties all of these styles together is the understanding of the materials. Knowing how to use your supplies to the best of their ability allows you to better portray what it is you desire.


Comfort of a legacy
by Joy Gush, New York, NY, USA


“Devon Summer”
original painting
by Joy Gush

Your letter on The Three Amigos explains how I have been able to complete over 600 successful canvases, many personalized. My legacy rewards me with the comfort that I have done my best in this life, and it will continue to bless others long after I have moved on to “the other side.”

I never had instruction in painting. It all started with a painting I decided I would do of my poodle I had in the 1960s. I painted him for a birthday gift for my mother in England. She had been told in the 1940s that her daughter (in Grammar school) had no artistic talent whatsoever. After that I dropped all ideas of becoming an artist, to the great disappointment of my mother. So, receiving this gift I had painted for her, it delighted her so very much that so many years later my talent had been revealed. The subject matter I was told to paint for the class in school had no life in it–and I certainly had no life in me to get enthusiastic about painting it.

It was not until the 1960s, in New York City, upon request, that I painted again, but hesitated to take up classes. No one seemed to teach Impressionism anyway, so I taught myself with books, photos, and studying the much-loved paintings by Claude Monet. Memories of life in England came back to me. From then on, all the offices I worked in from the 1960s had my paintings on the walls! The foundation was laid. My work was loved by all the visitors.





Summer Aspen (left), Monastary Beach by Carmel, CA (right)

casein(left) and watercolor(right) paintings
by Stephen Quiller, Creede, CO, USA


You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 105 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2006.

That includes Adrienne Stone who wrote, “I work on location, from reference and from imagination, but lately have found myself limiting my imagination. The two quotes in your letter are now helping much more than you’ll ever know.”

And also Hymne Laubscher from South Africa who wrote, “I am doing some research on cat-loving artists. I would love some response from members who keep cats for company.”

And also Inge-Margrethe Madsen from Denmark who wrote, “I want to thank you for your way of being. I admire your open way of being very much. For now — all the best, love to you and your readers.




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