Painting from the heart

by cheri block sabraw


Linda Leinen, a wonderful writer and photographer whose blog I have followed for a number of years, lost her feline companion, Dixie Rose, last year.  I asked her for an interesting photo as my intention was to paint a small portrait of Dixie for Linda. The photo she sent did not disappoint. You can see it on the left of these two images.

As I painted away, trying to capture the whim and eyes of a gorgeous calico, someone else kept kneading at my soul, a person who has lived a challenging life and spent the last years addicted to opioids, the result of pain-killers given to him after a back surgery.

I learned that he had gone cold turkey and is now opioid free.

And yet, he has spent the last years alone in a very small space with his cat, who served as company during the long wet gloomy winters of Oregon.

But his luck changed.

His former landlord came over to see him and offered him a larger apartment.

A breath of life! A change for an aching back and sagging spirit. A bath tub even!

To decorate!

When I learned these things, the painting switched directions–from Texas to Oregon–and now hangs in his apartment, along with other items he has found at antique and thrift stores. The painting, titled Dixie Rose, arrived on Christmas eve.

As I knew she would be, Linda was more than gracious as old souls often are.

I find the act of painting for others with no expectation of a sale, the most satisfying hobby I’ve had in years.

Not that I don’t enjoy selling a painting, but giving is the best.


Texas oaks and blue bonnets


Texas oaks and blue bonnets 9×12 oil on linen 2018

by Cherylann (aka Cheri)

We flew into cosmopolitan Dallas and drove to stylish San Antonio, Texas, to visit our “kin” in 1993.

You see, my mother Joan (aka Josie) was born in Dallas in 1930; her father Nathan (aka Jimmie) had been born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1900; her mother Rosalie (aka Rosie) had been born in Anna, Texas, in 1900.

A whole lot of “kin” from the Lone Star State. Perhaps you have seen the tee-shirt with the logo on it which says, “Don’t Mess With Texas.” It’s true. They have sense of self and state as big as, well, Texas !

Our daughter Sara decided to attend SMU (Southern Methodist University) in 1992 to please her grandmother and please her she did.

She stayed in Texas for four years, completed her degree in English, and came home to California where the humidity level is below 50% most of the time.

Here in California, we have been spoiled by the raw beauty and variety of our topography. From the redwoods in Humboldt County to the Pacific Ocean near Carmel to the walls of granite in Yosemite National Park to the stark desert of Death Valley–California is a cornucopia of eye candy.

Texas can boast of its own beauty and certainly one of the most stunning landscapes the eyes can see is the highway between Dallas and San Antonio in the spring when all of the  blue bonnets that Ladybird Johnson had planted to beautify what was once a rather barren landscape.

When we drove that highway in 1993, we passed at least 50 wedding parties having their wedding photography in the middle of a field of blue bonnets. We had Sara get out of the car so I could take a picture of her in such an environment.

Bluish purple, light blue, lavender–these little flowers with white tips cover the soft rolling hills like a mystical carpet of blue.

Also present in the Texas Hill Country are the oaks, my favorite trees.

My next painting will be of a stately oak here on our road, one which I have been walking by for 25 years.



Hooray for Lynn Savery

by cheri sabraw

Wonderful and surprising news out of Australia last week when an unknown and self-trained artist Lynn Savery won the most lucrative art prize given in that country–the $150,000.00 Doug Moran prize.


She beat out a whole host of professional artists with her self portrait.


She told The Guardian Australia that “…This was her first oil painting and her first portrait, but she has “dabbled in drawing and other things.”

The art world can be a snobby self-satisfied and insecure group, which caters to name dropping, art collectors’ lucrative whims, and trendy trends.

Like dog show judges (see Christopher Guest and Eugene Levy’s satire  on that world in the film Best in Show), art show judges often follow suit by awarding prizes to artists whose work they know rather than the best work.  I’ve often thought that all art contests ought to be judged by non-artists. Wouldn’t that be interesting?

Congratulations to Lynn Savery but more kudos go to the judges who selected the painting they thought was the best without regard to who the artist is, where she went to art school, whom she has studied under, whether she is a plein air artist or a studio artist, and whether she uses photography as references or not.

Hooray for them!

How refreshing.

In oil painting, is it cheating to trace an image?


My current project is a painting of the 2018 Breeders’ Cup. I have a rough drawing of the winning horse, Catholic Boy. The horse and definitely the rider (LOL) aren’t quite right but I will fix them as I paint. The painting will be blurred.

by cheri sabraw

I’ve been called naive before.

And it was with such naivety in all things painting–painting sales, galleries, the art world, art contests, juries, and more that I returned to a childhood hobby three years ago. Since that time I have learned the subjective nature of art contests, of gallery owners, and of art collectors.

Strangely, I thought all realistic oil or acrylic painters drew their own subjects from either raw talent or from their photographic references.

When I started my painting hobby, I began drawing on a sketch pad and took a class from old-timer Ned Jacob in the Superstition Mountains through the Scottsdale Artists’ School last December, which focused on drawing and then painting horses in a plein air setting for five days.

I found standing around a corral and holding a sketch pad hard work but more challenging was the act of replicating with some emotion and accuracy an animal difficult to draw.

Since that time, I continue to draw all of my animals before I attempt to put them to canvas.

On Instagram, I follow a number of artists whose styles I admire.

In considering an art class taught by an accomplished artist  whose work is of the highest quality, I followed a thread on his website to the materials list he had posted for his prospective students. And there I saw it on the list–tracing paper!


Perhaps his students have never drawn a horse or a dog, so he invites them to trace their photographs right onto their canvases. Maybe he, himself, does this.

I remember my disappointment  upon seeing the documentary “Tim’s Vermeer,” in which Tim Jenison makes a case for Vermeer’s use of the camera obscura. 

You mean the Dutch Masters and all who followed didn’t necessarily draw their own subjects?

What is painterly? What does an artist’s signature on a canvas mean?



Why I paint


Scarlett and Mandolin, Morgan horses 12×16 oil on linen 2018  $400.00

by cheri sabraw

In teaching myself the techniques of oil painting during the last three years, and in making myriad mistakes, there have been times when I have wished I had continued my art education after my first year of college at the University of Southern California.

I’ve always loved art and painting from the time I picked up a Crayola and scribbled across the page. My favorite subject was always art; you will not be  surprised to learn that I liked to do things a little bit differently from the art crowd in my 4th grade classroom.

Staying in the lines was never my goal. Shading a hippo in tones of brown and grey was no fun. My hippos had to be purple with pink teeth. Precision was not my goal. Expression and emotion were and reflected the artist behind the lines and color.

My mother hired a teacher for me when I was a shrimpy 6th grader. My first painting was of Mt. Fujii. The oil dried slowly; the process taught me a patience that has stayed with me a lifetime.

Ten years later, as a freshman at USC in 1969, I signed up for Freehand Drawing. In that class, I saw my first naked man. ( Yes, morals have changed but my report is the truth.) My scribbling became, by necessity, more realistic. The models were fat, with layers of skin and rolls. The men had no problem letting it all hang out. I was absolutely amazed at the variations of the wondrous human body and in the confidence of the models.

I suppose that experience caused me to consider geology as a major.

After years of answering the bell, correcting student writing, managing my business of 1000 students ( equals 2k parents) a year, I retired.

What more logical hobby to take up than painting?

Three years ago I read that one must do 100 paintings in order to improve. Well, I have done about 30-40 paintings, most of which I have thrown onto the dump pile.

But a few, maybe ten, have survived little Cheri’s critical eye. Several have been sold. To think! Others have been claimed by family members.

As I approach my 4th year of oil painting, I hope my work is beginning to reflect my  aspirations.

The next phase of my painting  may find my brush strokes loosening up. Mark Twain said that before one can break the rules, one has to know them. I think I’m getting there.



Some gallery notes


Red-Tail Hawk on the top of our four-story redwood tree. I took this photo yesterday.

by cheri sabraw

On our travels, we visited a number of art galleries in Montana, Wyoming, and Colorado. While my husband studies the art, I usually interview the salesperson, who these days, often happens to be the gallery owner.

Long after husband leaves the gallery in search of either another one or an ice cream, I am still questioning and listening to the answers to my queries.

“Is it just me or does much of the plein air art painted today look the same?” I ask a gallery owner in Wyoming.

“You are right,” he laments. “Many scenes beautifully rendered but how many barns, hay fields, vineyards, ocean ledges, forests, rivers, and greying skies can I sell?”

I wade into one of those dicey rivers and continue.

“I would think you would be forced to look for art that is different in some way. Is that true? After all, you are ARE in the business of selling art.”

“Yes,” he says, stimulated by the authenticity of the conversation. He leads me to four paintings that are not impressionistic, not abstract, not plein air, but instead, are figures of animals done in simplistic strokes on board, not canvas.

“What do you think?” he asks me.

“They are different,” I observe.

“We haven’t sold one, ” and with that answer, shakes his head.

At a gallery in Vail, Colorado, one full of large-scale pieces of realistic art that demonstrates an understanding of all the important qualities of a fine piece of art, the owner confesses that most people are not buying this type of art. They want modern, contemporary pieces that match their lima-bean colored sofa.

I reflected on my own attempt to paint well, one that I continue to this day.

“Sort of discouraging for those of us who can see the skill and talent in this paintings hanging in your gallery, ” I comment while trying to avoid stepping on a plump old Labrador lying by the door.


I waited ten minutes for her to flee her perch and was fortunate to snap this picture. Please eat the rattlesnakes you see on our property, I say.

Getting out into Nature!

IMG_1790 2

Rancho 2018  9×12 oil on linen

by cheri sabraw

My friend Mary, an accomplished oil painter, came up for lunch and painting last week.

We set up our easels and then walked the property, searching for an interesting display of Nature and light.

Mary suggested we paint the three trees, two oaks and one walnut, above our rock wall.

When all was done, I had learned through Mary’s generosity of time and instruction to layer my backgrounds. She also taught me to use the other side of a paint brush to scratch branches into the painting.

Mary is upbeat and encouraging, full of ideas and care.

I thoroughly enjoyed my experience and believe that the peacefulness of the experience is reflected in my finished work.

Thank you Mary!


Nebraska Reverie


by cheri sabraw

I remember back to 1988 when, as the journalism instructor at the high school level, I made a serious mistake in judgement. Suffice to say that something was published which should not have been. I learned all the laws of libel that year.

For someone who prides herself in doing the right thing, I felt deflated, bruised, and naive that year. I told my husband that I was going to quit as the journalism instructor.

He reminded me that when I looked back on my journalism career, I would always see it in a negative light. He advised that I go back for one more year and do it right.

That piece of advice was sage. Not only did I  go back and “do it right,” I lasted another ten years in that role.

To that point, I believe that the same is true in most endeavors, including artistic expression.


After I decided to start over,  I spent another 12-15 hours working on  a smaller version of the first rendering. When I finished that piece, I realized the filly was too big! My perspective was wrong.

Should I attempt a third painting of the same subject?

The answer was yes.

I redrew the images and decided to change the background. I envisioned the Cedar River in Nebraska, the setting of my painting. I envisioned low trees along the river and positioned it far in the background.

With the advice of Kayti Sweetland Rasmussen, I moved the filly into the foreground and left her mother with her head in the grasses.

I painted in an old windmill with the sun’s rays on its rotors.

Kayti reviewed the painting and suggested color by the filly’s legs.

I’m happy with the results and title this painting “Nebraska Reverie.” It is for sale.




Screen Shot 2018-02-28 at 3.37.36 PMby cheri sabraw

This acronym, KISS, is of my own invention. It stands for “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”

Having taught the writings of Henry David Thoreau for 18 years, I should practice what he preached. “Simplicity, Simplicity, Simplicity!”  he said often as he strolled through the woods at Walden Pond.

When it comes to painting, design, and execution, Mr. Thoreau’s words apply.

Last week, I attempted to paint a scene from this  lovely photo.

Here is my first version on a large 24×36 inch canvas.


Several problems exist in this painting, not the least of which is the headless filly! I decided to paint the mare as a dark bay horse to provide contrast with the yellowy-green scrub.

The filly would become a light chestnut to complement both her mother and the scrub.

Fillies and colts are difficult to paint because their bodies are not proportionate. They are growing. (Think of a German Shepherd pup which must grow into its enormous ears that stand up at about 4 months of age. )

This filly is not as muscular or as old as the one in the photo. My rendering of her  hind quarters was decent but not accurate. Her forelegs were better but her neck was too short so off with her head!

I thought the dark shadows in the foreground were enough to draw the eye down and anchor the horses to the earth.


Then the trouble began.

Since I was working wet on wet, when I tried to put her head back on, the colors blended. I kept fiddling with her muscles and proportion. Finally, I darkened her coat and that was the beginning of the end.

Her hindquarters now were wrong as were her hind legs.

The next rendition shows a better filly body and head.


I kept painting, wet on wet, still believing I could salvage the work.

A painting of a horse must be anatomically correct or some old cowboy will walk by the painting and point the error out. I began what I call “over-fiddling,” and although I improved her conformation, rear hocks, forearm and elbow, she now looked different in texture from her mother. I found that part distracting.

So, I complicated things which I tend to do in life.


I lightened her face and tried to add the western sunlight highlights.

At that point, I felt that I, too, was in the weeds.

So why not leave the horses and address the fact that the green in the background looks odd?  I sent a photo of my painting out to some trusty friends who observed that perhaps the values (light and dark tones) were off. Agreed!


I painted the distant hills brown, added more scrub and warm orange color to the land. I also painted in shadows but because was painting wet on wet, the shadows blended with the yellow making them blue instead of green.

Now, this elegant scene on which I was working was a choppy muddy mess with a nicely rendered simple mare and little one who had been over painted and now looked out of place.

Complicate! Complicate! Complicate!

I’m going to start over today on a small piece of linen canvas.

Hopefully, next time, I will have a painting that is simply elegant.


The importance of drawing


by cheri sabraw

Although it seems obvious, the importance of drawing images that will appear in your paintings cannot be overstated.

I suppose if one is an abstract artist this statement is not true, but for those of us trying to paint realistic images, especially animals, making sure that the proportions and the anatomy are correct is tantamount.

How many times have you ruined a perfectly good (and expensive) canvas or linen board because you just jumped in and started painting?

I can count at least 10 paintings that are tucked in the back of my closet because I didn’t spend the time drawing.

Now, I draw all my horses first.

I use charcoal and a sketch pad. When I am satisfied that the animal’s anatomy and proportions are accurate, then I draw the figure right on the canvas in light charcoal. Oh I know. Experienced painters say to use a light wash of raw sienna or burnt umber to draw but I’d rather use a light charcoal and my hand rather than an extension of my hand–the brush.

Whether you are painting a landscape with an olive, redwood, or pine tree, it helps to draw first.

That way, you can also see the composition you have created and make changes before commiting to the use of paint.

Oil paint is expensive. Why waste it?


Jerry 8x10 oil on linen