UART Tip #14: Thinking Outside the Blue Box with Bethany Fields

There is nothing more appealing than a bright “bluebird” day. The sun is out, the birds are chirping, the sky is clear and vibrant. Here in my home state of Texas, and particularly in my region, our skies are as blue as pure brilliant pigment. We have no haze, mist, or humidity to soften or mute the vivid color. Our blue-sky days are prolific and often without cloud formations to create interest.

While I enjoy my days in the sun, as a painter I long for more mood in the landscape. I love to create rich emotion in my work, but if my paintings only depicted bright, happy sunshine, I would be missing the opportunity to paint evocative landscapes that convey more than just a pretty day.

In other words, I like to think outside the blue box.

I paint mostly in my home studio from numerous plein air studies, sketches, notes, memory and photographs. I love to flip through these folders to find the perfect shape of a tree, a composition I love, or just a simple memory of a place. When I choose a photo or scene to recreate, I rarely look at the color depicted in the photo. I look for shape and lighting first and then throw all else out the window.

On the left is my reference for my painting “Our Blessed Summer.” This was taken in East Texas on a lush, rich, hot day with the locusts buzzing and flies lazing. I spied this little building in a grove of trees and knew I wanted to paint the arrangement of it. I loved the shadow shapes created on the ground and how the building was tucked into the boughs. I could see the painting in my mind’s eye, but knew I would be thinking outside the blue box.


On the right is the finished piece. I softened edges, changed the color temperatures (of pretty much everything), and that big blue sky was crafted into something entirely different. I wielded my emotions and memories, and the results depict a mood rather than just a photograph.

So, how do you go about choosing a “color” for your sky or changing the temperature of the piece? How do you know which pastel to pick up from your many? How do we steer away from that big blue up yonder to create emotional pieces that are anything *but* blue and bright?

I get these questions over and over on my blog, via email, and when I am teaching. Unfortunately, there is no “fast track” to learning the intuitive process of changing your reference other than to paint often – as much as you can – and then paint some more! I paint daily in my studio and love to work on small studies (under 6×6”). Painting small and often allows me the freedom to experiment and discover color harmonies that convey mood and emotion. With a smaller canvas, I can more easily choose what elements to leave out, and find more pleasing ways to compose the elements within my references.


In another example above, you can see I utilized my thinking skills and stayed away from merely mimicking the photograph and the bright, shiny day. The photograph shows a summer day with high sun and lots of contrast. I liked the shapes of the tree and shadows, but the colors and mood didn’t speak to me. Since I love to paint small in my daily work, I felt freedom to experiment and play with the color and temperature.

One way to learn to paint your references more intuitively and to get away from copying your reference is to work from a limited palette. Many pastel manufacturers make small sets carefully curated to include a complimentary range of values and color temperatures. Using pastels from these sets will help you practice using a limited range, and over time your selections will become more emotional and second-nature. Also consider painting your skies in tones and hues closer to those of the foreground. This will help mirror the elements so they compliment one another.


These paintings all began as references from bluebird days. By tenderly approaching my memories of those places and paring them with the reference materials I had gathered, I was able to paint much more evocative pieces based not on photographic record but on mood and emotion. Painting daily small works helps me practice this experimental form of discovery. Bringing these elements together allows for the creation of paintings that bear little resemblance to the photographs I took; instead, they are deeply personal and reminiscent.

As artists, we have the honor of conducting our work and guiding it, like a shepherd. We are the story-tellers and dream-makers! We are the spinners of emotion. How encouraging, uplifting, and exciting! Thinking outside the blue box always garners a stronger reaction from clients, galleries, and exhibits. A mere copy of a bright bluebird day is pretty, yes….but is it emotive? Does it tell a story?

What story can you paint today? Thinking outside the blue box will help you in your daily process to create paintings not only rich with nuance, but with undercurrents of memory, spirit, and feeling.

Paint on!

Bethany Fields

Visit Bethany’s website at to view more of her work.