Above: John MacDonald teaching a demonstration during Plein Air Live

If you’re spending a lot of time isolated, as many of us are, you’ll appreciate this list of painting projects that John MacDonald put together to help you stay focused, inspired, and ready to paint your next landscape.

Art Studio Projects for Difficult Times


Several weeks ago, when I began writing this, I felt a sore throat and a drop in energy. It went downhill from there. Some of the symptoms, which thankfully remained mild, matched those of the coronavirus. After three weeks of rest, fully recovered and finally back in the studio, I intended to resume work on the newsletter only to have my 8-year-old computer crash. Normally, I would have whined and kicked something nearby but, in these difficult times, it was a stark reminder of the difference be-tween tragedy and inconvenience. No big deal. I’m well and in the studio and finally able to finish this and send it out.

In recent conversations with other painters, I’ve noticed a trend emerging during this challenging period: nearly all are taking time to reassess their art. They’re evaluating their goals, technique, subject matter, and their strengths and weakness. When the entire world has shifted beneath our feet and day-to-day living seems full of unknowns and dire possibilities, the natural resistance we often feel to trying something new in our art can be less frightening. Take advantage of this opportunity of isolation and quiet to venture into new painting territory.

Are you eager to get started, push your boundaries, and learn something new? Before blindly jumping in to these projects, begin by taking a moment to consider your current approach to painting, your skill level, preferences, and strengths and weaknesses. Begin with a self-critique. . .

how to self critique your art - John MacDonald

Critique Your Work

It’s easier to determine where you want to go with your painting if you begin with a clear idea of where you’ve already been. In my November/December 2017 newsletter you’ll find a step-by-step, self-guided critique that you can apply to your work. It will take only a few hours but the benefits gained are vastly greater than the time expended. You’ll discover what is and what isn’t working in your paintings and where you’ll need to work to improve your skills.

Art Project #1: Paint in a Value Key

Using a photo or plein air study for the subject matter and the composition, combined with other reference for the value structure, create a work in a high or low value key. You’ll sharpen your skills in seeing and manipulating values, which are the bedrock of any successful painting. (Read more about painting in a value key here.)

My photo, a painting by J. Francis Murphy for inspiration, and the new, low-key painting.

Art Project #2: Paint in a Color Key

A similar exercise to working in a value key, in this project you create a warm or cool key painting by limiting your palette. It will train your eye to see subtle differences in color temperature. (Read more about painting in a color key here.)

Using a photo, create a painting with an obvious temperature key, warm or cool.

Art Project #3: Steal From the Old Masters

This is wonderful exercise in color mixing as you attempt to match the hues from an old master. (Read more about copying master artworks here.)

Steal the colors from an master, combine it with one of your photos, and create a new painting

Art Project #4: Paint Using a Limited Palette

There are many advantages to working in a limited palette: it’s easier to create color harmony, it allows us to create an overall tone in hue or temperature, and it is superb training for seeing and using sophisticated color mixtures and subtle temperature contrasts.

Nearly any group of colors can be used for creating a limited palette. A traditional group consists of a cool black (Lamp Black or Paynes Gray), white, Yellow Ochre, and Permanent Alizarin Crimson. For a more saturated range of colors, you may wish to try pure primaries: White, Cadmium Yellow Light, Cobalt Blue, and Cadmium Red Deep. For nearly a decade, I worked with a limited palette consisting of white, Cadmium Yellow Light, Prussian Blue, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, and Raw Umber. Devise your own limited palette and play with it.

Within two days of taking the reference photo below, the greens began appearing. I wanted to capture that moment.

Reference photo for the limited palette landscape painting
Tonal sketch for the landscape painting

The palette for the painting below consisted of Cadmium Yellow Light (hue), Dioxazine Purple, Raw Umber, and Paynes Grey, a rather unusual mixture that can be used to capture the pale yellow greens and muted purples of spring.

Limited palette landscape painting, still in progress

Art Project #5: Paint Over an Old Painting

When purging the studio of failed paintings, I usually cover the old work with opaque primer. But occasionally, either out of laziness or a desire to experiment, I’ll paint directly over an old painting, allowing portions of the old image to remain – if they work in the context of the new painting. Allowing areas of the old painting to remain visible often leads to color juxtapositions and contrasts I wouldn’t have dreamed of creating.

If you try this, let go of preconceived ideas of what the painting should be and allow it to be a conversation between the old and the new. Being open to whatever happens often will often the painting into surprising directions.

The Base Painting

When choosing an old painting to cover, the color in the base painting is less important than its values. Painting a high value key painting over a dark painting can create mismatches that can affect your value judgments. It can also create archival problems. (See below).

In this case, the moonlit painting was a bit dark but the values in the new scene were also mid-to dark in value. Importantly, the darkest values in the paintings were in the lower half of the canvases.

For this painting, I used two plein air studies and a photograph for reference. Of the two studies, I preferred that which gave greater emphasis to the distant rocky outcrop (image A). The other (image B) was truer to the actual view but I felt it was less interesting, with a weaker focal point.

Image A
Image B
Landscape painting reference photo

Abandoning the Initial Concept

I intended to paint this scene as a bright, summer day, similar to the plein air studies. But after sketching in the dark hill, the preexisting moonlit sky and bare foreground trees worked so well I abandoned the initial concept and decided to paint it as a nocturne. This is typical of the unforeseen but fortuitous accidents that can happen when painting over old paintings.

The resulting painting, still in progress.

Warning: Painting over an old painting can be an archival disaster.

Delamination – the separation of one layer of paint from another – can be a serious problem when painting over an old surface. If the old painting has an oily, slick finish it must be thoroughly abraded to accept new paint. Sand the surface of the old painting with sandpaper or scuff it with a 3M pad. Avoid using steel wool. And do it outside – don’t breathe the dust!

Oil paints tend to become more translucent as they age. Over time, images underneath may begin to subtlety appear. Be careful of large differences in values between the new painting and the old, and particularly avoid painting a high-key painting over a low-key ground.

Art Project #6: Paint from a Tonal Sketch

This exercise should push you to the edge of your comfort zone. Here, you create a painting based on nothing more than a thumbnail tonal sketch, borrowing from the sketch the composition and value structure (assuming they work) and inventing the color. This will train you to see shapes rather than things, to keep the brushwork loose to suggest objects in the landscape rather than to describe them, and to let go of preconceived ideas of the painting as surprises and mistakes take it in a different direction.

The key to this exercise is to approach it as a form of play. Choose which areas are to be warm, cool, or neutral, then begin. Be willing to wipe paint on and off, to smear, to scrape and to let the painting unfold spontaneously. In the example below right, I mixed the pigments directly on the canvas rather than pre-mixing them on the palette. Both tonal thumbnails studies were sketched using Prismacolor grayscale markers and a white, Sakura Gelly Roll pen. Both paintings are 9” x 12” – a size that allows for quick painting and with little pressure to create a finished, polished work.

Sketch 1
Painting 1
Sketch 2
Painting 2

Art Project #7: Sick Bed Sketching

This is the one project I hope you don’t need to do. If you’re ill and need to rest – and if your condition allows it – you need not avoid art-making completely. For the three weeks I was sick, the symptoms thankfully remained mild enough that I could spend time sitting and sketching.

Some of the sketches below were from life, drawn while looking from a window of our rural home; others were based on photos. I was less concerned with creating studies for paintings than to keep exercising the visual muscles. It also proved to be a pleasurable distraction. Avoid the illness if you can but don’t stop sketching!

Learn more from John MacDonald when you get his “Creating Dynamic Landscapes” art video workshop. See the full video on how to paint landscapes here. how to paint landscapes John MacDonald

No matter what level or type of artist you are, the benefits you can glean from John MacDonald’s deep dive into process are invaluable. While there are numerous lessons that examine specific materials and teach little-known techniques, few explore in such depth the very essentials of painting. Any artist will come to a greater appreciation for and understanding of what makes for a successful painting. Although based in the fundamentals, MacDonald provides tips around subjects even the most expert painters can appreciate, including:

  • Composition, values, color, edges, and details
  • The pros and cons of using photographs for reference
  • The pros and cons of plein air painting
  • Copying photos versus creating a painting
  • The five components of a painting

Remember ~ See the full video on how to paint landscapes here.


  1. Great Ideas John…. I’ll pass you link on to my artist friends. You are so kind for sharing and I’m glad you are feeling better!

    I’ll be giving the projects a try for variety (hopefully I won’t need the sickbed one…).

    Love your videos by the way! They are very informative and fun to listen to and watch!

    Best Regards,


  2. This is a great article John!!! I related so much! I have found this a great time to experiment and take my time, and am already doing some of what you suggest! Thank you! So sorry you were sick but so happy you are better!!!!

  3. Thank you John,

    It’s been hard to even imagine processes…so this gives me something concrete…a steady guide in these uncertain times.

    I have a few paintings I would like to paint over, so maybe I’ll jump in and try it! Your videos are an inspiration.


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