Keith Adams: Artist of the Month

The Letter (oil on canvas, 14x18) by Keith Adams was a finalist in the portrait/figure category of The Artist’s Magazine’s 27th Annual Art Competition.

Keith Adams: The Artist’s Magazine’s September 2011 Artist of the Month

Hometown: Atlanta, Georgia,


Art in My Life
I’ve drawn and painted all my life, when I was a kid I was happiest with a pad of paper and a pencil. After high school I studied at the Art Institute of Atlanta. It was a purely commercial art course, but a real emphasis was placed on drawing and painting abilities. After graduating, I taught at the Atlanta College of Art. In recent years I’ve studied at the Scottsdale Artist’s School under Milt Kobayashi.

For a living I create special effects for film and TV. But I paint often and try to participate in a couple of shows each year. My office is a loft-studio space that’s part post-production facility, part art gallery and part painting studio. Clients seem to enjoy the fact that a computer special-effects artist is also an old-school oil painter. Painting influences my commercial work a great deal.

My Media/Genres
Early on I would draw and pain in any medium available, but now that I’ve been painting for almost 30 years I’ve come to only use oils. The color depth and texture can’t be matched with any other medium. In terms of genre, I typically paint figurative pieces, most often women in everyday settings.

My wife is the inspiration for most of my paintings. Often, a simple moment will strike me as something beautiful that should be captured. We have two beautiful children in diapers, so the quite moments do not come very often. When those moments do come I recognize—and try to preserve—them.

Looking a great art inspires me. Whether it’s in a museum, a magazine or an artist friend’s studio, art by others always makes me yearn for the studio. I have a huge folder on my laptop full of inspirational work from many artists with various style works.

The Letter
The concern with this painting was the foreshortened arm and hand. Often this is an area that can be overworked to get the perspective correct. I did a few practice runs on a spare canvas before I tackled it on the painting. On the other hand, the composition really seemed to work. The serpentine lines in the dress lead to the hand and arm that leads to the face, the focal point of the painting. And the woman rests on a red pillow, framing her within a frame. Finally, the subtle receding lines in the bedspread help give a sense of volume to the space.

My Process
My process typically begins with one or several photographs, preferably each with one light source. Too many light sources become confusing when you have a painterly style. I don’t go for a likeness, but more importantly the mood and posture of the figure. Composition is everything: I attempt to give a flow to lead the eye within the canvas and make certain there are no small bits (meaning a sliver of a hand, or a small piece of an arm). Everything in the painting needs to be clear.

For my more complicated paintings I work out on vellum as a contour drawing, adjusting shapes, proportion and position. Once I am pleased on paper, I transfer the rendering to canvas with a graphite paper.

I create an underpainting using only burnt umber and oil. I’ll thin the burnt umber to get light tone and use less oil and more paint for a darker area. It’s essential that the painting have darks, lights and mid-tones to be a strong piece. If the tonal values are correct, half the battle is won.

After the underpainting is dry I move on to the next stage; painting with color on top. And while the underpainting determines the tonal values, sometimes I purposely make a passage of the underpainting darker so I can paint a lighter color on top and deliberately let parts of the darker underpainting peek through.

I paint wet into wet, not allowing the paint to dry (except of course for the underpainting). My good friend, portrait artist Bart Lindstrom, turned me onto clove oil. A couple of drops on each color on the pallet will allow the paint to stay wet for days.

Painting wet into wet allows me to see the artist’s hand in a piece. I like the brush strokes and the way the wet paint mixes onto itself. It’s one of the hallmarks of this medium.

I often mute colors by either mixing a warm gray with every color in the painting or mixing a contrary color to make it reseed. For example, a pink skin tone will often appear flat until you mix a little green with it. Now you have an interesting color with depth. Most of my paintings will have what I call a “spark” color that’s more vivid than the rest of the painting to bring the piece alive.

Often it’s tempting to smooth out a passage and make it perfect. But the simple stroke is the evidence of the painter’s hand, which is part of what makes the painting appealing. On occasion I have grabbed my painting hand with my free hand to make myself stop. “Just leave it alone,” I say out loud. Anyone can do an over-worked painting. Knowing when to stop is key.

On a side note…

I’ve learned to never a rush a painting at any stage of the piece. A few years ago I was hurriedly getting ready for a show when I noticed a small area where the varnish needed a slight repair.

The show was about to start. I thought it wouldn’t be a problem because I could fix it easily with a quick spray of aerosol varnish to smooth over the anomaly. In my hurry, I picked up a can of aerosol paint instead. I vandalized my own painting—people around me thought I had gone completely nuts. In a frantic moment I considered saying that it was a modern art statement piece. However, better logic won out. From a wrinkle deep in my brain I remembered a chemistry class from years ago that the solvent used to suspend the varnish resin may dissolve the graffiti now covering my favorite painting. It worked better than I could have imagined. The process even repaired the original problem.


Edited by Cherie Haas, associate editor of The Artist’s Magazine.

Artists of the Month are chosen from the list of finalists of The Artist’s Magazine’s Annual Art Competition.

Free preview
See an award-winning artists’ approach to oils. Click here for a link to a free preview of Expressive Oil Painting with George Allen Durkee from


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