Midwestern Roots

I recently watched a video presentation from John Hulsey, an artist who is almost a “neighbor”. He is from Lawrence, Kansas — the same little town in which my husband was born — located about 65 miles from where we live. Although Hulsey did live on the east coast for a time during his younger years, he’s now settled back in his hometown, reclaiming his own midwestern roots.

I loved his paintings. His subjects are familiar scenes to me. Lakes, rivers, wooded areas, farm fields, flowers, and so many other scenes I see every day. He has taken those midwestern roots and made them the inspiration for his art. You can visit his website to see collections of his oil paintings and other works.

His colors are a bit brighter and bolder than I typically use, and he does much of his “painting” with palette knives. As I watched him paint, I made lots of notes. Although his style is different from the style I’m developing, I somehow felt a kinship with John Hulsey. His art spoke to me through our shared midwestern roots. His work inspired me.

I soon was at my easel ready to paint. Hulsey is a Kansan; I’m on the other side of the state line in Missouri. I browsed online and found a reference photo from Pixabay that showed the Missouri River at sunset. This became my personal inspiration.

For me, this was very experimental. I created a small painting — 8 x 10 — using mostly palette knives for painting. This wasn’t intended to be a “finished, framable work”. It was meant to be a “small study” in preparation for a larger “studio painting.”

Here is the result.

Midwestern Roots – Missouri River Sunset

Even before I began this painting, I knew it would be much different from any landscape I’ve ever painted, and I wanted to celebrate that difference. For me, 2022 is a year that’s all about celebration, so this was an opportunity for me to recognize and honor my own creative spirit, my own willingness to try different things even as I work toward developing a consistent style of my own.

Some of the important ideas I took from John Hulsey included:

  • USE MORE PAINT! This has always been a problem for me. I’m skimpy. I rarely ever put enough paint on my palette because I’m concerned with wasting it. Not for this painting, though. I squeezed out a lot of paint!
  • MIX COLOR STRINGS. This was a new technique for me. Instead of mixing a single pile of paint to create a color blend, Hulsey mixes long “strings” of paint with the mix. Having a string of paint like this on the palette makes it easy to choose exactly the right hues.

  • START WITH A ROAD MAP. Oil pastels can be used to create a loose sketch directly on the canvas. It doesn’t have to be detailed, but it will serve as a guide to various elements in the painting, including areas of different values.
  • ORGANIZATION IS IMPORTANT. Oh, yes, it’s good to have an organized palette. Choose the colors to keep on your palette and always arrange them in the same order. Leave lots of room in the middle to create those “color strings” that you’ll be using.
  • PLAY WITH PALETTE KNIVES — There are so many different styles! There are round palette knives, diamond-shaped palette knives, knives for smoothing, knives for scraping, and many more. Give it a try and see what different effects you can create by painting with palette knives.
  • TRY THINGS! This has become a bit of a mantra for me. I’m “finding myself” as an artist now, and I’m moving closer toward defining what “my style” is, but it’s more important now than ever that I remain free to new ideas and techniques, that I experiment with tools and materials, that I’m always willing to try new things.

Working with the palette knives was challenging! I did use a wide, flat brush to first lay in a blue-grey sky as a background, and I used a brush in places for the foreground. The distant trees were painted using both a bristle brush and several palette knives.

Of course, I deliberately wanted to make my colors bold. I wanted lots of orange in the painting. I didn’t want a “soft, gentle evening sunset” that whispered to a viewer, but a loud painting that shouted “Hey, look at me!” And judging from my husband’s reaction to the painting, that seems to be what I got. Even though he’s not a fan of too much “experimental art”, he was fascinated by this painting. The brilliant orange drew him in, I think.

Obviously my palette knife work needs LOTS of practice, but I had fun. I felt like I was simply throwing caution to the wind and doing whatever I wanted. I liked feeling bold and daring. I also liked feeling connected to my painting. Although I’ve always drawn upon my midwestern roots in painting, it had never before been with such a sense of connection. It felt good.

Now, I’m already working on the larger “studio painting” based on this scene. It’s not finished yet, but you’ll be getting a “first look” at the work in progress very soon. It’s different from this “small study” yet still draws upon the same color palette and the same idea of my connections to my midwestern roots.

Our roots. That’s another thing we should all celebrate. Wherever we come from, that land, its people, its customs are part of who we are.



  1. quick note re: oil pastel. It should not be used underneath oil paint, because it never fully dries. I seal my oil pastel work with ModPodge because of this. I have twenty-something-year-old oil pastels that will still smear with fingers. I suggest dry pastels instead.

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  2. Don’t “try” too hard when you get deep into that “larger studio painting”. See if you can continue to throw caution to the wind. I can’t say with any authority since I haven’t seen the small study in person, but in its consistent style and finish it looks like a perfect candidate for a finished frameable work. Enter it in a “small works” show somewhere!

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    1. I’m using the same palette, and somewhat the same “style” for the larger painting. It’s a bit more of a challenge to use the palette knives, though. I should be finishing it up soon.

      Liked by 1 person

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