Painting Clusters

Artists may take a departure from organic, scattered or aesthetically balanced compositions to paint clusters. Clusters group, assemble, or classify items together. “Consider the Lilies” groups a collection of separate flowers as a single subject: “flowers”.

Cluster art often overlaps the elements into a clustered shape (unlike my lily art, which has green grassy divisions of space between the grouped elements: flowers).

Sometimes clustering steers the viewer toward a specific emotional response. “Classroom Scene” shows desks and students assembled together in a structured, ordered way that tells the story of the painting. The deliberate clustering of elements may be an integral part of the composition, as it is in this children’s book illustration for “Fred“. The same scene with the desks in a more pleasing and organic arrangement would have produced a different emotional effect.

Clusters can also be based on classes, how elements are classified together.Autumn Cottage” clusters the vegetation together based on class (type of tree, flowers, etc.). Unless a landscaper intentionally plants and grooms a rigid, tidy classed display (such as what one might find in a botanical garden where the point is to showcase classified specimens), clustering in nature is not natural. That’s why, when we see art like “Autumn Cottage“, something seems off about it. The viewer recognizes it a fanciful scene, because only in whimsy would nature classify itself neatly into separate clusters.

If tidy classified clusters aren’t natural, why does “Autumn Cottage” look so warm and inviting? Perhaps it’s because humanity craves harmony between an ordered life and an organic journey. In this scene, even the beautiful colors are clustered, which makes the scene seem like a safe, peaceful place to be.

“Autumn Cottage” by Natalie Buske Thomas

And yet, there is enough of a likeness to our knowledge of what nature looks like, that we can almost believe that this cabin is a real place. The merging of reality and fantasy can empower us to feel safe when we seek new ways to pursue happiness and tranquility. A contented life harmonizes order and intention with organic circumstances and letting life flow.

Painting Duality

Painting duality expresses the difference between two opposing elements. These elements may contradict each other as complete opposites, or may seem contradictory even though the elements are not equal and exact opposites . “World War II Veteran and Baby” depicts clear duality between old and young, past and future.

Butterfly Tree Flowers” is not a case of opposes, but is contradictory, more of a dichotomy than a dichotomy. A plant and an animal (in this case an insect, a butterfly) are two different things, but they aren’t complete opposites exactly. They are both living things. But, they appear contradictory in nature. The duality exists in the way that trees are rooted while butterflies fly free.

(Note: this painting was inspired by the potted butterfly tree bush we have on our backyard patio, beautiful plant, highly recommend… and DO attract butterflies and hummingbirds as well!)

Duality is the deepest when the difference is between life and death. One baby lives, the other dies. There is nothing more heartbreaking than losing a child; there is nothing more joyous than the birth of a child. “Marie’s Babies” was painted for a dear friend. She believed that she could not have children, but was surprised by twins. Her sons were born very premature. Sadly, one baby passed away after a month here on this earth. The surviving son is a happy little boy who gives his parents great joy. But always in their hearts, they will ache for the child who should be playing alongside his twin.

Painting Surreal

Surrealism is an art style that combines unusual elements together to produce a dreamlike effect; merging reality with fantasy, simulating the subconscious mind. But sometimes paintings are just “a little bit” surreal. The unexpected, unreal, or dreamlike qualities may be so subtle that viewers of this style of art may not even be aware of it, and yet, they’ll probably sense that something is different that they can’t quite put their finger on.

In “Kitchen Devotions“, there are several elements in the composition that are unexpected. why are the flowers in a food bowl? Why is one side of the curtain moving slightly, even though the window is closed and the other side of the curtain is standing still? Why are the walls that odd color and pattern? Why does the mug look like it was made by a pottery student? Why is the bookmark floating rather than in perspective? Why does the book look “ghostly” and blank? Why are the flowers spaced evenly apart and straight?

Artists who paint “freestyle” (painting an idea rather than prioritizing a careful, realistic technique), may inadvertently paint in a slightly surreal style. “Kitchen Devotions” was a freestyle exercise to paint whatever came to mind, without looking at a reference or planning ahead. This type of exercise is beneficial for any skill level of artist and may even emerge to become a favorite work or a signature style.

Freestyle painting is a good option when an artist depicts a past event in which there are no photographs or existing places to re-visit for reference. When recalling the painful real life memory that “Darkened Woods” represents, it wasn’t my intention to paint an unreal, dreamlike scene. I imagined myself back in time, re-living those moments when I was running through the woods. The result is an aerial perspective that is unnaturally flat, like what one might recall seeing in a dream.

Even the video for “Darkened Woods” is a bit surreal, because the opening segment of my cheerful face is juxtaposed to the melancholy in the painting footage, placing unrelated and completely out of sync elements in one place. This was not intentional and it comes across as uncomfortably awkward. I’ve since thought I should edit the introduction out.

People usually see only my hands, so I was trying to put myself in front of the camera more often. This was an odd time to do it, but isn’t life like this? There’s never a good time for profound sadness, nor is there a bad time for a joyful spirit. The two often appear side-by-side. So, at least for now, the video stays as it is. Surreal presentations remind us that life isn’t tidy; it’s often a confusing ball of “good and bad” that defines the human experience.

Painting a dreamlike composition may happen naturally when an artist is daydreaming while painting. “Pumpkins and Mums” was a project assignment for a book, but there were no plans for this art beyond painting pumpkins and mums in a “pumpkin patch” sort of setting. So, I imagined a pleasant autumn scene that I’d personally enjoy.

The result was a painting that expanded to include more things I wanted. Why not add a couple of chairs and alfresco dining? Would I care for a cup of coffee or tea? Let’s add some food on the table for hospitality, as I’m welcoming you to join me. What’s behind us? We need a pretty autumn backdrop. As I painted my ideas, the art took on a dreamlike quality. It was a good dream, indeed, and it’s now a real place to visit. It became real when I shared it here with you.


Artist and Entertainer

Natalie Buske Thomas during taping of St. Patrick’s Day show March 2021

Natalie Buske Thomas is an American oil painter, entertainer, teacher and author. She was born in upstate New York and has lived in the Midwest U.S. (Indiana, Minnesota, Wisconsin), Germany, Ireland, and is now living in her “forever home” Savannah, Georgia. Explore the links below to learn more about Natalie’s work or contact Natalie for more information.

Wolf oil painting by artist Natalie Buske Thomas


Natalie is an oil painter with a lifetime goal of 1k finished works


Natalie performs variety shows: painting, singing, dancing, more

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Natalie Buske Thomas teaching still from Jan 2021


Natalie teaches online classes and is a public speaker for events

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Cassie and Natalie in bookstore


Natalie is the author of 28+ books, displaying here (above photo) with her daughter (left) who is also an illustrator/author

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Visit Natalie’s active blog

Painting Shapes

“Living Sand Dollar” is a simple shape, a circle. As a circle is round, painting this shape follows the same basic principles as painting other round objects, such as oranges. However, since the object is mostly flat, creative shadows and highlights emphasize the edges and create an illusion of dimension.

When painting symmetrical shapes, such as in “Butterfly of Hope”, it often works better to paint symmetry as slightly imperfect and organic. Nature isn’t usually precise. Even mirror-image patterns can have small differences from left to right, top to bottom. These differences bring character to the painting.

Painting geometric shapes like in “Dove of Peace” is a great exercise for training the brain to see balance through lines, angles, and triangles. This type of thinking helps an artist see how round, symmetrical and geometrical shapes come together in mathematical harmony. The angles of the dove’s wings make a triangular shape. This type of simplistic art can be reduced further when creating designs for logos, embroidery, crafts, and other projects that require clean shapes without much detail.

When training the brain to see shapes, future projects that are more complex can be broken down into manageable parts. Focusing on each shape within the shape, and repeating this process while working through the entire composition, is a mathematical approach to a project that prioritizes harmony and balance as whole. Life is much easier when we focus on only one step at a time. Before long, we can look back on the journey, amazed at how far we’ve come.

Painting Nostalgia

Painting nostalgia invokes wistful yearning for the past using generational clues, natural time markers and vintage compositions. “My Parents’ Wedding Day”, is a remembrance painting. Viewers know that this art is a period piece through the depiction of artifacts (my father’s military uniform and my mom’s now-vintage wedding dress) as well as the wistful hues that make the oil painting look almost like a colorized photograph.

Nostalgia art is easy to recognize when it features people; clothing is a basic and powerful generational clue. A vintage wardrobe is also supported by hair styles, color scheme, and other objects (for example, trends in floral bouquets). In remembrance paintings, nostalgia is created through period piece compositions.

Another style of nostalgia painting is reminiscent. Reminiscence happens when we see something that reminds us of something else. Trees are often older than we are, and have seen many generations come and go. For many people, the sight of trees creates nostalgia for days gone by. For this reason, painting nature can be a type of nostalgia art.

Perhaps an old tree like “Tree on Rock Hill” encourages us to let go of yearning to recreate memories, and instead accept the past as in the past. Like the roots of a tree, even when our past is no longer visible it remains. We are meant to grow from it, not remain stagnant or wither; the past is our foundation for growth. Letting go of pining or regret while embracing positive reminiscence, inspires the pursuit of new life adventures.

A retrospect style of nostalgia painting invites the viewer to look back on the past. While remembrance art such as “My Parents’ Wedding Day” shows itself clearly as a period piece, and reminiscence art like “Tree on Rock Hill” takes the opposite strategy (not straightforward, uses one object to remind viewers of something else, and this may not even be noticed by the viewer), a retrospect painting is a comfortable middle between overt remembrance and so-subtle-as-to-be-missed reminiscence.

A retrospect painting is a soft journey into the past, where warm fuzzy memories await. In “Peach Pie” comfort food served up by golden brown, red, and yellow hues welcomes us to the table. Painting simple joys creates positive, feel good recollections that see the past fondly, a universally sought-after and cherished human experience. When artists paint nostalgia, the world is in a small way a bit better than it was before.

Painting Optimism

Painting optimism is conveyed through the confident use of vibrant colors, committed textures, and open compositions. Children often have an easier time painting boldly than adults do. For adults who are reluctant to let their paints loose on the canvas, it may be a helpful exercise to view children’s art, which is generally fearless and authentic.

When painting optimism, choose subjects who naturally radiate a positive attitude. “Puffin” is a delightful contented character who assures us that our world is a good place to be. He’s boldly black, white, and shades of fire colors, dominating the green landscape. His feathers are heavily textured and more detailed than the rather undefined background. As he stands tall on his rocky perch, the puffin’s optimism makes this funny stout little bird as majestic as the king of the animal kingdom as he overlooks the place he calls home.

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When painting optimism, an artist must not be afraid to break the rules. Be symmetrical when art and design “experts” tell you not to be, and when they expect symmetry, skew the composition in a way that sets their teeth on edge. Let your confidence lead the way, listen to your intuition, and let the paints boldly flow.

Be as the “Sunflower” who turns his face toward the sun. Let no worries hold you back as you seek what will help you grow.

Sound on for good vibes

Painting optimism requires confidence from the artist. When we choose to focus on positive outcomes and our ability to make sound decisions, we see possibilities in hopeless situations and create solutions to our problems. The trivial constraints and insignificant expectations placed on us by others simply roll off us. We stand like the Puffin, strive like the Sunflower, and fly like the Hummingbird.

Bold art is created by bold artists.

The “Hummingbird” is impossibly small, yet that doesn’t stop him from flying. Now, obviously the bird has wings- whereas, a platypus can’t fly, no matter how much he wants to. So, when we speak of confidence, we assume that we have the proper wings to fly.  With that assumption in place, self-belief is critical to anything we want in life. When we believe we can, we can.

When the simplicity of that truth really lands, we are unstoppable.

Painting Dynamic

Dynamic painting is kinetic; the act of painting it, the subject, and the composition exude high energy as it relates to movement, change and vigor. In “Painting Colors“, you can see in the video that the physical act of painting the abstract paint splotches is active exercise, high energy. So much so, that at one point the canvas is nearly knocked off the easel. The effect of physical energy on the energy of the composition is directly proportional. To see energy in art, we need energy in the artist.

In “Painting Colors” dynamic is aided by the variation of intensity in the music and the brush patterns as paint splotches are applied to the canvas. There is also an energetic contrast between the linear paintbrush that seems to control the paint, and the abstract free-flowing colors. Likewise, in “Peach Tree Hurricane“, a vigorous contrast exists between the ominous and heavily textured storm swirls and the daintily painted upright peach tree.

Art themes are also dynamic. In “Painting Colors“, the theme is the action of creating and painting, while actually creating and painting. In “Peach Tree Hurricane” the action is a representational story from the past, but the painting style still depicts action.

The vigor of the aftermath of a hurricane that has devastated most of an orchard while leaving some trees completely untouched, is a show of force that produces change. When the sun returns, resilience provides hope for the future. The contrast between fear and hope mirrors the dynamic of the painting style.

Waterfall Flowers” is dynamic through the intensity of its colors. The painting moves with high energy and robust contrast. The composition directs and controls the viewer, corralling our eyes into the “V” shaped open waters for a satisfying splash from the waterfall. The colors of the flowers seem to spring up in front of us. Turn sound on for full “Feel Good” vibe.

Dynamic painting requires a dynamic artist. Move, move, move! Life is a dance and if we don’t feel the music, we miss the energy and strength that gives meaning to action, and action to meaning.

Painting Allegories

Allegorical paintings represent abstract concepts through pictorial symbols and extended metaphors. Artists paint one thing, while meaning another, or might literally paint allegories- as in, the painting depicts well known literary allegories. In which case, perhaps the art is a “double” allegory. Allegories are stories and symbols of moral importance, generalized truth, messages of warning or encouragement, and philosophy found in writing, theater, and art.

Narrow Way” was inspired by the allegory of a narrow difficult road to spiritual enlightenment and true happiness, while the road to destruction is wide and easy. The addition of an apple tree that produces poisonous fruit on one side, and life-sustaining fruit on the other was my own artist contribution and alludes to another well known metaphor for “good and evil”, “temptation”, and “free will”. Abstract concepts, conveyed through symbols and extended metaphors, may push an artist to paint in a different style.

Rather than painting a more natural incline in the two roads using perspective, skewing, distortion, and variation of hues, the paths are painted nearly flat, as if pictures on a map. A break from traditional techniques and approaches tells the viewer that this is a different type of painting. Why is it different? What does it mean? In this way, the artist succeeds in the goal of an allegorical painting: inspire the viewer to ponder the meaning of the art.

Narrow Way” is an allegory representing generalized truth about the human condition (the difficulty man sometimes has in choosing good over evil, resisting temptation). This type of allegory is shared by diverse scholars, playwrights, screenwriters, artists, musicians, educators, and leaders of world religions. While likely in disagreement about the analysis, moral responsibilities, or solutions, generalized truth itself is fairly universally accepted. In the next painting, “Predator and Prey Alike“, the allegory is philosophical, moving beyond generalized truth.

Predator and Prey Alike” depends heavily on painting techniques to convey action.  The extended metaphor is philosophical, proposing that the animal kingdom is treated equally by God, regardless of whether an animal is the king of beasts or his helpless prey, and the same is true of mankind. In the circle of life, all will die. None will reign forever. This allegory represents the concept that no human is higher than another in the eyes of God. All will eventually meet the same end. Tyrants with power to enslave others and their downtrodden peasants alike will meet the same fate.

Painting a generalized truth metaphor (like “Narrow Way“) may be depicted by a clean simple composition, while painting a philosophical allegory (like “Predator and Prey Alike“) may be represented with a complicated composition, containing many subjects, action, and busy storytelling elements. Of course those rules are made to be broken. When I throw out suggestions and strategies, they are merely meant as ideas; sharing what I’ve experienced in my own work.

In this last example of an allegorical painting, “Armor of God“, the intention is to provide a meaningful experience to the viewer. Painting for emotional impact relies on powerful contrasts and bold lines. The oils go from the darkest darks to the lightest lights, and the only spark of color is through the gold armor and radiant light. This painting relies on illusion to create a suspenseful and stirring composition.

Painting Illusions

Artists create illusions. When painting in perspective, some objects appear nearer to the viewer while others recede into the background. In reality, the paint is on an even plane, a flat canvas. Shapes are stretched and skewed, which makes parts of the picture look to be in the distance, while really sharing the same space. In “Wings of Heaven“, the illusion of different layers and depths in the clouds is achieved through perspective.

In “The Moon and the Stars“, the illusion of luminosity, radiating light, is created through stark color contrast. White on deep purple looks like it’s glowing. The reality is that these hues come from ordinary tubes of oil paint, but when positioned next to each other the purple gives the illusion that the white paint “glows”.

In this final example, an illusion of reflection is created by distorted lines and patterns. “Blue Heron” was unintentionally muted and watercolor-like. It was the result of trying cheap budget oil paint. This was a happy accident though, because the watery brush strokes had a good effect on that project, in which the entire upper 2/3 of the composition is comprised of reflections of the wooded area across from the lagoon.

Here are two more examples for creating the illusion of reflection:

  1. Reflection is conveyed through light and shadow in this lighthouse painting.
  2. The reflection in “My Kids at the Beach” is created through colorful hues, distortion and a mirror-like plane. The mirror style is often the most realistic illusion method for reflection. I was pleased with how my kids’ reflections on the wet sand turned out.