King of Sandibe

A note about this blog post: After recently seeing the Lion King, Diana wanted to share memories of her own trip to Africa in 2007.

by Diana Madaras

One of our missions when I started the Gallery was to give back to the community. Now, every week, we receive three to five solicitations for donations of art. We give a print or a box of note cards to as many organizations as we can. If I have a personal commitment to the charity, I often donate an original.

In 2006, the ladies who worked at TROT (where my horse Bisbee lived) came calling.

“We’d like you to paint a zebra,” they requested. “We want to use the image on the front of the invitation for our black-tie event, and then auction the original painting at the party.”

“Okay,” I agreed. “But a zebra, not a horse?”

“Yes, a man in Tucson has given us a safari for the auction, so the theme this year is ‘Horse of a Different Color.'”

“A safari!” I said. “That’s incredible. Who is this guy?”


Horse of a Different Color

“His name is Terry von Guilleaume, and he’s South African. He moved to Tucson a few months ago and just opened a safari company. We’re going to meet with him after we leave here.”

“Can you take him something from me as a thank you for being so generous to TROT?” I rifled through our bins and pulled out a print of a lion and her cub. “Please give this to Terry and tell him I think he’s terrific.”

Two days later, Terry called to thank me. “I like your work. I checked out your website and see you have an animal foundation,” he said. “We need to talk.”

During our lunch at a Chinese restaurant, Terry leaned forward and, in his charming South African accent, said, “Let me cut to the chase. If I send you on safari, would you be willing to do a charity show for Africa?”

“Really? How would that work?” My eyes grew wide. “I will send you on a first-class safari for three weeks, all expenses paid except airfare. You photograph the animals on the game drives, and when you get back to the States and finish the paintings, we’ll throw a big party and sell the work. The funds will go to several African charities including an animal sanctuary and an AIDS orphanage.”

‘I’d love that!” It took only 30 seconds to decide. I’m going to Africa!

Right away, we were deep into planning the trip. We settled on a date in early October and Terry said if I had friends who wanted to come too, he’d give them a break on the cost.

Three girlfriends and another couple whom I’d met through the gallery signed on for the trip, and the six of us set off on a great adventure. At the first lodge in South Africa called Leadwood, Katie and I stayed in one of four elegantly appointed houses on the property-1,500 square feet all to ourselves on the edge of the African jungle. We gathered at the palatial outdoor dining area for meals and headed out each day at sunrise for the first game drive.


Lion and Cub

Every morning, we’d spend four hours in the jeep tracking animals to photograph, then go out again at four o’clock for the second game drive and shoot photos until dark. We were thrilled when we saw a giraffe cross the dirt path in front of us, a leopard sunbathing on a rock, and a lion stalking through the reeds. One evening while we stood on the veranda of the dining area, we witnessed two hippos ambling by in the dry wash below us. Amazing!

After the morning game drive one day, we walked back into our house and I stopped in my tracks.

“Katie,” I shouted gesturing frantically. “There’s an elephant outside our window!”

Elephant at house j

We grabbed our cameras and ran out the back door to catch a shot of the seven-ton animal munching tree trunks near the side of the house. This elephant slowly trudged around to the back where we were standing. All that separated us from him was a narrow wading pool. When one of the staff at the lodge noticed the commotion, she shouted in a panic. “Girls! Ger back inside the house. You can’t be out there with that elephant!”

We hadn’t realized the danger and quickly retreated, laughing with nervous excitement about our up-close encounter with African wildlife.

Every day brought a new adventure as we traveled from lodge to lodge-two in South Africa and two in Botswana. We got within 15 feet of a sleeping lion; we watched a cheetah with her cubs; we saw a leopard climb the tree with her prey while hyenas paced anxiously below hoping for scraps that might fall. We also took a boat ride at sunset on the Chobe River and watched an alligator chase an elephant at the edge of the bank. Thankfully, the elephant got away.

In Phinda, a private game reserve on the eastern edge of Kruger National Park in South Africa, we startled an elephant while driving on a winding dirt road at sundown. Our guide didn’t see the massive animal until we rounded a hairpin turn. The elephant whirled around to confront us in battle-ready stance. He rocked back and forth from one leg to the other, and when he shook his head, his humongous ears flapped about. He then threw back his head, raised his trunk, and trumpeted-his large ominous rusks aimed straight at our heads.


The Bull

“Oh shit!” we whispered in unison.

We’d been on enough game drives to know what this posturing meant; most injuries on safari were sustained when an elephant turned over a jeep. We sensed it was his move–either charge us or run. The guide had no time to grab his rifle or reverse the jeep, so we had few choices. We collectively held our breath.

Thankfully, the elephant retreated. He ran to the side of the road and hid behind a tree trunk. We laughed with huge relief as we watched him peek around the skinny tree to observe our next move, as if he were invisible to us.

LAURIE'S LIONS by Diana Madaras (3)

Laurie’s Lions

By the end of three weeks, we had seen 40 different animals and just as many species of birds. I had 3,000 photographs to narrow down to IO paintings.

Once back in Tucson, I couldn’t wait to paint. The lion would be first. I knew there would be pink in his mane-the sunset surrounding this majestic being as he gazed across the distant plains.

As I began to paint, my pent-up emotions poured forth onto the canvas. The painting came quickly and easily, flowing from somewhere deep within. I didn’t need to adjust it or alter it or rework any part of it. Elation!

Within a week, King of Sandibe was done. It sold it the moment it was finished and raised the first $10,000 for the project. Whenever I am asked to name my favorite painting, I always say this one. It was so loose and fun and free. Every moment of the magical trip came rushing back with each effortless brush stroke, guided by the soul of the lion himself.

King of Sandibe (1)

King of Sandibe

Seven months after the trip, the African Sojourn show opened at Madaras Gallery. My sister Sandy, a TV producer, had traveled to Africa shortly after I did (also compliments of Terry) to create a video promoting the art show. Her video premiered at the gala and featured the three charities we had chosen: a wildlife sanctuary for injured African animals, a community garden that provided food for school lunches, and an AlDS orphanage. In addition to a few artist friends, I invited several well-known South African artists to donate paintings. Cole and Jeannie Davis, who had accompanied me on the trip, underwrote the expenses for the party, which meant the charities received 100 percent of the proceeds. Amazingly, we raised $80,000 for the three African charities. Plus, we donated some of the proceeds to TROT and the Reid Park Zoo in Tucson.

I had founded Art for Animals as a way to give back. What I received in return was priceless.

This piece was originally published in Diana Madaras’ coffee table book, “Private Spaces,” available here.

To watch the video about Diana’s trip to Africa, click here to view on

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The Story behind the “Spirit Animal Series”

The Spirit Animals tell the story of Diana’s deep connection to animals –a recurrent passion throughout her life.


Fly Me to the Moon
By Diana Madaras
Watercolor on Yupo • Price: $3,750
Image Size: 20 x 26” • Framed Size: 34 x 40”
The coyote’s symbolism is associated with the deep magic of life and creation.

Growing up, Diana lived in an apartment attached to her dad’s veterinary hospital and loved watching him care for animals. As a child, Diana helped out where she could, from filling pet prescriptions to working as her father’s surgical nurse when she was in college. When people dropped off abandoned wild birds, squirrels, or rabbits, Diana fed them and provided the care they needed. From a young age, she always had great compassion for these injured animals and prayed for magical healing powers to ease their suffering.

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Where is Diana? Greece Part II

Magical Greek Odyssey – the Real Story

Part 3- How did it Happen?

As we pack up and head for Leros, the last island on the tour, I realize we only have 4 painting days left. How did that happen? And Leros is the “Island of Diana!” How did that happen when there are thousands of Greek islands we could have visited? When we travel to the fortress on the hill during a day trip, a Greek historian shows me a picture of the goddess Diana. Her skin is dark which signifies the fertility of the soil.


Artemis, also called Diana, is the goddess on Leros       

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  Steps up to the Fortress where I see “Diana”

Our rooms at the Alinda Hotel are tiny, but have air conditioning and occasional internet, and they are right on the bay. The restaurant is excellent so we eat many meals right there. A Greek band plays in the garden below my balcony until midnight, but it doesn’t matter. I’m up painting, anyway (or dancing in the garden).

greek dancing

Greek dancing in the garden- Me, Diana (the trip organizer), Brenda, Deb

This bathroom has a shower curtain (yea!), but I don’t understand why there is a cover on the drain in the middle of the floor. When I take the cover off, I understand! There is a gas smell that could choke a horse. As long as the cover is left on, the smell is contained. And the sink is so narrow that water splashes everywhere when you wash your hands or face. I am sure there are many luxurious hotels in Greece, but our spartan (yet always charming) accommodations are “C” class to keep the costs of the trip reasonable.

I forget any quirks at the hotel when I throw open the shutters in the morning and see the most beautiful sunrise as a red ball of fire rises from the sea. What a magnificent way to begin the day.

balcony leros

Drinking tea in the morning on my balcony on Leros

Leros is a busy island, smaller then Kalymnos, larger than Lipsi, with lots of tourists and motor bikes. Di arranges for us to paint at a café at the seaport of Pandeli and during the demo, a huge gust of wind blows Herman’s finished masterpiece into the water. Chuck and Herman scurry down the rocks to rescue the painting and, miraculously, it survives total submersion in the sea!

rescue painting

Chuck and Herman rescue the painting. Andy supervises.

Brenda and I head off on our own adventure to photograph the street scenes in Pandeli, and on the way to the beach she pokes her head into a little kitchen where women make cheese pies for the restaurant. They graciously give us each one to taste. Then we talk with fishermen mending their nets as they sit on the beach and sew them while holding the net in place with their toes.

The days race by and I try to savor every fleeting minute. I realize how fortunate I am to have had this magical experience.  The painting is going well and I finally get some sleep after eliminating Greek coffee from the daily routine.

At dinner, five of us walk down the road to try a new restaurant, and the owner sits at the table with us. “May I order for you?” he offers. We agree and once again the feast begins: Calypso shrimp, eggplant and cheese, salad, beef and pork in mole, cheese in a bird’s nest with feta and honey (that’s what it looked like!), calamari bites, stuffed mushrooms, stuffed whole calamari, saffron rice, bread, and the food just keeps coming. I’ve named this trip “My Big Fat Greek Vacation” because we have eaten so much—all incredible. At the end of the meal, the bill was $17 a person including the wine, and the owner was our new best friend.

The last day of class has arrived and we return to the secluded bay below the fortress because it is protected from the gusty winds. At lunch, Brenda and I splurge on fresh lobster and pasta, and are having such a great time we almost miss the bus back to the hotel.

CHURCH AT LIPSI  by Diana Madaras copy.jpg

“Church on Leros” painted on one of the last days on Lipsi

Herman gathers the painters on the porch of our hotel and gives a final critique. The first-time painters have all made great progress and the professionals leave with nuggets of knowledge we can use in the future. It will be sad to see our little painting family disburse.

Earlier in the week, Brenda and I discover the bartender at our hotel makes great margaritas, and we make it a nightly ritual to visit Maria. We toast “yamas” to a wonderful trip and a terrific new friendship. At the end of the evening, Maria pours herself and the two of us a shot of mastiha, and we enjoy this new and wonderful special Greek drink. Maria will be sad to see us go!

farewell margarita   mastiha

Farewell margaita with Brenda              Shots of mastiha for all

We take a taxi to the airport in the morning and now comes the moment I dread–one big suitcase, one little one, and a huge backpack. Will Olympic Air give me a hard time? I don’t mind paying for the extra weight. I just want to make sure my precious cargo (especially the paintings) come home with me.

At the counter, they don’t question my second bag or backpack, and don’t even weigh the suitcases. There is no overcharge and they readily accept all my luggage.  All that angst for nothing!

But wait–when we arrive in Athens, my big suitcase is missing. How can luggage be missing when we flew non-stop from Leros to Athens???

After searching for half an hour, the airline agent tells us the bad news. Our luggage (mine was not the only one) was left in Leros because the cargo hold was full. Since there is only one flight a day, my suitcase will arrive in Athens tomorrow, 3 hours after I depart. I am forced to leave the fate of my big suitcase in the hands of Olympic Air and hope they figure out a way to get it back to Tucson. The suitcase contains my clothes from the trip, 20 tubes of paint, expensive watercolor paper, my easel and whole set up for plein air painting, 22 pair of underwear, and paintings!

When last I looked, I had actually produced 26 paintings, maybe 12 that I want to include in my October annual show. Wouldn’t it be ironic if they now vanished in suitcase hell on an obscure Greek island, and were excavated a few centuries from now?

I would have had a total meltdown except for the fact that at the last minute on Leros, I decided to pack the “good paintings” (or most of them) in my backpack and keep them safe with me at all times. OMG, I am thankful for that little voice in my head!

Coincidentally, without planning it, Brenda and I are seated next to each other on the little plane, and we are booked at the same airport hotel for our overnight in Athens. Once there, we share a great meal, and then I put some final touches on a few of the paintings and sign them.

As I write this last entry on the plane, I am flying from London to Dallas, and Brenda is flying from Frankfurt to Dallas. We will be reunited in Dallas and fly home on the same flight. Looks like this new friendship is fate J


I still love to paint as much today as when I traveled to Greece with Chuck 25 years ago. Nothing is quite as exciting as a blank canvas—the possibilities endless.

And 25 years later, for better or worse, I am still as driven. I did appreciate the trip more this time—the food, the culture, the rich experiences, the other painters. I love all that I learned, and I understand that the soul-searching and “bad painting misery” help me continue to evolve. I LOVED three weeks of immersion in the process, focusing only on painting.  When painting plein air, sometimes an unexpected freshness and spontaneity occur. Some days I wanted to stay in Greece and paint for another three weeks. Other days, I missed home and was ready for the trip to be over.

It took me three years after I returned from the first trip to fully comprehend its impact. It truly changed my life. I sold my marketing company to become a full-time artist, and then opened the Gallery.

So what impact will this trip have? I know how fortunate I am to have spent three weeks painting in Greece, and I will savor every moment for a lifetime. As for the long term ramifications? Ask me in three years J.

Parting shots…




diana greece 3

Dining on the water in Lipsi

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Monastery in Kaylmnos

diana greece 5   greece 6.jpg

Hiding from the sun                         Ana’s taverna on Klaymnos

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Boats in Lipsi

More paintings…see all of them in the October Annual Show on 10/21

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“Table in the Courtyard”


“Flowers at Babi’s Bar”

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“Shadow on the Steps”

Blue Door in the Garden_ diana photo.jpg

“Blue Door in the Garden”

STREET OF BOUGAINVILLEA  by Diana Madaras copy.jpg

“Street of Bougainvillea”

POT IN THE BLUE WINDOW  by Diana Madaras copy.jpg

“Pot in the Window”


All managed to find their way home after 4 days. Good suitcases! Good suitcases! 🙂 


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Where is Diana? Greece Part II

Magical Greek Odyssey – the Real Story

Part 2- Revelations on Patmos

The ferry to Lipsi is a huge catamaran with seats like an airplane, and I just sit back and relax during the hour and a half ride and look forward to the next island adventure.

ferry to lipsi.jpg


My room on Lipsi has air conditioning. Woo hoo! In the middle of unpacking, I am so tired, I lie down for a few minutes and sleep so hard, I don’t know where I am when I awake. The accommodations are much more civilized. We are all housed together, so no half-mile hike with the backpack two or three times a day. Plus there is internet right in my room. The shower stall is amusing, though—a tiny triangle in the bathroom with a hand-held shower head but no shower curtain– so water sprays all over the bathroom, especially when you wash your hair. And I learn that you have to insert your key card into a slot to get the electricity to work in your room.

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Where is Diana?

Magical Greek Odyssey – the Real Story

In 1993, I went to Greece to paint and it changed my life. So why return 25 years later and what happened this time? Here’s the inside story…

Part 1- Everything is new and wonderful- or is it?

After months of planning and preparation, at last I head for Greece for a painting workshop. Artists of all levels continue to study with mentors to ever improve technique, share critiques of their work, and enjoy the camaraderie of painting with others.

The discussion at our house for the last several weeks has been suitcase weight. On the little plane from Athens to Kalymnos where we will paint first, you are allowed 33 pounds plus a 6 pound carry on. That has to include clothes, sundries, shoes, hat, bathing suit, jacket, camera, sketchbook, outlet converter, computer, etc., plus an easel, water jar, collapsible chair, paper and paint, palette, tape, and other art supplies. My beauty products alone weigh 33 pounds!😊

My husband Miro buys me a substantial backpack, we each have a large suitcase, and, at the end, add a small roller bag. He will stay with me for only 4 days, then head to Poland to visit family. Despite buying travel-sized everything, and taking a very limited wardrobe, together we weigh in at 140 pounds—60 pounds over the weight limit.

We are the last to arrive at the Plaka Hotel in Athens and join the group of artists already there at the rooftop bar for happy hour. Our room faces the Acropolis which is backlit at night and is spectacular, still guarding the ancient city like a centaur 2500 years after it was built.


Acropolis at night

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Exploring Color I: Color vs. Subject

Which is more important for arranging complimentary artwork- color or subject matter?

Two paintings may focus on different subjects, but still work together in a visually appealing way because they are unified by color.

Diana paints in a diverse style using a wide spectrum of colors. She likes to hang art in her own home and in the Gallery based on color compatibility rather than focusing like subject matter.

Below are some examples of pairings that compliment each other, the connection again being color.

Calming Purples


Pink Ocotillo at Pusch RidgeBougainvillea by the Blue Door, and Sands of the Desierto

The three paintings above are very different subjects, but work well together because of the cohesive lavender & mauve hues throughout.

Warm Yellow Florals


Pat’s Flowers, Cowboy Romance, Three Sunflowers, & Florida Flowers

Above is an example of different florals paired with a Western scene. Not only do the flowers tie the images together, but the predominance of color really makes these pieces work beautifully together.

Brilliant Oranges & Purples


White Poppies, Burro at the Fountain, & Fancy Rooster

The animal-themed paintings pair nicely, but what really makes all three of the paintings work in cohesion is the repetition of orange & purple.

Vibrant Turquoise Accents


Door in the Barrio , Baboquivari , Twin Peaks I & II, & Hughes Finger Rock

Bold turquoise accents bring all of these paintings together.

These are just a few examples of how color can be considered when choosing artwork. On our gallery website, we also have a feature which allows you by customizing the wall color in a wall preview. Try it on Pink Ocotillo at Pusch Ridge here.

We hope you have fun with this creative process of finding colors that work together in perfect harmony!

Stay tuned for our next post in the Exploring Color series, Storytelling with Color!


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Adventure at Saguaro Lake Ranch

by Diana Madaras


I packed a few long-sleeved sun-resistant shirts, jeans, and a wide-brimmed hat, and my husband Miro and I headed for Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch about 13 miles northeast of Mesa, AZ. John, the ranch manager, had invited us to stay for a few days to take reference photos for future paintings of the ranch.

Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch was originally a series of barracks built to house the men who constructed the dam on the Salt River in 1928. When the dam was completed and the government was about to knock down the barracks, a businessman pleaded to purchase the property. He refurbished the barracks and added rooms, founding the guest ranch. The dam created Saguaro Lake, which controls the flow of the Salt River as it meanders along the southern boundary of the ranch.

Barracks were converted to cabins  |  Ranch acreage along the Salt River

We arrived mid-afternoon. Our old-fashioned key opened room #7 where an Indian print blanket was draped over a king bed. A wooden, hand-painted desk and a dresser sat under curtained windows, and a little sink with towels adorned the far wall. The shower, tub, and toilet were in a separate room in the back near the closet. After we unpacked, we sat in the rockers on the covered porch just outside our screen door and enjoyed a glass of wine.

Room #7  |  Inside the lodge

The sun lowered in the Western sky and the Bulldog Cliffs turned fiery. Dramatic patches of warm, red light danced across the mountains as cool, dark shadows settled deep into the crevices between them. Miro and I walked to opposite sides of the property to take photos.

Bulldog Cliffs at the ranch  |  Miro gets wet to take the perfect photo

I was so enthralled with capturing the light on the cliffs that I did not pay attention to where I was walking. At the end of the wide dirt drive in front of the last cabin, I stopped to raise the camera to my eye when I glimpsed a large brown mound by my shoe. Some part of my being realized it was a snake. It was right next to my foot! I jumped three feet sideways as he rattled at me. The snake rose up and lashed out. By the grace of God, he did not bite me, though he could have. He was so close!

I have lived in Arizona for 42 years and have seen a dozen or so rattlesnakes, but I have never had a close encounter. My heart pounded, and a ton of adrenaline shot through me. When I was a safe distance away and caught my breath, I called out to Miro who came running. Now that I was safe, I wanted to look at this creature that had nearly scared me to death, and then I wanted to photograph him. Instead of a ruined trip—driving to the hospital with fang marks in my ankle—we photographed the snake as he slithered off into the desert.

My heart stopped pounding about an hour later. We ate a sack lunch since we didn’t want to drive 20 minutes to a restaurant for dinner. The ranch kitchen was open for breakfast every morning, but they also serve lunch and dinner during the height of their season in March.  We drank more wine (I needed it) and enjoyed the dark, peaceful night. Animal dreams haunted me until dawn.

The next day we were up at 6 am to capture the drama of the long morning shadows. The scenes were so varied—cliffs that rose straight up from the water; grassy pastures adjacent to the horse corral; ancient multi-armed saguaros, hearty and plump from the plentiful water supply.

Breakfast at 8 am included eggs, crispy bacon, potatoes, and banana French toast with warm maple syrup. We then headed out for our morning adventure. We walked over to the kayaks on a flat patch of grass next to the river where John gave us 15 minutes of excellent instruction. He held up a map of the river and explained when to stay left and where to fork right. “If you miss the fork to the right, you’ll go down the hard rapids, and it won’t be pretty. Just watch for the orange ball on the telephone wires. That’s your signal.” We were all determined to watch for that orange ball!

Then a quick test. Anyone who could paddle across the strong current to the quiet lagoon on the other side of the river was good to go. We crossed easily, as did another couple from Nebraska who had joined us. John stood on the bank and reminded us to keep the nose of the boat straight forward when going through fast water. “If the boat should flip, hang onto the paddle and keep your legs stretched out in front of you with toes up. Lift up your butt if you scrape the rocks.” Moments later we were out of ear shot.

Kayaking through the tranquil, beautiful scenery

Light on the calm patches of water sparkled like glitter. Gratefully, the sun would be at our backs for the next two and half hours. Miro pointed to an otter playing on his back in a small cove, and when we rounded the bend, there stood six wild horses wading along the bank! They were part of a herd of 300 that roamed the canyons of the Salt River. Due to the drought, food had been scarce, and for the first time since 2006, the Salt River Wild Horse Management team had to drop hay bales to help keep the horses alive. I could see their ribs protruding from thin flanks.

Wild horses along the Salt River
Bighorn sheep  |  Birds galore

We then spotted bighorn sheep peering down at us from the cliffs, and a coyote darted from the river into the bush. Huge birds swooped in and out of canyon crevices. The slow parts of the river, lazy and serene, moved us gently downstream as we took in the quiet. When the rush of swifter water broke the silence, we prepared to tackle the small rapids again.

All four of us spotted the orange ball and the important right-hand fork of the river, but a mother and son just ahead of us were not paying attention. The mom suddenly realized the fork was upon her and she called to her son who was just about to be carried into more treacherous water. He paddled hard upstream and was finally able to right his course, but mom wasn’t paying attention and her boat veered sideways and struck a rock. Out she flew. When the water flattened out downstream, she was able to wrestle the kayak to shore, but the contents had spilled everywhere. We passed her, picked up the floating items we could find, and then paddled back to help her. No harm done.

After two and half hours of kayaking, we spied John at the boat ramp signaling the end of the trip. He guided us to a clean landing and helped us out of the kayaks. We walked around for a few minutes to regain our “land legs,” then helped load the kayaks onto a trailer. As we headed back to the ranch in John’s van, we chattered excitedly about all that we had seen.

After lunch, we boarded the sightseeing ship Desert Belle on Saguaro Lake—a gentler adventure for sure. We settled into comfortable chairs on the upper deck and took photos from both sides of the boat. We saw bighorn sheep that had ventured down to the banks to drink, plus huge hawks and vultures crisscrossing the sky. The captain relayed the history and geography of the lake, and a speed boat raced alongside us with a surfer riding the wake behind the craft.

In the late afternoon, Miro headed out for another photo shoot. Hours later he would return all abuzz about the herd of wild horses that allowed him to mingle among them. He shot hundreds of photos. Between our two cameras, we now had close to a thousand pictures to cull, ultimately choosing the ones I would paint.

John, his wife Sean A’Lee, and Laura, the other full-time staff person at the ranch, picked up Thai food in town and invited us to dine with them. We brought wine and cheese to the table, and during dinner we enjoyed learning about the history of the ranch. John had worked here for more than 20 years and had been a full-time resident manager for nine years now. We thoroughly enjoyed the company and food, sharing stories late into the night.

After a hearty ranch breakfast the next morning, we had one more scene to capture. John told us if we waited under the trees near the pool, we’d see a vermilion flycatcher—one of my favorite birds. After a 10-minute wait, we spied him. Miro saw him carrying objects in his beak and followed the bird to his nest. Miro jumped with excitement when he saw the bird was feeding his young! He took hundreds of photos hoping one would be good.

Vermilion flycatcher  |  Feeding the kids

We loved our two-day adventure at Saguaro Lake Guest Ranch and look forward to returning for more. I know there are dozens of painting possibilities in the photos, and I am excited to get back to the easel.

If you go:

Please check availability of activities. The stable horses leave mid-April for cooler pastures, and kayaking occurs during the months when the dam releases water into the river. The incredible beauty and quaint cabins are there all year long. 😊


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The Face on Mars: A Focus on Focal Points

In our previous Bigfoot Blog, we spoke about employing the rule of thirds to improve the composition in paintings and photography. During that discussion, the subject of focal points came up. We’re going to continue exploring that concept.

At its core, the idea of a focal point in art is pretty basic: it’s the place where your eye tends to go. That’s it. Nothing too complex.

The more important question is why? This is true whether you’re making visual art yourself or just appreciating it. Why does your gaze tend to fall on certain places in the painting?

A focal point is created when a certain element has what is called visual weight. In this case, the weight is what pulls your attention away from other elements in the composition. A painting might use one technique to create visual weight, or it might use several. Let’s discuss some of these techniques.

Probably the most common technique to create visual weight is contrast. Our eyes are drawn to contrast, and there are various ways to use it. For example, it might refer to the contrast of light & dark. We can see this in Night Blooming Cereus III.


This is a very obvious use of light/dark contrast to create visual weight. The flower stands out strongly against the black background, and your eyes immediately rest upon those outstretched petals. For another example, consider Bird in the Canyon. Notice how the darkest part of the painting contrasts with the brightest part at one specific point, drawing your eye directly to the bird’s face.


A focal point can also be created when contrasting black & white with color. In most cases, the color element will have strong visual weight compared to the unsaturated surroundings. This is found in Painted Sky, where the swirling multi-hued clouds grab your attention above the black, silhouetted ground.


Another form of contrast that is useful in creating visual weight is isolation. By surrounding your intended focal point with negative space, you draw attention to the intended spot.


In What About Me?, the dog sits alone in a field. The animal’s isolation gives it visual weight, causing it to become the focal point of the painting. We can also see a difference in the level of detail and focus. There’s contrast between the detailed pup and the more abstract, blurry field that it sits in. And this, again, creates visual weight. Both of these techniques are also present in Maui.

MAUI xxan

Take a look at Arizona Rose for another illustration of the contrast between high and low detail. In this painting, the more precise detail of the stamens calls your gaze. As you might also note, this is an image with two very clear focal points.


Yet another example of contrast lending visual weight comes from using patterns in your art – specifically, breaking them. Our brains are very good at spotting patterns. Because of this, it really stands out when something breaks that arrangement. Imagine a field of red flowers with one blue one. A row of lockers with one open. A grouping of circles with one square.

In both Lean on Me and Mailbox 32111, a visual pattern emerges. The element that breaks the pattern becomes the focal point. A boot that’s leaning over, unlike the rest. A mailbox that breaks from the chain of repeating fence posts. This is where your eye tends to go first.

Moving on from various contrast techniques, let’s return to patterns again. One pattern in particular is very good at drawing our attention: faces. We’re quick to spot faces, especially eyes. This urge in our minds is so powerful, sometimes we even create them when they aren’t there. Behold, the infamous Face on Mars.

Face on Mars

(left) The original NASA image from 1978 and (right) the Mars Global Surveyor composite from 2001

In the original image, your attention immediately goes to the “face.” It’s clear that faces and eyes tend to have a strong visual weight. Just take a look at He’s Mine.


Your gaze immediately goes to those haunting eyes. In fact, they draw your attention so strongly that it often takes a bit to even notice the pet rabbit she clutches so closely. This works for animals as well. Don’t believe me? Where do your eyes alight when you look at King of Sandibe or Hummingbird and the Hibiscus?

A slightly more advanced technique to create a focal point is using lines. The shapes, color, and shading in a composition will often create lines that work as a directional map for your eyes. One of the more common ways this is seen is with vanishing points.

Walk in Sabino uses this technique quite literally, as the path itself forms two converging lines that guide your gaze towards the end. In Trip Down the Grand Canyon, both edges of the river take you to the vanishing point in the distance. Grand Canyon actually creates several strong lines throughout the painting, all pointing towards the same spot. That spot has the most visual weight, making it our primary focal point.


There are numerous other techniques to help create visual weight. Size, for instance. Larger elements obviously tend to stand out more than smaller ones. Warmer colors generally draw the eye more than cooler hues. Certain color combinations are eye catching. Some argue that the right side of a composition has more inherent weight in our culture because we read from left to right. The list goes on…

You might have noticed that some of these paintings apply multiple techniques that we’ve discussed. That’s great! An artist can use as many as they like to achieve the desired effect. Let’s examine First Light.

First Light

There are various techniques on display here. The brightness of the mountain peak contrasts against the darker sky. The peak sits on the right side of the composition, and it is a warmer color than the surrounding sky and saguaros. The lines of the mountain itself lead the eye directly up to the top. You could even argue that there is a pattern of saguaros that is broken by the peak jutting up into the sky.

There aren’t any faces this time. On the other hand, with the way our minds work, if you look long enough, maybe you’ll find one anyway.

Now, we have one final important question: why does any of this matter? Why do we need focal points? Ultimately, you don’t. Some abstract painters eschew them. Mark Rothko usually had them. Jackson Pollock regularly didn’t.


However, it’s valuable to understand the concept whether you’re an artist or just an art connoisseur. Traditional images with no focal points (or too many focal points!) are often seen as disorganized or too busy for the eye to appreciate. A focal point helps the viewer better understand the composition of a painting. Visual weight can also help to tell a narrative by drawing the viewer’s attention to various places in the image. It can guide their eyes right where the artist wants them to go.

 So, next time you’re studying a painting, take note of where your eyes go. Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of why they go there and how the artist helped guide you right to the appropriate focal point.

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A Crazy Start to a Painting

By Diana Madaras

I just finished a brand new piece, The Tree 2, and it has quite a story!

I am not a formula painter with a step-by-step routine that I follow every time. I never want my process to become rote or boring, so when artist/teacher Derek Penix suggested I start my newest painting with wild, crazy brushstrokes, I got excited. Here are the first strokes.

Crazy 1

Gradually, I added color to the foliage and began to shape the trunk and branches. Then I made “sky holes” — dabs of blue mixed with white that suggest the sky is peeking through the leaves.

crazy 2

I then refined the tree, shaped it, and refined it time and again. I added highlights and finishing touches to complete The Tree 2. The process was liberating, and I love the looseness of the foliage. The “underpainting” adds depth to the image, and the more abstract quality lets the viewer experience it in a more interpretive way. And it sure was fun to paint with reckless abandon!

THE TREE 2 xxfl

The Tree 2

Happy Holidays to all. I appreciate you.

Warm regards,


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Cactus Composition: A Bigfoot Blog

There it is in front of you… the perfect picture moment.

It could be a vivid sunset painted lushly across the sky. Perhaps it’s your child in a moment that you want to remember forever. Or maybe you just came across Bigfoot (again), and nobody believed you last time. Either way, it’s beautiful and needs to be captured for posterity. Fortunately, you have your camera handy. You snap away with confidence and eagerly check your photo.

Bigfoot Photo

But no! The picture is ugly and boring. The striking imagery you saw with your eyes is nowhere to be found. Even worse, your friends will never believe that isn’t just a guy in a gorilla suit.

Have you ever wondered why some photographs or paintings look flat, uninteresting, and unnatural? The culprit is not Bigfoot (this time). It’s likely the composition.

In our previous dog-blog, we discussed the basics of composition in painting (using dog art). How did the artist place the elements we see in the art? What effect does it have on the subject matter? And how does that manipulate the viewer?

Now let’s get more specific. Today we’re talking about the rule of thirds.

BREAKFAST CLUB by Diana Madaras

First of all, the rule of thirds is not an actual rule. It’s simply a concept in visual art that tries to quantify why some compositions are interesting while others are lackluster. The basic idea is that if your subject matter is placed centrally, it tends to be boring or unpleasing to the eye.

But why is this called the rule of thirds? Well, to illustrate how it works, we’re going to divide our canvas into thirds, horizontally and vertically.


We now have a grid that can be superimposed over our image. According to the rule of thirds, your picture will be more intriguing if you align your subject matter close to these lines.

Landscape painting and photography often make use of this technique. The rule recommends that you place the horizon along one of the horizontal lines. This usually creates a more interesting visual balance than putting it in the center.

Sunset at Dove Mt_combo

In more practical terms, if you’d like to focus on a beautiful sky, the horizon should be near the lower line. You can see this above in Sunset at Dove Mountain. On the other hand, aligning the horizon on the upper line puts more focus towards the scene on the ground, like in Beach Walk.

Beach Walk_combo

And here’s an example of using the rule of thirds when you’re doing a portrait. In this case, it’s a horse named Angel. It’s typical to place the subject’s eyes along the upper line. In general, this will give them the appropriate amount of headroom and present a polished-looking image.


Another important aspect of the rule of thirds arises with any vertex where the lines cross. Many artists believe those four points are invaluable in creating a visually-pleasing composition. The key to this technique is framing the subject matter in the vicinity of these spots.  Let’s examine First Light.

First Light_combo

The bright mountain peak illuminated by the sunlight is exactly aligned with one of the intersection points. The peak didn’t need to be placed there, yet in doing so, it helps bring a strong composition to the image.

But creating cactus art is a thorny issue, so let’s go deeper. What if you have multiple points of interest (called focal points) in your image? If that’s the case, multiple vertices can come into play. In fact, here are a couple examples of that idea in use.

Prickly Pear Bloom is certainly visually striking. We talked about how color theory plays into that in a past discussion, but today, we’re studying the composition of the painting. Thanks in part to the colors, the two spots your eyes immediately go to are the yellow bloom and the brightest thorns. Both of those spots are located on diagonally opposing intersection points in our grid. It creates a dynamic, energetic visual.

Prickly Pear Bloom_combo

Next, let’s look at Five Birds. While they aren’t posed exactly on the points, our feathery friends are all lingering near three of the vertices. It makes for a much more intriguing composition than if they were all sitting in the center.

Five Birds_combo

Of course, it must be remembered that all “rules” in art can be broken. Depending on the artist’s intent, breaking the rule of thirds can be quite valuable. For example, sometimes placing the subject matter centrally can have a bold, provocative effect.


Pokey’s Excellent Breakfast

[the horns actually fall on the upper horizontal line]

In reality, there are no actual rules to art. Countless masterpieces have been painted or photographed that do not follow the rule of thirds. To call it a rule is a misnomer – an artist is not obligated to draw or imagine a grid on every image they create. It’s simply a set of guidelines to help understand why certain visual techniques have a particular effect.

Now, the next time you stumble across Bigfoot, all your friends will be impressed by your strong composition.


They still might not believe you though. I can’t help you with that.

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