Sunday, October 18, 2020

Our Digital Life as a River

"Lighter Relieving a Steamboat Aground"
1847, George Caleb Bingham
30"x36", oil/canvas - Collection of The White House

When the land shifts, rivers dry up and disappear.  They leave behind canyons and buttes, painted pink, beige and ochre, all gracefully sculpted by the flow of water.

Our digital life is a river of electrically charged bits, rushing from our laptops and smartphones.  For awhile, it was a pleasant idyll:  floating on our digital rafts, watching the scenery glide by as we steered clear of the occasional sandbar or log. 

But now, mightier than the Mississippi, the river has jumped the levee, flipped our rafts, and is hauling us downstream.  We can barely keep our noses above the torrent.  Or at least, that's what it feels like some days.

In some distant decade, this digital river may dry up and disappear, too.  Most of us today can't imagine that ever happening, but who can predict the future?

And if it does dry up, what will be left? Certainly not our e-mail or blog posts.  Nor our storehouse of millions of images.  The “cloud” will vanish like a puff of steam in a dry wind, taking all of that with it.

We artists, however, can hope.  Canvas can rot, but our museums have paintings on canvas that are a half-millenium old.  Wood panels can break, but we have paintings on panel that are twice that old, and more.  Pottery and sculpture can shatter, but we have examples of these dating from the very dawn of humanity.

Once the digital river is gone, these physical artifacts will remain as our canyons, our buttes.

But then I'm reminded of the poem, "Ozymandias," by Shelley:

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Paint, Shoot—Or Just Look?

I recently posted the above picture on Facebook.  I took the photo on an afternoon's hike over a lakeside trail.  The foliage had just begun to turn: reds and oranges and yellows were seeping into the oaks, gold coins were dropping from the poplars.  Off in the distance, across the lake, the sandstone cliffs, stained red over the ages, completed the beautiful color harmony of the day.

A friend commented:  “Hard choice of which to paint—the tree or cliff.”  I replied:  “Sometimes, you just want to look.”

How many times on a hike have I regretted not carrying my camera or not lugging along my painting gear?  More times than I can count.  A scene takes my breath away, and I wish, for a moment, that I could shoot a picture or capture it in paint.  But then I remind myself, not everything beautiful is meant to be painted or photographed.  Sometimes, the beautiful is meant to be enjoyed only in that moment, and then savored as a memory.

I'm reminded of that poem by William Carlos Williams:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

The poem invites many interpretations, and I seem to interpret it differently each time I read it.  Right now, as I am reciting it in my mind, it is a moment in time.  It's the moment when you wish you had a camera or your gear, but all you can do it look and savor.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Plein Air Painters of New Mexico Paintout

"Path to the Lake"
9x12 Oil - Available

Here's a group activity well-suited to these times—a paintout.  There's no problem with close quarters, and fresh air is in abundance.  And for those of us who have been painting alone in our back yards, it's an opportunity to reconnect with our social selves.

Last weekend, I hosted a paintout at a local lake for Plein Air Painters of New Mexico.  Nine of us gathered—so to speak—to spend the day under the intense sunshine of early fall.  Despite a breeze that picked up in the afternoon, we couldn't have asked for a better day.  The chamisa bloomed with a bounty of bright gold, and yellow edged the boughs of the cottonwoods.  The lake waters glowed with a dull green, dabbed with blue here and there by the reflected sky.  I've been longing to paint the chamisa ever since it started blooming, so that was my focus; others painted the lake view.

In New Mexico, the state currently requires masks to be worn when in public, and gatherings are limited to ten.  We followed the rules—a mask does not hinder painting—and even during a lunch break under a bit of shade, we kept our distance.  Now that cooler weather has arrived, I'm hoping to host more of these.

You're right--I'm not wearing a mask in this photo.
That's because everyone else was a few hundred feet away!

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Ghost Ranch Revisted—and an Upcoming Retreat

Ghost Ranch Morning
9x12 Oil - Available

Ghost Ranch and Abiqiui, New Mexico—Georgia O'Keeffe's old haunts.  These are my old haunts, too, as I've visited and painted in the area many times over the last 20 years.  This time, I spent three days there, painting in gouache and oil, and in reading Lesley Poling-Kempes' history of the property, Ghost Ranch.  

The cottage O'Keeffe stayed in when
first at Ghost Ranch. I doubt the handicap
assist rails were there in her day.

Base camp was our 1999 PleasureWay van, parked in a side canyon formed by a bent arm of red and grey hills.  We were nestled right in the crook of the arm.  From our post, we could see the blue anvil-head of the Pedernal.  O'Keeffe once said, “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”  The mountain overlooks the entirety of the historic Piedra Lumbre Land Grant, a region of colorful hills, deep arroyos, and bright cliffs—“Piedra Lumbre” means “shining rock.”  Ghost Ranch occupies 21,000 acres of this stunning and very paintable landscape.

Once a dude ranch, and before that, the legendary home of the Archuleta brothers, who were notorious cattle rustlers, it now belongs to the Presbyterian Church.  The campus now offers many workshops and retreats, not just in spiritual matters, but also in the arts.  But for painters, Ghost Ranch is best known for its connection to O'Keeffe.  She started spending summers there as a guest in the 1930s.  After her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, died, she bought a piece of the ranch and moved there permanently.  Between her Ghost Ranch home and another house she owned in nearby Abiquiu, she spent the rest of her life—over forty years—painting the hills of the Piedra Lumbre.

The Ranch, with Chimney Rock illuminated
by the morning sun.

While reading Poling-Kempes' history, the characters that lived in this place were ever-present for me as I painted.  I couldn't help but think of them crossing the landscape on foot or on horseback through the sagebrush, or of guests arriving via the Ranch's Lincoln touring car, a behemoth that could hold seven passengers plus luggage and still somehow lumber over the one-lane dirt road, down through arroyos and over rock-strewn hills, that wound for forty miles from the train depot in EspaƱola.  And, of course, I imagined Georgia O'Keeffe, painting away at the foot of some particularly colorful hill that was cut by the rare rains into graceful curves.

Our trip wasn't all painting.  We hiked, too.

As some of you know, we had to cancel our Taos, New Mexico, painting retreat for this fall.  But we are planning for next year—and as a bonus, we are going to schedule in some time for painting at Ghost Ranch.   We'll spend a week in Taos, and then follow that with time at Ghost Ranch.  The Taos retreat will start Sunday evening, September 26, 2021, and will run through Friday, October 1.  Ghost Ranch, which won't officially be part of the retreat, will be that weekend.  Let me know if you're interested, and I'll send you details as we get them.  I hope you'll join us!

Here are some of the 5x8 gouache sketches from the trip:

View from the campground

This was the preliminary sketch I did for
"Ghost Ranch Morning".  I sketched this
the day before I did the oil version.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

What's All This About Gouache?

Canyon Wall, 5x8 gouache 
One of my latest sketches from my "Pandemic Sketchbooks, Vol.2"

Gouache—what the French called the medium starting in the 18th century—is trending right now in the US.  Everyone seems to be experimenting with it.

In the graphic below, from Google Trends, you can see a big uptick in searching for the word “gouache” in May of this year.  Although the curve has dipped a bit since then, it's still higher than before.  It's also interesting to look at the map that shows which states search most often for the term.  The west coast and New England seem particularly interested in finding out more about this opaque water medium.

Number of Searches for "Gouache" since 2018

States with the Most Searches for "Gouache"

I first learned about gouache a long time ago while reading up on the history of illustration.  I learned much more about it by following the artist James Gurney in his blog.  Then I started playing with it myself a couple of years ago, when I wanted something more travel-ready than oil or pastels.  My good friend Douglas Runyan steered me to my current kit.  Now, as I check my Instagram feed and browse through the art instruction magazines, paintings in gouache or articles about gouache pop up regularly.

Gouache is basically opaque watercolor.  What gives it its distinctive opacity is the size of the pigment particles, which are larger than that used for watercolor.  Also, sometimes chalk is added to increase the opacity.

But why use gouache instead of watercolor?  Isn't watercolor just as travel-ready?  Well, the benefit of gouache lies in its opacity.  It lets the painter scumble one color over another for a beautiful “broken color” effect.  Also, it's easy to correct mistakes.  Nor does one have to worry about “saving the lights” when painting areas with bright highlights.

Gouache also dries to a matte finish, which is perfect for photography, since you don't have to worry about reflections.  This is why it was—and continues to be—used for illustration and commercial work.  

A Concept Sketch for an Advertisement in Gouache

But there's one problem with gouache, and that is that the darks dry a little light, losing some of their depth.  I often have to revisit the field sketch once I'm back in the studio and hit those darks again.

The Egyptians used gouache.  They combined ground pigment with honey or gum tragacanth—two binders also used in watercolor—to make a paste for decorating walls.  During the Middle Ages, it was used in manuscript illumination.  In the 20th century, before the advent of digital art, it was used in commercial art because it was “quick'n'dirty”—much faster than painting in oil if you just wanted to do a concept sketch.  Plus, as I mentioned, it photographed well.  The only problem with “designer's gouache” or “body color” as it was called then, was that not all of the colors were lightfast.  That has changed today, and most gouache manufacturers use lightfast pigments.

I'm continuing my practice of using it for my daily sketches.  I have a bag, ready to go, with everything I need in it, including a sheet of eggcrate foam to cushion my backside when sitting on a rock.  For me, painting in gouache is stress-free—just the prescription for today's times.

You can see more of my gouache sketches on my Instagram feed.

My Gouache Kit
(You can read more about it here)