Sunday, January 10, 2021

Downeast Maine Plein Air Painting Retreat

Painting Retreat, Maine, Lubec. August 8-13, 2021

I'm always surprised when other landscape painters tell me they've never heard of Lubec, Maine.  Just two hours east of Bar Harbor, this incredibly scenic and historic fishing village, perched on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, offers plenty for the painter:  ramshackle fish buildings, a working fleet of lobster boats and scallop draggers, cottages that date from the 1800s—not to mention an abundance of natural scenery that includes bold seaside cliffs, quiet coves and stunning views of the islands of Passamaquoddy Bay.

And it's quiet.  Even on what you might think would be the busiest summer weekend, you'll see only a few people walking the beach.  When I go off to paint, I have no problem finding a place of solitude with a stunning view.

This summer, I'm hosting a special plein air painting retreat for experienced painters in Lubec. Our base camp will be the beautifully-renovated West Quoddy Station, a historic US Coast Guard campus, just a short drive from the Quoddy Head Lighthouse. I have reserved the entire week for our retreat, with check-in on Sunday, August 8, and departure after lunch on Friday, August 13, for a total of five nights.

The Station is perfectly located for our retreat, as it is very close to Quoddy Head State Park with its trails and lighthouse. If you've never been to this park before, it offers stunning views of the Grand Manan Channel with rocky cliffs and rugged beaches as well as interior trails that wind through bogs and spruce forests.

From the Station, a ten-minute, scenic drive along the ocean takes you to the village.  It has several restaurants and shops, as well as a nearby medical center and grocery store. Beyond Lubec, there are several trailheads that offer painting opportunities, such as Hamilton Beach and Boot Head. You will need a passport, as we may visit my studio on nearby Campobello Island, which is in Canada, and also paint in the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park, which has 3000 acres of natural beauty. You won't want this retreat to end!

Each day will start at 8 a.m. with critiques of the previous day's paintings. Following this, I will give some helpful pointers on painting in the area. After that, we'll paint as a group for the morning. Although I won't be giving any formal instruction, I will be offering demonstrations to anyone who wants to watch, serving as your local guide to painting locations, and also painting along with you. After lunchtime, I will give you optional painting assignments for the afternoon. Or, if you prefer not to paint, you can explore—go on a whale watch, take a hike, or visit some of the other villages.

The price of the retreat is $300, which does not include lodging or meals. (You will book lodging separately, directly with West Quoddy Station.)   For full details on the retreat, download this brochure.  I hope you'll join us!

Here's a short video about the retreat from last time (link here if you don't see it below).  (Yes, I know it talks about 2019, but I no longer have the software to edit the video. You'll get the idea, though.)

By the way, if the retreat doesn't work for you, I also am offering two workshops just prior to the retreat in Lubec, July 27-30 and August 3-6.  You can see full details on these workshops here, at 

Sunday, January 3, 2021

What's in a Title?

The back of one of my paintings, where the title goes.
You'll also see the stamp for the Grand Canyon
Celebration of Art, plus a location, date and time.
Finally, an inventory number, copyright year, title,
my name, and the month the painting was varnished.

Here's a flashback:

I've just spent the last seven days at a plein air event painting like there's no tomorrow.  Each day was the same.  Rising before sunrise, wired up on coffee, I would drive to my first location—but not too fast, because hitting an elk would ruin my morning.  After parking, I'd hike to a scenic overlook, not for the glorious sunrise, but to study the light and wonder how the shifting shadows might affect my composition.  Then, quickly, I'd set up my gear and begin.

Later that morning, I'd begin again.

And that afternoon.  And that evening, too.

And now, at the end of seven days, I'm beat.  I've made more than two dozen paintings, some big, some small, and proud to say, there are only a couple of duds in the bunch.  That means I need to frame and, yes, title, all those paintings.

Framing's not so hard, since I paint to a standard size, and with my handy point driver, it's just pop-pop-pop and it's done.

But titling?  For many painters, this is the hardest part of painting.  A painting needs a title, but why?  The title goes on a little placard on the wall, with two goals.  First, hopefully to reinforce the painting's theme.  A sweet little painting of a tree bathed in the rich light of sunset might be called “Nature's Repose.”  Second, to clarify any confusion the viewer might have about the painting.  If that tree that might be misidentified as an ugly troll, making the viewer wonder why a fantasy painting was included in a plein air event, you might instead call it “Strangely Bent Tree on a High Cliff.”

These are two terrible titles, of course, but I only have a couple of hours to think up two dozen titles and then truck everything to the gallery.

Now, back to the present.  I'm sure every painter under pressure struggles to come up with titles.  And even when you have all the time in the world, it's still hard.  How many of the paintings stacked up in your studio have the title0 “Sunset Colors” or something equally bland?

Paintings weren't always titled.  Back in the Renaissance, when the only patrons were churches or wealthy merchants, the paintings were made as commissions and really didn't need titles.  The cathedral required an altarpiece representing the usual characters.  The merchant craved a painting depicting the happiness of his marriage.  If any of these paintings have titles, they were most likely given by curators needing to identify them centuries later with something other than a museum accession number.  Hence, we have titles like “The Ghent Altarpiece” and “The Arnolfini Wedding.”  The title of any one painting could change over time, depending on who was in charge.  For example, “The Arnolfini Wedding” may also be found as “The Arnolfini Marriage” and “Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife.”

It wasn't until the 19th century, when painters stopped being thought of as craftsmen belonging to a guild and instead were honored as individual artists, that they began titling their paintings, and with a purpose.  Whistler named one of his paintings “Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1: Portrait of the Painter’s Mother” because he wished to draw attention to its design and colors rather than to the subject.  I think he added “Portrait of the Painter's Mother” because he wanted to be a good son, not because that fact was particularly important.

There are three ways to title a landscape painting:

  • By description.  In this case, the painter emphasizes that either the location or the subject is important to the viewer's understanding.  Examples: “The Hay Wain” or “Domes of Yosemite.”
  • By inventory number.  Here, the painter depends on the viewer to come up with his own idea of what the painting may mean.  Example:  “Number 6.” 
  • By literary title.   The painter may try to stir up the romantic spirit in the viewer, or a feeling of mystery, awe, etc.  Examples:  “A Dream of Spring.”

Over the years, I've used all three.  During plein air events, I usually resort to the first; the patrons at these events often want to know where a painting was made and what it depicts.  Over time, of course, one tires of the variations:  “Mather Point, Sunset,” “Mather Point, Sunrise,” “Mather Point, Evening Glow.”  Out of laziness, I've sometimes used the second method, simply assigning numbers plus a much abbreviated description:  “Fall Tree #43.”  This caused a problem once.  I had a piece juried into a competition, and what I mistakenly took to the show was a painting with a very similar name but a different scene.  It didn't match the slide I'd sent in at all. (No one noticed.)  

I do love the third method best, as it appeals to the writer in me.  But it is very hard to come up with meaningful titles time and again.  Writers often use phrases from Shakespeare to title their works; I decided at one time to try Grateful Dead lyrics.

These days, I have started focusing more on the painting and not so much on the title.  My titles are more descriptive.

I'm curious:  What are your thoughts on titles?  

Sunday, December 27, 2020

2020: The Year that Wasn't—or Was It?

The paintings I made in 2020.  These don't include the
Pandemic Sketchbooks, Vols. 1-3.  

It's that time again when we bloggers cast an eye back at the past year.  In many ways, 2020 was the year that wasn't:  plans were scuttled; anxieties sprouted like weeds; and, perhaps most sadly, brother fought against brother.  

But on the other hand, some good things came of what I call the “damndemic.”  I mastered Zoom and trained myself to mute both my microphone and camera in an instant.  I read the entire series of Michael Connelly's Bosch novels, all 22 of them, and now can walk my way through a murder scene like a pro.  Trina and I discovered “The Great Courses” and can expound for hours on Native American history, Celtic history and something called Big History.  We watched countless different BBC versions of “Mansfield Park”—or was it “Wuthering Heights” or perhaps “Jane Eyre”?  (They have started to blur together.)

But seriously, I am thankful for our little family and the extra time we've had together.  This spring, we bought a used 1999 PleasureWay camper van, which we take out on local overnight trips for our mental health.   I cook breakfast for us every day, alternating between hot cereal—muesli with Craisins and pecans being the current favorite—and an egg dish, usually a vegetarian omelette, although huevos rancheros is becoming my specialty. Blessed with plenty of hiking right from our front door, we take two or three nice walks a day with Raku, who also is grateful for the extra time.

I was lucky enough to sell several paintings this fall as part of my 50% Holiday Sale.  (By the way, it's still going on until the end of the year.)  A publisher offered me a contract to write what I consider “the” definitive book on plein air painting.  And I've been doing a great deal of sketching in gouache and casein in the little canyon behind our house—a wonderful meditation practice that has stamped down many of those sprouting anxieties.  This damndemic, despite its bad reputation, has fostered my personal growth.

What will 2021 bring?  Two vaccines have been approved here in the US, with more waiting in the wings.  Still, I'm not counting on a miracle happening just yet.  But with optimism I've scheduled a few summer workshops in Maine, and I dearly hope I'll be permitted to travel to Campobello Island to my studio there.  I'm looking forward to being part of the faculty of the Plein Air Convention in May in Denver which, I'm told, will go on in some form.  I'm also looking forward to more work on the book—the task of assembling paintings, illustrations and text is a pleasure indeed—and, yes, to finally handing it to my editor.  And as for painting, I hope to turn some of my little gouache sketches into bigger studio pieces.

We will keep pushing on—cheerfully. 

Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Scottish Colourists

Samuel Peploe:  "Tulips--the Blue Jug"
National Galleries Scotland

As you might remember, we had scheduled an Isle of Skye painting retreat for this past summer.  But, as with many plans for 2020, things changed.  And because we didn't know what the summer of 2021 would be like—would the vaccine come soon enough?—we cautiously rescheduled it a little farther out, for 2022.

But this hasn't stopped us from yearning.  Our Google Chromecast device, hooked up to our TV, tempts us with a slideshow from our past trips whenever we're waiting for a movie to load from Amazon.  It's a joy to see—you can't take a bad photo anywhere on the Isle of Skye—and a reminder of what we'll find waiting for us when we do get back.

Recently, Trina came across a Zoom lecture series on the Scottish Colourists.  Having seen an exhibit of their work at Glasgow's Kelvingrove Museum a few years ago, I immediately signed up.  Four hour-long lectures for only 12£ (a little over $16 USD)—a real bargain.

“An Introduction to the Lives and Works of the Scottish Colourists,” hosted by the Berwick Educational Association and presented by Prof. Maria Chester, set the scene by examining the historic relationship of Scotland and France—a necessary step, since the Colourists spent most of their painting years in France—and then, after an overview of what the Colourists were all about, dived into detailed biographies of each of the four artists.  Although their paintings excited me at the Kelvingrove, I still didn't know much about them, so I enjoyed learning more through this very professional presentation.

So who where the Scottish Colourists?  From the National Galleries Scotland web site:

The term ‘Scottish Colourists’ describes four Scottish painters, Samuel John Peploe, F.C.B. Cadell, G.L Hunter and J.D. Fergusson, a set of radical artists in their day who enlivened the Scottish art scene with the fresh vibrancy of French Fauvist colours. Although the name suggests they were all living and working together in Scotland, they were not a close knit group with a specific set of aims, and only exhibited together on three occasions while they were all still alive.

Although early paintings suffer from a rather dull, tonalist style, their time in early 20th century France drenched their later work in color.  Portraits, landscapes and still lifes all pulse with color—not quite as crazy as some Fauvist work, but exciting nevertheless.

You can read more about them here:

Next time we're in Scotland, I'm hoping to see more of their work.

F.C.B. Cadell: "Iona Croft"
National Galleries Scotland

J.D. Fergusson: "La Voile Persan"
Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery

G.L. Hunter: "Still Life"
Dundee Art Galleries and Museum

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Wilson Hurley: Painter of the Big Landscape

Central panel, “The New Mexico Suite,” by Wilson Hurley, 1992.  16'x16', oil on canvas. 
Collection of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum

Not too long ago, a friend, an accomplished painter and critic of art, announced that he'd just gotten a new book.  “It's the best art book I've ever seen,” he said.  The subject:  New Mexico artist Wilson Hurley.  I've admired Hurley's work over the years, and looking for a gift for my birthday, Trina bought it for me.  With gorgeous reproductions and a detailed life story, The Life and Art of Wilson Hurley: Celebrating the Richness of Reality is, indeed, one of the best books I've come across, too.

Wilson Hurley (1924-2008) is perhaps most famous for his large-scale depictions of the West.  If you've ever flown into the Albuquerque airport, you might have seen “La Cueva Sunset, East”  and "La Cueva Sunset, West." The vast size (63”x135”) of these two paintings brings to the visitor the grandeur of Albuquerque's Sandia Mountains.  They are impressive, but not his largest paintings.

Hurley attended West Point, flew fighter jets over the Pacific in World War II, got a law degree and then became what he called a “Sunday painter.”  But after founding a bank and working as an engineer at Sandia Labs—yes, he was a man of many talents—he went full-time as a painter.  The only thing that interrupted his long career as an artist was the Vietnam war, in which he went back into the military as an air traffic controller.  When he returned to painting, he found himself painting large-scale commissions such as the five triptychs for the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum:  The New Mexico Suite (1992), The California Suite (1993), The Arizona Suite (1994), The Utah Suite (1995) and The Wyoming Suite (1996).  As an example of the size of some of his larger pieces, the central panel of The New Mexico Suite alone is 16 feet by 16 feet.

All of this large studio work was based on smaller plein air studies:

His early painting procedures involved making pencil sketches, detailed color notes and photographs.  Above all, he relied heavily on his visual memory. … He became convinced that accurate color and values are best determined by painting directly from life.  … He saw his own work improve, and he became a relentless advocate that truth in atmospheric perspective, values and color comes from mixing paint and working directly on the studies outdoors.

Hurley is quoted:

"In the field, I first do a few compositional studies in pencil and then go to work directly in oil, mixing my colors in the shadow of my panel, the palette lit by the overhead sky.  Mixing color in sunlight is much too bright for control, and mixing under an opaque umbrella or shade causes the palette to be flooded by orange or  yellow light that reflects off the surrounding ground.

"The method of painting by overhead sky light seems to give me the freshest color and the best fidelity.  When the panels have dried, I lay them flat on my taboret in the studio and touch my mixed color to them until I have a complete match.  Then I use these colors to paint the larger painting.”

(As an aside, I've learned over the years that most professional studio landscape painters also paint en plein air; but for them, it's not a “thing” on its own but just part of being a painter.  They don't make a big deal of it.)

The book, besides being both biography and catalog, contains sections on Hurley's studio, materials and technique.  As a painter, I particularly enjoyed reading these sections.  But I will warn you:  At 380 pages, this book is heavy, tipping the scale at nearly seven pounds.  The only way I could work through it comfortably was while lying on the couch with a pillow supporting it.  But I do think that is the way a coffee table art book should be enjoyed, and with a cup of hot tea.

Here's an interview with Hurley: 

The book is available from Amazon: 

"La Cueva Sunset, East" by Wilson Hurley, 63"x135", oil on canvas.
Collection of the City of Albuquerque.