Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Master Class: Video Demonstration of My Secondary Color Palette

Nature features muted color more than vivid color.  Many times, a standard red/yellow/blue palette can create garish mixtures.  A more "calm" and natural palette can be made by starting with secondary colors:  orange/purple/green.  This video shows you one possible secondary palette and how to mix the "primary" colors from it.  There are many other options for colors, so this is just one choice.  For a full discussion of the concept, plus some sample paintings made with this palette, please visit my blog at

(If you're getting this blog post via e-mail and don't see the video, here's the direct link.)

Sunday, February 16, 2020

My Fifteenth Year as a Blogger

It was just drawn to my attention that 2020 marks my 15th year as a blogger!  As of this writing, I've written 1,624 posts.  If every post contained only 200 words--which is on the extremely conservative side--that is over 200,000 words.  My blog would make a good-sized book worthy of George R. R. Martin.

These posts chart my journey as a plein air painter.  If you've followed my blog for 15 years, you've seen my successes and failures.  You've hopefully learned a few things along the way, too.  If you're new to the blog, I encourage you to search the archives.  (If you're receiving this post via e-mail, you'll need to go to the actual blog site; the archives are in the right column under "Index of Blog Posts," but you can also view Topics.  You can even search the posts in the box in the top left corner of your screen.)  You'll find posts on the technical aspects of painting; on gear, equipment and materials; on my travels; and also on interesting painters I've met.  By the way, we all grow as painters, and as you read, please be aware that I may have changed my mind on some topics I wrote about years ago.

Oh, one more thing.  I never tried to "monetize" the blog.  Everything I offer is freely given.  But it would be nice if you'd take a workshop, buy a book or video, purchase a painting or at least leave a kind word.  One option for you is to support me via Patreon. (And if you have already done so, thank you!)

With that in mind, here are the All-Time Top Ten Blog Posts.  Don't ask me why these are the top ten; the internet rates things through an esoteric process that, like quantum physics, no one truly understands.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Art Business: Society Signatures—Are They Worth It?

A society signature is something like “PSA.” In this case, it means that the artist has jumped over several hurdles to win the honor of being allowed to scrawl “PSA” after his signature on a painting.  Most societies, like the Pastel Society of America, place the hurdles high.  To get the PSA signature designation, for example, you have to be accepted into three national PSA exhibitions.

I'm proud to say that I have signature status in several organizations:  Pastel Society of America, Pastel Artists Canada (Master), American Impressionist Society, Pastel Society of New Mexico and Arizona Plein Air Painters.   Theoretically, after my signature I could apply the following cryptic string:  “PSA MPAC AIS PSNM APAP.”

That would take up a lot of space and perhaps draw the eye too much.  So, I trim down the list to whatever's appropriate.  For pastels exhibited in the US, I use “PSA.”  For pastels in Canada, “MPAC.”  For oil paintings, “AIS,” and so on.

There's one I don't have:  “OPA.”  That stands for Oil Painters of America.  I've been in a couple of the OPA regional exhibitions—for OPA, a mix of regional and national exhibitions qualify—but over time, it's gotten more and more expensive to apply to shows.  And, more and more competitive, as there are more good painters than there were ten or twenty years ago.  Plus, you have to reach the right number of exhibitions within the right number of years.  It's a sliding window.

Sure, I'd like to have the “OPA” designation.  It'd be a nice merit badge to add to my sash.  But, as I mentioned in an earlier post,  applying for these shows is like buying a lottery ticket.  I do consider myself a competent oil painter, but I'd rather spend my money on more paint and canvas.

Are there any benefits to a society signature other than “ego boost”?  Well, as with advertising, it's difficult to tell.  In my experience, there's little or no feedback.  I've never had a gallery, museum or organization to which I've had to submit a resumé say to me, “It was that society signature that made our decision.”  Granted, among your peers, and certainly in the society your share, having such a status is applauded.

By the way, so many artists are winning signature status, that the societies have had to come up with new uber-categories.  Today we have “Master Signature,” “Master's Circle,” “Hall of Fame” and more.  Some of these are honorary designations; others are won by getting into more shows or winning more awards.  Has plain old signature status been devalued?

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Escape from Mud and Snow

"Evening Cliffs" 9x12 Oil - Available

In my last post, I whined about the mud and snow here in northern New Mexico.  Well, to take a little break from it all, Trina, Raku and I headed over to Sedona, Arizona, for a few days of R&R.  Hiking, mostly.  Sedona is a little lower elevation (5000 feet or less), compared to our 7000 feet, and drier, so any snow there long ago sublimated into another dimension.  It was good to get out on the trails.  Most of my trips to Sedona these days involve teaching a workshop, so I don't get to hike as much as I'd like.

Although Sedona's streets and sidewalks are more crowded than ever these days, thanks to an over-muscled Chamber of Commerce and city leadership, the trails are still quiet.  Especially if you get out before the cyclists start touring.  If we finish a hike before noon, we rarely encounter any.  And if we make sure to hike into the designated wilderness areas, we never see any at all—they're not allowed.  Although some of the cyclists respect the “rules of the road,” announcing themselves and giving way to hikers, many do not.  We've had some close moments, especially where on a narrow trail the choice was to either get run down by a herd of cyclists or dive into an acre of prickly pears.  Multi-use trails, in my mind, are a poor compromise.  My advice—hike early or head for the wilderness.

But it wasn't a trip without a little painting.  My Sedona painting friend, M.L. Coleman, invited me to go painting one afternoon.  Joining us would be one of his other friends, Larry Pirnie.  I'd never met Larry before, but he's an artist well-known for paintings of cowboys and other Western themes.  He's been an artist all his life, and it was Norman Rockwell who advised him to attend the Pratt Institute.  “But my recommendation won't mean anything,” Rockwell told him.  “They think I'm just an illustrator.”  From Montana, he's come down every year to Sedona to paint for a spell.  This year he wanted to focus more on the natural landscape.

We headed out to the eastern side of town, over by Courthouse Butte and Bell Rock.  There's not much to say about the afternoon except that the weather was warm, the company pleasant, and the painting superb.  Oh, and no mud.  Life doesn't get any better.

Me, M.L. Coleman and Larry Pirnie.
And Raku.  That's Larry's painting on the easel.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Old Man of Hoy

Old Man of Hoy
18x22 Oil/Cold Wax

We haven't had much snow this winter, but what we have had is sticking around.  It's slow to melt.  And when it does melt, it makes mud.  The dirt road up the mesa behind us, where I like to walk to clear my mind, has been deep in mud for weeks now.  A recent warm spell has dried it up a little, but it's still long stretches of mud bracketed by shorter stretches of dry.  Now on my walks, at the end of a dry stretch, I leave the road and step carefully through the cacti and sandstone outcrops that line it.  Although the area off the road is also muddy, little clumps of bunch grass serve as stepping stones.  The clumps sit a few inches above mud level, and if I'm careful, I can carry on, unsullied.

The mud has hindered my plein air painting.  So, I've been doing more studio work this winter.  With another trip to Scotland coming up in June, I've been revisiting in my mind our trip to Orkney two years ago.  This week, I made a painting of the Old Man of Hoy, a well-known sea stack just off the island of Hoy.

I first caught a glimpse of the Old Man from the ferry that runs from Thurso, in the north of Scotland, to Stromness on Orkney's “Mainland.”  As we rounded the towering cliffs of the southern tip of Hoy, the Old Man suddenly came into view.  It truly does have the proportions of a human, although on a gargantuan scale.  Nearly 450 feet tall, it is one of the tallest sea stacks in England.  Composed of layers of red sandstone, it is separated from the main cliff of Hoy by a 200-foot gap.  Although it looks ancient—you might think it dates back to the prehistoric times of the Picts—it came into being some time after 1750.  Experts say it may not last much longer because of the fierceness of the sea and the softness of the stone.  Here's how it looked in 1817, when it had two legs, in a painting by the artist William Daniell:

And here's how it looks today.  Once we got to Orkney, we took a day trip to Hoy, where we took the long hike out to the cliff that overlooks the Old Man. It was a blustery day, churning with mizzle, and my old Gore-Tex coat finally breathed its last and I got soaked.  But the view!  I teetered right on the edge with the wind snatching at my coat as I peered across the gap at the Old Man.

For my painting, I decided first to sketch out a number of possibilities in pencil.  I offered these up to my followers on Facebook and Instagram and asked them to vote for one.  (I here now apologize to them, as I didn't use their choice.)  Next, because cool colors were going to dominate in the painting, I toned my 18x22 panel with Gamblin's Permanent Orange to add a warm note.  I completed the painting with my current palette of three secondary colors—Permanent Orange, Dioxazine Purple, Phthalo Green—and lots of Gamblin Portland Grey. I also used Gamblin's Cold Wax Medium to create an impasto and add translucency.

This painting is not meant to be a photographic representation of the Old Man.  I took  liberties with the scene.  Among them, I lowered the cliff on the left to make the Old Man rise taller; pushed the saturation of the colors; and abstracted the foreground.  The painting is more about feeling and texture.

Design sketches

18x22 panel toned with Gamblin's Permanent Orange,
plus the design transfer

I ultimately eliminated that sunlit green patch on the cliff bottom.

Old Man of Hoy
18x22 Oil/Cold Wax

Close-up of texture

Close-up of texture

Sunday, February 2, 2020

January's Top Posts

Now that we're into February, I thought I'd offer the top posts from A Plein Air Painter's Blog for January.  It's always interesting to see which posts--and which topics--get the most views from you, my Faithful Reader.  Thanks very much!

It's getting warmer, and I'm thinking more of summer!
I still have spaces left in my Lubec, Maine, plein air painting

It's always a struggle to transfer a drawing accurately to
the final canvas.  Here's one method I invented to make the
process easier.

We're still in winter, so I'm guessing we'll still have a few
more snowstorms.  You can look for more snow paintings
here on my blog!

One of my heroes, for many reasons.

Many of us painters need some quiet time to reflect
on our past and to look toward the future.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Drawing with One Eye Closed

The other day, I spent a couple of pleasurable hours in a life drawing session.  I don't know about you, but sometimes it feels better to just draw and leave the painting behind.  Drawing the figure, especially, helps hone skills that a loose style of painting seems to dull.  When painting, accuracy in drawing sometimes goes by the wayside.  Paint slops over the line, gets corrected with more paint, which slops over a different line—ultimately, the painting should come together, but any drawing retreats into the background, with value and color moving into center stage.  Bad drawing, as well as good drawing, hides behind that gaudy curtain.

Sometimes we don't care about the drawing, and that's okay.  But when we're dealing with perspective in the landscape and in cases where accuracy of line and shape is important, such as when painting a well-known landmark, we should very much care about drawing.

The best way to improve your drawing skills is, in my mind, to draw the figure.  Untold aeons of intimacy with other humans has wired our brains so that we know when a figure drawing is "off."  You don't have to be a skilled draughtsman to see it.  John Singer Sargent had it right when he said (perhaps apocryphally), "A portrait is a painting where there's something wrong with the mouth."  The layman may not be able to tell precisely what is wrong, but he does sense the wrongness.  For the artist, this makes it easier to self-correct a figure drawing.  Just step back and look.  If there's something wrong with the mouth, all you have to do is measure lines and angles and compare them to your model.

Over time, you get better at the process of measuring and comparing, and the drawing goes faster and with more accuracy.  It's an incredibly useful skill when painting landscapes—or anything, really.

In my recent life drawing session, I caught my model chuckling. When I asked why, she said I'd been sketching with one eye closed.  That was interesting, because I hadn't been aware of it.  It's something I do habitually even when painting the landscape, and I've never thought anything of it.  Working with one eye closed, monocularly rather than binocularly, I am seeing and drawing flat, abstract shapes. (It helps especially with foreshortened limbs.) But if I need to get a sense of depth, which I do later in the process, I can always open the closed eye.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

A Scotland Painting

Dreaming of Skye
36x36 Oil

In my last post, I spoke about winter painting—but winter is also a time to look forward to painting in warmer times. This winter, I'm looking forward to Scotland! Trina and I will be leading a painting retreat on the Isle of Skye in June. This will be my third trip to Scotland and Trina's second; and who knows, maybe we'll just end up buying that little crofter's house by the water. But in the meantime, I wanted to paint a picture of that house and the beautiful country around it.

For this painting, I decided to continue my experimentation with a limited palette of only secondary colors from Gamblin: permanent orange, dioxazine purple and phthalo green. (Read my previous blog post about my approach here.) I'm finding this palette extremely useful for painting the landscape. To start with, you find the secondary colors—orange, purple and green—more often in the natural world than you do the primaries. But what's more, when you mix these secondaries to create versions of the primaries, you end up with a variety of greys. These lend an even more natural feeling to the mixtures.

In this painting, I also used a substantial amount of the three Portland Greys from Gamblin, rather than white. Although Scotland can have some very vivid colors—think "green"—the weather, more often than not, tends to greys and more muted colors. What little white (titanium-zinc) I did use I saved for the reflective highlights on water and a little in the distant sky near the horizon.

To start, I took at 36x36 gallery-wrapped canvas and applied a wash of permanent orange. Once this was dry, I gridded it with twine to help transfer a design sketch with a small brush. (See my previous post on thathere.) I followed this with a bigger brush for the block-in of approximate colors. Then I moved to a knife.

From this point on, I used two painting knives exclusively, no brushes. These were a 3-inch knife and a 1-inch knife. Using a big knife for large areas made the application of paint go much faster than with a brush; the small knife I used for small shapes, details and lines.

By the way, I based this painting on my gouache sketchbook from my last trip to Scotland, as well as a few photos. Here's the gouache study.  You'll note that the point of view in the finished painting is a bit different; I used a photo to help establish point of view.

5x8 gouache sketch

And here are sequential photos of the painting, plus the initial design sketch (4x4).  You'll note a few (small) design changes along the way.  Also, the final photo, of the finished painting, has color closer to the actual painting.  The sequence photos aren't true to the color.


Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Artist Hosts and Artist Residencies—Some Thoughts

Painting on the beach on Isle of Skye, Scotland.
Wouldn't this make a fine place for a residency?

First, the proposal—just so you don't miss it, in case you don't read all the way through this post.

Would anyone reading this like to become an artist host, and host me as your artist-in-residence? 

  • What you get:  a beautifully framed painting, featuring the scenery of your location
  • What I get:  a location rich in scenery and a private place to stay (cottage or cabin would be ideal, or even a spot for a camper)

If this sounds appealing to you, let's talk!  Send a note to me at

Why am I asking this question? Read on!

I've reached a point where I can spend less time making money and more time making art.  Sure, I can work out of my own studio—I certainly have no lack of beauty to paint, and I have many projects in mind—but a different location, with space away from quotidian distractions, and possibly the companionship of other artists, would inject energy into my work.  So, recently I decided to start looking into residency programs.

By the way, I did one residency several years ago.  This was at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont.  Each year, they put aside a week exclusively for Vermont artists.  (I was living there at the time.)  I applied and got a fellowship.  The residency came at a critical time for me, as I was just getting back into painting after a long hiatus and was still working my day job.  I got my very own studio space, a large, well-lit room in a renovated church, and my very own suite in one of the many houses VSC owns in that town.  Although I was doing mostly plein air painting, I spent time in the studio, too.  This, plus shared meals in the dining hall and a studio tour at the end of the week, exposed me to many other artists.  I think I was the only outdoor painter, but we had, among others, installation artists, sculptors and potters, and painters of the non-objective.

I felt I was a seedling planted in fertile ground.  I took off in that environment, finding it very rich and rewarding.  I still keep up with some of the friends I made.  It is this experience that has prompted me to think about another residency.

Residencies come in two types.  First, the ones where several or many artists are in residence, creating a community, much like VSC.  The other is the solitary residency, where you are left alone to wrestle with your angel (or, for some, to grapple with your demon.)

As much I benefited from my time at VSC, my thought right now is to look into the solitary residencies.  Rather than an energetic milieu, I'm looking for a quiet space and time to concentrate on a project.

At the top of my list are the programs sponsored by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.  These, without a doubt, offer some spectacular scenery—as well as a free place to stay.  In most cases, the fee is minimal or non-existent, and the application is judged by local staff, who although they might not know anything about art, at least have a pretty good idea of whether the applicant might support the mission of the park.  Accommodations are rustic, good for one artist, and you provide your own food and transportation.  Maybe I'm just a hermit at heart and like my life simple, but it seems to me that an artist could really dig down into a project.

Usually, in exchange, the artist either provides a painting or two or conducts a short program for the public.  Sounds ideal, right?  Unfortunately, many of these programs have been suspended because of lack of funding or staff.

Recently, a third-party has stepped in to help the parks.  The non-profit National Parks Arts Foundation handles some of the programs that might otherwise be canceled if it weren't for it.  Terms vary by the program—there are some that cost nothing to apply to—but I saw one that charged $110.  Plus, most of the programs seem to now offer stipends (in some cases, $2000, and no doubt funded by your application fee) and allow entire families or "troupes" of artists.  And $110 is a lot for me to pay for an application fee, especially if there's a good chance I'm not going to land a spot.

This is a bit more than I want.  I prefer the old-style programs:  one artist and a rustic cabin with a view.  A stipend is nice, but not necessary.  And I'm happy to swap a painting or an afternoon's lecture for all of that.

Going down my list, next are programs run by private foundations.  VSC is one such foundation.  But these are extremely competitive.  I was lucky, because Vermont is a small state, and the pool of possible applicants isn't so great for a single week set aside for Vermont artists.  You can see the competition in the lists of alumni, which are often provided on the foundation's web site.  One's confidence shrinks while reading the resumés:  MFAs, graduates of prestigious schools, Fulbright scholars, top awards from national shows, in the collection of prominent museums, etc.  Applying almost feels like buying a lottery ticket.

The third and final option is to find an artist host.  In many ways, this is most appealing, as it would be the simplest and most gratifying.  Especially if one of my faithful readers were to be my host!

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Some Snow Paintings

Snow and Rock #1
6x8 Oil - Available

In the days when I lived back east, I sometimes painted in the deep of winter.  But painting in, say, Vermont at that time of year is a much different experience than painting here in New Mexico on a fine January day.

Back east, plein air in winter wasn't for the faint of heart.  Bitter cold meant wearing gloves so thick that handling little sticks of pastel was near-impossible.  One might think oil would be a better choice, but every pile of paint turned into a dense mass the consistency of Silly Putty.  I won my merit badge when I painted for about a half-hour at -15° F, and that was in pastel.

The other times I painted, it was often when the temperature hung in the 20s, and clouds like grey steel plates paneled the sky.  The overcast made it seem much colder.  I preferred to paint when some sun, filtering through the clouds, might warm me up.  But that made as little difference as the warmth from a nightlight bulb in an unheated room.

But now I'm in New Mexico.  Here in the north part of the state and at 7000 feet, we do have winter.  I think the lowest temperature so far was a degree or so below 0° F.  For several weeks now, nighttime lows have been in the single digits or teens; daytime highs, in the 20s, 30s, 40s and almost 50—but that depends so much on sunshine.  But even in the 20s with sun, it can seem gloriously warm.  You'd swear it was in the 60s and peel your clothes off like they were on fire.

With that in mind, I thought I'd share a few recent snow paintings with you.  For each of them, I stood in four or five inches of snow, in the sun, with my parka zipped open and my gloves, off.   I can't wait to paint some more of these.

Snow and Rock #2
6x8 Oil - Available

8x10 Oil - Available

Snow and Rock #3
9x12 Oil - Available

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Another Snowstorm...and Thinking of Summer

Are you thinking of summer yet? I am!

Although we haven't had many snowstorms this winter in northern New Mexico, the snow we did have isn't going away very fast.  It's been colder than usual.  And now, we are in the midst of another storm, which is predicted to drop about 5" here at the studio...and a little farther up the hill, perhaps a whole foot.

This has me thinking already of summer.  If you're snowbound, iced over or just darn tired of overcast, wintery skies, then maybe you are thinking of summer, too.  Now's the time to sign up for one of my summer plein air painting workshops in Lubec, Maine.  I have cut down on the weeks this year, so space is limited!

Find out all the details here:

Now I'm going to go look at some pictures of sunny, warm beaches!

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Gridding Your Painting with ... Twine!

Most of us painters should be familiar with the idea of using a grid to scale up and transfer a drawing to a painting surface.  I've always just drawn the grid on my canvas in pencil.  This usually works except that I am prone to using thin, transparent paint.  And if the paint is too thin, the pencil line, however light, seems to show through in the final painting.  Is there a better way?

Yes, there is!  I recently used a ball of twine and a fistful of map pins to grid my canvas.

Using a pencil, I marked off regular intervals on each edge of the canvas, matching the grid points I'd overlaid on my drawing.  At each of these interval marks, I stuck in a map pin.  Then, using the twine, I went up and down and back and forth in a logical manner to connect these pins.  The result was a beautiful grid that, when removed, left no visible mark on the canvas. (I used thinned paint and a small brush to sketch in my design.)

My grid was coarse, just four squares by four squares.  If I'd needed a finer grid, I could have used string or even thread to make the grid lines.

Here are some images to show you how this works.

3x3 thumbnail

The gridded 36x36 canvas.  Yes, this works on unsquares.

One of the map pins at the edge.

Closeup of the map pin.

Side view showing placement of pins
and how the grid is established.

What I do with the ball of twine.  Just let it
dangle, and a piece of masking tape secures the twine.

The scaled-up, transferred drawing--all without a grid of pencil lines!
The drawing here is with thinned paint and a brush.