Sunday, August 30, 2020

Painters on Wheels: Pagosa Springs, Colorado

Along the Piedra River


Suddenly, fifty feet ahead of us, a bulky shape rocketed out of the brush.  It dashed across the road, up the hill, and vanished into the scrub oak.  Although the moment was fleeting, my brain interpreted what I'd just seen as “bear.”  Faster than a man could run, it had stocky but powerful legs.  A blur of brown and black.

Just moments before, we'd been sitting in the shade with our dog, Raku, checking our e-mail in one of the few places we could get cell service, not a hundred feet from that spot.  Throughout our week, hiking and sketching in Pagosa Springs, we'd heard the occasional odd crash in the woods, and we sometimes wondered if there were bears near by.

When we first discovered southwestern Colorado many years ago, we immediately fell in love with the area.  The San Juan Mountains, the south end of the Rockies, seem more intimate than the vastness of the mountains further north.  Bordered by communities such as Durango, Cortez, Telluride, Ouray and Creede, you can drive a loop around it in a just a day.  Its highest peak is the 14,321-foot Uncompahgre Peak, but many smaller peaks with attendant valleys create little pockets of beauty worth exploring.  Old mining towns, stands of blue spruce and aspen, clear streams running over cobbles—everything you might expect of Colorado.

We took our Pleasureway camper van to Pagosa Springs, on the southeast side of the mountains, to escape the heat in New Mexico.  At home, it had been hitting 90 or above most days.  We also went for some R&R, as we've been rather busy of late.  We reserved a spot at a campground bordering the San Juan National Forest with plenty of access to hiking trails.  We vowed to keep to ourselves because of the pandemic, and the van is good for that.  It allows us to cook and eat, take bathroom breaks, as well as sleep and relax without having to interact with others.

Well, we couldn't escape the heat.  Even at 8000 feet, which was the elevation at the campground, afternoon temperatures were in the high 80s, and it even hit 90 one day.  Nights, thankfully, cooled down quickly, with lows in the high 40s.  (Folks from back east have a hard time believing that we get such dramatic temperature swings.)  Also, we had smoke from both the California and Colorado wildfires.  Some days were smokier than others.  Most times, a yellowish haze colored the sun; on the worst day, even the nearest mountains were just featureless, blue cutouts against an ochre sky.  Although we couldn't really smell the smoke, it certainly affected what I saw when out sketching.

I enjoyed a perfect balance of hiking and sketching on this trip.  Each day, we hiked early to avoid others; then we found a private, shady spot for lunch and sketching.  Afternoons, we usually found some remote forest road to stretch our legs on.  I photographed over a half-gigabyte's worth of images; I made enough gouache sketches to satisfy me.

On our trips with the van—we've named her “Wilma”—I take a special sketchbook.  I have my “Pandemic Sketchbooks” for sketches done at home, but my “Travels with Wilma” one is just for sketches while on the road.  Whereas my home sketches tend to be studies with the possibility of becoming larger, studio paintings, the Wilma sketches are more like postcards.  They are meant to be reminders of the trip and nothing more.  They certainly aren't “art.”  I've included a few of the presentable ones here, along with some photos.

We never saw another bear, but we had other encounters.  One morning, as we drove a forest road up the hill, we had to stop for a hawk that was in the middle of the road, struggling to carry off a grouse it had killed but was too heavy.  As we hiked along a fork of the San Juan River, I heard the distinctive call of an osprey, and then I spotted three of them high overhead.  At dawn, a flock of Canada geese, sounding everything like a traffic snarl of honking city taxis, landed in a nearby pond.  Woodpeckers, flickers, dragonflies—I could go on.  For a plein air painter, being able to spend a week in the middle of it all is a treat.  I'm beginning to think a camper van is an essential piece of equipment for me.

If you're a plein air painter with an RV or are thinking of one, consider joining my Facebook group, Painters on Wheels.

Raku spent most of her time watching wildlife while I sketched.

What 8000 feet does to a bag of chips.

A crazy mountain mining road in Creede.  We didn't go far up it.

Pond and trees.

Two gouache sketches in "Travels with Wilma."
You can get an idea of my setup.

Classic Colorado view.

Raku doing her morning yoga.

You can see how I lay out my brushes.

Our 19-foot Pleasureway van is in front.

Creede 5x8 gouache

Aspens 5x8 gouache

Spruce 5x8 gouache

Mountain View 5x8 gouache

Blue Spruce 8x5 gouache

Sunday, August 23, 2020

I've Looked At Clouds from Both Sides Now

"Build Up" 8x10 Oil - $200 unframed
Cloud as subject

Joni Mitchell was clearly speaking about one's life experience in her song, “Both Sides Now,” but every time I hear it, I think of painting.  (Did you know Mitchell is also a painter?)  I, too, have looked at clouds from both sides—and from every possible angle a painter can.

I often get the question:  How do you paint clouds?  Because there are so many different types of clouds, there are so many answers.  Meteorological classifications like stratus, nimbostratus, stratocumulus, etc., aside, it all really comes down to what one's goal is in painting clouds.  Are you painting clouds as the subject—or are you painting them as just another set of elements in the composition?

Painting them as a subject requires you to know and understand them.  How they build up, how they move, how they vanish.  Painting them as just another set of elements doesn't require such an intimate knowledge, but it helps.

I love to paint clouds and have a long relationship with them.  Lots of beginning painters, however, don't really look at clouds but often just put something white and puffy in the sky, hoping to fill up all that empty blue space.  Many times, they remind me of airborne sheep.

To paint clouds realistically, you really have to go out and, well, paint them.  Or sketch them.  Make them the subject of the painting.  I like to go out with a pencil and sketchbook to sketch the cloud shapes.  Here are some clouds I sketched with a 6B pencil from my back deck:



When you sketch or paint clouds, you have to remember that the sunlit portions of the clouds are brighter than anything in your scene.  And guess what?  So are the shadowed parts.  If you squint, the sunlit and shadowed areas merge and look like simple, big, bright blots against the sky.  If your goal is to make the clouds look menacing, you might push the shadowed areas darker, but I still would avoid going so dark that they move into the light/dark range you have established for the rest of the painting.  (I do this sometimes to push the effect.)

The more you sketch—and thus, observe and learn about—clouds, you'll start to see a rhythm or a dynamic quality to the patterning of groups of clouds.  Even ones that at first seem like they are randomly placed will have some movement to them.  It's the wind that pushes them, and pilots will tell you there is always a wind aloft.

If clouds aren't the subject of my painting but are there to serve as supporting characters, I feel free to redesign them so they make a pleasing composition.  I'll also feel free to change their direction of movement.  I often like to include opposing diagonals in my paintings; this makes for a painting with more energy.  Also, make sure the direction of movement of your clouds doesn't parallel some other major direction in your painting.  If the slope of a mountain goes down, I like my clouds to move on a diagonal going up.

And what about that blue, empty sky?  Should you invent a cloud to make it more interesting?  Well, why not?  You're the creator.  But remember, the cloud or clouds need to support your design in some way.  Also, watch the color temperature of your shadows in the land area when you begin to invent clouds.  Clouds will bounce light into the land-based shadows. The more clouds you have, the lighter your shadows will be—and also the warmer.  The clouds will block that cool, blue color of the sky light from spilling into the shadows, thus resulting in a warmer effect.
I've looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It's cloud illusions I recall
I really don't know clouds at all
With practice, you can get to know clouds pretty well!

Here are more clouds.  First, cloud as subject:

Clouds I - 6x8 oil - $100 unframed

Clouds II - 6x8 - $100 unframed

Buildup - 6x9- $100 unframed

And now, clouds as supporting actors:

A Summer's Idyll - 9x12 Pastel - $300 unframed
A gentle "scrim" of clouds in the distance seem peaceful

Evening Cliffs - 12x16 Oil - $700 framed
The upward diagonal of the cloud opposes the downward one of the cliff

Lifting Fog at Dawn - 11x14 oil - $700 framed
The clouds almost become the subject...but not quite!

Morning in Mallaig - 14x18 Oil - $900 framed
Again, opposing diagonals

Paso Por Aqui - 9x12 - $400 framed
A pleasing patchwork of clouds

The Watchman - 9x12 oil - $400 framed
A single cloud to give distance behind the peak
**Prices good until 1 Sept 2020

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Simplifying What You See

I took the tree on the left and simplified it to the tree on the right.


In a previous post on my Pandemic Sketchbooks, Vol. 2, I commented that one benefit of sketching trees is that we learn to simplify.  A reader asked if I could go into more detail on that.

Out of all the elements in a landscape, trees are probably the hardest to handle well because they are invariably complex.  They often have confusing patterns of light and dark in the leaves, branches that twist this way and that, and then, of course, there is the element of time, which changes all these patterns one is trying so hard to record.

I've never met a tree I didn't need to simplify.

Where does one begin?  Here's how I go about it.  I don't start by squinting.  (Some artists will tell you to squint, but I save that for later.)

  • First, I ignore all the branches and twigs.  I just want to see the main thrust—the gesture—of the trunk.  Does it twist and turn?  Is it really two trunks that have grown together?  I start my sketch with the trunk.
  • Next, I look at the biggest branches, ignoring the smaller ones and twigs.  I want to see just the trunk plus those biggest branches.  How do they join the trunk?  Do they overlap?  Are there challenging shapes, such as a branch coming straight at me or an odd one that would seem unrealistic to my viewer?  These last ones I omit.  I sketch in just the big branches that aren't challenging or odd.
  • After that, I look at the smallest branches and twigs.  I don't include these necessarily.  But if one casts a useful shadow—that is, one that helps define the form of another branch or the trunk—or if it catches a bit of interesting sunlight, I add it.

All the other branches and twigs I leave out.

Until now, I've been ignoring leaves, shadows and any surface texture such as knots and cracks.  Now I do squint so I can observe the leaf masses.

  • Squinting helps “mass” all those bothersome leaves.  On certain trees, such as maples, the leaves grow into large ball-like clumps.  This becomes much more obvious if you squint.  Each of these shapes will exhibit a lit side and a shaded side, just as an actual ball will.  I outline these large shapes right on the branches I've already sketched.
  • Next—again, squinting—I look for shadows.  On a sunny day, there will be nice form shadows on the trunk and on some of the branches and leaf-clumps.  I like shadows that branches cast on the trunk or other branches, because these help define the form of the object they fall on.
  • Finally, I look for any interesting cracks, knots or other surface features that will help define the growth of the tree.  Two trunks grown together will often have a subtle ridge between them; a branch that fell off years ago will usually leave a dark knot.  Some trees have a lot more going on with surface texture than I want to spend time on.  For these, I just … simplify and suggest.

Here's a photograph of a dead juniper that I sketched recently.  You can see it is a tangled and confusing mass of branches and twigs.  Worse yet, the background makes it difficult—at least in the photo—to see what's really going on with the tree.  In real life, as I sat before this tree with my two eyes, which make possible binocular vision, it was relatively easy to separate the background from the tree.  (This is why I prefer to sketch these complicated subjects from life and not from a photo.)

In this photo, I've tried to make the background easier to handle:

And here is my final sketch of the tree, simplified to show the tree's character.  If you're painting a portrait of a person—and, in a sense, this is a portrait of the tree—you don't need to paint all the moles and wrinkles to suggest the person's character.

Juniper, 5x8 gouache


Sunday, August 9, 2020

Looking Down

"By the Lake"
20x16 Oil - Available


I enjoy landscape paintings with unusual perspectives.  An unexpected viewpoint always gives me a little frisson of pleasure.

Recently, Trina and I took a hike to a favorite overlook.  I snapped several photos, hoping to make good on a promise I'd made to myself some time ago that I would paint that particular view.   I'd also promised myself—again, some time ago—that someday I would lug my plein air gear up there.  This hasn't happened yet.  Fortunately, though, I have a number of good color studies of the cliffs done from below, and I knew they would be helpful in getting the color my camera can't see.

With these references, I set up my studio easel and got to work.  For me, this became a standard “design it, paint it” piece with no experimentation.  I didn't try any exotic colors or mysterious mediums.  I just laid out my standard, modified split-primary palette and went at it.   Here are some progress photos for you to enjoy.


Blocking in general color...

...figuring out patterns of vegetation...

...completing shadow areas...

...adjusting shadowed side of cliff and
adding surface treatment to lake.
And again, the finished work.
"By the Lake"
20x16 Oil - Available

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Painting Trees with Personality

Ponderosa Pine
5x8 gouache

I tell my students that painting trees from life usually ends up being a drawing exercise.  In order to capture the true personality of a tree, you have to pay a lot of attention to the drawing.  This involves measuring angles and proportions and, quite often, re-measuring and re-drawing.  Many times, when I go out to paint a tree, I end up spending nearly all my mental energy on drawing—and leaving the rest of the painting unfinished or just blocked in.  Exhausted, I find it hard to do much more.

Without focusing on drawing, you'll end up with a generic-looking tree, like something you'd see in a cartoon.   But this is sometimes what painters do, especially if they are still learning.  Imagine if they were to paint a portrait of a person the same way they paint trees!  Think of painting a tree as painting a portrait of that tree—the drawing has to be that exact.

If you find your tree skills to be lacking, I recommend you put away the paints and pull out the pencil.  Paint just gets in the way when you're trying to learn how to draw a tree.  When you get good enough to pick up the paint again, if the tree is your focus, leave the background and other unimportant areas abstract or understated.

Drawing trees will not only improve your drawing skills, but it will also teach you about simplifying what you see before you.  I like to paint old, scraggly trees that are either dead snags or on the brink of becoming such.  They are often a terrifyingly confused tangle of branches and twigs.  But drawing all of that daunting complexity will not necessarily capture the tree's personality, and it will burden the finished work.  Instead, I try to mentally prune the excess and leave only that which best suggests the character of the tree.  This is a skill worth learning, and you can apply it to other subjects.

I took a break after finishing Pandemic Sketchbooks, Vol. 1, but now I am back in the canyon behind my studios most days working on Vol. 2.  The first volume, as you recall, focused on rocks; this new volume is all about trees.  As with the earlier sketchbook, I am working in gouache.  I'm finding it very helpful to think of my brush (a small pointed one) as a drawing tool.  I first draw my trees with the brush in grey and note shadow areas with the same.  Then I go back with color.  I've included some finished examples here.


Juniper, 5x8 gouache

Juniper, 5x8 gouache

Juniper, 5x8 gouache

Fallen snag, 5x8 gouache

Juniper, 8x5 gouache

This shows you the simplification necessary to paint some trees.
On the left is a reference photo of the tree I painted from life on the right.
Yes, I took some liberties with proportions -- all in the interest  of
adding even more character to the tree!  But look how I simplified it.

Pinyon, 8x5 gouache

Juniper, 5x8 gouache

Juniper, 5x8 gouache

Pinyon, 8x5 gouache