Sunday, September 13, 2020


That oh-so-beautiful Grand Canyon sunset

Scene: The Grand Canyon at sundown.  I'm painting alone, perched on the edge of the Canyon, at a spot where I won't be bothered by tourists.  Sunset here is fleeting, and the soul-stirring palette of colors—all the way from blood-red to cool magenta to deep ultramarine—dissolves quickly as the sun dips below the horizon.  I work fast to capture the moment.  

Then, it's gone.  I step away from my work to enjoy the unbroken arc of sky above, deepening toward the violet, and the nearly-featureless blue of the chasm below.  Suddenly, off in the distance, somewhere near Mather Point, fireworks ensue.  No, not fireworks—it's the thousand tiny pinpricks of flash from cameras and smartphones.

Hundreds of those sunset images will appear within seconds on Instagram and Facebook.  Soon, the whole world will know how beautiful a sunset can be at Grand Canyon National Park.  Parents will mull over their calendars, wondering when they might schedule a trip there with their family.  Twenty-somethings will ask their latest romantic partners when their next vacation is, so they can go camping.  Retirees will call up the bus tour company and see if a Grand Canyon excursion is in the works.

I ask myself, how will this affect the protected lands, the special places?  Parks like Grand Canyon were created with the vision that they should be enjoyed by all.  But “all” has come to encompass a larger and larger number over recent years.  I myself have seen the line at Zion National Park, where people queue up in their cars and RVs for any open spot in the campground at 5:30 in the morning.  And that was during the off-season.

The Parks don't need an advertising budget.  They get more advertising than they need through social media.

As a landscape painter, I consider myself a “steward of the land.”  That is, one of my goals is to depict the beauty of our public lands so that others will recognize the treasures that we have and, hopefully, work to preserve them.  A natural result of my efforts, of course, is that more and more people, encouraged by what they see, will visit.  Can our lands survive being over-loved?

It's a quandary.  How do we share the beauty and, at the same time, save it?  I know our parks are struggling with this very question.

In the recent issue of Outside, writer Lisa Chase discusses the issue with oversharing our beautiful places.  Instagram and other social media have had quite an impact.  She writes:

Without a doubt, social media and smartphones, with their connectivity and excellent cameras, have caused a massive surge in the number of people visiting national parks and other spectacular wildernesses. “Our visitation has increased pretty dramatically over the past five years,” said Vanessa Ceja Cervantes, a Grand Canyon park spokeswoman, when we spoke last fall. (Cervantes has since left the park service.) Tourist numbers there have risen from a steady four or five million annually, through 2014, to 5.5 million in 2015 and 6.4 million in 2018. Cervantes said it’s no coincidence that the uptick was concurrent with the explosion of Instagram. The platform was created in 2010; by 2015, it had 400 million active users. As of 2018, that number was one billion. Visitor totals in the park system as a whole spiked between 2015 and 2016 by 23.7 million.

I encourage you to read the full article here:

Sunday, September 6, 2020

More on Making Copies

Rolling Fog 7x9 Oil - Copy (studio)
Rolling Fog 7x9 - Original (en plein air)

I pity the sweatshop workers at the Chinese painting mills, the ones on the assembly lines who copy Van Gogh's “Starry Night” and other paintings endlessly for people who crave “originals”—but at a very, very low price.  Their goal is to make as close to an exact copy as possible.  Many of these workers, I understand, are highly-trained artists.

But other than a paycheck, where's the satisfaction?  Where's the creativity?  Yes, it's a job, but I can't imagine that these artists don't wish that, just once, they could add their own, personal touch to the Van Gogh.  I imagine the copyist saying to himself:  “Wouldn't it be better if I added a flock of crows flying against the moon?”

Recently, a patron purchased from my website a nice little painting.  But alas!  That painting is currently under lockdown on Campobello Island in Canada, tucked away in my summer studio there.  Because of the pandemic and the fact that I live in the US, there was no way I could get the painting for him.  So, I offered to make a copy, but with the caveat that it would not be exact.

I've made copies of my paintings before.  (Here's an earlier post on that.)  And I do try to be exact.  But despite my best intentions, as I put brush to canvas, a little voice always says:  “Wouldn't it be better if...”

I usually listen to that voice.  If the change doesn't improve the painting, I scrape it out.  But most often, the change stays.

I always send a photo of the completed copy before shipping it.  If my patron doesn't like it, I'll put his money toward the purchase of any other painting.  (Whenever possible, I try not to give refunds—I like to keep a sale.)  If he does like the copy but, upon arrival, the painting doesn't please, I tell him he can exchange the painting.  Or, in the case of my recent patron, if he doesn't like it, I have offered to swap it for the original, if I'm ever allowed back into Canada to retrieve it.

For the copy I just made, I felt that crisper edges and a little more seaweed in the rocks plus some other, more subtle changes would make the painting better.  And they did.  Creativity came into play, making the work much more pleasurable.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Upcoming Exhibitions

 Thanks to the pandemic, I'm finding time to enter my work into a few juried art exhibitions.  Why do I thank the pandemic?  Many of the upcoming exhibitions have switched from being in a real gallery to being online.  That means no shipping costs!  So, I can take the money I would have spent on shipping and apply it to registering for the juried exhibitions.  Some of these have awards, but some do not.

So here are a few I'm in or will be in:

American Impressionist Society Juried Online Exhibition

After the Flood 16x20 Oil (sold)

The exhibit will be up on September 9 at  Awards will also be announced that day.

Pastel Society of New Mexico Signature Member's Show (Online)

Autumn  Splendor 20x28 Pastel (Available)

Spring Flood II 12x18 Pastel (Available)

You can see all the images in the Signature Show here, as well as purchase information.  The "exhibit" will be up until September 11.

Plein Air Painters of New Mexico Online Exhibition (November 7-29, 2020)

This one will be in an actual, physical space:  Wilder-Nightingale Gallery, Taos.  I would love to post the images of my two accepted paintings here, but PAPNM has asked we not post them until the judging is done and awards are given, which will be November 7.  So, I'll post them then.

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