Sunday, June 20, 2021

My Art History: Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
Pieter Bruegel the Elder, c.1560
(or a copy by a student based on Bruegel's painting)
73.5 x 112 cm, oil on canvas
Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, Belgium

After majoring in English Literature as an undergrad, I went on to graduate school, where I focused on modern British poetry and W.H.Auden in particular.  His work enchanted me, partly because the landscape plays such an extensive role in his poems.  One poem in particular sticks with me even now, “Musee des Beaux Arts.”  In it, he writes about one of my favorite paintings, Bruegel's “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus”:

In Breughel's Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Although the plowman dominates the painting, there's a lot going on it, and you really have to look to notice Icarus at all.  He's just about to go under in a forward dive:

As with Hieronymus Bosch' painting, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” the landscape here is merely a setting for a story.  But it's a magical landscape, a landscape where myth edges up to the quotidian.  In the moment depicted by Bruegel, the plowman plows, the sailing ship sails, the shepherd herds, but Icarus plummets out of a long-told tale, drops into the ocean.  

As I walk through the landscape while seeking a painting spot, I keep my senses alert for a moment like that.  I don't want to miss Icarus.

Sunday, June 13, 2021

What's the Best Lighting for your Canvas?

Made in the Shade

Recently, I posted the above photo to social media.  It shows me painting in the shade of my studio porch.  One follower commented that she had a hard time with painting in shade:  “I try that, then I have to put color on my knife and take it into the sun to judge accuracy.”  If you're painting in deep shade, such as a porch with a large overhang or under a large tree, you'll definitely have a hard time seeing the color you're mixing.  

Here's why.  When you peer out of the shadows to see your brightly-lit subject, the light bombards your retina, causing certain chemical changes that result in vision.  But when you then look at your palette in deep shade, your retina needs to refresh its biochemical configuration so it can see properly again.  This reconfiguration takes awhile.  We tend to glance at our subject to read a quick color note and then immediately look down at our palette to mix that note before we forget it.  Your eyes can't adjust quickly enough for you to mix color accurately this way.

“Dark adaptation,” as it is called, is a slow process.  It takes the eyes 20 to 30 minutes to adjust from sunlight to complete darkness.  Here's a great article from Scientific American on why.

I avoid painting under such conditions.  But sometimes, given the heat of the day and if deep shade is my only option, I'm forced to.  In this case, I position myself so I am at the edge of the shade.  I also rotate my canvas about 45° toward the light.  This puts enough light on both canvas and palette so I can see well enough to mix color.  You can see in the photo that I've positioned myself this way.

I know some painters who paint with sunlight falling directly on their canvas and palette.  They claim that you can't see color if you don't have light.  Well, this is true, but for me, painting like that results in the occasional optical migraine and always in eye strain.

Other painters always paint in shade, using an umbrella to shield canvas and palette.  This is a better approach, as it avoids deep shade and its problems.  But I find umbrellas to be an encumbrance, especially if I'm hiking in some distance or if there is even the slightest breeze.  My preference is to simply position myself with respect to the sun so that my canvas is in shadow.  My particular set-up, however, doesn't allow for my palette to be in shade, too.  So, I mix my colors in the sun and then apply them in the shade.  I don't recommend this for beginners, as it requires a certain amount of mental gymnastics.  But with experience, you can develop this skill.

Sunday, June 6, 2021

My Art History: Hieronymus Bosch

The Garden of Earthly Delights
Hieronymus Bosch, 1510-1515
220 x 389 cm, oil on oak panel
Museo del Prado, Madrid, Spain

On my journey as an artist, I've come across many painters, both past and present, whose work I like.  Some, like Claude Monet, are household names; others, like Gustave Caillebotte, don't enjoy the honor of having their work on posters in the home d├ęcor center at Target.  Still, whether a bright star or a lesser light, each of these painters has influenced me in some way.  I would like to share them with you in a series of blog posts that I'm calling “My Art History.”  (But I'll still be posting tips, tricks and techniques, so don't despair!)

Let's start with the Early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516).

I don't know when I first came across his work, but I do know that his nightmarish landscapes with weird creatures fascinated me from an early age.  At the time, I was probably reading a lot of fantasy, and Bosch was a timely discovery.  Because he left no letters or diaries, we know very little about him, but we do know he was a popular painter in his day and received commissions from abroad.  But without any commentary from him, we know very little about what his paintings actually mean.  Some seem to be religious allegories; others, moral tales; and still others, a hodge-podge of who knows what from his imagination or from exposure to ergot fungus.

You've probably seen his most famous work, “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” (Image at top of post.)  Even so, I recommend you download the 175- megabyte, high resolution image from so you can really get into the detail.  Composed of three sections of oil on oak panel, the left panel depicts the Garden of Eden; the right panel, the Last Judgment; and the center, occupying the between-times of Eden and the Last Judgment, the Garden of Earthly Delights itself.  

As I look through the painting, I find an abundance of puzzles.  What, for example, is the meaning of this?

Or this?

Or even this?

There's much disagreement over meaning and intent.  But for me as a painter, the painting signifies the imaginative riches possible in an otherwise realistic landscape.  As I walk through the world, looking for subject matter, I sometimes think of Bosch's work, and I look for the unusual.

Here's a 50-minute video explaining the painting (can't see the video below?

Sunday, May 30, 2021

Road Report: Paint or Hike?


Hiking at 10,000 Feet - Lizard Head Pass

With the weather warming up, we felt the time had come to take Wilma, our Pleasure-Way camper van, out on the road.  Our destination was Dolores, Colorado, a tiny town at the foot of the San Juan Range and a great base camp for exploration.  The surrounding country offers plenty for the painter and hiker: mountain streams, winding trails, tall firs and, in the right season, snow-capped mountains.

Immersed in this kind of beauty, my painting self always has to wrestle my hiking self for equal time.  Paint or hike?  I try to find a balance, but usually, and especially when I come across a new trail, the hiker wins out.

A "postcard scene" -  Sheep Mountain
5x8 gouache

A more artistic, close-up, abstract view of the mountains
5x8 gouache

Also, the painter in me prefers not to paint postcard scenes. This is hard when faced with a new vista that takes your breath away.  What's more, developing an understanding of your subject matter requires time; this is more easily done if you immerse yourself in the landscape for awhile.  For example, I've lived in western New Mexico for several years now and have developed a 100-mile “comfort zone of the familiar” around my studio; within this range, I am able to see past the postcard view to subjects that challenge me and build up my artistic muscles.  But outside this range, when I encounter something new, I am more likely to take the easy way out.  Plus, it's just so much relaxing after a long hike to plop down and paint the convenient scene!

Yet sometimes, you just have to paint the postcard.  The view inspires you to paint, and even if you know you can do better, you have to do it anyway to get it out of your system before you can move on.  Sometimes it turns out better than you had hoped; other times, it looks like, well, a postcard.  Still, a postcard can jog the memory, especially if it accurately records the moment, and you will find it useful in the studio.

When we bought the camper van, I decided I would focus on using gouache.  Although the 19-foot van has lots of storage room (and all the conveniences—i.e. stove, refrigerator, toilet, air conditioning and heat, full kitchen with running water), I prefer to take an extra pair of hiking boots and a warm coat rather than more painting gear.  The gouache kit takes up very little space and it's perfect for satisfying the artistic urge.  If I want to do something more ambitious, once home I can take my sketchbook and photos to the studio and engage in a bigger effort.  Plus, for me, these trips are about exploring and relaxing and also about looking toward the future:  Is this somewhere I might want to come back for some truly serious painting?  

By the way, I don't take my usual watercolor journal with me on these trips.  Instead, I dedicate a separate journal to travel.

Over the week, we had mostly excellent weather.  The weather was cooler (and thus more pleasant) than we had expected.  I think we used the air conditioner only one night, and even then, by dawn the temperature had dropped to 35 or so.  During the days, hiking was a pleasure, especially as we wandered up to 10,000 feet near Lizard Head Pass, just west of Telluride.  We did have one day of near-solid rain, but we easily coped with it by heading lower to a more desert clime, over in Utah near Hovenweep National Monument, where the rain barely reached.  But up near Lizard Head, the rain fell as snow, and the next time we drove to the pass, I could see the snowline had dropped considerably on the surrounding peaks.

Here are some photos and sketches.

Arroyo Lupines


Long Palace, Mesa Verde National Park

Puppy Time by the Dolores River

Sketching by the Dolores River
(Yes, it was chilly)

Dolores River Sketch
5x8 gouache

Dolores River Sketch
5x8 gouache

Windy Day Sketch / Sand Pueblo Trailhead
5x8 gouache, done inside the car to escape the weather

Hovenweep National Monument

Cicadas were out, big time!

Wilma the Pleasure-Way Camper Van


More Telluride

Bridal Veil Falls, Telluride
5x8 gouache

Sketching at Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde Sketch
5x8 gouache

Friday, May 28, 2021

Changing How You Get A Plein Air Painter's Blog

 Hi, everyone,

If you've been getting A Plein Air Painter's Blog through e-mail, you will notice with this post that something has changed.

I am no longer using Feedburner or Google Groups to email my posts.  Feedburner is being deactivated by Google this summer, and Google Groups has been problematic.  Change is always difficult, especially when one has so many other things to do!

My new service is

You may get an email to confirm your subscription.  If so, please do so!  I'd love to keep you on.  That way, you will still get the blog via email.

Once you confirm, you can go to the settings on the site to let it know how you want to receive the email.  The default is the email heading or snippet, once a day.  But you can also get summary posts, the full article, or just read it at rather than getting an e-mail.  (Need help?  Go here or here.)

Yes, you'll see ads at the bottom of the email.  I can't eliminate these without paying.  Also, the e-mail will look as if it's coming from and not me.  Same deal.  So, if you'd prefer to see the blog without the ads, etc., you can just bookmark my blog site and check it weekly.  I usually post on Sunday mornings.  The blog site is

Thank you.  I now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.