Sunday, April 11, 2021

Demonstration: Big Cliff Painting

Morning at the Lake
36x36 oil/gallery-wrap canvas

In my previous post, I shared how I start a large painting with oil sticks. Here, I want to show you how I continue the painting, using Gamblin paints plus Gamsol and Solvent-Free Gel to deepen the block-in and to finish. Above is the finished piece. 

Watch this short video (Can't see it? Here's the link):

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Oil Stick Demo

(Can't see the video? Here's the link.)

I recently decided to make a large painting of one of my favorite scenes—one of the candy-striped cliffs that tower over a nearby lake. I've painted the scene many times in a smaller format, from different angles and in different seasons, but I had a hankering to do something much larger. In my studio, I had a 36x36 gallery-wrap canvas that seemed just perfect. So, I got to work, pulling out reference paintings and photos and playing with design ideas with vine charcoal on newsprint.

You might ask, How can a square format be suitable? The square is, indeed, foreign to the landscape. Usually, painters feel that a wider format—3:4, 1:2 or even 1:3—suits the landscape better. After all, the landscape is full of horizontals, and the wide format permits a vista and gives the viewer some room in which to breathe. But for my painting, I wanted to do a more intimate view of the cliff, and I saw all kinds of possibilities with diagonals and verticals that would divide up the square in dynamic and interesting ways. Here are a couple of my design sketches:

A 36x36 takes a lot of paint for the start. For paintings of this size, I like to begin with oil sticks rather than a brush. Oil sticks (or oil bars or paint sticks), which are simply pigment mixed with just enough linseed oil to form a crayon, are perfect for the initial drawing and block-in. Completely compatible with oil paint, the sticks, with the tips softened by dipping them in OMS briefly, let you create a beautiful, soft line. As for blocking in shapes, it's just like when you were a child, filling in between the lines in your coloring book, and then you can take a brush, dampened with OMS, to spread the color around.

At the top of the blog is a video demonstration of how I used Shiva Paintstiks to draw and block in. (In my next post, I'll continue and finish the painting.) Can't see the video? Here's the link.

By the way, there is still time to take advantage of a good discount on Plein Air Live. I will be demonstrating in gouache on Beginner's Day. For more information or to register, go here.

Sunday, March 28, 2021

Paintout with Plein Air New Mexico

In the Shadows, 9x12 oil/panel
Painted at the Narrows Paintout

Plein air painting season has arrived! To celebrate the first day of Spring, I hosted an outing with Plein Air Painters of New Mexico. Although I've been painting throughout the winter, the group has been idle, partly because of the season, partly because of COVID. It was good to get out with the group again.

Several of us gathered to paint south of Grants at what's called “the Narrows”—a narrow slot of open land, hemmed in by lava fields on one side and sandstone mesas on the other. It's a beautiful, mostly wild area occupied by three different governmental divisions: the Acoma Indian Reservation, the Bureau of Land Management's El Malpais National Conservation Area and the National Park Service's El Malpais National Monument. It's hard to describe the area, as the terrain is so varied. To the west, the lava fields stretch out like an endless, broken, heaved-up parking lot with black outcrops of 4,000-year-old lava flows, sprinkled with ponderosa pine and scrub oak. To the east, a series of 7,000-foot sandstone cliffs tower over the lava, providing views to Mount Taylor, the Zuni Mountains and the now-dormant Chain of Craters. Arches and towers decorate the sides of the cliffs, culminating in La Ventana, the biggest arch of them all.

The land looks ancient, and it is. The Acoma and Zuni Indians, as well as their ancestors, hiked between the two pueblos across the malpais for trade. Later, the Spanish picked their way on horseback around the lava, preferring to avoid it. They called it “El Malpais”—the badlands—for a good reason. Today, the 16-mile Zuni-Acoma Trail wanders through the lava, but the sharp edges slash hiking boots, and although the trail is marked by cairns, hikers can get lost easily if they miss one.

Nine of us gathered at the South Narrows Picnic Area to paint. Some stayed in the parking area, protected from New Mexico's frequent springtime wind by a small canyon, to paint intimate views of the lower cliffs; others took the short hike to the top where twisted junipers provided little relief from the wind. After lunch, we wandered over to La Ventana. The arch has a span of 120 feet, but it seems to rise up a lot taller than that. In the morning, the arch is in shadow, but by mid-day, light begins to spill behind the arch, illuminating the wall beneath and behind it, making for a striking subject. By the time we got there, the lighting was perfect, but the wind had gotten serious. Although some of us found a less-gusty spot behind a juniper, the rest just took photos. (Like most plein air painters, I can paint under just about any condition—baking sun, chill rain, freezing snow or blinding fog, but not heavy wind.) I recommended that painters, on the way home, stop at Sandstone Bluffs, which offers not just broad views of the malpais but also fantastic rock formations.

If you live in or near New Mexico, considering joining us next time. You can visit for more information.

By the way, there is still time to take advantage of a good discount on Plein Air Live. I will be demonstrating in gouache on Beginner's Day. For more information or to register, go here.

Painting down in the canyon below the Narrows

La Ventana Arch

Looking from Sandstone Bluffs
across the malpais to Mt Taylor

Raku the Firecloud Rez Dog visits
me while I'm sketching in gouache

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Narrative in Landscape Painting

Late Snow, 12x26 oil/panel - Available
What's the narrative in this landscape painting?

I love to read.  I usually have two books going at once: fiction before bed, and non-fiction upon waking.  Right now, I'm reading the first volume of Rick Atkinson's trilogy about the Revolutionary War, The British Are Coming, and Naomi Novik's fantasy, Uprooted.  Both of these tell engaging stories—that is, narratives.

We find narratives in the other arts, too, especially in painting.  Illustration art, for example, dramatizes a particular scene in a text, making the moment more vivid for the reader.  Portraiture often tells a story, too, though it is sometimes more subtle.  More subtle yet is the narrative in a still life, which one sometimes hears described as a “dialogue” between objects.  (Sometimes the narrative is so subtle that it requires a clever title to get the point across.)  But what about landscape painting?  Can a pure landscape contain a narrative?

October by William Clarke Rice, 1903.
Smithsonian Institution
The story thus far: October presents the bounty
of the harvest to a woman who is, perhaps, his lover.
(Just see how he gazes at her!)

Portrait of Elliot Coues by J. Edward Barclay, 1898.
Smithsonian Institution.

Besides being an ornithologist who wrote a definitive book
on North American birds (pictured at his right elbow), Coues 
also was a surgeon and spiritualist.  The tiny skull on his desk
and the book tell a little about his life story. Spiritualism
was a big thing back then.

Still Life
Luncheon Still Life by John F. Francis, c. 1860.
Smithsonian Institution.
A feast of fruit, nuts and wine for—whom?
Perhaps for some hikers coming in from the 
wild landscape in the distance? 

I've heard landscape painters use the term in describing their work, as in "the rock and tree create a narrative"—though they rarely go on to say what that narrative is.  Unlike in a history painting, where the story is explicit, the story in a landscape is implicit.  The viewer must play Sherlock Holmes and deduce the story from the evidence presented.  A boulder suspended in a foamy cataract might imply that a rushing torrent of snowmelt wrestled the boulder from farther upstream, and the boulder now hangs, waiting for what comes next.  A twisted tree, sitting atop an exposed knoll, might imply a backstory of decades spent enduring wind and weather.  A drumlin, slouched upon a wide, flat field, might imply the mile-thick glacier that crept across the landscape 20,000 years ago and whatever story that followed the glacier's retreat.

Some landscape painters, though, talk more about how the abstract elements in a landscape create a narrative.  For example, how a large patch of yellow at the center of interest creates a narrative with another, smaller patch of yellow elsewhere.  Or, how a large rectangular shape creates a narrative with a scattering of small, circular shapes.  Here, the story is a good deal harder to figure out—and, I think, you might be able to make up just about any story with any given set of abstract elements.

Honestly, stories involving such abstract elements are, to me, the hardest to follow and don't have much stature when talking about representational painting.   More important, I think, is how these abstract elements work to create a good design.

In landscape painting, narrative is often in the eye of the beholder.  I have a dear friend who is always seeing personalities and stories in my paintings.  (And of course, once I'm told what's there, I can't stop seeing it, too.)

How do you define narrative in a landscape painting?

By the way, the deal of $500 off of Plein Air Live continues until March 28.  Check out the details or register here.  I hope to see you there!

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

A Plein Air Painting Workshop via – Zoom?

The 12x16 oil demo I did for the group.

This past weekend, I taught a plein air painting workshop for the Tempe Artists Guild in Arizona—but from my studio in New Mexico with a snowstorm blowing in.  Zoom made it all possible, and the workshop went very well.  It's an experience I'm eager to repeat.

In advance of the class, I recorded a painting demonstration outdoors plus a second segment in the studio where I improved on the painting.  On the morning of the workshop, I gave a PowerPoint presentation that showed the gear I take outdoors and how I set it up.  I followed this with a discussion of plein air painting fundamentals.  Finally, I showed my two videos and narrated, stopping the playback now and then to elaborate or answer a question.  When we broke for the afternoon painting session, I gave everyone advice on how to get started and then set them free.   (Tempe, which is near Phoenix, was having much milder weather.)  As students finished, they e-mailed images of their work, which I pulled through my "Photoshop mill" to show how they might be improved.  At the end, I emailed the revised images to the students for their reference.

It was a great experience for me and for the students.  A year ago, I wouldn't have dreamed such a thing would be possible.  My preference, of course, is to teach in-person, but as long as the pandemic is with us, I will help students this way. 

If your group would like me to set up a Zoom workshop like this, let me know!

And speaking of online education, you can still get a great discount on Plein Air Live! I'll be demonstrating in gouache on Beginner's Day.  You can find out more here.