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Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Ray Roberts Workshop - Day 2

Today was a full day, on-location. Because the workshop is located in downtown Scottsdale and the good paintings spots aren't, you have to drive a bit to get to the sites. Including driving time, the day began at 8 and ended at 7. The good news is, the painting spot was superb. The photo here shows a little bend in the Salt River near Saguaro Lake. (It reminds me a lot of the Rio Chama near Abiquiu, NM.) That's Ray on the left instructing another student. My easel is in the foreground.
Value is everything in a painting, and Ray made sure we understood that today. Especially tricky were the shadowed areas of the cliffs. Warm light reflecting off the sunlit brush bounced back into the shadows, making them appear warmer and thus brighter. Making this all hold together took some work. In my case, Ray helped me remember to pick your lightest light to key the painting to. You'll see my lightest light in the "rim lighting" of the saguaro in this painting. It was important to make sure the rest of the painting kept to lower values than this.

Later in the day, we moved over to Bulldog Canyon, where the volcanic tuff cliffs served as a backdrop for a veritable garden of saguaros and palo verde trees. Ray gave us a demonstration of painting a palo verde. Here's an action shot of Ray at work.

The light changed a good bit as clouds began to move in, and painting the saguaros and keeping the values accurate was a real trick. Here, I was trying to key my painting to the near-blinding light of the dirt road -- but then a veil of clouds swept across the sun, and it wasn't my lightest light anymore! It became more of an exercise in foregrounds, and how to make that chaotic mass of tar brush, creosote brush, prickly pairs and scorpions into something organized just enough so it reads realistically.

Thanks to my new art pal, Les Lull (, I now have enough panels for the week. He arrived with a whole stack of 8x10s for me to work on. Thanks, Les!

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

My Viewing Mantle

Many artists keep their finished paintings in the studio so they can critique and adjust them. But typically, this is for a short period of time, and in a space where they probably don't spend their non-painting hours. A brush stroke here, a brush stroke there, and it's off to the frame shop. (Or perhaps the closet!)

But can you really figure out what's wrong with a painting in such a short time and in a busy workplace? That last stroke may be a hasty one. I, too, have often had to "undo" what I thought was the right correction.

In my opinion, an artist really needs to live with his paintings in a place of calm in order to render a fair judgement.

My "viewing mantle" -- pictured here, and you can click on it for a larger view -- is a solution that developed over time. When we moved into our 1860s Cape by the ocean last year, we decided, for practical reasons, to make the formal living room into our bedroom. (It has a nice view of the bay, and it's much warmer in the winter. Plus, it's near the house's sole bathroom!) This room has a fireplace, long decommissioned, and we decided a small dresser would fit perfectly in front of it. Above the fireplace is a large mantle. For many weeks, both mantle and dresser top lay empty, save for the occasional knick-knack or pair of socks.

One day, I made a painting that was particularly frustrating. I put it up on one of my "viewing rails" in the studio, but try as I might, I just couldn't solve the puzzle of what it needed next. In a brainstorm, I brought the painting down from the studio and propped it up on the empty mantle. I must mention that our bed faces this mantle directly. As I lay in our bed, always a place of calm, my eyes were able to linger on this painting while reading in the evening or sipping coffee in the morning. I found myself often critiquing it as I gazed at. My wife also gave her suggestions.

Sure enough, this did the trick. It didn't take long to realize just what I needed to do to "fix" the painting. This process worked so well that I began to regularly bring paintings to this spot. I rarely critique my work in the studio anymore. No sooner than I finish a painting do I take it to the "viewing mantle" for a few days of inspection.

Lately, I've been working on 5x7 winter studies. The "viewing mantle" is the perfect place to line up a whole bunch of them for critique. Some paintings go away entirely, never to be see again; most get an extra touch or two and go back up on the mantle for further review. Some, the real gems, never need another brushstroke, and it's hard to take them down since I enjoy them so much.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Winter Light & Snow

If you've done any reading about winter painting, you'll have heard over and over again that snow is rarely white. This is true. I've seen the full spectrum in the snow, both in shadow and sunlit areas. Warm pinks, golden yellows, cornflower blue -- even subtle greens. Yes, green!

But what's most interesting about snow isn't the color but the value. If you measure value on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being black and 10 white, I don't think I've ever seen snow darker than a 6 or 5. This is perhaps most obvious on an overcast day when the snow has an almost overall bright value, even in the deep woods. But I've found this to be true even on a crisp, clear day when the sky is scraped clean of clouds and is such a deep blue you'd swear you were looking into the depths of the Mediterranean Sea. Again, even in the shadows of the deep woods, the snow is quite light.

Surprisingly, snow in shadow is often very close to the value of the sunlit snow. This is due to so much light bouncing off the surrounding snow and into the shadows. It's like being inside a hall of mirrors with a single beam of light shining in -- there's no escape from the light.

Whenever I paint snow in shadow, I first paint it fairly dark, exaggerating the darkness a step in value. I may paint it as a 4. This helps me pay attention to the patterns of snow. They are dark and crisp so I can get the patterns just right. But later, after I've "worked up" the other areas of the painting, this value needs to be adjusted. I go back into the shadowed snow with lighter paint...then even lighter paint...and finally, lighter yet. I try "push" the value of the snow as high as I can, but keep it dark enough so it looks like snow in shadow. Sometimes I go too far, and the shadow merges with the sunlit snow. This is how I make those beautifully soft edges, which you'll often see at the ends of the shadow farthest from the object casting it. If this softness isn't in the right spot, though, I'll go back in with a little darker paint to reinforce the shadow concept.

"Barn Shadow" (above; 5x7, oil, plein air) has a striking and dominant shadow in the composition. When I painted it, the day was very clear with intense light on the snow. This was the very darkest shadow I could find.

By the way, this and other paintings in my series of 5x7 plein air snow scenes can be seen here.

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Winter Painting

Winter painting presents sometimes insurmountable challenges. As you might expect, cold is Number One. Hunting and camping stores sell items that make being outdoors in winter more bearable. I bought a pair of "glomits," those mittens with the ends that hinge back to expose your fingers so you can manipulate small devices such as shotgun triggers and paintbrushes. Although mine have little magnets to keep the ends from flopping around, I inevitably smear them through both palette and canvas. And my fingers still get cold.

Winter gear is an aspect of outdoor painting that deserves thought and consideration to ensure a pleasant experience. Just like my warm weather painting gear, I refine my winter gear constantly. I'm confident I'll get more comfortable, and soon I'll be out there with the die-hards. Maybe you've seen the pictures of Emile Gruppé painting on a snowy Vermont road in the January deep-freeze, his easel loaded with a canvas bigger than I'd ever attempt, even in summertime. He was the epitome of the painting outdoorsman.

I have the perfect solution to painting in winter, one that does not ask the plein air painter to humble himself and paint from photographs. It's painting with a window view. I'm lucky that my island home has good views of interesting scenes: Friar's Bay with a view toward Eastport, Maine; the big field below the house, full of brambles naked of leaves but so colorful in the winter; and the groves of old sugar maples and birches that edge our yard. I can find something to paint from any window.

Painting in the warmth of the living room may sound like cheating. I'm safe from the windchill, which is below zero at the moment. I can even drink hot chocolate as I paint. But cheating or not, what I put down on canvas is exactly what I'd put down if I were outside and struggling to keep my "glomits" out of the paint. I'm seeing the same light, the same color, the same values.

Of course, there's something to be said for actually painting outside in the winter. When you do come indoors, that cup of hot chocolate never tasted better!

The above painting, "Birches & Shadows" (5x7, oil on panel), was painted from the inside looking out. I still think of it as a plein air piece. (As always, you can click on the small image to get a bigger version.)

Saturday, February 3, 2007


[Update:  Sir William Orpen, the well-known Irish portrait painter, was also colorblind.]

I surprise people when I tell them I'm colorblind. What, an artist -- colorblind? Well, it surprised me, too, when I found out. I'd been painting for several years and teaching and winning awards before my affliction was discovered by an ophthamologist.

The fact that I win awards and sell my paintings validates me as an artist of some skill. Apparently my colorblindness has little or no affect on my work.

Or does it?

Let me step back a bit and explain colorblindness and my version of it. Despite the popular misconception, colorblind people don't see the world in shades of black and white; they do indeed see colors. There are also many kinds of colorblindness. I have only a degree of colorblindess, and it's the red-green kind that affects 5 out of 100 males. I can see red and green, but if they are sufficiently grayed, I have trouble distinguishing a very neutral red from a very neutral green. They look like the same gray to me.

I once had a gray shirt that I loved because it went with everything I wore. But then a friend informed me that this shirt was really green. I don't think I wore it again, because I could never be sure if it went with whatever color of pants I'd picked out that day.

As an artist, this discovery was unsettling. I wanted to learn more about colorblindness. One discovery: I'm not alone. There are many of us out there. Another discovery: Colorblind artists compensate by using color that is more intense or that has a higher chroma. And this is where I find my success.

People often comment on the rich colors I use, especially in my pastels. Also, I avoid grays, such as that gray shirt I used to have. If I see a gray in the landscape, I try to determine what color family it belongs to. If I can't, and it looks completely neutral to me, I make darn sure when I mix it to "push" it into a definite color family. My colorblindness forces me from being a wishy-washy colorist to one who takes a stand.

Accompanying this essay is my painting, "Birches & the Big House," a 5x7 I did on-location last week. This one has lots of grays, grays that I purposely pushed into definite color families.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Learning to See: Conceptual Thinking & Painting

Back in elementary school, I ran into a major learning obstacle. For years, I'd been taught arithmetic, and I had adeptly mastered addition, subtraction, multiplication and yes, even long division and fractions. However, one day my teacher sprung a new concept on me -- the idea that numbers can be represented by letters, and that you can take those letters and perform addition and all those other functions on them just as you could with numbers.

I'll never forget how many times I thought I finally understood the concept but failed miserably on each test. My own personal "test case" was the formula for calculating the volume of a cylinder. This formula appeared on a test, and I solved the problem incorrectly. When I thought I'd finally grasped the concept, I asked the teacher to put the problem on the next test. Well, I failed again...asked again, failed again...and so on, until finally one day it "clicked," and I understood the concept of variables and solved the problem.

There are two kinds of problem-solving in math. You can solve by rote -- such as using a memorized "times table" to multiply -- or by general concepts, such as with variables. Rote works well for simple problems, but bigger problems require conceptual thinking. Just try to calculate the volume of a cylinder using a pile of counting stones and no variables!

It's the same with painting. You can either follow a specific set of instructions for every possible situation you run into, or you can use general principles. For example, I have beginning students who want to know exactly what I use to mix my cloud color. I can say I use two teaspoons of Permalba white, a pinhead of Ultramarine Blue, a pinhead of Alizarin Crimson plus a half-pinhead of Sap Green to warm the mixture. You can't go wrong with this. But what if you don't have Sap Green? If you're a student who work from specifics, you'll be lost, and you'll experiment with everything on your palette to get the right color. (And you'll end up with a muddy mess!)

However, you'll succeed quickly if you apply the principle that any warm color on your palette will add warmth. So, you might try a half-pinhead of Cadmium Yellow Red or even Cadmium Yellow Deep. Don't have those? Then if you've arranged your paints in a color wheel, like I do, just move away from Alizarin Crimson in a warm direction, and you'll find the hue you need.

I became pretty good with algebra -- and geometry and even calculus -- and the concept of variables. Once I made the leap of understanding, I discovered they're not that hard and, in fact, they make life a whole lot easier. Whenever I paint, I try to take what I learn and generalize it into a concept. From a handful of concepts, I can find the answers to a multitude of problems.

The above painting, "Sisters in the Snow," a little 5x7 plein air oil I did last week, is a painting that would have been hard to make, were I to work from a list of specific "tricks." The painting was born of experience -- and the application of general principles of warm and cool colors.