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Monday, December 31, 2007

Take the Broad View -- or the Close-up?

When I hunt for a subject, I look for broad views. Sky, horizon, flat water, field -- at least three of these elements usually appear together in my paintings. I like to create a sense of peace, and dominant horizontals do this very well. But sometimes they do it too well, especially if the elements themselves lack interest. A 'severe-clear' sky without clouds, water without a ripple, an unbroken horizon or a field with nary a bush in it can lead to monotony. When this happens, I zoom in and look for a close-up.

We artists know all about looking for the abstract in our subject. The abstract pattern, once sketched in, gives us a foundation to build reality upon. To see this underlying pattern, we squint. Squinting eliminates detail and lets the big shapes become more obvious.

Zooming in can show us the pattern, too. Although it actually increases the amount of detail, the object itself becomes less obvious. Zoom in enough, and the object disappears entirely, out of sight and out of mind. You know the game of 'What is it?," in which you're shown a picture of an item so magnified that you have trouble identifying it. The abstract pattern you see makes little sense because you can't see the object's key features, or they are distorted beyond recognition. The picture may show a beautiful pattern of folds and ridges, but you don't know it's a fingerprint until you're told.*

I don't zoom in quite this far, but I do zoom in enough that I see only parts of objects. There's still enough left to identify the objects, but as parts, they become less important. For example, if I zoom in on a tree trunk and the bit of ground around it, I see the pattern made by the light and dark shapes more easily because I'm not thinking of the trunk as a trunk. It's a reversal of "can't see the forest for the trees." In this case, it's a good thing. I don't think so much about what the object is as I do about how it fits in my composition.

Another benefit of zooming in is that it forces you to consider a dynamic design. Zooming in tends to eliminate horizontal elements. Flat horizons give way to vertical tree trunks, diagonal branches, streams of water that run kitty-corner. This kind of movement can give you a very energetic painting. As someone who usually paints restful scenes, I find close-ups an exciting and invigorating exercise. (And, if my goal is a restful painting, a sometimes-challenging one!)

Accompanying this essay are two of my recent close-ups. One of them ('Canes Beneath the Fir') is still quite restful, but it accomplishes this with colour harmony and not horizontal elements.

Canes Beneath the Fir
5x7, pastel, en plein air

Tidal Snowbank
5x7, pastel, en plein air - SOLD

*(By the way, another interesting game to play is to take an old, empty 35mm slide mount and use it to find small compositions within, say, a 9x12 painting. You'll be amazed at how many good compositions you can find lurking within the larger painting's frame.)

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Snow Cloaks - Guerrilla Painter 9x12 Pastel Box

The last thaw made me hope that we'd leap-frogged winter right into spring. I knew it was a vain hope, though, and confirming it was the 5 inches of snow that fell yesterday. The storm came without a breath of wind, allowing the snow to pile up on branches and boughs in the most beautiful way.

On a walk among our apple trees, I admired the abstract patterns made by white snow clinging to dark branches. I kept thinking what a wonderful pen-and-ink drawing the apple trees would make. But I knew very well that, to truly capture the effect, I would have to work in a larger format and with more meticulousness than I was up for.

Instead, I went out with my NuPastels and a 5x7 piece of Wallis Sanded Paper (pro grade, Belgian Mist tone.) These days, I'm trying the 9x12 Guerrilla Painter Box in its pastel configuration. Usually, I take my French easel with a separate bag containing my pastel box. Some artists put their pastels in the French easel, but because of the way mine seems to lose things from its drawer, I've never quite trusted it with fragile pastels. The Guerrilla Painter Box, on the other hand, holds four, foam-lined pastel trays in its compartment. With two palette extension kits installed (one on the left, one on the right), I can have all four trays open and in use at once.

Also, since I like to have a separate container for my 'working palette' of pastels, I can borrow the covered palette tray from my 6x8 ThumBox, which sits right on top of the trays. When I'm done painting outdoors, I just put the lid on the palette tray and stuff it in my backpack. This allows me to keep my 'working palette' available if I choose to do more work on the painting back in the studio.

When I started looking for a spot to set up in, something other than the apple trees caught my eye. The firs were draped with yards of soft, luxurious white velvet, if there is such a thing. I ended up painting the firs instead. I guess I'll save the apple trees for another time.

'Snow Cloaks'
5x7, pastel

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Christmas Thaw - Taking the Close View

Ever since winter arrived on the 22nd, the season has felt more like spring. We saw a high of near 40˚F (4˚C) on Christmas Day. Thanks to this unseasonable warmth, the snow is melting fast. Since I really love to paint snow, I decided to take my ThumBox out on its second adventure. (If you missed it, click here for its first adventure.)

This time, I drove down to the Herring Cove Provincial Park. Herring Cove is a broad expanse of sandy beach on the east side of Campobello Island. It's a popular spot in the summer with campers and picnickers. The beach is what they call a 'barrier beach,' and just behind it is Lake Glensevern, where Franklin D. Roosevelt used to go swimming. A small trail follows the lake edge and leads you to an area where beavers have been very busy. Just past this swampy area you'll find a beaver dam blocking one of the many streamlets that empty into the lake.

This dammed-up streamlet was my destination. I hiked about 10 minutes or so to get to it, negotiating the occasional icy boardwalk and the more frequent heaps of slush. These calf-deep piles had been snow drifts before the thaw, but now beneath every one lay a hidden trap filled with water. I learned quickly to not step into these 'slush drifts'!

The streamlet was high with water but still had plenty of snow banked up around it. What drew my eye immediately was the golden glow from the bottom -- thanks to the overcast light, the colour was very rich. (I've often noted how autumn foliage is at its best on overcast or drizzly days. Apparently, this holds true for streamlet bottoms, too.) I also saw another rich colour. On the far bank, melting snow revealed a carpet of bright green moss.

Although I might have painted the beach with its broad views of the Bay of Fundy, I went for the smaller view. I could have held my little snow-and-water scene in the palm of my hand. The close intimacy encouraged a supreme stillness in the world, something I don't think I would have experienced if I'd gone for the grand view. Other than the quiet trickle of water and the soft, barely audible settling of ice along the stream's edge, there was nothing.

"Christmas Thaw"
5x7, oil, en plein air

Monday, December 24, 2007

Guerrilla Painter 6x8 ThumBox

One neat Christmas gift this year is my 6x8 ThumBox from Guerrilla Painter. Since I paint so many small paintings, especially in winter when the cold shortens my sessions outdoors, I thought it was time to acquire a box specifically built for the task. Many of you know that I use the 9x12 Guerrilla Box. Although I can use it for small paintings, I really don't need such a large palette -- or the bulk. With the 5x7 adapter, however, the ThumBox is perfect for my 5x7 oils, and it fits easily in my small backpack.

Backpack with ThumBox inside and tripod strapped to outside

Here's the box, ready to go!

Even though the temperature yesterday soared to 45°F (or 7°C), I wanted to take the box out on a practice run. I slipped a pair of "Hot Hands" into my boots -- despite the unseasonable warmth, I still would be standing in a foot of snow -- and headed out with Saba, who likes to tunnel for field mice while I paint.

Just like the 9x12, the ThumBox was a cinch to set up. I was painting within a minute of settling on a spot.

Palette (after finishing painting)

The ThumBox's palette gave me plenty of room to mix in. It slides to the left, just like on the bigger box, revealing a compartment that holds not only my paint tubes but also my turps container. I even had space left for tucking in used paper towels. (I'd forgotten to bring a garbage bag.) The optional palette extension (on the right) has pre-drilled holes for brushes. For the painting below, I only used two brushes, but I still had room for three more. All in all, I had just as comfortable an experience as with my bigger box. The real plus is that the box is so small I feel I could hike some distance with it. But first I think I'll wait for the snow to melt off the trails!

Here's yesterday's painting. As with my previous one, I used no underpainting. I dove right in with opaque paint. I could have used just the #8 flat, but some of the wispiest-looking blackberry canes required the #4 flat.

'Eastport View with Blackberry Patch'
5x7, oil, en plein air

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Skipping the Underpainting

Back when I first started painting in oil, I was taught about creating an underpainting. An underpainting is typically done with thinned paint, although you can also just scrub in the color right from the tube thinly. The underpainting allows you to:
  • Refine the composition that you lightly sketched in at the start;
  • Establish the values of the masses; and
  • Establish the general color of the masses.
To be sure, these are good goals. They make the process of applying thicker, perhaps more opaque paint as you "build" the painting easier. The benefits include:
  • Giving you a compositional framework to place elements on without having to guess;
  • Giving you already-determined values to match; and
  • Giving you already-determined colors to match.
I've found some drawbacks, though. Any lines you may have drawn in your sketch usually have to be redrawn, otherwise they get covered up by later layers of paint. Sometimes the underpainting lightens as the paint soaks in, especially on an absorbent ground with transparent darks (e.g. Ultramarine Blue), and must be re-established. Finally, adding white to colors changes the quality of those colors, and what you lay down on earlier, more transparent passages may no longer match. Most times, I have the time to deal with these problems. But when I don't, I skip the underpainting altogether.

Skipping the underpainting requires a clear vision of what you want the final painting to look like.

When I bypass this step, I still make a rough sketch so I know where to place my key elements. But after that, I dive right in by mixing paint as close to what it needs to be. If I have a pale violet hill in the distance, I'll mix a tiny speck of Alizarin Crimson with a bit of blue into my white and try to match exactly what I see. Of course, all color and value is relative, so I try to fine-tune these relationships between areas as I go.

There are no transparent passages in this approach. I achieve my effects only with opaque paint.

I've found that, for small paintings in particular such as a 5x7, this is a more expeditious way to paint. I can complete a 5x7 in short order -- a great goal on a cold winter day! Here's an example I did this week.

"Old Orchard by the Sea" - SOLD
5x7, oil, en plein air

PS My 2008 calendar is still available! Click here for more.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Painting a Small Landscape Outdoors - Video!

Grab your coat and tuque, because we're going to paint outdoors!

I've been waiting eagerly for the arrival of my JVC Everio digicam so I could start filming my own demonstrations. It seems that an essential part of being a teaching artist these days is not just writing a book but putting out your own DVD. Since I've already written the first book (with a second on the way), I'm ready for the video.

The camera arrived two days ago. I spent the night in bed reading the three manuals. The next afternoon, I went out and shot my first demonstration. As this was completely intended to be a learning experience, I had no expectations.

Demonstration: "Snowfield Sentinel"
5x7, oil, en plein air - SOLD

It was about 30 degrees with a bit of a wind coming off the bay. (In the first version of the video I posted, you could definitely hear the wind! My "beta testers," my helpful colleagues on WetCanvas, informed me that this was an issue. I've got a new microphone on order already.) Otherwise, I was pretty toasty in my parka and other winter gear.

I intentionally painted a very small painting - 5x7 - for this demonstration. I enjoy doing small pieces in the winter, but also since this was a test, I didn't want to overwhelm myself with something as long as "Doctor Zhivago." Also, after running into issues with sound quality (the wind) and static shots (I refuse to hold camera in one hand and brush in the other just so I can alternate shots of palette and painting), I edited the 30 minutes of footage down to 5 minutes and removed the wind (and my voice.) Finally, I overlaid a favourite melody by Debussy.

My demonstration of "Snowfield Sentinel" is on my Demonstrations page (in the Workshops section) of my website. In the future, I'll also be posting real demonstrations in which I describe what I do.

Enjoy it, and I welcome any feedback! - Michael

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Sunswept Field with Snow

The temperature finally warmed up today to 27 degrees. In the sun, it was pretty pleasant. Of course, I ended up painting in the shade where a chill breeze was blowing off the bay. Trina, who came out to take some pictures for my new book, asked, 'Why are you painting in the windiest spot?' I didn't have a good answer at the time, as I was in the finishing stages of this little painting, which often is a time when my verbal circuits go dead. (When I'm teaching, of course, I always make sure to stop painting before I get to this point so I can still talk intelligently!)

I still don't have a good answer, though. There were plenty of great spots to paint in. I just loved the way the sun lit up the field from this vantage point. Sometimes we have to park ourselves where our feelings tell us to.

In addition to the painting below, I've included a shot of my paintbox. You can tell from the one brush in the brush holder that this was, again, a 'single brush' painting. I find that for these small paintings, my brush cleans easily because it doesn't get totally saturated with paint. I do take extra care to clean the brush well before punching up the highlights at the finish. You don't want muddy color when you're painting pure snow!

By the way, that pile of pinkish paint in the bottom right corner is what's left over from the previous painting session. Usually, I find a place to incorporate these 'palette scrapings' into the next painting. I didn't this time because the paint was a bit old and lumpy. I scraped it off and replaced it with today's leftover paint.

'Sunswept Field with Snow'
5x7, oil, en plein air - SOLD

Also, please don't forget to check out the preview of my show in Santa Fe!

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Winter Show in Santa Fe

For readers who might live near Santa Fe or be visiting the 'City Different' in the next few weeks, I have some good news. Galerie Esteban now has my work for its annual winter show. You can see a preview of my work by clicking on this link. Also, to whet your appetite, here is one of my 16x20 oils, "Acoma Winter":

(I used to live near the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico. Trina and I did a lot of hiking in the El Malpais National Conservation Area, pictured here, which abuts the reservation. It's a gorgeous spot with ancient lava beds, sandstone bluffs and, of course, it's not far from Acoma's historic 'Sky City'.)

I hope you'll have an opportunity to visit. Galerie Esteban is at 241 Delgado, right next to historic Canyon Road. The show runs until January 4th.

Contact: Galerie Esteban, 241 Delgado St, Canyon Rd & Delgado, Santa Fe, NM 87501
505.988.1002 :: 888.988.1002
Open Mon-Sat 10-5, Sun 12-5

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Extreme Portability

'Extreme portability' is a phrase I like to use when I'm talking with students about what I do as a plein air painter. I can't plan on always painting from the back of the car. Sometimes I may want to take nothing but a backpack -- or sometimes not even that much! Well, maybe that's a little too extreme. But you do need to take only what you need.

I remember one pastel student who drove his van up to the painting site and proceeded to unload what appeared to be a complete studio. By the time he'd finished setting up, the rest of us were well into our painting.

When I'm oil painting, here are a couple of things I do to trim down my gear:

- Pre-load the palette and leave the tubes at home; and
- Figure out how few brushes I can get away with.

For the painting I did today, I used only one brush, a #8 natural bristle flat. Because it's worn down so much that it looks and acts like a filbert, I can get all the different kinds of strokes out of it I need: broad strokes, narrow strokes, lines and dots.

Pilots call this a "severe clear" day. I like the dark water against the snow, and the little bit of warmth that shows up in the lower portion of the sky. (Excuse the sheen on the brushstrokes in the sky; that will go away once it dries.)

'Eastport View, Severe Clear'
5x7, oil, en plein air - SOLD

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

December Nor'easter

Our first nor'easter of the season slid in quietly last night, dropping about 10 inches of heavy, wet snow. This afternoon, the storm is slowly spinning its way out to sea. Since I couldn't really see Eastport well enough to paint another in my Eastport series, I decided to do something more close-up. I picked a clump of yellow birches and maples right outside our bedroom window. (And yes, I did this one from inside, looking out.)

Last night, I was looking through American Art Collector, and a painting by Peter Poskas caught me eye. "Sap Rising" shows a snowy scene with an old house and maples. What interested me was the contrast of complements -- yellows and violets. I thought of his painting when I painted this one. I wanted to work toward a complementary color scheme. I chose oranges and blues, making the blues dominant. Although the oranges are a minor portion of the "real estate," they are the center of interest.

'December Nor'easter'
5x7, oi

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Eastport View, Wind Chill, 7 degrees

Yesterday, I did, in fact, chicken out. The wind was gusting to 45 mph, which dropped the wind chill down to 7. (That's -14C.) I really didn't relish the idea of exposing fingertips and nose to that kind of challenge. So, I set up my paintbox on a card table in a room with a view that's almost identical to the view I get from my garden bench.

This allowed me a little more time to consider my colour choices and my brushwork. (It also helped that I didn't have to steady my hand against the gale!) Although some might feel this indoors-looking-out method is cheating when it comes to plein air painting, I don't. I'm still painting from life. For sure, I'd rather be outdoors -- I still brag about the time I ran 6 miles at -20 F -- but sometimes personal bravado must be checked, especially when you're my age and feel a bit creaky even on a warm day.

'Eastport View, Wind Chill, 7 Degrees'
5x7, oil - SOLD

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Eastport View, Wind Chill, 25 Degrees

Yesterday, the wind was gusting up to 30 mph giving a wind chill of 25 degrees (-4 C), and I almost chickened out. It's not a bad thing to chicken out, because we plein air painters can always find something to do indoors. But knowing that the next day was going to be even windier and colder, supposedly to be followed by a monster snowstorm later in the weekend, I decided to brave it.

Two things helped considerably. First was the theory that a pillow would help insulate my backside as I sat on the slats of the garden bench. Second was my wife's Mountain Guide Full-Flap Hat from L.L.Bean.

This item is not only well-insulated but also has Goretex to cut the wind. (Short story: This was to be my hat, but even a Large doesn't fit, so I gave it to Trina. She always said I have a big head. Now I have an X-Large on order. Some might think the classier Mad Bomber Hat might be more appropriate for this kind of painting, but I don't like the rabbit fur.)

I was comfortable in the 30 minutes I sat to paint this piece - even though the wind was not only whipping up whitecaps but also knocking my paintbox about.

'Eastport View, Wind Chill, 25 Degrees'
5x7, oil, en plein air - SOLD