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Friday, February 29, 2008

Two Sisters - Plein Air Demo

I've posted a new video demonstration on YouTube. Like "Snowfield Sentinel," it's a short clip with music and no narration. You can see the clip here:

(It's also here:

The painting was done in my side yard and shows a pair of old sugar maples with a lot of character. I've painted them many times, both in oil and pastel, in summer and winter. I learn a bit more about them each time I stand before them. They've become old friends.

The observant viewer will note a couple of interesting things. First, the video shot of the scene shows sky, but my painting doesn't. I opted to crop down my view to the base of the trees - my center of interest - and rendered the background scrim of trees as a simple, dark mass. Second, there's a third tree between the two maples. You can just barely see it in the video shot of the scene, but in my initial sketch, it takes a very prominent jaunt off to the left. As I worked on the painting, I realized more and more that my interpretation of the third tree just wasn't working. I had to diminish it quite a bit.

Finally, you'll note that in the studio, I paint out most of the sunlight hitting the trunks of the trees. Outdoors, the sun kept going and coming, and I wasn't quite sure what to do with it. In the studio, I finally decided to ratchet down the light to just a single spot. It lights up a patch of bright green moss.

The soundtrack was composed and performed by my niece, Florence Katzenbach, and the recording was done by her step-father, Jason Bell. They're a pretty talented family.

The paintbox I used is the 6x8 Guerrilla Painter ThumBox. It's a pretty talented little box, too.

Here's the final painting:

"Two Sisters", 5x7, oil, en plein air - SOLD

Saturday, February 23, 2008

A Batch of Paintings

Sometimes it's just fun to paint a whole batch of paintings without purpose. For the last few days, I just wanted to paint. I didn't want to go out with a particular project -- after all, that would be work! I let my left brain take a few days off. What follows is the result. (Later, I may choose to work backward and justify them in retrospect with commentary. It's "artist's privilege" to do so.)

As always, you can click on the image to see a larger version.

"Birch Shadow"
3x3, oil, en plein air - SOLD

"Path to the Sea"
8x10, oil, en plein air

"Yellow Barn"
5x7, oil, en plein air

"Yellow Barn on Hill"
8x10, oil, en plein air

"Yellow House in Shadow"
5x7, oil, en plein air - SOLD

Saturday, February 16, 2008

How Small Can You Go?

Just in case you're wondering how small one can go with panel size, I offer the following. It is a 3x3 oil painting. (What's next? you may wonder. Painting on the head of a pin?)

"View from the Studio with Apple Trees"
3x3, oil, de la fenĂȘtre - SOLD

There's a benefit to painting this small. You can't paint detail.

As you know, detail is, quite literally, the last thing you should be concerned about when you're painting. Ninety percent of your work on a painting should deal with big shapes. Leave detail for the last 10%. Too many painters, especially those who want to paint in a more "painterly" way, get too soon into the detail.

To train yourself, the usual trick is to use a bigger brush on whatever size canvas you're used to painting on. Unfortunately, short of locking up the small brushes and mailing the key to a trusted friend overseas, it's tough. Small brushes have a way of finding their way back into your grip all too easily.

So here's a second approach. Shrink the format. Go as small as you can comfortably see to work on. I find 3x3 is a wonderful size, and you don't have to lock up the small brushes. I used two brushes on this one, a #4 and a #2 flat.

Working this small really forces you to think of the big shapes. Work with broad strokes and be bold with color. Your goal: Get the value and color relationships right.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The Mother Color, Part 2

In my last post, the concept of using a mother color in painting stirred up the imagination of my readers. One asked, "What about pastel?"

The mother color concept is all about mixing color. Pastel, as a dry medium, is more difficult to mix -- hence the need to have possibly hundreds of pastels of different hues and values in your palette. But what if we did try to extend the concept to pastel?

As an experiment, I made two paintings. In the first, I selected four values of Burnt Sienna. In the second, I selected three values of Ultramarine Blue. For each painting, I used my "mother color sticks" to first sketch in the drawing and then to block in the shapes very loosely. Next, as I continued with other colors, I added touches of the mother color whenever I felt that the presence of the mother color was getting lost.

Sure enough, if the color harmony was going awry, adding more of the mother color brought everything into balance again.

By the way, for these experiments I used Belgian Mist Wallis Sanded Pastel Paper, which is a warm, mid-value grey. Any toned surface will give a certain color harmony to a painting. The difference with using "mother color sticks" is that, unlike the color of a toned surface, the pastel actually gets mixed in with the other layers of pastel, having a bigger impact.

Below are the paintings along with a photo of the "mother color sticks" used.

"Sugar Maple, Midday Sun" - Mother Color Sticks - Ultramarine Blue
5x7, pastel, en plein air - SOLD
("tweaked" since last posting, so it differs from image seen in pochade box)

"Sugar Maple, Midday Overcast" - Mother Color Sticks - Burnt Sienna
5x7, pastel, en plein air -SOLD

Thursday, February 7, 2008

The Mother Color

Students of the craft of oil painting have probably heard the concept of the "mother color." Basically, this is a color that one has decided to use in every color mixture. The idea is that a little bit of this color, added to all mixtures, will harmonize the painting.

I use this technique, but I don't purposely pick any one color. Instead, I take my palette scrapings from the last painting session -- if they are still fresh enough -- and blend them thoroughly. I get some nice greys this way. I can always "push" it into whatever color family I need. I usually don't use it for all my mixtures, though, since sometimes I do want some colors with high chroma.

"Yellow House, Snowfall"
5x7, oil, en plein air

Not for this scene, though. The air was filled with falling snow and an even light. Greys abounded. The scene was almost monochromatic. What a perfect way to use up yesterday's paint!

The day before, my scrapings yielded a big pile of a mid-value, pinkish grey. I was able to push it light enough for snow, and to add Cadmium Yellow Light to get the color of the buildings. (I added a tad of Phthalo Blue to dull it down a bit for the shadowed parts of the house and the potting shed.) Even the patches of weeds and the dark silhouettes of the young sugar maples started off with this "mother color."

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Controlling the Light

I went out yesterday to the hill just behind my in-laws' house. It was a nice view. A row of sugar maples edged the driveway as it ran through the field of blackberry canes and wild roses. Passamaquoddy Bay and Eastport lay in the distance. In particular, I liked the house, which last summer my in-laws painted a delicate yellow. The yellow house and the blue shadows made a lovely scene.

"Yellow House by the Sea"
6x8, oil, en plein air - SOLD
(click image for larger version)

With the evening light raking across the snow and hitting the house, it was a challenge to get the relationships of the sunlit areas right. The closest, sunlit side of the house looked intensely bright, but on closer observation, the snow was even brighter. Another challenge was the shadowed sides. Even though the side facing me square-on (the one with the single window) was in shadow, it too was very light, thanks to an abundance of reflected light. Important relationships like these are best blocked in early to avoid problems later.

Good advice, but once I was back in the studio, I saw immediately that I'd made an error. The house's sunlit side was as bright as the snow. How'd I manage that? Fortunately, I remembered what the relationships really were, and it was an easy tweak. I scraped down the sunlit side and went back in with little darker paint.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Brighter than White

Here's a melancholy little painting. Although forecasters had predicted a mostly sunny afternoon yesterday, a thick lid of cloud settled upon us around midday. A few flurries drifted down as I set up my easel.

Despite the grey, this hedge was suffused with plenty of subtle oranges and reds to draw my eye. In a few months, it will become a wall of bright yellow flowers. Forsythia is one of my favourites - when it blooms, you know for sure spring has arrived. We're nowhere near that yet, of course.

"February Forsythia"
6x8, oil, en plein air - SOLD
(click to see larger version)

In this painting, I wanted get the snow as bright as possible. It was brighter than the sky. But I didn't use pure white, not at first. Instead, I took white and knocked down the value one step, using a bit of Cadmium Yellow Deep and Phthalo Blue to grey it. I let this be my benchmark for the top end of my value scale and mixed all my other colours darker.

Holding back on my lightest light gave me room to punch up the snow where I wanted it as bright as possible. But for that finishing touch, I still didn't use pure white. Rather, I added a speck of Cadmium Yellow Light to pure white. You wouldn't think you could make white look brighter, but it does.

Friday, February 1, 2008

New Blog for the New Book

Since my new book, Backpacker Painting, and its companion DVD are now in development, I decided to start a second blog. Why? Well, as I work on this exciting project, I'll have news that I'll want to share - painting locations, new tips and even some sneak preview photos and video clips! You can visit the new blog here: I hope you'll bookmark it or add the newsfeed to your newsreader.

I didn't want to leave you with a post without a painting, so here's one I did yesterday. I painted it among those wonderful red blackberry canes and snowdrifts in the field that go down to our bay. I love the light in winter. I'm finding it much richer than in the summer. You know, I'm actually starting to love winter in the Maritimes.

"The Persistence of Blackberries"
6x8, oil, en plein air - SOLD