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Friday, May 30, 2008

Avoiding Slipped Values

Sometimes I like to premix my values. I do this especially if I find a scene that might give me some trouble with slipping values. Such a scene is one where trees cast large areas of dense shadow surrounded by strong sun. The shadows usually show bits of sunlight breaking through. Also, a great deal of light bounces into these shadows from nearby sunlit objects. You may get a good fix on the value relationships initially, but as the sun moves, the bits of sunlight come and go, and the bounced light can get brighter or dimmer. Unconsciously, you perceive these shifts, and you will try to capture the change without realizing you are doing so. This can make for a painting full of slipped values.

Here's a demonstration I did yesterday. First, my premixed values. I don't usually use a paper palette, but I wanted to create a grid for my darks, mid-darks, mid-lights and lights. (You can click on any image for a bigger version.)

Next, here's the first layer of paint applied with a knife.

Finally, the finished painting. I ended up never getting to the brushes and did it entirely with a knife. Thanks to my premixed values, I was able to keep the values from shifting, and the painting represents the original values closely.

"Yellow Morning"
8x10, oil, en plein air

Monday, May 26, 2008

Painting Larger Outdoors

As most of my painting friends know, I usually paint small pieces outdoors. My favorite size is 5x7. Lately, though, I felt like tackling a larger piece. In the studio, I'll paint up to 16x20. Well, this most recent piece is almost as large - 12x24.

The other day, while looking for painting spots on the island, I found the perfect place for a panoramic with a 1:2 ratio. Mill Cove has a glorious view of an old herring weir and a little rock island. So, yesterday I headed out with my French easel, the "French companion" and a bag with paints and brushes.

I hit Mill Cove about two hours before low tide, when I knew the prospect of the island and weir would be at its best. This timing would give me two additional hours on the other side of low tide for a total of four hours of painting time. Although the sun position changes considerably in four hours, I knew I could capture the shadows quickly enough so I could paint the rest at my leisure.

The painting ended up only taking three hours, not including set-up and clean-up time. I was surprised that I wasn't as tired as I thought I'd be; most likely drinking a full bottle of water and eating a granola bar helped keep me going. I am glad, though, that I took a new 150 ml tube of white. I ended up using literally half the tube on this painting.

First, here's my view, followed by the finished piece. (Click on the images to see a bigger view.)

"Mill Cove Weir"
12x24, oil, en plein air

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Two Objectives

Going out to paint yesterday, I had two objectives. I wanted to demonstrate a "disciplined palette," where I keep my mixtures organized by light and cool, and also dark and warm. Second, I wanted to show how one could do several quick sketches from a single spot if it is rich in material. I picked a comfortable location by my father-in-law's vegetable garden, which overlooks a forsythia hedge to Friar's Bay.

I took an 8x10 panel and divided it in half with a 1/2"-wide strip of artist's tape, which gave me two 4.75"x8" rectangles. I limited myself to 30 minutes for each sketch. In the first one, the sun shone in all its glory. But 30 minutes later, when I started the second, clouds swept in and it began to sprinkle. You can really see the difference in the quality of light in these two pieces.

"Thirty Minutes"
8x10 diptych, oil, en plein air

Here's the actual setup:

I took a shot of my palette after I finished the first one. It shows how I managed to keep my mixtures organized. In the heat of the moment, it's easy to forget that staying organized will give you cleaner mixtures and make it possible to compare one with the next.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

After the Commission is Done

You'd think that, after doing two commissions in a short space of time, nothing would be more relaxing than to sit down with a good book and a cup of tea. But the sky last night was so beautiful that I couldn't help myself. The sky beckoned me to paint it from a bench in our front yard.

It was nothing complex, nothing fussy, just clouds and light and shadow. I came back into the house quite refreshed. It just goes to show that a "busman's holiday" isn't such a crazy idea, after all.

"Treat Island"
5x7, oil, en plein air

Friday, May 23, 2008

Studio from Reference Paintings - Followup

I've seen a bit of rain this week, so it was a good time to be in the studio working on commissions. As I mentioned before, the Nature Trust of New Brunswick wanted two paintings to depict a couple of properties it is trying to protect.

For the finished pieces, in addition to using my 5x7 oil sketches, I used photos. The oil sketches gave me good color and value reference, whereas the photos gave me detail I couldn't capture in the 5x7s. However, I found the photos less valuable than the oil sketches. I'm more of a colorist than a tonalist, and the sketches had nearly everything I needed.

Although I was only going from a 5x7 to a 9x12, the amount of work to get there was disproportionate to the size. That is, for each one I worked much harder than the additional 73 square inches warranted! But the results were worth it - I'm very happy with both.

With the Washburn Lookout painting, I improved the pathway for the eye to the center of interest and also the design of some elements, especially the groupings of trees. With the Navy Island piece, I found very little that needed changing from the 5x7. I "amplified" the view of Navy Island a bit, making it more dominant than it is and also punched up the sunlit highlights on it.

One of the pieces will be used in promotional materials and the other will be auctioned off this summer. Once I get details on the auction, I'll post a note in my blog.

Here are the two paintings.

"Navy Island from Pottery Creek," 9x12, oil NFS

"View from Washburn Lookout," 9x12, oil NFS

Monday, May 19, 2008

Monochrome Underpainting - then Alla Prima!

If you haven't been painting en plein air very long, you may find that values get away from you. Lights become too dark, darks become too light, and the design of the painting vanishes in a mid-value Neverland. I have to admit that color is what usually first excites me about a scene, and not value. For me, it's very easy to let values slip when my natural focus is color.

One common method for plein air painting involves laying in an underpainting with the approximate color and value of the scene. When we paint this way, we're juggling two balls at once. It's not easy. If you find your values slipping as you paint, try doing the underpainting in monochrome. I like Burnt Sienna for this. (Studio painters would call this a grisaille.) Establish your darkest value with Burnt Sienna right out of the tube, and then thin it with Turpenoid to create the mid-darks, mid-lights and lights. Next, begin to lay in color, taking care to match the values accurately. The Burnt Sienna gives you guide for this.

Even though the Burnt Sienna will still be wet, don't worry about painting alla prima on top of it. The Burnt Sienna will warm up the painting a bit and create nice greys in your blue sky.

Here's a painting I did this way yesterday. First, the grisaille, followed by the finished painting and finally a greyscale version of the finished painting.

"Sunday Quiet"
6x8, oil, en plein air

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Photography & Demonstrations

As if painting demonstrations for the book weren't enough, I'm trying to shoot photos of them, too. I've gotten pretty comfortable with my Olympus Evolt E-500 over the last couple of years, so using the camera isn't the problem. The problem has to do more with interrupting the "flow" of the painting with these little traffic stops.

When I'm shooting a photo, it's not like stepping back to see how the painting's going. As most artists do, I step back now and then to evaluate my painting and to see what needs to be done next. But when I pick up the camera, that's not what I'm doing. I'm thinking more about framing my picture, checking my white balance and exposure and battery level, and making sure I get a good shot. Sure, these days it's pretty much "point and click" for me, but I'm not definitely not thinking about paint!

Often though, when I'm deep into the paint, I may forget about using the camera at all. This happens when the painting has taken on a life of its own and demands my attention in making small adjustments. These adjustments are important, but because they take up very little real estate on the canvas, the camera doesn't really capture them well. When seen by a viewer in a gallery, they certainly influence the overall effect, but they don't have much impact in a 4x6-inch reproduction on the printed page.

Here are the three other demonstration paintings I created this week.

"Unbridled Forsythia" 8x10, oil, en plein air

"Early Garlic II," 8x10, oil, en plein air

"Barn Bouquet" 9x12, pastel, en plein air

Thursday, May 15, 2008

West Quoddy Head Morning

We've had uncommonly good weather for the last several days here in the Maritimes. Dry, cool -- perfect for painting outdoors. The timing is good, since I'm photographing a series of painting demonstrations for the new book.

(Update: See the sequence shots of the demonstration here.)

Today, I went out to West Quoddy Head State Park over in Lubec, Maine. Just a few minutes from my home on Campobello Island, the park's biggest attraction is the lighthouse. Thousands of tourists visit it each year. But for me, the attraction is the series of bold cliffs that stretch down the coast. If you lean out far enough from the hiking trail, you can get a serious case of vertigo.

I've got a couple of favorite rocks I like to paint here. I set up my easel at an overlook, about a five-minute walk from the lighthouse, which features one of them. This rock is like a castle's parapet:

Usually on this side of the Head, there's a stiff wind. Not so today. As you can see, I was even able to set up my umbrella.

This time of year, the Park gets very few visitors. I saw just one person while I was painting, and I think it was one of attendants, who was getting things ready for the summer season. My only other company: the waves lapping at the rocks 60 feet below me.

Here's the painting from today. For the record, I did 90% of the painting outside with Faber-Castell Polychromos pastels, followed by some touch-up in the studio with Mount Vision pastels. The painting was done on Wallis Sanded Pastel Paper (white), using a Guerrilla Painter 9x12 pastel setup.

"West Quoddy Morning"
9x12, pastel, en plein air

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Gathering Reference Material

Recently, the Nature Trust of New Brunswick commissioned me to paint two pieces of property it is trying to purchase for protection. Although I'd like to present the organization with two strictly plein-air pieces, time and weather may not permit this approach. Since yesterday looked to be the only sunny day in the near future, I decided to gather reference material on-location. Yesterday, I drove up to St Andrews-by-the-Sea to take photos and to paint 5x7s. In the event I decide to do studio paintings, the photos will help with details and the 5x7s, with colors.

The first piece of land adjoins the Caughey-Taylor Nature Preserve. I headed for a lookout over Sam Orr's Pond. The lookout, about 20 minutes in by foot with a steep climb at the end, gazes over the Pond to the prospective purchase on the other side. (A bronze plaque on the summit commemorates Thom Washburn.)

From here, I took several dozen photos of the property, followed by a 5x7 to capture the morning light. Here is the 5x7 along with a photo of me at the site. (Pardon the glare on the painting; some of the still-wet brushstrokes catch the light.)

By the time I descended, low tide had passed and the water was starting to roll back in. I wanted to photo and paint the next property, Navy Island, as close to low tide as possible. Navy Island, 150 acres of undeveloped coastal habitat, lies just offshore from St Andrews. From Pottery Creek, I had a remarkable view of Niger Reef in the foreground with Navy Island not too far away. Here's the 5x7:

Now, should the weather remain fickle, I can take my color studies and photos and enjoy creating a larger piece in the comfort of my studio.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Three-Color Oil Palette, III

For my final version of a three-color palette, I removed the Ivory Black and the Cadmium Yellow Deep and replaced them with other colors. The new palette is:
  • Cadmium Yellow Light
  • Cadmium Red Light
  • Ultramarine Blue
  • Titanium White
The Cadmium Yellow Light is cooler than the Cadmium Yellow Deep I had on the last palette. The Ultramarine Blue is a richer and, to my eyes, warmer blue than Ivory Black. Here's a painting I did this morning.

"Mossy Maples"
5x7, oil, en plein air

The lights in this painting contain a good deal of Cadmium Yellow Light. If I'd used Cadmium Yellow Deep, they would have been too warm. Since the darks are already very warm with the Cadmium Red Light and Ultramarine Blue, a warm light wouldn't have provided enough interesting contrast.

Or so I'd like to think. Thoughts, anyone?

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Three-Color Oil Palette, II

In response to my last post, someone pointed out that this three-color palette is very similar to the warm palette used by Anders Zorn. I'm familiar with Zorn, but not with his palette. The commentor noted that Zorn used Yellow Ochre, Vermilion, and black and white.

I did a little research, and came up with the following in an American Artist article:

Many artists mention the concept of the "Zorn palette," especially in regard to portraiture. This warm palette, which is often said to include simply a yellow, black, red, and a white—but no blue—may be a very useful tool, but it is a mistake to attribute it to Anders Zorn. A few portraits and other paintings by Zorn seem to show a definite warmth and a lack of tube blues and greens—and Sandström confirms that the painter was proud of saying he mixed all of the hues on a canvas from just a handful of colors—but many Zorn paintings utilize blues. In fact, in Sweden Zorn is celebrated for his depictions of water, which required blue paint. Sandström had difficulty even comprehending the assumption that Zorn worked with the specialized palette associated with him. She reports that 17 tubes of cobalt alone are represented among the 243 tubes of paint left by Zorn in his studio in Mora. Laine, of Stockholm's Nationalmuseum, concurs that the notion of a Zorn palette is a bit of a misnomer. Still, portraits such as Miss Constance Morris show that he was adept at using grays to suggest blues. Many of Zorn's portraits—and his nudes—exhibit a compelling warmth, providing inspiration for today's painters regardless of what the Swedish artist may have actually squeezed onto his palette.


At any rate, I am not using blue, but I am, as Zorn may have done, trying to push the "blueness" of the Ivory Black with orange. Last night I decided to see just how far I could go. The evening light was perfect -- it had lots of orange in it so I could test the idea.

Here's the result. I love working with this palette!

"Sunset with Low Clouds"
5x7, oil, en plein air


Saturday, May 3, 2008

Three-Color Oil Palette

As I work on my new book, I've been experimenting with limited oil palettes. At the moment, I'm working without blue. Without blue? Indeed. The palette consists of the following colors:
  • Cadmium Yellow Deep
  • Cadmium Red Light
  • Ivory Black
  • Titanium White
Surprisingly, Ivory Black makes some beautiful greens when mixed with Cadmium Yellow Deep. The blues are more subtle, but they can be enhanced by surrounding them with orange. (Thanks to the principle of simultaneous contrast, in which a large field of one color can "push" its complement into adjacent areas, the orange "pushes" the bluish cast of Ivory Black so it seems a richer blue of higher chroma.) I'm waiting for one of those "severe clear" Maritime days when the blues are deep and dark to see how this limited palette can really perform!

In the meantime, here are two little pieces done without blue.

"May Firs" 5x7, oil, en plein air

"Early Garlic" 5x7, oil, en plein air

Thursday, May 1, 2008

May Newsletter

I send a newsletter once every two months to folks on my e-mail list. Some of it may be old news for my blog readers, and I apologize if so. - MCJ

"Weybridge, Wet Spring"
9x12, pastel, en plein air
Winner, Outstanding Genre Award
4th Annual Northeast National Pastel Exhibition, Old Forge NY

1 May 2008

Welshpool, Campobello Island

I'm fresh back from Goffstown, New Hampshire, where I gave a four-day workshop for New Hampshire Plein Air. Spring really hit hard that week! Our first day of painting saw 84 degrees, and the spring peepers that night were thunderous. Now I'm back on the island, where spring looks a few weeks late. The forsythia hasn't even started to bloom yet.

I've also had lots of good news in recent weeks:
  • My painting "Weybridge Wet Spring" was given the "Outstanding Genre Award" at the 2008 Fourth Annual Northeast National Pastel Exhibition at Arts Center/Old Forge in Old Forge, NY. The exhibit runs from May 10-June 8.
  • Nature Trust of New Brunswick has commissioned me to paint two endangered natural areas, the Caughey-Taylor Nature Preserve and Navy Island, both near St Andrews, NB. One of the paintings will be used for promotional materials; the other will be sold at auction later this summer.
  • Oil Painters of America awarded me a Shirl Smithson Scholarship for 2008. I'll be using this to take a workshop with Lois Griffel. I've always admired Lois' work, and I'm looking forward to studying with someone who learned from Henry Hensche and, through Hensche, Charles Hawthorne.
  • The Sedona Plein Air Festival has invited me back for a third year, an invitation which I have gladly accepted. The Festival runs from October 19-26.

Besides the exhibition in Old Forge, I have works in two more shows running at the moment. These are:
  • Two oil paintings in the "Something Fishy" show at the Maine Art Gallery in Wiscasset, Maine. The show runs from May 1 to June 2.
  • Two oil paintings in the "Far & Near Horizons" World Tour of Contemporary Artists show. The show is currently at the Link Gallery in Door County, Wisconsin. The show runs through May 21.
Work on the next book continues. I've finished writing Backpacker Painting: Outdoors with Pastel & Oil, and now I am doing photography and demonstrations. You can get the latest news on the book by visiting I'll be posting excerpts and photos and video clips there.

By the way, I want to mention a special season of workshops coming up next winter. These will be "mentoring" workshops for the advanced student in oil or pastel, which I will hold in Sedona, Arizona, from January through March 2009. The workshops will be based on my popular Campobello Island format of five half-days. We work for half a day, which leaves you the rest of the day to either paint on your own or explore Sedona. What's more, in addition to mentoring, you'll get lodging and two meals a day! Cost of the workshop is a very reasonable $1000 for one person and only $250 for a second sharing the same room. For more information, please visit Size of the classes will be very small, and I expect them to fill quickly.

That's enough for now. Please see my website for other upcoming events and workshops. Have a great May!