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Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Painting Larger

"Munds Mountain, Morning"
16x20, oil/linen

It was a crisp morning - 33 degrees - but we finally had clear skies and no wind after a couple of days of unsettled weather. I've been itching to get to my larger canvases, so this was the day. I threw on the parka, slipped on the "glomitts" and a wool hat, and headed out to the Schnebly Hill area.

It took three hours and my biggest brushes to do the painting above. I used a 16x20 pre-stretched portrait linen canvas from Frederix. If you've used stretched canvas in the field, you know the problem with it. Sunlight coming in from the back can make the surface glow and throw off all your value and color judgements. To solve this problem, I slipped in a piece of cardboard to block the sun. But why use stretched canvas in the first place? A 16x20 panel is heavy, so I went with the lighter option. I normally don't like painting on a woven surface because of the texture. Anytime I use stretched canvas, I use portrait linen, which has a finer weave.

My biggest brushes are #12 hog bristle flats from Silver Brush Ltd. (I also used a #4 and #6 for the minimal detail work.) The palette in my French easel was just barely big enough for mixing, probably because I've added Terra Rosa and Yellow Ochre to my six-color, split-primary palette. The weave of the canvas, although fine, really ate up the paint.

While I was painting, Trina and Saba had time to do not one but two hikes! After I finished, I felt like I'd done two hikes myself. Big paintings take a lot of mental energy and physical stamina. But it's a bit like marathon running; once you've done a few, the next ones always seem a little easier. But you can't stop training - stop, and you'll lose your conditioning.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Getting Your Lights Lighter than Light

"Looking Toward Mingus Mountain"
5x7, oil

An old TV commercial for a laundry detergent claimed the product could get 'whites whiter than white.' We landscape painters might have a similar goal, getting our lights lighter than light. Ground-up dirt or a synthetic pigment mixed with a little bit of linseed oil is a poor substitute for real sunshine.

We come across many instances where we're trying to show the heat of the sun, the glow of the moon, the silver lining of clouds. Unless you take care to scale all your color mixtures (or pastel selections) to your lightest light, you'll fail. Whenever I want to get a bright effect, I first mix my lightest light. Next, I make test swatches of my darker mixtures and compare them with my lightest light. It also helps to do this on a mid-value palette. Unless I can get the effect I want with these swatches, no amount of fancy brushwork will help.

For this little painting, I tried as closely as possible to reproduce the colors and values of the clouds with the silvered edges, the little bit of blue sky you can see, and the distant bulk of Mingus Mountain. For the foreground, however, I intentionally darkened it a bit to make the sky seem even lighter. (For those of you who have been following my experiments with expanding my palette, a touch of Yellow Ochre is in every mixture.)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Color After the Rain

"After the Rain"
5x7, oil


We had a little rain yesterday, and after the rain stopped, the clouds among the hills made a beautiful tableau. In particular, I liked the way Bear Mountain sat against the sky - beautiful cool reds, blues and greens everywhere. The warmer foreground yellows and greens of the junipers made a nice contrast. I decided to do a small sketch, with the goal of observing color accurately rather than capturing precise form. Just as I finished, the sun broke out. The sunlit cliffs created the perfect accent.

By the way, while poking around the Sedona Public Library, I came across The Art of Emily Carr (Doris Shadbolt, 1979). It's funny that I came all the way from Canada to find a book about Carr, who is perhaps Canada's best-known painter. The book tells that, for many of her works, she chose to use the least-archival materials. She painted on manila paper, using white house paint to mix with her colors and gasoline to thin them. The editor notes that many of these oil-on-paper works have become fragile and brittle. One unintended, positive effect is that the manila paper has aged to become a golden color, providing a background harmonizing color. But the negatives outweigh the positives.

Even when I make little sketches such as the one above, I use only the best materials and always archival ones. Although it may be presumptuous and immodest of me to paint for the ages, why not do so? One never knows.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Expanding the Palette

"Lazy Light"
12x24, oil

Those of you who've read my book, Backpacker Painting, know about my limited, split-primary palette. Well, I'm a firm believer in being able to mix just about any color from those six colors, plus white. However, I'm not so rigid that I don't add other colors when the situation arises. For example, I brought with me on this trip two secondaries, Cadmium Orange and Dioxazine Purple. It's impossible to mix these two colors from my palette and to get them as rich as the tubed ones. I brought them because I know from experience that there are lots of purple and oranges in the southwestern landscape.

But I've been here two weeks, and I haven't used them yet. I've been satisfied with my basic palette. Yesterday, though, I decided it was time to do larger paintings -- hence the 12x24 above -- and as I was looking at my paint inventory, I wondered if my handful of tubes would last until the end of March. Then I remembered I'd stashed away a gift box of Vasari oils , given to the participants in the last Sedona Plein Air Festival by the manufacturer. I poked through it, looking to see what I could supplement my inventory with. I found Yellow Ochre and Terra Rosa, two marvelous earth pigments.

The wheels began to spin. It was a hazy day, with a soft, grey light laying on the landscape. Yellow Ochre and Terra Rosa can be considered greys. How would they work for me? The painting above is the result. I couldn't believe how quickly the painting went with these two additions. Sure, I could have mixed approximations of them from my limited palette, but it would have taken longer, and I wouldn't have had the "flow." With this first, large painting, I was looking for "flow" -- a smooth, nearly automatic mixing of paint as I worked. I didn't want to struggle.

As for Dioxazine Purple and Cadmium Orange, they'll have to wait for a sunnier day!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Retreat from the Canyon

"Midgley Bridge View"
8x10, oil

On the last day of this week's workshop, we drove north up Oak Creek Canyon to Slide Rock State Park. Since we'd had warm days and it was late in the morning, we thought we'd have a balmy day despite the elevation gain. Our house is at 4550 feet, and Slide Rock is at 4930 feet; for comparison, Flagstaff, which has three feet of snow on the ground, is perched at 6910 feet.

Well, we didn't find snow at Slide Rock, but the wind came up without warning. It was like a freight train of cold vapor running down the rails from Flagstaff. I found a single point in full sun that was protected from the wind, but the view wasn't good. So, we retreated down the canyon.

We struck gold at Midgley Bridge. The bridge spans Wilson Canyon, which joins Oak Creek Canyon at right angles. Because this canyon runs in a different direction, it didn't channel the wind the way Oak Creek Canyon did. In fact, we found a dead calm, along with stunning views all the way along the trail.

You'll notice in my painting that the bridge angles up toward the right - the end that actually takes you down to Sedona. In my mind, that end should have gone down, too, but I measured it several times. It's an illusion of perspective.

By the way, I've created special page on my website that features all of my Sedona paintings that are for sale. I've broken them down into Plein Air Sketches and Demonstrations, and Finished Works. You can see the paintings here: If you are interested in any of them, please contact me.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Rich Painting Spots

"January Heat"
9x12, pastel

Schnebly Hill, just up the road from uptown, offers spectacular, close-up views of Sedona's red rocks and long views of the Oak Creek valley. It's a great place to spend the entire day, since you have 360 degrees of subject matter. No matter which direction the sun is in, there's always something to paint. I call it a "rich" painting location. Such a place gets high marks in my book, since it's always dependable - and that's important when teaching workshops.

The shadows on the rocks around Schnebly Hill are ever-shifting. If you look at each rock formation in two-hour periods, you'll see that the shadows are always on the move. Every two hours you get a different painting. I could pitch a tent up there and paint five paintings a day for 365 days, and no two paintings would be alike.

I suggest to plein air painters that they find a "rich" painting spot near them. Painting there frequently will be like hanging out with an old friend, but with an old friend who can still spring a surprise. It'll be a place you can return to again and again, and always enjoy the moment.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sunblock & Plein Air

"The Cuban Queen, Jerome - Open 365 Days a Year"

8x10, oil

The sun's been so intense, even in January, that I've taken to slathering on sunblock first thing after my morning shower. If I don't apply it right away, I forget - and that's a dangerous thing in these days of ozone holes and cancer genes gone wild.

I made a special effort to remember the sunblock yesterday morning. Our destination was Jerome, which is just a little higher than Sedona and sits perched on a 30-degree slope. It's an old mining "ghost town" that once boasted 21 bars, but which in recent years has resurrected itself as an arts community. Jerome never seems to have enough shade when I'm there. But one thing it has plenty of is hundred-year-old buildings tipping off their foundations.

I found myself a particularly sunny spot to paint this one. After I finished, I asked the Chamber of Commerce volunteer, who had come over to chat as folks do in Jerome, what the building had been. "Oh," she said. "That's the 'Cuban Queen'. It used to be a brothel."

As you go up the hill to Jerome, a sign says "Open 365 Days a Year." That seemed a fitting title for the painting.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Four Paintings, One Day

"Doe Mountain Colors"
5x7, pastel -

"Doe Mountain Shadows"
5x7, pastel

"Cathedral Rock Shadows"
5x7, pastel

"Red Rock Crossing Rush"
5x7, pastel

Yesterday, my workshop had a painting blitz. In the morning, we went to Doe Mountain and painted two scenes from the same location. In the late afternoon, we went to Crescent Moon Ranch and painted a couple of scenes down by Oak Creek. It's interesting to see how the light changes over time. I've put the images in chronological order so you can see the difference.

For the morning ones, I saved the pastels I used in my first painting and used them again in the second. I'd done a lot of work to figure out what colors worked best for the red rock shadows, and it made sense to use them again.

For the evening paintings, I was pretty tired by the time I got to Number Four. I just wanted to do something quick and easy. I'm always amazed at how well a painting can turn out when you're tired and no longer thinking. (Sometimes we think too much when we're well-rested!) I really like the movement in this one.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Faster, Bigger

"Little Elf Trailhead"
8x10, oil, en plein air

Last night, Trina and I had dinner with Michael Coleman ( at his home in the Village of Oak Creek. His home contains a wonderful studio gallery with "in your face" views of red rock cliffs. We got there around sunset, and the light on the cliffs was so stunning, I felt like taking out my paints and forgoing dinner.

I'm familiar with Michael's work mostly through the Sedona Plein Air Festival, and because of the time limitations of the Festival, the pieces are small. (As are most outdoor pieces by anyone these days.) I didn't know that he also paints quite large on location. He showed me one painting of Spanish daggers that was a good 6 feet tall.

I asked him about the process, and was surprised to hear that the large pieces are started and completed on location in a single session. "Years ago, Curt Walters and I started challenging ourselves to paint larger. We worked our way up to it." (Walters,, has been called by Art of the West magazine the "Greatest Living Grand Canyon Artist.") I noted that one can quickly run out of palette room when painting large. He answered that artists usually limit their palette to just a few colors to solve that problem.

One of my goals this winter is to paint larger. Maybe not 6-foot canvases, but certainly bigger than I usually paint. I'll need to paint even faster -- and I'm a fast painter -- if I'm to finish a large one in a single session. This means putting more paint on the palette and being less stingy with loading the brush; less fussiness with exacting detail or getting shapes just right; and leaving small mistakes alone with the plan on fixing them later. With that in mind, I painted the above 8x10 in about an hour at one of our nearby trailheads. The paint on it is quite thick.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The Short View

"Shadowed Spire"
5x7, oil

The incredible vistas we enjoy in Sedona can be overwhelming. Sometimes, in the face of all that beauty, it's important that we scale down our ambition and select just a small portion to represent in paint.

Yesterday, I decided to select a small nook up in the cliffs to paint. I was intrigued by a pocket of shadow between two towering spires. Even though I must have been a half-mile from my subject, I could see deep into the shadow to spy a smaller spire. I liked the cool shadows around it.

By the way, lately I've been using white paint right from the start. Rather than laying in a transparent underpainting, I mix in white to establish my light values. It's a bit quicker, I find, and also a bit easier to establish the values.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Back-Lit Mountains

"Thunder Mountain, Backlit"
8x10, oil, en plein air

"Doe Mountain, Backlit, with Snow"
5x7, oil, en plein air

The sun can be intense in the Southwest, even in the winter. In the event you can't find a good spot that'll put shade on your painting and palette, an umbrella is handy. I have long-touted the $5 chair umbrellas one can pick up in the camping section of the "big box store" of your choice. These last about a year because the plastic clamp fatigues and snaps, but the umbrellas are cheap enough that you can afford to have a back-up or two. I bought two new ones for my trip.

Unfortunately, the manufacturer seems to have changed the recipe for the gooseneck that lets you move the umbrella to where you need it. With my new ones, if the umbrella's not completely vertical, its own weight will pull it down out of the desired position. Clever use of a bungee cord will solve the problem, but on Monday, I forgot the bungee cord. Nor was there any shade.

My friend Clive Pates doesn't use an umbrella. He says, "If there's no shade, then there's no shade!" Well, I like shade, since I believe it allows me to mix colors more accurately. (Clive doesn't have my problem. See his work at I decided to simply wheel my Guerrilla Painter box around so the lid cast an adequate shade on my palette and to paint whatever I saw there. (Finding a subject to paint in Sedona is, as they say, like shooting fish in a barrel.) I painted a back-lit view of Thunder Mountain. The next day, I decided to paint sans umbrella again. Trina and I went out to Doe Mountain for a hike, and afterward, I painted a view of it from the nearby Fay Canyon parking lot.

It's fun doing back-lit scenes. It forces you to choose between making the deeply-shadowed areas the center of interest, or the scant bits of direct light.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

A Different Kind of Day

"Cockscomb Mountain"
9x4, pastel

The sunny skies we've been enjoying this week suddenly gave way yesterday to clouds, and this morning, to drizzle and flurries. The mountains play hide-and-seek in the clouds that wrap the valley in mystery.

Of course, the lack of sun dramatically changes the colors in this land of warm colors. The blazing hot reds have changed to subtle, cooler red-violets; distant greens are bathed in blues and purples; and even the yellow patches of earth at your feet take on a cooler cast. If your goal in Sedona is to paint HOT, you won't find it today. Instead, you'll want to bridle your expectation and instead use the time to observe the color changes carefully and to hone your skills in mixing them.

The pastel above doesn't have a lot of detail in it, but I took care in trying to observe and mix accurately.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Settling Into Sedona

For those of you who get my bi-monthly newsletter, you know that we've reached Sedona at last. (Read the newsletter here.) After nearly 5000 miles and a month on the road, it feels good to settle in. And since we came with only what our Subaru Outback could carry, it didn't take long! I took the most time with the painting gear, ordering it so I could head out to paint at a moment's notice.

On our first day, even before I had arranged my gear, I decided to paint. What better way to settle in than to do a painting? I took out the medium closest to hand - the pastels. Pastel is, in my mind, the perfect impromptu medium.

Our porch offers wonderful views of Cockscomb Mountain and other features to the west. The sun was on its way down, and a dramatic light played on the hills. I wanted to do only a small, quick piece, so I taped off a 5x7 rectangle on a sheet of grey Wallis sanded paper and went to work. I found I needed an umbrella to keep the sun, which is intense here even in winter, off my work area. Here's a picture Trina took of me in situ:

I was pleased with this little piece. But I doubt I'll be working much this small. One of my goals over the next three months, besides the workshops , is to paint larger. My idea of large may still be small to some - 16x20. These will be large enough that it'll take more than one session to finish them. Fortunately, the weather in Sedona is predictable enough that one can plan on going out day after day.

"Sedona Patterns"
5x7, pastel

(By the way, I am having trouble getting Blogger to handle images correctly. If you try to click on an image in my recent posts, you'll see you don't get a larger version. You'll get the little hand icon, but nothing happens when you click. I've tried Firefox, Opera and Internet Explorer to no avail. If anyone knows a way around this, please e-mail me!)