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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Painting Outside the Plein Air Tradition

The other day, I mentioned a student who paints large canvases in the field. Readers have asked me how an artist can paint five or six hours and not have to wrestle with the changing light. For Peter Lewis, from St John's, Newfoundland, time is not relevant to his vision of the landscape. If the sun moves, he moves the shadows; if people come and go, he puts them in or takes them out. Peter paints outside of what I call the "plein air tradition."

The plein air tradition comes from academically-trained artists who worked in the field to gather reference material for studio paintings. Today, many of us go out to hone our observational skills or for the pure pleasure of being outside. But whatever the reason, we who paint in this tradition adhere to a few rules:
  • We select a motif, such as a tree, and build a composition around it to support that motif;
  • We use principles of linear and aerial perspective to create an illusion of reality; and finally,
  • We are sensitive the changes of lighting and weather over time. If we bring these changes to the painting unmindfully, the painting will be full of inconsistent shadows and color, thus destroying the illusion we're trying to build.
Peter will select as his point of interest the entirety of a sweeping landscape, and he composes it as one might a camera fitted with a wide-angle lens. He uses a certain amount of linear and aerial perspective to create an illusion of distance, but he is not a slave to these principles. He generally keeps his color pure and joyful, using swaths of bright yellow for highlights of trees, passages of unadulterated blue for a cool sky. As people come and go, they are likely to be placed in the painting. Peter takes great pleasure in creating a time-lapse painting of the events that make up his day in the field.

For a traditional plein air painter as myself, I enjoy looking at the freshness of his pieces. By the way, today he has gone off to the Grand Canyon. I can't wait to see what he comes back with!

Here are a few from this week. They are all either 3x3 or larger. (All by permission.) For more on Peter, visit:

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Painting REALLY Large

I have a student this week who thinks a 16x20 canvas is small. He paints canvases that are in the "feet" range. Yesterday, he painted a 3'x3', and as I write this, he is still on-location working on a 3'x4'. It takes him five or six hours. Here's a picture of him painting at Red Rock Crossing.

I don't think I'll go quite that large. Some of the issues with "supersizing" your work include: finding a palette big enough for mixing, storing wet paintings and, of course, shipping wet paintings. For me, a 12x16 or 16x20 is plenty big.

My other student is also painting big paintings. The last time he workshopped with me, he used a little, 6x8 box made by artist Ben Haggett. (Ben makes really nice boxes that employ industrial-strength magnets to keep the boxes closed during travel. Visit his site at This time, he's working with a 12x16 Haggett box.

I've made four paintings this week: two 12x16s and a 12x24. I'm very pleased with the extra room these sizes give me to work in. The paintings are pictured below.

"Secret Mountain Wilderness"
12x16, oil
at Windrush Gallery

"Munds Wagon Trail"
12x24, oil

"Young Sycamore"
16x12, oil
at Windrush Gallery

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Purple, Orange and Green

"Schnebly Hill Chasm"
9x12, pastel

I remember reading somewhere that the triad of secondaries makes for the most pleasing color harmony because the natural landscape consists of orange, green and purple. This wasn't on my mind when I painted the picture above, but in retrospect, I unwittingly used this triad. Most likely, it's because I painted what I saw.

My secondaries run from the pure hues to neutrals and in a variety of temperatures. It'd be a good quiz for students to see how many they kind find. (Any takers?)

This was painted during late morning at Schnebly Hill, when Munds Mountain is backlit. The chasm in the foreground is part of a wash that runs into Bear Wallow Canyon. The rock ledges are steep and dramatic - worth exploring, for sure.

This ends my "pastel" week. Next week, I'll have oil painters for the mentoring workshop - painters that want to work LARGE. One of them has ordered 3'x4' canvases!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Buildings as Blocks of Color

"Spirit Room"
5x7, pastel

Students who haven't painted much architecture sometimes get lost in all the details buildings present - the mullions in the windows, the bricks in the walls, the bundles of powerlines arcing overhead. I like to think of buildings as just blocks of color. This allows me to take a broad, painterly approach, and I can always add in as much detail as I wish toward the end.

Imagine the scene as a flat, abstract pattern of shapes. Examine the relationships between high-value, warm (sunlit) surfaces and low-value, cool (shadowed) surfaces; note the quality of the edges made by adjacent color-shapes (walls and windows); and don't worry about perspective at this point, but do get the angles you see right.

This is how I painted "Spirit Room,"an old bar in Jerome, Arizona. This is a building of the flatiron variety, which can present some complex perspective issues, especially in a town like Jerome, which sits perched on a 30-degree mountainside. After using the method I describe above, I felt I hadn't observed some of the angles accurately enough, so the next day I made some minor adjustments in perspective. Also, I added the little window below street level on the bottom right; without it, the viewer would have a hard time understanding what was going on there.

(Photo by Tom Willa)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Field Compositions

"Field Studies"
9x12 (4x12, 5x5, 5x7) pastel

When we're out in the field, composition often suffers because we simply take the first design we see. Yesterday, I demonstrated to my mentoring students how you can take a single, 9x12 sheet of paper, divide it up and do several compositional studies. I recommend doing several of the same scene, as I show above.

The top section is 4x12; the square on the left, 5x5, and the remaining space, 5x7. This gives three radically different composition possibilities: the 1:3 panorama, the square, and the standard-size 5x7.

In each section, I tried to maintain the same center of interest, the rock column. In the last, I deviated a bit and zoomed in on the foreground field, but the rock column is still a player.

By the way, you'd think that three paintings take a long time. But after selecting the pastels for the top piece, I simply used the same palette for the remaining two. The work goes much faster once you've chosen your palette! I did this in about 90 minutes.

Below, I've cropped out each section so you can more easily see how the compositions work.

One of my students, Miki Willa, has been blogging about this week's experience. Check out her comments here at

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Getting the Right Color - A Good Goal?

"Red Rock Crossing Hues"
5x9, pastel - SOLD

Last night over dinner, one of my mentoring students said how hard it was to select the right color sometimes. We then asked the question, Is this a worthwhile goal?

I've seen many students agonize over selecting "just the right green" from their pastels or mixing "just the right blue" with their oil paints. The implication of this is that they're trying to duplicate the scene before them photographically by painting exactly the colors that they see.

The problem with this approach is that we are often faced with a world of dull or monotonous color. Too much green in moist New England, too much brown in the desert Southwest, too much grey in the foggy Northwest. Duplicating the scene may give you a painting that doesn't quite work. We all remember those fantastic scenes we've photographed, only to look at the photographs back home and sadly learn that the camera failed to capture the feeling. It's the same with painting.

Here's a better approach. Pick a color that's close and works well with your other colors. Think of getting the color relationships right, not the exact colors.

Above is a case in point. Under the hazy, almost-overcast light, the red rock slab had a little more orangey-red in it than I've painted it. I didn't have quite the right pastel color. Still, the colors all work together.

Monday, February 16, 2009

More on Shadows

In my last post, I discussed the issue of intense, warm light bouncing into shadows. Shadows can get a lot more complicated. Four things are going on in shadow:

1. The shadow is primarily a darker version of the local color of the surrounding area. So, if you have green grass in shadow, the green will be darker than the grass in light. (This is pretty obvious, eh?)

2. Skylight bounces down into shadow areas. If the sky is blue, some of the blue will show up in the shadows - especially the outer reaches of the shadow that are farthest away from the object casting the shadow. (We've all heard about putting blue in shadows.)

3. Thanks to "simultaneous contrast," a bit of the complement of the surrounding illuminated color will show up, too. Taking the grass example, since grass is green, you'll see a little red in the shadows. (Now we're diving into an esoteric area...)

4. Finally, whatever the hue of the light source is, a bit of it will bounce into the shadows. So, if there's a yellow sun, a bit of the yellow will be there, too, thanks to halation. (Huh?)

Sure, you can think about all these effects and try to weigh which of the four dominates a particular situation. But here's an easy solution - observe closely and paint what you observe. It's that easy!

In the following sketch, I focussed on capturing the effects of bounced light in the shadow area. I've kept to a minimal my involvement with shape and design.

"Sugarloaf Shadows"
5x7, pastel

More on Shadows

Friday, February 13, 2009

Warm Light, Warm Shadows?

"Spring Comes to Red Rock Crossing"
9x12, oil -

Out at Red Rock Crossing, a shelf of pink slickrock follows the creek. Oak Creek's annual floods have stripped away all the soil, leaving a blindingly bright slab.

At midday, the light bounces into all the shadows. The rule of "warm light, cool shadows" seems violated. The shadows are full of oranges and reds, and you have to look hard for any sign of what we normally think of as cool color - the blues and greens. But if you look closely, the oranges and reds in the shadows are still cooler than those same hues in the light. When I painted this scene, I always tried to mix a cooler color for the shadows. For example, if I used warm Cadmium Red in the lit areas, I used cooler Alizarin Crimson in the shadows.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Snow in Sedona

Snow is an uncommon event here in Sedona, and yesterday we had 5 inches of it. It lay like a comforter over the hills, but more like lace on the finely-ridged mountaintops. Needless to say, the workshop didn't venture outside. Instead, we painted indoors but looking out. We took advantage of the large, floor-to-ceiling windows and the wonderful view toward the south. Even as we painted, the snow was visibly diminishing on Coxcomb, Doe and Bear Mountains.

I worked on an oil sketch, thinking more about value and color relationships than precise form. I built up the paint pretty thickly. In the end, I took a palette knife to the piece to smooth out the texture in some areas. Surprisingly, the hard-edged knife ended up being a good tool for rendering the softness of snow and cloud. You have to let the flat side of the knife "slide" over the surface lightly.

The day before, we had rain, which is another uncommon event. (I don't think my students believe me when I say we just experienced nearly six weeks of unbroken sun and excellent weather!) I chose pastel to do two small sketches. Again, I was interested more in color and value than anything else. I worked especially on the cool reds and greens in the distant hills and the relationship to the warmer foreground greens. For the distant hills, I chose two pastels of the same value - a rather vivid red-violet and a blue-green. After blocking in the hills, I layered the complement of each over them to neutralize the rich color somewhat. I also used a bit of "real" grey to cool them down further.

I'll put these sketches in chronological order below. By the way, in second pastel, that's a home on a hilltop that resembles an Italian villa. Homes here run the gamut from modest to supreme examples of Veblen's "conspicuous consumption." Trina and I like the villa house; well-designed, it looks like a weathered outcrop of rocks on the hilltop - almost as if the winter rains revealed it naturally after centuries of erosion.

Coxcomb in Rain
5x7, pastel,

Hilltop Home
5x7, pastel,

Coxcomb in Snow
8x10, oil,

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Cropping After the Fact

Last night, just before sunset, we had some gorgeous light on Doe Mesa and Bear Mountain. I felt the urge to do a pastel study of the colors. But because the sun was dropping fast and an advancing storm was herding in the clouds, I didn't make a thumbnail sketch or work out my composition. I didn't have time!

As many of you know, I preach vehemently against skipping the design stage. A good design is the foundation for everything else that follows. But I also remind students, usually during the critiques, that cropping with a pair of scissors can be a pastel painter's remedy for a poorly-designed work. (Oil painters who paint on panels, of course, will have to resort to a table saw.)

On the other hand, there's nothing wrong with just diving in with the pastel or paint. Sometimes you're not sure how the composition will work out. You may have a center of interest, and so you start painting just to see how things develop. That's what I did last night. Scissors work well in this case, too.

One thing to remember is that it's often cheaper to work in standard sizes. Keep this in mind when you're cropping. The piece I did was on a 9x12 sheet; in the images below, I'll show you some choices for cropping it into a standard 5x7. I used my 5x7 template, which I use for outlining a 5x7 rectangle. First, here's the original, followed by the choices. (Click on the thumbnails for a bigger view.)

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Backpacker Painting: Oil Video Preview

Based on the feedback from my last post, it seems most readers are interested in seeing the "Camel Head" painting demonstration. I've put together a short (2:25) video preview. This is all my laptop can handle at the moment, so the full-length demonstration of 1 hour or so will be produced this summer when I have more capable equipment available to me.

For those of you who voted for "West Fork Rapids," take heart! That will also appear as a demonstration in the near future. In addition, I'll be shooting footage for a pastel demonstration, so you can look forward to that, too.

Here's the preview for "Camel Head." Keep in mind that this is a very low-resolution, YouTubed version.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Video Adventures, Part 1

"West Fork Rapids
9x12, oil

"Camel Head, Backlit"
9x12, oil

One of the things I promised with Backpacker Painting is a companion DVD that would have both oil and pastel demonstrations. The final form of the DVD - or possibly even two DVDs - is yet to be determined, but I am in the process of shooting video for the project. Although Trina considers me a technical wizard, there are aspects of videography that go beyond knowing how to run the camera. And I find them challenging, indeed.

Some of these challenges include:
  • Wind. This is enough of an issue when you're painting with an umbrella to shade your palette, but even more so when you have a video camera set up within striking distance of the umbrella. One good gust and - wham!
  • Water noise. It's very pleasant to paint near a babbling brook, but the babbling wreaks havoc with sound levels. So do noisy hikers, air traffic and allergies.
  • Weight. The equipment required to shoot efficiently - extra tripod, external wireless mic, still DSLR for shooting high-res images - takes up another bag and another hand, and it's more parts to keep track of. Or, more parts to lose, depending on your viewpoint.
But, it's all fun and rewarding. Soon I hope to have a clip or two to post on my blog. In the meantime, above are two paintings I taped. Which would you rather see a demonstration of?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Painting with Friends

"Fay Canyon Secrets"
9x12, oil -

On Monday, I thought I'd spend the afternoon working on another 16x20 piece. I'd gone so far as to get the French easel packed up along with the additional gear I need for working on a large canvas. I'll admit, this is not gear I'd want to take when I switch into my secret identity as Backpacker Painter! The easel is heavy and awkward. At best, I like to carry it from the car to the edge of the parking lot, and no farther.

But I received an invitation from a painter friend, Cody DeLong, who was going to be in town with one of his painting buddies, Dawn Sutherland. They swung by the house after lunch to discuss where we might paint. "How far are you expecting to go?" I asked these two athletic types. I was worried. "Are you going to paint from the car, or walk in?" Dawn smiled and said, "Oh, we might go a couple of miles."

When Cody and Dawn started tracing routes on the small-scale trail map that we've made a permanent fixture on half of our dining room table, I knew I was in trouble. (The table seats six, so you can imagine how big the map is.) I decided I'd better swap out the French easel. I changed into Backpacker Painter mode, grabbed a 9x12 panel and my Guerrilla Painter box, and out we went.

We hiked into Fay Canyon. There's a little arch up in the cliffs that you can see from the trail. If you clamber all the way up the scree, you'll discover it's actually a window. The window, unfortunately, is butted up against another cliff wall with just enough of a gap to let light spill down the backside of it, so it's not much to paint. However, turn around and you'll see a glorious canyon spread out before you. I stood not too far down from the window to paint this scene.