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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Trip Update: Old Forge, New York

"Lake Serene View"
9x12, pastel

After spending several delightful days with family and friends in Chicago and Cleveland, Trina and I drove to Old Forge, New York. This weekend, I'll judge the Fifth Annual Northeast National Pastel Exhibition, and next week I'll teach a pastel plein air workshop for Arts Center/Old Forge.

In the meantime, I'm getting familiar with the territory. If I'm teaching a plein air workshop in an area where I've not painted before, I find it's important to get a handle on the landscape by painting a few small sketches. I've hiked a lot in the Adirondack Mountains, but that was before I looked at the world with a painter's eye.

Old Forge is one of the coldest wintertime places in the lower 48. Right now, even though tomorrow is May Day, the trees are still leafless and one can find the occasional scrap of snow. But the sugar maples are budding, and yesterday, a mayfly lit on my hand.

After scouting out plein air locations for the workshop, I decided to relax by painting a view of Lake Serene behind our camping cabin. My goal was to find the right palette for this season. The hills are a cool red-violet, but the budding maples give a warmer, redder cast to them. The grasses are still a winter-beaten silvery-green and dull wheat color. Some of the richest colors are the reflected sky blues in the water.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Last Glimpse of New Mexico

"View from Big Arsenic"
5x7, oil

This is our last day in Taos and also in New Mexico. Early tomorrow, we head out for a two-day trip to Chicago to visit family. I don't expect I'll have much time for painting, so I made sure today to paint one last 5x7.

Trina and I drove up to the Wild River Recreation Area near Questa. It seemed a paradoxical place, what with a really good paved road - unusual in rural New Mexico - going through it but no visitors. The WRRA occupies a narrow wedge of land between the Red River and the Rio Grande. At one point, you can actually hike down to the confluence of the two. Dramatic views abound!

We stopped at Big Arsenic campground, and I painted the view of the Rio Grande winding its way down to meet the Red River. I don't have much to say about this one, other than I wanted to do something quick. We had to get home to pack.

By the way, The Artist's Magazine is featuring my video demonstration of "Snowfield Sentinel" on its website. If you haven't seen this short demonstration yet, visit:

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Spring Color: Red Willows

"Rio Hondo Spring"
9x12, oil

Arroyo Hondo is touted as being a painting destination, so today we drove north to where the Rio Hondo wanders away from the highway and followed the river west, where it joins the Rio Grande. The town of Arroyo Hondo is filled with very paintable adobes and views of pastures and distant, snow-capped mountains, but we kept going. Pavement turned to dirt, and the road wound down toward the river.

We ended up near the John Dunn Bridge, nestled in the canyon where the two rivers join. Rich color filled the red willows, the water was rushing fast, and steep canyon walls towered above. Now this is the kind of scene I like! I felt yesterday's painting was a bit fussy, so I played a bit more loosely with this one. I had better light today, too. Strong sunlight and deep shadows make for easier paintings than hazy, filtered light.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

A Break from Painting Adobes

"The Road to Pilar"
9x12, oil

As much as I love painting architecture, today I decided to go back to the pure landscape. Trina and I drove out on County Road 110 from Ranchos de Taos with the intention of going to Pilar. Now, according to all the maps we have, this was supposed to be a continuous paved road. But after about five miles, the pavement ended abruptly in a pile of boulders. (A gravel road shot off to the west, and perhaps that was a continuation of 110. I didn't feel like driving a dirt road after last night's five inches of wet snow. It'd probably be mud.)

Curious, we parked the car and walked past the boulders. The pavement continued, but two Jersey barriers made darn sure you didn't continue with a vehicle. After the second one, the road became a one-lane gravel road that took us to the very rim of the awesome Rio Pueblo de Taos Gorge. Looking over the edge at the 200-foot drop made me weak in the knees. If you fell, you'd probably never make it to the water; the steep canyon walls are made up of fractured lava that looked about as sharp as a set of Ginsu knives. The road eventually ended down near the Rio Pueblo in a landslide of lava blocks.

We hiked back up to the top of the gorge, and I painted the view.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Encounter: Nicolai Fechin

Several years ago, we met Eya Fechin, Nicolai Fechin's daughter. Eya gave us a personal tour of her father's house, which at the time was called the Fechin Institute. Yesterday, we visited the house again. Eya died in 2002, and the property is now called the Taos Art Museum and Fechin House. On display were many of Fechin's finished oil portraits as well as a large collection of his charcoal sketches, plus a rotating exhibit of some of the Museum's 300-odd pieces of Taos Society of Artists paintings from artists such as Blumenschein and Ufer.

Fechin was known as a master of the portrait, but he also did landscapes. Here's one of his little plein air pieces that was on display, a winter scene of a chicken coop. It's about 8x10 and seems to be painted in alla prima fashion. Note the broken brush strokes. Walt Gonske, about whom I wrote the other day, told me he admired this feature of Fechin's painting style. Unlike Gonske, Fechin didn't have access to Claybord, but he made his own absorbent ground out of casein. The casein absorbed enough oil so that the paint "set up" quickly, allowing succeeding strokes to have a dry-brush appearance. Also, in the process of preparing his palette, Fechin would squeeze paint out on newspaper first. The paper absorbed a lot of the oil.

Now, here's one of Fechin's portraits, "The Manicurist." There are three images: one of the full portrait, a slight close-up of the head and hands, and finally, one of the hands alone. Look how abstract the hands are! I doubt this painting was done alla prima, because the surface looks encrusted - much like an old palette that has seen years of use. For more on Fechin, see this Wikipedia link. (Sorry, but no painting today. I took lots of photos, though!)

By the way, both of my books, Backpacker Painting: Outdoors with Oil & Pastel and Through a Painter's Brush: A Year on Campobello Island, are now available on Amazon!

Here are links that'll take you directly there:

Two Hundreds Years of Adobe Construction

"Capilla de San Antonio du Padua"
9x12, oil

While in Taos, we are staying in the La Loma Plaza Historic District. Our little casita, part of a building that was built in 1796, has a view of the Capilla de San Antonio du Padua. This little chapel was built at the same time as the Plaza and was used for worship by the inhabitants. It is still used today on special feast days.

Partly obstructing our view of the chapel is another old adobe, which is attached to ours. This adobe, which has been renovated without attention to aesthetics, together with the adjacent chapel, serves to illustrate 200 years of adobe construction.

Because of the high winds yesterday, I painted from the porch. I spent some time trying to get the best view of the chapel, but because of the narrow alleys between buildings - no wider than a single horse-cart or passenger car - it was impossible to paint the chapel and not include the other building.

I settled on what I felt was an interesting and "modern" composition. I could have done more to enhance the separation between the two buildings with, say, a figure or two, but I like the lack of spatial distance. I think the viewer's eye quickly moves out of this confusing area and up to the steeple of the chapel, which is the most beautiful part of the scene. I'm curious to know what you think.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Taos House

"Mabel's Pink House"
8x10, oil, en plein air

If you're a painter visiting Taos, it's hard not to catch the fire. You're surrounded by so much art. Visiting Walt Gonske and strolling through the galleries really makes me want to pick up the brush. So, yesterday I did.

I went over to Mabel Dodge Luhan's house to paint one of her houses. If you don't know Mabel, she was a New York socialite who moved to Taos in 1919 and then enticed many of her artist and writer friends to move to Taos or at least to visit. D.H. Lawrence, Georgia O'Keefe and Marsden Hartley are some of the luminaries who came. (Dennis Hopper wrote the script to Easy Rider in her house, but that was after Mabel died.)

I painted the "Pink House." O'Keefe stayed there for awhile. It caught my eye because it is a bit more ramshackle than the main house, which is now run as an inn and conference center and is well-maintained. (For more on Mabel and her place, visit

The day was mostly cloudy with fleeting glimpses of sun, and as we are not yet into spring here, the vegetation is still looking a bit tired and beat-up. For this sketch, I used a hardboard panel with three coats of Blick acrylic gesso, which makes an unabsorbent and slippery surface that allows for some nice, transparent passages. I used just one brush and worked out of my 7-day pill box (filled with my 6 colors) to make clean up easier.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Encounter: Walt Gonske

Taos artist Walt Gonske is one of my favorite artists. I met him briefly a few years ago, and I also had an opportunity to include him in the book I wrote on Ann Templeton, A Step Beyond. Ann considers Walt to be one of her mentors.

In 1972, Walt left a successful career in New York as an illustrator to seek his fortune as a landscape painter. With only $4000 to his name, he settled in Taos. Today, he is one of the most collected artists in the U.S. He's won several important awards, including three medals from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, and his work is in the permanent collection of the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa.

Yesterday, Walt invited Trina and me to his studio gallery. Walt is famous for his "paintmobile," a truck camper outfitted with everything he needs to spend days painting around northern New Mexico. I'd gotten a tour of it before, but now I wanted to see his studio. His home is his studio - or rather, his studio is his home. His bed, for instance, occupies a small corner of his showroom. This is a painter who lives, breathes and sleeps art.

In the hour we spent with him, we talked about art technique. One thing I was curious to know was how, as an alla prima painter, he manages to get a dry brush effect. If you look closely at his snow paintings, you'll often see a fence post rendered as a single stroke played against the snow. The stroke "breaks" as if the paint describing the snow had already dried. He explained that he uses Ampersand Claybord, which has an absorbent surface. By the time he gets to putting in the fence posts, the snow has had enough oil sucked out of it by the clay that he can get the broken effect.

I could write a full-length article on Walt's techniques, but I'll save that for a magazine. Here's an example from his web site of one of his pieces, "El Prado Farm" (18x24, $7,500):

Walt's website is

Monday, April 13, 2009

Trip Update: Taos, New Mexico

After our week in Cloudcroft, we headed up to Taos on Saturday. Our luck hasn't been great with travel days. We ran into winter weather again, hitting snow as we passed just north of Interstate 40. Chicken that I am, I gave the steering wheel over to Trina.

We had more snow on Easter Sunday, which eventually turned to rain. After celebrating communion at St James Episcopal Church, I went out to walk the town and see what galleries were open. Not many!

Today, Monday, was a better day for galleries. There's a lot of good art in town. For a painter who's always looking for representation, that means there's also a lot of competition. I have one gallery interested in me, but getting in depends on my doing some paintings of the Taos area. Although I am painting this week, I'm just sketching.

We went out to the Rio Grande gorge this morning, and I did a quick little pastel. This has always been one of my favorite spots, and I'm glad I had a chance to paint it.

"Rio Grande Gorge"
5x7 pastel, en plein air

I spent a lot of time this afternoon taking photographs of old adobe buildings. I'll use these, along with color sketches in pastel and oil, to create studio paintings. I'll send images of these to my prospective Taos gallery.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Trip Update: Cloudcroft, New Mexico

After spending three days near El Morro, New Mexico, and revisiting our old haunts, we headed down to Cloudcroft in the Southern Sacramento Mountains. We also lived near here for a few years and had some favorite trails to hike. After a day of rambling around, we drove to a meadow on 8900-foot Alamo Peak, where I knew there'd be some nice stands of aspen with a bit of snow around their roots. While Trina hiked some more, I pulled out the oil paints and got the rust out of my brush hand.

The light this time of year and at this elevation is blindingly bright, and I worked in full sun without an umbrella. I had some trouble mixing my darks, but after looking at this sketch indoors, I decided my instincts worked.

"Alamo Peak Aspens"
5x7, oi

Unlike Sedona, which was well into spring last week, both El Morro and Cloudcroft are still at the tail end of winter. Still, on the Osha Trail in Cloudcroft, you can see a tuft of green here and there, especially where the sun is strongest. The aspens, though, are a long way from going into leaf.