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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

New Hampshire Workshop, Day 4 - Water

Our fourth and last day was spent in Goffstown. Goffstown once had a covered bridge that spanned the river in the middle of town. Now the bridge is gone, but at one end of the span, a small park has been created. From this park, you can see the stack of granite blocks that supported the bridge's other end. The river gave us an excellent opportunity to learn about painting water.

When I paint water, I like to break up the process into three steps. First, if I can see bottom, which I couldn't in this case, I paint underwater features such as submerged rocks and logs. Next, I paint reflections, typically using more vertical strokes. Finally, I paint surface details, such as ripples or floating leaves and, using a light touch, soften the water with horizontal strokes. In this demonstration, I also had to add the warm glow created by suspended particulates diffusing the sunlight. I "massaged in" this glow before adding surface details by brushing in a slightly warmer and lighter version of the water color. Here is the 9x12 demonstration:

Trina and I left New Hampshire for Vermont on Sunday. Now we're spending a few days hiking the Kingdom Trails around Burke and revisiting our old haunts. I'm also looking at the landscape with a painter's eye and thinking ahead to the workshop that starts Thursday. We've got some really wonderful foliage color now. The maples are turning a brilliant crimson and the oaks, a soft orange. Here's a photo to whet your appetite.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

New Hampshire Workshop, Day 3 - House Shadows

Today we went to the town of Amazingly Fast Shadows, historic Dunbarton. Shifting shadows are difficult enough when you're painting what I call the "pure landscape" - trees, water, and so on - but when you're painting historic buildings with vergeboard, quoins and complexes of gables, the challenge is even greater. Even at noon, when the sun seems to stand still, a beautifully-lit facade can drop into deep shadow in minutes.

I did a couple of demonstrations of how to capture the shadow patterns quickly before they changed. It's an easy procedure. First, lightly sketch in the shape of the building. Next, outline the shadow patterns, making sure to simplify them as much as possible. Then block in the shadows with a mid-value, and finally note with light paint (or pastel) any little bits of light that show up in these simple shadow masses. Sometimes these little bits of light are an edge of a shadowed window that catches the sun.

As my demonstration was about to begin, a septic service truck noisily pulled up just to one side of my subject. It's funny how these things always seem to happen! The fellow driving it had to spend some time searching for the septic tank with a shovel before he could start pumping. Ironically, we both finished up our tasks at about the same time. I'll add "septic service truck" to my list of plein air challenges!

Here are my two 5x7 pastel demonstrations.

Friday, September 25, 2009

New Hampshire Workshop, Day 2

The excellent weather continues in Goffstown. We spent the entire day yesterday at Kimball Pond, painting a marsh that had some good fall color along the edge. Although it's a bit early for fall color in this area - we're about a half-hour from Manchester - the swamp maples have turned a stunning, cherry-red.

When I teach a workshop that is both oil and pastel, I work in pastel one day and in oil the next, alternating media each day. (I encourage students, though, to stick with just one medium.) If I start off in pastel the first day, I make sure the oil painters aren't left out, and if I start in oil, I make sure the pastel painters aren't left out. I teach an approach to painting that works for all opaque media. Plus, each can learn from the other, and the students enjoy the variety. This day I worked in oil.

In this painting, the swamp maples were in the distance. Although the color was bright and engaging, it still needed to read as being distant. I started off by making the reds and oranges dark in value, almost the same value as the hill just behind it. I "sneaked up" on the brilliance by incrementally making the color richer and brighter until it reached a level that worked. This is a 9x12 done on a panel prepped with Winsor & Newton Oil Primer.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

New Hampshire Workshop, Day 1

This week I'm in Goffstown, New Hampshire, teaching a four-day workshop for New Hampshire Plein Air. This is a dynamic group of painters that has invited me down for my third year. The last two workshops were springtime ones; this year, we're getting to see a bit of fall color peaking through the greens.

Yesterday, we went to a nearby farm that is always a joy to paint. This farm has barns, donkeys, sheep, tractors - you name it. I chose to do a 9x12 pastel demonstration of the main barn. You won't see any animals in it, because they were a bit shy, staying in the cool shade beneath the barn and out of sight. (Later, some of the students chose to paint on the other side of the barn, where Guy lives. Guy, an outspoken critic, didn't hold any punches when critiquing their works-in-progress. Guy's a donkey.)

The approach I'm focussing on for this workshop is making a painting by starting with a few, big, simple shapes and adjusting the relationships of these shapes. I adjust value, color, intensity and temperature and constantly compare one shape with another. You'd be surprised at how much "implied detail" and realism can come into play with this approach. I've included two shots of the demo below, along with a photo of one of the students (Eileen Robert) painting from the comfortable seat of a tractor.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Studio Tour, Day 2

Today was the second day of the two-day studio tour, "Two Countries, One Bay." (See for details.) As yesterday, I entertained the crowds with a pastel painting done en atelier. Although the weather was much calmer, the morning had a chilly start to it, and I decided I'd rather have my coffee and a warm space to paint in. I worked on the following piece periodically throughout the day in my studio. I rarely work 8+ hours on a piece in one session, so it was rewarding to take my time with this small one!

"Autumn River" 8x10, pastel/panel

Later this week, Trina and I close up the gallery and head off to New Hampshire and Vermont. I'll be teaching first for New Hampshire Plein Air in Goffstown, followed by an autumn foliage adventure in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom. We lived in the Northeast Kingdom for awhile, so we'll be revisiting some old haunts. I am particularly looking forward to painting the sugar maples and sugar shacks. Both plein air workshops are full, so I'll be pleasantly busy!

Studio Tour, Day 1

Yesterday was the first day of our two-day studio tour, the "Two Countries, One Bay" event. The tour spans both sides of Passamaquoddy Bay and includes the eastern end of Downeast Maine and southwestern coastal New Brunswick. Over 45 artists are on this tour, which one can do as a loop with a couple of ferry rides. It's a rare chance to visit working artists in their studios and to see how art is done. (Visit for more on the tour.)

It was a pleasure to see some new faces as well as some old friends. During the day, I worked on a pastel demonstration. Pastel is perfect for these events, because I can leave the painting and give a gallery tour without the surface "closing." Oil paint is such that, over time, the surface becomes tacky and less workable. When I go back to my pastel painting, it's just as I left it, and I can dive right back into the painting.

Below is yesterday's piece, a pastel on a panel prepped with Art Spectrum Colourfix. I used mostly soft Mount Vision pastels. I would have done a plein air painting if it hadn't been for the wind. Today looks a bit calmer, so if you visit today on Day Two, you may find me in the yard!

"Morning Glow" 8x10, pastel/panel

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Experiments with Grounds - 9

"Swamp Colors"
8x10, pastel/panel

I'm still working in pastel this week and trying to nail down a good combination of materials for a pastel surface. Again, I took one of my oil painting boards (Ampersand Hardbord with three coats of Blick Master Gesso.) To this one I had already applied two coats of Golden Acrylic Ground for Pastel. Since I thought the Golden had a somewhat medium grit and wanted something finer, I decided to apply two coats of Art Spectrum Pastel Primer, the "rose grey" shade. Art Spectrum paper has a finer tooth, so I was hoping this would make the Golden surface even better.

I did one test without sanding the final surface. Alas, this made it almost impossible to put on enough pastel to fill the texture created when I brushed on the primer. I did a second test, this time sanding the board lightly. This much improved the surface. But I still found the texture too coarse, so I ended up finger-blending my first layer of pastel, spraying it heavily with workable fixative, and then continuing with my normal method. I was pretty satisfied with this surface, and you can see the final painting above.

Of course, preparing surfaces this way is a lot of work! Ordinarily, I would simply take a piece of hardboard and brush on two coats of the Art Spectrum primer, sand, and be done with it. By thinning the primer a bit, the brush would leave less texture. To tell the truth, though, I still have not found as satisfactory a surface for pastel as Wallis paper. Below are two paintings I did on Wallis this week, when I was weary of struggling with my homemade surfaces.

"Marsh Colors" 5x7, pastel

"Duck Pond Greys" 5x7, pastel

Monday, September 14, 2009

Experiments with Grounds - 8

As part of my ongoing experiments with grounds, I offer a pastel. I hadn't intended to experiment with pastel surfaces at this time, but I am mentoring a pastel student this week, and I thought it'd be fun to try a new thing or two. I decided to salvage some of the hardboard panels that I had prepped with three coats of Blick Master Gesso - it's a surface that, as I've said, is too slick for my way of oil painting - by adding added two coats of Golden Acrylic Ground for Pastels. I ended up with a surface with a medium amount of grit to it.

It doesn't hold the pastel as well as Wallis paper, and because it doesn't have as fine a tooth, it is best suited for broad applications of pastel rather than detail work. Also, it "grabs" softer pastel better than hard pastel. For this one, I used mostly Mount Vision pastels. I ended up putting a light coat of Lascaux fixative on it - just in case.

"Ebb Tide"
8x10, pastel/panel

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Two Countries, One Bay Open Studio Tour

Friar's Bay Studio Gallery

In case you haven't heard, the third annual "Two Countries, One Bay" Open Studio Tour is next weekend. As one of the founders of the tour, I'm proud to say that every year is bigger and better! Next weekend, nearly 50 artists will open their studios in both Downeast Maine and coastal New Brunswick (Canada) to the public. You can see demonstrations, see what a working studio looks like and talk to the artists. We've got potters, jewelry-makers, fabric artists and lots more.

I, of course, will be in residence over that weekend. I'll be demonstrating pastel en plein air here at Friar's Bay Studio Gallery in Welshpool on Campobello Island. I hope to see you!

The Tour is Saturday-Sunday, September 19-20, from 10-5 pm Atlantic/Eastern Time. To see a list of the artists and for downloadable maps and brochures, visit

Friday, September 11, 2009

How To Pick a Title

"Paint Me"
8x10, oil/panel

With two degrees in English Literature, I should be able to title my paintings in a snap. Not so. I've found that the more prolific you are as a painter, the more prone you are to writer's block.

When I first started out, I pored through Shakespeare or the Bible - two good sources of titles for writers of fiction and non-fiction - for clever phrases such as "Time's Thievish Progress." (I didn't use that one.) But when I really started to paint, that is, to paint every day, I just didn't have time enough. I began to rely on titles that indicated the subject. "Jeffries Peak, Winter Storm."

This worked well enough, but when I began to paint the same subject over and over, I had to resort to numbers. "Jeffries Peak, #5" and so on. The problem with this method was I couldn't always remember which painting was #55 and which was #56. I quickly discovered the value of assigning paintings a serial number and keeping a photographic record.

I've even tried popular music. The Grateful Dead had some great lyrics, and if you look long enough, you can usually find something appropriate, such as "Across the Lazy River." If you're clever, you might even discover that the title may invest extra meaning, depending on what the song is about. This all depends on your audience, of course. Someone born after 1970 may not understand "Strawberry Fields." (But then, I'm not sure I do, either.)

The best titles, though, always seem to come from deep within and evoke a mood. It's the same with poetry - sometimes the words just come. If you can hold off from trying to name a piece right away and spend some quiet time with it, a title will well up like a reliable spring.

PS The boat above said to me, "Paint Me," and the rest is history.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Experiments with Grounds - 7

"Eva Belle's House"
9x12, oil/panel - NFS

I thought I was done with grounds for the time being, but I remembered I had a bottle of Golden GAC-100 and some Golden Matte Medium under the counter. So, I prepped a few panels (Ampersand Hardbord), some with just the Matte Medium and others with the GAC plus two different brands of acrylic gesso. Today, I painted on a board prepped with the Matte Medium.

The nice thing about this product is that it is transparent, so you're working against the natural warm dark of the hardboard. The Matte Medium made the board so dark, in fact, that it was almost my darkest value. I had to work "up" into the light. I started by sketching my basic shapes with a light grey. I left the windows unpainted until the very end, when I added just a touch of greyed color here and there for reflections. I particularly liked the texture of the acrylic; rather than brushing it on in an orderly fashion, I just had fun making swirls. (It's hard to get them to look artistic!) I'll get to the other grounds in the next few days.

If you saw my studio tour video in yesterday's post, you'll see the outside of the studio in the painting. It's the room in the upper right with the outside staircase.

By the way, I had a note from Scott Gellatly of Gamblin regarding my test with the Gamblin Oil Painting Ground. He pointed out a reference page the Gamblin website has that discusses grounds. There is also an excellent video demonstration on the page showing exactly how to apply the ground to both hardboard and canvas. Click here to visit the page.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Painting Prices and a Studio Tour

Pricing work is something that we all have trouble with. Where do you start, as an artist? I started by taking my work to a gallery, which was a good gallery representing regional and national artists, and asking the owner what she thought she could sell them for. That set the base, nearly 10 years ago now. I also incorporated the idea of having a price based on dollars per square inch; it's a sliding scale so that the dollars per square inch gets lower as the painting gets bigger. I got this idea from my mentor, Ann Templeton. Again, that was some time ago.

Since those days, I've wondered: Is this too rigid a scale? Lately, some readers have noticed that my pricing is inconsistent.

My rationale is simple, really. Work that I consider "finished" and would put in one of my galleries, I price at my current gallery prices. These are consistent from gallery to gallery. On the other hand, work that is more of a sketch, such as a workshop demonstration, I price lower. So, you may see a "finished" 9x12 marked as $750 and a 9x12 sketch as $150. (I'll admit, though, that I have been playing with the sketch pricing a bit to see what the market will bear.)

Look at it this way. Car makers have a similar approach. You can get the low-end sedan which doesn't have the most comfortable seats and lacks an MP3 jack, or you can get the high-end one which has all that plus a built-in GPS. I feel that folks who can't afford a $250 "sketch" might be able to buy a $100 one, even if the seats are a little underpadded, and enjoy it just as much.

Several artists I know have a less objective, more subjective, scale for their work. Paintings that they feel are of higher quality, they price higher. It is hard to be the judge of one's work, though. The only time I do this is when a piece has a pedigree. For example, if it's been in a national show, in which a jury has agreed that it's worthy of exhibit, I raise the price.

When you buy a painting, you are paying for years of study and practice. It's just like when you go to the ballet. You are not paying for a few hours' entertainment. You are paying for the dancer's years at ballet school and thousands of afternoons spent working on plies. When you buy a painting, you're not paying for my three hours standing out in a field and throwing paint on a canvas; you are, in a sense, paying for the miles of canvas I've already painted.

Here's one more observation. The advantage the art buyer has over the ballet-goer is this. The ballet-goer always runs the risk that the dancer may not be at the top of her form on performance night - she may have indigestion - and thus not get his money's worth. The art buyer, however, does not run this risk — he pays after the performance.

On a different matter, I shot a short video of my studio that you might enjoy. Many people are curious - I know I am - about how an artist's workspace looks.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Experiments with Grounds - 6 & Ratings

"Harvest Moon"
9x12, oil/panel

Yesterday morning, I noticed the full moon setting over Friar's Head. The colors were beautiful and exciting - luminescent pink and blue-violet in the sky, pale blue-green in the water. Rather than return to the Duck Ponds, I decided I'd make my final test painting the setting moon.

Before dawn, I strapped on the backpack and hiked the path through the blackberry brambles and apple trees to our beach. I had just enough light to set up and start. By the time color got to be important in the piece, dawn came, and it was just as gorgeous as the morning before.

This is my last test for the time being. I painted this on an Ampersand Hardbord panel with two coats of Golden Gesso. I found it to be very comparable to my two coats of Blick Master Gesso, and maybe just a tad more absorbent.

I promised I'd give you my absorbency rating. I used a very simple test - I call it the "spit test." I literally wet a finger and touched it to the surface and observed how quickly the moisture vanished. After painting on the different surfaces, I'd say that the "spit test" is a good indicator of absorbency. The list is sorted with the least absorbent first.

(Least absorbent) 1 => 5 (Most absorbent)

Gamblin Oil Painting Ground 1
Blick Master Gesso (3 coats) 2
Ampersand Gessobord 3
W & N Oil Painting Primer 3
Blick Master Gesso (2 coats) 3
Golden Gesso (2 coats) 3
Realgesso 4
Gamblin Traditional Gesso 4
Ampersand Claybord 5

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Experiments with Grounds - 5

Trina and I were out taking a walk at sunrise the other day by the Head Harbour Lighthouse, and it was like an episode of Mutual of Omaha's "Wild Kingdom." On one side, minke and humpback whales were dining on mackerel. I've never heard so much breeching and blowing! On the other side, a pair of bald eagles was fishing yet another school of mackerel. A few of the local men, who like to gather at the lighthouse to swap news, were having coffee in mugs they'd brought from home. We had a nice chat with them about the whales.

Now, on to more experimenting with grounds! Today I worked with Gamblin Oil Painting Ground.

"Dazzle Days"
9x12, oil/panel

When I opened up the can, I was surprised to see something that resembled putty. It must be applied with a knife. Here's what the Gamblin website says about this product:

"Gamblin Oil Painting Ground makes a strong, bright foundation for oil paintings. Formulated from alkyd resin, titanium dioxide, and barium sulfate, Gamblin Ground makes canvas and linen stiffer than acrylic 'gesso' and more flexible than traditional oil primers. Barium sulfate gives Gamblin Ground its tooth. Titanium dioxide gives Gamblin Ground its opacity.

"Because the percentage of pigments is so much higher than in acrylic "gesso", painters need only apply TWO coats of Gamblin Ground instead of the recommended four coats of acrylic. More coats can be added for smoother painting surfaces. Because alkyd resin is used instead of linseed oil as the binder, Gamblin Ground is more flexible and dries more quickly than lead/linseed oil grounds. Lead/linseed oil grounds must dry for six months and Gamblin Ground is ready for paint application within a week."

Although it seems to be designed mostly for cloth surfaces, it can be used on panels. In fact, Ampersand, who makes the "Hardbord" panels I use, notes: "To avoid having to size your panels and to speed up drying time, you can use the Oil Painting Ground manufactured by Gamblin Artists Colors." This is in reference to applying an oil primer, which would require that the panel be sized prior to application of the primer.

I applied the recommended two coats with a knife and smoothed with a brush. (I let the first coat dry, of course, before applying the second.) My test for absorbency showed this was the least absorbent surface of all, being even less absorbent than my three-coat Blick Master Gesso test.

However, I was pleasantly surprised when I painted on it. Although the least absorbent surface, it seemed to have more "tooth" than the Blick Gesso - I suppose because of the barium sulfate - and took paint well.

The paint got tacky sooner than I expected, but I think that is because of the uncommon dry, warm air we have in the Maritimes right now. If you're looking for a good weather painting spot, this is it for the next week!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Experiments with Grounds - 4

When I visited Walt Gonske's studio last winter, he told me he recently discovered Ampersand Claybord for oil painting. He paints vigorously with a loaded brush and loves to have the stroke break and jump as he lays it down. Claybord, he claimed, gave him just the right effect.

Today's test was with Claybord, and Walt's right! The surface is the most absorbent I've worked on to date, even more so than traditional gesso. For my first layers, I had to add more Gamsol and medium (Shiva Medium Light) to get a flowing stroke. It didn't take long for my first layer to dry. I would not describe this as getting "tacky" - it's a stage beyond tacky, for the paint almost feels waxy. Later strokes broke beautifully, giving the painting a lot of sparkle.

In addition to the painting, I've provided a close-up so you can see the strokes.

"The Broken Color of Morning"
6x6, oil/panel


Thursday, September 3, 2009

Experiments with Grounds - 3

"Creeping Tide"
9x12, oil/panel - SOLD

This next trial consisted of my old standby, Blick Master Gesso - but with only two coats, not my usual three. Also, I didn't sand between coats, leaving the surface a bit rough.

This one performed more like the Ampersand Gessobord. Still a tad slippery, but not anywhere near as bad as with three coats of Blick Master Gesso. The gesso wasn't as "thirsty" as the traditional gesso panel from Howard & Daniel Corp. but it took the paint well. I had no problem painting wet-into-wet with this one.

I suppose one could go with a single coat of Blick Master Gesso - the jar label states as much - but I wonder if it really would be a sufficient barrier to protect the hardboard from the acidic oils found in oil paint. Unlike traditional gesso, which requires that the panel be "sized" and sealed first, most acrylic gessoes already contain sizing and can be applied directly. (By the way, artist David Rourke has an excellent recipe for making traditional gesso panels here: Typically, according to Robert Gamblin, four coats of acrylic gesso are required.

A reader asked me recently if I had close-ups of my tests; I do not. As I told him, my work with grounds is not as rigorous as a scientist might like it to be. My goal is to find a painting surface that works well with my method. At a future date, I'll be doing a real test, complete with absorbency evaluations, test swatches and more.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Experiments with Grounds - 2

Today I decided to try a panel from Howard & Daniel Corp., the "Real Gesso" people. (See Unlike the panels I've made myself from traditional gesso, these are uniform, nice and smooth.

As part of my testing, I'm trying to keep the variables the same except for the surface. So, once again I headed out with my Gamblin oils, Galkyd and Gamsol with hog bristle flats. I again chose a water scene that was back-lit. As before, I didn't tone the panel, preferring to work on the white.

I found that the surface has a nice degree of absorbency. I was able to lay in a transparent underpainting without the brush digging through to the white gesso, and the underpainting stayed put. This is very important when painting wet-into-wet!

By the way, I'm developing an absorbency test and scale. I'll unveil it when I'm finished with my tests.

Here's the painting:

"Slack Tide, High Water"
9x12, oil/panel