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Sunday, February 28, 2010

Painting Broadly

"Oak Creek Calm" 9x12, oil

It's raining this morning, so I thought I'd present a moody piece I did a few weeks ago. Rain was coming in, so we didn't have much time. I decided to do a "snapshot" - I've written about that before - so this was done quickly and loosely.

If you go down to Crescent Moon Ranch, most of your paintings will be about water and rock and all the wonderful things that plant themselves there. These wonderful things tend to look rather busy and overwhelming when you're staring at them: cracks in the rocks, both subtle and obvious, saplings and bushes, plus a lot of unrecognizable items that come under the category of "flood debris." It's best to squint, really squint, to simplify the fuss and then to paint broadly.

For this one, I just liked the quality of the light and the color. There's very little detail. Painted so broadly and loosely, is it something that one might frame and try to sell - or should one treat it as a sketch and keep it for one's own pleasure? A painter might appreciate it, but would a patron? I'd like to hear your opinions.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Sedona Plein Air Festival Update

In my last newsletter, I mentioned that I've been invited for my fifth year to the Sedona Plein Air Festival. The Festival organizers just released the names of the artists who will be participating in 2010. This year, we'll have luminaries such as Gil Dellinger and Susan Ogilvie. For a full list, visit I'm looking forward to meeting all the new artists.

One great painting spot is Slide Rock State Park. Believe it or not, I haven't actually painted there during the Festival! October is a busy month in Oak Creek Canyon because of the fall foliage, and Slide Rock is often hopping with tourists. I usually tend to go the road less travelled during the Festival unless we are asked to paint somewhere in particular, such as in Jerome or at the Sedona Historical Museum. However, I do get up there to paint during my workshops.

Here's a piece I did of the old apple barn at Slide Rock with Lost Wilson Mountain behind it. (Or is that Lost Wilson? If anyone knows better, let me know.) We are barely into spring here in Sedona, so you can tell from the trees that this painting isn't from this year!

"Slide Rock Spring" 9x12, oil - contact Michael

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Glare Aesthetic

"Glare Aesthetic" 8x10, oil/matboard

Before the Impressionists learned that color relationships can be used to make subjects appear sunny and bright, painters invoked a concept called the "glare aesthetic" to do the same. Basically, this involved using large, bright planes next to small areas of deep darks. Contrast and lots of white paint did the trick. Color has nothing to do with it. You may have seen a similar effect when walking a beach on a very sunny day without your sunglasses.

Down by Oak Creek along the flat shelves of pink rock we see it, too. At noontime, the pink is nearly bleached out by the sun, and the only relief for our aching eyes are the little shadow areas under ledges or where vegetation gathers. The other day, I decided to capture the effect, and to see how rapidly I could do it. Broad strokes, quick color mixes and paying attention to, above all, value contrast, gave me the effect I wanted.

Who had the right approach? The Impressionists or the Glare Aesthetic School? Either can give you a powerful and dynamic painting.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Painting Prickly Pears

"Prickly Path" 9x12, pastel - contact Michael

While painting my two "snapshots" yesterday, a raw wind got up and the clouds moved in. Schnebly Hill is a very beautiful perch to paint from, but it's not somewhere you want to be on a windy day. We retreated to the lee side of the hill and found shelter behind some junipers. I set up my easel on the lip of the canyon - it was a long drop down - so I could get an interesting perspective on some prickly pears with Snoopy Rock behind it. (Sorry, but Snoopy isn't visible from this angle.) Since my back was to the canyon, I had to make sure that, in the process of stepping away from my painting now and then, I wouldn't blindly step off the edge.

Prickly pears are a prickly subject to paint - so many pads, so many colors! I started this one by just blocking in a large mass of light, cool green and added some dark passages where the shadows seemed deepest. Next, I outlined a few pads with a dark brown pastel and then colored them in with raw color, going warmer and cooler as I needed. Finally, I added rim light on a few of the other, unfinished pads and suggested a few spines. You don't have to paint every single pad and add all the spines to tell the viewer that he's looking at prickly pears. If you get the overall shape and color of the mass right and detail a few pads, that's enough. The mind will fill in the rest.

I like this sketch because it is not overworked and preserves the energy of working quickly. Snoopy Rock is very sketchily done, but it's not the focus of the painting. I took about an hour to do this one.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Painting Snapshots

On a vacation and don't have time to paint masterpieces? Consider painting "snapshots."

I know that when I go on vacation with the family, I can't paint as much as I'd like. Between hiking, touring and eating, there's precious little time left. But rather than settling for just taking photographs, I've found that making quick sketches is very rewarding. My sketches are usually 5x7, and I spend no more than 15 minutes on them. I sketch with pastel because it's quicker and easier to clean up than oil. And when I'm sketching, I don't fuss with composition or precise drawing and focus instead on mood and light.

Although I'm not on vacation right now, I did a couple of these little "snapshots" this morning while at Schnebly Hill. The weather is changing today, and rain is expected tomorrow. The light is different than it has been, with a bit of haze and more muted colors. I really wanted to capture the sense of the moment in these.

"Thunder Mountain View" 5x7, pastel contact Michael

"Wilson Mountain View" 5x7, pastel - contact Michael

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Painting Glare

"The Road to Jerome" 9x12, pastel - contact Michael

Yesterday, we drove up to Jerome. Jerome, if you don't know, is an old mining town about a half-hour from Sedona. It was built on a 30-degree slope, so many of the buildings long ago slid off into the canyon. At one time, it had more brothels than bars. What's left sits on three terraces, and although the brothels are gone, the bars aren't. It also has a number of art galleries, shops and restaurants that make for a good day trip.

We parked down the hill a bit, near the currently-closed Jerome State Park. From there, you have a view of something that looks like a Tuscan villa plus snowcapped Mingus Mountain in the distance. It's a great view, and I've painted it before. This time, we were there in early morning with the sun in our eyes. Everything was back-lit with glare.

The way I paint glare convincingly is by manipulating the value scale so my sunlit passages are closer to shadow than they are to the highlights.

My main highlight is the bright section of road leading up to the Tuscan villa, and other "glare spots" are one rooftop and the distant snow. Everything else is painted much darker. So, on a scale of 1 to 10, my "glare spots" are a 10, my shadows are a 2, but my sunlit areas are perhaps a 5. So, there are 5 steps of value between the highlights and sunlit areas, but only 3 between the sunlit areas and shadow. By keeping my sunlit areas closer in value to my shadows, I was able to make a convincing effect.

By the way, it was warmer in Jerome - this is mid-February - than it was in October on our "Jerome Day" at the Sedona Plein Air Festival. Yesterday, it was 60 degrees and I wore only a thin fleece jacket. In October, I wore everything I brought, including a down vest, glomitts and a wool toque. We had a snow squall!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

More Water

"Oak Creek Flow" 9x12, pastel - contact Michael

We've had some warm days this week with temperatures rising into the mid-60s. The snowpack in Flagstaff must be starting to melt, because the waters of Oak Creek here in Sedona are rising. In the painting above, I feature a set of stepping stones at Red Rock Crossing that, at low water, allow one to cross the creek without getting wet shoes. Right now, there's nearly a foot of water spilling over the stones. Today, if you wanted to hike the trails on the other side, which are reachable in about five minutes if use the stepping stones, you'd have to drive nearly an hour to the trailhead. Or you use hip-waders and a walking stick, as I saw one gentleman do.

This is a pastel week for me, but the process of painting this kind of water is the same as with oil. First, I looked for the oranges and reds on the creek bottom and lightly blocked those in. Next, I added the darker water - greens and browns. After that, I began to add some of the reflected qualities, which were the dark purples and lighter sky-blues. I put in all these layers with fairly light strokes, just letting the pastel kiss the surface. Finally, I went back in with dark accents, such as the purply-browns in the rock shadows and the dark greens in the grass shadows.

I had to work a bit at getting the feeling of water flowing over the stepping stones. I had to work the layers back-and-forth, putting in the rich orange of the barely-submerged rocks, next adding the darker tones of water and then the reflected parts - and then going back to the rich orange again. The froth I added early on, taking care to let subsequent layers "weave" it into the fabric of the water, and then added highlights at the end.

This was painted on a sheet of Kitty Wallis Sanded Pastel Paper, the Belgian Mist color. This mid-tone, warm grey was perfect for letting me establish values quickly.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Painting Water

"Spring Creek Sun" - 9x12, oil - SOLD

Out in the desert Southwest, you'd think you might not find much water to paint. But here on the Mogollon Rim at 4300 feet, we've got plenty of water. Just today, I drove by the fish hatchery at Page Springs and the wineries that make their home along Oak Creek. You can't hatch fish or grow grapes without water! Right now, the snow upstream near Flagstaff is still deep and hasn't started to melt. But with this warm weather, it will. Locals are keeping their sandbags ready.

A couple of days ago, I was down in Cornville by Spring Creek. That's just south of Sedona. The creek has quieted down since the floods of a couple of weeks ago, but there's still plenty of water in it. I turned my back to what I call the "grand staircase" of falls and found the calm scene I depicted above. Part of what drew my eye was the intense, golden illumination of the creek bottom. You can't see that when the water is churning; it has to be calm water. To paint this, I laid in a wash of Cadmium Yellow Deep plus Alizarin Crimson for the sunlit portion of the bottom, and then I cooled down parts of it with a light pink mixture made of White and Cadmium Red. After adding the surface effects - reflections, ripples - I added a touch of pure Cadmium Yellow Deep where the illumination was most intense.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Painting with Neutrals

"Snow Squall" 8x10, oil/paper - contact Michael

This week, we've had rain and snow showers drifting through. Any precipitation seems to fall mostly at night, so we've been able to enjoy some good walks and painting opportunities despite it. All day yesterday, snow squalls were blowing off the Mogollon Rim and down into the Verde Valley. I love watching the squalls as they slowly sweep over the mountains. It's a risky time to paint, though - and not just because of the danger of snow dropping down on your palette. The light can change very quickly. Fortunately in the scene above, whenever the sun vanished, it would come out again a few minutes later, allowing me enough time to paint the cliffs with the sun on them.

You'll note I use a lot of dull color in this piece. One of the dangers of my oil palette is that it has a lot of rich color, and rich color rarely appears in nature. When it does appear, it's to a purpose - either to make a flower attractive to a bee or an apple appealing to some foraging animal. Only cartoons have rich color everywhere. (Although I've seen some homes decorated that way, too.) Lately, I've been using more neutrals in my work to make my paintings more naturalistic. I think this is a reaction to the sometimes overwhelmingly-rich color of Sedona's red rocks.

In case you're wondering, my oil palette consists of: Cadmium Yellow Light, Cadmium Yellow Deep, Cadmium Red, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue and Phthalo Blue. I supplement these colors with Chromatic Black and Titanium-Zinc White. (All of these are from Gamblin.) I also make good use of yesterday's leftovers - the palette scrapings. These make for some really wonderful neutrals. The task of creating neutrals in pastel is a little harder, and for that, I tend to use neutral greys. A little bit added to a pure color dulls it nicely.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Rich Color Against Dull Color

"Chavez Ranch Shed" 5x7, oil - SOLD

You don't have to look to Sedona's red rocks for intense color. The other day, I came across this old shed. The weathered wood glowed orange. It was pretty spectacular against the much duller greens and pinks in the grass and trees. Also note the rich blues in the shadows. As a complement to the orange, they ratchet up the warmth of the shed.

This was painted over at Crescent Moon Ranch, just up the creek from Red Rock Crossing. It's all part of the same US Forest Service day use area, but you have to look for the shed. If it's your first time visiting, you'll be enchanted by the stupendous view of Cathedral Rock towering over Oak Creek. Sometimes it's good to turn away from the obvious beauty. You'll often find a secret treasure you can call your own.

Distant Color

"Balloons Over the Desert" 12x24, oil

On almost any clear morning, you can see hot air balloons drifting lazily through the sky. You have to get up early to see them, though, because the tour operators launch them at dawn. There are few things more beautiful than the quiet majesty of a hot air balloon. They are absolutely silent, save for the moment when the gas flares to give the balloon enough lift to safely pass a summit. It's not unusual to see two or three, sometimes even more. Typically, you'll see them south of town, toward Cottonwood, but one day we saw them flying past Cathedral Rock. Here's a photo I took:

One morning, we headed out to the Cultural Park to paint. From there, you get a sweeping panorama of Mingus and Black Mountains, Sycamore Canyon, Thunder Mountain and then on north to Wilson Mountain and the beautiful red rock formations there. We were early enough to catch the balloons.

Balloons are tricky to paint because they are full of intense color. If they are distant, as they were in this case, you can't paint them that way. Instead, you have to make sure the colors are painted dull enough to make them look like they're the right distance from the viewer. (True with pretty much any intensely-colored object.) On the shadowed side, you can go a bit duller than you think you should, and it'll look right. Save a slightly brighter, warmer touch of that color for the sunlit side.

Here is a detail of my balloons:

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Seeing Too Much

"From the Ridge Trail" 9x12, oil - contact Michael

One of the benefits I claim for painting from life is that you learn to see, to really see. The mere act of comparing what you're putting down on canvas (or paper) to that what's before you opens up your eyes.

I'm sure you've all heard this before. But you may not have heard that there's a downside to painting from life - it's in seeing too much.

If you use a viewfinder, you may think you've avoided that problem by narrowing down your field of view. Not so. No matter how small a field you select, no matter how microscopically you zoom in, there is still the danger of seeing too much. Many of my less-experienced students will latch onto some rocky cliff and try to reproduce every cleft and crack. Or they'll focus on a grassy sward and try to get the exact patterning of grass blades, weed stalks and stray fallen twigs. Most of these students are advanced enough to tell you they know the point of painting isn't to make a photograph. But yet they're doing exactly just that. So what's going on?

It's our natural attraction to the beauty of subtle color and value shifts and the things that demonstrate these shifts. Anytime we get lost in the cracks or in the grassy sward, it's because we've been seduced by the scene's lesser elements. It's important to stick with the big picture - the large shapes, the large contrasts in color and value - and to only suggest everything else. Blurring line, softening edges, introducing a hint of the subtle treasures, will help.

In the painting above, there was a lot of interesting stuff going on in both the shadowed plane of the big rock and in the foreground. But the clouds were moving in and I was running out of time, so I was forced to leave some things unsaid. I think the painting works better because of it.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A List of Plein Air Painting Books - Plus a Painting!

I'm a firm believer in having a library of books built around your passion. My passion, of course, is plein air painting, and so over the years I've accumulated quite a collection. Some are excellent and bear reading over and over again. I've started a list on of my favorites. Not all of the books address plein air specifically, but they all address important principles for the plein air painter. If you have a moment, I'd love to have you look at the list and let me know if I've missed an important book. The list is here.

The other day I wrote about saving a painting by cropping with a bandsaw and other desperate means. Sometimes, a painting is "close" and just needs a few tweaks. I had a painting like that, a 12x16 oil that I knew immediately upon getting home that it needed adjustment.

I was with a student over near Bell Rock, a popular vortex destination for tourists. Normally, I would avoid a spot that has the potential for high curiosity traffic, but it was early in the morning, and we had gotten some good, strong coffee and were feeling bullish. Because the parking lot was virtually empty, we set up there. We had a great view of some rim-lit rocks. In the process of trying to make the shadowed trees below the rocks "read" as shadowed and the sunlit trees "read" as sunlit, I made the sunlit trees too bright in value. The painting looked fine in the field, and as the parking lot filled to capacity, a number of tourists told me so. Never listen to spectactors!

Once I got it home, I knew it needed some work. But I put it aside and forgot about it. Normally, the surface of an oil painting will still be "open" for another day so you can make adjustments. A couple of weeks later, when I pulled it out of the stack, it was bone-dry. Yesterday I gave it a good spray of retouch varnish to saturate the colors and prepare the surface for more painting. To adjust the light passages, I scumbled over a darker but warmer mixture. And since I'd sprayed the whole painting, I made other adjustments, too - cooler, richer color in the shadows to increase temperature contrast and intensified the highlights. I even sharpened the ravens you see circling about the rocks. (Adding animals to a painting can make it rather saccharine, but I added the ravens - which were really there! - for scale.)

Here is the finished painting plus a detail shot.

"Raven Cliffs" 12x16, oil


Monday, February 1, 2010

Painting on Matboard

"Mingus View" 8x10, oil/paper - contact Michael

"Courthouse Butte Glow" 8x10, oil/paper - contact Michael

We artists are always searching for cheaper materials. One option for oil painters, especially if you're looking for a good surface to sketch on, is acid-free matboard with a couple of layers of acrylic gesso.

While unpacking my new studio, I found a stack of matboard scraps that had been in storage for nearly four years. I decided I'd have some fun, so I took some 8x10 pieces and brushed on two layers of Golden Acrylic Gesso. I asked on the WetCanvas forum about the advisability of first sizing the boards with something like Golden's GAC-100, but the responses were mixed. (If any of you in BlogLand have an opinion, please let me know!) I let the brush create some neat texture, and once the boards were dry, I went out. The results are above. Although the surface isn't as absorbent as Ampersand Claybord, it is fairly absorbent. I like the way the paint "sets up" pretty fast because of it.

By the way, I used an Art Cocoon I to hold my 8x10 matboard while painting. Although I could have taped the matboard to an 8x10 foamboard sheet and then put it in a wet panel box to carry it home in, I don't have any 8x10 boxes. The Art Cocoon was perfect! (

Don't Fall in Love

"Prickly Pears & Juniper" 9x12, oil (revised)

"Prickly Pears & Juniper" 9x12, oil (original)

Don't fall in love
- with any part of your painting, that is. It's easy to fall in love with this part and that part. You may fall in love with a cloud that went down perfectly with a single brush stroke or a tree that really "makes" the composition. But in the end, you may find that the cloud or tree doesn't quite fit your vision. If scraping out this element will improve the painting or give you a chance to paint it better, do so. If you don't, it'll haunt you.

The other day, I wrote about cropping a piece to make a more effective composition. As a footnote, I mentioned that the painting could be adjusted with color and value shifts to also improve it. Another method is to scrape and re-paint the area that's causing the problem. In the original version of the revised painting above, two areas were fighting for the viewer's eye: the odd-shaped background hills and the more-crisply painted prickly pears in the foreground. (The revised is on top; original on the bottom.)

I wanted to move the emphasis to the prickly pears. The background hills had a peculiar and distracting shape. ("But they really were that way!" Doesn't matter; you're the designer in this case, improving on nature.) So, I scraped them down and repainted the area. I made the hill shapes more generic and also lessened the contrast a tad and cooled off the color. You can see how the emphasis on the revised painting has moved to a better location, and the fight for attention is over. I'm not saying the revised version here is a great painting, but it's a better painting, for sure.

Never convince yourself that you should keep a bad painting "as is" for a reminder of what you need to improve on. Scrape out the element, and if the painting requires it, paint it again - and scrape it yet again, if it still isn't right. Repainting an area is akin to painting a whole new painting and adds to that proverbial "miles of canvas" they say you must paint before you get become a good painter.

It's hard to do. "Maybe no one will notice," you may say. Well, they will. Even if they don't have a trained, critical eye, they'll sense something out of kilter.

Get a painting knife and keep it in your plein air kit. It'll be a good teacher.