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Monday, January 31, 2011

When to Do Pastel, When to Do Oil

"Templeton Trail" 12x18, pastel - $700  (unframed)

"Oak Creek Chasm" - 9x9, pastel - $500 (unframed)

People always ask, When is pastel the best medium for a particular subject?  They're surprised when I tell them that my choice of medium has nothing to do with my choice of subject.  I am as likely to use oil as pastel whether my subject is a barn, creek, meadow or mountain.   Some painters may say they use oil for water subjects because the medium is more fluid and lends itself to surface effects; or they may say they use pastel for fields because that medium lends itself to drawing grasses and little bushes.  Maybe, but if you're skilled enough, it doesn't really matter.

For me, my choice of medium has to do with my attitude.  If I want a truly freeing experience and don't want any hassles, I'll take into the field a small box of pastels with a single mounted sheet of paper.   I may not even take my easel and work in my lap instead.   You can do this with oil, of course, but you'll still be somewhat encumbered by a jar of OMS, brushes and something like a pochade box so you can mix the paint and not get it everywhere.  You still don't need the easel necessarily; the Guerrilla Painter 5x7 Thumbox is perfect for this, since you can hold it in one hand or balance it on a picnic table or in our lap.  But pastel still would be my personal choice, since I don't need the thinner, brushes or palette.

Otherwise, if I'm feeling strong and ready to wrestle a bit, I'll probably go with the oils.  I personally like to push paint around, and if I'm going to take out the gear, most times I'll take the oil paints.   Of course, I do take pastel, but that's more likely if I have students working in pastel or if I want to do a large pastel for a show.  I enjoy the immediacy of pastel, but I also enjoy the challenge of oil.

I spent the last week doing some plein air mentoring in pastels, and rather than drag the pastels out over a long time, I thought I'd just include them in one post.  If you're interested in a purchase, I've also put pricing.  Contact me directly at

These next two were done on PastelMat, and I really liked
 the soft texture and how my hard pastels worked with it. 

Sail Rock Sketch - 6x8, pastel - $70  (unframed)

Uptown Trail Sketch - 6x8, pastel - $70 (unframed)

Thunder Mountain Sketch - 3x9, pastel - $50

Jordan Apple Barn Sketch - 6x8, pastel - $70  (unframed)

PS My survey regarding workshops is still open, if you haven't taken it yet:

And I still have a space left in my Grand Canyon April 26-29 plein air painting workshop!

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

2011 Grand Canyon Celebration of Art

I'm delighted to announce that I have been juried into the prestigious 2011 Grand Canyon Celebration of Art.  As with the last two years, it incorporates a plein air painting event along the Grand Canyon's South Rim.   For more, visit

Here's an abbreviated list of the events:

September 10- 15 – Artists paint on site. Free daily artist presentations at Mather  Point Amphitheater.
September 15 All artists paint along rim between Mather Point and Kolb Studio. 
September 16 Quick Draw event and auction – North Lawn of the El Tovar Hotel
September 16 Buyer’s Preview and Awards Reception 
September 17 Opening Reception and Awards Ceremony (morning) – Kolb  Studio
Exhibition & Sale through November 27, 2011

The full list of invited and juried artists will be out soon.

By the way, I still have a couple of spaces in my Grand Canyon workshop, April 26-29.  It is $250 for four full days.  Contact me right away if you're interested -    Lodging options are fast filling up for that time period. For full information, visit 

I also still have spaces in my Sedona workshops for this winter and spring.  But time is running out!  Visit

Monday, January 24, 2011

Getting the Right Light on Your Surface

No matter what your painting medium, you need to make sure your painting surface has proper lighting.  Proper lighting allows you to accurately judge color relationships.  Without it, you are working - sometimes quite literally - in the dark.  I thought I'd show you some different lighting situations that will give you trouble.  But first, here's the painting on the easel, properly lit with some nice shade.  This is what you want, as I describe a bit farther down.

The worst kind of lighting is dappled shade or uneven lighting.  If you set up under the shade of a tree, you may see this happen.  Little sunspots will fall on the surface, and they will throw off your perception of value and color intensity.  The same color in shade will look much different when a sunspot hits it.  If you try to adjust the color so it looks the same under both light and shadow, once back in the studio you'll be surprised how it again looks so different everywhere.  Here's a dappled shade painting.

The next worst is full sun.  You'll think your color mixtures are all too bright, and consequently you'll dull and darken them to get the effect you want.  I guarantee that when you bring the painting into the studio, it'll look all muddy and dead.   "But it was so rich and full of color outside!" you'll complain.  With experience, it is possible to learn to compensate for this, but it's still a struggle.

The very best situation is gentle, even shade.  It's much easier to get accurate color relationships, and the painting should look about the same in the studio as it does in the field.  I've found the best way to get this shade is either to point your easel into the sun or to use an umbrella.  Pointing your easel into the sun, of course, doesn't necessarily point you at your chosen subject.  Sometimes, your subject may be off to to the left or right, unless you paint backlit scenes.  You can work with your subject off to one side, but if you find yourself whipping your head around like that little girl in The Exorcist, you should consider using an umbrella.  A pulled neck muscle is no fun.

Watch out for "sun creep."  I've seen many students start off with some good shade on their canvas, only to have the sun creep around and start throwing a raking light across it.  Sometimes the top bracket of the easel or a tree limb will throw a shadow down.  We get so involved with the painting that we are often blissfully ignorant of such changes.  You must be as aware of what's happening to the light on your canvas as you are to what's happening to the light on your subject.  Here's the painting with "sun creep."

If shade is such a good thing, can you have too much of it?  Unfortunately, yes.  Avoid painting on big wrap-around porches or under trees that cast a deep shadow.  You will be blinded by the lit landscape beyond, and your painting will look like a dark silhouette in front of it.  Sometimes this is all the shade you can find, though, and the trick is to angle your surface so some light from outside bounces onto it.

Finally, don't wear light-colored or brightly-colored shirts, especially if you're oil painting.  If any sunlight hits your shirt at all, a light-colored fabric will throw a glare on the wet paint, and it'll be impossible to judge values.  Bright colors are bad, too.  If you wear a red shirt, it'll cast a red glow over the painting, distorting the color of your paint mixtures.  (Although glare isn't a problem for pastel, this bounced, colored light is.)   I've seen many painters, professionals included, wearing white tee shirts in the field.  I'm not always thinking when I dress in the morning, and so I've made that mistake, too.  I always end up boxing with my painting - "bob and weave," as the trainers say - to find an angle where the glare doesn't get in the way.  Here's the painting with red cloth in front of it and then with white cloth.

By the way, if you're thinking of joining us for the Grand Canyon painting retreat (April 26-29), you need to sign up right away.  I learned today that lodging is already filling up.  Trina and I made camping reservations with no problem last week.  You might consider camping - it's a great way to get close to nature, and the Mather campground is really quite nice.  Here's a link to camping details.  Here are details to the workshop itself.  I have only a couple of spots left. 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Tubac, Arizona, Plein Air Painting Workshop

I've just returned from a three-day plein air workshop in Tubac, Arizona.  For those of you who don't know Tubac, it's a nifty little art town just 20 miles north of the Mexican border.  Tubac was, indeed, part of Mexico until 1853, and it has seen its share of booms and busts.  Lately, it's been booming as a prime retirement community and a great place to find both art and artists.  Artists Hal Empie, the "Dean of Arizona Artists," and Hugh Cabot lived and worked there for many years.

It's also a great place for painting architecture.  On our first day, we went to the Tubac Presidio Historic State Park (now operated by the Tubac Historical Society.)  The Presidio, a fort built in 1752, gave us some wonderful light and shadow patterns to paint.  Here is a 9x12 oil sketch I did as a demo.  It's a building just outside the Presidio wall.  The Director of the site told me it was the original Historical Society building.

On the second day, we headed over to the Tubac Golf Resort.  As a rule, golf courses aren't very interesting as subject matter, but this one occupies the historic Otero Ranch.  The developers did a great job of integrating their modern buildings with the remaining ranch buildings and old silos, which they worked hard to preserve.  Painting there felt like painting on a grand old estate.  Here are some photos plus a 12x9 pastel sketch I did of one of the silos.

On our last day, we drove down to the Tumacacori National Historic Park.  The centerpiece is the Mission San JosĂ© de Tumacácori, founded in 1691.  The current building wasn't actually begun in earnest until 1800.  The Mission presented us with a number of architectural problems.   The key to painting it was to forget everything you know about perspective and simply paint what you see.  I prefer to paint architecture this way, anyway.  If you measure angles and proportions rather than draw perspective lines and vanishing points, the building will look a lot more convincing, and it'll take a lot less time to paint.  Below are more photos and a 5x7 demonstration.  For this one, I was showing how to make accurate color and value relationships more than focusing on accurate perspective.

I did another demonstration that day, but I don't have a photograph of it.  Never sell your paintings without getting a good photo first!  But the painting was bought by Lois Griffel (, and I am honored for her to have it.  Lois was the last director of the Cape Cod School of Art and studied with Henry Hensche.  She now lives in southern Arizona and came to visit my workshop.

At the end of the day, we headed over to Abe's Old Tumacacori Bar.  It was built by WPA workers, who also built the highway in front of it, and opened in 1933.  I played a game of eight-ball - my first in nearly 30 years! - before going over to the Tumacacori Restaurant, which serves the unusual combination of Greek and Mexican dishes.  Below is the bar.

We had such a great time this week that we've already set up a workshop for 2012.  Put January 17-20 on your calendar!  Artist Katherine Reyes will be coordinating the workshop again.  Visit for more information.  I hope you'll join us for a warm winter getaway.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Transparency in Shadows

Mountain Interior, 7x12, oil - $100 - contact Michael

A reader writes:  "I notice that some plein air painters have lots of 'air' and translucence in their shadows, but still have (what seems to be) accurate and expressive values."

One of the beauties of painting in a medium such as oil is that is has both opaque and transparent qualities.   Opaque/transparent is one of several contrasting pairs that give a painting punch when used well.   Typically, and especially with oil, you'll see painters keeping darks and shadows transparent, while saving more opaque paint for the lights.   Keeping darks transparent helps create an illusion of depth in the shadows.  Keeping lights opaque helps bring highlights forward.

If you paint on a white, untoned canvas, the paint can even become transparent enough to mimic the "stained glass" effect of watercolor.  Light shines down through the paint, bounces off the white ground, and passes back through the paint a second time, giving the layer a beautiful, luminescent quality.

One of the problems, though, is in keeping these transparent darks dark enough, especially when using a white, untoned ground.  I've also noticed that some pigments, especially ultramarine blue, may actually become lighter as the oil sinks into the ground.  Sometimes the darks need to be repainted to make them dark again, or the lights need to be lightened.  Keeping track of value shifts is just one of the balls we painters need to juggle while painting.

I sometimes add white - or a light mixture of palette scrapings or mud, which contain white - to my darks to make them somewhat more opaque.  Then I brush them into the shadows thinly.  The result is a semi-transparent layer that has some of the "stained glass" effect but also the staying power of a more opaque layer.  (See the sketch above for an example.)

By the way, I use a modified split-primary palette of colors in which my darks are all transparent.  The colors are:  cadmium yellow light, cadmium yellow deep, cadmium red light, permanent alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue and phthalo green.   My white is a titanium-zinc mixture.  (All the colors are from Gamblin.)  There are many other palettes that a painter can use, and I'm sure, many ways to get air and translucence in the shadows while maintaining accurate and expressive values.

On another note, I still have space in the April Grand Canyon workshop.  You can find out more about it here.  Also, if you haven't taken my survey, I'd love for you to do so.  That link is here.  Finally, I'm off to Tubac, Arizona, to teach a workshop this week, so I doubt I'll blog again until I return.  Mind the shop!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Grand Canyon Painting Retreat - April 26-29

Grand Canyon Sketch, 5x7 oil - sold

Before I talk about the Grand Canyon trip, I want to remind you that if you're a past or possible future student, I have a little survey for you to fill out.  If you haven't done so yet, here is the link:  I appreciate your participation in helping to fine-tune my workshops.

Now, about the Grand Canyon.  If you've not been, it is indeed everything you've heard.  It is majestic, breath-taking and full of gorgeous color.  There are many wonderful spots where you can perch with your easel and paint the beauty.  I was there last March painting with a friend, and I've re-posted one of the small sketches I did above.

I've always wanted the opportunity to take a small group up there to paint.  With that in mind, I have scheduled a four-day painting retreat at the South Rim for April 26-29, which is a Tuesday through Friday. Cost of the workshop is $250.  I am limiting the retreat to only 4 participants, and I already have two spots filled.  If you want to go, tell me right away - first come, first served!  A $150 deposit is required.  Note:  The retreat is now full.

The price is for just the retreat.  You will need to secure lodging and meals.  I will be tent camping, but there is plenty of other lodging available in Grand Canyon Village and elsewhere.  Once you pay your deposit to me, you will want to secure lodging right away - things can fill up fast at the Canyon.  (1/24 - I've heard that things are filling up.  There is plenty of camping, though, and I suggest it as a wonderful option to get close to nature! Go to this link for camping options.)

This will be a true plein air experience.  Although late Spring can be beautiful at the South Rim, we may get wind and precipitation.  (Go to for lots of information about the Canyon, including seasonal averages.)  We can't count on shelters with views for painting in.  If it is impossible to paint, we will at least get out and take lots of reference photos and make pencil sketches.  (We'll all pretend we're Thomas Moran at the Grand Canyon back in the mid-1800s, determined to gather reference material for a studio piece.)

To make for a more satisfying time, you will need to be comfortable with your gear and have had some experience painting outdoors.   You also will need to be portable and carry everything in a single trip, as we will be riding the shuttle bus to some locations.  The less you can carry, the better!

I will be painting in oil, but the retreat is open to all media.  There will be no formal instruction, but we will have group critiques and more in this experience with your peers.  It doesn't matter whether you're working in oil, pastel, watercolor, acrylic or some other medim.   Whatever you bring, you can expect a good solid chunk of time face-to-face with some of the country's most awesome scenery!

I hope you'll join me.  Let me know right away.

Monday, January 10, 2011

A Small Painting - and a Small Survey!

Ship Rock sketch, 5x7, oil - $60 - contact Michael

Trina and I are always trying to fine-tune my plein air painting workshops so we can give students a better experience.  January is a good month for that, because we not only are hitting our stride in the Paint Sedona workshops but also looking forward to the summer workshops on Campobello Island and on to 2012.  With that in mind, we have put together a short survey.  We would really appreciate your time on this. (The survey is limited to the first 100 responses, so if you delay, you may not get your word in!)

You can click on this link for the survey:

By the way, the above sketch is of a very recognizable Sedona landmark - Ship Rock.  (I've also seen it called "Sail Rock.")  The day was overcast, but that just made the colors in the sail all the more interesting.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Oil Painting Demonstration in Mesa, Arizona - and a Visit to Scottsdale

Trina and I drove down to Mesa, Arizona, yesterday to give an oil painting demonstration for Spectral Artists.  Spectral Artists is a well-organized group, and we really enjoyed spending time with them.  For my demonstration, I painted a Sedona scene from a photo in a 12x16 format and talked about my process.  Not many of the group had ever indulged in plein air painting, so I also did a bit of proselytizing for this time-honored practice.

Afterward, we drove up to Scottsdale to check out the galleries.  I haven't been to Scottsdale in a few years, and to be honest, I don't think Scottsdale is as good a gallery town as I had remembered.  There used to be more representational landscapes;  now I'm seeing more decorative, contemporary pieces in galleries that were once solidly "fine art."  However, we did find a few favorites that include:

The Legacy Gallery, where we were pleased to see work by Michael Stack, Jay Moore, Dan Gerhartz, Sherrie McGraw and David Leffel;

Gallery Russia, where we saw many, many fine examples of Russian impressionism and realism from artists both living and deceased;

Trailside Gallery, where we saw a great sampling of work by Matt Smith and some nice pieces by Curt Walters; and finally,

Amery Bohling Gallery, which was a very pleasant surprise indeed.   This is an artist-owned working studio gallery, and we got to meet Amery herself, busy at work on a mid-size painting of the Grand Canyon.  Amery said she's been open only two months, but she's in a good spot.   I can't think of any other studio gallery right on Scottsdale's Main Street.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Snow Day

"Mitten Ridge" 12x16, oil - $750 framed - contact Michael

It's not often we get to paint snow in Sedona, but a brief period of cooler weather has given us painters a wonderful opportunity.  Although there's none left to speak of in town, the higher slopes are still snow-clad, especially on the shadowed sides.

Yesterday, the workshop went up to the Midgely Bridge pull-off to paint a view of Mitten Ridge.  It was a glorious view with the ridge backlit and just a little sun spilling down into the snow field.  A thin ceiling of cloud scattered the sun's light and warmed up the shadows.  On a clear day, I would have painted the shadows distinctly cool with prominent blues and violets.  This day, however, I added a bit of red and green to the mixture.

By the way, we had beautiful weather.  Mid-50s, gentle breeze and plenty of sun!

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Maynard Dixon Advice

"Crossing" 9x12, oil - $150 - contact Michael

We had an overcast day not too long ago, and we went down to Red Rock Crossing.  The light spoke "pink" to me, and that's the way I painted it.  The water was too high to walk across the stepping stones, but it made for some nice rapids to paint.  I particularly liked that little orange bit of color beneath the clump of grass to the right of the foam.

Maynard Dixon sent a card to painter John Hilton once with some advice.  The card read:  "Be sensitive in perception, circumspect in approach, clear in color, definite in form - and remember, it is not the last stroke but every stroke that counts."

I had to look up "circumspect" to remind myself what it means.  It means "cautious" or "prudent."  I think what Dixon meant here was, among many things, to be careful what you include in your scene.  There was a great deal of very complicated brush and tangled weeds on both the far shore and nearby.  I removed or simplified most of it.

Dixon's paragraph should be printed out in bold letters and taped into the lid of your paintbox.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Extending a Rectangle

In the field, I often use a little viewfinder to isolate my scene.  The ViewCatcher has markings on it that allow me to set it for a variety of sizes of panels such as an 8x10 and so on.  This way, I can compose to the format I'll be painting in.  Then, once I've found a nice composition, I use the viewfinder as a template to start my thumbnail sketch.  I lay the viewfinder on the paper and run the pencil around the inside of the rectangle lightly.  I remove the viewfinder, and there's my rectangle for sketching in.

Now, most viewfinders will give you a rather small rectangle to work in.  I personally like small sizes because they force me to stick with big, simple shapes.  However,  you may like a larger size.  There's a way to turn that rectangle into a larger one that has the same proportions.

Here's what you do (illustrations follow):

1.  Extend one diagonal of the rectangle to approximately the length you'd like the diagonal of the larger rectangle to be.
2.  Extend the two sides of the rectangle that are adjacent to the starting point of the diagonal far enough so they approximate the length they will be in the larger rectangle.
3.  From the end point of the diagonal, draw a vertical line upward to connect with the top extended side.  From the end point, draw a horizontal line back to connect with the other extended side.  These two lines will give you the larger rectangle, and it'll be scaled to match the original, smaller rectangle.

I show this, among other techniques, in my new mini-video, Composing in the Field.  (Visit my Lulu store to buy this and the other mini-videos.)