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Monday, May 28, 2012

Painting in the Studio

I'm painting for a show that's coming up at Sunbury Shores Arts & Nature Centre (St Andrews, NB)  that will start July 20.  The theme is "Buildings in the Landscape."  In addition to my typical plein air work, which seems to have developed a certain style, I wanted to do a few studio pieces.  In the studio, I like to depart from my plein air look.  In my book, that's not a bad thing.  Studio paintings are created under completely different conditions, so why should I try to make them look like the plein air work, or vice versa?  Of course, the studio work may end up looking so different that it won't fit in the show!

This piece happens to include a prominent boat as well as a few buildings scattered incidentally in the distance.  (Perhaps I'm stretching the concept of "buildings in the landscape" here.)  For it, I had several goals in mind.  I wanted to work on things that are difficult to do in the field, given the time constraints.  I wanted to:

  • Keep the shapes simple and more abstract than I do in my plein air pieces, which tend to have more detail;
  • Build a more satisfying composition than I have time for in the field; and
  • Develop a color scheme that is at once more harmonious and more exciting than what I often get in the field.

Here's the reference photo.  The color is a little dull, there's too much detail, and the composition, though interesting, needs work.

Now here's my first take on the painting.  I really liked the way the color harmony was developing with a complement pair – red-violet/yellow-green – in conjunction with the yellow ochre I was mixing into my sunlit colors.   I also worked hard at keeping shapes simple and the key in the upper end of the value scale.

But there were a couple of things I didn't like.  I didn't like the shape of the foreground beach.  I was trying to create a curvey lead-in for the eye, but it just wasn't working.  It was crying for too much attention and was taking away from the boat and darker shapes in the background.  I also didn't like the color of it.  It was too warm and pink; it needed to be greyer, more like the color of the rooftops.

I corrected these things and also darkened some of the shadows under the boat.  But just slightly, since I wanted to keep the high-key feeling.  Pulling the water down to the bottom of the frame helped, too.  I wanted to keep a curvey lead-in for the eye, though, so I added a subtle sense of either a wavelet or a partly-submerged rope in the foreground.  (It doesn't matter which.)  Finally, I cooled off some of the sunlit grasses behind the boat.  Here's the final version:

"Spring Greens" 12x12, oil (Gamblin Fastmatte)
For my St Andrews-by-the-Sea fans, this is the boat that was hauled up by Quoddy Bay Fish Market for several years. It's gone now, having been smashed to bits in a particularly high tide.  Observant readers will note that the little lighthouse in the distance - the Pendlebury Lighthouse - has replaced that big house at the water's edge.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Fun with Pumice

Some fun products have been arriving on my doorstep this week.  I'm about to embark on a little research for an article I'm writing for The Artist's Magazine.  The article is on surfaces for pastel.  One of the products that arrived is a 2 lb bag of finely ground pumice.  This is FFFF (4F), which is about as fine as you can get it.  

Pumice is a product of vulcanism.  The rock is full of gas, and it can float on water.  When ground up, it makes an excellent abrasive for sanding.  It's been used for polishing furniture and, if I'm not mistaken, teeth.  (Your dentist may have a problem with that.)  But it's also great for making pastel surfaces.  When mixed with gesso and applied to a substrate, it becomes the "grit" that holds the pastel.

I wonder how far my 2 lb bag will go?  It looks like an awful lot of pumice to me.  And it would be easy to confuse it with stone-ground wheat flour.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Teaching a Workshop - Artists Network University

As some of you may know, I've been doing critiques through Artists Network University.  Not long ago, ANU decided to add a curriculum and invited me to teach a workshop.  The workshop development is now complete, and you can register online for my Getting Started in Plein Air workshop.  The workshop starts June 26th and runs four weeks.  Participation is limited to 20 students.

One might very well ask, "How can I learn plein air painting through an online workshop?"  Good question!  Well, you'll have a book download - my friend Bob Rohm's The Painterly Approach - as part of the course, plus a series of videos to watch.  Each week you'll have an assignment plus homework to do out in the field.  You'll upload your completed assignments through our Blackboard interface.  I'll critique your work, and you can ask me questions and get answers.  I've never done this before, but I think it'll be lots of fun!

If you're new to plein air, or would like to get into it but have been afraid to, this is the course for you.  I'll cover the fundamentals and lead you through my process for painting outdoors.  Please join us!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Picking a Subject

I've started writing a few guest articles for plein air painting-related blogs.  Here's one for Plein Air BC, the British Columbia plein air group.  (Their website is  It's about picking a subject.  I'll just post the first paragraph, and you can click the link to read the rest of it.

Picking a subject is like taking the first step on a journey; you always want to start out in the right direction. One problem I run into when teaching workshops is that many students don’t know how to pick a subject suitable for a plein air painting. [read more]

Monday, May 21, 2012

Some New Plein Air Painting Products

Spring Greens at the Seaside Barn, 6x8, oil
Now that we've settled in after our long, cross-country drive, I thought I'd go out painting with a few new items I've come across.  We've had absolutely gorgeous weather these last few days, and I didn't want to miss the opportunity to play before getting back to work.  Of course, painting is work, but I call it playing when I introduce a few new items to my materials or equipment.  (Actually, I have been working; this week, I created the syllabus and materials for my online course through Artists Network University, started an article for The Artist's Magazine, and promoted my Paint Campobello plein air painting workshops.)

Although blackflies aren't a problem when I start teaching my workshops at the end of June, we always have a run of them in late May.  I came across "Bye Bye Blackfly," a DEET-free ointment that comes in a nifty can.  We do have blackflies now, and I can swear that this product works.

I've always used those free plastic bags from Wal-Mart for disposing of my soiled papertowels.  I hang one from the side of my pochade box.  But one problem with these bags, in addition to their being bad for the environment, is that a windy day will often send it whipping around, often right into my palette.  Paint gets everywhere.  I now have the Bajer Pop Open Caddy, thanks to a student of mine from Ohio.  Originally designed as a shower caddy, it's perfect for trash.  I have to admit I do line it with a plastic bag.

Besides the Pop Open Caddy, you'll note the Art Cocoon, which I
have written about before.
Finally, when I was at the Plein  Air Expo in Las Vegas, I was given a set of Cobra paints, a new brand of water-miscible oil paint from Royal Talens, the people who make Rembrandt paints and pastels.  They're better that the Grumbacher Max brand which seems to "clump" when thinned with too much water.  Yes, I know you can buy a medium that will thin without clumping, but for me the point of these paints is to minimize what I have to carry.  Cobra paints thin well with just water.  I like the consistency of them, too.

At the top of this post is the little piece I did this morning.  With all these new toys, you can bet I had fun painting it!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Managing Your Greens

"Head Harbour Shadows" 9x12, oil - available
One way of managing greens is to avoid them!  Although there was a great deal of green in this scene
of the Head Harbour Light house, I chose to minimize their coverage.
The vigorous, vegetive greens of summertime overwhelm the landscape - and often the painting student, too.  I'm not talking about fast-moving kudzu that can swallow up a whole town overnight, but about greens that are so dominant that they swallow up all other color.  In much of the eastern U.S. and Canada, it's hard to see anything but green in summer.

Students often cower and retreat before the onslaught, uttering one of two statements.  Either "there's too much green out there" or "I just can't find the right green."

Even as an experienced outdoor painter, I have to admit that I, too, sometimes wish for something other than green.  But if you want to paint outdoors in the summertime, you may have no alternative than to engage the enemy.

First, let's look at the problem of too much green.  Green is supposed to be a restful color - that's why hospital corridors are often painted that color - but in the landscape, too much can be claustrophobic.  One trick painters use to mitigate green is to tone the canvas red.  The theory is that little bits of red will pop through the overpainting and make for a more vibrant finished piece.  I don't find this very helpful, though; green strokes over red vibrate like bad op art and give me a headache.  Instead, I like to use a near-complement.  If the green is, say, a pure secondary green, I prefer to tone with red-violet or red-orange.  The vibration is a lot less but still makes for an exciting painting.

Now, let's look at not being able to mix (or, in pastel, find) the right green.  The "right green" that you see in the landscape isn't necessarily the "right green" you want in your painting.  Don't try the trick of mixing up a batch of green with your knife and then holding up a sample against what you see in the field; that mixture will look different - and wrong - once you apply it to your canvas and it's in the context of all your other slightly-off mixtures.  Instead, consider the mood you are trying to create, and then get the colors in your painting to work well together.  Also, you may consider using the concept of simultaneous contrast to get the green you want.  Green surrounded by red will seem more intense; surrounded by blue, it will seem tinged with orange and warmer.

I'm ready to confront greens this summer.  Are you?

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Ohio Plein Air Painting Workshop

Ruth Ann's Garden, 9x12, oil

I just finished up a two-day, oil-only plein air painting workshop in Lima, Ohio.  It's hard to believe, but in this meteorologically-busy spring season, we had two days of really excellent weather.   Comfortable temperature and humidity, plenty of sun, and no bugs.  We all remarked that plein air painting doesn't get any better than this!

Last year we painted barns; this year, we focused on one of Lima's beautiful city parks.  This one had trees, water, flowers - everything you could ask for.   (We were even interviewed and taped by the local paparazzi, the local newspaper and TV station.)  I did a garden painting plus a tree painting demonstration of a shagbark hickory.  Here are some photos to show you a bit of the workshop.

Now we are on our way home.  We still have about 2000 miles to go, and we'll include one family visit in Vermont.  Most likely, my next post will be from Campobello Island.  We can't wait to get there!

We stopped at Kewpee's for dinner

Painting at Faurot Park

Shagbark Hickory, 12x9, oil

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Indiana Plein Air Painting Workshop

Art Barn Shadows, 5x7 pastel

I just finished teaching a three-day, oil and pastel plein air painting workshop at the Art Barn in Valparaiso, Indiana.  Indiana has become one of my favorite places to teach over the last couple of years.  At the Art Barn, we have it all - ponds, meadows, woods, barns, burros and yes, even chickens - and 69 beautiful acres to wander in.  This year, because of the early warm weather, we missed the dogwoods blooming, but we got the locust trees and some very pretty late spring greens.  I'm already looking forward to next year!

To whet your appetite, I've included a few photos plus a couple of demonstrations from the workshop.

Now, we are on our way to Lima, Ohio, to teach a two-day, oil-only plein air painting workshop.  I'll report on that soon.

Janet Sullivan, Art Barn Founder and Guest Chicken Wrangler

Demonstrating in the Field

Painting by the Pond

Barn Tree, 12x9, oil

Spring Chickens, 12x9 pastel

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Illinois Plein Air Painting Workshop

The Old Mill, 9x12, pastel

I just finished teaching a two-day plein air painting workshop at Water Street Studios in Batavia, Illinois.   Batavia is one of my favorite small towns for a workshop.  Called "The Windmill City" because it was once the country's largest producer of windmills, it boasts many cultural amenities and beautiful parks.  We painted in two of the parks and enjoyed views of old mill buildings, waterfalls, graceful oak trees and lots and lots of Canada geese.  Above is one of my demos from the workshop plus some photos.

I hope to teach another workshop here next May.  If you're in the Chicago area, it's not far - less than an hour.  Watch my newsletter for announcements or, if you're not on my mailing list, sign up here.

Now we are on our way to the Art Barn at Valparaiso, Indiana.  We'll be painting on the Art Barn's property - 70 acres of woods, meadows and ponds, with chickens and cows and yes, an old barn!  We'll even have the Chicken Whisperer in attendance; he'll make sure the chickens hold still long enough for us to paint them.