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Monday, February 25, 2013

Light and Time of Day

What's the best time of day to go painting outdoors?  In some ways, your own diurnal rhythms should dictate that for you.  For example, I am at my most energetic in the mornings and can paint up a storm, but in the afternoons, even just lifting a brush can be a chore.  Other painters I know do their best work in the evening hours.

But we should also listen to the sun.  Because the sun is always in motion, the quality of sunlight varies constantly, and there are times when the quality of this light is better for painting than others.  Photographers like to talk about the "golden hour" - the hour right after dawn and the  hour right before sunset.  Objects illuminated by sun at these times seem to be richer in color.   Everything is awash with a golden light, and the world can look quite magical.

It's a great time to paint, if you are quick.  Blink, and it is gone.  For some reason, the sun always seems to move faster in the early morning and in the late evening.  (It has to do with refraction, and with light bending as it passes through the lower, thicker and denser part of the atmosphere.)  It doesn't take long after sunrise for the world to lose some of the magic and start looking dull.  In the evening, of course, the light just keeps getting better and better - until, that is, the sun drops below the horizon.

The sun seems to move the slowest in the middle hours of the day.  By then, the shadows are small and few, so there's not much contrast, and the color, being affected by the sun's cooler aspect at that time of day, is less rich.  As you know, strong contrast and rich color are two essential tools in the outdoor painter's toolbox, and without them, it is difficult to build a good painting.  We call this "flat lighting," when the sun is high and everything seems washed out.

There is a compromise, though.  You can get reasonably good contrast and color between the "golden hour" and the middle of the day.  After sunrise, I like to wait an hour or so until the sun has slowed down a bit and the shadows aren't changing so fast, and then I paint for two hours.  In the afternoon (if I can lift a brush), I try to get out maybe three hours before sunset.  I may paint all the way to sunset.  It's always a risk when I do though.  I make sure to get some good painting done before then and move to a much smaller canvas to capture the end of the day.

I remember a workshop I participated in several years ago.  Students and instructors were all staying in common lodging and dining together.  After dinner, just before sunset, one student, who'd had a bit too much to drink, became vocally enamoured of the gorgeous sunset and announced she simply had to paint it.  The moment she finally managed to get her French easel erect, the sun and all of its beautiful color vanished.  Some things just aren't meant to be painted but savored by the eye alone.

I created the above graphic to illustrate the concept.  Feel free to share it with attribution!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Plein Air Painting Workshop Update: Snow in Red Rock Country

6x12, View of Ship Rock oil/panel.
I will get better photos of these and post them at Daily Paintworks
for auction later this week.
Snow comes to Sedona only a few times a winter, and usually it only lasts a day.   This week, however, we had a widespread storm that even dropped significant snow in Scottsdale and Phoenix.   Luckily, I had advanced students who were eager to paint snow.  Cold weather was no problem for the students from Washington State and Taos, New Mexico, and even the student from Phoenix brought warm clothes and did fine with it.  I wore several layers myself - turtleneck, fleece jacket, down vest and down parka, plus corduroy pants, glomitts and what L.L. Bean calls a "Maine Warden's Hat." I stayed toasty-warm.

Snoopy Rock as it is not often seen

Happy, warm students.  We did not build the little snowman; it was already there.
View from the Cultural Park
We had two different types of snow days.  One day, snow squalls drifted over Sedona, obscuring most of the red rocks.  It was an opportunity to figure out how to handle soft edges and subject matter that could simply vanish - and then reappear - without warning.  The other situation was snow on a bright, clear day.  This was a chance to learn how to paint snow in shadow and light.  The trick with snow in shadow is that it must be dark enough to read as shadow but still be light enough to read as snow.  When I run into situations like this, I try to push the brightness of shadowed snow as much as I can but also try keep it in shadow.

On our stormy day, while waiting for things to warm up (it never really did), I did a quick pastel demonstration of Chimney Rock from our studio window. Next, we headed up to Sedona's Cultural Park where there was shelter and a panorama with the Cockscomb butte, Doe Mesa and Bear Mountain in the distance.  I did another pastel of the scene, plus a little oil sketch.

5x7 pastel sketches:  Chimney Rock (top), Cockscomb (bottom)
Cockcomb oil sketch (6x8) on paper.  I did the whole painting in
Torrit Grey (Gamblin) and then added hints of color to "colorize" it.
The vertical lines showing through the paint are an artifact from another
project (this was a scrap piece of paper), and I will eliminate those later.
On the sunny day, we headed right out to paint, even though the temperatures were lower.  We knew that if we stood in sunshine, we'd be comfortable.  We wanted to get closer to the rocks, so we headed up to the Sedona Heritage Park where we had a nice view of Steamboat Rock and Ship Rock.  I did three little paintings there.  The third one, which features an Italian Cypress, is an odd piece, but I needed that cypress to give a proper sense of distance to the rocks.

View from the Sedona Heritage Park

9x12, oil/panel

12x9, oil/panel

My Alla Prima Pochade box
We'll still probably have a few days left of snow on the rocks.  Later today, I'll be taking a beginning plein air class from the Sedona Arts Center out to paint some of it.  Lucky for them, it won't be anywhere near as cold, but we'll still have some snow to paint!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

From the Mailbag: Luminous Water

Oak Creek Ripples, 12x9 pastel
Available at Auction!

A reader writes:  I entered a juried pastel show recently and saw a pastel painting that interested me.  It was a  painting of rapid water flow, as one would see during a spring run-off of water over boulders and small rocks in a stream. What interested me about the painting was the luminosity of the water. On close inspection, I could not detect anything, but perhaps was it an acrylic overlaying the pastels that represented the water?

Having not seen that particular painting, I can't speak to it.  I can, however, speak to the luminosity of water in general.  The illusion of luminosity has to do with contrast - but not just value contrast.  You need to consider temperature contrast, as well.

In my painting above, the water sparkles and seems to glow from within.  Part of it does have to do with value.  The sun "diamonds" on the water are the lightest value in the painting.  I made sure that I kept that in mind and keyed down all the other values in the piece.  If you look at the sun diamonds and compare them to the value of the water, you'll note that the water is significantly darker.

Additionally, note the water itself and the colors within it.  I've varied the color from blue-green to red-orange.  These are not only color complements, but they are temperature complements, too.  The red-orange reads much warmer than the blue-green, leading to a luminous quality.  (The French Impressionists discovered this principle.)  By the way, the orange color is due to sunlight reflecting off the creek bottom - not an uncommon sight in the "Red Rock Country" of Sedona, Arizona!

In case you're interested, this little pastel painting is available at auction at my Daily Paintworks store.  The auction ends in only a few days!  Click here for the auction.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Importance of Drawing - New Video Short

I've created a new video short, called The Importance of Drawing.  Even if you don't see any straight lines in the landscape, angle and proportion are important - and that's what drawing is all about.  In this short video, I tell why.

Also, my new Artists' Network University online plein air workshop starts this Tuesday, February 19.  For details and to register, please visit the link.

And don't forget my ongoing online self-study workshop at Udemy!  It's only $15 for the Plein Air Essentials - the Basics course. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Paintings Juried into Annual Juried Arizona Plein Air Painters Exhibit

I was delighted to open the mail this morning and learn that all three of the paintings I submitted to the 2013 annual Arizona Plein Air Painters exhibit were juried in.  The show runs from March 15 through March 26 at the Sedona Arts Center's Special Exhibition Gallery (15 Art Barn Road, Sedona AZ).  There is a reception on Friday, March 15 from 4 to 8 pm.  I hope to see some of you there!

Here are the paintings, all of which will, of course, be for sale:

Cool Porch 9x12, oil (plein air)

Gibson Beach 12x24 oil (studio)

Tortilla Lady 9x12 oil (plein air)
By the way, I'm also happy to announce that we have just scheduled a new, 3-day (full day) plein air workshop through the Sedona Arts Center.  Cost is $360 and space is limited to 10.  Dates are April 3-5, Wednesday-Friday.  Come join us!

Monday, February 11, 2013

Down by the Creek - and Cropping Down the View

Most of the year, Dry Creek is, as its name suggests, dry.  But if we have some good snowfall up in the red rock hills around Sedona, snowmelt will fill it to the brim.  We've had a couple of storms this month, and all the creeks and streams are up.  Last week, while working on my winter series of tree studies, I wanted to do a larger piece along Dry Creek, featuring some of the beautifully sculpted junipers along its banks, and to include some water, as well.

Saba on alert

Trina went off on a long hike, and Saba stuck with me.  Once I'd found my spot off the trail, I set Saba out to monitor the perimeter.  She found lots to keep her interested, and I don't think she napped a minute.   I found my own subject of interest - a dead juniper snag on the other side of the water with an interesting play of backlight and shadow.  I also found the water rather engaging; shafts of sunlight were plunging through it to the bottom, and the sunspots glowed with a warm, orange light.  But that ultimately became a distraction for me.



Working the trees
One problem I often encounter in the field when working in a large format is this:  the canvas presents a visual field so large that it all too easily accomodates multiple centers of interest.  It's as if your brain looks at this large canvas, notes that it covers maybe 60 degrees of space, and then decides to carve out a 60-degree chunk of landscape to impose upon it.  This problem occurs because of one's proximity to the canvas.  If you back up considerably before you crop out the scene, this 60 degrees shrinks to maybe half that or less, and your brain carves out an accordingly smaller - and thus more manageable - bit of real estate.  The rule of thumb is to back up three times the diagonal measurement of your canvas.  For this 30x24, the diagonal is 38", which means about 9 feet!

But I didn't do that.  I was backed up against some brush and couldn't get back far enough.  So, not only did I bring in that nice juniper snag but also those terribly enchanting sunspots in the water as well.

Close-up of palette and brushes
In the field, it didn't really matter.  My goal was the tree, and I spent perhaps two or more hours first blocking in everything (including those darned sunspots) but then focused on my tree.  Back in the studio the next day, I continued to work on the painting, relying on some photos but mostly on memory.  The upper half of the painting went fine, but when I got to the water, I knew I was in trouble.

The sunspots competed for attention.  I spent another two hours on the water but finally scraped it down and rubbed it out with mineral spirits.  But what I got was a nice, soft body of water with subtle reflections.  This ghost image worked so much better!

Ultimately, while "orchestrating" the painting (that is Albert Handell's term), I decided the water needed one point of interest, so I added a rock plus a few other points of light to pull the eye through the painting.  By the way, I didn't have a good photo of a rock, so I used the wi-fi, which reaches out to my studio, and my Kindle Fire HD to find one, and that became the model.  Here's the finished piece.

Dry Creek Sentinel, 30x24, oil

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Encounter: Christine Debrosky

Aspens and Cottonwoods, 9x12 oil/panel

The weather is getting springlike here in the Verde Valley of Arizona.  Crocuses have already started pushing up in our garden - no blooms yet - and I've detected a bit of color in the upper reaches of the cottonwoods and willows.  Junipers are releasing pollen, too.  Touch a branch and you'll dislodge a cloud of yellow.  This is not good for a plein air painter with allergies!  But I will suffer gladly if it means spring is on the way.

Christine Debrosky
This week, painter Christine Debrosky and I went down to the Verde River, just south of Sedona about ten miles.  Although the water levels have dropped considerably since the last storm, the water is still rushing.  We painted in the warm afternoon sun on a sand bank with the water tumbling past.  Except for the rare hiker, we were pretty much by ourselves.  We chatted a bit before starting, but fell silent once our brushes got into gear.  (All the professional painters I buddy with do this; they get into the "zone" and rarely speak again until the finish.)

It was a great day.  I've posted two of my pieces here.  I am auctioning both of these separately; click the link below the image to visit the auction.

Cottonwoods, 12x9 oil/panel

By the way, Christine moved to my area a few years ago from New York, where she taught at the Woodstock School of Art.  Her work has won many awards and ribbons in the U.S. and abroad, and she is a Distinguished Pastelist of the Pastel Society of the West Coast.  She has been featured in American Artist and Pastel Journal as well as in five books on painting.  Like me, Christine teaches often and in many places, and  this year she will be a presenter at the biannual IAPS (International Association of Pastel Societies) convention this May in Albuquerque.  For more on Christine, visit her website at

Down at the Verde River

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Ultimate Art Fair

Art fairs, especially the juried kind, are a good venue for artists.  Or so I've heard.  I've not done one myself, but I know plenty who have.  In the better weekend art fairs, some artists pull sales in the four- and five-digit range.  But it takes a certain type of artist to do this.  I have to admit that one of my failings as an artist is the inability to seriously schmooze.  As an introvert, I find my "charm battery" gets discharged pretty quickly.  I'm not a natural salesman, and that is, unfortunately, my biggest obstacle to higher sales.

Another issue is transportation.  Loading, unloading and reloading the number of paintings plus all the furniture is a lot of work.  Plus, I'd have to rent a vehicle to cart it all.  If I were rich enough, I'd hire a moving company to schlep everything and a model to stand in for me and sell.  (Sort of like Microsoft and Apple do at trade shows.)

I remember talking to my Dad about his time in the Marines.  He was one of the few who survived Iwo Jima.  After he described to me what it was like for an 18-year-old boy to be under the gun, I told him I don't think I could have handled it.  He replied, "You'd be surprised what you can do under presssure."

So, I suppose I could do an art fair - if I had to.

Why do I bring this up?  Because I just had a chance to visit a fair I actually can conceive of doing.  It might be called the "Ultimate" art fair.  This is the Arizona Fine Art Expo.   It's the ultimate because it's not just over a weekend - it lasts ten weeks!  The organizer has connected three huge tents, complete with booths with walls to hang your work on and carpeting for you to stand on.  There's even a cafe and top-of-the-line Porta Loos.  The idea is that this is your studio for nearly three months.  You are expected to be on-site and work five days out of seven, including weekends.  As we toured the fair, we recognized that a lot of camaraderie had developed among the artists, and there are spots you can go to for rest if you find your "charm battery" is low.  Some of the artists even live in their RVs, which are parked in a side lot.

I also like the fact that nearly all the work is original.  A tiny percentage of your inventory can be reproductions, but the organizers really believe in the value of original art.  Additionally, artists are juried in.  I found the quality of work - which wasn't just paintings but also sculpture, woodwork and pottery  - to be very high.  It's not cheap to get in, though.  Depending on your booth location, it can cost $2500 and up to participate.

There's a second ultimate fair in the area and running concurrently:  the Celebration of Fine Art.  Both of these are in Scottsdale and worth a look.  Maybe I'll even see you at one of these in a future year.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Encounter: Portrait Painter Michelle Dunaway

This past weekend, I had an opportunity to drive down to the Scottsdale Artists School for a one-day portrait painting demonstration with Michelle Dunaway.  Dunaway is one of the "Putney Painters," a group of artists founded by painters Richard Schmid and Nancy Guzik.  Several of the Putney Painters, including Schmid, Guzik, Stephanie Birdsall, Kristen Thies and Sherrie McGraw, were on hand during the week for workshops and demos.  They also had an exhibit at Legacy Gallery called "Putney Painters and Friends."  Although I didn't have a chance to participate in the other demos, I did have a chance to see the exhibit and the remarkable work therein.

It's a rare opportunity for me to watch a master portrait/figure painter at work, so I was excited to see this demo.   I scrawled over five page of notes during the four hours of painting time (which does not include model breaks and a catered lunch) and a few photos of the portrait-in-progress.   Dunaway was wonderfully articulate and spoke most of the time she worked.  I should also praise the model, a daughter of Stephanie Birdsall; she was able to maintain the pose and to return to it perfectly after breaks.

Dunaway works from the focal point out.  In this case, she worked exclusively on the triangle formed by the eyes and nose, before moving on to the hair and other features at the periphery of vision.  "It's so easy to get excited about everything about the model - the way the hair curls, the glitter of the eye, the  flow of the clothing.  But you have to pick one thing to focus on, one intention.  Strive to get that one thing right first.  Once you've achieved it, then move on to another focus, a second intention."

It'd be fun to live near Putney.  The groups gets together every couple of weeks to paint together in my old stomping grounds of Vermont.

By the way, I still have space left in my upcoming Artist's Network University "Plein Air Basics" course (runs February 19-March 15.)  Click here for more information!

Nearly done.  Dunaway added some rhythmical elements (hair curl
under right cheek) for composition after I took this photo.