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Saturday, January 31, 2015

Life-Changing Advice from William F. Reese

William F. Reese

The painter William F. Reese died in 2010, but I recently came across a video presentation he gave in 2009 that I want to share with you in a moment.  It contains good advice for those of us who have unrealized ambitions.

I never had the pleasure of meeting Reese, but he was a mentor of my mentor, Ann Templeton, who is also now gone.  Reese was an award-winning Western painter, sculptor and teacher.  Known for his rich color and lively style, this Washington artist painted en plein air whenever he could -- even after the disease Alpha-1 took hold.

Alpha-1 (Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency) is a hereditary disease that affects liver and lungs.  For the lucky ones, it may mean COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) in later years and the need to be on oxygen.  For the unlucky, it may mean liver or lung transplants at an early age.  It's estimated that 1 in 2500 Americans have Alpha-1, and it is often undiagnosed.  Reese was fortunate in that he was diagnosed in 1985 and managed to live a full life, on oxygen, until the end.  When he died at 72, he was in the middle of creating an instructional DVD on how to draw and paint horses.

Reese, who was active in the Alpha-1 Foundation, was scheduled to give a presentation to the group's annual conference in 2009.  He was so sick by then that he was unable to appear in person but taped the following impassioned presentation.  Although it doesn't contain footage of him, it does contain a slide show of his work with him speaking.  I hope you'll listen until the end; I did, and it really made me think about my future.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Old-Time Plein Air Painting Adventures

Santa Fe
Worthington Whittredge
8 1/8 x 23 1/8, oil on paper on canvas
Yale University Art Gallery

Hudson River School painter Worthington Whittredge, probably most known for his woodland scenes and panoramas of the Catskills and Shawangunks back east, made several trips out west.    In 1866, he made his first trip with the army expedition of General John Pope.  One of the stops was Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Whittredge typically went out on short sketching trips after making camp, taking his revolver and campstool.  According to American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School (Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2013):
When Whittredge had nearly finished painting Santa Fe, he was confronted by a rough-looking fellow, brandishing a pistol, who demanded to buy the picture. Whittredge, maintaining his calm, pacified his would-be customer by explaining that he was merely doing a 'sketch to make a large picture from,' which would be sold in New York.
I don't carry a gun when painting, so I probably would have sold it to the fellow on the spot.

By the way, I have a family connection to Worthington Whittredge, by marriage.  Not that it does me any good, of course, except to serve as inspiration.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Plein Air Painting: Journey's End or Just Another Roadside Attraction?

References for a finished painting
12x9 oil field study, plus photographs

Some of today's plein air painters have the idea that starting and then finishing a painting in the field is the only way to portray the truth of the landscape.  Plein air painting as the culmination of landscape art is, however, a fairly recent concept being bandied about today by plein air purists and organizers of plein air events.  It's my opinion and also that of many landscape painters that the truth can be fully realized most successfully in the studio.

The idea of completing a painting in the field came about relatively recently, starting with the French Realists and then the Impressionists.  Until then, if you wanted to paint a landscape, which was most likely the setting for a history painting or an illustration of classical myth, you went to the field with sketchbook and pencil to draw and add notes about color effects.  If you didn't mind a little more baggage, you might take watercolors and capture those notes in color rather than pencil.  You probably avoided taking oil colors, since that would require you to prep several pigs' bladders with the colors you required.  The invention of the collapsible paint tube in 1841, however, made it easier to take out oils.  But even so, the point of the outdoor excursion was to gather reference material that you could then build on in the studio.  The early Hudson River School painters are noted for extensive field studies and the majestic paintings they created out of them.

The finished studio painting
"By the Bridge / Arizona Winter"
24x18 oil
Michael Chesley Johnson

Then the French Realists and the Impressionists came on the scene. Courbet, Monet and those who followed in their footsteps completed works entirely outdoors from life.  For the Realists, it was a way to connect in a more raw and, therefore honest, way with the rural world.  They wanted to stay true to the source.  For the Impressionists, it was a way to connect with the "moment."  Without observing and then immediately recording the impression, the precious qualities of that moment would be lost to memory by the time one got back to the studio.  Suddenly, everybody was out painting and enjoying the sunshine.

But it wasn't long before the invention of photography and, especially, of color photography and the snapshot, made it possible for the painter to spend very little time in the field.  (Albert Bierstadt, who came from the Hudson River School tradition, is notable as being one of the first landscape painters to make extensive use of photography, although he used it more as a supplement to his field sketches.)  A click of the shutter was all it took to gather reference material.  Despite the problems of working from photographs, many painters who had cut their teeth on field studies began working exclusively from prints and slides.  Hobbyists and amateurs, who decided it was too much work dealing with wind, changing shadows and gnats, joined them.  Still, work-from-life diehards continued to paint finished works outdoors, but quietly.

But then suddenly with new Millenium, retiring Baby Boomers, attracted by workshops offered in beautiful locations, picked up the brush and headed outdoors.  A fad was born.  Plein air painting competitions sprang up and even a magazine was dedicated to it.  Gallery owners, art center directors and Chambers of Commerce realized that this was a marketing opportunity.  Soon, every small, scenically-located town seemed to be hosting a plein air festival.  This type of painting even evolved into an extreme sport, with painters hanging by their toes from cliffs or enduring snow storms and sub-zero temperatures.  (Today, even the man-on-the-street knows what a "plain air" painter is, though he may not be able to spell it.)

At the competitions, the hot topic was, Does a work have to be painted exclusively outdoors to be considered plein air?  If you spent a half-hour in the studio making adjustments, did that invalidate the work?  Jokes about counting brush strokes and the like became common among some of the artists.  Purists, however, didn't see it as a joke and argued against touching up or finishing a painting indoors.

It wasn't long before some of the painters, especially the professionals, began to tire of the plein air milieu.  I'll never forget what one well-known painter whose plein air workshop I took several years ago said:  "I'm getting tired of this whole plein air 'thing'."  Artists began to yearn for the studio, a place where they had complete control over the weather, and where coffee could be brewed.  Workshops began to have names like "From Study to Studio," and even the students began to look for a class where they could stay out of the wind.

And this is where we are today.  Many artists who have always worked outdoors are now remembering the value of the studio.  Besides coffee and controlled weather, the studio gives you the space and time to go further with design, color choices and mark-making.  In the studio, you can enlarge your canvas, widen your scope and deepen your thinking.  The result can be a more satisfying and rewarding effort than a two-hour sketch made on-location.

Don't let all this make you think I'm no longer a dedicated plein air painter.  In fact, I'm more dedicated than ever.  I am working even harder in the field, knowing that the information I get there will make or break what I do in the studio.  In my plein air workshops (in Sedona, Arizona, at and on Campobello Island, New Brunswick, at, I will show you how to maximize your efforts outdoors, no matter what your final destination.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Composition: Plein Air Studies v. Studio Paintings

While reading American Paradise (see my previous blog post), I came across the above painting.  I was immediately struck by the modernness of the composition.  It's like a snapshot you might take on a woodland walk.   What gives it this quality is the tight, intimate cropping of the scene and the informal, very naturalistic, arrangement of shapes.  This painting might have been done by one of today's landscape painters.

(Pictured: Asher Durand.  Interior of a Wood, Ca. 1850. Oil on canvas, 17 x 24 in. Unsigned. Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts.)

But it wasn't.  It was painted by Asher Durand in 1850.  Unsigned, it is a field study.  Although Durand permitted such studies to be exhibited, he didn't consider them finished works.  Instead, he used them to create the more formal arrangements in the studio that we consider typical of the Hudson River School, such as this one:

(Pictured: Asher Durand. The Beeches, 1845. Oil on canvas, 6133/8 x 4 81/8 in.  Signed and dated at lower left: A. B. Durand 1845. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.)

My question to you is, Which style do you prefer?

I rather like the first one, as it feels truer.  The second one, though no doubt based on similar, truthful studies, feels more like a fiction.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Encounter: Jervis McEntee, Hudson River Schoool Painter

Jervis McEntee

In the early mornings and before it gets light enough to work in the studio, I read.  Right now, I'm reading an excellent book on the Hudson River School painters.  American Paradise:  The World of the Hudson River School is an exhibition catalog published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is available as a PDF download.  If you are interested in American art history, it's worthwhile reading.

This morning, I came across the painter Jervis McEntee.  I wasn't familiar with this minor Hudson River School painter, but according to one of the essays in the book, he left several diaries which give us a lot of information about the daily life of a painter in middle 19th century New York.  I discovered that his diaries are online.  (See Through them, we have fascinating glimpses into the head of a painter much concerned about sales and reputation:
I had a letter from [G.H.] Boughton two or three days ago. He and his wife had been on the continent for a short trip. He sent me that same notice in the Times which three others have sent me and regrets that my picture is not sold. Thinks I ask too much for it and that English people will not pay large prices for works by strangers. I am a little sorry I had not asked a little less but still I didnt care to sacrifice much on it as I am quite sure to get my price for it in New York next winter.

Mount Desert Island, Maine, by Jervis McEntee, 1864, oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington - DSC00124
Mount Desert Island, Maine, by Jervis McEntee, 1864, oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington - DSC00124

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Artist and the Honey Bee

Impressionist?  Or maybe, contemporary realist?  As a painter, what do you call yourself?  Artists often worry about this.  But does it matter?

Consider the honey bee.  They are one of over 20,000 different species of bees.  Some, like the honey bee, build huge hives of wax combs, often in hollow trees.  Others, like the bumblebee, live in smaller colonies underground.  There are even solitary bees that go it alone.  Scientists have studied these bees to determine how they are related, how they evolved, and have given them labels like Apis mellifera.  But of course, the honey bee doesn't care about any of this.

A label is shorthand for a complex set of characteristics and relationships.  Much useful information gets discarded for this convenience.  Like the honey bee, you as an artist don't need a label to do your job.  But lacking the artistic equivalent of honey bee DNA, you do need that discarded information.  You need to know what your influences are if you're going to evolve.  For example, the knowledge that you use a palette loaded with bright colors like Monet but apply thin glazes like the Flemish painters may help you take your next evolutionary step.  Granted,  often we integrate these influences unconsciously  and do manage to stumble toward a greater art, but if we recognize and understand them, we may progress more directly.

There are, of course, advantages to labels.  Having a general idea of one's relationship with other artists, both past and contemporary, helps us go through the world with more confidence.  And the right label can provide a marketing advantage, too.  But calling myself a "contemporary realist" doesn't even begin to describe the richness of my journey.  Nor is the label particularly useful to me as a guidebook for my next destination.

I love the thought-provoking title of Gauguin's great painting:  "Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?"  Gauguin poses these questions to humanity, but we we can also pose them to ourselves as artists.

Where do we come from? Who are we? Where are we going?
Paul Gauguin 1897
Boston Museum of Fine Arts

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A Visit with Master Painter Albert Handell

"Breaking Water Along the Taos Ski Basin"
12x24 oil by Albert Handell
(one of the new paintings Albert shared with me)

I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  As most people know, Santa Fe is an art Mecca.  For artists and art lovers, it provides a tremendous opportunity to quench one's thirst for experiencing good art.  Over the years, I've seen galleries come and go and artists pass in and out of fashion.  But some artists have thrived and continue to florish there.  One such artist is master painter Albert Handell.  (Here's what Fine Art Connoisseur says about him.)

Albert Handell
(all photos by Trina Stephenson)

I've gotten to be good friends with Albert and his wife, fellow painter Jeanine Christman-Handell.  So despite a winter storm warning and four inches of snow already on the ground, Trina and I drove the slushy streets to Albert's studio.  The studio is adjacent to the house, and both are what you'd expect from a Santa Fe artist, adobe pueblo-style plus a dooryard filled with chamisa, now snow-capped.  Jeanine was sweeping the snow off the steps for us, and Albert had already warmed up the studio.  Verdi was playing on a little music box.  On two easels were two oil paintings, one quite large and older, one that Albert was re-working, plus a smaller, new one.  When I inquired earlier about a studio visit, Albert sent me a text that he was "painting as if on fire." I could tell.  Paintings, both framed and unframed, were stacked against the vertical storage cabinets, which were also filled.  (I last visited Albert's studio in 2007.)

Albert wanted to show me some new work that he was proud of.  That's one of the many things I like about Albert.  Though humble, he is not to shy to share with you his latest efforts, which are always beautiful.  Some of the pieces were destined for the upcoming Oil Painters of America exhibition, others for other shows.  The work was so consistently superior that I asked him if he ever made a bad painting.  He laughed and said, "They just don't make it to the frames."

Although he does a great deal of his work out on location, like most plein air painters he recognizes the necessity of being in the studio.  Lately, he's taken to using a large computer screen to work from.  He took me on a tour of some of the photos he's been using as references and then showed me the paintings.  It's always fascinating to see how a master takes a scene and changes it for a painting.  He also shared with me some of the spots where he took the photos, taking time to write out the directions to them.   Albert is incredibly giving with his knowledge.

Albert's pastel palette

Albert's oil palette
Referencing his comment that he was painting "as if on fire," I told him that it must feel great to still have that kind of energy and interest at this point in his career.  Albert will soon turn 78.  "It is!  I'm painting better than ever.  I'm painting looser.  I'm focusing on the important parts of the painting and leaving more of the underpainting untouched."  Albert likes to start his oil paintings with a big brush and large, transparent passages; then he moves to the knife and works on the center of interest, paying special attention to "lost and found" edges.

There's a great deal more I could write about our visit, which was brief.  The snow was still falling in large, lazy flakes, and the forecast was for lowering temperatures and heavier snow.  We had to get to Albuquerque before the roads got bad.

Handell Studio

I'm looking forward to seeing Albert and Jeanine again in Palm Springs in a few weeks for a mentoring workshop, and then again in April 2016 in Sedona, when he will be back in my area for another mentoring workshop.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Upcoming "Exploring Color" Studio-Only, Pastel-Only Workshop

Walk Through Fire
6x9 pastel, plein air
Painted with the Extreme Limited Pastel Palette

I've been asked to teach a four-day, studio-only, pastel-only "Exploring Color" workshop.  I think this is a great idea, because pastel painters tend to be limited by the "if I don't have the exact right color, I'm in trouble" way of thinking.  The good news is, you can do a lot with just a few colors!

Below are the details:

In this studio-only workshop, you will learn about different color palettes, color temperature as it relates to the landscape and still life, the advantages of starting with a monochromatic grisaille and how color can be used to create depth in a painting.  As a bonus,you'll learn about my "extreme limited pastel palette" and how it will help with color-mixing skills.  For this workshop, students will need a large variety of pastels including both high-chroma sticks, neutrals and earth colors.  Students should be comfortable with painting in pastel.

Workshop runs February 24-27, Tuesday-Friday, 9-1 each day in Sedona, Arizona.  Maximum number of students: 5.

Cost of the workshop:  $300 with a $150 non-refundable deposit.  To register and pay the deposit, visit and sign up on the schedule page.

Monday, January 5, 2015

New Gallery

I'm proud to announce that I have a new gallery!  The Great Southwest in Hillside specializes in handmade, one-of-a-kind items from the region including classic and contemporary jewelry, pottery, fetishes, Navajo rugs, dishes, folk art and, of course, fine art.

The Great Southwest is located in the upper section of the Hillside plaza in Sedona, Arizona.  Here is the address:

The Great Southwest, 671 SR 179, A-CT 2, Sedona AZ 86336
Hours: Monday-Sunday, 10-6
928-282-0248 /

So, if you're in town visiting and would like to see some of my paintings, please stop by!  Below are three of the paintings that I delivered today:

View from Schuermann Trail 9x12 oil 

Mitten Ridge Snow 9x12 oil 

City of Red Rocks 9x12 oil

Saturday, January 3, 2015

More New Year's Snow Painting

Yesterday I painted the snow from our recent New Year's Eve storm from a photo in the studio; today I went out with my gear to catch what has not melted. The difference between these two sessions is as follows.

For yesterday's painting, I wanted to recapture the sense of moist, snow-filled air.  It wasn't practical to take my gear out in the storm (though I have done that), so I stayed in the studio.  The camera couldn't get the subtle colors and values, but it was a good memory tool for me.

For today's painting, I wanted to avoid the camera altogether.  The color in my oil study (below) is far more accurate than what my camera would have seen.

I'll take this one back to the studio and work up a larger studio piece from it in the near future.

By the Bridge. 12x9 oil, plein air.
The snow will probably be gone in another day or so.  I won't be sad to find the days warming up a little!

Friday, January 2, 2015

Ringing in the New Year with Snow

Ceci n'est pas une peinture
Photograph, pulled through a couple of Picasa filters

We don't often get snow in Sedona, but we got plenty of it starting New Year's Eve and into the New Year.  I measured about 4" at our house, and I'm sure it was more in Sedona proper.  Trina and I took several long walks along Oak and Spring Creeks with our cameras.  Trina says she took 150 snapshots on one walk.

Since the storm left, cold air has settled in.  The mercury bottomed out at 17 degrees this morning, and although it's warmed up to above freezing, the snow is slow to leave us.  I'd love to get out and paint it—and maybe I will tomorrow.  But today, I spent some time in the studio, trying to recreate that feeling of moist, snow-filled air along the creek on our walk.

Spring Creek Freshet 11x14 oil