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Saturday, April 27, 2019

Experiments in Color Harmony

The path from a plein air sketch to a finished, studio painting isn't always obvious.  Whenever I'm in doubt about my route, I do a little scouting.  For example, where would I go with the following sketch?

My Backyard 9x12 oil study

I would make two observations about it.  First, when I review my memory of the scene, I know the sketch captures the color and value relationships accurately.  Second, the design is, unfortunately, cluttered and claustrophic.  Attacking the design would be my first step.  As for a second step—what if I played with the color scheme while making an effort to keep the color and value relationships true?  Could I come up with more exciting color?

In a recent workshop, I worked with a student to explore just this question.  Using the above plein air reference, we made four small studies with different color schemes.  Our goal was to maintain the "truth" of the moment, which is about strong sunlight.

We didn't think it necessary to paint the whole scene over and over.  Instead, we restricted our experiment to a small area, making sure that it included a place where major shapes touched, and we "posterized" the scene to simplify the shapes.  Once the experiment was complete, we could then take the solution to the rest of the painting.  Here's the area we chose to experiment with:

My Backyard 9x12 oil study- detail

As for evoking a sense of sunlight, I'm a big believer in using complements and near-complements to give tonal contrast a boost.  So, we took a 12x16 panel and divided it into four rectangles, and for each rectangle chose a different pair of complementary colors (or near-complementary) and also added a touch of what I call a "spice color."  We made good use of a color wheel to identify complements and near-complements.  Spice colors came from somewhere between the two colors in the pair.

Here are the results:

Going clockwise, from upper left, the colors are:
A: Shadow:  dull purple and blue / Light: yellow / Spice colors: red, green
B: Shadow:  green and yellow-green / Light: magenta / Spice colors: yellow, red
C: Shadow: dull red and dull purple / Light: blue / Spice color: green
D: Shadow: magenta and blue / Light: yellow / Spice colors: green, red.  (This experiment we intentionally made in a high-key.)

For pigments, I used the following Gamblin colors:  hansa yellow light, hansa yellow deep, napthol scarlet, permanent alizarin crimson, quinacridone magenta, ultramarine blue and phthalo green.

Which do you feel is the most successful experiment?  The least?

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Final Private Painting Intensive Week of the Season - Wrap-Up

Water's Edge
9x12 Oil - Available $600

The other week, I finished my final Private Painting Intensive week of the season.  The weather was superb, except for one day of rain, which gave us studio time to work on some projects.  We also tried a new concept this week, of doing a preliminary, practice color sketch before embarking on the "real" painting.  Below, I've included some photos from the week and images of some of my paintings.

Full sun is now getting to be a bit intense.
Sunblock is essential!

If you're curious about the Private Painting Intensive, these workshops for experienced painters start up again in November.  You can find out about them at

By the way, after this last session, Trina and I headed up to Taos, New Mexico, for a couple of days.  Our excuse was that we had to deal with an airbag recall on our Subaru, which we decided to have done in Santa Fe.  Taos is only 90 minutes away from there, and since we hadn't been in several years, we thought it was a good time to refresh our minds--we are planning a painting retreat there in the fall of 2020.  I'll have a blog post on Taos shortly.

Paso Por Aqui
9x12 Oil - Available, $600
For this painting, we first did a 6x8 color sketch, below,
before embarking on the final version.

6x8 color study for "Paso Por Aqui"
This allowed us to work out some color issue prior
to the "real" painting.
Rock Meets Water
9x12 Oil - Available, $600
This is a "reverse plein air" painting, as explained in an
earlier post.  Basically, we gathered reference material in the field,
returned to the studio to work out design and to block in the final painting.
Finally, we took the block-in and returned to the field to finish the piece.

Color study for "Rock Meets Water"
9x12 Oil
This was my color reference for the above painting.
My Valley
6x8 Oil - Available, $200

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Painters on Wheels: Northern Arizona

Monument Valley - This could be Mars

Every year, I try to take a road trip with my painting buddy, M.L. Coleman.  M.L. has a 22-foot Lazy Daze RV, just the thing for two painters who want to ramble the countryside and boondock to get the best views.  This year, since good spring weather seemed to have returned, we decided to head to northern Arizona, leaving from Sedona right after my plein air painting workshop there.

Navajo National Monument

Navajo National Monument
Stocked with ample groceries, fresh water and propane, we first went to Navajo National Monument, not far from Kayenta.  I'd never been there, and frankly, it was a little disappointing from a painter's point of view.  Our campsite—camping, by the way, is free at the campground in the Monument—gave us a view of the top of Betatakin Canyon, and we painted that first evening in the shade of the RV.  There are, of course trails taking you down into the canyon, but you need a guide for those.  There is one other trail, paved, that takes you to an overlook, but it's a bit farther than we wanted to haul our gear.  As this wasn't intended to be a hiking-to-paint trip, we walked the trail and only took photos.

We left the next morning, heading toward Black Mesa.  We'd seen some paintings of Black Mesa that featured interesting rocks, but Black Mesa, which is reached by a steep road, turned out to be mostly a coal mining venture.  And it was flat, flat, flat.  We got to a point where we spotted a sign that marked everything beyond it as belonging to Peabody Western Mining; it also directed us to stop at the security station.  When we asked the two security guards, who were washing down their trucks, if there was anything scenic to paint, they replied, "Nope, nothing scenic here.  But have you been to Monument Valley?"

Monument Valley

Our campsite at Monument Valley

What's a rez without a rez dog?

The easy way of plein air painting - doing your
value sketch in a chair

M.L. Coleman at work

I'd never been, but Trina had taken some wonderful photographs of the area after a camera club trip not so long ago.  Although we'd been thinking of simply heading to Canyon de Chelly National Monument—we'd painted there last year, and I discovered it is a very rich area for the painter—we decided Monument Valley wasn't far, so we thought to take a look.  It's just like you see in the ads, stubby buttes sticking up out of the otherwise flat earth, looking very alien.  (In fact, the red, sandy dirt reminded me a great deal of the photos taken by the Opportunity rover on Mars.)

We first stopped at the Visitor Center.  In a national park, I feel perfectly comfortable painting just about anywhere.  (The general rule is to stay on the trail but not block it.)  But Monument Valley is owned and operated by the Navajo Nation as a tribal park, and most tribal lands require a permit for photography, even if you're just a hobbyist.  We weren't sure if we'd be allowed to paint.  Our entrance fee ($20) to the Visitor Center did allow us to take photos there, but our RV was not permitted on the 17-mile scenic drive.  (Private cars are, however.)  So we took photos from the parking lot and, yes, we could have asked about painting, but we preferred a spot with fewer tourists.  On our drive out, we discovered a private campground (Air Bee and Bee) just outside the park and over the state line in Utah with great views and lots of quiet.  The owners didn't care if we painted or took photos during our stay, so we did plenty of both.

Outhouse with a view

Ravens keeping watch

Our campsite by Sleeping Bear

More rez dogs, always eager for a walk

We finally exhausted the views from that campground.  But before driving south to Canyon de Chelly, M.L. first wanted to head a little north to see what views we might find.  Unexpectedly, we came across another private campground even closer to the buttes.   This one was right below what Kirby Blackwater, the Navajo owner, called "Sleeping Bear."  He pointed it out to us, but you really had to stretch to see the bear.  When asked, he also described the boundaries of his land, which seemed to be about five square miles.  We ended up spending two nights at this quiet, scenic campground in the middle of nowhere.

Until our last day there, the weather had been warm—near 80 and above—and calm.  But then the wind kicked up.  That night, it gusted over 50 miles an hour, and the RV rocked like a hobby horse.  The wind, only somewhat lessened, would stay with us until the end of the trip, and it would be accompanied by rain and snow squalls and much colder temperatures.  The snow was a little surprising for April.  Still, the weather didn't stop us from painting.  Usually, we could find a spot somewhat out of the wind behind a tree or on the lee side of the RV.

This photo doesn't show the full strength of sandblasting winds

Snow squall

Me in a sunny moment

"Wind Advisory" 6x9 oil - available
Look closely, and you can see Martian sand embedded in the paint

Canyon de Chelly National Monument

We took the windiest, rainiest day to drive to Canyon de Chelly.  Although we'd camped at its main campground before, this time we headed up the hill toward Spider Rock, where we remembered seeing a campground there.  Although Spider Rock Campground didn't have the views—we set up in what I would call a "sage forest"—it was just a short drive from Spider Rock.  This is probably the most famous feature of the park.  Last year, it snowed when we were there, and we never got the chance to do more than take photos of it.  This time, again it snowed, and with some serious wind, so we thought we'd miss it yet one more time.  Well, the snow finally let up but the wind didn't, so we ended up seeking sheltered spots, none of which happened to give a view of Spider Rock.  Maybe next year we'll get it down in paint.

Spider Rock

Spider Rock in a snow squall (the raven is enjoying it)
Another snowy morning

With early spring, the canyon floor begins to whisper "green."  In our time at Canyon de Chelly, a good flow of water coursed through Chinle Wash, and you could tell that the pastures and fields and cottonwoods along its bank enjoyed the moisture.  I overheard a couple of tourists talking, and they said that the guided jeep tours had to stop temporarily because the water was too deep.  Some year, it would be good to take a jeep or horseback tour to find some painting spots down in the canyon.  But the rim has spectacular views and plenty of painting opportunities, and we headed back home satisfied, if a bit wind-blown.

Along with a few snapshots, I've included here a few of the sketches from the trip.

Now I am back home in New Mexico, teaching my last one-on-one painting intensive here for the season.  After that, I have a few weeks to work on house projects—no, I don't get to paint every day and every minute!—and then we will be on our annual springtime migration back east.

"Big Butte" 6x9 oil - available

"Face Rock" 9x6 oil - available

"In the Canyon" 9x12 oil - available

"Spring in the Canyon" 9x12 oil - available

"Weather Change" 6x9 oil - available

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Painting Road Trip - Interim Report

I'm currently on the road with a painting buddy.  Right now, we are in Monument Valley, Utah.  Here are a few photos. I'll post more once I'm home.  Cell service is very flakey here. I am posting to Instagram when I can. Follow me on Instagram at

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Reversing the Plein Air Painting Process

Color field study for "Early Spring Day" - 12x9 oil

Last week, when I was teaching my one-on-one private painting intensive, we did something a little different regarding plein air painting.  Normally, one starts in the field and, if the painting doesn't quite meet expectations, finishes in the studio.  This time, although we did some preliminary work in the field, we did most of the work in the studio, and then finished in the field.  It's a reversal, of sorts, of the usual process.

First, we went on-location to make a quick color study and to take a few photographs.  We then went back to the studio, where we created several design sketches based on this material.  The  original color study, of course, captured nothing of the vastness of the scene, nor did the snapshots do it justice; so instead, we made a series of charcoal sketches, playing with format and scope, until we got the sense of scale we wanted.  Once this was settled, we transferred the design to the canvas on which we intended to make the final painting.  After that, we blocked in color, referring to the field study but pushing the color, with the goal of creating the sense of light we experienced in the field.

Reference photo

Charcoal design sketches

Studio step for "Early Spring Day"11x14
(First I toned canvas with Gamblin Fastmatte Transparent Earth Red)
This is what I took to the field to finish

All this work gave us a powerful start to the final painting, so when we returned to the field, we had much more time to adjust color and contours and to unify the elements before the light changed.

We found this an incredibly relaxing way of plein air painting—do the grunt work in the studio where you can take as much time as you need, and then once in the field, where time becomes a factor, you can can bring your vision to a successful completion.  (By the way, I demonstrate this and other outdoor painting techniques in my book, Outdoor Study to Studio: Take Your Plein Air Painting to the Next Level, available at Amazon.)

Finished painting:
"Early Spring Day"
11x14 Oil/canvas
Available - $800 unframed

This week I am in Sedona teaching my all-level plein air workshop.  From there, I will embark on a painting trip via RV with my friend, M.L. Coleman.  Our expedition will take us to northern Arizona to the Navajo reservation.  If I'm out of cell range and can't post, I'll definitely post a trip report on my return.