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Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Airport Sketching

While cleaning up my studio this week, I came across yet another stack of sketchbooks.  Flipping through them, I found many pages of sketches made in airports—more than I thought I'd made.  I guess I fly more than I remember.

Looking to hone your skills at capturing the gesture of the human figure?  Next time you fly, take your sketchbook with you.  Airports offer a motley assortment of figures, from the ragtag to the aristocratic, and a full range of poses, from leisurely lounging to scurrying in fear of missing a connection.

I particularly enjoy sketching someone in a hurry—a carry-on bag often serves as a weight around which to build the figure.  If I'm lucky, I may have 15 seconds to sketch one of these panicked travelers.  That's enough time to go beyond the simple stick figure to a filled-out clothespin and to capture a sense of movement.

These people are in such a hurry they never see me sketching them.  But if I want to make a more careful study of a head or figure, such as  someone watching TV, talking with a companion or enjoying a snack at one of the airport food counters, I have to be more stealthy; these people are more aware of their surroundings.  I usually position my body obliquely, so it seems I'm sketching someone else.  I've never had anyone catch me—yet.

Here are a few more pages from my airport sketchbooks:

Sunday, August 25, 2019

The Technical and the Painter

Einstein might have enjoyed the technical side of painting.
But he was busy doing other things.

In my plein air painting workshops, I often have students who are not professional painters.  Painting is, for them, a pleasant pastime yet something they do want to get better at.  Some are thinking of retiring and looking for an endeavor they might pursue in what one might call the “next life”; others have retired and already are deep into that pursuit.  I always enjoy asking them what they do (or did) for a living.

Interestingly, many of them enjoyed technical careers.  It's not unusual for me to have at least one doctor or nurse in my workshops.  (I especially am glad to have on board someone in a medical profession—hiking around outdoors to paint can be a risky business, and you never know when you might need someone like that.)  Over the years, I've had not only doctors and nurses but also architects, engineers, computer programmers, field biologists and even a couple of pilots who helicoptered into Eastport, Maine, for my workshop.

The technical types often ask technical questions.  Sometimes we get into the fat-over-lean rule of oil painting and why it's not applicable to alla prima painting.  Or we discuss what pigments are used in pastel and what PR83 stands for.  Or we talk about how north light temperature averages at 7000°K and why (or why not) that's important.  I do try to limit these discussions so that the non-technical types don't glaze over with boredom.

But I like to tell my students that painting can be as technical as they wish.  If the technical side interests them, they can spend a lifetime learning about it.  And if it doesn't, they can spend a lifetime just enjoying the activity of painting.  Either can provide a very rich experience for many years.  At the very most, all you need to do is learn a few simple concepts.  You don't need to read the technical guide.

Some days, I like to research the technical.  Other days, I just like to pick up a brush and go.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

Painting in Public Places and the Dangers Thereof

A Quiet Painting Spot
("Kindred Spirits" by Asher Durand, depicting Thomas Cole and William Cullen Bryant))

A reader writes:  "I am shy about painting outside such as at the public park because of people stopping and asking questions on what I am doing. How do you remain focused when you have an audience?"

When I teach workshops, many of my students are beginners at plein air painting.  They are happiest when we go to some remote, godforsaken yet beautiful corner of the world where no one will find them.  Sensitive to their need to focus, I take them to quiet places where an audience is unlikely.  Sometimes, though, we do get a few visitors.  When this happens, I  intercept them, politely let them know we are having a class, and then, usually, they leave.

When I'm painting alone, though, it's a different matter.   I, too, prefer to paint in a quiet spot, but sometimes I can't, such as at a plein air painting event, where it is expected for artists to be available.  (The idea is both to educate the public and also engage them for the sales event.)  When this happens, I try to keep the chat on-topic.  That is, I talk about my process and what my brush is doing at that moment.  I may stop and hand them a business card - I always carry them - and give an invitation to visit my website and gallery; if it's a painting event, I invite them to the exhibition and sale.  Most folks are polite and will watch a little longer but then wander off.

But sometimes you get the Talker.  This person is legendary among plein air painters.  I'll tolerate this for a few minutes, but I have no problem saying, "I'm sorry, but I have to get back to work."  Being blunt is important, since Talkers are so narcissistic they don't read body language or understand the subtle hints.

There are times, especially when I am painting for myself, when I don't want an encounter.  In this case, I'll find that remote, godforsaken spot of incredible beauty.   But even though the chance of an encounter is small, it still can happen.  To prevent this, here are a few tips:
  • Paint off the trail where you can't be seen (if you're on public land, make sure off-trail hiking is permitted)
  • Back yourself into a corner so you are difficult to approach
  • Scatter your gear around your easel in such a way as to create an obstacle
  • Take along a non-painting friend who is happy to hang out with you (quietly) and who can "run interference"
Some painters suggest listening to music and simply ignoring people, but I find that I like hearing if someone approaches.  I don't want to be surprised.

Oh, I could tell you stories - but I'll wait until you have that brush loaded and ready to go.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Summer Painting Retreat Report

Perched 14x11 Oil - Available

From the trail, edged with beach rose and meadowsweet, I enjoyed a broad vista of miles of ocean, dappled with sun diamonds.  The swells broke so  gently against the dark rocks that they created just a whisper of white foam.  Although my thirteen painters had strung themselves out over several hundred yards, all the way from the candy-striped West Quoddy lighthouse to the dizzyingly-tall cliffs of Gulliver's Hole, I didn't mind the walk as I visited each of them in turn. 

This was my second time offering the Lubec painting retreat, with participants coming from—it's a long list—Quebec, Vermont, New Jersey, Georgia, Texas, Florida, Colorado, Michigan, Pennsylvania and, yes, even Maine.

Base camp for our forays into the field was the beautifully-renovated and well-appointed West Quoddy Station, a restored US Coast Guard campus.  Perched right at the water's edge on Quoddy Head, a narrow arm of land thrust out into the cold waters of the Grand Manan Channel, it offered us views of Campobello Island and the Lubec Channel.  What's more, because it is only a half-mile from Quoddy Head State Park, it gave us quick access to the West Quoddy Lighthouse, an historic icon and the park's jewel.  From the lighthouse, trails led us to cliffs with views of Grand Manan Island and the Wolf Islands, and when the tide was right, crashing waves cascaded over knife-sharp rocks at the base of the cliffs, kicking spray high into the air.

During the week, we painted not just at Quoddy Head but also in the fishing village of Lubec.  Although the sardine industry is long-gone, some of the historic structures of that time—a smokehouse, skinning shed and others—remain.  Fishing boats, moored in the harbor but swinging with the tides and wind, challenged us, and views of Pope's Folly, Treat Island and Dudley Island gave us more stable subjects to paint.  We also traveled across the border to Campobello Island in Canada, where we drove dusty carriage roads to spectacular views within the Roosevelt-Campobello International Park.  A group dinner on the island with a view of the sunset and a scallop dragger toiling in the bay deepened our friendships as fellow artists.

Each morning during our week, I moderated a critique session—a show-and-tell—in which we talked about the previous day's work, painting by painting. This is always one of the most valuable and anticipated events during my retreats.  Although it's important to enjoy a relaxing week of painting, feedback from others helps us to gain an understanding of where we might go next in our craft.  This understanding will help us in our next period of artistic growth, which will happen some time after we have checked out of our hotel rooms, headed home and returned to our own studios.  I encourage retreat participants to add observations to my own, and I always learn something, as well.

I have already scheduled another painting retreat for next year.  The dates are August 9-14, 2020.  I do give preference to past students for the workshop.  If you haven't taken one with me yet but are interested in the retreat, I encourage you to take a workshop with me so you can join me in this adventure.  Please visit, or my main web site,, for more information.

In the meantime, I offer a few photos and images of some of my paintings from the week.

August Light 9x12 - Available

Swell 9x12 Oil - Available

View to Ragged Point 9x12 Pastel - Available

View to Campobello 9x12 Oil - Available

What's a painting day without Gamblin Artists Colors?

Yes, this is me - photo by Trina Stephenson

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

When is a Painting Finished?

Tree 12x9 Oil
Is this painting finished?  Yes, because it met my goal.
The intention was to paint a tree demonstration on a rainy
day for my students, and that is exactly what I did.

How do you know when a painting is finished?  This is a question students often ask me.  To be honest, even painters who've been working at the craft all their lives still ask themselves this question.  The standard answer is:  When you've accomplished your goal (or achieved your vision), the painting is finished.

That doesn't help us much, as quite often, especially for beginners, the goal or vision is ill-defined at the start.  Sometimes it becomes clearer as you get further into the painting.  But sometimes not.

In my workshops, I teach about capturing the moment.  For me, the moment has much to do with the quality of light in a scene.  To take it further, it has to do with establishing an accurate relationship of the color temperature between light and shadow.   I can establish this early on in a painting, though - quite often right at the end of the block-in and adjustment stages.  (If you've taken one of my workshops, you'll have heard me speak of making your "best guess" in the block-in and then going on to adjusting that "best guess" in the next phase.)

At the end of this adjustment phase, I may stop, if I wish.  Or keep on going.  Basically, at this point  I have a very simplified - yet hopefully very accurate - representation of the scene.  If I want to take it beyond this, I will be moving from the simplified toward the more detailed, like this:

Where a painter stops on this line is completely up to him.  It's a personal choice, usually defined by one's comfort level with the agony of creating detail and the point at which one gets totally bored with the process.

An example of someone working at the more simplified end is Wolf Kahn; at the more detailed end, we have Rackstraw Downes.  You can pick your spot anywhere between them.  My own zone is somewhere along the middle.

Wolf Kahn · "Heavy Haze of a Hot Summer's Day."
1979. Oil, 27.50 x 37.5 inches.

Rackstraw Downes, “Under an Off-Ramp from the George Washington Bridge”
2011. Oil, 26 x 56 inches

Monday, August 12, 2019

Choosing the Right Dimensions for your Painting

Some Common Painting Sizes and Their Proportions
(Please excuse the hand-crafted artisanal chart; I realized that neither my Photoshop nor Excel skills are good enough to create the chart through software.  Sometimes the low-tech way is more efficient.)

As a plein air painter with an always-ready-to-go painting kit, I sometimes get locked into a particular size for my paintings.  Usually, I keep my kit packed with 9x12s.    But this isn't necessarily the best dimensions for a landscape.  It's great if I want to get a quick sketch or color reference but often, some other size might make for a stronger design.

For a broad landscape, such as ocean vistas, deserts or canyons, a panoramic format will do a better job of conveying the breadth.  These landscapes are packed with horizontal elements, and  emphasizing the horizontal will enhance the feeling of "being there."  A double square (12x24) or even a triple square (6x18) can be much more appropriate than the 9x12 or the more squarish 8x10.

If I'm in a landscape that doesn't offer a vista, such as densely-wooded interior Maine where you have to fight the trees for a view, I look for a closer, more intimate scene such as a cluster of dead snags gathered at the edge of a swamp.  In this, verticals and horizontals seem to have equal weight, just as they do in a square.  Choosing a squarish format will help you convey the same sense of intimacy (or perhaps claustrophobia.)  But I do think a square is the most difficult format because you are already at a disadvantage at having all the sides boringly equal.   Still, you can get some very exciting results with the square.

Moving beyond the square, there is the vertical.  Just as a more horizontal format conveys breadth, the vertical conveys height.  Anytime I want to show the magnificence of a tree or the depth of a canyon, I aim for the vertical.   Looking down into the landscape - as with a canyon - can be dizzying, though.  Looking up, I feel a little more sure of my footing.

When I have a choice, I will make several thumbnail sketches and try out different possibilities.  Why get trapped in the same old 9x12?  Of course, I don't always have anything other than the 9x12 with me.  But I do always have a roll of masking tape, and I'll take a piece of tape and mark off a more appropriate section.  I may, for example, mark off part of the 9x12 to give myself a slightly broader 6x9 or even a much broader 6x12.

Once I'm done painting, I have cut down both pastel paper (with scissors) and painting panels (with a utility knife) to get the dimensions that best fit my idea.  To be sure, you may end up with a custom framing job, but you are more likely to recoup your expenses, since the best fit will be more attractive to your buyer.

At the top of this post is a chart.  I thought it would be interesting to show the more commonly-used dimensions and their width-to-height ratio in a graph.  This will give you a better idea of where they sit with respect to the square.  I have calculated out the ratio by dividing width by height; that is, a 9x12 is 12/9 or 1.33.

Below are a few of the different dimensions I use regularly.

SQUARE: Duck Pond Fog, 6x6 oil/panel

DOUBLE-SQUARE: End of the Road, 12x24 oil/panel

TRIPLE-SQUARE: Head Island, 6x18, oil/canvas

VERTICAL: Water Street, 12x9, oil/panel

Friday, August 9, 2019

Master Class: Color Palettes and Color Gamut

Left: "Mitten Ridge Reds" 12x16 oil/canvas.  Made with the three-color palette consisting of burnt sienna,
yellow ochre and Prussian blue. Right: Color gamut of my three-color palette used in the  painting.

Much basic knowledge is given to children at an early age.  I don't remember when I first learned about the three primaries—red, yellow and blue—so it must have been a very long time ago indeed.  The concept, as we all know, is that you can mix any color you see with these three colors (plus white.)

Or so the theory goes.  Once I started seriously getting into color-mixing with my first painting course, I learned the limitations of red, yellow and blue and of pigments in general.  For example, if I didn't have the right red and blue, I couldn't mix an intense violet.  I'd be better off buying the intense violet I needed, like quinacridone violet.

One might think that maybe one should just buy all the exact colors needed.  Pastelists usually end up doing this, and as a pastelist myself, I've done the same, but I will add that it is an expensive addiction.  Some painters of liquid media do this, too.   Unfortunately, acquiring a virtual candy store of color can lead to color chaos, especially if the artist doesn't understand color harmony or how to properly adjust color mixtures.  I would argue that much of the truly garish, carnival-like work we see in "contemporary art" galleries today is not the result of artistic vision but from a lack of fundamental color-mixing skills.

By the way, this essay isn't just for painters of liquid media.  It does apply to pastel painters, too.  Although pastel painters won't necessarily be mixing colors as much, they can still plot out color options as noted below.

An easy path to color harmony is to use a limited palette.   The fewer the colors, the less trouble you'll get into.  A one-color palette, as boring as it may be, is the safest.  A two-color palette is safe, too.  Having just one warm color and one cool color is enough to create an effect of brilliant sunshine.  In fact, years ago, when color printing was in its infancy, illustrators did stunning work  with just orange (warm) and black (cool.)  Stepping to a three-color palette gives you a broader range, but it still is relatively safe.  Beyond that, though, and you really need to know how to handle color.

I've used a limited oil for some time.  My "go-to" palette consists of seven colors, plus white.  Basically, it's a split-primary palette with a warm and a cool version of each of the primaries, plus one more:  Hansa yellow light, Hansa yellow deep, napthol scarlet, permanent alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue, cerulean blue and -- here is the addition-- sap green.  I'm thinking of ditching the sap green.  More about that later.

But that's not the only palette I use.  I often simplify my life by returning to a three-color palette.  Mine consists of burnt sienna, yellow ochre and Prussian blue.  (See the illustration at the top of this post.)  The two earth colors are already naturally muted, and the Prussian blue, though a strong color, greys down nicely with burnt sienna and yellow ochre, yielding some beautiful neutrals.

Really, though, you can pick any three versions of the primaries you wish.  Anders Zorn (Swedish, 1860-1920) is reputed to have used a variation on this, but without any blue.  The "Zorn palette," as it is called, consists of vermilion, yellow ochre and ivory black.  The black functions as a blue.  Putting warm colors beside it, especially blue's complement, orange, will make the black seem even bluer.

But a limited palette can't do everything.  It restricts the gamut (or range) of possible color mixtures.  Understanding the gamut of your palette is important.  It'll keep you from being frustrated when you can't mix a certain hue.  It'll also give you an idea of what colors you can mix.

Lately, I have been plotting my color choices against a color wheel to help see the gamut of possible mixtures.  I won't go into the mechanics of a color wheel here, but the idea is simple.  If you plot your colors on the wheel and connect them with lines, the resulting polygon contains all the possible color mixtures.  (And how do I know where to plot my colors?  Check out this color wheel from

Let me show you how this works.  Let's start with a very simple palette, the three-color palette.

Three-color palette:  Prussian blue, burnt sienna, yellow ochre.
This is my favorite three-color palette.  It consists of mostly earth pigments, which create beautifully muted, harmonious mixtures. You'll note what a narrow wedge of possibilities this represents. Weighted toward yellow and orange, this palette doesn't allow for a proper violet mixture, or for many greens, either.

"Zorn" palette: Ivory black, vermilion, yellow ochre.
Now here is the "Zorn Palette," which contains just earth pigments and also creates beautiful muted tones.  Covering just a little more area than my three-color palette, it's heavily weighted toward red and orange. Green is a possibility, but it's a very greyed-down green. Violets? Nope.

Three-color palette of mineral colors:  ultramarine blue, cadmium red, cadmium yellow.
This three-color palette, which uses richer mineral pigments rather than dull earth pigments, offers a larger wedge of possibilities and is weighted to blues, violets, red and orange. But it's weak in the greens. More intense color mixtures are possible with this one.

A split-primary palette: ultramarine blue, phthalo green, hansa yellow light, hansa yellow deep, cadmium red, permanent alizarin crimson.
This is the split-primary palette I used up until recently.  This offers many more possibilities—and more trouble!—than the three-color palettes. High-chroma mixtures are possible. It's weighted toward the yellow, orange and red. Yet although violets and greens are possible, but they won't have much variety and will be somewhat dull. Instead of two blues, I have just one; I replaced the second blue with phthalo green.  This opens up more possibilities for greens more than a palette with just two blues. 

My "go-to" split-primary palette of today:  ultramarine blue, cerulean blue, sap green, hansa yellow light, hansa yellow deep, naphthol scarlet, permanent alizarin crimson.
Here's what I'm using today.  I gave up the phthalo green and replaced it with sap green.  Why?  Phthalo was such a strong color I just got tired of it; it was like eating garlic in every meal.  Sap green, being duller with a low tinting strength, is easier to digest.  I also added cerulean blue.  Why?  I had been using the phthalo green to create a cerulean blue, and I need that color for both the Maritimes and the Southwest.  You'll note that this palette offers fewer green possibilities than my earlier palette.

Another observation: sap green sits on the line connecting cerulean blue and Hansa yellow light. This tells me I can mix sap green with these two colors and dispense with tubed sap green.  But sap green is a convenient color to have, so maybe I'll keep it.

A more-balanced split-primary palette:  ultramarine blue, cobalt teal, permanent green light, hansa yellow light, naphthol scarlet, cobalt violet.
And finally, here's a more balanced palette.  While writing this blog post, I looked at the HandPrint color wheel and tried to pick out six pigments that would give me the most balanced gamut.  There were several choices for my six pigments, so this is just one configuration.  The palette I've chosen is slightly weak in the violets and a little strong in the reds.  But overall,  it offers many possibilities of less-intense to more-intense mixtures for each of the six color families.

So here's your winter project, and mine.  While waiting for the snow to stop falling and for pleasant outdoor painting weather to return, reconfigure your palette so it yields the largest gamut and the most color possibilities—and at the same time, practice with it so mixing becomes a joyful, intuitive process.