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Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Drawing with One Eye Closed

The other day, I spent a couple of pleasurable hours in a life drawing session.  I don't know about you, but sometimes it feels better to just draw and leave the painting behind.  Drawing the figure, especially, helps hone skills that a loose style of painting seems to dull.  When painting, accuracy in drawing sometimes goes by the wayside.  Paint slops over the line, gets corrected with more paint, which slops over a different line—ultimately, the painting should come together, but any drawing retreats into the background, with value and color moving into center stage.  Bad drawing, as well as good drawing, hides behind that gaudy curtain.

Sometimes we don't care about the drawing, and that's okay.  But when we're dealing with perspective in the landscape and in cases where accuracy of line and shape is important, such as when painting a well-known landmark, we should very much care about drawing.

The best way to improve your drawing skills is, in my mind, to draw the figure.  Untold aeons of intimacy with other humans has wired our brains so that we know when a figure drawing is "off."  You don't have to be a skilled draughtsman to see it.  John Singer Sargent had it right when he said (perhaps apocryphally), "A portrait is a painting where there's something wrong with the mouth."  The layman may not be able to tell precisely what is wrong, but he does sense the wrongness.  For the artist, this makes it easier to self-correct a figure drawing.  Just step back and look.  If there's something wrong with the mouth, all you have to do is measure lines and angles and compare them to your model.

Over time, you get better at the process of measuring and comparing, and the drawing goes faster and with more accuracy.  It's an incredibly useful skill when painting landscapes—or anything, really.

In my recent life drawing session, I caught my model chuckling. When I asked why, she said I'd been sketching with one eye closed.  That was interesting, because I hadn't been aware of it.  It's something I do habitually even when painting the landscape, and I've never thought anything of it.  Working with one eye closed, monocularly rather than binocularly, I am seeing and drawing flat, abstract shapes. (It helps especially with foreshortened limbs.) But if I need to get a sense of depth, which I do later in the process, I can always open the closed eye.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

A Scotland Painting

Dreaming of Skye
36x36 Oil

In my last post, I spoke about winter painting—but winter is also a time to look forward to painting in warmer times. This winter, I'm looking forward to Scotland! Trina and I will be leading a painting retreat on the Isle of Skye in June. This will be my third trip to Scotland and Trina's second; and who knows, maybe we'll just end up buying that little crofter's house by the water. But in the meantime, I wanted to paint a picture of that house and the beautiful country around it.

For this painting, I decided to continue my experimentation with a limited palette of only secondary colors from Gamblin: permanent orange, dioxazine purple and phthalo green. (Read my previous blog post about my approach here.) I'm finding this palette extremely useful for painting the landscape. To start with, you find the secondary colors—orange, purple and green—more often in the natural world than you do the primaries. But what's more, when you mix these secondaries to create versions of the primaries, you end up with a variety of greys. These lend an even more natural feeling to the mixtures.

In this painting, I also used a substantial amount of the three Portland Greys from Gamblin, rather than white. Although Scotland can have some very vivid colors—think "green"—the weather, more often than not, tends to greys and more muted colors. What little white (titanium-zinc) I did use I saved for the reflective highlights on water and a little in the distant sky near the horizon.

To start, I took at 36x36 gallery-wrapped canvas and applied a wash of permanent orange. Once this was dry, I gridded it with twine to help transfer a design sketch with a small brush. (See my previous post on thathere.) I followed this with a bigger brush for the block-in of approximate colors. Then I moved to a knife.

From this point on, I used two painting knives exclusively, no brushes. These were a 3-inch knife and a 1-inch knife. Using a big knife for large areas made the application of paint go much faster than with a brush; the small knife I used for small shapes, details and lines.

By the way, I based this painting on my gouache sketchbook from my last trip to Scotland, as well as a few photos. Here's the gouache study.  You'll note that the point of view in the finished painting is a bit different; I used a photo to help establish point of view.

5x8 gouache sketch

And here are sequential photos of the painting, plus the initial design sketch (4x4).  You'll note a few (small) design changes along the way.  Also, the final photo, of the finished painting, has color closer to the actual painting.  The sequence photos aren't true to the color.


Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Artist Hosts and Artist Residencies—Some Thoughts

Painting on the beach on Isle of Skye, Scotland.
Wouldn't this make a fine place for a residency?

First, the proposal—just so you don't miss it, in case you don't read all the way through this post.

Would anyone reading this like to become an artist host, and host me as your artist-in-residence? 

  • What you get:  a beautifully framed painting, featuring the scenery of your location
  • What I get:  a location rich in scenery and a private place to stay (cottage or cabin would be ideal, or even a spot for a camper)

If this sounds appealing to you, let's talk!  Send a note to me at

Why am I asking this question? Read on!

I've reached a point where I can spend less time making money and more time making art.  Sure, I can work out of my own studio—I certainly have no lack of beauty to paint, and I have many projects in mind—but a different location, with space away from quotidian distractions, and possibly the companionship of other artists, would inject energy into my work.  So, recently I decided to start looking into residency programs.

By the way, I did one residency several years ago.  This was at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vermont.  Each year, they put aside a week exclusively for Vermont artists.  (I was living there at the time.)  I applied and got a fellowship.  The residency came at a critical time for me, as I was just getting back into painting after a long hiatus and was still working my day job.  I got my very own studio space, a large, well-lit room in a renovated church, and my very own suite in one of the many houses VSC owns in that town.  Although I was doing mostly plein air painting, I spent time in the studio, too.  This, plus shared meals in the dining hall and a studio tour at the end of the week, exposed me to many other artists.  I think I was the only outdoor painter, but we had, among others, installation artists, sculptors and potters, and painters of the non-objective.

I felt I was a seedling planted in fertile ground.  I took off in that environment, finding it very rich and rewarding.  I still keep up with some of the friends I made.  It is this experience that has prompted me to think about another residency.

Residencies come in two types.  First, the ones where several or many artists are in residence, creating a community, much like VSC.  The other is the solitary residency, where you are left alone to wrestle with your angel (or, for some, to grapple with your demon.)

As much I benefited from my time at VSC, my thought right now is to look into the solitary residencies.  Rather than an energetic milieu, I'm looking for a quiet space and time to concentrate on a project.

At the top of my list are the programs sponsored by the National Park Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service.  These, without a doubt, offer some spectacular scenery—as well as a free place to stay.  In most cases, the fee is minimal or non-existent, and the application is judged by local staff, who although they might not know anything about art, at least have a pretty good idea of whether the applicant might support the mission of the park.  Accommodations are rustic, good for one artist, and you provide your own food and transportation.  Maybe I'm just a hermit at heart and like my life simple, but it seems to me that an artist could really dig down into a project.

Usually, in exchange, the artist either provides a painting or two or conducts a short program for the public.  Sounds ideal, right?  Unfortunately, many of these programs have been suspended because of lack of funding or staff.

Recently, a third-party has stepped in to help the parks.  The non-profit National Parks Arts Foundation handles some of the programs that might otherwise be canceled if it weren't for it.  Terms vary by the program—there are some that cost nothing to apply to—but I saw one that charged $110.  Plus, most of the programs seem to now offer stipends (in some cases, $2000, and no doubt funded by your application fee) and allow entire families or "troupes" of artists.  And $110 is a lot for me to pay for an application fee, especially if there's a good chance I'm not going to land a spot.

This is a bit more than I want.  I prefer the old-style programs:  one artist and a rustic cabin with a view.  A stipend is nice, but not necessary.  And I'm happy to swap a painting or an afternoon's lecture for all of that.

Going down my list, next are programs run by private foundations.  VSC is one such foundation.  But these are extremely competitive.  I was lucky, because Vermont is a small state, and the pool of possible applicants isn't so great for a single week set aside for Vermont artists.  You can see the competition in the lists of alumni, which are often provided on the foundation's web site.  One's confidence shrinks while reading the resum├ęs:  MFAs, graduates of prestigious schools, Fulbright scholars, top awards from national shows, in the collection of prominent museums, etc.  Applying almost feels like buying a lottery ticket.

The third and final option is to find an artist host.  In many ways, this is most appealing, as it would be the simplest and most gratifying.  Especially if one of my faithful readers were to be my host!

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Some Snow Paintings

Snow and Rock #1
6x8 Oil - Available

In the days when I lived back east, I sometimes painted in the deep of winter.  But painting in, say, Vermont at that time of year is a much different experience than painting here in New Mexico on a fine January day.

Back east, plein air in winter wasn't for the faint of heart.  Bitter cold meant wearing gloves so thick that handling little sticks of pastel was near-impossible.  One might think oil would be a better choice, but every pile of paint turned into a dense mass the consistency of Silly Putty.  I won my merit badge when I painted for about a half-hour at -15° F, and that was in pastel.

The other times I painted, it was often when the temperature hung in the 20s, and clouds like grey steel plates paneled the sky.  The overcast made it seem much colder.  I preferred to paint when some sun, filtering through the clouds, might warm me up.  But that made as little difference as the warmth from a nightlight bulb in an unheated room.

But now I'm in New Mexico.  Here in the north part of the state and at 7000 feet, we do have winter.  I think the lowest temperature so far was a degree or so below 0° F.  For several weeks now, nighttime lows have been in the single digits or teens; daytime highs, in the 20s, 30s, 40s and almost 50—but that depends so much on sunshine.  But even in the 20s with sun, it can seem gloriously warm.  You'd swear it was in the 60s and peel your clothes off like they were on fire.

With that in mind, I thought I'd share a few recent snow paintings with you.  For each of them, I stood in four or five inches of snow, in the sun, with my parka zipped open and my gloves, off.   I can't wait to paint some more of these.

Snow and Rock #2
6x8 Oil - Available

8x10 Oil - Available

Snow and Rock #3
9x12 Oil - Available

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Another Snowstorm...and Thinking of Summer

Are you thinking of summer yet? I am!

Although we haven't had many snowstorms this winter in northern New Mexico, the snow we did have isn't going away very fast.  It's been colder than usual.  And now, we are in the midst of another storm, which is predicted to drop about 5" here at the studio...and a little farther up the hill, perhaps a whole foot.

This has me thinking already of summer.  If you're snowbound, iced over or just darn tired of overcast, wintery skies, then maybe you are thinking of summer, too.  Now's the time to sign up for one of my summer plein air painting workshops in Lubec, Maine.  I have cut down on the weeks this year, so space is limited!

Find out all the details here:

Now I'm going to go look at some pictures of sunny, warm beaches!

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Gridding Your Painting with ... Twine!

Most of us painters should be familiar with the idea of using a grid to scale up and transfer a drawing to a painting surface.  I've always just drawn the grid on my canvas in pencil.  This usually works except that I am prone to using thin, transparent paint.  And if the paint is too thin, the pencil line, however light, seems to show through in the final painting.  Is there a better way?

Yes, there is!  I recently used a ball of twine and a fistful of map pins to grid my canvas.

Using a pencil, I marked off regular intervals on each edge of the canvas, matching the grid points I'd overlaid on my drawing.  At each of these interval marks, I stuck in a map pin.  Then, using the twine, I went up and down and back and forth in a logical manner to connect these pins.  The result was a beautiful grid that, when removed, left no visible mark on the canvas. (I used thinned paint and a small brush to sketch in my design.)

My grid was coarse, just four squares by four squares.  If I'd needed a finer grid, I could have used string or even thread to make the grid lines.

Here are some images to show you how this works.

3x3 thumbnail

The gridded 36x36 canvas.  Yes, this works on unsquares.

One of the map pins at the edge.

Closeup of the map pin.

Side view showing placement of pins
and how the grid is established.

What I do with the ball of twine.  Just let it
dangle, and a piece of masking tape secures the twine.

The scaled-up, transferred drawing--all without a grid of pencil lines!
The drawing here is with thinned paint and a brush.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Using Oil Sticks as a Start

"Arroyo" 24x30 Oil - Available
Yes, you saw it before in an earlier post, but
now I want to tell the story.

I'm a painter, but sometimes for a project, it just feels right to draw.  That's the way I felt when I started "Arroyo," the painting at the top of this post.  As most of you know, I usually paint in a small format, but this subject, La Ventana Natural Arch near Grants, New Mexico, demanded a larger canvas—24x30.  When I put the canvas up on the easel, several acres of white confronted me.  I suddenly lacked the confidence to just start in with a brush.  I decided I needed to get some drawing down first.

My first thought was pencil or charcoal, which would give me more accuracy than a brush.  But of course, pencil lines can show through transparent passages, and charcoal can muddy the color.  Then I remembered my box of oil sticks.

Made of nothing but pigment and linseed oil, oil sticks are fatter than those big green pencils we were given in kindergarten.  They come with a blunt end and a sort of "skin" that you have to trim off with a knife before using.  My set, Richeson Shiva Student Grade PaintStiks, has six colors:  white, yellow, red, green, blue and brown.  These aren't enough colors to do serious work but certainly enough to get a drawing down and the painting started.

Using colors that were akin to the ones that I envisioned in the final painting, I started drawing.  Next, I blocked in color with the PaintStiks, dipping the ends in Gamsol to liquefy the color so I could apply it more easily and fill shapes.  Once that was done, I went back in with my biggest brush and Gamsol to liquefy the color further and push it around for a thorough block-in.  From there, I proceeded with my usual M.O.

I will say that drawing with oil sticks really freed me up.  It was comforting, as I'm a natural drawer and it comes easily to me.  I'm sure I'll do more of this in the future, especially for larger studio works.

Below I share my step-by-step photos with you.

By the way, this project came out of a painting session with one of my Private Intensive Painting Program students.  Although I didn't sketch La Ventana itself—it was still in shadow—I made color sketches of the surrounding sunlit rocks and arroyo and also took photographs.  To figure out what the sun would do on La Ventana, I made use of the Internet and found several photos that showed the pattern of light and shadow.  I didn't copy any of these photos but just used them as a reference for the pattern.  The color and the "feeling of the moment" all come from my sketches of the surrounding terrain.

Oil stick drawing

More drawing, with oil stick dipped in Gamsol 

Washing in color with Gamsol

And from here on, continuing with brushes

I had a hard time with the arroyo foreground.
I wanted to make it interesting, but not too
interesting, so I removed that dark shadow...

...and then put it in again...

...only to finally remove it.  Finished.
Arroyo, 24x30 Oil - Available

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Winston Churchill—Plein Air Painter

Sir Winston Churchill at Work

By now, most of us plein air painters have heard that Sir Winston Churchill, the twice-Prime Minister of England who steered that country through World War II, was also an avid outdoor painter. I don't remember when I first learned of his hobby. I did get a copy of his little book, Painting as a Pastime, several years ago.

Recently, I started watching The Crown, Netflix's serial bio-pic on Queen Elizabeth II. The first season shows Churchill, played admirably by John Lithgow, pursuing his hobby whenever possible. He was about as serious as an amateur can get without taking that final step of "going pro."

The series renewed my interest in Churchill. While doing some research, I discovered another book, Winston Churchill: His Life as a Painter. It's a memoir written by his daughter, Mary Soames, and published in 1990. Although the book focuses on Churchill's activities as a painter, both outdoor and studio, the setting is that of world events. I was intrigued to learn that he was such a dedicated painter that he even took his paintbox out to the battlefield. He found a few moments when the shells weren't whistling overhead to paint a sketch or two.

By the way, although he started off painting from life, early on he learned the advantages of using photographs as a reference. He also projected lantern slides and traced them, especially for portraits and buildings, where accuracy in drawing is critical:
Having discovered painting in the middle age of a crowded life, he was loath to spend precious time mastering draughtsmanship, and in the lantern and slides he had found a sensible short-cut which greatly helped him. ... But he never became rigidly tied to photographic methods; he simply employed them as useful aids. My chief memories are of him at his easel, painting directly on the canvas.

The book includes many paintings by Churchill. The reader can see how his painting skills improved over time. Some of this is thanks to studying with painters such as Walter Sickert, but—and my students should appreciate this—also through dedicated practice. I've included below one of my favorite paintings.

The book is out of print, of course, but you can find used copies on Amazon.

"On the Var, South of France" 1935 by Winston S. Churchill

Monday, January 6, 2020

Join Me for Plein Air Painting in Sedona!

I can't believe it, but I still have a few spaces left in my April 7-10, 2020, plein air painting workshop in Sedona, Arizona. Why can't I believe it? Because every time I teach this workshop it usually fills quickly. And why? For two reasons:

First--and I will say it without modesty--I'm a great teacher. Students love my easy-going style. They also love how I share with them a logical, orderly (and stress-free!) way of taking the landscape and putting it down on paper or canvas. Also, unlike some teachers, I do not work on my painting while I should be helping people. I make a point of making my rounds frequently, talking to each student as much as they require, to give them the help they need. Finally, I welcome all levels of painter in the workshop. The only thing I ask is that you have some experience with your materials and have painted before.

Second, Sedona is a fabulous place to paint. Stunning red cliffs, amazing canyon vistas, graceful white sycamores and gnarled cottonwoods, the quiet waters of beautiful Oak Creek...I could go on, but trust me, as someone who has painted in some pretty spectacular places over the years, Sedona is right at the top. What's more, Sedona has a great deal to offer for the afternoons after our session has ended. You can go on a jeep tour, dine at a fine restaurant, shop for local arts and crafts or, if you're like me, take a long hike in one of the wilderness areas to relax and let your mind expand.

Sedona is only two hours from the Phoenix airport or one hour from the Flagstaff airport. There's lots of lodging available close to our meeting place in the studio. Sedona also has a Whole Foods, a Natural Grocer...what more could you want?

I have full details on this workshop here:

It's only $300. How can you say no?

And here's one more thing: I will give you an oil demonstration (unframed) from this workshop or a previous one, a $150 value. First come, first served!

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Master Class: Secondary Color Palette

The Next Storm 6x8 Oil - Available

Scrub Oak 6x8 Oil - Available
Both of the above paintings were made with a limited palette of
Permanent Orange, Dioxazine Purple and Phthalo Green.

As we all know (or should know), a limited palette simplifies color-mixing and makes it easier to achieve color harmony.   When painters want a limited palette, many retreat to the split-primary palette, which consists of a warm and cool version of the primary colors, for a total of six colors.  If a painter wants to simplify life even more, he may choose just  three colors.  Often, these end up being red, yellow and blue.

But there are other possibilities.  What about a palette made up of secondary colors rather than the primaries?

The secondary colors—orange, purple and green—each contain two primaries.  Orange contains yellow and red; purple, red and blue; green, blue and yellow.  It is possible to mix colors akin to the primaries from a secondary color palette.  Orange and purple give you a dull red; purple and green, a dull blue; green and orange, a very dark greenish yellow.  If you start off with rich, modern pigments, you can come up with some very natural-looking mixtures that are perfect for the landscape.

I've done some experimenting with this.  For my palette, I chose the following Gamblin colors:

  • Permanent orange (Monoacetelone, PO 62)
  • Dioxazine purple (Carbazol dioxazine, PV 23)
  • Phthalo green (Chlorinated copper phthalocyanine PG 7)
  • Titanitum-zinc white (Titanium dioxide, PW 6, and zinc oxide, PW 4)

I was really pleased with the mixtures I was able to mix.  I mixed "on the fly," that is, without pre-mixing colors.  One might mix versions of the primaries of these in advance—e.g. make a red from the orange and purple—but the quality of the primary varies depending on the proportions of the secondaries.  However, to show you what this looks like, I've mixed some samples below and have arranged them in color wheel-fashion.  (The secondaries sit at the corners of the triangle plus a swatch of the tint; the "primaries" mixed from secondaries, plus a tint, are along the sides of the triangle.)

With today's range of pigments, this idea allows for much experimentation.  It'd be interesting to see how another purple, say, manganese violet, would work rather than dioxazine purple.  (What's the difference between purple and violet?  That's grist for another blog post.)  And what about a split-secondary palette, in which you have a cool and a warm version of orange, purple and green?

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

A Plein Air Painter's Blog Top Ten Posts for 2019

Well, another year has passed under our tires.  The road from 2019 to 2020 has been rather rough for most of the world.  Crashes and backups every mile, and exit ramps looking like they might dump us into risky neighborhoods.  Still, detouring around those crashes and backups, we found places of unexpected delight and beauty.  We'll hope for more of those in the future--and for less road rage.

Each month, when possible, I've been offering a list of that month's most popular posts.  With that in mind, in order, here are 2019's top ten posts.  Enjoy!