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Sunday, September 27, 2020

Ghost Ranch Revisted—and an Upcoming Retreat

Ghost Ranch Morning
9x12 Oil - Available

Ghost Ranch and Abiqiui, New Mexico—Georgia O'Keeffe's old haunts.  These are my old haunts, too, as I've visited and painted in the area many times over the last 20 years.  This time, I spent three days there, painting in gouache and oil, and in reading Lesley Poling-Kempes' history of the property, Ghost Ranch.  

The cottage O'Keeffe stayed in when
first at Ghost Ranch. I doubt the handicap
assist rails were there in her day.

Base camp was our 1999 PleasureWay van, parked in a side canyon formed by a bent arm of red and grey hills.  We were nestled right in the crook of the arm.  From our post, we could see the blue anvil-head of the Pedernal.  O'Keeffe once said, “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”  The mountain overlooks the entirety of the historic Piedra Lumbre Land Grant, a region of colorful hills, deep arroyos, and bright cliffs—“Piedra Lumbre” means “shining rock.”  Ghost Ranch occupies 21,000 acres of this stunning and very paintable landscape.

Once a dude ranch, and before that, the legendary home of the Archuleta brothers, who were notorious cattle rustlers, it now belongs to the Presbyterian Church.  The campus now offers many workshops and retreats, not just in spiritual matters, but also in the arts.  But for painters, Ghost Ranch is best known for its connection to O'Keeffe.  She started spending summers there as a guest in the 1930s.  After her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, died, she bought a piece of the ranch and moved there permanently.  Between her Ghost Ranch home and another house she owned in nearby Abiquiu, she spent the rest of her life—over forty years—painting the hills of the Piedra Lumbre.

The Ranch, with Chimney Rock illuminated
by the morning sun.

While reading Poling-Kempes' history, the characters that lived in this place were ever-present for me as I painted.  I couldn't help but think of them crossing the landscape on foot or on horseback through the sagebrush, or of guests arriving via the Ranch's Lincoln touring car, a behemoth that could hold seven passengers plus luggage and still somehow lumber over the one-lane dirt road, down through arroyos and over rock-strewn hills, that wound for forty miles from the train depot in EspaƱola.  And, of course, I imagined Georgia O'Keeffe, painting away at the foot of some particularly colorful hill that was cut by the rare rains into graceful curves.

Our trip wasn't all painting.  We hiked, too.

As some of you know, we had to cancel our Taos, New Mexico, painting retreat for this fall.  But we are planning for next year—and as a bonus, we are going to schedule in some time for painting at Ghost Ranch.   We'll spend a week in Taos, and then follow that with time at Ghost Ranch.  The Taos retreat will start Sunday evening, September 26, 2021, and will run through Friday, October 1.  Ghost Ranch, which won't officially be part of the retreat, will be that weekend.  Let me know if you're interested, and I'll send you details as we get them.  I hope you'll join us!

Here are some of the 5x8 gouache sketches from the trip:

View from the campground

This was the preliminary sketch I did for
"Ghost Ranch Morning".  I sketched this
the day before I did the oil version.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

What's All This About Gouache?

Canyon Wall, 5x8 gouache 
One of my latest sketches from my "Pandemic Sketchbooks, Vol.2"

Gouache—what the French called the medium starting in the 18th century—is trending right now in the US.  Everyone seems to be experimenting with it.

In the graphic below, from Google Trends, you can see a big uptick in searching for the word “gouache” in May of this year.  Although the curve has dipped a bit since then, it's still higher than before.  It's also interesting to look at the map that shows which states search most often for the term.  The west coast and New England seem particularly interested in finding out more about this opaque water medium.

Number of Searches for "Gouache" since 2018

States with the Most Searches for "Gouache"

I first learned about gouache a long time ago while reading up on the history of illustration.  I learned much more about it by following the artist James Gurney in his blog.  Then I started playing with it myself a couple of years ago, when I wanted something more travel-ready than oil or pastels.  My good friend Douglas Runyan steered me to my current kit.  Now, as I check my Instagram feed and browse through the art instruction magazines, paintings in gouache or articles about gouache pop up regularly.

Gouache is basically opaque watercolor.  What gives it its distinctive opacity is the size of the pigment particles, which are larger than that used for watercolor.  Also, sometimes chalk is added to increase the opacity.

But why use gouache instead of watercolor?  Isn't watercolor just as travel-ready?  Well, the benefit of gouache lies in its opacity.  It lets the painter scumble one color over another for a beautiful “broken color” effect.  Also, it's easy to correct mistakes.  Nor does one have to worry about “saving the lights” when painting areas with bright highlights.

Gouache also dries to a matte finish, which is perfect for photography, since you don't have to worry about reflections.  This is why it was—and continues to be—used for illustration and commercial work.  

A Concept Sketch for an Advertisement in Gouache

But there's one problem with gouache, and that is that the darks dry a little light, losing some of their depth.  I often have to revisit the field sketch once I'm back in the studio and hit those darks again.

The Egyptians used gouache.  They combined ground pigment with honey or gum tragacanth—two binders also used in watercolor—to make a paste for decorating walls.  During the Middle Ages, it was used in manuscript illumination.  In the 20th century, before the advent of digital art, it was used in commercial art because it was “quick'n'dirty”—much faster than painting in oil if you just wanted to do a concept sketch.  Plus, as I mentioned, it photographed well.  The only problem with “designer's gouache” or “body color” as it was called then, was that not all of the colors were lightfast.  That has changed today, and most gouache manufacturers use lightfast pigments.

I'm continuing my practice of using it for my daily sketches.  I have a bag, ready to go, with everything I need in it, including a sheet of eggcrate foam to cushion my backside when sitting on a rock.  For me, painting in gouache is stress-free—just the prescription for today's times.

You can see more of my gouache sketches on my Instagram feed.

My Gouache Kit
(You can read more about it here)

Sunday, September 13, 2020


That oh-so-beautiful Grand Canyon sunset

Scene: The Grand Canyon at sundown.  I'm painting alone, perched on the edge of the Canyon, at a spot where I won't be bothered by tourists.  Sunset here is fleeting, and the soul-stirring palette of colors—all the way from blood-red to cool magenta to deep ultramarine—dissolves quickly as the sun dips below the horizon.  I work fast to capture the moment.  

Then, it's gone.  I step away from my work to enjoy the unbroken arc of sky above, deepening toward the violet, and the nearly-featureless blue of the chasm below.  Suddenly, off in the distance, somewhere near Mather Point, fireworks ensue.  No, not fireworks—it's the thousand tiny pinpricks of flash from cameras and smartphones.

Hundreds of those sunset images will appear within seconds on Instagram and Facebook.  Soon, the whole world will know how beautiful a sunset can be at Grand Canyon National Park.  Parents will mull over their calendars, wondering when they might schedule a trip there with their family.  Twenty-somethings will ask their latest romantic partners when their next vacation is, so they can go camping.  Retirees will call up the bus tour company and see if a Grand Canyon excursion is in the works.

I ask myself, how will this affect the protected lands, the special places?  Parks like Grand Canyon were created with the vision that they should be enjoyed by all.  But “all” has come to encompass a larger and larger number over recent years.  I myself have seen the line at Zion National Park, where people queue up in their cars and RVs for any open spot in the campground at 5:30 in the morning.  And that was during the off-season.

The Parks don't need an advertising budget.  They get more advertising than they need through social media.

As a landscape painter, I consider myself a “steward of the land.”  That is, one of my goals is to depict the beauty of our public lands so that others will recognize the treasures that we have and, hopefully, work to preserve them.  A natural result of my efforts, of course, is that more and more people, encouraged by what they see, will visit.  Can our lands survive being over-loved?

It's a quandary.  How do we share the beauty and, at the same time, save it?  I know our parks are struggling with this very question.

In the recent issue of Outside, writer Lisa Chase discusses the issue with oversharing our beautiful places.  Instagram and other social media have had quite an impact.  She writes:

Without a doubt, social media and smartphones, with their connectivity and excellent cameras, have caused a massive surge in the number of people visiting national parks and other spectacular wildernesses. “Our visitation has increased pretty dramatically over the past five years,” said Vanessa Ceja Cervantes, a Grand Canyon park spokeswoman, when we spoke last fall. (Cervantes has since left the park service.) Tourist numbers there have risen from a steady four or five million annually, through 2014, to 5.5 million in 2015 and 6.4 million in 2018. Cervantes said it’s no coincidence that the uptick was concurrent with the explosion of Instagram. The platform was created in 2010; by 2015, it had 400 million active users. As of 2018, that number was one billion. Visitor totals in the park system as a whole spiked between 2015 and 2016 by 23.7 million.

I encourage you to read the full article here:

Sunday, September 6, 2020

More on Making Copies

Rolling Fog 7x9 Oil - Copy (studio)
Rolling Fog 7x9 - Original (en plein air)

I pity the sweatshop workers at the Chinese painting mills, the ones on the assembly lines who copy Van Gogh's “Starry Night” and other paintings endlessly for people who crave “originals”—but at a very, very low price.  Their goal is to make as close to an exact copy as possible.  Many of these workers, I understand, are highly-trained artists.

But other than a paycheck, where's the satisfaction?  Where's the creativity?  Yes, it's a job, but I can't imagine that these artists don't wish that, just once, they could add their own, personal touch to the Van Gogh.  I imagine the copyist saying to himself:  “Wouldn't it be better if I added a flock of crows flying against the moon?”

Recently, a patron purchased from my website a nice little painting.  But alas!  That painting is currently under lockdown on Campobello Island in Canada, tucked away in my summer studio there.  Because of the pandemic and the fact that I live in the US, there was no way I could get the painting for him.  So, I offered to make a copy, but with the caveat that it would not be exact.

I've made copies of my paintings before.  (Here's an earlier post on that.)  And I do try to be exact.  But despite my best intentions, as I put brush to canvas, a little voice always says:  “Wouldn't it be better if...”

I usually listen to that voice.  If the change doesn't improve the painting, I scrape it out.  But most often, the change stays.

I always send a photo of the completed copy before shipping it.  If my patron doesn't like it, I'll put his money toward the purchase of any other painting.  (Whenever possible, I try not to give refunds—I like to keep a sale.)  If he does like the copy but, upon arrival, the painting doesn't please, I tell him he can exchange the painting.  Or, in the case of my recent patron, if he doesn't like it, I have offered to swap it for the original, if I'm ever allowed back into Canada to retrieve it.

For the copy I just made, I felt that crisper edges and a little more seaweed in the rocks plus some other, more subtle changes would make the painting better.  And they did.  Creativity came into play, making the work much more pleasurable.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Upcoming Exhibitions

 Thanks to the pandemic, I'm finding time to enter my work into a few juried art exhibitions.  Why do I thank the pandemic?  Many of the upcoming exhibitions have switched from being in a real gallery to being online.  That means no shipping costs!  So, I can take the money I would have spent on shipping and apply it to registering for the juried exhibitions.  Some of these have awards, but some do not.

So here are a few I'm in or will be in:

American Impressionist Society Juried Online Exhibition

After the Flood 16x20 Oil (sold)

The exhibit will be up on September 9 at  Awards will also be announced that day.

Pastel Society of New Mexico Signature Member's Show (Online)

Autumn  Splendor 20x28 Pastel (Available)

Spring Flood II 12x18 Pastel (Available)

You can see all the images in the Signature Show here, as well as purchase information.  The "exhibit" will be up until September 11.

Plein Air Painters of New Mexico Online Exhibition (November 7-29, 2020)

This one will be in an actual, physical space:  Wilder-Nightingale Gallery, Taos.  I would love to post the images of my two accepted paintings here, but PAPNM has asked we not post them until the judging is done and awards are given, which will be November 7.  So, I'll post them then.