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Sunday, March 28, 2021

Paintout with Plein Air New Mexico

In the Shadows, 9x12 oil/panel
Painted at the Narrows Paintout

Plein air painting season has arrived! To celebrate the first day of Spring, I hosted an outing with Plein Air Painters of New Mexico. Although I've been painting throughout the winter, the group has been idle, partly because of the season, partly because of COVID. It was good to get out with the group again.

Several of us gathered to paint south of Grants at what's called “the Narrows”—a narrow slot of open land, hemmed in by lava fields on one side and sandstone mesas on the other. It's a beautiful, mostly wild area occupied by three different governmental divisions: the Acoma Indian Reservation, the Bureau of Land Management's El Malpais National Conservation Area and the National Park Service's El Malpais National Monument. It's hard to describe the area, as the terrain is so varied. To the west, the lava fields stretch out like an endless, broken, heaved-up parking lot with black outcrops of 4,000-year-old lava flows, sprinkled with ponderosa pine and scrub oak. To the east, a series of 7,000-foot sandstone cliffs tower over the lava, providing views to Mount Taylor, the Zuni Mountains and the now-dormant Chain of Craters. Arches and towers decorate the sides of the cliffs, culminating in La Ventana, the biggest arch of them all.

The land looks ancient, and it is. The Acoma and Zuni Indians, as well as their ancestors, hiked between the two pueblos across the malpais for trade. Later, the Spanish picked their way on horseback around the lava, preferring to avoid it. They called it “El Malpais”—the badlands—for a good reason. Today, the 16-mile Zuni-Acoma Trail wanders through the lava, but the sharp edges slash hiking boots, and although the trail is marked by cairns, hikers can get lost easily if they miss one.

Nine of us gathered at the South Narrows Picnic Area to paint. Some stayed in the parking area, protected from New Mexico's frequent springtime wind by a small canyon, to paint intimate views of the lower cliffs; others took the short hike to the top where twisted junipers provided little relief from the wind. After lunch, we wandered over to La Ventana. The arch has a span of 120 feet, but it seems to rise up a lot taller than that. In the morning, the arch is in shadow, but by mid-day, light begins to spill behind the arch, illuminating the wall beneath and behind it, making for a striking subject. By the time we got there, the lighting was perfect, but the wind had gotten serious. Although some of us found a less-gusty spot behind a juniper, the rest just took photos. (Like most plein air painters, I can paint under just about any condition—baking sun, chill rain, freezing snow or blinding fog, but not heavy wind.) I recommended that painters, on the way home, stop at Sandstone Bluffs, which offers not just broad views of the malpais but also fantastic rock formations.

If you live in or near New Mexico, considering joining us next time. You can visit for more information.

By the way, there is still time to take advantage of a good discount on Plein Air Live. I will be demonstrating in gouache on Beginner's Day. For more information or to register, go here.

Painting down in the canyon below the Narrows

La Ventana Arch

Looking from Sandstone Bluffs
across the malpais to Mt Taylor

Raku the Firecloud Rez Dog visits
me while I'm sketching in gouache

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Narrative in Landscape Painting

Late Snow, 12x26 oil/panel - Available
What's the narrative in this landscape painting?

I love to read.  I usually have two books going at once: fiction before bed, and non-fiction upon waking.  Right now, I'm reading the first volume of Rick Atkinson's trilogy about the Revolutionary War, The British Are Coming, and Naomi Novik's fantasy, Uprooted.  Both of these tell engaging stories—that is, narratives.

We find narratives in the other arts, too, especially in painting.  Illustration art, for example, dramatizes a particular scene in a text, making the moment more vivid for the reader.  Portraiture often tells a story, too, though it is sometimes more subtle.  More subtle yet is the narrative in a still life, which one sometimes hears described as a “dialogue” between objects.  (Sometimes the narrative is so subtle that it requires a clever title to get the point across.)  But what about landscape painting?  Can a pure landscape contain a narrative?

October by William Clarke Rice, 1903.
Smithsonian Institution
The story thus far: October presents the bounty
of the harvest to a woman who is, perhaps, his lover.
(Just see how he gazes at her!)

Portrait of Elliot Coues by J. Edward Barclay, 1898.
Smithsonian Institution.

Besides being an ornithologist who wrote a definitive book
on North American birds (pictured at his right elbow), Coues 
also was a surgeon and spiritualist.  The tiny skull on his desk
and the book tell a little about his life story. Spiritualism
was a big thing back then.

Still Life
Luncheon Still Life by John F. Francis, c. 1860.
Smithsonian Institution.
A feast of fruit, nuts and wine for—whom?
Perhaps for some hikers coming in from the 
wild landscape in the distance? 

I've heard landscape painters use the term in describing their work, as in "the rock and tree create a narrative"—though they rarely go on to say what that narrative is.  Unlike in a history painting, where the story is explicit, the story in a landscape is implicit.  The viewer must play Sherlock Holmes and deduce the story from the evidence presented.  A boulder suspended in a foamy cataract might imply that a rushing torrent of snowmelt wrestled the boulder from farther upstream, and the boulder now hangs, waiting for what comes next.  A twisted tree, sitting atop an exposed knoll, might imply a backstory of decades spent enduring wind and weather.  A drumlin, slouched upon a wide, flat field, might imply the mile-thick glacier that crept across the landscape 20,000 years ago and whatever story that followed the glacier's retreat.

Some landscape painters, though, talk more about how the abstract elements in a landscape create a narrative.  For example, how a large patch of yellow at the center of interest creates a narrative with another, smaller patch of yellow elsewhere.  Or, how a large rectangular shape creates a narrative with a scattering of small, circular shapes.  Here, the story is a good deal harder to figure out—and, I think, you might be able to make up just about any story with any given set of abstract elements.

Honestly, stories involving such abstract elements are, to me, the hardest to follow and don't have much stature when talking about representational painting.   More important, I think, is how these abstract elements work to create a good design.

In landscape painting, narrative is often in the eye of the beholder.  I have a dear friend who is always seeing personalities and stories in my paintings.  (And of course, once I'm told what's there, I can't stop seeing it, too.)

How do you define narrative in a landscape painting?

By the way, the deal of $500 off of Plein Air Live continues until March 28.  Check out the details or register here.  I hope to see you there!

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

A Plein Air Painting Workshop via – Zoom?

The 12x16 oil demo I did for the group.

This past weekend, I taught a plein air painting workshop for the Tempe Artists Guild in Arizona—but from my studio in New Mexico with a snowstorm blowing in.  Zoom made it all possible, and the workshop went very well.  It's an experience I'm eager to repeat.

In advance of the class, I recorded a painting demonstration outdoors plus a second segment in the studio where I improved on the painting.  On the morning of the workshop, I gave a PowerPoint presentation that showed the gear I take outdoors and how I set it up.  I followed this with a discussion of plein air painting fundamentals.  Finally, I showed my two videos and narrated, stopping the playback now and then to elaborate or answer a question.  When we broke for the afternoon painting session, I gave everyone advice on how to get started and then set them free.   (Tempe, which is near Phoenix, was having much milder weather.)  As students finished, they e-mailed images of their work, which I pulled through my "Photoshop mill" to show how they might be improved.  At the end, I emailed the revised images to the students for their reference.

It was a great experience for me and for the students.  A year ago, I wouldn't have dreamed such a thing would be possible.  My preference, of course, is to teach in-person, but as long as the pandemic is with us, I will help students this way. 

If your group would like me to set up a Zoom workshop like this, let me know!

And speaking of online education, you can still get a great discount on Plein Air Live! I'll be demonstrating in gouache on Beginner's Day.  You can find out more here.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

Prussian Blue: Peril or Promise?

Some Common Blues
Top row: Draw-downs showing transparency
Bottom row: Tints
From left to right:
Prussian, Phthalo, Indanthrone, Cobalt, Ultramarine
(all from Gamblin)
(From The Artist's Magazine, October 2013)

I've always been a fan of Prussian Blue.  Although many landscape painters like Ultramarine Blue and Cobalt Blue for their skies, in my view these always seem a little too intense and need to be muted.  Prussian Blue already seems more muted, more natural.  It also greys down other colors in the landscape well, especially the reds, and produces a wide range of greens with yellows and oranges.  And I love the way it mixes with earth colors.  One of my favorite palettes:  Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna and Prussian Blue.

Rain over the River, 12x16 Oil (Available)
Prussian Blue is great for storms, too.
Painted with Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, Prussian Blue.

In my recent demo for Eric Rhoads' daily series of artist demonstrations, I used Prussian Blue.  Someone observed that the pigment is poisonous, and that I should be careful.  Well, yes, it contains a compound of cyanide, but it is not poisonous.

A student of mine, Charles Eisener, who has a long history with pigments in the medical field, explained this to me, and with his permission, I want to share it with you.  His qualifications: “Over a period of almost 50 years, I worked with dye powders and stains, solutions, solvents and chemicals that most folks do not even know to be part of our medical care system.  Mutagens, carcinogens, caustics, poisons and potential explosives were all part of the mix.”

Regarding Prussian Blue, he writes:

Prussian Blue is a double iron salt complex with cyanide and is a commonly used pigment in many areas, including Histotechnology.  I have used the pigment over more than 40 years in that capacity and have yet to see it labeled as a poison.  Most safety references did not list ANY physical hazards associated with skin contact unless you are referencing the basic chemical "powder."  Like many other chemicals, the bets are off when ingestion or injection is involved.  Even flour can be a hazard when injected.  Chinese white is a close chemical relative; after oxidation it also turns blue.  Ferrous ferrocyanide salts are widely used in many product areas as pigments and carry no explicit hazards to the product user.  Personally, the cadmiums pose far greater health hazards to the user than a worst-case scenario with Prussian Blue given the same type of exposure.

The cyanide is so tightly bound to the iron salt in this pigment that a reaction to the iron salts is far more likely than any potential exposure to what is left of the cyanide molecule.  The other factor is that many manufacturers do not even use the ferrous cyanide salts for their "Prussian Blue."  Some of the synthetic pigments are much easier to produce and thus much cheaper to include in the end product.  As always, it pays to carefully read the labels, so you know what you are paying for, or being exposed to.

He goes on, more generally:

Our primary risk from chemicals, solvents, and pigments occurs during the actual act of mixing and applying paint or cleaning our materials and tools.  Residual risks from artists pigments are very minute, particularly if due diligence is taken with disposal.  Rinse water containing pigments can be precipitated and disposed of as a solid.  Dried paint films are at very minimal risk of releasing cadmium.  Far more heavy metals are released into the environment through household disposables than from artist studios.  This does not mean we should not exercise caution, but rather that risks are quite relative. Some of the pigments currently in use show "unknown" under various risk categories on their official MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) forms.  Nobody has done research to determine that potential risk.  Does that mean it is safer than a cadmium color with known risk?  Hardly!  Should we not take more care with an unknown than with a known?

Many common food preservatives and colorants carry health risks if one cares to examine their MSDS data.  OSHA guidelines mandated that gloves and face protection be used when weighing out sodium chloride, yet the cafeteria provided saltshakers on every table.  Risks and safety are relative.  Ingesting too much water or too much table salt can cause health issues or in extreme cases, death.  So can too little!   Safety is a relative term and simply implies the use of common sense and reasonable care based upon our current knowledge of the specific chemical/product.

Here in the US, we have labeling requirements.  It pays to read the label and to know what we're painting with. 

By the way, I am on the faculty for Plein Air Live.  If you haven't already signed up, there's still plenty of time.  You can find out more about Plein Air Live here.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Starting a Plein Air Painting Group

Painting in Lubec, Maine

With the wakening of spring comes the sudden appearance of plein air painters.  Long hibernating in their dens, dreaming of interesting patterns of light and shadow, they are called by Nature to follow the steps of their forebears.  Yawning as they lumber out of winter, they stretch and blink and sniff the air to catch the scent of sap rising.  They are about to begin a feeding frenzy that will last through all of spring, summer and fall until it is time to return to their long sleep.  But for now, even though they are thirsty and hungry, their first thought is to find someone to paint with—and preferably several.

Recently, a painter, new to plein air, wrote to me and asked how to start a group.   “I would like it to grow into an active group that does workshops, outings and more, but I struggle finding artists interested.”

First, why form a group?  You can certainly paint on your own.  But a group provides many advantages:  opportunities to learn from others, a sharing of resources (such as carpooling), safety when painting in a remote area, as well as enduring companionship.  And sometimes, a group is the best thing to keep you motivated and painting.

Finding others like ourselves can be hard, especially if we live rurally or are self-taught.  We're like some rare animal trying to find a mate.  Over a few hundred square miles, there may be only two or three of us.  How do we find each other?  First, locate a watering hole that other members of your species might frequent.  You might seek out museums, art centers, galleries, frame shops, art supply stores—anywhere another painter might see a notice tacked up announcing the formation of a plein air group.  

If you live truly in the sticks with no such watering hole, you will need to range farther.  Perhaps there is a state plein air group that would be willing to help you form a chapter.  Or, you can offer to host a paintout in your area with that group, and it might do some advertising to help find other potential members near you.  Perhaps the closest big city has a similar group, and you might reach out to it, as well.  But if none of this is true, then what?

Let yourself be seen when painting outdoors.  When the curious approach, be friendly.  Show them what you're doing and how you do it.  If they want to learn more, offer to teach them.  (If you're a beginner, don't worry; you have something to teach, even if you're just one chapter ahead of your students.)  If they don't want to invest in all the gear and materials right away, perhaps you can share a bit of paint, a brush and a small canvas.  Invite them to paint with you next week.

Also, start with the small goal of simply getting someone to paint with, and keep things casual.  Think “I have painting buddies” rather than “I'm trying to form a painting group.”  As you get more people to paint with, you might consider setting a higher goal of organizing paintouts that are advertised and open to the public to increase your membership.  If you're active in social media, you can spread the word through your favorite platform.  If not, ask your members to spread the word.  (By the way, PleinAir Magazine will gladly add you to its list of plein air groups, which will raise your visibility.)  Soon, no doubt someone will want to take the group to the next level, which might be hosting a competition or a workshop or organizing painting trips. 

But don't wait to get started.  I can smell the sap rising.

Are you new to plein air painting or would you like a refresher? Check out my Plein Air Essentials site, which offers discounts on all of my courses. Courses are self-study, self-paced and online.

By the way, I will be demonstrating in gouache for Beginner's Day at Plein Air Live.  I hope you'll join me.  Go here to find out more about the program.  Discounts for early registration!

Clicking the image doesn't take you there.  Click here instead.