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Sunday, May 30, 2021

Road Report: Paint or Hike?


Hiking at 10,000 Feet - Lizard Head Pass

With the weather warming up, we felt the time had come to take Wilma, our Pleasure-Way camper van, out on the road.  Our destination was Dolores, Colorado, a tiny town at the foot of the San Juan Range and a great base camp for exploration.  The surrounding country offers plenty for the painter and hiker: mountain streams, winding trails, tall firs and, in the right season, snow-capped mountains.

Immersed in this kind of beauty, my painting self always has to wrestle my hiking self for equal time.  Paint or hike?  I try to find a balance, but usually, and especially when I come across a new trail, the hiker wins out.

A "postcard scene" -  Sheep Mountain
5x8 gouache

A more artistic, close-up, abstract view of the mountains
5x8 gouache

Also, the painter in me prefers not to paint postcard scenes. This is hard when faced with a new vista that takes your breath away.  What's more, developing an understanding of your subject matter requires time; this is more easily done if you immerse yourself in the landscape for awhile.  For example, I've lived in western New Mexico for several years now and have developed a 100-mile “comfort zone of the familiar” around my studio; within this range, I am able to see past the postcard view to subjects that challenge me and build up my artistic muscles.  But outside this range, when I encounter something new, I am more likely to take the easy way out.  Plus, it's just so much relaxing after a long hike to plop down and paint the convenient scene!

Yet sometimes, you just have to paint the postcard.  The view inspires you to paint, and even if you know you can do better, you have to do it anyway to get it out of your system before you can move on.  Sometimes it turns out better than you had hoped; other times, it looks like, well, a postcard.  Still, a postcard can jog the memory, especially if it accurately records the moment, and you will find it useful in the studio.

When we bought the camper van, I decided I would focus on using gouache.  Although the 19-foot van has lots of storage room (and all the conveniences—i.e. stove, refrigerator, toilet, air conditioning and heat, full kitchen with running water), I prefer to take an extra pair of hiking boots and a warm coat rather than more painting gear.  The gouache kit takes up very little space and it's perfect for satisfying the artistic urge.  If I want to do something more ambitious, once home I can take my sketchbook and photos to the studio and engage in a bigger effort.  Plus, for me, these trips are about exploring and relaxing and also about looking toward the future:  Is this somewhere I might want to come back for some truly serious painting?  

By the way, I don't take my usual watercolor journal with me on these trips.  Instead, I dedicate a separate journal to travel.

Over the week, we had mostly excellent weather.  The weather was cooler (and thus more pleasant) than we had expected.  I think we used the air conditioner only one night, and even then, by dawn the temperature had dropped to 35 or so.  During the days, hiking was a pleasure, especially as we wandered up to 10,000 feet near Lizard Head Pass, just west of Telluride.  We did have one day of near-solid rain, but we easily coped with it by heading lower to a more desert clime, over in Utah near Hovenweep National Monument, where the rain barely reached.  But up near Lizard Head, the rain fell as snow, and the next time we drove to the pass, I could see the snowline had dropped considerably on the surrounding peaks.

Here are some photos and sketches.

Arroyo Lupines


Long Palace, Mesa Verde National Park

Puppy Time by the Dolores River

Sketching by the Dolores River
(Yes, it was chilly)

Dolores River Sketch
5x8 gouache

Dolores River Sketch
5x8 gouache

Windy Day Sketch / Sand Pueblo Trailhead
5x8 gouache, done inside the car to escape the weather

Hovenweep National Monument

Cicadas were out, big time!

Wilma the Pleasure-Way Camper Van


More Telluride

Bridal Veil Falls, Telluride
5x8 gouache

Sketching at Mesa Verde

Mesa Verde Sketch
5x8 gouache

Friday, May 28, 2021

Changing How You Get A Plein Air Painter's Blog

 Hi, everyone,

If you've been getting A Plein Air Painter's Blog through e-mail, you will notice with this post that something has changed.

I am no longer using Feedburner or Google Groups to email my posts.  Feedburner is being deactivated by Google this summer, and Google Groups has been problematic.  Change is always difficult, especially when one has so many other things to do!

My new service is

You may get an email to confirm your subscription.  If so, please do so!  I'd love to keep you on.  That way, you will still get the blog via email.

Once you confirm, you can go to the settings on the site to let it know how you want to receive the email.  The default is the email heading or snippet, once a day.  But you can also get summary posts, the full article, or just read it at rather than getting an e-mail.  (Need help?  Go here or here.)

Yes, you'll see ads at the bottom of the email.  I can't eliminate these without paying.  Also, the e-mail will look as if it's coming from and not me.  Same deal.  So, if you'd prefer to see the blog without the ads, etc., you can just bookmark my blog site and check it weekly.  I usually post on Sunday mornings.  The blog site is

Thank you.  I now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Sunday, May 23, 2021

Painters on Wheels: Travels with Wilma, Spring Edition

Wilma the Pleasureway Camper Van
on a previous trip

Winter's done.  Where we live, at 7000 feet and among the rugged topographies of mesas and canyons, cacti are starting to bloom.  Claret cup, a small, spiny dome exuberant with blood-red blooms.  Prickly pear, a nest of green pads sprouting yellow blossoms.  And here and there, other wildflowers, sparse in this dry land, sprinkling the rocky hills with stingy pinches of rainbow glitter.

Now the nights are warm enough to dewinterize the camper van and head north for a spring adventure.  Our destination:  Cortez, Colorado.

As I write, we are still packing the van—getting it ready for a season of travel takes more than you might think—but we have already laid out our travel plans.  By the time you read this, we'll already be in Cortez, but I wanted to write a bit in advance since it might be hard to keep up with my regular Sunday blog post otherwise.  Our plans include:  Telluride in the San Juans and Bears Ears National Monument, among other scenic spots.

And of course, I'll be sketching.  I have my gouache kit already stashed in the van, ready to go.

I'll have a full report after this latest expedition of Painters on Wheels.  By the way, if you like to camp and want to caravan and paint with like-minded folks, check out our Facebook group.  

Sunday, May 16, 2021

Painting the Novel

I always wanted to be a novelist.  I did write four or five, but only one of those actually saw print.  As a novelist, I consider myself a failure.  This failure, interestingly, turned me back to painting.

You may ask, how hard is it to write a novel?  When you read one, most times it seems that the writer hardly struggled at all.  Well, that's the trick.  No matter how hard he works, the writer aims to make it look easy.  He wants the reader to enjoy a smooth experience.  One word follows another; reaction follows action; and the plot cruises along like a finely-tuned automobile on new pavement. Sure, you might flip back a few pages to remind yourself who said what, but your progress generally goes from point A to point B.  Barring exceptions in highbrow literary fiction, a novel reads like a straight line.

But that's not the case for the writer.  A novel contains an imaginary world that is multidimensional, consisting of space and time, a world that the writer can move freely in, up and down or left and right in space, or back and forth in time.  This world, while in the messy process of being invented, quickly becomes a tangle of alternate realities.  Plots develop pointless detours.  Characters swap personalities.  Time behaves unexpectedly.  But eventually, the writer cleans things up, paring away the alternate realities until only one remains:  the right one, the one the reader will come to know and love.

Crafting a novel requires that the writer hold this new world, even in its chaotic formative state, entirely in his head.  Sure, you can pin your plot outline and character notes to the wall or keep a 3-ring binder packed with details on your desk, but that's not enough.  (I did all that.) You must be able to visualize this world and all its myriad connections holistically, and to do so instantly.

Well, I couldn't.  I found my mental buffer was way too small.  Before I began to write each day, I had to re-read every page I'd written so it'd be fresh in my mind.  It didn't matter if I'd logged 20 pages or 200 pages.  But even so, my brain just couldn't hold it all.

It took me awhile, but I came to understand that painting is different and, for me, easier.  On the canvas, I can see everything laid out before me clearly.  In a single glance, I can see how a new mark, a new color or a new erasure affects the whole.  In a single glance, I can see the relationship between all the parts.  In a single glance, I can comprehend the painting's complex beauty.

Don't think there's no similar challenge in painting.  As a painter of representational landscapes, I certainly wrestle with time and space.  But I find the task of collapsing all that into the two dimensions of a canvas easier and, ultimately, more rewarding.  Today, I'm content to read novels—not write them.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Tube Tips

Invented over 180 years ago, the collapsible paint tube was a brilliant innovation for painters and colormen alike.  Colormen, no longer having to store paint in pigs' bladders, which had a notoriously short shelf-life, were able to build up large inventories of paint.  Artists, often restricted to the studio when using oil paint because of the inconvenience of storage and transport, were able to take these very durable tubes to the field.  Impressionism and all the other “isms” to follow owe a lot to the humble paint tube.

But the paint tube is not without its problems.  Punctures, leaks, glued-on caps and more pester today's artist.  I thought I'd share some of my tips for handling paint tubes in the accompanying video.  (Can't see it?  Here's the direct link:

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

May Newsletter

Arizona Sycamores, 12x9 Pastel - Available

As I write, snow showers are drifting through our little valley.  Even so, we have enjoyed many warm days lately, and spring continues.  Hummingbirds have returned to our feeders; the cactuses are starting to show signs of bloom; and our native grasses are going to seed.  Plein air painting season is here!

Many of you may remember that I was scheduled to be on the faculty for May's Plein Air Convention in Santa Fe.  Because of the pandemic, it was moved to 2022, but as a replacement, the organizers created a virtual event, Plein Air Live.  For it, I and 40 other artists shared our expertise with over 1300 painters around the globe.  For Beginner's Day, I demonstrated my gouache technique.  For the remaining three days, I watched the demonstrations of other artists, participated in the simultaneous chat rooms, and enjoyed meeting other painters and vendors in the breakout sessions.  The only thing missing was the casual encounter one might have in a hallway or over a buffet table. 

Just before Plein Air Live, I taught a workshop in Sedona, Arizona.  The weather couldn't have been better.  We had warmth and sunshine, and everyone had plenty of opportunity to paint.  Sedona's always been a favorite place of mine for painting, and I'm looking forward to leading a painting retreat there in November.  (See below for details.)

Demonstrating in Sedona

With the warmer weather, Trina and I will hitting the road again with our camper van.  Our first stop will be the San Juan range of southern Colorado.  I plan to take my gouache kit with me, and I'll make sure to share my sketches on my Instagram and Facebook feeds.  After that, we may be home in New Mexico for awhile.  The Canadian border is still an uncertainty at this time, but we are hoping it will open soon, and that we'll be able to head to Campobello Island this summer.  In August, I do have a workshop and a retreat to run in Lubec, Maine, and these will happen even if we can't get into Canada.  I'll keep you posted!

I'd like to let you know about my upcoming workshops and retreats.  As before, these will be held entirely outdoors and follow CDC recommendations on masks and distancing (even if you'd had the vaccine.)  Lodging and meals are not included unless noted otherwise.

  • August 3-6, 2021:  Lubec, Maine.  All-level workshop. $300
  • August 8-13, 2021:  Lubec, Maine. Painting retreat for experienced painters.  $300.
  • September 26-October 1, 2021:  Taos, New Mexico. Painting retreat for experienced painters. $300.
  • November 2-5, 2021:  Sedona, Arizona.  Painting retreat for experienced painters. $300
  • October-November, 2021:  Ramah, New Mexico.  Private Painting Intensive (one-on-one).  $700 tuition-only option. I am no longer offering lodging/meals, but I will gladly recommend places to stay.
For more information on any of these, please see the workshops on my website:  Also, check the website now and then for any additional workshops and retreats I might schedule.  

That's all for now.  Stay well! 

Sunday, May 2, 2021

Looking at the Big Picture

How can you evoke the feeling of what it's like to perch on the edge of a canyon?
(By the way, this is not a painting.  This is a photo I took and played with.)

Even before the pandemic, many art museums were busily scanning their collections, creating high-resolution images and making them freely available online.  These images have become a great resource for the painting student who wants to learn more about a painter's process.  For example, if you're interested in how Van Gogh piled on the paint, you can visit the web site of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.  Here's a screenshot from one of his self-portraits.  I've zoomed in on that famous ear, the one he later sliced:

Seated at my desk and looking at the image on my computer, I can get closer to the painting than any museum guard would allow.  Look how the paint stroke broke as he applied color over color!

But now let's zoom out to the full painting:

On my laptop screen, this image occupies a mere 7x9 cm of real estate.  In a screen full of similar images, I'd most likely pass right over it to something more exciting.  But the painting is actually 65x50cm—a good deal larger.  In person, the painting would have a powerful effect.

There's nothing like an original.  This thought came to me in a very visceral way while visiting Santa Fe recently.  At the Gerald Peters Gallery, I stood mesmerized by a very large painting of Grand Canyon by Arturo Chavez.  The painting, four feet tall by eight feet wide, spanned my entire visual scope.  I had to swing my head to take it all in.  So intense was the feeling of teetering on the edge of the Grand Canyon that I felt a familiar, warning tingle in my hamstrings—a sensation I've often felt while stepping too close to the edge.  Looking at that same image now on my laptop, I can appreciate the painting's design and color, but it lacks the thrill.