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Sunday, May 29, 2022

To Varnish...or Not to Varnish?

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Oil Painting Varnishes I Have Known

One of the questions that comes up in my workshops frequently from oil painters is, Should I varnish?  And this is quickly followed by, When?

Yes, you should varnish.  Varnishing serves to protect the paint layer from the environment and allows one to clean a painting without damaging the paint.  Where I live in New Mexico, we get a tremendous amount of dust from our springtime winds.  The dust, so fine, infiltrates through the smallest crack in doors and windows.  It settles on everything—even the vertical surface of a hung painting.  But a quick wipe with a damp cloth is enough to get the dust off, and I feel safe doing this because I know the varnish will protect the painting.  Also, if you're a messy cook and your kitchen regularly fills with grease and smoke when you fry up a hamburger, those tiny particles will travel a long way—all the way to that painting you have hung in the living room.  Over time, these particles will make a gummy mess, and your heirs and the art conservators they've hired will thank you for varnishing your painting.  Even if you live in a dust-free, grease-free and smoke-free place, the air still contains contaminants that the varnish will block.

But varnish does more.  Many pigments upon drying, especially the earth colors, will become duller and lighter in value.  Varnish will saturate the colors and deepen the values, making the painting look like it did when you applied that last brush stroke.  You worked so hard to get that look, why not keep it?  (If you don't want the “wet” look, choose a matte varnish rather than a glossy one; a matte varnish is also helpful in reducing glare on a dark painting.)

Interestingly, some of the French Impressionists and the Modernist painters didn't varnish their paintings.  They preferred the raw, matte finish of the dried oil paint.  But how a painting appears once dry is difficult for an artist to anticipate and work toward; instead, I prefer to achieve the look I want first and then to resurrect that look with varnish should the painting change.

And when to varnish?  If you're using a traditional varnish, one that contains tree resins such as damar, you need to wait six months or longer, until the painting is completely dry.  This is because a natural resin varnish seals the paint layer so solidly that oxygen can no longer reach it.  Because oil paint cures by oxidation, it will never thoroughly dry and will be subject to damage.  However, Gamblin makes a synthetic resin varnish—Gamvar—that allows the paint layer to continue to “breathe.”  You can apply Gamvar as soon as the painting is dry to the touch, often after just a few days.  I test the dryness by gently pressing a fingernail into the thickest spot of paint; if it doesn't leave a mark, I know the painting is dry enough for Gamvar. 

You can read more about varnishing in general on the Gamblin web site here:

and see a video on using Gamvar here:

By the way, if you're wondering what kind of brush to use for varnishing, Gamblin now offers the perfect brush, which you can read about here: 

Sunday, May 22, 2022

The Plein Air Convention and Expo 2022 – Part 2

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Albert Handell on the Main Stage

Despite my quiet hotel room, I woke early on Thursday—3:30—which is not terribly unusual for me.  I made coffee with the one-cup coffee maker I'd brought with me (far better than the stuff the resort supplied) and continued reading a biography of Robert the Bruce, one of my ancestors.  I think it's good to temper all the art input from the convention with something completely unrelated to avoid burnout.

Morning on the Golf Course

Once dawn arrived, I went out for a walk, hoping to find something other than pavement.  Fortunately, the resort has an 18-hole golf course, and despite the signs saying “No Trespassing—Golfers Only,” I walked a couple of miles, climbing to a rocky hill top where I had views of the waning moon sinking down above the Jemez Mountains.  It was good to work off some energy, as I've always been a bit restless sitting in hotel ballrooms at conferences.

Thomas Jefferson Kitts

Haidee Jo Summers

My first meeting was a presentation on the main stage by Thomas Jefferson Kitts.  His topic was on solvent-free oil painting.  Although I know most of the tech behind the practice, I learned that the safflower and flax ( linseed) oils one finds in the supermarket contain vitamin D.  Because vitamin D is an anti-oxidant, it will keep these drying oils from oxidizing and curing, so it's best to use artist's grade oils, which are free of it.  Following this, there was a talk by noted art historian Jean Stern on the historic women of plein air painting. I then took some time to peruse the wares in the vendor room and ran into Anita Louise West, who remembered me from times past.  It was good to reconnect with her, and hopefully, we'll get together to paint either in my neck of the woods or hers.

I returned to my room for an early lunch, and then attended a demo by Haidee Jo Summers.  Her topic, “Capturing the Essence,” explored the idea of simplifying a scene and cutting it down to one's basic idea.  Lori McNee then gave a presentation on Cobra water-miscible oils and Multimedia Artboard.  The Cobra rep was on hand to clarify some of the technical details, and since I've been very tentative in my use of the Cobra product, I gained some confidence.  Finally, it was off to see Dawn Whitelaw's talk on finishing paintings.  She took some of hers and showed us the steps she takes in evaluating them and adding the final brush strokes.

On the Plaza

By late afternoon, it was time to drive off to the Santa Fe's historic Plaza, which was our outing for the day.  I didn't pay for a bus ticket—since I had my own car, I just drove to a spot near the Plaza where I was sure I could get parking—and saddled up my gear and headed over.  I was a good 30 minutes in advance of the bus, so I was surprised to see the Plaza already teeming with painters.  The wind was starting to gust, but most of the Plaza seemed to be sheltered by the buildings that line the square.  And even better, the cottonwood trees gave plenty of shade, something much desired when painting in New Mexico.

At the paintout, I had a choice: paint or advise.  Early on in the year, when faculty was being invited, we'd been sorted into two bins, demonstrators and field painters.  I'd been assigned to the demonstrators, but this group was also given the option of functioning as field painters.  Field painters were supposed to wander around the attendees and offer sage advice.  I decided I'd do both.  So, first I set up my pastel box and did a quick sketch of a street scene; then, because the sketch might blow away in the wind, I packed everything up, donned my fluorescent, lime-green “Faculty” cap and began dispensing encouraging words and helpful suggestions.

An Encounter with PleinAir Magazine editor
Kelly Kane (left) and PleinAir Today editor
Cheri Haas (right)

Offerings were more limited on Friday, as the convention was winding down, with the big finish to be on Saturday with an all-day paintout at Ghost Ranch.  (Ghost Ranch, of course, was made famous by Georgia O'Keeffe, and now it's a retreat facility.)  Friday had the usual simultaneous events in the morning, but for the afternoon, everything took place on the main stage.

Tony Allain

First, in the morning, I attended Tony Allain's pastel demonstration.  I'd not met Tony in person before, but he's one of the master artists in my book.  It was a pleasure to finally meet this artist from Scotland and to see how quick he is to lay down the pastel.  He joked that he is so aggressive with the medium that the first two rows of the audience would probably be covered in pastel juice by the end.  Next, Albert Handell demonstrated painting a waterfall in oil on the main stage.  Although I've seen many different variations of his demos over the years, every time it's a treat to see him do it again.

Next, Eric took the stage to reveal the venue for next year's convention: Denver, with painting trips to Estes Park and City of the Gods.  There was a lot of excitement over the announcement, especially when Eric noted that it would be the convention's tenth birthday bash with a record number of attendees and faculty.  (He's planning on 1000 participants and 80 faculty.)

The final demonstration for the convention was Kevin Macpherson, but unfortunately, the schedule was running an hour late and seemed to be slipping even later.  I'd planned to go home after watching his demo and then stopping just briefly at the afternoon paintout at El Rancho de las Golondrinas; I needed to hurry home to pack for another trip--to get to my father's memorial service.  

Even so, Friday was a satisfying end to the convention for me.  I enjoyed seeing some old friends, learning a few new things, and absorbing the wonderful energy that his kind of event creates.  Will I be at Denver in 2023?  I hope so!

Friday, May 20, 2022

The Plein Air Convention and Expo 2022 – Part 1

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PACE Opens!  How many people can you count?
There's a whole left side that's not in the photo.

After being cancelled two years in a row because of the pandemic, the Plein Air Convention & Expo (PACE) finally opened in Santa Fe—but with wildfires raging on both sides of it.  Thirty miles east, New Mexico's second largest fire in history had charred over 300,000 acres by opening day.  And thirty miles west, a smaller fire of 50,000 acres was breathing its last.  The convention organizers recommended N95 masks for anyone worried about smoke.

The N95 masks, of course, would also be helpful because the pandemic still hadn't quite gone away.  I'd been uneasy about attending a convention with hundreds of people—partly because, right after it, I was due to travel several more days and visit with elderly family members on my long journey to Campobello Island.  But fortified with my second booster, and vowing to wear my N95 when indoors and to avoid parties, my hope was that I would escape unscathed.  (I won't mention that I snuck a small microwave oven into my room so I wouldn't have to dine out.)

As I approached the Buffalo Thunder Casino and Resort, about 20 minutes north of Santa Fe and on the Pueblo of Pojoaque reservation, I could see the smoke from the Calf Creek/Hermit's Peak fire billowing over the mountains.  The cloud, not quite a mushroom cloud, tilted to the east as the prevailing winds blew it away from Pojoaque.  The forecast for the rest of the week was sunny and unseasonably warm—in the high 80s—and with gusty winds expected later.

Dawn comes to Pojoaque

I discovered that the hotel was, thank goodness, isolated from the convention area and the casino.  As a light sleeper, it's important to have quiet.  Once checked in, I was surprised at how empty the place seemed.  Despite hundreds of people attending, the halls were largely void of traffic save for the occasional attendee frowning at the hotel map on his phone, trying to find the location of his room.  (Complicating things is the fact that there are two wings, and if you go up the wrong set of elevators, you may not find your room.  This happened to me while pushing a hundred pounds of gear on a bellman cart.)

I wasn't even sure if the casino was operating, as its parking lot, which is separate from the hotel's, was empty. The only place I encountered crowds was in the vendor area—a very dense gathering—and in the main stage area.  I found the best time to visit the vendors was during a presentation, when attendees were in the main stage room.  In the main stage area itself, I was able to hover in the back where things were more open.  (From anywhere in the room you could get a good view, thanks to the two large projection screens, which provided a close-up if not color-corrected view of the easel.)  Even so, I kept my N95 firmly attached.

After checking in, I immediately went to the main stage for the opening reception.  Eric Rhoads, the publisher of PleinAir magazine and organizer of PACE, appeared wearing a game-show host wig and a coat glittering with green sequins.  “Plein Air Wars” opened the evening, with four painters on stage performing under extreme conditions.  (Imagine being told to paint only with your non-dominant hand.)  Following that...more games, but finally it got down to Lifetime Achievement awards and the introduction of faculty.  I was pleased to see that my friend, Joe Anna Arnett, finally was able to take in hand her Lifetime Achievement award, which she was able to receive only virtually in 2021.

Brenda Boylan

The next day, my first event for the convention was a pastel demonstration by Brenda Boylan.  (There was a 6:30 am “Marketing Boot Camp” session I chose to skip, feeling a need to take my morning constitutional instead; I enjoyed a beautiful sunrise.)  Brenda showed us how to paint a city scene and discussed how to handle the issues one might encounter in that busy environment.  Next, I headed back to the main stage, where Eric was doing a live, streamed interview with master painter David Leffel and Sherrie McGraw.  Leffel is a Grand Master of painting, and he talked about some of the higher-level aspects of the art.  After that, I headed over to watch a watercolor demo on painting ocean waves by another friend and fellow Plein Air Fundy member, Poppy Balser.  I found it amazing that she was able to “save” the white areas for sea foam while painting a wave so loosely. She used no opaque white.  

Poppy Balser

Albert Handell

I ended the daylight portion of the day by watching a pastel demonstration of a tree by another good friend, Albert Handell, who has a fascinating approach in which he treats the tree more as a figure to be painted, and a talk on the optical physics of sunsets by Carl Bretzke.  This is a highly complex subject, and this MD-turned-painter did a great job of giving a clear presentation.  Somewhere in the course of the day, I ran into another friend, Kevin Macpherson—I am finding I have so many in the plein air world—and Eric, each of whom I showed my appreciation to by giving a copy of my new book.

Although the afternoon outing was scheduled for the historic village of Chimayo and its iconic Santuario, I needed to skip it.  I had a pastel presentation I was due to give at 8 p.m. and wanted to use the time to set up my gear, re-read my notes and make sure I had everything ready to go.  I also had been up since 3 a.m. and thought I might try to take a nap.  I'm not a napper, so this was a challenge.

Somewhat rested and fortified by a cup of strong Earl Grey tea, I made it through my presentation. At first, I was a little worried when the clock struck eight and every chair was still empty.  But PleinAir magazine editor Kelly Kane, someone I as a writer have known for years but had never actually met, and who was going to introduce me, said the bus from Chimayo was running late. (PACE hired one to ferry painters from the convention to painting sites.) Sure enough, people soon began filing in.  I had a good crowd, and I enjoyed sharing my topic: Outdoor Study to Studio.  I demonstrated how I use field references—color studies, pencil sketches and photos—for making studio paintings.  It's a hard sell to dedicated plein air painters, but I think they got the point, which is that the studio is not something to avoid.

(Coming Up—Part 2)

Sunday, May 15, 2022

My Art History: John Everett Millais and Alphonse Mucha

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John Everett Millais
Oil on canvas, 76x112 cm
Tate Britain, London, UK

It was a time:  Lying on the library lawn in the shade of an oak with a book of 17th century poetry, studying poems like Andrew Marvell's “To His Coy Mistress,” and wondering if the girl on whom I had a crush would walk by.  College was a time of falling in love and love not returned, a time of love gained and love lost, a time shot through with the heartbreaks of entering young adulthood.  It was a timeless time.

As an English major, the written word played a big part in my life.  But there was visual art, too—every dorm room sported wall posters.  Popular were two posters:  an illustration by Alphonse Mucha for JOB cigarette papers and “Ophelia” by John Everett Millais.  The work of both artists depicted women who stirred our longings but were, alas, out of reach.  If you've forgotten this feeling, go read John Keats' “La Belle Dame sans Merci.”

Alphonse Mucha, JOB poster, c.1890

The Czech painter Mucha (1860-1939) had no influence on me as a landscape painter.  I'm not even sure he painted landscapes.  But his curley-cue, Art Nouveau style did inspire much of the pen-and-ink work I was creating at the time.  Millais (1829-1896), on the other hand, did influence my painting.  Although we don't think of him as a landscape painter, he used landscape as a backdrop for his figures.  This world often represents a golden era, when flowers were everlasting and the sunshine, ever-present.  This, of course, is the world of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, of which Millais was one of the founders.  Many of their paintings depict Medieval themes, especially courtly love—appropriate material for this student who, at the time, was reading Chaucer in Middle English.

“Ophelia” depicts the woman who went mad in Shakespeare's play, “Hamlet,” and drowned herself.  But let's not get into all that.  (When you see the painting, unless you know the backstory, you wouldn't know she was on her way down.  To me, she looks more like a woman who has given herself up to passion, with her lips parted in quiet ecstasy.)  Instead, let's look at the landscape that embraces Ophelia.

Millais painted mostly from life.  “Ophelia” is no different.  It was painted in two different locations, the first being by a river in Surrey.  Most artists in those days sketched outdoors to gather reference material for studio paintings.  The Pre-Raphaelites, however, preferred to work directly from nature, completing paintings on-location.  Interestingly, because Millais considered the landscape to be just as important as the figure in “Ophelia,” he painted the landscape first.  Because it took him five months to paint the landscape, he captured flowers that bloomed at different times of year.  Apparently these were so accurately painted that a botany professor, who couldn't take students into the field, took them instead to view “Ophelia.”

Once Millais was done with the landscape, he moved to his second location—his London studio—to paint in the figure. He posed the 19-year-old model, Elizabeth Siddal, in a bathtub filled with water.  Oil lamps were placed beneath the tub to keep the water warm.  Unfortunately, the water must not have been kept warm enough, for the model got very sick, and Millais ended up having to pay all her medical bills.  Siddal posed often for the Pre-Raphaelites, but died at 32 from an overdose of laudanum.

As for Millais himself, he entered the Royal Academy school at the very young age of 11, a testament to his early genius.  Along with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Holman Hunt, he founded the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood when he was 18.  At 23, he completed “Ophelia,” his best-known work today. Millais was friends with art critic John Ruskin, but he fell in love with Ruskin's wife, and after that marriage was annulled in 1854, Millais married her.  Millais then more or less abandoned the Pre-Raphaelite style and its narrative quality by painting with a broader brush.  These paintings were more decorative and similar in style to works of the burgeoning Aesthetic Movement.  Ruskin, who had praised Millais' work during his Pre-Raphaelite period, condemned this newer work, calling it a “catastrophe.”  (Was this a case of sour grapes?)  Later in life, Millais began to paint pure landscapes, especially scenes of Perthshire in Scotland, where he loved to hunt and fish.  Many of these paintings use somber color and depict autumn or winter and are painted more loosely than his early works.  In 1896, the same year he was elected President of the Royal Academy, he died of throat cancer.

By the way, the Tate Britain has an excellent discussion of “Ophelia” here.  

Flowing to the River
John Everett Millais
Oil on canvas, 140x188 cm
Tate Britain, London, UK

John Everett Millais
Oil on canvas, 186x141 cm
Private Collection

Sunday, May 8, 2022

The End of the Pandemic Sketchbooks?

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Lately, I've returned to my fascination with the abstractions
that fill the canyon walls.  The sandstone is prone to cracking
and spalling, creating these lovely patterns.

If you've been keeping up with my blog, you'll remember that, during the pandemic, I hiked frequently into the canyon behind my studio to do some sketching in gouache.  Mostly, it was a way to keep calm, but it was also a way to study the subtle beauty of the canyon in depth.  The other day, I reached the end of Pandemic Sketchbook No.3.  Will the series continue?  Well, that all depends on whether we've reached the end of the pandemic.  We'll see how it goes.

With the post, I present the final four sketches in No.3.  They are all 5x8 gouache.

Even if the pandemic is over (which I might argue against), I won't stop sketching in gouache.  I think the practice is one of the best ways to get outside to paint with the least amount of hassle.   Sure, I'll tackle the more ambitious efforts of painting en plein air in oil and pastel.  But when I want an easy day—and to keep calm—I'll pull out the gouache kit.

By the way, the Plein Air Convention & Expo starts next week, May 17-21. 2022.  I hope to see some of you in Santa Fe.

Sunday, May 1, 2022

My Art History: Frederic Edwin Church

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Olana, in Greenport, New York
Ɱ, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Years ago, when traveling through the Hudson River Valley, I stopped at Olana, Frederic Church's manorial estate.  I'd known for years about Church and his place in art history, but it was the beauty and strangeness of Olana that preoccupied me while there.  I'd love to share my memories or pictures, but it was truly such a long time ago, before I got my first digital camera; and although I'm sure I had my film camera, I must have been stingy with the film, for I can't find a single photo of it in my archives.  What I do remember is that sense of beauty, that sense of strangeness—that sense of out-of-placeness.

Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) studied with Thomas Cole (1801-1848) for a couple of years in his early twenties, working with him both in the field and in the studio.  Soon after that, Church embarked on what would become a lifetime of travel, visiting such far-flung places as Labrador to paint icebergs and the Andes to paint volcanoes.  Shortly after Cole died, Church bought some land on the Hudson River, almost directly across from his mentor's home.  He built a small cottage there with Richard Morris Hunt (1827-1895), and then after the Civil War—he did not fight—his family went abroad, traveling to the Middle East.  The architecture of this region, recorded in his sketches from the trip, inspired his vision for Olana.

Church started building Olana in 1870.  Although he considered himself a self-taught architect, he worked with Calvert Vaux (1824-1895), who had helped Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) design New York City's Central Park.  The building, a mish-mash of styles from Victorian to Persian to Moorish, is heavily stenciled inside and out with designs based on Church's sketches, and it is filled with knick-knacks he collected while abroad.  While researching this article, I learned that the building contains over 40 of his paintings—but what I remember most is the building.

Finishing Olana consumed the last decades of Church's life.  Pained by arthritis in his dominant (right) hand, he learned to paint with his left hand.  At one point, while working on the estate, he wrote, “I have made about 1 ¾  miles of road this season, opening entirely new and beautiful views. I can make more and better landscapes in this way than by tampering with canvas and paint in the studio.”  It seems that Olana had become his new canvas.

Here are some of Church's sketches:

Drawing, Sunset from Olana, July 1, 1870
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
1 July 1870
Graphite on heavy white wove paper
9 1/8 x 12 5/8 in

Magdalena River, New Granada, Equador
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Graphite heightened with white on wove paper
8 3/16 x 4 3/4 in

Horizontal view of the Falls
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Graphite on green wove paper
3 3/4 x 5 7/8 in

Horizontal view of the Falls and the Canadian bank, shown from Prospect Point
Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Graphite on gray wove paper
11 5/16 x 18 1/16 in