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Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Some Sketches from the 10th Annual Plein Air Convention

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Here I am demonstrating at the Judson's booth.
Carl Judson is in the background.  And thank you
to the members of En Plein Air Texas (also pictured)
who took the photo.  Some visitors asked why I wasn't
standing to paint.  Carl asked me to paint this way
because he wanted to demonstrate how easy and
convenient the 8x10 Cigar Box is to use in this manner.
I think I may start painting this way much of the time.

While demonstrating at Judson's Art Outfitters booth during the recent plein air convention, folks asked me if I'd post images of the sketches after I'd finished.  Here are a few of them.  I wanted to get these up on my blog before I left my winter studio (New Mexico) for my summer studio (Campobello Island, off the coast of Maine.)  They are still a bit rough, and when I get back in the fall, I may do a bit more with them.  They were all made on the Judson's Guerrilla Painter 8x10 Cigar Box -- my new best friend.

Grand Canyon Illumination, 8x10 Oil
As with all of the demonstrations, this was
painted from a photo.  By the way, when I paint en
plein air, the enviroment has a tremendous effect
on me, pumping me up with energy and excitement:
The sound of rushing water, the smell of soil
baking under the sun, the wind on my cheek.
This energy is completely missing in the studio. 
For studio paintings (or when painting anywhere indoors),
I try to encourage that same energy by really pushing
the color.  

Grand Canyon Point, 8x10 Oil
Same approach as in the sketch above.

Eldorado Rapids, 8x10 Oil
I painted this one on-location at Eldorado Canyon
State Park on one of the afternoon paintouts.
There was so much beauty in the cliffs and the water,
I was overwhelmed and had to focus instead on this
simple, small rapid.

New Mexico Color, 8x10 Oil
Another demonstration from a photo,
again with exaggerated color.

Golden Cabins, Blue Air, 8x10 Oil
I painted this on-location in Golden, in the
historic museum.  This was the day we had
really terrible smoke, and even the closest hills
were tinted blue and nearly invisible.  In such
times, I focus on the nearby.

Now I really am off to Campobello Island.  I hope to have some paintings from that area to share soon.  In the meantime, I'll post some interesting art history for you.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

10th Anniversary Bash of the Plein Air Convention and Expo

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The Grand Opening.
How many people attended?  I heard 850.

This week marked the 10th anniversary of the Plein Air Convention & Expo – and also my 10th anniversary with the event, since I was present at its inception.   That first year, in Las Vegas, we had snow.  This year, in Denver, we had smoke, thunderstorms, hail and, I heard, also some snow.  Interestingly, I spoke with another long-time participant who joked:  “Bad weather seems to follow PACE like a bad penny.”

Normally, one would usually just shoot up to Denver from New Mexico via I-25.  But we decided to make more of a vacation out of it, taking the scenic route via Pagosa Springs, Buena Vista and Leadville.  It was like a trip back in time as spring seemed to reverse the higher up we went.  In Pagosa Springs, the light spring greens were deepening into the shadowy hues of summer; but in Leadville, the aspens showed just the slightest hint of green.  By the way, we saw plenty of snow at Wolf Creek Pass (10,856 feet), where we took a hike on snowpack that was about six feet deep.

Denver, of course, was already into summer, since it sits at a much lower elevation.  Fortunately, we had a cool AirBnB, and it was just a few miles from the convention center.  (We didn't stay at the hotel because our dog, Raku, insisted on a place with a full kitchen.) We arrived Sunday, and that afternoon PACE opened up officially with rousing music from a bluegrass band; followed by a gospel choir in full dress; then a juggler; and finally the Master of Ceremonies, Eric Rhoads, who is also publisher of PleinAir Magazine.  You never know what Eric has planned for the opening event.

Monday, the convention got down to business.  As always, it was a banquet of tasty offerings.  PACE presented the participant with so many simultaneous events that you couldn't participate in them all.  (“I want to keep you busy,” Eric said.)  Besides the main stage, smaller stages for oil, watercolor and pastel provided more intimate settings.  The good news is, if you couldn't attend every session, they were recorded for later consumption.

Afternoons were reserved for paintouts.  Each one offered something different.  On Monday, downtown Golden gave us historic buildings as well as views of Clear Creek; onTuesday, Eldorado Canyon State Park gave us stupendous cliffs towering over whitewater rapids; on Wednesday, Garden of the Gods (in Colorado City) gave us an alien landscape of giant boulders and weird rock formations; and finally, on Thursday, Rocky Mountain National Park gave us up-close-and-personal views of the Rockies' highest snowclad peaks.

Each day, I demonstrated at Judson’s Art Outfitters booth in the vendor room.  This was a real pleasure, as I had many people coming to watch and to chat.  And of course, I was happy to be there to support Judson's, which has so faithfully supported me over the years.  Thank you, Carl and Sarah!

On the almost-last day of the event, the venue for 2024 was announced:  Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Biltmore Estate.  The convention will be held in Cherokee, North Carolina.

Now that the convention is over, it's time to finish packing up my New Mexico studio.  When you hear from me next, it will be from my summer studio on Campobello Island!

Here are some pictures, starting with some travel pictures:

Near Pagosa Springs, where I'm leading a painting retreat this fall

Wolf Creek Pass

Buena Vista vista

The things you find in the forest


The art show!  Faculty and participants offered work for sale

The plein air bear

Doug Dawson pastel demonstration

My good friend and master artist, Doug Dawson

Bedazzled participants, just off the bus, looking for a painting spot in Golden

A demo I made, using Judson's 8x10 Cigar Box Pochade

Eldorado Canyon State Park

Painting by the rapids

Four of these mighty motorcoaches transported painters to the painting sites; at Eldorado Canyon, they kicked up a bit of dust

My good friends and supporters, Sarah and Carl Judson of Judson's Art Outfitters

Sunday, May 21, 2023

My Art History: Gustave Caillebotte

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“Paris Street; Rainy Day”
83 1/2 × 108 3/4 in, oil, 1877
Collection, Art Institute of Chicago

Gustave Caillebotte (1848-1894, France) came to mind this morning.  I was thinking about composition, and one painting of his in particular has influenced some of my work, above.

What's going on here, design-wise?  A lamp post splits the painting down the middle.  But it doesn't isolate each half, and here's why.  The man on the right is looking over into the left half of the painting, and in the left half, the man closest to the lamp post is about to step into the right half.  While the lamp post wants to push the two halves apart, the actions of the men join them together.

The visual tension in this painting has always excited me.  I've tried to use this approach in my “Natural Diptych” series, where I use some element of nature to divide a painting in two.  Here's one in which I use a fir tree to split the painting but also to serve as a unifying element.  The spreading branches of the firs and the shadow beneath “knit” together the two halves.  Also, the figure and dog on the left look over into the right half of the painting; certain shapes, such as the pointed firs, and colors, such as the pink of the apple trees, are repeated in both halves of the painting.  Everything around the tree is arranged so that the the tree is central—even though it splits the painting.

“Path to the Sea”
12x24, oil

Caillebotte, born into an upper-class Parisian family, started off studying law, but after the Franco-Prussian War, he began to paint and to hang out with painters.  (Always a bad sign.)  He befriended Degas, among others, and you can see the influence of Degas in the tight cropping of figures in “Paris Street; Rainy Day.”  As a patron of the arts, he purchased many Impressionist works and funded some of the Impressionist exhibitions.  Later in life, he stopped showing his work and painted less, preferring to garden and to build racing yachts.  Sadly, he died at 45 from pulmonary edema.

You can read more abut Caillebotte in the Wikipedia article:

Sunday, May 14, 2023

My Art History: Winslow Homer

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Winslow Homer in front of his painting, "The Gulf Stream"

When I was young and living in New Jersey, I had very limited access to Fine Art as such.  Instead, the walls of my home were hung with a few needlework samplers, family photos and a large, nicely-framed reproduction of a painting by Eric Sloane.  The painting depicted an idyllic scene: a tableau featuring an old-fashioned wooden bridge reaching lazily over a quiet creek.  A boy with a straw-hat lounged by the water, and an advertisement for Red Man Chewing Tobacco decorated the plank side of the bridge.  I'm not sure why my parents bought this nostalgic scene, but perhaps it was a reminder of their rural upbringing in the Deep South and gave them comfort in their New Jersey home.  I loved that painting.

Art museums weren't part of my world.  (Nor were public libraries, but that's another story.)  We lived near Princeton, and though it had a museum, we didn't go.  And not so far away New York City and Philadelphia with their abundance of museums, but it was difficult to get to.  My mother took my sister and me to Manhattan once, by train or maybe it was by bus.  It was an adventure:  the elevator ride to the top of the Empire State Building; NBC's Radio City Hall and the puppets from "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," tiny in their glass display cases; and at every intersection, the gauntlet of feet and legs, furious as the workings of a mechanical harvester, which we little people worked hard to avoid.  But we didn't go to any museums. It wasn't until we moved to Atlanta and I became a teenager that I made my first museum visit.

Strangely, despite the lack of art, we had a book.  It was a coffee-table book, hard for little hands to hold.  I ended up spending hours with it, sprawled out on the living room floor.  The book was titled something like "One Hundred and One Masterpieces."  I don't know where it came from, but it was my mother's.  I leafed through the book so much that pages were starting to come unglued. I remember in particular Winslow Homer's (1836-1910) "The Gulf Stream":  a lone man, rowing in a broken-masted sloop, surrounded by gape-mouthed sharks with a waterspout churning menacingly in the distance.

The Gulf Stream
28x49, Oil/Canvas, 1899/1906
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Snap the Whip
12x20, Oil/Canvas, 1872
The Metropolitan Museum of Art

"The Gulf Stream" is a far cry from the nostalgic innocence of Sloane's "End of Summer."  But Homer painted that kind of scene, too.  Here's "Snap the Whip," a scene in which a group of barefoot boys, holding hands and "snapping the whip" to see if the  child at the fast end can hold on.  Despite the energy of the game, the scene is beset with a sense of stillness; the horizontal lines of field, sky and cloud patterns form a static backdrop, with the rustic red schoolhouse acting as a weight to keep it all in place.  Although I like both paintings, "Snap the Whip" appeals to me more because of the calm landscape.

Born in Boston (1836), Homer spent his childhood in Cambridge.  His  mother, a gifted watercolorist, was his first teacher.  At 19, he apprenticed to a lithographer in Boston but soon joined Harper's Weekly as a freelance illustrator.  After moving to New York City at 23, he opened a studio and began studies at the National Academy of Design.  Two years later, the Civil War broke out, and Harper's sent him to the front lines.  (His lifelong experience as as plein air painter no doubt helped in recording accurate and necessarily quick studies.)  But his journey from illustrator to "easel painter" was short, and he started to exhibit at the National Academy as early as 1863.  Later,  he made trips to France and England, finally settling in Prouts Neck, Maine. Eventually, he started making regular trips to Florida and New York's Adirondack Mountains for a change of scenery before dying in 1910 at 73.  Today, the Portland Museum of Art owns the Prouts Neck Studio, which is open for tours.

Thursday, May 11, 2023

Plein Air Convention & Expo 2023

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Next week I’ll be driving up to Denver for the annual Plein Air Convention & Expo.  This year marks the event’s tenth anniversary and my third appearance as a member of the faculty.  This time around, I won’t be presenting but instead will serve as a “field painter.” In addition to painting, my job at each paint-out will be to dispense useful tips, offer help as needed and spread good cheer generally.

The convention has become a big affair.  I think this year we are expecting upwards of a thousand participants, each of them eager to learn from over 80 instructors.  I personally am looking forward to reconnecting with old friends and making new ones, to watching some of my favorite painters at work, and to paint in some spectacular locations.  This year, we’ll be painting in Golden’s historic downtown, spectacular Rocky Mountain National Park—I understand it was very difficult to get the permit—and Eldorado Canyon State Park as well as Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs.  It looks like we’ll be putting some miles on our vehicles, but I’m sure it’ll be worth it.

I’ll also be demonstrating for Judson’s Art Outfitters (maker of the fabulous Guerrilla Painter pochade boxes) at their booth in the vendor room.  Judson’s has been a longtime supporter of my art and teaching, and I’m delighted that I can help them in return.  I’ll also have copies of my book, Beautiful Landscape Painting Outdoors, for sale.  If you’ve been wanting a signed copy, this is your chance!

If time permits, I’ll blog about the event.  Failing that, I’ll at least post to Instagram and Facebook.  The event runs from Sunday, May 21, through Thursday, May 25.  There are still a few tickets left, which you can get at  Stay tuned!

Sunday, May 7, 2023

Encounter: Don Weller

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I have to admit, as an artist living in the West, I don't particularly care for Western Art.  Painting such subject matter today—cowboys, horses, the American Indian—seems like a holdover from the days of Frederic Remington in a desperate attempt to sell paintings to a nostalgic modern public.  (The same might be said about landscape painting, a holdover from the days of Thomas Moran, but I digress.)  Some Santa Fe galleries are full of cowboy paintings, and I pass them by.  It's rare when a piece of Western art catches my fancy.

Recently, I was approached by my editor to interview Utah artist Don Weller, who paints cowboys and horses.  I wasn't too excited about the project initially, but when I started to view his work—it was all new to me—I was hooked.  His work is filled with sparkling color, brilliant brush work and figures of horses and men that possess a quality so dynamic they seem to jump off the page.  To help with research for the article, Don sent me a copy of his book, Don Weller Tracks: A Visual Memoir, which is a hearty "rancher's breakfast" of images with just a peppering of words.  The paintings reproduced therein confirmed my opinion that Here is Western Art I Can Love.

But what makes Don different from the run-of-the-mill painter of Western Art?  He's lived the life, and I can sense this in his paintings.  His work is honest, genuine, made from a lifetime of careful observation and love.

When growing up in eastern Washington State, Don convinced his parents, who knew nothing about horses, to get him one.  He started riding, roping calves and participating in local rodeos.  A fascination with cowboys and horses permeated his childhood.  After graduating from college with a degree in Fine Art—he'd drawn his favorite subjects throughout his early years—and not quite sure what to do, he joined the Air Force for a stint and then moved to Los Angeles for work.  Thus began a decades-long career in graphic design and illustration, with some of his clients being Time Magazine, the Hollywood Bowl, the National Football League, the 1984 Olympics and the US Postal Service, for which he designed five stamps.

Then, tired of the big city, he and his wife (Chikako "Cha Cha" Matsubayashi, also his work partner) moved to a rural part of Utah.  "The rural West with mountains, sagebrush and cowboys—it was still there, just as I left it so long ago."   Not only did he return to riding horses, he also returned to depicting his beloved subject matter in watercolor and oil. Today, Don continues to paint the kind of Western Art I like.

I've included a few images from his website here.  My interview with Don will be in the Fall 2023 issue of Watercolor Artist.  It was a real pleasure to come to know him.  You can see more of his work at

Eyes on the Horns
watercolor 17x26.5

In the Corner, Ennis
watercolor, 9x7

Pasture Trio in Autumn
oil, 10x14

Scratching Out a Ride
oil, 18x24

watercolor, 13.5x11.5

The Rockies
oil, 30x42

Sunday, April 30, 2023

My Painting Teachers and Mentors

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Four Teacher/Mentors and their Work

I’ve been blessed with many painting teachers over the years, some in person, some virtual.  But it’s the “in person” ones that have had the most impact, and I thought I’d honor them here with a few words.  The ones that continue to influence me, in alphabetical order by last name (so as not to bruise any egos):  Doug Dawson, Albert Handell, Bob Rohm and Ann Templeton.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

GPS Coordinates and the Plein Air Painter

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My old GPS unit.  Coordinates noted on the panel.

One year, at one of the many plein air painting events I've been invited to, I decided to scribble GPS coordinates on the back of each painting.  I figured it'd be one more "talking point" I could use during the sales event:  "And here," I'd say, proudly pointing to the coordinates, "is the exact location where I stood when I painted this."

The occasion was the invitational Celebration of Art at Grand Canyon National Park.  Although the GPS unit—an old, bulky Magellan that I'd decommissioned from my car—added just one more complexity to a very busy event, I committed myself.  Each time I found my painting spot, I wrestled it out of my backpack and put it on the ground.  It always took a few minutes for it to lock onto the satellites, so I'd turn it on even before setting up my easel.  Once it locked, I took out my black Magic Marker and noted the coordinates on the back of the panel I'd chosen to paint on.  I felt rather smart and smug about it all.

But after a week of this, at the culminating sales event, I discovered no one really cared.

So, at the next year's event, I ditched the GPS.  I also decided to make larger paintings, ones that would require me to visit a location two or three times in order to complete them.  For my first painting, I found the ideal spot.  It had a beautiful composition of weathered rocks and storm-blasted junipers.  I painted away happily, stopping after a couple of hours with the understanding that I would finish it the next day.  Knowing it would be important to find the exact same spot, I carefully memorized details of the location.  I even took a photo of the scene as a memory aid with my Canon point-and-shoot.  (It did not have a GPS feature.)

Now, if you've ever hiked the South Rim, you might have noted that the view doesn't change much; the buttes and mesas are far enough away that, unless you hike a long distance, you see basically the same features all along the way.  And as you hike, you pass by many similar-looking patches of junipers and rocky outcrops.  It's easy to lose your way, especially if you're hiking off-trail, which I always do when hunting a painting spot.

The next day, despite my close observation of the scene and having a reference photo, I could not for the life of me find the spot.  I regretted not having a GPS.

Today, of course, I have a smartphone with an excellent GPS, and it goes with me everywhere.  I've used it many times on hikes to mark a location that I thought would be a good painting spot and wanted to return to. It's also been great for helping me find my way back to civilization.  But I still don't bother to put the coordinates on my paintings.

As I mentioned, buyers aren't interested—but other painters, photographers and hikers sure are, especially when they see my work on social media.  They are eager to visit the same beautiful spot so they can paint it, photograph it or hike it.  And they can do exactly this, if  I tag the location or upload the image with the location metadata intact.  But as a "steward of the land," I find this practice troubling—and I'll tell you why in a future blog.

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

Kathie Odom: Let the Art Speak

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A few years ago, I had the chance to interview plein air painter Kathie Odom for The Artists Magazine. In the magazine, I wrote:
Viewing the paintings of native Tennessee artist Kathie Odom is like taking a drive through rural America, passing by family farms that have seen better days. Old barns with sun-warped siding and tin roofs starting to peel back; log cabins with wide bands of chinking in need of repair; weed-thick gardens with a few wire tomato baskets, forgotten after the last harvest. An organic messiness, lovely in its unpredictable growth, has begun to surround the farms. 

Odom paints this with a loose brush, art imitating nature in all its vegetative energy. Look longer, and you'll start to feel a wistful hankering for times gone by.
Last year, at the Plein Air Convention & Expo in Santa Fe, I ran into Kathie and her husband, Buddy.  We had a delightful talk (even though I was wearing my pandemic mask), and she let me know that she had just published a retrospective of her work, Kathie Odom: Let the Art Speak.  I was delighted a few weeks later to receive a copy.

The book runs to nearly 200 pages, with each page beautifully printed.  The paintings are organized chronologically and, in keeping with the title, the artist lets the art speak for itself and keeps her remarks brief.  As I pored over the paintings, page by page, my vision of the world she inhabits and paints in grew.  Many of the paintings resonated with my own memories of the South:  hoeing corn with my grandparents on their truck farm in Mississippi; catching lightning bugs on sweltering summer nights with my cousins in Arkansas; driving with my family through the blue hills of Appalachia and in awe of the mountains of kudzu weighing down abandoned tobacco barns.

Kathie Odom: Let the Art Speak is a real treasure.  It's available from the artist:

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Minimalist Plein Air: Perhaps a Solution

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Is your studio filled with clutter like mine?  I'm organized,
but it still is a lot of stuff.  And worse yet, I have two studios!

Back when I was just a writer, the clutter of my occupation was very little:  a typewriter, a ream of blank paper, and a box containing my output.  Well, okay, there were also drawers of drafts, some on blue paper, some on yellow—you writers of a certain age will remember all that—plus file folders of research material and rejection letters.  But I pretty much kept my business within the bounds of my physical desk.  These days, a writer can keep all that on a thumb drive—or better yet, in the Cloud.  A writer could literally live in a cardboard box on the street with nothing more than a smartphone. 

But then I became a painter.  For those of us who engage in non-digital visual arts, this requires stuff, lots of stuff, stuff to make more stuff.  Technology hasn't helped us one whit on this; you can't be a painter and live in a cardboard box.  So now, I have jars of tired brushes that should be thrown away but maybe not, because I might some day need the one that looks like it's been gnawed down to the bone.  Boxes of exhausted paint tubes out of which I might squeeze a pinhead of paint if I took a hammer to them.  Shelves of finished canvases that haven't yet sold or might never sell and perhaps should be painted over.  Drawers crammed with the detritus of an active, artistic life:  pastel sticks and pastel nubs; virgin erasers and eraser crumbs; sketchbooks, both large and small, some with very good sketches, others with very poor ones.  And then pencils and crayons and pens and—oh my! as Dorothy exclaimed.

Yet, there is hope.  I have occasionally been accused of all-too-seriously suggesting that a painter really only needs one canvas and a camera.  Make a painting, snap a picture of it, and then scrape out the canvas so it's fresh for the next one.  Paint, photo, wipe—and repeat.  Over time, a painter could have a digital archive of thousands of paintings but only the one canvas, which he recycles as needed.  You could almost live in a cardboard box with this approach.

Of course, I said that tongue-in-cheek.  On the other hand, I am learning that, for me, painting is more about the experience and not the final artifact, so maybe I'm onto something.

Recently, I had another idea.  Busy in the studio on a painting that featured some autumn foliage in my canyon, I decided I needed to hike out to the location for more information.  As I stood on the rim, gazing down into a beautiful collection of fall color, deep in the moment, it occurred to me that I was actually building the painting in my head, with each observation adding another stroke to my mental canvas.   What if I took this to its natural conclusion, refining the process of painting until I had moved it out of the physical dimension and into some transcendental plane?

What if, whenever I felt the urge to paint, I just sat quietly, never picking up a brush, never mixing a color, but instead simply observing with a painter's eye?  Would that be enough?  This minimalist would like to think so, but, no. There's something about picking up a brush and mixing paint that is also satisfying. I don't think I could give up the physical component of painting.  And then there's the communication aspect.  As much as the experience is most important to me, it's also satisfying to share that experience—and the only way to do that is through the painted canvas.

So,what's the solution to decluttering my artistic life?  My grandfather was a farmer and, having lived through the Depression, never threw anything out.  When he passed away, we found in his barn countless gallon glass jars containing screws and bolts and nails, boxes of gaskets and oily wrenches and bits of wire.  Everything, all of it used and probably bent, torn or broken, was sorted and neatly organized.  Still, did he really need to keep all of that?  In a way, he was an artist, too, since he could fix anything—not just because he was creative but also because he had the odds and ends to make it happen.  So, yes, I suppose he did need to keep all of that.

And maybe I do, too.

Sunday, April 9, 2023

Extreme Makeovers for Plein Air Paintings: Sunrise in the Canyon

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Makeover: "Sunrise in the Canyon"
9x12 oil / sold
Read about my process below

Who hasn't been awed by the sunrise at Grand Canyon?  Many times, I've walked along the rim with a to-go cup of fresh coffee from the Bright Angel snack bar to witness it.  I usually find a little nook away from the other tourists, where I can watch in peace the sun's first warm rays as they paint the canyon walls in golds and reds. 

It's a great moment for photographers.  They line up jauntily at the rim with their tripods, making small talk, waiting for the right second to trip the shutter.  But for painters, it's another matter entirely.  When I try this, I find I have about 20 frantic, intense minutes of trying to block in the general idea before the glow weakens and gives way to a harsh, glaring light. That's not much time to mix paint, apply it, consider it, and make corrections.  You'd be surprised at how big a 9x12 canvas can seem in those few minutes.

And that was my situation when I painted the original piece.  I was reasonably content with it, but it always had a half-finished feeling, like something I might use in the studio as a color reference.  But after looking at it again, I decided the "bones" of a decent painting were there, and it wouldn't take long to take it to the next level.

The sketch was hung up in the mid-values, so I pushed the contrast by adding darker notes around the formation (the "Steamboat") in the foreground and darkened its cast shadow.  I also darkened the shadowed area of the distant canyon and simplified the pattern of cliffs receiving the first bits of sunlight.  I worked in richer color in the Steamboat to pull the eye.  Finally, I sharpened the outline of the cliff on the left to give it more presence and to bring it into the middle ground, making more sense of the depth of the canyon.  Finally, I added touches of purer color here and there throughout the painting to give it more "punch"overall.

Again, my apologies for the lack of step-by-step photos.


Makeover: "Sunrise in the Canyon"
9x12 oil / Available

Sunday, April 2, 2023

Extreme Makeovers for Plein Air Paintings: Above the Canyon

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Madeover: "Above the Canyon"
9x12 oil / Available
Read about my process below

Once in awhile, when I'm out painting, the energy of the scene will take over.  That is, I lose control and am at the mercy of the landscape.  That's what happened with the original painting.  (See below.)  Looking back at it, I'm not sure what caught my eye, unless it was the movement of the clouds and the shadows on the land.  The piece has energy to it, but it's caught in the mid-values, and it has an unorganized complexity that concerns me.  I decided to give it one of my more "extreme" makeovers.

First, I dealt with the cloud pattern.  In the original, you can detect some sort of pattern, but I wanted to strengthen and simplify it.  Using my sky color, I carved back into the clouds, reshaping them.  Next, I wanted to do the same with the shadow patterns on the mountains, so I increased the contrast and simplified those, too.  Finally, the flat ground, I thought, was a muddle.  I decided to add a sliver of canyon.  I've always liked the view of the Rio Grande Gorge in Taos, New Mexico; from a certain viewpoint, it looks like a split in the earth, and I decided to introduce that here.  Although the painting has become a fantasy scene, I much prefer it to the plein air painting that lies beneath it.

By the way, I apologize for the lack of step-by-step photos.  When I'm painting, I so often get carried away and forget.  But I'll tell you  a secret—I'm glad I forget.  It keeps me "in the moment."

Original Plein Air Painting

Extreme Makeover!
"Above the Canyon" 9x12 oil / Available

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

Abstracting the Landscape: Workshop with Scott Gellatly

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"Rio Grande" 4x8 Watermedia on Cold-Press Watercolor Paper
(One of the abstractions I came up during the workshop.)

As a long-time, committed plein air painter, I tend to paint what I see.  Sure, I may "abstract" the landscape, as most outdoor painters do, by squinting or making a thumbnail sketch.  Really, though, this isn't abstracting so much as simplifying—rendering the landscape in a few simple shapes and values.  My purpose is to take a three-dimensional view and flatten it so I can transpose it easily to canvas.  The result can, indeed, look pretty abstract.  But then my very next step is to re-install the third dimension and add bits of detail.  In short, to make it look like what I see.

I don't care for abstract painting, per se.  Most of it is just lazy painting.  It looks like decorator art—something you'd see in HGTV's "Property Brothers", whipped up out of masking tape and spray paint.  (Granted, that's often the best the team can do with an exhausted project budget.)  But what if we take the landscape and use it as a jumping-off point for abstraction?  What if we move it beyond reality to a place where the paint and the surface are more important than the scene itself?

Now, this kind of abstract painting I do like.  It takes the real and pushes it—richer color, stronger rhythms—all in an effort to enhance whatever quality of the scene attracted us in the first place.  In the process, the landscape takes a back seat, letting design elements and principles drive the painting, with tools and materials riding shotgun.  The result can excite and engage far more than the actual scene.

It's something I've always wanted to experiment with.  I've tried it on my own, but it was a struggle.  So, I was delighted to see that my long-time artist friend Scott Gellatly was offering an online workshop on this very topic through the Winslow Art Center on Bainbridge Island, WA. Over three weeks, he explained the process and gave us homework.  Playing with a variety of watermedia—watercolor, casein and gouache—plus a variety of tools and surfaces, I based my experiments on plein air sketches.  

I've included in this post some of my favorite results from my week.  Some are more abstract than others; in most cases, you might have a fair idea of what they represent.  All of them are 8x10 or smaller.

Am I satisfied with them?  Well, I had enormous amounts of fun, but I still struggled.  For me, having painted realism all these years, pushing the real into abstraction is hard work.  It's so easy to fall back on old ways, adding atmospheric perspective and details.  Fortunately, there is no recognized, absolute degree of abstraction in this game; the road between photorealism and the non-objective allows for many stops along the way.

One thought:  Can I take this approach into the field with me?  Can I push the abstraction while standing in front of my subject?  Often, just painting the subject in a representational manner is hard enough.  Adding the complexity of interpreting it in this new way might break me—or will it make me a stronger painter?  It will certainly give me new eyes.

I expect Scott will teach this workshop again.  I highly recommend it, and you can keep in touch with the Winslow Art Center's offerings here.