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Thursday, September 28, 2023

New Mexico Arts Project: Working on the Proposal

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Making some templates for sketches

I promised I'd offer updates on my New Mexico Arts Project, so here's the first!  If you didn't read my initial post on the McKinley County Courthouse Rotunda project, here's a quick summary.  I'm one of five finalists for the project, and I have to present a proposal to a committee on November 8th.  The project has as $100,000 budget and is part of the New Mexico Art In Public Places (AIPP) program.  The theme is:  "Culture of Place."

I'm doing the easy things first:  using the logical half of my brain to decide what materials to use, how to install the finished works, and what it will cost.  For the past few weeks, I've been seeking information from framers and installers.  Why don't I do these jobs myself?  I've decided that my true expertise lies in two fields:  making the art, and managing a big project.  (I have managed several over the years, some in the art business, others in IT.)  As for all the other tasks the project requires—mounting the artwork and framing it to AIPP standards, and hanging it on curved walls, with some locations being 12 feet above the floor—I want people who know what they are doing. Oh, and I need a plaque maker.  AIPP requires little brass plaques mounted on wood blocks for each work.  I've never had a brass plaque before.

(You might ask why I'm doing all this work first, before having fully fleshed out the concept.  Figuring out the physical constraints of the project—the materials, the sizes—will help me cut the concept to fit.  Maybe it's just me, but it's the way I go about creating art:  Okay, here's a 9x12 panel, now what part of the landscape will fit on it?)

In addition to presenting a budget for the project, I will need to present samples of materials to be used.  Originally, I'd planned to create oil paintings on aluminum Dibond.  But I began to think I might want to include digitally-enhanced photographs, in the way of prints on metal.  I liked this idea.  Then my next thought was, Why can't I reproduce my paintings and put those on metal, too?  This would allow me to make smaller paintings—I was starting to find the idea of creating a series of 4-foot by 6-foot paintings a bit intimidating—which I could then have enlarged.  Enlarging the images won't be a problem.  Because the paintings will be seen from a distance, I can accept a certain amount of loss of resolution.  And because of the distance, texture—an important part of any oil painting—will be lost, so why bother?  This lightning bolt of inspiration filled me with joy and relief.  With all this in mind, I've ordered samples of the product, printed with an image of one of my paintings, to show.

Some metal print samples

(If you're concerned about longevity, my research shows that the images will be "infused" into the surface of scratch-resistant metal with reasonably lightfast inks.  The inks will last over 65 years without noticeable fading.  Better yet, the exhibit space is completely shielded from direct sunlight.)

I am now at the point where I am trying to finalize the concept and its presentation.  This is, for me, the most difficult part because it's the non-logical, artistic part of my brain that now needs to jump in with something that makes sense.  I want to include the cultures present in the county:  the Zuni and Navajo tribes and the ranching community.  But then there's also the mining industry and the railroad, the latter of which has had a huge impact here over the years.  

There are so many details to think about.  For example, will the Native Americans be insulted if I present images of their landscape?  Do I need a permit to go onto their lands for photography?  (Turns out they won't, and yes, I do.)  The more I research and think and sketch out ideas, the more I find important things I would like to include.

What once seemed a huge space to fill now seems to be not huge enough.  I need to decide what's most important.  And isn't that what we landscape artists do, anyway?  I can do this.

Sketch of the rotunda interior walls

Sunday, September 24, 2023

Let's Go Shopping!

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John Singer Sargent in the field.  If it was a good enough
field easel for Sargent, it's good enough for me.

One question I get frequently from beginning plein air painters is:  What should I buy for gear and materials?   I thought I'd address this in my blog now, seeing that Christmas is only 91 days away, and perhaps we should start thinking of what to ask Santa.

Once upon a time, painters had little choice for field easels.  A very simple one, basically made of three sticks bolted at the top to make a tripod, and with a fourth stick attached horizontally to make a shelf, was the only option.  Completely functional, these are still on the market today.  But who wants a VW Beetle when you can get a Cadillac Deville?  Today there's a wide range of field easels to fit every need—including some needs you didn't even know you had.

As you browse through the catalog, here are some things to look for in a field easel:

  • Lightness.  Lugging a heavy easel to your painting spot will tire you out.  You'll want to carry your easel—and all your other materials—in one trip from the car.
  • Simplicity.  An easel that's complicated to set up steals precious time.  The fewer the pieces, hinges, screws and bolts, the better.
  • Stability.  Make sure the easel has a broad footprint so it'll stand up in the wind.  In a tripod, make sure the head is not made of plastic; you can't tighten plastic enough to avoid wobble. 

As for types of field easels, here are three basic types:

  • A self-contained pochade box, which will have room for everything, including wet panel storage, brushes and paints.  (You will, however, need a tripod.) An example of this is the Guerrilla Painter 8x10 Cigar Box, my current favorite.
  • A stripped-down clamshell, such as the Open Box M.  The bottom part serves as a palette and the top, as a panel holder.  This requires a modular approach; you will need a separate wet panel carrier, turps jar, paint box and brush holder.  (Plus a tripod.) I have several Open Box Ms in different sizes, and I still use them.  (The company seems to be out of business, alas, so here is the Strada, which is something like it.)
  • A French easel or similar.  Although this is now considered old-school, it has plenty of room for all your materials, serves as its own tripod and is incredibly stable in the wind.  The only drawback is that it's heavy and has no storage space for a wet panel.  This is my go-to easel when all else fails.

There are many other versions.  But you'll find that no solution is perfect.  Try different options.  You also might check out what your painting buddies use—chances are, they'll have a setup completely different than yours, and it might be better.  By the way, athough I'm writing from the viewpoint of an oil painter, there are similar easels for other media.

Here's a short video of some boxes I own:

And what about materials?  Take a very stripped-down version of whatever you use in the studio.  The same basic concepts apply:  lightness, simplicity and stability.  Take two brushes rather than ten.  Take a limited palette of three colors instead of a dozen.  Take items that will stay securely in your work area without being knocked over by wind or an errant elbow.

Finally, take only the minium you need to accomplish your goal.  For example, if I only want to make color studies, I'll take just a small bag with my gouache kit and work in my lap.  You might have bigger goals, though—and I'll address those in my next post.

Saturday, September 16, 2023

My Art History: Vincent Van Gogh

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The Starry Night
Vincent Van Gogh, 1889
Museum of Modern Art, New York

For me, Van Gogh (1853-1890) is right up there with Monet as an influence.  His paintings have an immediate, visceral effect.  And the colors, oh, my!  When I'm sketching with my little gouache kit, the pan colors of which verge on the hallucinogenic—an intense palette far outside my norm—I think of Van Gogh and, inspired, I fling color with abandon.

But I find the story of his life even more inspiring.  Like many, I read Irving Stone's novel about Van Gogh, Lust for Life – and not once, but many times.  Although it's considered biofiction, it showed me the fierce dedication an artist needs in order to stay true to his vision.  I also read Stone's other book, Dear Theo, which consists of a selection of Vincent's letters to his supportive brother.  The letters, filled with discussions of pigments and painting methods, showed me the depth of learning and practice you need to become a good painter.

Van Gogh is a role model for me.  I stop short, however, of drinking absinthe, courting women of ill repute, and annoying the locals.  Even so, Stone casts Van Gogh as a romantic character.  Wouldn't it be nice to live in the South of France in a yellow house and to go out and paint from sunrise to sunset when the weather is fine? Especially if a sibling will mail you a box of paints and canvases now and then so you can keep painting and not have to worry about selling anything.

Don McLean's song "Vincent," released in 1971 and which quickly rose to the top of the charts, created a flurry of interest in Van Gogh, which may have sparked my own.  I even painted a copy of "Starry Night" for my high school English teacher.  I have no recollection how good a copy it was, but the gift says something about my interest in Van Gogh and my admiration for my teacher.

Van Gogh was, of course, a dedicated plein air painter.  He wrote to Theo:

I must have picked a good hundred flies and more off the 4 canvases that you’ll be getting, not to mention dust and sand &c. – not to mention that, when one carries them across the heath and through hedgerows for a few hours, the odd branch or two scrapes across them.


Always continue walking a lot and loving nature, for that’s the real way to learn to understand art better and better.
Van Gogh's painting gear
Van Gogh Museum


Saturday, September 9, 2023

Help Me Get Back to Bonnie Scotland

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Eilean Donan Castle
I won't be going here on this next trip, but I'm sure to find
castles wherever I go!

I'm not sure if it's something in my DNA, but lately I've had an urge to return to Scotland.  Both sides of my family have roots there, so maybe this is similar to what salmon go through when they get the ancient call to return home.  To be honest, I can't stop scrolling through the hundreds of photos of beautiful scenery from my last two trips, making myself just a tad miserable.

Well, now I've decided to do something about it.  In September 2024, I'm going to spend an entire month in Scotland, painting.  Bring on the guidebooks!

But how to get there?  I've just been reading about the explorer, Sir Joseph Banks, who went with Captain James Cook to the South Pacific.  Banks was very wealthy, even by the standards of 18th century aristocracy; he was able not only to pay for his own passage but even for a few assistants.  Yet he was unusual among explorers, as most of his kind had to solicit support from patrons.  This wasn't a one-way street, however, as patrons always received something in return.  If it wasn't goods from the trip, it was at least a lengthy "thank you" in whatever hefty travelogue that was eventually published.

If you haven't guessed already, I am asking for your support for this trip.  I promise you'll get more than a "thank you."  I offer two options: You can get a painting, or you can get a painting and a copy of my new book.  THROUGH A PAINTER'S BRUSH: SCOTLAND will be like my other PAINTER’S BRUSH books (all available at Amazon), filled with images of my paintings and photos plus personal essays and journal entries. 

Here's a draft of the cover

I'm running this program through my Patreon page, which offers different levels of subscription. Here are the details:

At $25/month.  When you reach $300, I'll put you on the list for receiving a framed 6x8 painting of Scottish scenery based on the reference materials (gouache sketches, pencil drawings, photos) I gather on the trip.  I offered this last time, and everyone was extremely pleased with the paintings they received. I would expect to ship the paintings in time for Christmas 2024. Shipping to the lower 48 US states is included. (Other countries will be extra.)

At $28/month. When you reach $335, you'll not only get a 6x8 painting but also the new book.  I plan to have this out in the spring of 2025 with approximately 120 pages. Shipping directly from Amazon to the lower 48 states is included. (Other countries will be extra.)

You can get more details and sign up hereOf course, it you would prefer to pay the whole amount up front and not deal with Patreon, just let me know directly.  Also, it's a policy of "first come, first served."  

BY THE WAY, we are considering opening up one week as a painting retreat for a few participants.  If interested, let me know!  You need to be an experienced painter.

I’ve been to Scotland twice before.  I painted on the Isle of Skye, the Central Lowlands (including Stirling Castle!), and also Orkney (where I have family roots.)  This third trip will take me to Aberdeenshire, the Cairngorms and elsewhere on Scotland's east coast.  The country is an enchanting place with a vast variety of stunning landscapes, and I am eager to go back and paint some more and to share my experience with you.  I will be grateful for your support.  In the meantime, here are some photos from my last trips:

Painting at Talisker Bay

Near Glencoe

The Cuillins

Saturday, September 2, 2023

The Value of Value Sketches

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Value sketches based on the below photo
Sketches are about 3" on the longest side.
Notice how these are not DRAWINGS but simple
shapes fully blocked in with 4 values.

Value sketches: Many of us plein air painters skip this step.  I'm guilty of this, too.  Like you, I'm eager to get right to the fun part, the painting. But in doing so, I'm missing out on a practice that will bring my painting closer to my initial vision.  If I make a value sketch first, I'll end up with a more satisfying result.

What's the point in doing a value sketch?  Well, a lot!

First, it helps me analyze the scene, simplifying it into a few simple shapes of a few values.  This creates a map for the placement of shapes.  Sure, I could try doing this right on the canvas, but most likely I'll end up having to rework the underpainting until I get the shapes and values right.  The result is usually either a palimpsest of overlaid and confused intentions—or mud.  I can't tell you how many times I've had to wipe the whole canvas.

Second, by making more than one value sketch, I can experiment with alternatives and find the best design.  Perhaps a vertical orientation would be better than a horizontal one.  Maybe a 1:3 ratio would suit a broad vista better than a 3:4.  And what about shifting or compressing the value scale?  Possibly I could end up with a stronger statement by making some of the lighter, shadowed areas just as dark as the darkest areas.

Finally, the value sketch acts as a warm-up exercise for the final painting.  Going through the motions of working out shape and value gets my hand, eye and brain all working together, smoothing the effort I'll make later.

How do I make a value sketch?  Here's how:

  1. I keep it small.  This helps me focus on simplicity.  I like a 3x5" sketchbook.  Anything bigger, and I'm tempted to draw in detail.
  2. I keep it "blocky."  That is, I don't draw with lines but block in shapes that I then fill in solidly with three or four values.
  3. I start with the mid-values, preserving for my lights the white of the paper.  Then I punch in the darks.
  4. I use a medium that allows me to "sneak up on" the darks.  Why?  It's easy to make the darks way too dark at the start.  So, I go cautiously, darkening only as needed after establishing the mid-values.  (I still keep in mind using just 3 or 4 values.) A 6B pencil is great for this, as it can handle a wide range of value from very light to very dark.  You can also use other sketching tools, such as watercolor or gouache, or even felt-tip markers, the grey ones of which come in different percentages of grey.  Personally, I don't like the markers, as it's hard to alter the value scheme.

Some day, I'd like to teach a workshop that has students doing nothing more than value sketches.  It would be a "value-added" experience!