Monday, November 29, 2010

Growing with the Flow

During my participation in the Laguna Beach Invitational last month, I decided to attempt something I haven’t tried before in a painting competition. I thought I’d repeat the exact same scene to see if my outcome could be improved. Originally, I never had this intention but when I reviewed the smaller version the day after it was completed, I saw the opportunity to attempt a larger work that was still fresh on my mind. Plus with a recent marine layer that had moved in over the beach, I knew I could count on this inland location at Black Star Canyon to be sunny. Both of these paintings were painted en plein air during the competition. The larger scene “Big Red” is 18x24 in size and painted two days after the smaller 8x10 work, titled “Little Red” (inset).

Normally, I don’t do a painting this large outside. Not because I’m unable, but I’ve been trying to spend more time working out my compositions and slowing down in my painting process. For these reasons, the light changes too much over the course of the painting, so I’ve been focusing on smaller scenes I know I can finish in two or three hours. The nice thing about having completed the 8x10 is that the design and composition were already worked out. The larger painting is simply bigger brushes and giving attention the areas I wished to improve on in the smaller work.

Before I began the big painting, these were the items I thought to improve: The warmer rock face on right side needed to be more prominent. The “floor” of the canyon seemed to be lost and I thought it was hard to see that flat expanse that exists between the foreground bushes and the base of the rock formation. And lastly, the distant trees and bushes needed better definition and clarity. Once these issues were addressed, the rest of the painting painted itself. Since I knew the shadows would be lost quickly and this larger work would take more time, I painted all of those first, leaving the lit areas as blank canvas to complete at the end. Whereas the smaller version was painted in my usual manner – simply one section at a time. This was the only difference in my approach.

With both paintings completed, one of the neat comparisons was to see how I viewed the same scene a few days apart. I did not bring the smaller painting with me when I did the 18x24. When comparing the two, you can see how differently I painted the shapes and where I altered sections. Some of these changes are natural adjustments that go on spontaneously as I try to make the composition work on the fly. Another difference was that the day was sunnier when I painted the smaller scene and how that affects the color in the rocks. Also noticing how much “colder” the distant foliage is on rock face. I think this attributed to the fact that “Big Red” was started a little earlier in the afternoon than the smaller one. Or it simply that tells me how different the light can be on any given day. Enjoy!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Looky Here

Just returned from the San Luis Obispo plein air event that wrapped up last weekend. One of the features during the event was a lecture by Jean Stern, executive director of the Irvine Museum, on “The Art of Looking at Art.” Part of his educational discussion which I found intriguing, was his breakdown of directional eye movement throughout a painting. A thorough example of how artists use shape, line, value and contrast to move you around their compositions. Once he finished, I quickly went to look at my work to see if I accomplished what he was talking about. I was happy to find that (in my humble opinion) I felt I succeeded. Above is one of my paintings from the week-long event and the inset is how I saw the movement within the work.

This 9x12 scene, “Girls at Bay” depicted one of the inlets at the south end of Morro Bay. I loved the colorful buildings and boats in the distance and wanted to make that my focus. Guiding the viewer around your painting and getting them to look at the things you want them to is always one of my main goals. Just like a good author or director guides you through their novel or movie, the same holds true for a painting. As I composed this scene, my objective was to give the viewer a few nuggets of information and the rest of the elements were used to support and guide you along the way. Keeping the foreground simple and minimizing hard edges and high contrasts, allows your eye to “look past” those elements and move up to the structures. The sweep of the shoreline invites the viewer into the scene. I kept the two overturned boat values very similar to the ground color to give them a less important feel. Your eye should move past those and curve around to the left. Once there, you’re in the focus and invited to move between the three circled areas of the harbor, the orange house and the contrast between the brighter boats on the shore with the dark mass of the foreground tree. The tops of the distant trees help guide you back down to the harbor, as does the verticals of the boat masts. The hard-edged arc of the dark foreground tree keeps you from exiting to the right. The little blue boat I felt was the most critical element in the painting. In actuality, it was white and blended in with the large boat behind it. I changed it a dark blue, to give it contrast and used the hard edge and direction of the bow to point you back into the painting instead of letting your eye exit to the left. I kept all of the tree and bush shapes simple to keep you focused on the structural elements. Since my focus is in the mid-ground of the painting, I didn’t add too much detail to the buildings and boats. Just a few hints of windows and things to keep them feeling farther away and yet still describing what they are. This lets the viewer use their imagination to fill in the story instead of painting in every little detail.

Good direction is always key. Although nobody likes to be told what to do, a gentle nudge down the right path never hurts. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Clean and Simple

This is a painting from the “Just Plein Fun” plein air competition I participated in a few weeks ago. My 10x8 scene ­“Double Stop” was fortunate to received the third place award in the show. When I spotted this alley behind the main bayfront walk, I thought it would make a nice composition, but only if I kept it clean and ­simple.

I’m finding more and more the importance of clean color and simple shapes to drive my point home. By taking extra time in my decision making process, finding the right balance of shapes can truly make a painting sing without having to say everything.

In the past, I used to pride myself in how fast I could crank out a painting or that I could just set up anywhere and capture a scene. With those hasty decisions came hit and miss results. Sometimes I’d nail it, but more often they became either average works or fell apart when I reviewed them them the next day. The more I’ve slowed down over the years, the happier I’ve become with my results.

Once I saw that this alley had potential I spent about 20 minutes visually composing it. I moved up and down the alley every 100 feet or so trying to find the right balance of shapes. I narrowed it down to three spots, then spent another 15 minutes reviewing each of those until the above view was chosen. I felt that the combination of the simple concrete foreground making up the bottom third balanced well with the mass of trees and shapes of the homes. By painting the bottom third with very little detail, it lets the eye easily glide up to the trees. Once there, I used the complement of the green trees with the red stop sign for contrast and a focal center. The bottom left shadow was created to slow the eye down as it guides you in along it’s “S” shape. The house details were kept to a minimum, using the “L” shape of the one on the right to hook you in. The second stop sign was added as a supporting focal point as well as the telephone poles. They were both set up to create depth, letting your eye glide back into the scene. As you recede in to the distance, I used the left side home to hold you in. The silhouetted trash can shapes then direct you back to the stop sign and complete a circular loop.

I kept the colors of each area clean by carefully painting individual areas separately, not letting any of the color “mix” on the canvas. I used a soft synthetic flat that held its edge well and took my time with each shape. With this approach, you can say so much with very little. Enjoy!

Monday, August 2, 2010

Fleeting Light

Here’s another Italian scene painted on site near the Arno river in Florence. The above 9x12 painting “Under the Arch” was completed in a little over an hour on the second day that I arrived. I wanted to get the juices flowing after the long flight before I began my week of teaching, so I managed to finish this one just before the bus picked us up for our workshop.

I had every intention of doing a painting of bridges and water on the Arno, but when I didn’t find something inspiring, I spotted this view with the tiny sliver of light piercing the shadowed wall. The street and mini archway just spoke of Florence and since time was of the essence, I set up and got busy. To start, my most important element was to capture the shadow value of the building on the right. After a quick sketch of the basic forms, I began concentrating on mixing that tricky green/gold color. Of course, the minute I put the first few strokes down, sunlight started flooding the scene and my wonderful light sliver was lost instantly. I still wanted to continue and thought I’d just remember what it looked like and pressed on. I painted in all of the right side shadow tones and window suggestions, then moved to the archway. In actuality, it was the same color as the building on the right, but I changed the shade slightly, so it wouldn’t appear flat. Next I brushed on the red tones of the left side building, and again, this was much lighter due to the reflected light. When I experimented with establishing the correct tone, it drew too much attention to an unimportant area, so I dropped the value down to the same level as the other shadows and that created a better harmony. I moved to the distant building next, and pushed it’s value lighter to achieve a bit more distance in the scene. I also gave it a pink hue to differentiate it from the other structures. Since the building was quite tall in reality, I cropped it down to allow for that small rectangle of sky which I felt created a better design. The street was painted in after that and people were added to give it life. I kept them minimized and in shadow so they would not take away from the lit areas which were my focus. Lastly, I painted in all the sunlit areas. The value was there for me, but I had to work from memory of the actual light shape, since the whole right-hand building was now in full light. With some last minute flourishes here and there, my final paint stroke was the sliver of yellow light coming down in the center. Time was now up and I threw my gear together and was off to the bus.

I knew that the painting was missing something, since so much of the light shapes were created from memory but couldn’t put my finger on it. It wasn’t until I returned home and saw my photo of the scene that I figured out what was wrong. I had painted the side of the building to the right of the archway roof completely in shadow, when in reality there was tons of reflected light bouncing off the red roof. I corrected my mistake, adding in the rectangle of light above the thin sliver and suddenly it all came together.

Painting en plein air always has it’s advantages, but a little photo help here and there never hurts! Enjoy.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Chianti Hills

Back in Italy, and I can’t believe it’s been a year since my last visit. Real espresso, fresh herbs, beautiful landscape, people, pasta and of course, plenty of vino ... what’s not to love! We’ve had great weather too, their first warm spell of the year, so I’m told. The only downside is the lack of poppies, with no fields of red to be found in our area. But there is still plenty to paint!

I thought I’d share the scene above. This 9x12, “Above Vagliagli” is an aerial view from the small town close to where we’re staying. (Vagliagli -- valley of the wild garlic -- pronounced val-yal-yee). I loved the way the shapes grouped together nicely and thought I’d be up for the challenge of a complex scene.

I started by rouging in where the town would be positioned on the canvas, beginning only with the basic rectangle shapes of the buildings. I painted in all the shadow sides first of the main structures that I wanted to emphasize, then added the sunlit fronts. Next I put in some roof shapes on top of those and added some of the trees separating the buildings. After that, all of the other structures are just suggestions of roofs, shadowed sides and lighted fronts, using areas in and around the trees. I next added the shadows under the roof eaves and threw in a couple of windows on the main buildings. I added windows only to the ones I wanted the viewer focus on. In the last stage of painting the town, I worked back and forth between the trees and structures, trying to get the feel of a busy scene without overstating my main focus.

Lastly, the foreground and far hills were kept simple to support the town.

We’re off to Siena tomorrow and since it’s after midnight, I’ll end this post here! Ciao.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sonoma Plein Air

Just returned from the Sonoma Plein Air event last week, and thought I’d share one of my favorites from the week-long painting competition. We had a bit of a challenge with some unseasonably cold weather, wind and rain getting in the way, but like the saying goes: “A bad day painting is better than a good day at the office” (although, technically this IS my office!). The bright side was I hung out with some great artists, met a few new ones and “talked shop” all week, which definitely spurs growth. Plus, realizing that we’re all in the same boat keeps your spirits up and pushes you to focus on your work, not the weather.

It was a wonder the above 9x16 painting, “Doin’ Chores”, even came to fruition. It was born after a disastrous morning in which I scraped off a not-so-well-thought-out composition at another location. Then, after discovering this scene and setting up my gear, it started to pour. I packed up even before beginning and tried to look for a drier place to paint, but ended up driving around for an hour or so with no luck. After lunch and a break in the weather I checked back and was able to complete the painting before the rain began yet again. What drew me to this scene was its simplicity. I loved the big, simple foreground, tree masses and flat front of the barn. I figured they would complement the small details if I could keep them interesting but not overpowering. Plus there was a nice color harmony created by the gray day.

I began by blocking in all the trees and establishing the behind-the-barn ground color, then moved to the face of the barn to make sure I had the hue correct to go with the background harmony. Next I painted the sides, roof and details in the barn, working to completion. I tackled the entire foreground after that, getting the color intense enough to stay forward in the painting. I used brushwork to create interesting shapes and altered the color here and there for variety. I also added some accent colors in the foreground to move your eye where I wanted and built smaller details to guide you up to the barn. I dropped in the sky next, making sure to use a warm gray and not the same color as the barn roof. Lastly I added a couple of cows laying in the grass before it starting to rain again and I quickly threw all my gear in the car.

Leaving hurriedly, I wasn’t sure I was completely happy with the scene, but chose to wait until the next day to evaluate. Upon review, the cows looked like an afterthought and maybe some farm hands would be better suited. So my thinking was this: paint in a couple of guys working and see if they looked better than the cows. If the figures didn’t work, I could fix up the cow forms to read better. After the two workers were painted in (entirely from my imagination), I felt they told a better story and added a human aspect that I liked. Alas, the cows had to get axed (only in the painting, though!).

Sometimes if I can tell a better story by reworking it a bit, then it’s worth a shot! Enjoy.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Always looking to try something new, this was another experimentation in the studio several weeks ago. While a sea-scape is nothing earth-shattering, the way this little 8x10 painting, “Coastal Rush” was completed was the difference. And it reminds me that expressive passages can lead to pleasing results, while maintaining a freshness that can be forgotten in larger, more methodical works.

The purpose of this painting was to see what the outcome would be without a planned approach or organized design. I normally wouldn’t do this nor recommend it, as I believe a good plan leads to a good painting. But occasionally I’ll find myself painting “stiff” or my design elements and passages will feel “forced”. When this happens, it can be refreshing to let go and try a very free process. Then, blending this in with my normal routine, can help me pull though the stiffness in future paintings.

To start, I decided to tone my canvas with Prussian Blue, a color I never use. I also toned it broadly with dark and light passages without trying to give it an overall uniformity. This toning gave the canvas a “feel” that I used as part of the interpretation of the scene. (In fact, the sky area is just my original toning). Next, I decided on a dark color for the shadow-side of the rocks and roughly painted those in, more on where I felt they should be placed rather than how they appeared in my photo reference. I grayed them a bit as they went back in space for depth. Then I painted the top “in light” color of the rocks where light would hit if it were coming from the top left of my scene. Again the placement was a response to the masses already created. Throughout this painting I kept my emphasis on loose and free brush-work. Never really trying to correct much, but simply responding to the shapes that were being formed.

The water was next. I used a combination of Prussian Blue, white and a touch of Viridian for the shadow areas of the water, painting them free and expressively. Then hit the lit foam areas with white and hints of color to give it some vividness. Lastly, I created the back horizon land mass – just a few quick brush strokes as a suggestion – which took all of 30 seconds. After a couple of edges were softened here and there in the distant rocks, the painting was finished. I wasn’t sure what I thought, so I decided to evaluate the next morning.

Upon review, I felt the scene came together and captured a sense of the rushing ocean. But more importantly, I enjoyed the way each brush stoke had a confidence to it, without being over-thought or overworked. I’ll try to remember to add areas like these in future paintings. Sometimes it’s better to let my brush talk, instead of me verbally explaining my intentions! Enjoy.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Desert Rocks

I’m out here in the Anza-Borrego desert again for their annual Plein Air show. I thought I’d post one of my paintings just completed the other day in Glorietta Canyon. This 9x12 scene, “Morning Glorie” was begun around 8 am after an easy 15 minute off-road drive. I had to lug my gear over boulders and cacti to get this vantage point, but I thought the trek was well worth it once I saw this view out over the desert floor to Salton Sea in the hazy distance.

I was drawn to the incredible diversity of rock colors that were present in this canyon. The morning shadows created these vibrant blue and orange casts that complemented nicely with the frosty greens of bushes. With the compelling vista and atmospheric rock formations stepping back, how could you not want to capture this in paint!

I knew my center of interest would be the yellows of the main bush as the sun highlighted it’s rim. This contrasted well with the darker cools in the rocks creating an instant grab for your eye. I started by laying down much of the rock tones as quickly as possible. As the sun was rising, I was losing the harmony in the shadowed mass fast, so getting those color notes down gave me the information needed later as the sun brought them into full light. It was much easier to work the finishing details with my color notes already in place. Next, I began the closer ridge, distant bluffs and desert floor, painting those to completion to finalize my overall atmosphere. Then I went back into the main rock formation, fleshing out the details and nuances from my rough color dabs made earlier. I worked to keep these reading as one unified shape to offset the highlighted bush and flowers. Plus, these rocks ended up giving me weight to create the foundation of my painting.

Another goal this year was to punch more color into my desert scenes. Over the years, as I’ve looked at the exquisite paintings by Mark Kerckhoff, I’ve noticed the beautiful pigmentation and variety of color he is able to achieve in the desert. So for the above piece I pumped up the chroma a bit, but worked hard to not have it become too garish. This helped me avoid the trap of chalkiness that can ruin the beauty and subtle richness that is all around.

Now if I can just find more shady spots to paint, everything will be cool! Enjoy.

Monday, February 1, 2010


I just finished up a three-day workshop here locally and we were very fortunate to have some beautiful weather wedged between last weeks deluge and the new storm days away. Many thanks to all of you who attended. As is my norm, I’m usually in a reflective mood immediately following the teaching and since my voice is shot, typing seems to be the best way to convey thoughts as of the moment. So this 12 x 20 plein air alley scene above, “Pearl Stop,” will be my subject on focal hierarchy.

One of my beliefs in setting up the structure of a painting is the creation of a focal interest and its supporting cast. One way to view this is to imagine a pyramid, with my main subject of the painting being at the apex and my simple, quiet areas forming the base or foundation. Without foundational elements, my focus would topple and without a star element, the work would be unfinished. How much or little I develop these areas depends on the scene, but I’ve noticed that if I construct a poor-quality pyramid, my painting is usually unsuccessful.

In “Pearl Stop” I was obviously faced with a busy subject, so my foundational support section had to be made up of smaller elements than usual. But by grouping these together, I was able to create a larger visual shape by painting several items in one consistent value. I combined the far left hedge, closest portion of the street and far right telephone pole into one unit. My base section of the pyramid is now the “U” shaped foreground that’s all in shadow. I minimized detail here to move your eye past this element to my focal apex of the white fence, flowers and umbrella, and thus the completion of my two extremes. As I proceeded with the rest of the painting, all other elements had to fit in between to make the larger to smaller tiers of my pyramid. The next larger section is the red-roofed house and it’s counter-part across the alley. Then the centered tree shape, the distant structures, light bands across the street, smaller details of windows, trash cans, and center puddles, the telephone pole cross-beam areas at upper center and finally the stop sign. The stop sign then became a fun area to play around with. I painted it anchored in the foreground shadow, (my base), but contrasted it in the lighter area of the roof. This created a nice play of a supporting interest, and also forced a sense of depth. Now, I’m sure the actual hierarchy can be debatable person to person and depending on ones interests, but the basic idea should hold up. As your eye moves around the painting it will keep coming back to the more important elements and tend to gloss over the least important or foundational elements. All of this was achieved by working with my hard and soft edges and degrees of contrast.

I think I was able to a create nice composition and stop your eye where necessary, but I do live in California and our stop signs are only a suggestion. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Back to the Gym

Happy New Year everyone. I’m well into the “off season” as I like to call it ... no plein air shows to worry about in these winter months. This is my time for reflection, exploration, and working-out some different muscle groups. If we want to stay healthy and keep in shape, exercise is the key, right? One of my choices is figure painting. I’ve studied the figure for as long as I’ve been interested in art, but with my “landscape” career in full swing, I don’t get much of an opportunity from spring to fall. So, winter becomes an excellent time for me to get back into shape. So with the new year upon us, I’ll discuss my approach to self-growth. (also see my entry: And Now for Something Completely Different).

Since I don’t have a trainer saying this or that will achieve better color, more interesting compositions, or this certain exercise will hone my brushwork, I’ve had to come up with my own methods. One of them, is exploration in different areas of painting. Growth for me is stumbling across something new by a process of trying different things to see if anything sticks. I’ll try to use different palettes or brand of paint. Paint looser, tone my canvas or maybe just slow down to see if there is some new approach that is appealing in one way or another. Which brings us to the painting above -- “Party Life,” 12x9 in oil -- was an experiment for me on multiple levels.

First, this was a figure painted from a photograph. While I usually only paint figures directly from life as I believe this is the best way to see structure properly, I was curious of my result otherwise. Second, I decided to use a different color palette than my norm. After doing some reading, I came up with a creation of Viridian, Ultramarine Blue, Cobalt Blue, Cad Yellow Light, Naples Yellow, Quinacridone Rose and Titanium White, and my brand was the M. Graham walnut oils. I also used their Walnut/Alkyd as a medium, which is fast drying with a high gloss sheen. Lastly, I decide to use a broader stroke while painting, worrying less on an exact likeness and more on defining planes with brushwork. This resulted in a lush painterly feel, different from some of my past figurative studies which were stiffer and I felt my skin tone choices were too brown. I also enjoyed the fresh, high-key tones from the different color combinations.

All in all, I came away with a couple of nuggets that I will add to my repertoire. Not everything ends up being a success, but discoveries such as these would not happen for me without this exploration. Trying hard now ... getting strong now. Enjoy!