Monday, August 1, 2011

Step by Step

Here is a plein air painting I did for the San Clemente show last month (“Sea Moments” 9x12). After a request from Plein Air Magazine to do a step by step sequence of my painting process, I chose this pier and wave scene while I was competing in the competition. This painting and a feature article on me will be in the fall issue of Plein Air.

When painting the ocean, as I’m sure I’ve mentioned before, it’s important for me to “select” a moment in time that piques my interest the most. I always enjoy the wave mid-break—you get some of the white foam along with the water lights and shadows created by the cresting wave. Once I’ve selected a spot to paint, I sit and watch many sets roll in to determine the best layout of the wave. So, here is the sequence from start to finish:

Step 1
This is the overall scene before I began, with one of the waves breaking.

Step 2
My initial sketch of the scene. A rough idea of shapes and where I want to put elements.

Step 3
A block in of the darkest part of the painting. Simplifying the underside of the pier.

Step 4
Roughed in the top part of the pier and the small structures at the end.

Step 5
Getting the correct color and value for the darkest part of the ocean and shadow of the cresting wave.

Step 6
Laying in the distant water and where it peeks through the underside of the pier.

Step 7
Finding the color notes in the white wash area of the wave.

Step 8
More work in the foam area.

Step 9
More on the foam, and adjusting the values where it goes into the slight shadow casted from the pier. Also, small color and value nuances are added into the whites.

Step 10
I had left some white canvas where the foam would appear in the foreground water. I’ve painted in those lighter areas in this step. The final details in the wave foam were completed.

Step 11
The sky was dropped in next, plus the beginnings of the small wave in the foreground.

Step 12
The wet sand of the foreground is added. I kept the color intense to give it a feeling of closeness to the viewer.

Step 13
More details were added in the small foreground wave.

Step 14
Fixed the “air holes” and adjusted the edges where the sky and water peek through the pier.

Step 15
Details on the top of the pier were painted in next. The light posts add a nice vertical to break up the sky. The underside of the pier subtleties were finished too.

Step 16
More details in the foreground wave and wet sand. The little dark shadow areas under the wave gave it more dimension.

Step 17
The last of the details were added in the water and this was the final.

Step 18
The final painting and overall scene. If you wish to view this sequence in a slide show click below. Enjoy!

Monday, May 16, 2011


Well, it’s been awhile, but here is a recent painting I completed from the Callaway Gardens plein air show last month out in Georgia. This 9x12 scene, “Along the Path” depicts one of their walking trails through the gardens of blooming azaleas. The color splash was a welcome sight amongst the invasion of Spring greens.

These very complex scenes provide an enjoyable challenge to plein air painting. The dappled light is constantly moving and colors can shift rapidly. With the maze of bushes and trees, It becomes essential to simplify and mass as much as possible. In fact, this entire painting is just an arrangement of massed objects, with relatively little detail. I tried as much as possible to see the simple shapes. Then when it comes together at the end, it feels busy but is still readable without depicting every flower or leaf.

The first thing I did was to break down the distance into three sections: foreground, mid-ground and background. I then determined where each object was and forced it into one of the three depths. This made the painting much simpler to decipher when it came to establishing my values and intensities. I sketched the scene in pencil and made notes to where I wanted the my shadows and lights on the pathway. Next I started in the foreground bushes and found a value and color note of the in-shadow greens. Once I had a note I liked, I expanded on the area by shifting the colors and temperatures, but not value. That “holds” those shadowed green masses forward and creates the feeling of “foreground”. The tree off to the right was also painted in that same value range, as was the two larger tree trunks on the left.

I moved to the mid-ground next which included all of the flowers and the green tree in the middle. I again tried to keep all of my values to fit into this section. It had to be less intense than anything in the foreground but leaving myself room for background values. The distant trees and water (background) were then painted into the open areas of the canvas. These were the coolest and grayest of the painting.

The pathway was painted last by comparing my values to the foliage next to it as it traveled back into space. I added a figure walking for a touch of the human element. The overall simplicities let the viewer fill in the gaps with their imagination, engaging them to take part in the work. Enjoy!

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.