Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Driving Southeast to paint the Southwest

The Matt Smith Workshop in the Superstition Mountains Arizona

From Horse Mesa, Tonto Natl. Forest 8x6 o/p

As I said last time, I’ve wanted to paint the desert for a long time. I fell in love with the South West many years ago when I hitchhiked around New Mexico after college. The light, and the landscape stayed lodged in my brain, and I wasn’t even painting landscapes back then. So this workshop was just the excuse to pack up my paints and drive east. This was my second workshop with Matt, but this workshop was much smaller, only eight students (all of them really cool too!), which is quite indulgent, allowing for more one on one time with the instructor. I have to say about Matt, that apart from being an incredible painter at the top of his game, he is also a remarkable teacher. He has an easy rapport with students, communicates ideas and opinions clearly and honestly (and is a heck of a nice guy to boot who loves his wine almost as much as I do). So when you team up Matt with his artist/wife/workshop organizer/den mother Tracy Avant-Smith, you’ve just doubled down on good people!

Unfortunately, just about everything I painted during the workshop is really horrible so I can’t bring myself to post them, but I’m not too bothered by that. I go into workshops with an open mind to experiment with different approaches and maybe new materials. This workshop was no exception, and I really feel like I picked up a lot. I wish I could verbalize all that I learned, but I guess that’s the point of taking a class in the first place. I’m one of those people who learns from seeing things done and then doing it (kinesthetic?), so I found it really helpful when Matt would demonstrate a particular point directly on my canvas. . It really loosens you up when you’re reminded how easy it is to put something down, as well as taking things out, like an undo button (in oils anyway). I’m often guilty of seeing marks as precious, or I’m too lazy to experiment, but that’s really the point, isn’t it? Matt constantly reinforces this trial and error method, and I found it a helpful relief when he would say something like “I’m not one of those guys like Richard Schmidt who can nail a color or value on the first try” Yeah, me either! Disclaimer: because Matt was "hands on" I can't really claim all credit on these paintings. They're shown just as a record of the workshop and largely unfinished (I paint slow...). For instance, the prickly pear shown below, wouldn't have the "pop" that it does if I hadn't been shown what adding the dark passages behind the plant do for the composition as a whole. The actual background was a very bright sand. Inventing and experimenting like that is imperative, and it's too easy to get sucked into "recording" a scene rather than "creating" a painting.

Prickly pear near The Peralta Rd. Trailhead Tonto Natl. Forest 6x8 o/p

Here’s a fun tidbit though:
I learned to limit my earth colors ( yellow ocher, burnt sienna and the like) in my distant color passages. Use them only as modifiers, as earth colors are just too warm to sit back in the distance. Instead, mix the color base from your primaries, a tough thing to get a hang of, as all those desert colors ARE earth tones. Look at your scene and determine which of the primaries your hill (for example) is based on. Is it blue or more on the red side? Then start from there, rather than starting with (mostly) burnt sienna and trying to cool it down (it will just get too chalky). So for my palate, distant earthtones were mixed with alizarin crimson, cad yellow lemon, ultramarine blue and white, (all cool colors) with a smidge of ocher and sienna here and there. (Well, it was something like that, I’ll mix some again and confirm it). This reached comical heights as one by one, people were banned from having earth colors on their palates. I had burnt sienna scraped off my own palate.

From Horse Mesa Tonto Natl. Forest 6x8 o/p

Painting the desert is challenging to begin with. Values and colors can be pretty close depending on the time of day, and you’re challenged to push and find contrasts where there may not be any. To top it off, we were plagued by overcast skies most of the week, and even got rained on, on our last day. I’m not making excuses though, I still want to go back and paint more. That magic hour right before sunset, in the desert, and man does everything just come alive, even driving on the freeway is beautiful, just something about that light...

1 comment:

enb said...

all these tall cactus paintings are super nice.