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...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Joshua Tree N.P.

At the beginning of last month I took a little road trip...
I've been jonesing to paint the desert for the longest time, so when I saw that Matt Smith had a workshop planned for the Superstition Mountains, how could I NOT go? These are two quickies done in Joshua Tree, the top one done on my way to Phoenix, the other done on my way home.

A Joshua Tree along the trail back from the Wall Street Mill in Joshua Tree N.P. O/P 6x8

Sunset at the Cottonwood Spring Oasis, Joshua Tree N.P. O/C 6x8

More on the workshop next time!

Monday, August 31, 2009

San Quentin Ca.

You'd never know from the peaceful setting that I was walking distance from death row, but there I was. This is some kind of pump house or something on Main St. heading to the main gate of the penitentiary. I drive by this spot everyday on my way to work, and decided to explore this beautiful little peninsula on my way home.

Down the street from San Quentin 6x8 O/P

There's a rather quaint little community outside the gates, and some stunning views overlooking the Bay, no wonder developers are salivating over the prospect of shutting down the prison. There was beautiful late afternoon light on this little structure just crying out to be painted, but the best light hit just as I was wrapping up ( of course!), the sky went all purples and reds, but it was just too late to add it's full intensity to my little sketch. I did sneak some in, but it's really another painting. Enough chasing of the light for one session. Even though the final product isn't much more than future reference for another painting, this was one of those sessions that make you glad to be an outdoor painter. Despite being a stones throw from the Richmond Bridge, it was somehow quiet, or maybe just muted. The weather was perfect, with balmy, gentle neo-Hawaiian trade winds, and then of course there was the evening light show. Perfect.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Yosemite Rocks

Rocks near the "Devil's Elbow" on the Merced River 8x8 O/P

A broken boulder on the Merced heading out of the Valley 8x10 O/P

A USGS marker? This was hammered into a big slab where I painted the above picture, way too close to the road.

Had a great birthday weekend in Yosemite. Perfect weather, did four paintings, and I even scored the very last camping permit in the Valley. Can't believe I haven't painted in two months, and it showed in my first attempt (which I've since burned). On Saturday I decided to hike up to Upper Yosemite Falls with my not-so lightweight paint gear in search of Germans, Brazilians, the French, and some great views, and I found them all in great abundance. The painting was no success, but it's hard to feel bad in such a beautiful spot. However I did curse myself for carrying all that gear for a "warm-up" panel. I've REALLY got to get my Thumb Box in order. After descending from my 7 mile stroll, there was still light left, so I was able to knock out a quickie of the Cathedral Rocks from near the base of El Capitan.

Sunday I kept to the river and walked down the Merced from the El Cap Bridge to a bend called the "Devil's Elbow". I was in deep concentration when I saw a little movement out of the corner of my eye, and looked up to see a little Black bear right behind the rocks I was painting. My reverie was broken by an ugly stream of tourists stopping their cars (in the middle of the road) and chasing down the poor bugger for a photo (into the middle of the road). Wildlife paparazzi. I didn't get the satisfaction of seeing the fuzzy little guy's mother chasing the tourist's though, too bad.

Cathedral Rocks 6x8 O/P

Saturday, June 13, 2009

More Clouds

Clouds Over Zephyr Cove 8x10 O/P

Went up to Tahoe to attend a quick painting workshop, and it rained pretty good on Friday and Saturday. This was done on Sunday, and the sky was spectacular...

Monday, June 1, 2009

Cloud Study

Paso Robles Hammerhead 8x8 O/P

Spent a relaxing and productive weekend visiting some wonderful friends at their family ranch in Paso Robles. This was done in the shade under one the many great oaks on the property. After catching a gopher snake in the yard (by the tail!), I also kept an eye out for rattlers. I painted this very quickly... : )

Monday, May 11, 2009


Dockside Crane 6x8 O/P

Stumbled upon a great spot a while ago and just got back to it last week for a quick after work paint session. Lots of cool boats, old and new and lots of cool old rusty junk, not to mention an honest to gooodness Victory Ship/museum. What was really cool, was there was no one around except one old guy who rode by on his bike and exclaimed "Plein Air" then gave me the thumbs up. True story!

Sunday, April 26, 2009


Inspired by the bold colors of Mike Dutton and Bill Cone, I decided a little exercise was in order.

Lunch time behind Costco in Novato 6x8 oil on cheap ass cardboard

There are a number of things that have been bothering me about my paintings lately, and I wanted to address them with this sketch. I've noticed on several paintings, that my colors are looking muddy and also my brush work seems to be lacking finesse, and lastly, back to color, I feel I've been approaching color too literally. So with this sketch, done quickly during lunch, I tried to really concentrate on these issues (with the exception of brushwork, which I chose to make a non-issue altogether by focusing on color as very basic SHAPES). For starters, I did this painting on cheap ass card board, which due to it's unfinished surface, really sucks the moisture/medium out of your paints. This forced me to do a couple of key things when mixing and applying color. You can't be lazy (which I've found myself getting lately) or stingy with your paint. You have to really mix a big pile of color, and lay it on thick or else you can' get any color down at all. Doing this, makes you more aware of the color you're mixing, not just idly adding dabs here and there, you have to be decisive, which can lead to boldness! So active thought in color mixing and application was one thing I tried to work on. I continually had to fight the urge to dabble, instead mixing a pile of color for EACH color note. Color choice was the other thing I tried to play with, I like the expressive use of color used by the Impressionists as well as the Tonalists, and I'm trying to keep in mind how they implemented color by pushing and exaggerating (even substituting) various colors for effect and mood. The painting above is godawful, but I really feel like it was a valuable lesson for me in concentration and being truly conscious. Which of course brings up all other kinds of debates about intuition and going with the flow or being in the zone. I've never claimed to have any answers.

This next painting, done the same day, basically chucks away everything I tried in the previous painting : ) It was the end of the day, and I was getting shut down again trying to find a nice spot to paint in Marin (how can you NOT find something in China Camp? Sheesh!) When Mike texted me that he wanted to paint in Berkeley. How could I resist? I was saved! Well it was blowing a gale out at the Albany bulb, so we decided on an old stand by, the cement plant on 2nd and Cedar. The light was perfect when we rolled up, which of course meant that it would be gone in about 15-20 minutes, which it was. We finally had to call it quits when the industrial sodium street lights kicked on. But, the lights also came on at the cement factory, and that will make a really cool nocturne! Another time...

Berkeley Cement Plant 6x8 O/P

Friday, April 24, 2009

An Early Bird Returns

Got up early on Tuesday to hit the hills with a new flock of Early Birds, and a few returning ones. It was a gorgeous day and I really enjoyed being surrounded by some truly great artists, I hope they post their pics over at the Early Bird Site.

Mike's Experiment 6x8 O/P

I love seeing Bill and Mike's pieces over at the Early Bird site, their expressive use of color is nothing short of inspirational. And speaking of inspirational, Bill has a show up over at the Studio Gallery of some absolutely stunning pastel paintings of the Sierra that he's been hoarding for the last few years. See it NOW! What are you waiting for? You can see a few on his blog too.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Away from the hills

Haven't been having much luck painting "nature" lately, so here's a truck.

Cement plant truck @ 2nd and Cedar, Berkeley Ca. 6x8 o/p

And some lunch-time sketches from the front seat of my car.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The devils tools

You know what they say about idle hands and all... Well my motivation for slinging paint has been pretty low, so rather than slip into black holes of despair, I thought I'd continue my quest for going ultra light with my gear. I picked up this Julian Thumb Box from Utrecht a while ago as it was on sale and looked even more compact than my Openbox M. My thinking is that if I make it easier to bring my paints around, I 'd be more likely to use them. Plus, I've been finding that I've been doing a heck of a lot of 6x8's with a limited palette, so I don't really need to carry around as much stuff. Anyway, the box seems to be a good size, but I needed to make some mods to be truly useful. First, I fabricated a new brass hinge lock mechanism as the old one was entirely too flimsy AND it wouldn't allow the box lid to open beyond 90 degrees. I broke out the power drill, the Dremel, and some brass stock and shamefully copied the mechanism from the Open box M. It's not pretty, but it really does work well. Next I added a tripod mounting bracket to the underside as I couldn't really see using the thumb hole. I may still add a beefier hinge to the back to supplement the two flimsy ones inside, and I'll also create a vertical panel holder adapter. Currently, the lid can only hold horizontal format 6x8s.

The Julian Thumb Box with new hardware (the junk on the right side of the box).

That palette is way too clean...

Quick release tripod mount.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

In a slump

I'm trying to work through a painting slump, and trying different approaches. Here's another limited palette painting, just white, ultramarine blue yellow ocher, and maybe a touch of burnt sienna, I can't be sure. The idea for me was to concentrate on values. Painted on the cheapest piece of throw away cardboard I could find (packaging from an Ikea shelf, I've got a nice stash to play with now!).

Berkeley Hills, just off of Claremont. 6x8 Oil on cardboard.

Here's another that started out with the limited palette, and then at the end, I added a little light green to the hillsides. I was surprised how close I could get to the vibrant green value with just blue and ocher. The added green helped to give a little pop to the foreground. Both of these were done on pretty hazy days, I'm curious if this palette will work in different lighting conditions. I'll be trying different color combinations, so we'll see what shakes out.

TildenPark along the Skyline trail. 6x8 O/P

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Let it snow!

Across from Meeks Bay, Lake Tahoe 6x8 O/P

I was up in Tahoe for a friends birthday the other weekend, and got in a few oil sketches while I was supposed to be snowboarding : ) Mixed success, but I found that the paintings done at the very last moments of sunlight, when I really had to move fast turned out better than the ones where I had more time to work on them (pride keeps me from posting the REALLY rotten one). Reminds me of when I first started painting with Ian during lunch breaks at work. There was a crazy rush in trying to get a painting done in 45minutes! Other than a few random blobs of white at the tops of peaks, I’ve never really painted any snow scenes. I found it pretty fun and not as intimidating as I had built it up in my head to be, but then maybe that's just ignorance being bliss. The Meeks Bay scene was done in about 25 minutes partly because I only had 25 minutes of light, but also because a big blank field of snow is really easy to block in!. I looked for my big shapes and broke down them down into their local color and the rest was just edges.

Before Eagle Lake on the Eagle Falls trail. Lake Tahoe. 5x8 O/P

This Eagle Lake pic didn't turn out quite the way I imagined it. It was a beautiful, but somewhat icy hike back into Desolation Wilderness. I took it for granted and dawdled and gawked at the scenery as the light slipped away and shadows changed, which led to the inevitable and dreaded "chasing of the light". Took more than a couple of hours to slave away on this, if you can believe it. But it WAS a beautiful HIKE.

Overlooking Vikingsholm on Emerald Bay 5x8 O/P

I did however have way more fun painting Emerald Bay. After a morning of falling on my ass snowboarding, I had had enough and made a hasty drive to this gorgeous lookout with just enough daylight to warrant a quick setup. The adrenaline was pumping, and not just because I was precariously perched on an icy slope. The light was moving fast and I really wanted to capture the mood of this spot. This was one of the quickies, maybe an hour or so.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Top Dog

Our dog Kirkby on a foggy day at Lost Rocks 8x8 o/p
done from one of my photos.

Ok, it's a "studio" painting not a Plein Air painting, but I couldn't resist playing more with the limited palette (plus it was a great X-mas present for my girlfriend). I don't really have a painting studio set up, I've never had the room, which is why 99.9% of my paintings are done outside. So it was a great learning experience for me in the limitations of indoor lighting. Even though I set up my easel near a window in our sun-filled extra room, I still had to paint alot of this in artificial light. I had a "daylight" photo bulb in one photo lamp, a "GE Reveal" lightbulb that's touoted to have an "extended spectrum" or something like that in another photo lamp and I also had a high powered halogen work light. I thought that the mix of these would give me a balanced lightsource, but even with all those lights I could really tell that I was missing a swath of colors, and that seeing all the subtleties were gone. A bit like driving at night with sunglasses. You can stay on the road, but you know there's a whole lot of stuff you're not seeing. If anyone has a good indoor lighting set they'd like to share, I'm all ears. I took a few progress pics of this one too.

Here's where a preliminary drawing paid off for me. This was my original drawing, but after I had it transferred to my panel, there was just something about the placement that bothered me. I realized I had drawn him in too close to the top edge, which especially after it's framed would more than likely chop off the top of his head. Also, I noticed that his head was a little too centered. So I took out a fresh panel and transferred the drawing at a smaller size and moved him a little off-center. Subtle changes, and a pain in the butt, but better to have caught it in pencil than paint!

Blocked in with very thin washes

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Hot Tub

Chip's boat the Hot Tub 6x8 o/p

Next from my cold dreary X-Mas painting sessions is this little experiment in using a limited palette. I've been kind of low from a string of rotten attempts, that I've been in a "can't get any worse so I may as well try something new" phase. Case in point was my approach to painting this little piece (and another I'll post later). I started with a carefully drawn pencil sketch, partly because it's harder to fake perspective and proportions in architecture and cars and boats, but also the drawing helped me resolve compositional and detail issues. Next I did a more thorough tonal block-in, which I found really helped me work out my values on this pretty low key scene. Also the gray lighting conditions really lent itself to playing with a limited palette, something I've been meaning to get back to for a while. And lastly, I used a smaller brush to finish up the detail work! All stuff I rarely do and I also had the consistent overcast conditions to thank for letting me relax and take my time and think, rather than throw down paint in a frenzy against changing light. Richard Schmidt in "Alla Prima" says that this is why he likes to paint in these conditions.

Chip said he hadn't formally named the boat, but if he had, he would have called her "Hot Tub". He put a hot rod Cobra V-8 engine in it hence "hot" and the tub part, well... Here's some progress shots that I thought to take AFTER I had covered up the initial drawing *sigh*

Initial block-in.

In progress..

Check with the boss and call it a day!

Monday, January 5, 2009

New paintings from the old year

Looking out over Cox Creek 8x10 O/P

Well I dragged my paints all the way home to Virginia, so I was damned if I wasn't going to put them to use! The first few were pretty rusty, and this is the only one I could stomach to post so far. I've got a couple of sisters (you can say that when you have six of 'em) who live on Kent Island in Maryland just north of Annapolis on the Chesapeake Bay. Painting out there this time of year is tricky for me for a few reasons. Overcast light, fast moving clouds, and very subtle colors (see: gray). Finding a dynamic composition in such flatness is also tough for a guy who loves to paint in the Sierra and the Berkeley Hills. It was damn cold, and I was (am) out of practice. The sky was pretty dramatic though, and I need lots and lots of practice with my skies (Turner was famous for his numerous cloud studies and look where it got him!) so I thought I'd focus on that. More to come!