Plein Air: Dana Peak Park (Belton, TX)

First sketch at the park entrance.

I risked the overcast skies and high chance of rain to get in a few sketches at Dana Peak Park today. It’s always a question mark in my head,”Do you really want to do this?” as I drive there, but as soon as I start down the entrance trail, I know it was right. Every time. The thick atmosphere really set the hills in the distance back with deep blues, contrasting to the warm greens of the cedars around me. In five minutes, I was roughing in the most simple statement of the scene, as I’m learning in class in Nathan Fowkes Schoolism class. Fourty minutes later, I put in the last touches and was off to explore more. It was fun seeing people pose at the far end of the trail, hoping to be immortalized in the sketch. 
Second sketch. Named “Clarity”

 I’ve started a series on an Instagram account (@sw_abstractions) that will explore slowly pushing myself into the abstract expression I see in nature, more directed by what I feel than the literal scene. In fact, I name the sketch for the emotion it portrays before I start, stopping myself frequently as I paint to ask, “Am I painting this emotion?”. Often, I’ve gone too far trying to copy the scene and half of my time is spent painting over my careful rendering, back into abstraction. Today I found a deer trail leading off of the main path and almost stepped on a prickly pear cactus almost tucked away in the grass. I saw the big thorns and noted how I focused so closely on those, that the rest of the surrounding grasses faded away. “Clarity” was the feeling I was greatful for, those times in life when everything else in the mind clears and you are in the moment. I think I painted the grass about five times, getting it just right, then seeing I’ve lost the softness and scribbling over it. Good lesson.

Third sketch, old oak skeletons.

After “Clarity”, I walked about four miles over the hills, dodging the Sunday mountain bikers, and found myself just enjoying the exercise. Sensing I was done for the day, I walked toward the entrance when a brief glimpse of sunlight hit some big oak skeletons, weathered and clear of their bark, showing the smooth silver layer underneath. The background hills were still in shadow, so the warm sunlight lit up those oaks brilliantly as if they glowed. I gave myself 45min for uber-fast sketching and really paid attention to catching the boldness of the trees in relation to the softness of the brush around it. A lady stopped by, liking my easel set-up and I had a chance to explain how it’s just a Walmart easel, modified to be much more useful along with my other cheap, rigged gear. It was so fun to see her realizing with a big, excited smile that with about $40, she can do this, easel, brushes, paints paper… everything. I live for those moments to witness a spark of inspiration. So satisfying, and a perfect end to the day.

I just finished varnishing a commission painting and will post that up tomorrow.

Plein Air: Last sketch on Sedan (Weimar, TX)

Well, I was tired of waiting for a sunny day and decided it was a good challenge to paint a gray, overcast scene. What it lacked in color, it gained in atmosphere and subtle colors. Unfortunately, my days of painting along the roadside around here are now done. Two ladies pulled up alongside me and said they were the owners of the property. The ranchers along the road are extra cautious and pulling out their guns because they’ve had a lot of vandalism and people tailing the women as they drive home at night. Hard to believe this happens in little Weimar, TX. Sad. I told them my family ties to Weimar and about what I do with on-location sketches as an artist. They understood, but warned me that it may not be safe for me to do that right now and then called off the police. Last comment the lady made was that she had to get inside because she’s making sausage and it’ll burn. Ha. This is definitely Weimar. Glad she was relieved to know I was one of the good guys. 

As for the technical artist chat side of the experience, it was fun to use an “earth colors” palette as a part of my Schoolism course. Rather than pure color, I used red oxide, yellow ochre, ultramarine blue and titanium white. The point of it is to force me to use the color complements , like red vs. green or purple vs. yellow, to make them stand out next to each other. I made the background trees slightly more purple than they were to make the foreground greens and yellows of the grass stand out. Those greens and yellows appeared almost a flat gray on my brush, but looked right next under the background. Also, the differences in value (light/dark) are that much more important because I don’t have striking colors to stand out as a design element. Tough lesson, but I learned a lot from it! 

Plein Air: Quick study of a sunlit alley (Weimar, TX)

In Weimar, there are still un-paved alleys between houses. The light and shadows cast across them in the last hour of the day is perfect for a quick study. In the class I’m taking in Schoolism, Nathan Fowkes spends the first two lectures drilling in the concept of seeing the scene in a simplified way and capture that first. In this scene, it’s about the light cast across the alley and onto the bush in the middle ground. After laying in a rough sketch, I pulled out the big brush and did full, dramatic sweeps of shadow colors across the paper where for the shadows were and then one single big blob of dark, cool green and brushed upward to be a “bush”. Next, laying in the sunlit streaks over the shadows, the basic drama of the scene was set in the first five minutes. The rest was just detail added onto the foundation. I thought about finishing a background, but it’s just a sketch and the concept I needed was there. 

It’s such a relief to be inspired by a scene, such as this dipslay of light and be able to start out getting the “feel” of the scene as the backbone, then overlay the detail. I guess an analogy would be getting a burst of energy while jogging and jump into a sprint just to feel like flying, rather than think of which foot to start with and how long my stride should be (the details). The details are important. Nobody should start a sprint with both feet forward at the same time or even think about it. That’s nuts.  So, when painting, let the first foot be impression, then the next, representation, then just fly as the two come to a balance.

Value studies for Nathan Fowkes’ Landscape Class (Assgn. #1)

Thumbnails of master artist works for Schoolism.com
I’ve been wanting to get serious with studies and taking actual classes in art for years and I just found Schoolism.com. I’d followed Nathan Fowkes as an illustrator specializing in landscapes for a while and found an in-depth, full video lecture series for $15/mo. In a 9 week class on landscapes.  I can afford this! Yes!

First we find the underlying design master paintings are structured on and then produce some small 3×5″ paintings in grayscale. These are my first 4. Many more to go! I want to get used to seeing a work I really like and immediately do this to understand its design. These took under an hour each, which is part of the assignment. 

I highly recommend getting a subscription at Schoolism!

Studio Study: Impasto and expressive brushwork 

There is a whole line of storms for the next few days, so I’m settling in and making a daily schedule for studio studies. I have time in the studio with consistent light to explore a subject, unlike plein air where the light changes giving about a two hour window. After repeating the same technique for months in my painting process, it’s time for a something new. Something like using my left hand to brush my teeth, sort of “new”. Awkward. Usually, acrylic paint goes on thin and even using thick paint, it shrinks, so today I decided to layer thick paint. Rick Delaney mentioned he uses this technique to get the impasto look of oils in his acrylic paintings, and he’s the one to ask about this. His work is filled with color and expressive brushwork where you can see in the finished work exactly where his brush began pasting on the color and where it ended. It’s a new dimension to the “near music”, as Barry Raybold (Virtual Art Academy) calls it. That’s what you see when a painting pulls you in so close, all you see is individual, abstract brushwork that doesn’t make sense until you step back and the eye sees the whole scene again. 

The mood to this scene is cloudy, windy and expressive. It’s hard to say “cold” in Weimar this year, since Texas abbreviated the seasons spring and winter like it does “ya’ll” and I’m now in shorts and a t-shirt enjoying a “spr’inter”. After sketching out my thoughts for the scene of a cedar along a fence line, using charcoal (easiest for me), I reworked it in brush-markers to get the values right. Since this is a gray scene, I mixed up some old Cobalt blue and Cad Red Light Hue to a big pile of warm gray. For a yellow to mix muted greens, I used yellow ochre, adjusting the value with Titanium white. I got out the biggest, fattest bristle brush in my arsenal and my palette knife and went to town. No fear was my mantra. Finding my gray mix wasn’t quite dark enough, I got some thalo blue (powerful pigment) to mix with the cad red. Perfect. I can now see the branches layered on, the whites of clouds punching out of the surface and a richer sense of atmosphere I haven’t been able to achieve before. Art is conveying an impression or what I feel about a scene, and somehow in this more expressive, abstract method, the feeling is more clear than with a scene rendered more like a photograph. Great lesson! This would work great with all the run down barns here with that sun-dried, withered texture.  

Studio Work: Last Light

Acrylic, 20×24″, stretched canvas
This has been a long relationship sort of painting, working on it off and on over the past month. It started out with a few brush marks, noting colors in a sketchpad on the side of the road as the shadows rose to the top of the trees. I think they are either cottonwoods or elms, but the yellows and bronze colors of the leaves hit by the deep orange-pink light of the sun seemed to set them on fire. Just behind the trees the sky was bright with a slight green tint that made the reds, oranges and yellows of the trees pop out even more. In contrast, the area in the shadows seemed to loose all color with slight shades of green gray that brightened towards a blue-gray as it went back in the distance. Although there’s no road, it was needed to lead th eye towards the trees. Giving the soil a muted red gave just enough variety to the grasses without making it shout out for attention. I also remember the other mental notes I took there on the side of the road was the high contrast in the sunlight off the tree trunks that seemed to soften along the edges as they dippped into the shadow. Everything emphasized the explosion of color on the ridgline between shadow and light. 

There might be a few small changes as I set it aside for a while in order to look at it again later with fresh eyes. 

Plein Air: Broken Down House (Weimar,TX)

It’s shorts and t-shirt weather here in Weimar with full sun. Hard to believe it in the first part of January, but I’ll take it! I rode my bike down the frontage road to I-10 and found an old run down house crowded in some trees. I don’t normally paint houses, but it’s a good challenge for this year. There’s too much potential for painting run down homes around here. Might as well step out of my comfort zone and learn to paint them! 

After watching a video tutorial by George Strickland, I began to see the very subtle shades of reflected light on the white, chipped paint. Blues, greens, yellows… it’s amazing to see something that didn’t appear to be there before. Kind of unreal.  He teaches to emphasize these variations to add interest to an otherwise flat wall. The green-blue reflected light under the roof of the front wall, and the bright yellow under the eve of the side room near where the sun hits, are examples. In his video, he works back and forth, adjusting the colors from cool to warm and back again until it just looks right. His work is amazing.

I battled my fast-dry acrylics today with the unually dry, warm air. The piles of paint formed a thick wall on the outside as it dried so I’d have to push my finger on it to make some fresh paint ooze out of the bottom side. By the time I finished mixing, I’d have one swipe with the brush before my freshly mixed paint was dry. Time to break out the slow-drying acrylics or just move to oils! Either way, it made for a fun day. 

I’m also learning video editing and hopefully I’ll be able to start up a YouTube channel and start posting some of the adventures. 

Plein Air: Wax Pencil Sketching 

It really helps to do a lot of value sketches to see and really “sink in” to your subject. In painting, there’s a lot of thinking going on with color, brushwork, and other technique issues. So many times in my paintings, it was an issue of forgetting to focus and observe my subject. My brush is moving, but I’m not taking the time to look and record. Sketching will re-focus you into accuracy, squinting to get the values right and also, you can let go and let your mind work out the patterns needed which would be a disaster in painting. In painting that’s a straight road to overworking the subject until it’s color is mute and looks dead. 

A new “toy” I’m using for this is a wax “Sanford Peel-Off” pencil used for marking metal (welding pencil). The other two pencils are a white General charcoal pencil and regular 0.5 Bic mechanical pencil to lay in the undersketch. The wax pencil has a benefit over charcoal in that it’s keeps the tip sharp easier and you can use the eraser to blend it out. The more you erase, the thinner the coat is until it’s like a transparent layer. Perfect for edgework to soften edges far from the focal point. 

If your up to practicing this, start by marking four values on the bottom corner, dark black, light black (wax pencil with lighter touch), leave the tan to be the next lighter value, and finish with the white charcoal. Draw in your subject lightly with the mechanical pencil, then shade in the white and darkest darks. This should help you define the focal area well since it normally has the highest contrast. Next shade in the rest and don’t forget to leave the tan paper blank where it’s already the correct value. When you finished shading, if you want to soften up the edges away from the focal area, use the eraser to move the wax around. You might need to scrape off the eraser if it builds up. Keep erasing until it looks right. You can go back over it with the wax pencil if needed, but the white charcoal will not work over the wax. So, make sure you keep away from the white. Have fun! 

Studio Painting: Work up from plein air.


I did a small plein air study of a creek just outside of town (Weimar) and scaled it up into a studio work over the past few days. The hardest thing to do is keep the “fresh” look of loose brushstrokes the the original study has. I think I repainted the foreground about five times, finally getting an objective viewpoint from Mom, and presto, it was done. Goes to show the value of a critique and how brushwork is so much more confident when there’s a solid plan in sight. 

I decided to soften the edges on the trees to ensure that line between the light sky and the dark tree did distract from the hard edges of the focal point near the center of the creek. 

It still feels a bit like I need to add something more, but I can’t put my finger on it, so this is when to set it aside and begin a new work. I do like how the golden grass contrasting with the dark creek and trees was retained as that was the instant draw when I saw the scene. The gradation from the sky reflections into the brown-ochre color of the creek bed was a great lesson. There is so many small color shifts in the creek bed! Fun. 

Studio Painting: Lazy Days

“Lazy Days” 12×16″, a/c
Value study (6×8″, a/board)
Initial concept sketch
Reference Photo
This scene is from the summer days when I’d pass by a field of cows in Columbus, TX on my way home. It started with that initial glance of the lazy cows trying to find shade under a sparsely branched cedar. I shot a quick photo as I passed by. Months later, I was flying to Marblehead to visit my brother and his family and flipped through the photos on my phone looking to sketch on the flight. Seeing this photo, I was able to zoom in cropping the rest of it, focusing in on the heart of what I saw in that glance. Months later, I was flipping through my sketch book and thought I’d post it to my Instagram account (@teveman) and after watching a DVD of John Poon teaching his method, figured I’d give it a go. I did the small value sketch last night to both work out the composition more and find some good brush strokes. This morning, I woke up and it went quickly! I thought it’d be fun to mix up my palette a bit and colors I don’t normally use that leaned towards the warm size. As I went, I saw the need to make the cows tan, rather than white to really stand out against the green surrounding and remembered the cows I’d seen around my home. I took a risk, but it seemed to work out well. I thought the cows might need more detail, but then stopped. It’s usually better to have bold, defining strokes than a bunch of strokes searching for a way to say what one careful stroke can do. Fun study! The enjoyment really is in the process of the painting.

I highly recommend John Poon’s Landscapes DVD. He has great organizational skills and presents how to use a busy scene, clarify the focus and work through a four step process. He also works in acrylics, but it’s equally good for oils as well.