Plein Air Colorado Springs: Helen Hunt Falls



About the Scene: Helen Hunt Falls is in the Cheyenne Mountain State Park in Colorado Springs.  When you enter the windy road of the state park, it’ll run alongside Bear Creek. You will pass huge cliffs and massive Ponderosa Pines for about 2 miles until the falls come into view.  It impressive.

The Experience: After waking early, tired from thoughts of employment rolling around in a spin cycle all night, it was time to get out and enjoy the day.

If I’ve learned anything from life, it’s to enjoy the moment. Whatever has me tied down, just let go. Don’t quit, but take a time out. Painting is a release. A zone. It’s a place I can go to in my mind where I only observe what’s beautiful before me and feel the deepest need to share it in hopes it may provide this release for someone else. We all have our vices, our bad situations. Thank God for nature’s inspiring magnificence. We’re just a blink of an eye compared to what we see. Our problems are so insignificant compared to its timeless quality. I look at the scene of this amazing waterfall, and the worries slip away to the soothing sounds of the water crashing rhythmically over the smoothed rocks. Trees rising up at the top in a triumphant display. People passing by over the small bridge, one by one, each with a world of worries on hold, just for a moment.

I set off to the side of the entrance, painting on a small hardboard panel for about three hours, which seemed like half an hour. Visitors to the falls stopped to chat; some took pictures. Little kids giggled and got excited about painting, and a lady enjoying her retirement said, “It’s time for me to get out my pastels again!”. It so funny how all of this happens unexpectedly. I’m there to paint, taking notes and thinking about how I’d produce a large studio painting from the scene. But in being there, these moments make it so much richer. I learn about their stories, and in the process of listening, see them relax into the scene. It’s comforting. I just enjoy the moment, and somehow the concerns of the future and employment disappear.  What good is it to worry about the future and miss moments like these??

It was a good day.

Artist Chat: I’m now in love with Red Oxide.  I usually use Alizarin Crimson, but red oxide mixes with ultramarine blue into a deep, warm gray-purple that sets off the yellow tints in highlights.  When there is the indirect light glowing in the shadows, a touch of yellow ochre does the trick. Using these three color, along with Titanium white, produced a great color harmony in the rock structures.

Distractions: Above the falls was a back-lit scene producing tons of bright, yellow highlights like glitter. I had to make a decision to ignore it or not, but figured the point of this is to get accurate color notes of the scene.  This sketch is information for a larger work.  In setting this sketch aside for a day, I can see today that I’d mute the sky color, most of the bright yellows and focus on the subtle grays in the waterfall, letting the rest of the scene above the falls only support and enhance it.


Plein Air: Garden of the Gods, Center Stage


I woke early to go back out to Garden of the Gods (Colorado Springs) to plein air paint before the crowds arrived. Having a few walk by and comment to talk about what they see is great. I love it. But, hundreds of tourists taking pictures, and making comments is a different story. I found a place to park on the west side of the towers and wanted to walk to either the south or north to get a view where there was both sunlit and shadow sides of the rock as the sun rose in the east.  Heading straight through the center to get there was a huge mistake. I saw so many incredible views, being immersed in red towers on all sides. It took almost looking at my feet to ignore it in order to not stop and drool as the scenes. Well, I didn’t make it. A small sunlit group of rocks with the main tower in shadow as a backdrop was more than I could bare. Too beautiful. I set up my easel in the center of it all, cringing and saying, “What are you thinking, Steve. Bad idea. Bad.”. Imagine setting up an easel on the side of the walkway in an airport. Yeah, bad idea. Then I’d look up again, see those rocks and I’d keep setting up.  In about 2 1/2 hours, about fifty people stoped and talked to me and I am now a feature in many vacation scrapbooks and blogs.  As I was finishing the painting, I had full crowds behind me!  It was strange. That painful scenario I’d imagined wasn’t that bad. Painting is so relaxing for me, it didn’t matter who was around. What’s more, I enjoyed seeing people pass by and then stop take a second look at a scene. They wanted to know what I was seeing, and then they’d point to feature of the rocks, like the fire orange strip of indirect lighting that seems surreal. It felt great that they were experiencing this scene with me. One lady stopped an mentioned the paintings she sees in the galleries aren’t as good [hint, hint]. That’s very encouraging.

Well, I went home to patch up a few places I didn’t have time to get to… and one brush stroke led to another, then another. Before I knew it, I was floundering in trying to get the painting back to where it was! Well, hopefully I didn’t kill it, but it was another repeated lesson to finish the painting on-site and be done. I may take the painting back out there and fix it if needed. Here’s the reference photo:


Critique: I do like how adding warm colors in the grasses and bush in the foreground, as well as in the shadows of the rock seemed to pull it forward from the background. Also some of the darker shadows in the rock had the same effect. What I wish I had done only add the warm colors to the bush and maybe add a couple deep, dark shadows, but to leave the original thick brushstrokes on the rocks alone. There were some areas were a dry brush marks left places of canvas peeking though, but in hind-site, I should have left it.  It had the illusion of rough patches of rock with little white highlights. In reading Richard Schmid’s book, Alla Prima, he is constantly tackling the same problem and he is a contemporary Master. He has a wife that takes his brushes away and tells him to stop. Maybe I need to get an artsy wife. Ha.

Another great adventure!

Studio Work: The Canyons

11×14″ Acrylics. I think this is from my memories of the Grand Canyon. Not sure.

This is a quick post of a painting I’ve been tinkering with for a while, mostly used as a learning piece for composition.  I’m reading Edgar Payne’s on composition right now and have a itch to go exploring the Grand Canyon again… so, this is the result of desires and a bit of imagination. Fun. Not sure what to name it.

Landa Park (New Braunfels): Plein Air Painting

Landa Park, New Braunfels, TX. View down the river on a cold, rainy day.  12 x 16" canvas panel
Landa Park, New Braunfels, TX. View down the river on a cold, rainy day. 12 x 16″ canvas panel

At 2pm, it’s cold. Wet. Drizzy. Surely this is no time to get out to paint. 100% chance of rain with possible t-storms is what the Weather Channel App says.  With a heavy case of boredom and curiosity of what there is to paint in conditions like this, I remembered Landa Park has a gazebo looking down the river that might make for a good scene with a roof over my head.  As I drove past Prince Solms park, down the hill through Hineman Dr., I spotted a great little water fall tucked just to the edge of the golf course beneath the trees and shrubs, so I pulled off the road to check it out. As I video taped the scene for later, something caught my eye. There was a mist above the water above the falls. It was tempting to get out the gear right then, but if there was mist here, then that scene of the river at Landa Park would be incredible.  I quickly headed over to Landa Park, Bingo! Heavy mist lit up above the water around the cypress trees giving a wispy, mystical feel.  A cliff full of trees ran along the river on the left as the river bent to the right, fading away in the distance.  I dropped my usual small sheet of paper and brought out the big guns, a 12 x 16″ canvas panel.  This scene paints it’s self. I figured the scene’s lighting would stay the same, being overcast, but 20 minutes into it, it warmed a few degrees and poof, there went the mist. It was a totally different scene! I tried to stay with my initial lay in to hold true to the misty scene over the course of four hours, but it slowly changed to what I was looking at. Just when I was finished and put everything away telling myself I’ve given it my best shot, the temperature dropped and, Poof, instant mist! It was suddenly exactly like it was when I got first arrived! Ha. I took a reference photo to note the differences if I want to change it later.

Reference pic taken as the magical mist reappeared.
Reference pic taken as the magical mist reappeared.

With the mist, the foreground trees are a muted grey mass, slightly darker than the background cliffs. Not much color. It’s a very peaceful, yet mystical feeling. Without the mist, the tree’s have more contrast with definite lights and dark areas. Also there is much more color saturation, especially in the light spring green leaves.  It presents a more dynamic scene.

I has a lot to be thankful for. There were no t-storms and some city folk risked waking the path gave me a thumbs up as they went.  A very inspiring man named Diego stopped by to chat. He decided Guam was too small for him, so he packed his thing to travel the world and hasn’t stopped in 20 years. It’s his passion. He saw me and immediately recognized it.  I’d like to think my painting was inspiring, but realistically, anybody wanting to paint in these conditions is either nuts or passionate. I told him about my being a welder and he quickly dismissed it and said I should paint. Awesome compliment. Thanks, Diego!! It’s never boring on a plein air experience.

Artists Chat: Titanium White, Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Umber, Cad Yellow Hew.  With this scene, it was easier to start from the background and work forwards, keeping the background mid value and darkening as it got closer, holding the darkest dark for the foreground trees. The value changes with the disappearing mist really thew me for a loop, but the overlapping of the trees against the background really helped to keep the painting going. I actually had to throw in mid-value blues behind the foreground trees to help push them forward more.  The focal point is where the branches reach across to the little island clump of trees in the center, so I kept the lines sharp with a lot of contrast and tried to keep the rest of scene somewhat soft in edges.  The water was tricky, but using a big brush loaded with paint, using horizontal strokes really helped get the feel of it.  Mostly, I had to  remember, THIS IS ONLY A STUDY.  It’s so easy to over do it! This is enough information to go big now (18×24 or larger) using the photo references for details, but the painting for color notes.

Madrone Trail (Canyon Lake Park): Plein Air Painting

Old tree just off the Madrone Trail by the lake side. 6x8ish. Acrylic on paper
Old tree just off the Madrone Trail by the lake side. 6x8ish. Acrylic on paper

What started off as a cold Saturday, turned out perfect with the warm sun shining through the clouds.  I got back out to Canyon Lake to find a scene on the Madrone Trail. This 8-9mile loop is on a long peninsula with some amazing views of the clear, cerulean blue lake. In the first mile, I found a side trail leading to the lakeside and found this old, gnarly tree. At first I dismissed it, but after looking at it for some time, I realized it was a perfect study in values and edges. The shadows and sunlit sides of the trees really stood out from the background shoreline and surrounding soft grasses. When I looked even closer I thought of something my friend Russell Cushman said about seeing color in the shadows. I could see all the colors in the shadows lit up from the golden grasses beneath it shifting the otherwise cool shadows with areas of warmth.  While painting it, I wanted to feel the dramatic gesture of the posing tree and took time to get the paint just right for a single, bold brushstrokes following the twists and turns. It was amazing how the brushstrokes seemed to come to life. In doing this, I began to see the tree in front of me as brushstrokes. Heavy gobs of paint strokes, light and dry strokes, delicate lines… it made sense.  For a random old, dead tree, it sure had plenty left to say and lessons to teach. I was lucky to see it. When you get out next time, look at all the colors in the shadows and how the ground around it paints it with warm light.  It’ll transform the “mundane” into “beautiful”. (Thanks Russell!)

Here’s the reference photo of the area:


Artists Chat:

Titanium White, Ultramarine blue, Napthol Crimson (any orange-red will do), Cad Yellow Medium. After the initial sketch, I covered it with clear matte gel to prevent the paper sucking up all my paint as I laid down brushstrokes. (Thanks, John Poon!). I found my darkest area and lightest area where my focal point was on the tree and gauged all the other values from that. I quickly blocked in the sky, background, and foreground grasses around the tree sketch, just barely going over the edge of the sketch (~15 min). I then spend a lot of time really looking at the tree and thinking of getting the most out of the fewest brushstrokes and spent about three hours just on the tree. Really take notice of the warm and cool grays in the shadows. The last hour, I laid in detail on the grasses, keeping the edges soft and occasionally adding that color some place on the tree for color harmony. Lastly, I added some rock to the foreground to draw the eye into the painting towards the tree, keeping the rock somewhat muted to keep it from being a distraction.

Miller Springs #6 Plein Air: Down at the Creek

Miller Springs Plein Air Painting
Down the Ravine at Miller Springs 6×8″ acrylic. (click on this picture to see it enlarged and clearer)

Catching a break from the cold fronts, hordes of people piled out of their houses to breathe some fresh air and tire out their kids before bedtime.  I did my best to get lost off the trail and found this area about 200 yards off the trail down a ravine.  I was sure I’d found a sweet spot to hear the serene sounds of dribbling water coupled with lightly chirps of bird. “OH MY GOSH, LOOK! LETS GO DOWN HERE!!”. “DAD, WE WERE JUST HERE!”. “JASON, STOP. WAIT FOR US. [whistling] HERE BOY, DUKE! GET BACK HERE, $&#^(#! DOG!”.   Yep, I had gone 100 yards off the trail, then somehow looped back 80 yards back toward another trail, and these sweet shouts were a recurring theme for 3 hours. Hmm.

Despite the hordes, it was a very sweet, sunlit spot begging to be painted. I did a quick value sketch (pencil and paper) to really nail down what I want to emphasize in the scene. I love the rocks, especially along the dark bluff. There were some great underwater rocks with gobs of green algae that would be fantastic in a larger scale!

I finished up, took some reference pics to see how the scene compared to the painting, and said bye to the endless screaming kids and the bad dog, Duke.

Just finishing up
Just finishing up
Do the colors match?
Do the colors match?

Artist Technical Stuff:

There were several good spots along the creek, but this had the best composition simply because the large, dark bluff with overhanging roots provided a great contrast to the sky and rocks.  Most of the other scenes were good, but almost everything was about 50% value with maybe a few shadows under rocks. Not enough.  The first impression of a painting to a viewer waking up to a painting is largely based on contrasting values, then colors.  I used the same pallet:

  • cad yellow
  • titanium white
  • cobalt blue
  • alizarin crimson (red)
  • payne’s grey

In scaling up, I may lighten up the background  to push it back a bit and make it a cooler blue, but with this study it’s a pretty accurate depiction of the scene to tweak from. I constantly questioned if the rocks were brighter than the sky, but the sky was about a 20% value while they were the lightest in the scene (~10%?).  That was perfect to get the greatest contrast in the focal area.

Another “Bob Ross” Day at Miller Springs

painting at Miller Springs
Painting at spring fed creeks at Miller Springs (Belton, TX). 8×6″ Acrylic on canvas panel.

After having so much fun mountain biking and painting yesterday at Miller Springs in Belton, I couldn’t wait to get back out there.  A park ranger at the entrance happened to be walking by while I scanned the area map billboard and gave me some great areas to visit. There’s an entirely new section I didn’t know about with huge cliffs… another day!  Today, I wanted to explore a bit especially in the spring fed creeks.  At a very shallow crossing the rocks sky reflection lit up the water among the grass, reed and rocks.  As I looked down near me, the reflection gave way and the algae covered rocks were visible.  Great challenge!  While painting, that Bob Ross video popped into my head today, so I dedicate this one to all those “happy little grasses”, thanks Bob.

I thought about getting a bigger canvas to fit in the detail, but the aim for this is to just get all the color and basic design.  If it turns out, I think I’ll scale it up to a 18 x 24″, getting most of it done in the studio, then head out there at the same time, same place to get the final details.  The studio definitely has it perks (constant lighting, loads of paint, big easel…), but there is nothing like being there.  I want to catch the feel of it so close you can practically hear the water bumbling over the rocks and smell the wet grass.  Hopefully it’ll work. Great day!

Oh, for the artists: you know what a fantastic little backpack transport is for your brushes? A wide-20oz. mouth Gatorade bottle! I had to chop off some of the ends of a few brushes, but it’s perfect.  If I can figure out how to carry a wet-paint canvas in there, it’d be worth trying out those water-mixable oil paints! Any tips?

Here’s a pic after the light had almost set on the horizon (meaning the park rangers are going to kick me out):

I wish I caught the colors while the sun was lighting the grasses right in front of me. Next time!
I wish I caught the colors while the sun was lighting the grasses right in front of me as in the painting. Next time!

( #Painting #Art #Pleinair )

Palo Duro Canyon: Plein Air and Studio Work “Highlights in the Canyon”

"Highlights in the Canyons" 12x16" Acrylic on canvas panel.
“Highlights in the Canyons” 12×16″ Acrylic on canvas panel.

This is a studio work from a plein air study done in Palo Duro Canyon.  If you go on Capitol Mountain Bike Trail, staying to the left for about a half mile, you’ll see this view.  This was done around 5pm when the light was going down making a backlighting effect on the grass.  If you’re in the canyon, be sure to see it, but beware, by 6pm the buffalo gnats will drive you mad. You can swat a mosquito, but it will only infuriate a swarm of gnats. Better off just hightailing it.

reference pic of the scene. The camera had fits trying to get the lighting right.
reference pic of the scene. The camera had fits trying to get the lighting right.

Here’s the study done in the canyon.  I do like how the study lit the path in the foreground from the lower left to the highlighted grass, but I’m trying to keep the story simple and straight. Lighting the path means also putting in highlights in the bushes grass in the very front.  This would be a distraction.  Simple is good.

plein air study for the studio work.
plein air study for the studio work.


Chalk Ridge Falls: Messy Plein Air Study at the Magic Hour

Chalk Ridge Falls (Plein Air) 9x12 Acrylic.  Had about an hour for some quick messy fun.
Chalk Ridge Falls (Plein Air) 9×12 Acrylic. Had about an hour for some quick messy fun.

This is a scene from Chalk Ridge Falls, where the Lampases River connects to Stillhouse Hollow Lake down from the dam. There’s a magic hour where the sun hits the cliffs down by the lower stream.  If you blink too long the shadows have already changed.  After spending a few weeks on a single commission painting, it was a welcome change to just slap big wads of paint down and not think twice.   This is the big difference between “plein air” and “studio” painting.  Here’s the actual scene below. I added a few needed details as soon as I got home and called it finished.  It’s so tempting to go back in and “fix” things, but “messy” is the joy of plein air.

Here’s the scene just after the hour of sunlight on the cliffs was gone. My pallet looked like it was mauled by the Tasmanian Devil after this rush of painting.

This is also preparation for the first week of October.  I’m fortunate enough to have a week long workshop with John Cogan in Palo Duro Canyon State park (thank Mr. Chapman!!).  This is a HUGE deal for me.  He’s like a Micheal Jordan in the outdoor acrylic painting world. I want to be ready, so a big part of this exercise was seeing if masonite board would be a good panel to bring, It was smooth as butter. Awesome.