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.  

Plein Air: Columbus, TX

I did a bunch of sketches today. The day started with a hazy, overcast sky, which greyed down everything, but it also enhanced the appearance of trees in the background looking like they were miles off rather than just a few hundred feet. I drove up to a scene right outside of Weimar, TX and had some trouble with all the colors being so close to grey, but it was a good warm up:

I went and worked for a couple of hours and saw the lighting just get better by the minute. The Weather Channel app was calling for rain three days in a row starting tomorrow, so I went out to do some quick studies hoping I’ll have some good ones to enlarge tomorrow as an “artist in residence” in the Columbus Art Center. I drove just outside of the Columbus city limits along the highway and tuned off on a road that said “no outlet” and was full of cracked pavement with a lame attempt to fill it with gravel. Perfect. It led to a gate along a fence with a scene full of depth. Here’s a couple small studies from that area:

I like the dark shadows and more saturated greens of the close trees versus the blueish shadows and more muted greens in the distance.

That went much quicker than I thought, so I headed back to the highway, and somehow found myself in a Beason Park, in Columbus, a place I’ve painted before. Huge oaks! I set up to do the same thing with close up trees and distant trees, but I’d be in the oak grove with soft spotlights through the leaves on the green grass. When I checked the distant trees closer, I saw the tower of the famous courthouse poking through the tops of the trees like a postcard image. It was a no-brainer. After a 5 minute value sketch and a ten minute color study, I got out an 11×14″ canvas panel and tried my luck. It would be a perfect scene for tomorrow! After about 2 hours, here’s what I ended with:

“The Columbus, TX Courthouse Bell Tower” 11×14″, acrylic

It could use a bit of adjusting, but this will work! I’ll start a 16×20″ or larger of it tomorrow in oils. Another fun adventure.

Plein air: Oil paints, part 2

After yesterday’s experience painting plein air with water soluble oils, I couldn’t wait to try again. I finally found a prickly pear on the road side near a fence with good backlighting for an ideal composition. I did a quick value study sketch and then dove right in. I noticed the grasses were dull from too many paints mixing, so when I got home, I made up a big pile of light green and smeared it on. Love those thick, juicy brush strokes!

I read on Wet Canvas forums an idea of putting two cheap frames together with the wet panels facing inwards, the rubber banding them together. Works perfect as a carrier!

Plein Air: Nolenville, TX with Oils!


“Roadside Daisies” 5×7″ oil
This will be a quick note, but I got so tired of fighting with the acrylics drying and fading yesterday, I decided to test out some water soluble oils with a simple subject. It’s a lot different, but I love not having to rush to get the paint smeared on only to return to a dried pile of mix. I may return to acrylics at some point when I need to, but it’s a nice break. It seems that the oil blends so much better, I may be able to reach another level of expression in the subtle variations of cool and warm grays. I found a way to store wet panels very cheaply, and will show this in the next post. Can’t wait to get back out and try again!!

Plein air: “Less is More” Harker Height, TX


The scene: is of a pasture in Harker Heights, TX in the springtime with a herd of cattle and a tree line in the distance. The sky was cloudy only letting in a few seconds of sunlight, highlighting the cows. I had to be fast and try to memorize what it looked like. 

The experience: I’d just had a chat with a good artist friend about the “less is more” theme in painting. A good composition, meaning the right design and technical aspects, can hold a painting together so that it just looks right, even without the details. If you are on Instagram, look up @jeremyduncan and you’ll see much better examples of this concept. In the process of building a painting, this simplified version of the scene is the foundation to build on, exactly like the framework of a house. If the foundation of the painting is bad, no amount of detail is going to improve it or translate the emotional sense of the scene. In fact, details on top of a poor foundation will look overworked and leave the viewer confused, asking, “What is this about?” or “What am supposed to feel?”. On the other hand, well placed detail on top of a solid foundation will leave a clear sense of what it feels like to actually be there. 

I’m really looking forward to doing many more, similar “less is more” sketches!

Plein Air: Rocky outcrop near Westcliff, CO

The scene: in an area about an hour north of Westcliff, I hiked along a ridge line to the top of a mountain with this rocky outcrop. In the background are the Sangre de Christos mountains. It’s a striking view to look at with the rocks in the foreground in contrast to the distant blues of the far mountain range, giving you a sense of just how tiny you are and yet honored to be even a small part of it. 

The experience: I’d hoped the sketch would be something I could give to my friends while visiting them at their mountain home, but it needed a lot more touching up back in the studio (the image you see above). A bit frustrated that the sketch wasn’t what I’d hoped for, I packed up and headed back for dinner not realizing my wallet had fallen out. Unfortunately, the spot I painted from was about two feet wide with about a twenty foot drop off on one side and a large, thin crevice from about ten to thirty feet on the other. The next day, I hiked back up and found the wallet at the base of the cliff with my credit cards and drivers license missing. There’s zero possibility of another person stealing it because of the remoteness of this place. What happened was a mystery at first… Then we discovered chew marks on my leather wallet. Pack rats living in the rocks likely took those cards into the crevices. If they wanted to take my identity and order an year’s supply of mouse food, they now have the finances to do it. I’m certain they left the chew marks as evidence just to mock me. : )

Before heading back to CO Springs, I saw a view from the owner’s porch that seemed like a great composition with golden grass leading between the cedars and pines towards the view of the mountains. Deciding to go big (16×20), a couple of hours later it actually turned into a decent sketch that they really liked. 

Turns out they had wanted a painting of that scene for a while and the colors in this sketch matched the colors in their home. Some things are just meant to be. They’ve now named the rocky outcrop with the devil-rats Williamson Rock. Ha. Good times and always an adventure.

Plein Air & Studio: Snow at Palmer Park, Colorado Springs

“A Moment of Warmth” 16×20. (Studio work)

Location: This scene is from Palmer Park, located in the center of Colorado Springs. If you’re familiar with this area, this is by the Templeton Trail entrance on the main path winding around the park towards Austin Bluffs St..

My Goal for this Painting: I wanted to emphasize the sense of a cold, crisp snow scene with the warmth of sunlight on the little tree.  I also love the contrast of light and dark snow provides and wanted to used the grass and sunlit snow to invite you into the scene.

The Experience: I’ve been drooling over snow scene paintings of Clyve Aspevig, Micheal Godfrey and a recent one from Kathleen Dunphy and had thoroughly reviewed the “how to paint plein air in the snow” articles from other artists. I was more than ready.  There was a snow storm last week and just enough snow left in the shaded areas to improvise a snow scene, so it was time to test the new winter gear. I was toasty in three layers of pants, five layers up top with a tshirt, thermal underwear, a wool shirt, puffy down coat and a shell jacket. My feet were comforted with liner socks, expedition mountaineering Smartwool socks in thick wool lined “pack boots”. To finish off, I donned a windproof fleece beanie. Like I said, I was more than ready. I also got to test out my new field easel similar to the one Joshua Been designed. Many thanks, Joshua! It works great!

After walking down a trail, feeling the snow crunch under well cushioned feet, I found this scene (but the little tree was lit up at the time):


Although the actual scene wasn’t so dramatic, it provided enough information to express the “feel” of the scene in my sketch. I could see it in my mind and knew I had minutes before the sunlight left and much of that information was gone. In no time, I set up my new easel, hung my bag and scattered my painting gear randomly in the snow next to the main trail. Within ten minutes I had a sketch and background filled in, ready to figure out how to paint snow and focus on the tree.

The sunlight left and it was instantly cold. I put on my extra poofy down jacket and shell looking about twice my normal size. Of course this is when a group of trail runners passed by in shorts and one without a shirt. Feeling less than manly, I said, “Well, at least I’m warm” to boost my ego and get back to the scene.  Over the next hour and a half, I patiently added the tree and snow with deliberate brushstrokes backing up from the easel, mixing paint and then adding the stroke. It’s a very refreshing way to paint, rather than dabbing colors anxiously, unsure if it’s the right thing to do. After two hours, I felt the slightest hint of cold in my feet buried in the snow and my water dish for cleaning brushed was icing over. With a mark of approval to the new boots, I packed up and left smiling.

The field sketch

Many people think it’s crazy or extreme to paint in these conditions, choosing to be comfy with the heater on in their studio, but there is simply nothing like painting while experiencing the scene. Every sense felt and seen somehow influences the painting and this little sketch was a product of joy. I liked it so much, I went home and scaled it up onto a 16×20 canvas before heading to bed.


Another great day!!

Plein Air: Colorado Springs, Sandy Creek


This is a quick post of a little sketch I did yesterday of Sandy Creek, located just behind the house I’m staying at. This is the view I see when I sit in front of the bay widows in my room each day. Around noon, the sun hits the water just right for bright reflections lining the rim of the far bank. After watching some James Gurney YouTube videos, I couldn’t help but get out with acrylics and a little 6×8″ hardboard panel. Here’s the view so you can see the location:


Artist Chat: One tip that was really helpful was to first do a grey-scale under-painting to make sure I had the rest of the painting dark enough to produce the super-bright reflections on the water. I recommend doing this is you see you’re having trouble with values. Its a great lesson!

Plein Air: Colorado Springs, First Snow on Pikes Peak


This is Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs viewed from a main trail on top of Palmer Park. For two days, It’s been chilly and rainy with clouds covering the mountains. Basically, its the kind of days you don’t mind being indoors at work. Today, the clouds peeled away and revealed a snow covered peak. With the dry climate here, things far away look much clearer and closer than a humid area where it takes on a haze, so the snowy peak was spectacular with the contrast of bright show and rock. As soon as I got off work, I sped out to Palmer Park to get a good view of the mountain with a nice foreground of pines and grasses. As drove out there, I could see clouds starting to form near the mountain, starting to block the view of the peak. I was fast-walking and jogging up the trails and came to an unexpected spot showing now only Pikes Peak, but also a great view of Garden of the Gods in front of it! I dropped my gear, and within five minutes my easel was up, paints portioned out on my palette and I began sketching in a rough idea. Over the next half hour, clouds grew thicker wrapping around the peak like a blanket and creating a light show on the area of the valley below. It was like looking at a staged scene as Garden of the Gods and the area just in front of it lit up while most of the mountain remained in shadows. All of this was in perfect timing as I was just at the point of adding in the detail there.  With shifting lights and shadows, its like a dance with nature and the painter.  You have to lead, keeping your original scene with it’s shadows locked in your memory, but also be watchful and adapt as the scene changes, moving with it and loving the unexpected display as it unfolds. It’s in these small, unexpected moments that nature reveals a beautiful moment you don’t want to forget.  As quickly as the moment passed, the clouds engulfed to peak and drops of rain started to hit the canvas.  I packed up in record time and for the second time, I was glad I had my little fold out umbrella.


You can see in this reference photo the clouds had already covered the peak and put everything in shadow. At this stage of the painting, I usually back up and make final changes needed to get rid of distractions and pull all the element of painting together. However, with dark storm clouds spreading out, and hands as cold as ice cubes, I got outta there.

Moving toward a Studio Painting: I love the mountain and how the clouds add drama and the spot-lit area. Reducing the foreground and leaving it in shadow, will lead the eye to the spot lit area. Adding more highlights to the mountains could lead the eye up towards the peak, which should be like the grand finale of a fireworks show. The evolution of this studio painting from this study will be a future post.

Studio Work: Helen Hunt Falls


This is the scale up of the plein air study posted previously. It is always fun to put in all the details you couldn’t fit into a little 6×8″ study outside, but try to keep that “fresh” feel when painting in front of the waterfall. It needs to feel fun when you look at it. I discovered a new tool to do just that… a silicone spatula sold in the painting section at Hobby Lobby. It spread on the paint thick for the rocks for great texture in the initial first stage of blocking in the main colors. Later, using a smaller pallet knife, I could overlay the brushed on water to make the appearance of water spray. Lots of little discoveries in the several weeks doing this work make it seem more like playing.  This image was taken with my cell phone and there is a glare on the left side, so I’ll try and put up the professional image after it sits on the wall for a while.  Sometimes, when the mind has time to rest, an improvement will pop out at you. So far it’s helped twice. It’s been another week and nothings jumping out… it might be done (and possibly sold!).

What I’d like to do next time is work with oils and try to emphasize more emotion in it. Clyde Aspevig is a huge inspiration and he relates his paintings to a symphony, where the different aspects of the music orchestrate, or harmonize all the details into one unified tone.  If you have a chance, google his name. I bet you will “see the music” in his work. Amazing.