Tyler, an East Texas city about 2 hours west of Dallas, is brilliant in spring. It has deep, rich, red sandy soil with grass that’s always green and trees that reach 50 to 70 feet all over the city. Rose Redmond park is it’s central park with paved paths for joggers, bikers, and tons of dog walkers. It’s always in use. The paths cut through a forest with trees so high, the path is almost always in shade. As I was jogging, I’d come to sections where I’m in the shade and a bright sunlit portion would be ahead. I could feel the warmth just from looking at it. At a few points I simply stopped and spent a minute to mentally try and paint the scene in my mind. I constantly say to myself, “If this was created by God, what brush did he have and what kind of strokes did he use?”. I’ve noticed lately from the Nathan Fowkes class in Schoolism, he says “What is the simple statement? What are the main colors and how do they compare: lighter, darker, warmer, cooler?”. When I begin this conversation (not out loud), all the color combinations pop out and a game plan forms as if I was setting up the easel for the hundredth time. The simple statement of this scene was about the bright warm glow of the sunlit tress and it’s connection to the people walking through it. That’s it. It’s not about the individual trees, not the grass or even the path, just the light and the people. As long as the proportions are mostly correct, the abstract patterns make sense. This is definitely the impression (feel) of the memory I had, which is just as real as the scene itself. Fun!
It was debateable if driving 40 minutes to join a painting group at sunrise in a fog was worth it. I arrived about an hour late and went to find the others. Nobody showed. Dang! So I set up my easel determined to make something of the day searching for scenes along the river. Around 9am, two painters show up and join in. At 10, another. At 11ish, an artist showed up and said a group of others had set up in the wrong area. This is definitely a group of creatives. A 7am start time means 8am through 10am-ish in the park area-ish. Ha. Although it seemed half-organized, they are dedicated and has been the starting point for several internationally renowned painters that have gone on to their fame and fortune.
Around 8am when setting up my easel, almost as if it was planned, a few geese swam out into the scene I was checking out. I was wondering how to paint a scene with almost no contrast in this fog, and then, BAM, there they were. Out came the camera phone and I had the geese for reference to add to the scene at the very end. Nice when that happens! I set the background dark in value, careful to not let anything bright highlight in the plants shout out too loud. It played out nicely when the pure white laid played in with the geese. Done.
After about hour and a half, normally I’d finish, pack up and scout out another scene, but the other painters were all around. I really enjoyed talking art with them as we painted, so I just turned 180° and painted a small section of a scene that appears almost abstract at first glance until your mind find a way to reason what it is. It’s a fun twist.
This scene turned out to be harder than I expected with all of the shifts in value between the shoreline and the water. In the foreground the bank is lighter than the water; further back, the water is lighter than the bank. Luckily, this is where acrylics excel in allowing layers of paint to go on until it’s right. I really like the flow of the leaves in the reeds bending down to the bank. When I see these patterns, it’s as if I could see music rather than hear it. Every leaf has a small, but important part of some bigger design, and it’s beautiful. Nature is eloquent.
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.
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:
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:
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!
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!!
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!
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.
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.
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!!
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!