Plein Air: Garden of the Gods 


first scene by the main parking lot
2nd study by parking lot 12.
notan and contour line sketches
color mapping
About the scene: I sold a small painting yesterday, and the women who bought it commented that she had the sense that she was there because she’s so familiar with the area. Her comment was exactly what inspires me to continue. I was so encouraged by this, I went out to Garden of the Gods to find some scenes others may connect to. The first scene was painted by the main parking lot just to the right of the large cliff face. The sun shone down from the left across the rock, striking those familiar highlights you see everywhere in this area. The red rock against the green grass and shrubs and against the cobalt sky was striking. I wanted to catch that feeling. 

After about an hour and a half, I was heading around the loop in the park to exit. When I got almost to parking lot 12, I saw a strip of rock was back-lit against the gray-blue haze of the mountains and the green of the trees in the foreground. I couldn’t pass it up. Round two. The tip of the rock where it juts out on top to the right side was an instant focal point to anyone who looks at the rock formation, so hopefully someone will see this sketch and know where it is. About another two hours flew by. It’s amazing how fast time flies when your totally immersed in the joy of the moment. 

Artist Chat: As a part of the studies, I wanted to try doing quick Notan sketches with greyscale markers, contour line sketches and a color map to really focus me on what and how to approach these scenes. There is so much visual information in a scene, breaking it down helps the technical aspects. When I finished these sketches, I did a quick monochromatic underpainting (fast dry), and followed this up with color matching the value of the underpainting. The result was that I actually spent less time than I normally do without these initial steps. The painting also feels much fresher with bolder brush strokes. 


Plein Air: Cliff by Garden of the Gods (CO Springs)


 About the Scene:  This scene is just north of the Garden of the Gods entrance on the opposite side of the highway. Around 2pm, the light hits the tops of the trees, brush and tips of the cliffs producing amazing shadows and form. The shadows of the cliffs are lit up by the sunlit grass giving a luminous warmth along with the cool colors. There was details I couldn’t achieve with the rough canvas surface, but that’s solved by just going back out with a 16×20 canvas and giving this another go. From a personal standpoint, this was a bitter-sweet experience. I find so much personal inspiration in these mountains that it’s just feels like “home”. However, it’s been a real challenge to keep employment with limitations with word comprehension and numbers resulting in misunderstanding of instructions and mistakes. I understand this just how my brain functions now, but it means I’ll likely need to leave this amazing, inspiring area to go back home for another year or two until I can find some way to have financial stability. Im hopeful learning web development may be a solution. We’ll see. 

Artist Chat: Shown above is the process I’ve found works well for acrylics, doing a grayscale underpainting (which dries quickly), then finding the right colors in that value. This allows me to see the composition and make changes before introducing color. 

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.

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!

Plein Air: Garden of the Gods, View from Central Parking Lot


I went out to Garden of the Gods (Colorado Springs) again parking in the main parking lot, but this time around 8am, before the crowds arrived … and they did. They were decked out with full tourist fashion: the camera, the van full of kids, dad’s bright full brim cap coupled with the equally bright beach shirt with palm trees and mom’s last minute family plan to meet back in 1 hour. It was all there. Fortunately, I thought twice before starting the painting in front of the parking lot, which would have become a continuous stream of photo ops and comments of who in the family also paints.  I hid behind it on a trail, tucked away.

The sun was rising quickly between 8 and 10:30, so I drew in a 5 minute charcoal line sketch to mark the areas of shadow and light. Within 30 minutes I had blocked in the major features and shadows using the largest brush I had and gobs of paint. The remainder of the time, I spent looking for how I could lay down solid brushstrokes without jabbing at it like a woodpecker. In the last 20 minutes, I was down to the detail brush to get the thin shadows, but not so much to be distracting. Here’s where I ended up:


It was very close to what I saw, but I changed a few details with composition in mind. I coupled the two small towers in front that cast a shadow on the back tall towers (bottom middle) and emphasized them more then what I saw.  When I got home, I tweaked the trees a bit as you’ll see comparing the on-site version and the final revision post at the top. I mostly made the trees in the lower half to block the real view, which was a mass of car windshields and whiny kids.

Artist Chat: The pallet was basic primaries (cad yellow deep, alizarin crimson, ultramarine blue) and titanium white. It was very hard to get the red glow I saw and think adding an orange would help a lot. The orange mixed from yellow and red, then adding white just doesn’t have the luminous glow seen there.  There are some repetitive lines in the scene, such as the foreground tree line and the background mountains as well as in the rock formations that I’d alter a bit when scaling up. For the most part though, it went well. A HUGE plus was adding matte medium to the surface before starting in with the paint (Thanks again for that tip, John Poon!). By 10:30, the heat and dry air was making my mixed dry almost instantly, so maybe it’s time to either try adding more Golden Open into the mixes, or using a “stay-wet” pallet.

Plein Air: Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs


About a week ago, I went out to Garden of the Gods here in Colorado Springs. People travel from all over the world to see these large rock formations at the base of the mountains near Pikes Peak. One of the perks to being in Colorado Springs is that this is just 30 minutes away from the house I’m staying at. I went figuring I’d quickly find a spot to set up and paint, but even on a weekday, it was loaded with tourists. After walking a quarter of the street that loops around it, I saw so many spectacular paintings I could hardly keep myself from just setting up right there on the side of the street and let traffic go around me. Then the cyclists came tearing through breaking the sound barrier and I headed back to the truck to return another day. While packing up, I looked up from my truck and saw this scene outside of the loop. It’s not the main attraction, but it was a great scene.


My truck bed could not have been more perfectly aligned, so I just set up my gear in there. As I was painting, I stirred up quite a few onlookers walking around the loop and my favorite response was, “Daddy, that good! Maybe he can come to my birthday party and paint a bird!!”. Gotta love kids. They think it, say it and its done. No filters required.  About three hours, and two light rain showers later, the light had changed too much so I packed it all up and headed home. Looking at it later, I had a hard time with the dark background. It seemed to look more like a dark sky rather than the face of distant mountains, so I decided to make some changes to the scene and just have fun with it.


In hindsight, I like some changes, others I should have left it alone. When the sun was out, the rock had more highlights than shown in the plein air sketch. Adding those really brought the rocks forward. The background makes more sense now, but I should have just kept it more plain with less colors and less distraction. I also suspect I fiddled with the foreground too much. Ha. Oh well. It’s a very solid reference if I ever want to scale it up to work out those mistakes. If the weather holds up, I’ll head out to Palmer Park again (last post). It’s nice to be spoiled with so many choices.

Artist Chat:

Pallete: Heavy Body Liquitex or Golden acrylics for Alizarin Crimson, Hansa yellow opaque, and Ultramarine blue and Golden Open for Titanium White. I’ve found this combination to work very well in this dry climate. The Open white keep my light mixtures from drying too fast and have found the Alizarin Crimson and Ultramarine do well staying moist if I keep it out of direct sunlight.  The Hansa yellow opaque does tend to dry more quickly, so I may try mixing in a little of the Golden open of that color (they mix well).

Limiting my pallete always helps me in new areas. I’m still having trouble with the paint getting darker as it dries, but this isn’t hard to work through. Just painting the color one or two steps lighter in value solves it. I could even do a monochromatic under-painting and then match the value with the colors painting over it. It’s worth a shot.