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.


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! 

Plein Air: Exploring Watercolors

I’ve been testing out watercolors in the past weeks around the area I work at in Columbus, TX as a new way to do outdoor sketches. I see it with “Urban sketchers”, in James Gurney videos, and many illustrators who use gouache, a opaque watercolor (ex. Mike Hernandez… awesome). Also, other bloggers in the WordPress art community are trying this as a challenge. Thanks for the inspiration, Martha! I thought I’d write down some thought I’d had while doing these studies, making all the mistakes I could as I went (which is a good thing).  As a rookie, now I have a HUGE appreciation for the works of master watercolorist like those seen in this article “Famous Watercolor Artists” (check out John Singer Sargent!).

Here are a few sketches I’ve done, each with a description and date.



What I’ve found so far is that watercolor isn’t as limiting as I thought. I had figured, less pigment in a watered down form… meh. However, the light colors such as yellows, green and light blues have a luminescent quality because they are transparent over the white page, making a glow effect seldom seem with acrylics or oils. As I adjusted to this painting style, I’ve found it follows all of the same rules in painting, just in a different way of applying the paint. Design, lighting effects, values, edges … all the things that are used to represent the scene, don’t change. Rather than laying down a dark shadow color, then layering light color over it in acrylics and oils, it goes light to dark, adding the shadows last. Either way, matching values (how light or dark it is) is key. For example, the wood pile was much darker than the brightly lit background grass. At first, I had made the wood pile much lighter and it seemed to look bland, but going back into it with a darker grey-brown really gave it a realistic punch. Edges, the line between two object, can be hard or softened by loosening it up with water to let it spread a bit. At the end, when all the lights are darks are painted, there is a white tube of watercolor paint in the kit. Even though it’s limited in power because it’s fairly transparent, it can help to give a little definition along an edge. For example, “Gray” the dog, had bright hair along his feet and hairs on his face. Going back in with the white really helped contrast the feet from the dark hair.

The best bonus I can see with watercolor is the small size of the painting kit. I’ve seen kits that can practically fit in your jeans pocket, perfect for a backpacking adventure where weight and size are crucial. It’s a great option to have!!

Plein Air: Weimar, TX at sunset


Sunset study at Weimar, TX (8×10″, acrylic)

I’ve been wanting to do this Plein air study for some time and tonight was just the right weather to get out there. There are amazing rolling hills just outside of Weimar heading towards LaGrange, TX off hwy 155. I set up, painted in the scene quickly, then waited until just the right moment when the sky was about 15 min before sunset and then it was off to the races. Paint flying everywhere. I had to be fast because I was hardly off the road with hillbilly trucks passing me at 65mph. They don’t slow down. About 1hr after set up, I was headed out back to the house to get the colors right before I forgot. I knew they’d look different in the lighting indoors than at sunset as you can see from the pic out there(bottom) and the one indoors (top).  A few touch ups, and I have the color notes for a huge painting to come! Excited.

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: Rock Study at Stillhouse Lake

This is at a an area for fishing where a limestone layer of rock line the sides.
This is at a an area for fishing where a limestone layer of rock line the sides.

With an upcoming welding entry test for a job in Gatesville, TX, my mind is occupied on worries, which directly limits my inspiration to go paint, but with some encouraging words (thanks, Shaz!), I finally realized I have nothing to worry about.  With a bit of writing down my concerns, looking at the evidence and re-framing the situation in a positive light, I was ready to get out to a new plein air adventure.

I’m working on a commission for a friend that has a scene from Colorado where he hiked up to a rocky summit.  Since the scene has rocks in the foreground, and the photo doesn’t show much detail in the shadows, it was a great excuse to get out the Stillhouse Lake for a rock study. A thick layer of limestone rock has caved in along the edges of the lake.  Between the rocks lies the remains of large cedars with roots digging for water under the boulders.  With the sun casting side shadows around 6pm, it was perfect.  I could have fixed the background a bit, but it’s a study… no worries. It’s all about the rocks, the parched cedar stump and the little bit of new green grass and shrubs growing up between the rocks.

Here’s the final study:

~6x8" acrylics on paper. This is a photo taken in better light.
~6×8″ acrylics on paper. This is a photo taken in better light.

Artist Chat:

palette: (Golden Open Acrylics) Titanium White, Hansa Yellow,  Pyrrole Orange, Burnt Sienna; (Regular acrylics) Cobalt blue

Painting with Golden Open in Texas at 93 degrees and dry wind is perfect. The paint on my palette stayed “open” the entire time, even being exposed to the wind and sun.  In contrast, I used regular cobalt and within minutes it formed a thin crust over the blob of paint.

Finding the color notes (values and color matching): I did two things that helped. In the rock shadows, it’s deceiving how light it is with all the reflected light from other rocks. Also, the slightly tan-white has a blue tinge in the shadows, but is warmed by this reflected light. How do you know what to paint? I curled my finger until only a little hole remained. I put this finger-window over the area of the shadow, isolating the rest of the scene from view. I then compared it with different areas in the background, as well as the lightest and darkest areas in the foreground. This gave me a good estimate of value and color to start with.  To double check color accuracy of my mixes, I held my brush forward and compared the edge of the painted tip with the scene.  I did this brush-forward technique for the rocks, and a little for the water, but muted to colors of the background to really push the focus on the rocks.  The sky looks dark in the sketch, but in relation to the white of the rocks, it’s correct.  Thank goodness for finger holes.  Hope that’ll help ya.

Grace Ranch Longhorn

A couple of weekend ago I was down helping Uncle Kenny at the ranch and taking photos of the longhorns as a reference for future paintings.  Seems like either they have their heads down, turn right as you take a photo or the lighting is off somehow.  Just as we were leaving, I spotted this longhorn in the oak grove with green winter rye and light coming sideways in the late afternoon.

Shot of the longhorn just as we were leaving
Shot of the longhorn just as we were leaving

I did this study of the longhorn which will go into helping produce a much larger painting from this photo reference.

10x8" Acrylic on canvas panel (
10×8″ Acrylic on canvas panel (

When this bull was young it was easy to pet, but now it just big enough to make you take a second look to make sure it’s approachable. The loose style of the background with slightly cool colors are meant to add emotion to the setting and a mysterious questioning feeling to his pose.