Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Plein Air Painting in Vermont

Earlier this month, I traveled to the Green Mountains of Vermont to take a painting workshop with oil painter Mark Boedges and to spend time painting the gorgeous landscape with another artist and dear friend of mine, Lisa Mitchell. A change of scenery plus new painting insights make for a great way to finish out the summer.

Painting workshops with other artists are my form of continuing education. I earned my art degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In general, every class that I took there was excellent. I enjoyed the diversity of offerings at a major public university and I took advantage of as much as I could with classes ranging from botany to political science, economics, computer science, physics, and much more. But the studio training in art left me cold. Each class was a disappointment, epitomizing the negative stereotype of tenured professors too lazy to teach. (I write this as someone who's married to a tenured professor, so you know I mean the criticism sincerely.)

Just how bad was it, you ask? Well, my painting professor in college only showed us how to stretch our canvases. That was it! No training on how to mix colors or how to apply them. His excuse? He didn't want to "inhibit our creativity."

I was able to overcome this deficit of training by finding some excellent mentors in computer animation and in pastel painting, as well as by joining some professional arts organizations when I lived in Maryland. Through these avenues, I met full time artists and began to learn the real stock and trade of being an artist, developing skills that include photographing my work, updating my web site, framing my artwork and, oh yeah, painting! Fast forward a decade or so, and I now travel once every year or two to a painting workshop when offered by other professional artists whose work is of interest to me. I'm at a point in my career where I have enough experience in composition, color mixing, and subject selection that there are no great epiphanies. Yet I pick up a little bit here and there from each individual. Each artist has a focus and emphasis that I can take and incorporate into my own studio and painting practice.

The scenery in Vermont was fantastic, despite a drought that had the Mad River Basin at about 25% of its usual capacity for this time of year. The interesting thing about the drought was that we were able to clamber out into the middle of the waterway, climb on huge boulders, and get some unique vantage points that would have been impossible to access during a year with greater rainfall.

Above, a Postcard from the Easel: Painting along the Mad River during a beautiful summer afternoon. Click the image to enlarge.

Shown here are a couple of "Postcards from the Easel" of my plein air painting during a beautiful and enjoyable week. You may see a few of these on my web site in the Landscapes section within the next few weeks after I polish them up in my studio.

Above, a Postcard from the Easel: A plein air landscape in progress. I set up my easel on a huge boulder to capture this view of a ravine along the Mad River. Click the image to enlarge.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Spring Plein Air Landscapes

Postcard from the Easel: "Black Moshannon No. 44, Printemps" in progress. This is my most recent addition to a series of plein air landscapes based on this park over the past decade.

By and large, it's been a cool, rainy spring here in central Pennsylvania. But when the weather has cleared, it's been really beautiful. Whenever I can, I like to get out of my studio to one of our nearby state parks and spend a day in my "outdoor office." I learn so much more by working on location. I see the effects of light more clearly and the subtleties of color in features like the clouds are much more apparent. Plus, it's a great outing for my dog, Maple, who relishes the opportunity to do something different.

My trusty guard dog, Maple. Every good guard dog needs her own flannel blanket in the woods.


In this post, I'm sharing some photos from a couple of recent outings to Black Moshannon State Park and Reeds Gap State Park. These photos show a couple of oil landscapes in progress. I'm very comfortable working on location with pastel, but I still need more practice with oil painting. I find that mixing colors slows me down a bit relative to just grabbing a pastel stick, so it's a good challenge for me to really focus and maximize the time that I have with each outing.

Of course, I also had to toss in a snapshot of my trusty studio mascot and guard dog, Maple. She really is a vicious guard dog (part Doberman), so she's the perfect companion for me when I go to some remote locations where there's no cell phone service and just bears. It's easier to paint when you know someone's got your back.

The initial sketch, usually done in yellow ochre and maybe some raw umber.


Through these "Postcards from the Easel," you'll see a little of my process on location. I like to rough in an armature of the composition using an earth tone such as yellow ochre. Then I block in the major areas of light and dark before delving into the details.

The "block in," establishing areas of light and dark to eliminate the white of the canvas.


Reeds Gap is especially challenging because it's so-o-o green. But another fringe benefit of slipping out of my studio from time to time is that I gain a greater mastery of how to cope with so much foliage.


More refinements. I try to reserve the highlights of a composition as the final frosting on the cake, but in this instance I added some of the specular highlights on the water to establish them for reference relative to the rest of the subject.


Almost done! I wasn't quite able to finish this piece out in the field, so I'll make the final refinements in my studio and you'll see the finished piece on my web site soon.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016


What makes a good subject choice for a painting? Sometimes one's artistic process holds the answer to this age old question.

After more than a decade of painting, I'm still not always certain what will be a good subject. Sometimes the things that draw my interest fall flat with my audience. Nonetheless, I've deciphered a few clues over these years and I'll share some of them with you here.

First, if I'm on a "photo safari" in a city, there are often fleeting moments of light and shadow that just take my breath away. In an era of digital photography, I may return home from an expedition with hundreds of shots. I'm old enough to have begun my career with film (and slides for juried show applications - yuck!) and being able to work with infinite electronic files is liberating. Many of these are multiples of the same motif, taken with different exposures and slightly different angles. But the compositions that really arrested me for the moment while I captured them become the reference photos that I look at first when I offload my photographs.

Follow My Gaze 12 x 30 oil on linen.


One such example of something that attracted my immediate interest was the photo for this new piece, "Follow My Gaze." I originally caught this subject in the heart of Copenhagen, Denmark while visiting there a couple of years ago. I never forgot this moment, this play of light and shadow. But it didn't immediately resolve in my mind's eye, so I sat on the source material until just recently.

What makes a good subject choice for a painting? Well, another clue is that you have to be able to pre-visualize the final result of where you're going with a piece. And that was the challenge here. I didn't see the final resolution of this subject in my mind. It didn't come easily to me, like some subjects do. The only remedy for this is to discipline oneself and to take time to execute some initial studies before diving into the actual piece.

What makes a good subject for a painting? Sometimes the answer to this lies in the initial studies. When I taught classes for the Art Alliance of Central Pennsylvania, I used to tell my students, "If it ain't working small, then don't bother making it big." Small, thumbnail studies are a great way to jot out your thoughts and to solve any composition problems before committing to something larger and more intimidating.

Study 1 on oil painting paper.


Here, you see a couple of initial studies for "Follow My Gaze." These studies were done on small pieces of Arches Oil Painting Paper. I began my artistic career with watercolor, and the feel of this product is very familiar and comfortable to me. It lends itself well to playing around with an initial study without any pressure. And if things don't work out? On to the next! It's a tiny commitment of time and resources that is well spent if it translates into a better finished piece.

Study 2 on oil painting paper.


Finally, it's worth noting that what makes a good subject is what makes your heart sing. As I admitted earlier, some of the ideas that draw my interest don't always translate when I take the finished pieces to art shows. But it's crucial to remain true to oneself and to paint the ideas and subjects that are most meaningful to you. Even though it took me years to resolve this subject in my mind's eye, I never forgot it, and by trusting in my artistic process I was able to create it.