Saturday, September 26, 2015


Today I went to Oakland Mills hoping to sketch groups of figures (they were having bands and $4 tenderloins which should draw a crowd). Instead I got "way-laid " by the sound and sparkle of all the water going over the dam.

I sort of like the water in this watercolor but perhaps the rest turned out a bit busy or overworked. No use making excuses like it was windy and drying up the palette, or I'm still in pastel or oil mode, etc. As a watercolor, if this were simpler it might be stronger. It SHOULD be about the light on everything but mostly the light on the water - the thing that turned my head. The power of watercolor is its ability to convey light and atmosphere with extreme economy. The ones where drips look like stuff instead of stuff looking drippy. As time goes on I'm getting fonder of those kind of images...maybe because simplicity and light are becoming rarer commodities. Here are a few that charm:
Gary Tucker

Frank Eber

Andrew Wyeth

Winslow Homer

And Mr. Sargent of course...


Monday, September 21, 2015

Great time in Wisconsin

  This past weekend I had the privilege of leading a workshop with 11 talented pastelists from the Wisconsin Pastel Artists group. These folks know their medium so my contribution was to share what might be called "seeing skills". And that boils down to not looking at things in isolation. It's natural to look at just the thing you're trying to focus in hard...but to make it look like it's sitting in space in natural light you have to see it and it's surroundings SIMULTANEOUSLY. The thing is, our eye spontaneously adjusts for any distance or atmosphere. So each place you look in isolation ends up looking somewhat similar spatially when painted. It's also why a lot of painters who do great work in the studio from photos crash and burn on location.
  The remedy is to look at your chosen center of interest and assess the color and level of detail of its surroundings by noticing how they appear in your PERIPHAL VISION. Look at the color of something distant. Then put your finger up to the side of it and focus on the finger. The color of that distant thing is quite different when you see it in your PERIPHAL VISION. It's usually not too detailed compared to your finger either...until you let your eye stray back to the distance. It's a habit you have to develop and keep reminding yourself to practice.
 Anyway, we worked at a beautiful park overlooking Lake Michigan in perfect weather.

The water was indigo, turquoise and something like cafe au lait. Cynthia Dirtzu worked from this bluff where your phone would randomly switch time zones...freaky.

 I was pleased that everyone was getting a convincing sense of the day's lighting. Carol Chapman took on these bluffs (which have no fences to prevent your taking any vantage point, though there were a couple that were placed to protect the eroding bluffs from US).

 Julia Pagenkopf pulled off an amazing view of the grasses and foliage that grow right to the bluff's edge.

 On Sunday we worked in a marsh area nearby to switch from vista to close subject. Michelle Murphy and Marcia Gorra-Patek took on the problem of getting a shallow plane of water to read flat.

There was a lot of good work done that weekend. You may be able to see it on the Wisconsin Pastel Artists FB page.
 I had a great time with some new artist friends and discovered there's more to Milwaukee than beer, sausage and Harleys. It's a formidable food town. The find of the weekend was Kopp's. A dozen life sized cow sculptures in the parking lot, a Jetsons style circular building, a retro-futuristic interior and DELICIOUS butter pecan frozen custard (which blows ice cream away).

Monday, September 14, 2015

Pastel notes

No pictures this post. This is sort of a primer for an upcoming workshop with pastels: Some thoughts to mull over ahead of time so the concepts will be splashing in the shallow end of the pool before we dive into the deep end this weekend.
 I like to emphasize the "non-negotiable" things...things that apply to good picture making in any style or medium (I've googled some of the participants work and they know their way around a stick of pastel).
 To those already considerable skill sets I want to add plein air seeing skills, streamlined ergonomics and good composition. are a few things to dwell on:

1. VALUE IS KING: There are a thousand books with titles to the effect: "Fill Your ________With Light", "Light in the _________" , etc. The one and only trick to getting a convincing sense of ANY  lighting situation is getting the value relationships between major areas correct.
2. The trick to THAT is forming a simple habit: NEVER LOOK AT ANYTHING IN ISOLATION. Don't worry if that doesn't make sense yet. I'll be beating the concept like a rented mule during the workshop.
3. There is a hierarchy to "visual language". In descending order:
4. Color has a hierarchy too. Again, in descending order:
    VALUE (see #1)
     HUE BIAS ( the new and improved "warm and cool")
Again, if that doesn't make sense yet the demos will be geared to illustrate it.

Now...for some pastel-specific things:
2. PRE-ORGANIZE YOUR BOX SO GREENS ARE WITH GREENS, BLUES WITH BLUES, NEUTRALS WITH NEUTRALS, ETC. Don't work with a box of "fruit salad". This one thing can double your painting speed, increase your color accuracy, decrease your frustration level...everything but tone your abs.
    Ragged lines of various width  
    Soft blurry areas of color
4. No matter how big your selection is, you never have THE color. CAN get THE RELATIONSHIP or very close to it (see #2, both of them) . This will get you the look of the light.


Sunday, September 13, 2015

Louisiana plein air

 Saturday was the Golden Hills Plein Air event in Louisiana, MO. What a difference a week was downright chilly after last weekend's steam bath in Amana...and we were 3 1/2 hours SOUTH of there in Missouri! Anyway, bent on trying subjects I haven't attempted there before (this was my third year) I went WAY uphill to the cemetery that overlooks the Mississippi both ways. The light was glare-y and spectacular looking south. Straight away some equally spectacular clouds moved in, so no dilly dallying was possible. Wish the photo wasn't so backlit. The reflected warm colors in the headstones don't read...but hey...that's what looking south in the AM gets you. Also the dramatic shadows from earlier disappeared.

 There were 5-6 artists up there that morning. Jane Mudd caught the cloud play that played me. Her seemingly aerial view captured it nicely, along with Second Place. If you pinch or tap the photo you can see her other picture includes me...I think she nailed my urgency, trying to spot my colors between passing cloud shadows.

After that I went down (literally) town to attempt a street scene. Red umbrellas against green trees were too hard to pass up (again, the photo lacks the sun that was coming in and out).

I was worried it would be a bit bleak with empty chairs and tables but a very sweet lady sat down and kindly agreed to eat her lunch slowly. Turned out she was one of the event volunteers. It was a bit distracting there in the middle of the side walk as I was by the entrance of another eatery and thus conversation bait for all traffic. Apparently I managed SOME degree of focus because Jessica Kirby stopped by and said later the aroma of the establishment was quite alluring. I honestly don't remember smelling ANYTHING! Happily the picture got Honorable Mention and was purchased by the owner of bakery depicted, where it will now hang in perpetuity.
 First place went to Tatyana Roberts for the picture below.

 I met her in Mineral Point back in August. She mistook my two paintings for Billyo O'Donnel (who sadly wasn't there). I would have kissed her but we're both married! Seriously, Google Billyo's work.
A fun Saturday with some great painters! Next weekend I'm in Mequon, WI giving a pastel workshop. Weather cooperating we will be painting Lake Superior.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Amana wrap up

 Well, after getting home last night and catching up a few things here's the report on day 3 (I'm giving  serious thought to writing a post called "The Artist's Guide to What You Let Can Slide").
 Anyway, the third day was the most exciting of all. Bloody hot again but the painting went on. After getting my stuff framed up and packing my camping gear up I went to the lily lake where everyone was at it hammer and tongs. I didn't think there was enough time for another oil before submitting my entries and the afternoon Quick Paint so I did a watercolor study in my sketchbook. The quick paint wasn't as densely packed as in previous years. Several artists - probably sanely - opted to watch the rest of us from shadier vantage points. Thomas Buchs from WI won the event. He's a consistently good painter and places at most of the events I've attended. A bit later everyone retired to the Festhalle where things WERE much more densely packed than previous years. Catiri's eclipsed their usual great dinner and awards ceremony. They had a patrons only viewing of the exhibit and sales were pretty strong. For certain the quality of the work this year was a big part of that but just about everyone I knew sold one or more works.
 So on to the awards...and it was the most exciting one I've ever been in.
Third place went to Barb Heitzman of Dubuque for a beautiful pastel view towards East Amana (which also sold). This was Barb's FIRST plein air event and she was a participant in my June workshop.
 Second place went to moi...there's the obligatory French word... image below.

 First place went to...drum roll here...JESSICA KIRBY of Ft. Madison for a marvelous little pastel she made that morning at the lake. You can view it on her blog at right...and it sold to some smart collector as well. Jessica is a regular in my Wednesday watercolor class and is pedal to the metal honing her chops in all mediums.
Naturally I felt pretty proud of my two "prodigies" though in both cases there is beau coup on-board talent there and it's a privilege to share anything I can with them because I know it will get good use.
 These events are so fun - every painter should try one! This coming Saturday is one in Louisiana MO. a charming river town between Hannibal and St. Louis.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Amana day 2

Another hot 90+ day. Used two umbrellas on my morning picture! One for me and one for the palette. Guess I was in a tree mood today  - this row of apple trees looked appealing in the morning light and I've always wanted to try something like Sargent did in his Corfu olive tree pictures.

It would appear he did those trees in a 3 step process:
1. Big shapes of color corresponding to the foliage at the back and center of the tree or group of trees. This paint is laid in fairly thin and the sky holes are placed with thick paint into those big shapes.
2. Branches on top of that
3. The closer, individual leaves done in broken strokes with thicker paint over that.
Simple super -imposition of layers: Farthest first, closest last. Works for me...I like it better than the usual chunky, blocky trees I tend to do. That's OK for distant groups - but less tree-like for close in images.
In the afternoon I went after a lone apple tree with lots of dead branches mixed in with the live ones. John Evans did a KILLER pastel version of the same tree in the morning.

You'll notice I removed 1/32 of a mile of highway 151. I was happy with the day's tree experiments but I'm no Sargent yet.
After pizza with Jeff Allen, Barb Grimmer, Jessica Kirby and Gin Lammert we went night painting on the streets in Main Amana. I learned not to pick a subject facing east as it all just goes black. Virtually no difference between sky, building and trees...just glaring street lamps floating in a dark sea. Paint and learn...
Tomorrow is framing time and then the quick-paint event followed by dinner and the awards celebration. There are a lot of paint buddies who are here but who I haven't caught up with yet - that will be the time to do it.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Amana day 1

Boy it was hot here...but there are a lot of dedicated painters in Iowa - they just soldier on. I decided this weekend I'm going to attempt subjects outside my usual stuff. And subjects I haven't done in past years. So that means staying away from the mill race and the lily lake. In the morning I went after this big wood barrel in front of the wine, cheese and jelly house (there's an eclectic business for you).
  One of the best reasons to go to these paint outs is hanging with your tribe. Face it: Painters are just not neuro-typical. Everybody checks each other out and makes genuinely helpful comments. You'd never guess we are competing with one another for cash prizes. If the UN had painters for delegates we'd be closer to world peace. The advice flows at these things.
  For starters I used info from Jessica Kirby's most recent blog post to get the barrel right. Then, I was on my way to over working the picture till Iowa City artist Lianne Wescott reminded me of something I should know...and in fact have taught...and I've had Lianne in my workshops!!! SCHOOLED. Though it's gratifying to know people listen.

In the afternoon I went to the lily lake but picked this nearby bridge because it was not what I'd normally do there. There were probably 5-6 other artists there over the course of the afternoon. I was on my way to a truly mediocre effort until Richland pastelist John Evans pointed out the compositional errors. I wiped off and restarted...SCHOOLED AGAIN! These photos differ a bit from the lighting I was after because they're shot at the end. They have a bit of glare too...apologies.

WHICH LEADS ME TO TODAY'S TIP: Amana and Marceline are alike in that they are catty-corner to the sun's path. When the shadows change they CHANGE! It can throw you off big time if you're not expecting it. If you're headed to a location look it up on Google maps or the equivalent ahead of time to see how it's oriented. Fore warned is forearmed.
The day ended with a fajita dinner at the Festhalle thrown by Catiri's, the event sponsor. Replete with Millstream beer and little girls doing karaoke covers of Taylor Swift...THANK YOU MILLSTREAM!!
Tomorrow may include a nocturne...Solon artist Jeff Allen and I walked Main Amana after dark to scout the possibilities.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Silhouette power

Last Saturday I had fun with my painting friends in Marceline MO. The weather was nice but the light was not magic - it was a generally overcast day. That makes it hard to get exciting value contrasts or zippy color. So what do you do..? About all that's left to us is an interesting silhouette...big, complex or interesting shapes. Don't underestimate their power: the fashion industry prefers skinny models because our eye enjoys the angular, direction changing ride around their contours. And they give the designer room to apply their own eye catching shapes. Those of us shaped like eggs or rectangles just don't flatter their creations...we're the overcast day of haute couture (I can't resist  tossing out a French word somewhere...oh, wait...silhouette IS a French word). Anyway, don't develop an eating disorder - check Carlene Atwater's most recent blog at right. Even cows can make an engaging shape.
 The proof was in the prizes at Marceline: pictures with a strong silhouette did well. Nyle Gordon's coal elevator took best in show (some photos courtesy of Rachel Neil)

Deb Baughman's watercolor of the same subject got an Honorable Mention.

I got 2nd place with this, perhaps because it used the unique clock and street signs they have in this town.

I also got an Honorable Mention for this Harley which I painters quickly at the end of the day during the Wine Stroll.

Silhouettes usually thrive in backlit situations, so if something doesn't thrill you from one angle, walk around it - the shape may come to life against the light (or contre jour as Pepe LePew would say).
Here's a nice example  by UK watercolorist John Yardley

Two main things make a shape interesting:
1. COMPLEX CONTOURS  - give your eye a fun ride! The shape should interlock with its surroundings, not just bump against them.
2. A LACK OF BILATERAL SYMMETRY  - if you cut out your shape and folded it down the middle the two haves shouldn't match. That means simple rectangular or oval shapes may need to connect to other shapes to form a more interesting conglomerate shape or connect with their cast shadows to do the same (backlighting achieves this).