The weather and views were so fantastic, frankly I didn’t care how this plein air piece turned out. The vantage point was from a hillside trail in the shade looking out across Casco Bay. I had originally setup along the water, but had to move due to the rantings of a homeless guy who felt me and another guy nearby had infringed on his oceanfront property.
The boats were tricky to paint because the scale was so small – this was the first time I’d painted a seascape with various boats on a small canvas. I realized I had to pay more attention to giving the impression of details with singular brush strokes, almost dots in some places. The other challenge with boats, maybe it’s just in this particular bay, but the vast majority of them are white, the entire boat, not just the sails.
Overall this was a successful study and I’m looking forward to future compositions, both in plein air and studio refinements. There are also some great hues to work with in the sky, water, and the backdrop of green forests and islands. What’s not to like?
I’ve been traveling a bit this summer and managed to get in some plein air work! At first it was mostly drawings of coastal scenes – lots and lots of boats and beautiful coastline. But lately I’ve managed to get in some solid time with the paints and I’m working a few pieces in parallel.
I still need to return to a few of the plein air locations before I can finish with studio refinement. One basic change I’ve tried with the recent plein air compositions is essentially simplifying the focal areas and zooming in so there’s less to tackle. That’s been hard for me because I typically want to capture as much of the landscape view as possible in any given composition because it’s so damn beautiful.
Next projects will be some very photogenic coastal lighthouses. I’ve done a few practice sketches to get a feel for how I want to approach the works and not self-inflict panic during the speedy reality of painting on site. What’s really apparent, at least in my drawings, is that the lighthouse is going to be a piece of cake – it’s the rocky seaside that might well drive me insane. But I believe if I keep it “fast and loose” and focus on the lighthouse, the rocks will be simplified in a supporting role.
Hopefully I’ll be able to post a couple of completed pieces in the coming week.
A few months ago we took a trip to indulge in wines of Paso Robles, California. This is a beautiful area, a little hard to get to, and the wine is fantastic. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no wine snob… my palette is worth a $40 bottle of wine at best. However, over the years we’ve done a lot of travel around the world and there is no better way to find wines you like than to be in the actual region and explore. Again, we tend not to go to places for the purpose of doing wine tastings, but what else are you going to have with dinner?
We took a beautiful drive from Paso Robles, CA to Morro Bay. Along the way we came across this stunning view, giving a first glance of the ocean as we wound through the hills. As you can see from the reference photo, it’s beautiful, but as an artist you see a whole lotta green!
I chose to do this piece in colored pencil instead of oil paint for two reasons. First, I’ve recently started experimenting with colored pencils and the investment in a new pencil set needed some return. Secondly, it gets brutally hot in my upstairs studio during the summer, so having the pencils setup downstairs is an easy way to get my creative fix for the day if I don’t feel like running the AC for 3 hours in the middle of the afternoon. Pragmatism, go figure.
I’ve done a few practice sessions with colored pencils after taking a workshop from Jenny Granberry, who is a great artist and instructor, a rare combination. This piece was a challenge and intended as a massive practice exercise with the goal of something “completed” in the end. This composition was a challenge for reasons beyond my lack of colored pencil experience. First, I can’t remember the last time I’d done a drawing-based landscape, and secondly, the greens!
What I find the most interesting part of this piece is the fact that I worked from the top down (far to near), and I don’t know about you, but I can definitely see that the bottom part of the drawing is notably better than the top. I can hear Jenny now… keep your pencils sharp and go slow. I hear you Jenny, I hear you, it just took half a page to get there.
As to the greens, I focused on blending variations of blues in the more distant hills, segueing to stronger yellow in the foreground. I wasn’t excited about the final look initially, as it lacked warmth from the sun, so I drank some wine to work up some liquid courage to grab an orange/red pencil to add an overlay to the foreground hills. Unlike oil painting, you can’t just wipe off pencil – true, it can be erased, but then you’re compromising the “tooth” of the paper, and at some point I hope to be good enough that something like that matters.
In the end, Central Coast – Morro Bay was a great learning experience and provided a wealth of knowledge through trial and error. I also think I’ll return to this subject matter in landscape perspective for a larger oil painting.
This is another morning plein air session along Barton Creek just down from the base of the Hill of Life. This was the first session at this particular spot, which I originally chose for the water chute between the rocks, but the lighting wasn’t very good for the water, so I opted to focus on a cool tree on the other side of the creek.
I brought along my trusty plein air sidekick, Zip, to help keep the squirrels in check while painted. The heat was pretty bad today, so we had a hard stop at 11am so Zip wouldn’t get overheated on the way back up the trail. She made sure her temperature wouldn’t be an issue by instantly jumping in the water once I let go of the leash to setup my easel.
I somehow made this piece more difficult than expected. I think the problem was a lack of structure in values and simplification of the greenery from the get go. I used to hate painting trees, but over the past year I’ve managed to get the hang of it and they’re not as frustrating as years past. That said, this composition was tricky because the focal point is a tree within a sea of trees. But I was outside with my dog painting, so I didn’t really care.
The progression gallery below illustrates the various artistic detours I drove along before finding the finish line. The biggest singular challenge was the lack of foliage on the “real” tree, as you can see from the reference photo, so I improvised some leafy bits in amongst the long, spindly trunks. Initially I balked on the vines, thinking they wouldn’t translate to the viewer, looking more like spaghetti, but after a few failed attempts I managed to weave them in convincingly.
The last design decision was using a palette knife for finishing the trunk. I didn’t like the blended look using a brush and invariably a palette knife can add texture, which is ideal for rendering bark on a tree. If you’re curious about the specific location of this plein air site, I’ve been dropping POI pins on a Google map so I can find my favorite spots in the future. This particular one is located at 30°16’11.0″N 97°49’42.5″W.
PLEASE NOTE this part of the Barton Creek Trail is severely overrun and trashed, especially during the Spring and Summer months. I found tons of trash, especially beer cans, throughout the area. The stretch of the waterway from Hill of Life Dam Falls (northwest) down to Sculpture Falls (southeast) will continue to suffer environmental degradation at an accelerated rate if the City Council and the various environmental groups in Austin (@SaveOurSprings @sosalliance @austinparksfdn @austintexasgov) don’t institute some level of admission controls. Police enforcement and citations for infractions are helpful, but they don’t address the primary issue which is too many people on this sensitive waterway. And last, but not least, the City of Austin needs to honor their legal commitment with the neighborhood to close the Hill of Life trailhead, which they legally agreed to do when a temporary easement was granted by the neighborhood in 1999.
I might have chosen the wrong year to ramp up my en plein air experience, case in point the month of May in Austin is already registering 100 degree days. Ugh! Regardless, the mornings are bearable and I had to break in a new pochade box called u.go. by New Wave Art… more on that later.
This session was at Bull Creek Park with a few other painters from Plein Air Austin. For those of you familiar with Austin, this is the northern stretch of Bull Creek near the Spicewood and 360 intersection. For the uninitiated, it’s ideal for painting outside because there’s usually some good water options along the creek and lots of shade.
The focal point of this composition was the rocks in both the foreground where the shade and light merge, and secondarily the larger rock bathed in sunlight. I was very happy with how this turned out even before I got back into the studio for refinements. I went into this plein air session committed to focusing on values, starting by driving the darks into darkness-of-a-bat-loving-cave kinda dark, then finding high contrast opportunities for the lightest lights. I took some artistic license in this area, fabricating some water movement that wasn’t there, but it made for a more compelling viewing experience in my opinion.
Additionally I muted the trees on the banks, especially the left side, so as to ensure they didn’t distract from the main focal points in the water. I had initially used much lighter, saturated yellow/greens on the trees, but that muted all the lighter values in the composition, which absolutely killed the scene. I’m pretty sure this is what I’ve done in past plein air sessions that has confounded me. I’ll keep my fingers crossed this will carry over into the next outing.
The use of olive green variations on the shadow parts of the distant water were also a change in approach. One of my fellow painters made this suggestion and it proved to work really well. Painting outside is fantastic! This particular outing was of note because I got to share ideas and chat with the other painters. We even treated it like a workshop and did a mini critique of our works at the end of the morning. This was particularly interesting because of the 4 painters, there were 3 different mediums represented – oil, water color, and gouache.
Lastly, my new u.go proved to be a great upgrade to my plein air armaments. Thank you to my awesome wife for giving me the perfect artist gift! The best part about the u.go is the portability. The length and width dimensions are almost identical to my EasyL pochade box, but it’s very thin, so it fits much easier in my pack. Very sturdy and compact design make it a must have piece of equipment for me.
My favorite Austin gallery has included one of my recent pieces in their current group show, Array.
Sunrise Trail View (12” x 9”, oil on board) is a plein air piece I did recently in Sedona, Arizona. You can find more about this piece from an earlier blog post here. If you live in Austin, I highly recommend swinging by Art for the People Gallery, as it has a wide range of fun, quality artwork for, well, the people. You can find more information about the current show, Array, at AFTPG web site. If you’re not in Austin, note that all of the pieces (including Sunrise Trail View) are available for viewing / purchase in their online store.
I have a few more pieces that I started plein air in Sedona, so if you like Sunrise Trail View, stay tuned for a couple others in the coming months.
Taking in more of the great Spring weather, I headed out to do some more plein air. This session was at a place called Mirror Pond in Austin, very close to Lady Bird Lake and part of the Zilker Nature Preserve, which was the first nature preserve created in Austin back in 1935 (learn more at AustinTexas.gov). No dogs allowed, so my canine assistant, Zip, could not join me today to keep the pesky squirrels away.
Mirror Pond is gorgeous and tranquil when it has water, but I was pretty sure today it would be dry, which it was. What I wasn’t expecting was such a pretty site despite the lack of water. I probably wouldn’t have noticed half of the cool geological formations had there been a pond to ogle over.
For those of you not familiar with plein air painting, one of the challenges is finding subjects that you can paint quickly and not get scuttled by the fast moving sun and shadows. I’ve included a gallery of photos below that show this effect and why it’s important to a) move fast, and b) take lots of photos early so you have something to work from in the studio to finish the work.
This composition started out as nothing more than a “get out there and paint” goal, but once I got the piece back in the studio and began fiddling around with some compositional ideas, it sucked me in for hours!
I was asking myself “why the hell am I painting a cedar tree again?” As noted in previous posts, I hate cedar trees for many reasons, but it seems that I can channel that fury-based energy into artistic currency. In this particular case, I pivoted my initial focal point from the sideway limestone arch to the interestingly shaped cedar tree above it.
The first thing that caught my attention was the cool shape of the cedar tree; it’s actually the inverted shape of the limestone arch upon which it sits. See it? It’s not perfect, but close enough to draw my interest. Secondly, I used some artistic license to accent the red (representing my burning hatred of these trees) of the cedar limbs to make the entirety of the greens pop. It also had the unintended side effect of increasing the value contrast against all the other greens in this composition.
Painting Mirror Pond has also reminded me that the craft of plein air is often about making a mediocre landscape come to life. Not sure if I managed to pull it off this time, but I learned a lot along the way.
Cedar Season is my second plein air session of the year… I’m falling behind and need to get outside more often as Spring is upon us. However, to my credit, it’s not easy going into the field in Austin in January and February because cedar allergies are at peak. But last month I doubled up on the Claritin and headed into the woods along the Hill of Life and Barton Springs Greenbelt.
I brought my trusty painting sidekick, Zip, to help keep an eye out for any suspicious squirrel activity. Actually, I should say she’s my aspiring painting sidekick, of which this session was an initial interview. The real question was to see if she could manage 2-3 hours of watching me paint, or otherwise occupy herself without wandering around wreaking havoc with her 12 ft leash.
Let’s be clear – I hate Texas cedar trees. They account for all of my sinus headaches in January and February, and anywhere they grow, they take over the landscape. Supposedly they’re not an invasive species, but last time I checked “invasive” was defined as “(especially of plants or a disease) tending to spread prolifically and undesirably or harmfully.” So, like I said, they’re invasive.
Why did I opt for a painting of cedars? Well, it turns out they create a very pretty landscape when you’re buried in a forest trail of the damned things. I also wanted to tackle the challenge of all the greens, trunks, and cast shadows.
A few compositional decisions that seemed to work well. First, the cedar trunks are a brownish red color, so I used a heavy dose of Alizarin Crimson to accent the focal areas of the larger trees; I believe that mix also has some Indian Red, too. The second decision was to make the cast shadows very dark, which works well (at least I think so… what about you?) in creating more contrasts and a sense of tree coverage.
In terms of the sidekick interview, Zip got the job! She was very relaxed and entertained by my strange activity, but occasionally treats fell from the sky… so she was content.
One of my 2022 art-related resolutions is to do more plein air work. I’ve managed to log a couple of days in the field near my house to start the year; this is the first of those sessions.
There is a trailhead in my neighborhood to the Barton Creek Greenbelt called the Hill of Life (HOL). At the bottom of the HOL (about 1/2 mile long and 300′ elevation drop) is Barton Creek, which is the source of these falls, unofficially called the HOL Falls. Over the past few years, however, due to the massive growth in Austin’s population (I’m lookin’ at you California and Florida), endless festival cycle, and general obsession the world seems to have with Austin, this area has been overrun and trashed with douchebags and idiots who are obsessed with Instagram selfies at the swimming holes along the creek. But I digress…
On weekday mornings, however, there is a respite from the obnoxious, disrespectful throngs and I can enjoy the greenbelt as it was intended. On this day I set up along the creek bank about 100 yards downstream from the falls. I made the aesthetic decision to represent a more springtime landscape, namely all the green trees in the background, but the remainder of the scene is accurate.
It was a gorgeous morning with a very light wind. The sun was a little obscured by high clouds, but there were enough moments when it peeked through that I got a good read on shadows and value contrasts. Plein air session are always entertaining because something unplanned invariably happens – wind blew my trash bag up and onto my paints, tall reeds also brushed against my painting in the breeze a few times (nature’s paintbrush I suppose), and of course I forgot a wet canvas holder so I had to MacGyver a packing solution for the hike home.
Overall I’m happy with the outcome, but the greens and atmospheric perspective are off. I’d like to get to the point where my plein air has a sense of place like Laurel Daniel, but that’s going to take a lot more practice… which I don’t mind given how fun it is to paint outdoors!
Sunrise Trail View, Sedona, AZ | 12” x 9” | Oil on Board
In November, I attended a plein air workshop in Sedona, Arizona, led by Bill Cramer. Bill is a very talented artist based in Prescott, Arizona, so he knows these landscapes very well. His artwork is captivating and a mastery of light and colors – I encourage you to take a look at his work when you get some time.
Our class size was a little large – 10 people – but it was a good mix of friendly artists, the vast majority of who were established professionals with a wide range of styles. Despite having so many students (I consider anything over 6 alot), what you miss out on 1on1 time with the instructor is in many ways made up by observing and chatting with the other artists in the class. This is especially true in plein air workshops because it seems plein air is not a beginner level pursuit of artists, so the attendees tend to be professionals, experienced hobbyists, or overzealous fans of the instructor. Ha! If you’re an artist, you know exactly what I’m talking about. 🙂
The best thing about this workshop was getting to experience this adventure with my mom. She has been painting as a back-up creative outlet to her true love, the piano, but over the years she’s come to appreciate plein air painting, something I’d been talking about for years (despite my lack of actual experience in getting outside to paint on a regular basis). We don’t live in the same state, so painting together is a very rare activity, although we talk about it all the time. To say this was a real treat for me is an understatement… painting side by side, cursing at the same geographical challenges, and experiencing the beautiful offerings of Sedona together was fantastic.
On to the composition, Sunrise Trail View. This piece is a painting in two stages. The first was plein air for a couple of hours in the early morning on location at the Sunrise Trail looking north east. For those of you who know the Sedona area, this is behind the West Sedona Elementary School and Community Pool. I believe the rock formation / mountain is Steamboat Rock, but I’m not 100% sure; maybe someone from Sedona can chime in and clarify.
The second stage was the studio refinement, which wasn’t too extensive for this piece, but it took a few sessions to get it done. One of the trickier parts for me was getting the hang of the technique and strokes to paint the rock formations. It turns out the best approach was to vary brush sizes a little and lay in strokes both horizontal and vertical. My reference photos don’t capture the very rich reds, yellows and oranges of the mountains, so having been on location for a couple days was invaluable in this regard.
Bill Cramer provided some great advice during the workshop and we covered 4 separate locations in the 2 days together. The sites were full of great painting options, plenty of room, and all very different from each other. It didn’t hurt that we had gorgeous weather on both days, so the early starts were worth it.
There are a few other pieces that are partially done from the workshop. I will likely tackle 2 of the 3 in the coming weeks to build on what I’ve learned. Stay tuned!