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.
Art for the People Gallery in Austin has included 3 of my compositions in their Summer group show “ABUNDANCE”, which runs July 2nd through August 26th, 2022. I’m thrilled to be a part of this talented group of artists! If you’re interested in original artwork by Austin artists, check out AFTPG either in person in Austin or browse their online store.
The following paintings are part of the show (links lead to previous blog posts about these compositions):
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.
Painting is truly a never ending learning process, which is what makes it so intriguing and rewarding, no matter one’s skill level. However, there are times when you pivot to a new thing – subject matter, tools, medium, etc – and realize the education could be a seamless experience, while there are other times when it’s more of a slap down. This portrait of one of my beloved pups, Wolfy, was indeed of the latter variety.
I’m pretty sure I had a couple things working against me on this one, but let me know what you think in the comments. First, it’s exponentially more difficult to paint (or draw for that matter) a dog that you know really well; getting the expression just right is nearly impossible. Secondly, the reference photo I used was, well, not the best. Wolfy does not like the paparazzi and therefore a workable pose from the furry prince was hard to come by. The third and final challenge was the recognition that Wolfy’s hair and color patterns were new to me and frankly very difficult to figure out.
You’ll notice the reference photo has a grid overlay, which helped tremendously and led to a few adjustments that were very helpful in terms of portrait accuracy. However, despite the grid and many hours of work on this piece, I feel like the final result leans cartoonish and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. I think it might be the length and width of the snout is simply off, but it might also be the plane of the forehead… or it’s his eyes. I don’t know. Thoughts?
Despite the challenges, I had a lot of fun with this composition. And although it was a slap down learning experience, I did educate myself alot about what works and what doesn’t. Some of the “what works” highlights that will carry over into future pieces are the brushwork for long fur, the use of reds in brown haired dogs (it’s there, it’s just hard to see), and the realistic texture of a palette knife for the tongue and nose.
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.
A composition comes around sometimes and slaps you in the face, a hard reminder that you don’t know jack squat about painting. In this case, 3 Pots told me I need to work harder on my plein air compositions, starting with the basics. There’s something addictive about plein air painting, even on the bad days that seem like you can’t get anything right.
This plein air session was at a workshop in Austin with Laurel Daniel, an exceptional artist and talented instructor. We were at Jennifer’s Gardens in central Austin and during the afternoon session I focused on 3 pots that were sitting on some terra cotta steps. They were in the shade, error #1. The green plant was in a green pot and the blue plant was in a blue pot, error #2. I decided to paint them anyway, error #3.
Despite the challenges in the field, one thing I did get right and was pretty excited about, was the initial block in. I was able to quickly get all 3 pots laid in properly and to scale without issue, something a few years ago I would have needed a few sessions to get right. Then everything went flat.
For the life of me I couldn’t get enough value contrast going, as if I was actually ignoring that basic design tenet. I really noticed in when I returned to the studio a few days later and was frankly amazed at the mono-value of the entire composition. There was also no getting around the design error of green pot on green plant and blue pot on blue plant.
I considered throwing it in the bin, but opted to spend a dedicated 2 hours, and not a minute more, to see how I could fix the core elements. The first step was to really push the darks throughout, which I would find later was the crux of the issue. I need to really recognize what “dark” looks like in outdoor lighting – more practice should remedy this issue. The next step of the fix was to blast the contrast in values next to the darkest darks with the brightest, most saturated hues. While I ended up painting over some of these areas later, the establishment of what the value range should entail was very helpful. Remember, error #1 was shitty composition selection, everything shaded and no lighting contrasts.
The remainder of the rework was trying to establish nuanced color differences between the artificial color of the pots and the “same” natural colors of the plants. This part was surprisingly interesting, something I’d never done before, but it proved a valuable learning experience that I know will come in handy with urban landscapes in the future.
I have another “flat” plein air piece to fix, but likely won’t have the patience to tackle it for a few weeks, but I will do a side by side comparison with 3 Pots when it’s done so we can see if I learned anything… or if I’m just a hopeless idiot sometimes.
I’ve been working on this piece off and on for the past few weeks. Sometimes I can get my head locked onto an idea that is not necessarily a bad concept, but I overlook the execution challenges, which are either a) well above my skill level, or b) something I forgot I hate doing. In this case it was the latter, specifically my reticence for painting anything with lettering. It’s so tedious, difficult, and frankly it blows my mind up a little every time I try.
The reference photo for Darwin was essential because it provided the actual Pfizer vaccine label details, and this particular photo was handy because it had that laboratory look and feel. I was drawn to the blue hues and the metallic lid, so I tried to emphasize those elements. Let’s be honest, a vial of vaccine is, well, not the most compelling still life.
From a technical perspective, there were a few challenges with Darwin. The most obvious was the lettering, which I did free hand in the hopes that it would have a painterly feel to it, as opposed to using a stencil with perfect lines and symmetry. However, even with a stencil, the biggest challenge would have been the contour of the round vial and the very subtle changes the letters make based on their positioning. Lastly, the sea of blues was very tricky because the source of the blue color is unknown and yet it permeates the table and the vaccine liquid itself.
It was also very important to point out that the “Darwin” name was replacing the vaccine manufacturer’s name, in this case Pfizer. I haven’t done a lot of compositions with alternative messaging, but this idea jumped in my head one day and it seemed to convey a number of thoughts and opinions, which could be open for interpretation depending on your own perspectives and beliefs.
For me, I’ve always said that Darwin was wrong, and the COVID pandemic is the poster child of this sentiment. Survival of the fittest doesn’t apply to humanity – it hasn’t since the Bronze Age. The “strong” are frequently challenged to counterbalance the obstinance, stupidity, incompetence, and most of all, the narcissism of the “weak” within our species. Would Darwin advocate for a vaccine? I think not – pretty sure he was a herd immunity kinda guy. But was he an anti-vaxxer? Or is Darwin actually right when it comes to COVID, namely that once the vaccines were rolled out, 99% (or something close to that figure) of deaths were the unvaccinated. Hmmmm… something to think about.
You gotta love the non-committal nature of messaging through art!
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.