Plein Air Watercolor Traps

“Coastal Litter”
Watercolor 15 x 22 inches
As you know, by now, rocks and cliffs along the ocean front here in Central California is an obsession for me.   I can’t seem to shake it.   And there are a few other habits I can’t seem to shake. . . .
One is copying what is right in front of me out there on the painting scene.   Not that what is in front is bad.   Not at all.  Because the beauty of those places is beyond description!   Garrapatta State Park is one of those places where a painter could stand in one spot for a very long time . . .maybe a year . . . . turn 360 degrees . . . .a few degrees at a time  . . . .and there are literally dozens of paintings looking straight out through every point on the compass!!   Weather changes, light changes, view changes, wind changes, temperature changes, surf changes, and more!  It is enough to boggle even the most experienced painter’s mind.
The Traps, you ask?   Those damned views !!!   I call them traps because there is little effort needed to reach into one’s creativity pouch to pull something especially unique out and put it on paper or canvas.  Falling for what is obviously in front of one is a trap where deep thinking is put aside in order to record what is seen.   (Yes, there is a school of thought out there that considers “accurate recording” “good art.”)   I don’t happen to feel that way.
More than a record, I have awakened to needing something more emotional . . . .more unique.   I don’t take the word “Unique” lightly.   When a painting is sincerely unique, it is the only image like it in the entire world.   It is a one of a kind, never to be repeated spiritual statement of the artist’s vision and feelings.  And, frankly, that takes careful thought and preparation . . . not just a five minute thumbnail sketch.
Another trap is to make a painting that fits into a ‘category’ of paintings well . . . . . as in “Landcape Impressionism.”   To make a painting look like a million other artists could have painted it (and maybe have!!).    Obviously, there are better quality or better versions of said same . . . .But!! . . . most of them are not “unique.”   There was a time when that uniqueness stood out . . . like when Monet was bringing Impressionism to the public.   Each of those artists had a personal vision!   It was different!
The other trap is to remain comfortable with what we are doing.   Yep!   Staying in the same mode, painting the same things, never taking a risk is just like signing a contract for one’s artistic demise!   In fact, I believe that is precisely what happens when a painter settles for what is in front of him (or her).   And, I must confess that is exactly where I have been for the last two or three years!
Yep!   There it is.   I have confessed.
So, let this be an introduction to my next phase of making stale paintings.   You may not think they are stale . . .and that is fine.   But the time has come for me to get out of my lethargy and do something special . . . to grow . . . .to change my thinking . . . .to reach farther . . .
Want to come along?   I want to begin a group of artists who will be accountable to each other and to reach beyond the mundane same ole stuff.   Come on!   Step up.  Join me.   Drop me a note at if you’d like to be accountable for new growth.

Eat That Which is Served!

“No Wind Today”
Watercolor 15 x 22 inches
en Plein Aire
A long time ago, my Mom made special awareness to all of us five kids at meal time:   You will eat what is served to you!”     “I am not cooking different meals for everyone who wants some thing more special than everyone else at the table.   Learn to enjoy that which is before you!
And so it is with painting en Plein Aire.   In artistic parlance, paint what is in front of us!   That does not mean that we cannot or should not add our own “style” or embellishments.   In fact, it shouldn’t mean that we don’t convert the image in front of us to our personal tastes . . . .abstract or realistic.   
Plein Air painting offers tuff cirumstances in which to paint.   Wind.  Cold.  Heat.   Sun.  Bugs.   Distracting People.   Inadequate equipment.   Difficult places to sit / stand.   Wildlife (skunks!).   Angry dogs.   Bothersome people.    People who have never painted a lick . . . .some who have . . . .and some whose “Aunt is an artist.”    You get the grist of it.    When Painting outside in the open air, there are lots and lots of conditions that try very hard to break your concentration.
That is, if you let them.
There is another side of the coin:   Standing in front of an easel, paints and brushes in hand, not knowing if you can carry it off right downtown Paris, France.   Or, standing in front of Yellowstone Falls painting the scene with one of your favorite artists, or Being at a secluded beach on a beautiful day watching every stroke be perfect,  Or Standing in the shallow, meandering water of the Merced River looking up at Half Dome in Yosemite park as the dome takes on an Alpine Glow and turns the color of a pumpkin.   Or, maybe it is when you are at Point Lobos State Park on the coast of the Monterey Peninsula, with two painting buddies . . . . everyone hyperventilating at the drop dead gorgeous scenery.   Or, fogging off to the French Conuntryside in the Lot River Valley trying to make artistic sense of a medieval village or citadel!  
Okay, so I have had my easel blown over and paintings spoiled while confronting the elements.   I have come home bitten and burned and sick to my stomach from hunger.   But, Baby, there is nothing like the places I have been and triedto paint (yes, unsuccessfully) !!!    I can still smell the air at Yellowstone Falls in the year 1995 . . . . .twenty years ago!!   I still look at the painting made while standing ankle deep in water of the Merced River because that was the best view . . . . .I can feel the trickle over my shoes!   And I can recount the crazy conversations and sharing the intense, deep connection with three friends while we painted Point Lobos.  (Google some images of that place!)
Yes, there are aggravations, distractions and disappointments.   But with them there are pleasures so rich and so unforgettable, that every one of those teensy little bothers are simply the external white noise to which we never pay much attention.
If you haven’t mustered the courage to fight off the elements and distractions, you are missing out on an extraordinary experience.   Those pleasures just sit out there waiting for us artists.   Yep.   They are sitting there right now ready to be eaten up by our excitement and our zeal to capture the beauty.
Thanks, Mom, for training me to eat what I have been served!!

Color Harmony . . .

 “Walk to the Lighthouse”
Watercolor 15 x 22 inches


“On Chimney Rock”
Watercolor 15 x 22 inches
The words “Color Harmony” are frequently spoken, but it is my concerted opinion that many painters simply miss the meaning of the words and, moreover, how to apply them to their paintings.
On a recent trip to teach a short Plein Air painting workshop at Point Reyes National Seashore, every day was overcast and foggy . . . . .and some of the painters were disappointed in the fact that there ‘was no sun or shadow.’    I understand their disappointment.   When the sun is out, there are shadows and lots of predictable color.   But there is predictable and even beautiful color when us painters are faced with overcast or foggy days.   In fact, we can achieve wonderful color harmony in painting foggy or overcast conditions.
Eh?   Whaddya mean, Mike?   Simply this:  Gray is present in EVERY color.   Rich, saturated color simply is not present, for the most part, in overcast settings.  Granted, flowers seem to be of neon in those conditions, but the overall general dominant color is of the gray family.
Harmonies have to do with relatedness.   We can really affect harmony by selecting one characteristic of color and insuring that that one characteristic is present in every color in the painting.   For example, we can establish a temperature harmony where there is a cool or warm dominance through the painting.   Or, we can set a harmony by assuring that the dominant condition of all the colors in a painting are fully saturated, high chroma colors.   Indeed, when painting in overcast conditions, the gray sky color dominates the landscape.  There is a noticeable lack of shadow, so ‘things’ must be connected through their relatedness of color . . . . in this case, the presence of gray in every brush load of pigment.
Gray is a relative term, actually.   Think of “gray” as toning down a color . . . . .add its compliment . . . . . . it isn’t necessary to take the mix all the way to near black or neutral . . . . . . . . .just reduce the chroma of the color so that it is noticeably neutralized.   If every color has that characteristic, there is a distinct relatedness to all the colors in the painting . . . .a harmony.
A gentleman by the name of Faber Birren made his career in color harmony.  Google him and read up about how he set different painting harmonies (I call them painting strategies!).   You will see that there is something very worth your time (if you are a serious painter) by studying his work.
And if you ever get the chance, Point Reyes, in northern California, is a must visit sort of place.   It is a desolate, wind swept and exposed section of the coast that holds an enormous wildlife population and scenery worthy of your time.   Sir Francis Drake discovered the wonderful bay there and kept his ships from the ravages of weather on that coast by hiding in that bay.

Staying In The Fight

watercolor 18 x 22 inches
There is an underlying, ever present, persistent obstacle that clobbers plein air watercolor and acrylic painters.   It is the one thing that forces the watercolor painter to be on top of his or her game at all times during the painting process.  In fact it is so persistent and so unobtrusive that it will clobber the efforts of even the most experienced and advanced studio painter.
This obstacle . . .or this challenge (you might call it that) . . . is so in the face of the painter and so omnipresent that most painters are not even conscious of it.
Eh?  What??
When there is such a challenge as this, it calls into action the least fun of the painting skill set so that the urgency of the fight becomes the center of the painting process.  In other words, if the painter is not prepared to deal with this challenge, the painting will most often fail.   Well, if not fail, then it will not blossom into that glorious state of miraculous, wonderful outcome that makes us painters leap with excitement and thrills for having accomplished such a piece of work.
This challenge calls into the painting process A PLAN OF ACTION.   That plan must be present in the painter’s mind so that there is no . . . repeat: NONE. . . . hesitancy in the act of painting.   The painter must know how, exactly he or she is going to paint each part of the painting . . . .from color choices, to value assignments, to the order of what gets painted first, to management of edges and that plan must be executed with speed . . . .or shall I say with urgency.
Yikes!  What do you mean, Mike?   What is this ornery challenge that takes the joy away from a lingering form of meditative bliss that we studio painters enjoy so much?
In the outdoors, there are a few things that can wallop a painter before he begins . . . sunlight being one of those.   While we painters all LOVE the sun and what it does with light and shadow, being in the direct sun will spoil a painting very quickly.  It bakes the paint.   AND . . . . .it really changes how we perceive color and value . . . . especially when that paper is pure white and the light from the sun is reflecting back into our eyes and causing our vision to actually diminish from the glare.
But that isn’t it.   It certainly deserves attention . . . like getting the painting into the shade . . .under a tree or umbrella or just out of the direct sun.
What I am speaking of here is the rapid, almost imperceptible speed of evaporation that exists when painting outdoors.   Yep.  That’s what I am talking about:  Drying time.
A great wash requires that the wash remain wet for a period of time so that the fluid can slide down the face of the paper and remain wet so that it dries uniformly.   If the paint dries so fast that the brush cannot complete laying down the wash before the beginning of the wash dries, then the painter is in a fight to insure that his painting isn’t baked before he completes it.
When we are confronted with fast drying time there is no time to step back and make those long considered decisions that form the core of that meditative state we painters all love so much.   The painter must act so that his work is staying ahead of the paint drying too rapidly.  Otherwise, there will be hard nasty edges all over the work . . .in places that they aren’t wanted.
The solution is to spend some of that meditative bliss in the preparation to paint.   Do a few good value sketches.   Become familiar with the subject.   Plan where edges need to be soft or where transitions need to occur by having the colors mingle and blur.   Know ahead of time the order in which the big shapes will be painted and when you intend to charge in another color before a wash dries.   Have the composition drawn out so that there is no room or time for retreats.   Hot dry days do not allow for these decisions to be made on the fly.   They have to be planned so that the painter is always ahead of the paint drying and is in a position to manipulate the paint while it is wet.
Mixing colors and mindlessly stirring them around in the palette is a waste of valuable time.  one must be decisive and must be willing to stand by those decisions without consideration and mental debate.   In short, the painter must act with deliberate certainty.   Serve up the color, put down the stroke and live with the result.  The only way that can happen is to have a very solid plan ahead of time.   It is sort of like knowing when to swing the bat when the pitch is delivered . . . there is no time to think . . .just react.
The painting above was done en plein air in France on a very hot day.   The only available shady place actually dictated what subjects there were to choose from.  Once in the shady place, I fiddled with different compositional alternatives in a sketch book.  Then I nailed down a few solid value studies so that I knew exactly where my lights, mediums and darks would be and when they would be painted.  It was so hot that afternoon that my plan to charge in cerulean blue into a sky wash of yellow ochre was immediately thwarted because the ochre dried before I finished laying it in.  I couldn’t get cerulean blue on the brush fast enough to catch the ochre before it was dry.  Then and there, I realized that I had to act fast and execute my plan with dispatch!   I had to speed up.   The entire painting was finished in around 45 minutes (including planning time!).  And during that time I was conscious of nothing else but what was happening on the surface of the paper.   I had to stay in the fight against drying time for the duration!
Part of the charm of a great watercolor painting is that it appears to have been painted with startling urgency . . . and that it remains “fresh.”   That is that the paint doesn’t appear to have been fussed over and there was a clarity of purpose by the artist.   The only way to get that is to P L A N.
I stress this too in studio painting instruction.   Planning is the center piece of excellence in watercolor painting and, in particular, in painting outside.

A Plain Trap . . . .

 “Natural Bridge”
Watercolor 15 x 22 inches
“The Big Lump”
Actual Photo
After spending hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of hours painting outdoors, en plein air, I have come to know the traps.
The biggest trap is the distractions, of course.   Huh?   What do you mean, Mike?
Notice the photo.   This photo seems rather pedestrian in terms of a ‘beautiful scene’ already set to paint.   I just is NOT one of those scenes.
This is what I saw when I first came onto the beach yesterday. . . . .   And noticed, immediately, the blast of light between the two “Lumps.”   Of course, I decided to explore the area more to try to find that perfect scene to paint.   I walked all over the area, spent a good 45 minutes trying to find that perfect spot, with the perfect point of view of the big rock that has a tunnel through it.  
No matter where I went, I wasn’t enthralled with what I was seeing.    That “lump,” as I call it, was nothing more than a lump with a hole through it.   It wasn’t a nice shape, it had no character, it just wasn’t what anyone would call inspiring or spectacular.
So, having exhausted the possibilities, I decided to go near where I had entered the beach and where I had seen that blast of light.   I could make a painting that emphasized that wonderful light and not worry about finding the ideal scene.   But then . . . . .look at all the pelicans on the rock!! (lump! ) . . . .what if I painted the pelicans? . . . . .and look at that shadow being cast on the sand and into the water . . . . .Oh!   There’s a wave crashing against the “lump” and making a spectacular slash of white foam . . . . and what if I painted the sky orange . . . .could I make a sunset scene?   So many possibilities came to distract me from my one idea of the blaring light between the two big rocks.
I was being tempted by the biggest trap of all:   All the other possibilities.   And, I must say, some of those possibilities were very alluring.   But I have learned . . . . .oh, yes!   My lessons have been hard won by sooooo many painting failures . . . .all of which failed because I didn’t focus on ONE IDEA.   I have made so many paintings in which there was too much included.
So . . . . .I set up my gear slowly, while I contemplated what I was going to do with this painting.   Then after the equipment was in place, out came my sketch book and pencil.   I made four different value sketches to determine how I was going to achieve my goal of telling the story of that light between the rocks.   Oh!   I almost forgot to mention that the first sketches immediately showed poor compostition.   I needed to find the right layout . . . . .the right positioning on the paper for that big shape of  the land jutting onto the beach.   What’s more, I realized that making an active water painting, or including exciting splashes and waves would be another distraction from my singular idea:   The light between the rocks.
Obviously, dear reader, you get the idea here.   The trick to making a lot of successful paintings in plein air is to ignore the distractions and stubbornly stick to your single idea that you want to emphasize.  
It seems so simple!!  Doesn’t it?   How could anything be more simple???  
Well, I am here to tell you . . . . . . .it ain’t!   But it is terrific advice for ALL paintings.   Make up your mind about what you are going to paint (that is the idea, not the all encompassing subject) and don’t be dissuaded from it.   Stick to your plan.   Commit to your plan.   Ignore the distractions . . . or save them for other paintings.  

A Plein Air Set Up For Watercolor

A Well Thought Out Plein Air Painting Kit
When a watercolor painter decides to paint outside in the open air the first few times, it can be a terrible experience . . . . .Imagine all the things one must carry in order to paint!   A palette on which to mix paint, an easel to hold a board, on which there is paper fastened, brushes, plenty of water, a place to set a palette and a few tools and, yes, an umbrella, warm clothes, a hat to shield ones eyes from the sun, and just about anything else you could think of.  (Yes, I made a run on sentence on purpose . . . for effect!)   
I remember the first few times I set out to paint outside.   I had to make multiple trips from my car to get everything to the painting site.   Sheeesh!   Was this really worth all the effort?
Eventually, and over time, ease of carrying such a boat load of stuff became the priority.   I have tried nearly everything in the journey to establish myself as a habitual plein air painter.   Starting with an acute case of ignorance, I listened to the wrong advisors when I first started out.   Jeeeze!   In addition to all the stuff mentioned above I brought along TV Trays and two different kinds of stools!   It was hilarious!  I might just as well have brought a couch!
I began, somewhere back there, with a full sized french easel . . . .which is nice and stable, but heavy and awkward.   (You won’t find many ladies carrying one of those around!)
Then, I went to the “back packer” half french easel.   Yep!   Still the same problems, but a step better.   I found there is no place to set things unless you reach around behind the work to do so.
Then there were various telescoping, three legged easels.   These were an improvement, but with them, there is NO place to set anything . . . .and a palette need a place to sit flat.  They work fine if you haul in a small table (like a TV tray) along with a bunch of other stuff.
Eventually I have arrived at a terrific set up.  Here it is. . . . .
It begins with an inexpensive, very light weight camera tripod.   I now use the Sunpak 6601, available from   Shop for price on this, there are places that sell it for double Amazon’s price!
Onto the tripod goes the Sun_Eden “Travelling Adapter.”   This device is what holds the painting board and paper.  See it here.   This nicely made “clamp” is strong and lightweight and breaks down into a small 14 inch package you can easily jam into any sort of carrying gear.
That “adapter” is screwed into the quick release attachment that comes with the tripod.   It then is clipped into the tripod which makes a terrific easel.
Under the “Travelling Adapter” on the tri pod, I have found a simple, rugged shelf which merely sits on two of the tripod legs.   It is available from   You can see it here.  There are no parts to worry about or fancy adjustments.  It slips onto the legs and is very stable.  It has a big hole to hold a fairly good sized water cup.   It also has a number of holes into which brushes can be inserted so they don’t roll off into the dirt someplace.
The shelf easily holds a full sized watercolor palette or a folding palette.   I have evolved into a plein air painting equipment junkie!   So, I recently acquired my new “Color Gizmo,” as I have dubbed it.   It is a hand held palette with LOADS of mixing capability.   See it here.  Each well is big enough to absorb a 1 1/2 inch flat brush and the mixing wells are simply fabulous!
Add two small (4 oz) plastic bottles . . . .a sprayer and a dripper.   I use the latter for adding water to my large washes in the mixing wells of the palette. ( I dislike having to remix more paint midway through a wash! Having to do so outside, where the paint dries quickly, it can cause big trouble!)
I carry a quart of water in a plastic container.  That container has a loop on it which allows me to hook it to the outside of a small day sized back pack via a carabiner.  That carabiner is useful for hooking the backpack to the easel when it is set up in a windy situation.  The backpack has extra weight that can help the easel hold on in good breeze.   On the other hand, I carry a “pouch” which clips to the legs of the tripod and can be filled with rocks, sand or dirt to really weigh down the easel.   The one I use comes from and can be seen here.  Called the “Utility / Stone Bag” it is reasonably priced and has saved my setup from blowing away more than a few times.

The last item is seemingly unimportant to the novice, but I can attest that it is enormously helpful. . . . .the plein air painting umbrella.   The one in the above picture is “okay” and is also from and can be seen here.   They have improved their clamping system from the one shown in the picture above and seems to be fairly good.   I recently bought another umbrella for my oil painting kit, “Best Brella” . . . .which has a superior clamping mechanism and really tuffs it out in a wind.  Their website and product can be seen here.  If I was able to compare the two side by each, I believe I would have opted for the “Best Brella” because it is a superior product.  These both clamp to one of the tripod legs.

You wouldn’t believe the positions these umbrellas take when attached to different artists equipment!   You’ll see them sticking straight out, parallel to the ground, when the sun is low.  And you will see them at all sorts of odd angles as the day’s artwork progresses.

The umbrella will be of immense assistance in mixing your colors when subtlety is necessary.  Sun glare bleaches out what we see on our palette, causes our eyes to dilate down to null and reduces our proclivity to see color nuances.   In addition, the umbrella shades the work in progress.   The sun creates evil on the face of a watercolor while painting, believe me!   So, make sure that you have this piece of equipment.   If you go cheap, you will be very disappointed!

While you and your work are protected from the sun with the umbrella, you are also vulnerable to the least amount of wind, should it come up.   The umbrella, though designed to be in a wind, can act as a parachute and will carry away your gear if you don’t weigh down your easel with plenty of weight. And it does happen.   Chasing a renegade easel in the wind can be very dis-heartening!  (believe me, I know!)   When painting on the edge of a cliff, overlooking the ocean it would be tragic to see your equipment sail over the edge and be lost forever!

There are a few other items, which I have found imperative  . . . .one of which is a wide brimmed hat.  Aside from UV protection, that brim shades your eyes and continues to give you the vision acuity you need to be able to truly see color subtleties.  Another is a pocket full of Kleenex (tissues).   These necessary for a variety of little chores while painting . . . .and nose blowing isn’t one of them! . . . .palette cleaning and blotting paint being the chief chores.

The last and final item is a back pack.   You might find this humorous, but I brought all my paraphernalia into a shop and, with the help of a sales clerk, loaded pack after pack until we found the right pack that could accommodate everything (with room for a lunch in the pack) and was comfortable!  Once found and assured that all would indeed fit, the test was to fill the pack and walk around the store with it on.

Now, instead of needing a trailer attached to my car to get the gear to the painting site, I can literally RUN with all my gear on my back and do so in comfort.   The pack I chose was a small “day pack.”   It isn’t big and bulky and there is lots of room inside to add the incidental stuff, if needed.

I have yet to mention the important board and paper . . . . I use Gator Board, extremely lightweight, and stretch my paper on it the day before going out  . . . . and I carry that piece in my hand.   I have paper stretched on both sides of the board (to protect the board from warping under the pressure of shrinking cotton paper) to allow me the luxury of making more than one painting when I am out.   Generally, I paint on half sheets (15 x 22 inches) but this equipment allows me to work on full sheets, 22 x 30 inches.

If you have questions about any of this, leave them in the comments.  I promise to answer.

With the Studio You Have, WHY . . . .?

“Strafe at Low Altitude”
watercolor 15 x 22 inches
“With the beautiful studio you have, why do you bother to paint out doors?   I mean, packing all that paraphernalia, the water, the sketch books, an easel, a chair and so much more!   What a drag!”
Yes, I go out almost every week to paint out doors.   Maybe this story will help you understand why I do.   In short, there is so much more to it than just painting or having to worry about moving all that equipment . . . . . .
I wrote this last week to some email friends.   It pretty much sums up the “extra goodies” waiting for outdoor painters.
Plein air painting again yesterday.   We went north of town about 20 miles to a big beach where the outlet of a creek (Wadell Creek)  enters the ocean.  What made us stop there was an enormous ‘lake’ that had formed on the beach and a beautiful shaped headland at the end of the beach shrouded in a mysterious mist.   It was in the morning hours when we arrived.  The weather was a pleasant 68 degrees with an ever so slight slight breeze.   While painting I began to notice flights of pelicans floating over the waves and how they would fly very close to the face of the wave and just glide along.   As the morning progressed, more flights would show up, until flights were coming down the beach every 20 seconds with something from 10 to 30 birds in each flight.   As I began to take notice and look more carefully, I realized that all these birds were landing into the lake at the far end of the beach, almost out of sight.   As the birds poured in from every direction, I was beginning to think that something was really “up.”   So many many pelicans and they just kept coming and coming!   They fly in formations that are remindful of fighter jets as they fly low and strafe the wave tops.
Eventually, I could take it no more.  I had finished my painting and decided to walk down the beach to investigate.   As I drew closer (very slowly) I could see that the pelicans were bathing in the lake, then, when finished, they came out of the water to sit on the beach with their brethren. . . . . . .  . .and there were thousands of them sitting there looking out to sea and preening.  What an incredible sight!
Pelicans are anything but small.   A normal adult bird, when sitting, will stand three feet tall to the top of the head.   With thousands of birds on the beach, all one could see was a forest of heads and beaks!   It was just a blur of these strange looking, fuzzy ‘stumps’ sticking up for nearly as far as one could see!   I only got within about 50 yards of them when they began to get agitated and took flight, which was another of those OMG moments because there were so many of them lifting off at once . . . the sky nearly black!
I walked back to put my painting gear away and to head home.  My buddy and I loaded the car while we watched more and more birds pour into that spot, while others took flight and headed southward along the beach and parallel to the highway.  While we drove down the highway, we noticed that there was a flight of about thirty pelicans immediately to our right and keeping pace with our car!!   Scott looked at the speedometer to see that we were moving at 50 mph and those crazy birds were staying right with us . . . . . .and so effortlessly!   They were merely gliding!   They hardly flapped their wings.    
What is so cool about watching these guys is that they follow the edges of the cliffs that face the ocean and fly just above the edges.   The breeze coming in from the sea forces an updraft there which sustains the birds’ altitude and they simply slide along at 50MPH !
And people wonder why I am so crazy to be going out doors to paint when I have such a fantastic studio!!!
Apparently, these big birds migrate north from Mexico.   Where they go, I don’t know.  For now, there are enormous schools of anchovies in our bay and these birds are swarming to grab their share of the extra chow.   They are being aided by whales, dolphins and sea lions chasing the tiny fish to the surface.   It is a sight to see pelicans diving out of a cloud of birds into the water to gobble up the tiny fish!

Breaking Out of Bad Habit

“Three Directions”
Watercolor 15 x22 inches
As any other painter knows, we can get caught in painting habits we don’t like . . . .and we can repeat them over and over, knowing all the while that this is a bad habit.
I suppose that I am as vulnerable to the vagaries of age as anyone and was blaming my bad habits on age . . . . .well, dammit, I am not that old!   And furthermore, I knew well what I needed to do to break out of this bad habit if being too tight in my painting adventures.   I needed to loosen up . . . . .But HOW?
This last week, I spent in Yosemite co-teaching a wonderful group of painters with Dale Laitinen.
I have always admired and respected Dale’s style of painting, but more than that his design skills.   As well, he is a fine teacher in that he can articulate his thoughts and what he does on the painting as he paints.   As I was teaching, I could not help observe him in his demos.   It was exactly what I needed to break free of my absurd tight habit.   
The day this painting happened began quite cold while we began painting at the edge of the Merced River.   As we laid in our first washes, the paint crystalized right before our eyes!   It was 26 degrees and the river was freezing up, too!!   Nevertheless, as I stepped to the easel, I had a bit of a conversation with myself about how I was going to attack this painting day:  Solid designs and painting with big, loose gestures instead of making tight looking things in my painting.
As the day and the paintings finished, I pulled Dale aside and thanked him for the quality of his instruction . . . . .no it wasn’t directed at me . . . . . .just the stuff I had seen and overheard was all that was needed to break out of a bad habit.   
What I gathered from this experience was an idea:   When I find that my habits are causing me concern in the way I paint, go paint with the very person who does the absolute opposite . . . . maybe some of it will rub off!
Happy Painting! 

Blind Hog

“Reflecting Garrapata”
Oil on Canvas Panel 12 x 16 inches
Where I live, it can be gray most of the time.   In the vicinity of Big Sur (The Pacific Coast south of Monterey, CA) even in summer, it can be foggy, windy and cold . . .especially in August.   When the call came from my friend, Scott, to go to lunch and paint afterward near Big Sur, I jumped at the chance.  Even though I knew the weather conditions could be, shall we say, unwelcoming, the opportunity to be in extraordinary scenery, painting with someone as enthused about it as I, I could not pass on the chance.   So, we decided to leave late in the day, go out to a nice seafood lunch then paint afterward.   
We arrived at Garrapata State Park around 2:30 PM.   I have never, ever witnessed such perfect conditions on this coastline . . . .and I have lived here since the age of 12!    The sun was shining, there was no wind, the waters was as quiet as a lake!   Usually, there are waves breaking every 10 to 20 seconds . . .one after the other and the water is rough and roily . . .no a place anyone would opt to swim.   This water was as calm and quiet as a mirror.
The scenery there offers a morass of rocks, ice plant, water, dark trees and colors that would make any painter swoon.   The problem with that is there is sooo much input that it is overwhelming.  Us guys who have painted outdoors for many years understand the necessity to simplify . . . .to cut out all the superfluous and to focus on one idea.   We have the experience of having decided to make a painting full of the whole scene for several hours and have it kick us six ways from Sunday.  It is better to choose one thing and to make a painting of that one thing and be successful, rather than try to include everything and fail.   
Upon our arrival, we immediately noticed the reflections in the water of the big rocks near the shore.   I decided immediately to focus on that one thing.   Mind you, I was painting in oil.   I had never tackled painting sensitive reflections in oil before.   What did I know ?   I mean to say I knew nothing of how one could go about this . . . .I was Blind!!
As an aside, my eldest daughter (age 45) has taken up painting recently and is experienced frustration in wanting to be successful in all her early attempts.   What I have failed to tell her in her introductions is that we never fully know how to paint everything that comes at us painters.   We are always fumbling and making blind attempts with little or no experience.   After many, many years of experience and painting frequently, one comes to know his or her medium and what it will and won’t do.   One gets to know a few tricks here and there that help a painting come to life.   But there are A LOT of failures getting to that point.  

So, one comes to expect poor or lackluster results while one is in the learning mode.   ( I have been messing round with oils for four years and am just coming to where I have a sense of what will happen when I put brush to canvas . . .but I have a long, long way to go).   I think the goal is to accumulate 10,000 hours of good experience.   Meanwhile, I am a blind hog searching for acorns.

I am told that even a BLIND HOG can find an acorn once in a while.   Yesterday was such a day!

“That’s the Way it Was. It was THERE!”

“Pont Valentre”
watercolor 15 x 22 inches
Ever since first seeing this fortified medieval bridge for the first time, I have wanted to paint it.   There is something stirring about the vision of this amazingly old structure, built in 1350 AD, standing over the Lot River in Cahors, France!   It is the last standing fortified bridge of this age in Europe.  
History aside, the painting challenges presented by this structure and the river would entertain any painter . . . accomplished or otherwise.   There were, originally, three towers on the bridge . . .one at each end and one in mid river.   Should the artist paint the whole bridge?   I mean “one must paint what one sees, correct?”   I don’t think so.   After all, whether the viewer of the painting has or has not seen the actual location, the viewer is still confronted with all the vagaries of the painting itself:   There must be a strong composition.  Dark and light shapes must be considered and how they are placed inside the picture plane is what holds a viewer’s attention.   It doesn’t matter if the correct colors are used . . . .or if all the bricks and limestone blocks show up or not . . . .It really doesn’t matter if the details, like the shapes of the windows in the towers, are shown.   It boils down to the composition.   Yes, reflections and that sort of thing make the painting entertaining, but, if one really looks beyond naming aspects of the picture, those reflections are still part of the light / dark arrangement of shapes in the picture plane.
So, I omitted the mid span tower.   Why?   Well, it served the composition better to omit it.
Then, someone will remark about the ripples in the water . . . . .Originally, those ripples didn’t exist in the painting.   It was originally set to show the water as a flat mirroring plane.   But, alas, the eye fell right out of the picture as those long reflections led the viewer straight down and out.   As we read left to right, there was nothing to halt the eye from wandering off the page to the right side.   So, the ripples were put in to break up those straight verticals.   And they were sloped upward, as they moved to the right, to slow the eye and to hold the eye in the picture.
Trickery, you say?   I suppose you could even say “cheap tricks.”   Fact is that the artist must resort to these sort of design considerations in every painting he or she makes . . . .even if it doesn’t look like what’s there.   The artist’s job is to make well designed paintings . . . .not a photograph using paint.   Just because it was “there” doesn’t mean that it needs to be painted