Watercolor En Plein Air

“Three Graces”
watercolor, 15 x 22 inches

For many years I painted watercolors outdoors with friends. Some worked and some didn’t. There was, however, a certain energy about the paintings that made them very recognizable from studio work.

Perhaps that energy is a result of the difficulty of painting with watercolor outside. I consider myself confident in executing an outdoor piece, but I must say that in spite of my confidence and speed of delivery, there is just something that keeps me in the studio. Plein air painting is a giant pain in the rear, if you know what I mean.

While I have worked out the kinks and the difficult processes of setting up and operating in a ‘studio’ outside, in the wind and blinding light, it is still a love / hate relationship for me.

While in Yosemite, I made, at least, one plein air piece per day . . . .and usually did a studio piece each day, as well. This piece, of the ‘three graces’ (I think that is the name) was one of those incredible days where every wash behaved, every color did what it was supposed to do and the wind only come along at the finish. Out in this meadow, near the base of El Capitan, the light sparkled on the edges of this giant set of rocks, while in the crevices the light hid in mysterious darks. The light coming through the yellowed trees at the base of the rockwalls were luminous. It was a blast to paint! But inside all of the processes, more lessons came forth which reminded me what I should be doing in the studio.

One of those lessons was to paint vertically if I want great washes. Having gravity naturally pull the pigment laden water down the page reveals granulations and effects one can never cause on a piece of paper, no matter how expert the painter might be. So, I am doing exactly that. I had forgotten how important it is and allowed the comfort of control to take over. Invariably, the discomfort of a painting getting ‘out of hand’ is when the great stuff shows up.

On to the next one! Let the paint flow downward.

Two Versions

“Downstream Autumn”
watercolor, 15 x 22 inches
“Bottom of the Dome”
watercolor 15 x 22 inches
There is a park in California called Yosemite National Park. If you have been there, you KNOW that it touches the soul. If you have never been, it must be put on your ‘bucket list’ to go before the end of your life. If you go, you will, no doubt return. One cannot help but be struck with awe by witnessing the immensity of the granite walls.

I just finished spending a week there . . . .painting. The images I have posted during October were of that place. My heart and mind were already making paintings long before I went there. As a result, I had ideas for experiments and trials of different painting approaches when I arrived.

One was to use bright red orange line through a painting to define flat shapes. Another, of course, was to paint en plein air the beautiful Autumn foliage.

At the river bottom, under the shadow of the massive half dome, I painted some reality on my first day . . .and dreamt of the orange line idea for a few nights before springing from bed early one morning to dash out the idea. I rather like the imapact of the pure hues and tints against the near black ridge in the abstracted version. Impactful. But the other version offers a significantly different mood. . . . . A restfulness, I suppose.

It matters not. What matters is the idea was carried out. In later posts I will show similar ideas tried . . . .which offerred interesting discoveries.

It was a wonderful, magical trip with lots of revelations to ponder and try.

The Power of Line

“Sax and Line”
Watercolor, 11 x 15
“Still Doodle 100”
watercolor, 15 x 22

Line has been used for centuries to create various kinds of art. In drawing, of course, much of that discipline is controlled by line. In painting, also, line plays a vital part in causing the mind to ‘see’ the artist’s intention. And, line can be both expressed directly, or it is often implied by ‘points’ or objects, where the mind imagines the connections and, therefore, can ‘see’ the ‘lines.’

As an element of design, line is often the first element put into play by the artist as he or she sketches or outlines objects and placement thereof onto canvas or paper. It isn’t until later that shading (values), texture and color are added to express some visual feeling of form and space. Line itself can be the dominant element in a painting. If used in certain ways, it can suggest, without actually delineating, shape or form through simple gestural movement in the picture space.

It is often challenging, enlightening and entertaining to select a single element from the list of seven elements and bring it to prominence in a painting. What is more, such choices can often set up ideas for new paintings.

I have shown some line ideas here in these two doodles (that’s what I am coming to call experiments that have no purpose of ever becoming a finished or a “work of art.” Notice how shape is merely suggested with line. Also, you may find some of the lines worthy of noting simply for their own ‘beauty’ or character.

Line is used in the still life doodle to show contour, surface, texture, direction and even shadow. . . . . .all of those things without actually saying any those things expressly. The other piece, line is used as a gestural suggestion without defining shape. The mind has to fill in the blanks.
Enjoy thinking about it.

Playing “What If”

“Still Life-98”
watercolor, 15 x 22 inches

As you already know, I have been working on many different versions of this same still life.

Nothin’ new, you say?

I would beg your indulgence for just a moment. Playing “What If” is no boring pastime. It is the sure path to discovering something new, something unusual . . . . .and certainly the path to finding one’s personal voice in painting. Y’see, when the artist has nothing to lose and it doesn’t matter what others think about a piece, that artist is much more willing to take chances and try things that may not make sense or to take risks when more ‘serious’ approaches would cause risk avoidance.

As this painting was finished today, there was a missing element in the lower right foreground. It was here that the risk was staring back at me and mocking me to go ahead. The pattern of “dotted i’s” on the green vase needed another repetition and that lower corner needed some of that neutralized green to balance things. So, there it is. Could I have spoiled the painting? Yep. Was I taking a risk (can’t erase here with all that surrounding texture)? Yep. Does it make sense or seem ‘real?’ Nope. Did it work? Yep.

I think, frankly, that little silly touch is actually funny. The entire tone of the painting (mood) is sort of tongue in cheek. The entire painting is constructed of “what if” shapes and colors and values. Reality is suggested when it couldn’t possibly be that way. So, the doodling around with an old theme, just messin’ with ideas to see what would happen exposed some new approaches having to do with repeating patterns, gradations, shapes and color intensities. I learned more today!

Isn’t that what this painting business is all about? Growth and learning?

Series Article

Still life 93
Watercolor 15 x 22 inches
You have, no doubt, heard about the idea of ‘working in series.’

There are tons of reasons for it, one of which is to improve on a theme. The least obvious is that through the confinement of doing some single thing over and over again is that the artist’s creative mind is awakened and begins to work overtime. I say that it is liberation through confinement.

In fact, if you’d like to know more about the process of series work and what it can do for you and your art . . . . .or if you are a lay person and want to truly understand what the mystery is inside of an artist’s work process . . . . .pick up a copy of the October issue of “WATERCOLOR ARTIST” magazine.
In that magazine is an article entitled, “Play it Again” authored by yours truly. I hope you find it interesting.
Oh, the painting above is another in the long series of still life experiments. This one was done yesterday. I do these when I yearn to paint but have no specific idea of **what** to paint. This helps me loosen up for paintings to come, exercises my creative muscles, opens thinking channels, allows me to experiment without danger of failure and on and on and on. Thought you might like to see how I ‘doodle’ with my paints.

Oil Brushwork

“Henry’s Purple Patch”
Oil on canvas panel, 8 x 10 inches
I am not sure this painting shows it off well . . .or that any of the others do either. The reason I am not sure, is that brushwork is actually ignored, infavor of no brushstrokes being evident, in watercolor. I am a watercolor painter learning painting. Yep~! Us artists are ALWAYS learning. Always on the lookout for another way to say what needs saying . . .(or to avoid it).
As an element of design, texture is right up there with Line, Shape, Value and Color. It is clearly visible and adds a sense of tactileness to a painting. In watercolor, one must work to obtain texture. It some cases, texture is almost an after thought. Not so with oil. No siree!! With oil, you get texture with every brush stroke! It is when texture is not wanted that a conscious effort must be made to eliminate it. Just the opposite from watercolor.
I have been scolded and complimented on “brushwork.” And it is the least able to be articulated verbally or in print in order to teach how to do it ‘well.’ It is perceived as good, or it isn’t. At least, that is my take on it. Swirls, swishes, schmushes, schlobs and plops all count in the brushwork world. Its when to and when not to that makes the difference (I think). Brushwork expresses texture and edges throughout the painting.
I suppose one must have a sense for aerial perspective to know when and when not to emphasize it . . . .is that correct? Anyone have any ideas about brushwork? Sometimes, I think I am coming to terms with it and it becomes automatic. Other times I catch myself wondering.
Painting these meadow paintings is giving me lots of practice and plenty of room to try stuff. I am learning that holding that long brush by the last end of the handle makes better brushwork. I am also beginning to consciously make an effort to make it all different . . .lots of variation. I know there are some who would argue that, but I sure am not informed about it.
So, here’s your chance, oil painters. Tell me bout it, if you can. I can’t say I am mystified, but I am not far from it.

The Dance

“Red Rover”
Oil on canvas panel, 12 x 16 inches
As stated in a recent post, this month is about focusing on plein air painting.

I can get very excited about this stuff, especially when the weather is offering sunshine and lots of subjects to paint. I must confess that I have taken on a near madness in this pursuit . . . .making two paintings a day! Yes. I am falling out of bed at sunrise, pulling on some clothes and leaving the house to paint. In five days, ten paintings have appeared. So far this month, 20 paintings have happened. And I have more waiting to be done. (Yes, there is other stuff getting accomplished, too, for those who are wondering about that. 😉 )

I am not sure of what to do with all this energy, except that I have an ethic about getting better and better at something. That ethic is to practice . . . .a lot !! If being taught by an expert, the expert will openly say something to the effect of “get the first 500 paintings out of the way, quickly,” . . . . . . which is really about producing quantity versus concern for quality. In that production of quantity, all sorts of things develop . . .not the least of which is to build a firm familiarity with how the medium responds. Moreover, a relaxation by the artist takes over at some point. That is an attitude of accepting what is happening on the canvas rather than trying to steer it. It is there, in that attitude that one’s style emerges. It is there, in that attitude that quality appears as a result of an internal knowing of what that medium will do when left undisturbed. (Am I saying this correctly?) . . . .and so leaving that brush stroke to say what it will.

In a fascinating book I am reading, “The Outliers,” by Malcom Gladwell, he speaks of mastery of anything coming as a result of being involved with it for ten thousand hours. Yes, it sounds like a lot of time. When I thought about it, and recounted what amount of time has passed while I had a watercolor brush in hand over the years (or was studying it) . . . .those hours long since passed. Who was counting?? Not me! I just wanted to paint!! Just like today. I just want to paint. I have to paint. That is to say, there is not a choice. I must!

Maybe mastery will come at some point. Maybe it won’t. I don’t care if it does or does not. In the chase, I get to paint !! And that, Dear Reader, is what makes this guy’s clock tick. It is the music to which I dance . . . . .and dance . . .and dance . . .and dance! What a joy!

And this painting above was simply the joy to undertake the challenge. Life is sooo good!

Walnut Tunnel

“Walnut Ave. Dappling”
oil on stretched canvas, 20 x 30 inches
After three plein air sessions at Walnut Ave, it was time to do a large piece . . . .wellll . . . . . . . .let’s just say larger. By comparison, this piece is huge. But not as huge as a five footer.

This was another test for me . . . . A test to remain spontaneous and loose. My tendency is to get tight with my work, but I adore the looseness of both oil and watercolor as it enlists the viewer to employ the imagination.

The textures of the trees, the warm to cool transition, as the viewer goes down the ‘tunnel’ and all the color and edge variations in the shadows are the three things I had really concentrate on the entire time I was painting. It may seem silly, but I needed to take an athletic stance in front of the canvas and hold that long brush all the way at the end of the wooden handle. This painting was painted from my ankles up . . . .moving my entire body to lay in the strokes, sometimes. By the end of a six hour session, I was exhausted physically . . . . .but pleased with the outcome.

A few days later, what needed work was quite apparent. I attacked those areas with the same mental attitude of *suggesting* and *Implying* rather than explicit explanation.

After this painting was finished, I began to think I might be catching on to oil painting.

Scratching the Itch

Photo 1.
Photo 2.

Photo 3.

Photo 4.

Photo 5.

Photo 6.

“Noon at Walnut Ave.”
oil on canvas panel, 12 x 16 inches

On my third painting trip to Walnut Ave, I saw for the first time!

You think that’s silly? I walked this street at noon almost daily all the while I was in high school! I drive through the street often. My mom lives nearby. I take guests down that street to see it. On my third painting trip, I suddenly saw it differently . . .and made a huge realization. I saw big, amorphous, individual shapes in the canopy of trees over the street. Wow!!

So, here is a progress documentary of how this painting developed . . . .The decision was made to double the painting size, affording more room to express shape, color and texture.

Photo 1. First, the space division problem from yesterday had to be resolved. The sketch was roughed in using transparent oxide red. This is where I spotted the individual shapes in the canopy. Thin color washes were thrown in using a lot of mineral spirits so to set up a progression from warms to cools to the end of the ‘tunnel.’

Photo 2. Continuing with the thin washes I get excited at the progression of yellow greens to grayed blues down the tunnel. I am becoming aware of another possible space division issue with the band of white light on the street surface across the width of the painting. What to do?

Photo 3. A few warm spots, such as the stop sign and a few points toward the end of the tunnel are put in and a few suggested darks are placed into the under side of the canopy. The warm red tones are such a contrast to the green that they act as parenthesis around the white shape at the end of the tunnel, the center of interest. Perfect! I am getting more excited, but the space division issue needs to be resolved soon.

Photo 4. Now the thicker paint layers are put into the greens and other places. Am conscious of the strokes and their direction as each is placed. They help define the light. A false start with the wrong tone is placed into the foreground shadow . . .it is too dark and too warm . . . .but that sets up the hint of what to do with the space division challenge.

Photo 5. Connect the shadows across that white shape! Link them, thus leading the eye directly back to the center of interest. Now the foreground “lights” are warmed up with a pale yellow and very light magenta (hard to see in the monitor) . . .thus bringing the foreground forward and setting up the recession into the tunnel. Edges are softened along the shadow exteriors and some of the interior ‘holes.’ The suggestion of a line of parked cars is begun.

Photo 6. Fine tuning now before it is time to fold up my easel to go home. I can see some places which need more fine tuning, such as the cool grays toward the end of the tunnel in the canopy. Will have to fiddle with that one, but not today. A few darks are added on the far left and the tree trunk is softened. Maybe that isn’t the correct move. Will need to re-evaluate that later, too.

Overall, this was a great day in plein air! I can feel the process becoming easier as I tackle more difficult tasks. This experience really slammed home the idea that one must truly OBSERVE and look again before diving into the obvious.

Itching To Get Out Again

“Live Oak Farm”
Oil on linen panel, 8 x 10 inches
Friday, I went out to paint . . .on a cold, foggy day. I discovered this old little farm, just like a small island, right in the midst of our town. It seems the same family has owned the land for over 100 years and the ground is still being worked. So, I painted it. As I was doing so the fog bank rolled back and the sun came out briefly.

After coming home and putting the painting in a trial frame for a few days, it gave the paint a chance to dry and me a chance to look it over with new eyes. So, yesterday, I spent a few nice hours making adjustments and revising a few things. I so enjoyed myself that I am going out again today. I think Walnut Avenue will be a good place for the day.