Saturday, December 26, 2009

The Angel of Bodie: A Pioneer Story

GhostTowns have always drawn me in.  Frozen in time - even the decay seems to have stopped - they are lonely and full of the debris of lives past.  Who lived here?  What happened to them?  When did the last person leave this place?  The Southwest is dotted with them if you look carefully.  Its vast expanses hide them around this mountain, down this pitted dirt road, out across that prarie.  They are there, waiting. 

This is Bodie, California near the Nevada border.  It's a State Park now so the looting has stopped and the decay has been 'arrested', but it's not flooded with visitors.  Its too far down a dirt road ( nine miles, I think) for many, and the weather is often uninviting.  My Bodie scene is rearranged, but all the pieces I included are there waiting in the quiet, covered in dust in the windy hot summers and blanketed in snow in the bitter winters.  The Angel actually faces the town rather than away from it, and the town is a bit bigger than this too.  I've left out the mine building that dominates the scene.  But this is Bodie as I think of it.  And the Angel tells the story of Bodie as it must have been.  Hard, unforgiving, empty.

Oil on 30"x40" Canvas.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Western Art - Barrel Riding

As in other Forums in WetCanvas, In the Southwestern Art Forum has a monthly challenge.  For December, it's a rodeo theme.  I've always liked so-called Western Art, even though some of the work that falls under this genre can be romanticized pablum.  However, once you get by that, there's no doubt that there are some astonishing artists working in Western Art.  My friend Howard Rees was pretty successful at it at one time as well.  I've always been strongly drawn to the southwest, and the best of Western Art captures that timeless vastness that makes it so appealling. 

I decided to try the rodeo challenge.  The orginal photograph is nicely done, and taken at such a high shutter speed that the movement is totally frozen.  In fact, I think the main challenge will be to put bac in some of the energy and movement that the camera has stripped away.  I'm not quite sure how to do that, though. 

Here's my initial block-in.  It's done on a 16 x 20 linen panel in oil.  The source photo was 8x10, so I gridded it off and copied it to a 16x20 sheet of tracing paper.  I then used conte crayon softened with OMS to make a "carbon" paper which I then taped to the panel and traced.  Next I blocked in the general shapes and values with very thin oil.  I'll let that set up for a couple of days.  Then I can begin restating lights and darks, adding and refining details. 
A second short session.  Some of the forms are beginning to emerge.  Stronger contrasts in the horses body help.  The background eludes me and I've avoided working on it.  I may leave it just as is....

Never one to leave well enough alone, I worked on the painting for a couple more short sessions.  I tried to get some feeling of mass and of the violent motion of the subject.  I'm not sure I did, but I'm not unhappy with the painting.  In the end, I did decide to leave the background alone.  I actually liked the watercolor look of it. 

Sacramento Fine Arts Center is having an "Animal House" juried show for animal themed works.  Since this is the only painting I have that fits that description, I decided at the last minute to find a frame and enter.  Just got word (2/3/10) that the painting was accepted into the show.  No awards, but accepted.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Paint What You See.....

On my painting journey, I've been exposed to so many wonderful pieces of advice that it would take weeks to list them all....even if it were possible to do so. Every topic imaginable has popped up somewhere in my “studies”: in a book, in a magazine, from a workshop instructor, from a fellow artist struggling along beside me, and in many more sources to numerous to list. Of course, not all of the advice has been right for me (it's important to be selective), nor has it all been good or worthwhile. (One well known artist even recommended a particular brand of paper towel in his book. Of all the challenges facing the emerging artist, the dilemma of what brand of paper towel to use never struck me as something to spend a lot of time agonizing over.) But on the whole, I paint the way I do today because of the advice I received along the way. I continue to seek it out wherever I can, and I hope that continues for the rest of my painting life.

But there are two pieces of advice that stand out. It isn't that they are more important than the others, but simply that they meant something to me when I came across them and they still do. I don't think I do a painting today where one or both thoughts don't cross my mind:

Paint what you see


Paint the light

"Paint what you see." I come across this advice fairly often in books and sometimes in workshops. I recall once reading Harley Brown, the pastel artist of renown, comment to the effect that it was not necessary for an artist to make exhaustive studies of anatomy, but rather to simply paint what he or she sees. I think his comment was that he didn't need to know about the physical makeup of a horse to paint one....he simply painted what he saw. That makes sense to me.

Painting what you see seems so obvious, and yet it is so complicated and challenging. All of us have learned how to draw something, particularly if we had an early interest in art. From our early years, we learned that a tree could be represented by drawing a green lollipop on a brown stick. Add a couple of red dots, and you had an apple tree! Later we learned how to draw an eye (probably incorrectly) and lips. And to this day I watch emerging artists in workshops look carefully at the model and then look down and draw Cupid’s bow lips, or on plein air trips gaze long and intensely at the landscape then look down and paint a green lollipop. It is so obvious - to everyone but the artist - that they are painting what they think they should see - not what they see. Naturally, the examples are not usually quite that extreme, but the reality is not all that different: they are painting a sort of memorized shorthand instead of what's there in front of them. And so, every time I paint, I remind myself to try, with all my concentration, to paint EXACTLY what I see. Of course, I rarely succeed completely, but I get close sometimes.

And this is where the second piece of advice comes in: "Paint the Light." Maybe this is the more important of the two recommendations because if you really do this, you also are more likely to paint what you see. When I first read this advice (I think it was David Leffel, but I'm not sure.  My apologies! ) it struck me as a little zen-like. I mean, come on!  I'm struggling with what color to use and I'm supposed to "paint the light?" Oh, please! But over time, I've started to understand. If you learn to see something not as a flower pot or as a nose, but as a shape revealed by light and shadow, and if you paint that light and shadow rather that paint your shorthand for a flower pot or nose, you will be astonished to discover that you have painted exactly what you see in front of you. Painting the light is a wonderful discovery. Forms no longer challenge you to replicate them, you don't have to. You just paint how the light rakes across them, how it casts shadows that are sometimes hard edged, sometimes soft edged, you paint areas where light turns to shadow, where darkness turns darker, where bright light is reflected into the absence of light. And when you paint this accurately, you paint just what your eye sees.....LIGHT! Believe it or not, I have actually had the experience of painting something without knowing it, only to discover it in my painting later. This has happened more than once when, painting from a photograph, I carefully painted the light in a particular area, and then only later actually realized I had painted a ‘thing’ into the picture without even knowing it. That’s absolutely true.  I actually painted something and didn't know I was painting it.  To me it is the proof of the “Paint the Light” advice. You don’t even need to know what it is you are painting, if you just paint the light that ‘creates’ it.  Think about that in relation to painting portraits, and you've found one of the keys to finding a likeness.

This detail from Angel of Bodie was done very much with the idea of "paint the light".  I thought there were several challenges in painting this monument: make the angel look like a statue and not just a white figure: make the lettering readable without simply painting it on: and overall, make the lettering and the 'rocks' that form the base to appear to have been chipped from stone.  To do that, I tried very conciously not to paint forms - not to paint letters or rocks - but to paint the effect of the light raking across the monument.  I paid close attention to hard edges versus soft, to difused light versus cast shadow, but really not thinking about those as components, but rather just as conditions of light at that particular point.  I think it worked within the limits of my own abilities.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

A Portrait a day.....

Well, OK, not one a day.  Maybe one a week?  Well, let's say at least two a month.  Resources are plentiful even if they aren't all my own.  The WetCanvas site has several on-going monthly "challenges", including some opportunities to copy the Masters.

Here's my entry in the November Monthly Portrait Challenge at the WetCanvas Portraiture forum.

It's oil on 9" x 12" canvas panel.  About two to three hours.

Oil on canvas panel, acrylic gesso.  9x12

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Travels with My Easel

Tomales, CA
As I was going though old pictures, it dawned on me that I have quite a few of my easel set up at various
spots for plein air sessions.  Here are a just a few of the spots where I've enjoyed painting outside. 
Near Shingle Springs, CA
Gold Rush Era Iron Works, Sutter Creek, CA

Bodega Bay, CA
Near Shingle Springs, CA

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Copying William Godward's "Classic Beauty"

This exquisite protrait was painted by Willian Godward and is entitled "Classic Beauty".  Once again, I don't know anything about the artist, having found his work on another of WetCanvas's monthly challeges.  Trying to copy these classic paintings is a wonderful exercise...and I'm beginning to find it a bit addicting.  So, while nothing else is waiting on the easel, I'll give this one a try. 

I decided not to attempt to copy the entire work, so I selected a 16" x 12" linen panel to attempt just the head and shoulders.  I sketched directly on the untoned canvas with a small brush. 

Using just a few colors I tried to cover all of the white canvas as soon as possible.  This is only the second painting I've done on linen with an oil based gesso and I'm beginning to like the feel a lot.  My initial reaction was not felt so different from the acrylic gessoed cotton canvases I am used to...but now I am definately enjoying the way the paint lays a little more on the surface.  It's easy to manipulate with brush, rag and finger. 

I ended the first day with a little more detail in the hair and face...and with some suggestions of pattern in the background.  Time to let it set up for a day or two.

Up to this point, I've been using an 8 x 10 print from my home printer, which isn't the best. The quality is mediocre.  I'm going to try to paint from the laptop screen for the next phase.  The colors are so much more vivid when viewing a high resolution print on the computer screen, and the details show much more clearly.

At this session of about 2 hours, I worked quite a bit on the background, putting in the tapistry patterns and trying to find the right values.  I noticed that Godward lightened the background in a few spots near the head.  It's most noticeable at the bridge of the nose.  This is a technique that Rockwell used many years later and it imparts a kind of glow - a halo effect - that is striking.  I'm going to remember that little 'trick'. 

I wanted to work on the face too, but attempts to do some glazing and opague passages resulted in lifting the earlier layer.  It was obviously not completely dry.   I'm going to let this rest for at least three or four days before the next, and maybe final, session.

Some final glazes and I am done.  "Classic Beauty" by John William Godward. 

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Searching for "Irene"

"Irene" is yet another of Adolf William Bouguereau's stunning works. Oil on canvas, 1897 18 x 15 inches (46 x 38.1 cm)  You can find a high resolution photo, and even order a quality print, at the Art Renewal Center (ARC) here

I discovered it in the Masters in Oil (MIO) October thread on WetCanvas.  They post a new masterwork each month for the members to copy. I've tried to copy a Bouguereau painting once before, so I am aware that it's pretty much folly. It would take a lifetime of study to even begin to understand how one manages to capture such subtly and light. But I also know there's nothing quite as eye opening as attempting to copy a masterwork.  It's a time honored assignment for art students.  So, with that in mind, I did the sketch and first block in the first two evenings.

I spent a little time trying to do a preliminary sketch in pencil on the linen canvas. I don't usually do that, preferring to sketch directly with the brush. I though I'd use the pencil to make a more careful start, but not sure it made a real difference. How did he ever get those exquisite features...and that bump in the nose????

The next evening, using primarily Burnt Sienna, white and a purple (all Utrecht brand oils) I blocked in the painting pretty quickly. I wasn't going for a traditional underpainting although I had considered that before starting. This was just a quick 'laying in" with a limited pallette. After finishing the block in I realized that I have the head shifted to the right relative to the original. (The canvas I am painting on is smaller but proportionally correct to the original size (the blue tape marks the lower boundary of the proportionally correct area). I considered wiping it out, but after thinking about it overnight, I decided to push on as is. It isn't really critical...the real challenge is the face....that's what I really need to worrying about. So here are my first two steps in trying to capture another of Mr. Bouguereau's incredible paintings. Talk about attempting the impossible!

A couple of evenings went by before I could return to Irene. By this time the block was pretty dry with the exception of some of the hair. I started to darken the background and the hair. I begin to add color to the face, neck and shoulders. It all went downhill.  At one point, I felt like I had completely lost the painting and using a rag and turp, I wiped out the entire face. Talk about frustrated! Fortunately the block in was clearly visible since it had dried, forming an underpainting. (I suddenly realized the value of an underpainting!) I spent another hour and re-established the face before quitting for the night. This picture was after the wipeout and a second blocking in of the face.

During the next two session, I contined bringing out the face and neck areas using glazing and scumbling and finger wiping and whatever else I could think of. How in the world did Bouguereau get those incredible flesh tones and subtle transitions??

I feel like I'm pretty close to calling it done. More work on the tiarra, the hair and the gown is needed, but it's getting to the point where my knowledge and abilities are exhausted and it's time to admit to the master that he wins again.

One more evening and Irene is finished.  I darkened the hair and some areas of the background.  I defined the Tiarra a litttle more, but stopped short of the detail in the original.  I follow the same idea with the gown, suggesting Bouguereau's work, but not including the detail.  I do just a very little more to the face.  Most of the work is around the eye, trying to lighten the values just slightly.  Finally, I cut the backgound into the chin just the tinest amount.  That's it.  I'm done.  I estimate the total time for this study at about 8 hours more or less. 

The statistics once again: Oil, 12" x 14 5/8" linen panel (WN), all paints Utrecht brand.  Medium: turps and Utrecht alkyd glazing medium.  Colors: yellow ochre, Utrecht white, burnt sienna, cad red lt., veridium, ultramarine blue, and touches of a few others like alizarin crimson and a diazanine (?) purple.

Thanks to the Master for this experience.  Once again, I've learned a lot, including just how much I don't know!

And here's the original painting once more.  It helps to be reminded of how far there is to go!

Friday, October 30, 2009


The challenges of creating artworks are too numerous to list, and, to make matters worse, they seem to multiply as time goes on.  (Shouldn't that be the other way around?  But that's a suhject to be explored in another post.)  On the other hand, the awards are few and far between, at least for me.  (Awards is not to be confused with REWARDS, which are actually nearly as plentiful as the challenges.)  I've entered two small, local art shows over the last two years and have received two awards. 
At the Howard Rees Art Students Show, 2007  I won a blue ribbon (and $40!) for best oil in the show.  My entry was the Bodega Bay "Schoolhouse Beach" painting already shown in another post.  My friend Bob Engle from Thousand Oaks, CA won the best in show with his oil sketch of "Flakey the Clown" (Bob, himself, in clown makeup and garb.)  Here's the schoolhouse beach painting once again.  It's 10" x 20" oil on canvas panel, plein air.

Early this year (2009) I joined the Northern California Arts group and entered their all member show.  I won a merit award for "After the Show" a 16" x 20" Acrylic on canvas.  By coincidence, the painting was of my friend Bob Engle, mentioned above, as he posed at Howard Ree's studio in Amador City as Flakey the Clown.  Here's Bob as Flakey, with a little dramatic lighting of my own invention thrown in.

I've decided enter more shows over the next year, particularly juried shows.  I think it's valuable to 'test' yourself, not so much as in testing against competition, but more to stretching to produce works that are the best you can produce at a given time.  Sort of competition against your previous successes and personal bests.  After I have more experience with it, perhaps I'll write more on the experience and whether it did in fact encourage progress in my work.

January 9, 2010:  Sacramento Fine Arts Center Members Show, Award of Merit for "Evening Walk", oil, 18" x 24".

Monday, October 26, 2009

Howard Rees Workshop in Bodega Bay

In September I joined Howard Rees in Bodega Bay, California to participate in another of his painting workshops.  Howard is a professional artist currently living in Jackson, a gold country town in Northern California.  Howard gave me my first real exposure to oil painting in 2004, and since that time I've taken about 5 workshops from him.  I always enjoy the experience immensely; his gentle approach is good for the beginning painter's psyche...and he can paint too! 

On this trip, we spent four days painting in Bodega Bay and surrrounding areas.  The location is fairly remote with lots of opportunities for painting.  I did this plein air landscape at the edge of a cliff above Schoolhouse Beach just outside of Bodega Bay.  I had been to this same location about two years previously on another of Howard's workshops, and the weather had been cold, gray and windy, but this time it was spectacular.  This painting is oil on canvas 16 x 20 and was done entirely on location. 

Here's the painting done the first time I visited Schoolhouse beach.  (Also as a student in a Howard Rees workshop.)  As you can see, it wasn't quite as nice a day as my most recent visit!  For this painting, I hiked down to the beach proper.  My location for the painting done more recently was on the cliff directly above the artists huddled out of the wind in the background!  It was very cold, and much of the time, I was holding my easel upright with one hand and painting with the other!  Ahhh.....the joy of plein air painting. 
10 x 20 oil on canvas panel.