Monday, May 31, 2010

Revisiting a Plein Aire Painting - "Foothill Farmhouse"

As I have mentioned before, I have a stack of plein air paintings done over the last few years.  Most are not worth keeping, and when I get the time, I'll strip them from the stretcher bars and toss most of them.  However on days like this when inspiration has gone on vacation, it's fun to pull one out and play with it a little.  I try to imagine that it was a student's painting and I wanted to punch it up just a bit.
I found this one today and put it on the easel.

I did this one several years ago painting along Highway 160 just before the turnoffs to Jackson and Ione.  It actually wasn't a bad effort and even now I think it works as a plein air sketch.  But in looking at it for awhile, I thought I could see a few possible improvements.  All of the tree clusters seem very flat.  The groups on the left and right edges are particularly so.  Also, as is often the case in my plein air work, the backgound seems too dark, although it does accentuate the trucks of the palms.  The painting suffers from two centers of interest....those palm trunks and the farmhouse itself.  Maybe by graying the background, the trucks will also be slightly less prominent.  Finally, I wanted to break up the severe line along the roadside.  

After an hour, here it is.  the first thing that jumps out at me is the flat sky.  It isn't really as blue as it appears in this photo (I used cerulean blue), but I sure lost the interest that was in the original.  I think the background is much improved, although it didn't lessen the impact of the trunks of the palms.  Actually, I like them.  I was able to de-green the painting somewhat as well.  Breaking up the edge of the road now allows your eye to wander up into the painting.  The painting has a softer feeling throughout with that hard edge gone.  Finally, the trees have a bit more dimension.  When it sets up a little, I'll go back and lighten the sky.  

I don't know that this painting was really "improved" with re-working, but it was fun with a couple of lessons learned or reinforced.  

Keep Painting!

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Another Saturday in Locke

I joined my Locke artist friends Ernie Wester, Chris Spencer, Martha Esch and other local artists including gallery owner and painter Brock Alexander for a paint out competition in Locke. The occasion was an Pacific Asian Cultural Festival. Parking was banned on Main Street (Something they should do every weekend) and there was a nice crowd. The weather in the early part of the day was beautiful. I managed two paintings, very unusual for me. The first was done in one of the back alleyways that shoot off Main Street. 

For this painting, I decided to ignore the cars...which wasn't easy!  I had to step to the side and look beyond them to see some parts of the buildings.  I had already toned the canvas with an acrylic wash.   I used a black gesso to draw in the shapes and establish some of the darks.  This is a little gimicky, but I wanted to break out of the normal approach to see if I could get a little energy in the painting.  It went quickly. In no time I found myself beginning to overwork passages, so instead of continuing to overwork everything, I quit for a change. Now there's a new approach!  This makes me think of some sage advice I received from Howard Rees in one of his workshops: "When you see you are putting down the wrong color, stop putting it down!"  In this case, when you see the painting is done, stop painting!

"Behind Main Street" 12" x 16" oil on linen panel.

 I began a second painting of the front of Al the Wops, but it wasn't going well.  I don't think I had much interest in it.  So once again, I think I did the right thing...I stopped, set it aside and got out a new canvas.  Sometimes you will be rewarded by pushing through a tough part of a painting and finding a successful conclusion, but there are times when you are just on the wrong track.  Flogging a dead horse isn't going to make it go faster!
This time I reminded myself I was painting plein aire and to concentrate on shapes and color and capture the impression of the scene.  This was Main Street with the Festival underway.  (" Festival on Main Street, Locke" 8x16 oil on canvas panel.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Saturday Morning in Locke

I've alluded to my love/hate relationship with plein aire painting in previous posts.  The love is for the experience of being in the outdoors, usually surrounded by beautiful scenery.  What artist wouldn’t love that? The hate part of the relationship is the inability to capture what I see right in front of me.   How could I miss it so badly?  For heaven's sake, I'm literally tripping over it and I can't get it right.

Somehow, the little town of Locke in the California delta region south of Sacramento is the physical manifestation of that love / hate vibe for me.  You really have to see Locke to understand.  It’s a western movie set falling apart.  It’s beyond tattered quaint.  The place just oozes falling down, derelict charm.  You wonder what holds some of the buildings up.  Everywhere you look, there’s a painting.  Or so you get lulled into thinking.  The truth is Locke is HARD to paint!  All those looming balconies and posts, roof lines every which way, dusty windows filled with dusty merchandise or as often as not, abandoned junk.  Sagging stairways, rusty drainpipes and motorcycles! (Al the Wop's is there.  It’s the de rigueur stop on any weekend motorcycle tour through the delta.)  Locke is total artistic overload and more than once I’ve bit off way, way more than I could chew.

I can't remember when I first painted in Locke, but I'd guess it was about five years ago.  This picture was taken on one of those paint outs. Over the years, I’ve failed far more times than I succeeded in capturing the rickety little town.  But I keep going back, like a hopelessly hooked golfer who thinks he’ll do better next time.  Last Saturday, I visited Locke to take another swing.  Other painters were there too, including real life Locke resident artists Chris Spencer, Martha Esch and Ernie Wester.  Yes, there are at least three people actually known to live in Locke. 

My painting friend Ruth Andre ( ) and I ventured down a little space between buildings in search of something manageable to paint..  We both settled on a little shed with a vine half engulfing it. 

There isn’t much to this painting.  It could be anywhere.  There’s nothing about it that says Locke, but I was satisfied.  I felt that I kept it simple, and except for the small plant in the foreground bottom right, I resisted overworking things.  I was pleased with the background fade out on the left side of the canvas.  (It’s actually a bit smoother in transition from lighter to darker than the photo shows.)  When I got home and the painting had a day to set, I repaired areas where the easel prevented painting. I also added a few strokes to the wood siding to create a little added texture.  Finally, some light green values right at the door opening created more depth to the plant and brought the center of interest to the door opening.  All in all, not a bad little painting. 
The plein aire session was followed by a hamburger and beer at Al the Wop’s.  It was a good day in Locke.

If you haven’t been there, go.  It’s about 25 miles south of Sacramento.  Follow the river road (Freeport Blvd will lead you through Freeport and onto the River Road) or go down I-5 to Twin Cities Road, head west, turn south again on the River Road for about 2 miles to Locke.  Visit Martha Esch’s gallery, Artworks In Progress (, and her shop, the Tourist Trap.  If you see Chris Spencer (he’s hard to miss...he'll likely be holding forth on Main Street - as in the picture to the right - or in Al's) ask him all about Locke and the Delta and his art.  He might invite you into his place which is home, studio and gallery….and you’ll see 30 years of the Locke experience as recorded in his art on the walls, floor and under the bed.  You probably won’t see Ernie, and if you do, you won’t know it.  But if you should get a chance to visit with him, you’ll be talking to a truly gifted painter.  Of course, you’ll need to visit other galleries and shops in Locke (there are only a couple…much of Locke is still in arrested decay and disuse), and finally, you can’t visit Locke without a beer and maybe a hamburger at Al the Wop’s.  If you ask the bartender, he’ll give you a silver dollar and a tack.  Using those you may be able to stick a dollar bill (you supply) to the ceiling with the dozens of others already up there. Hey, it's worth a try....and probably easier than getting a good painting of Locke!