Sunday, July 24, 2011

Wandering Western Wyoming

Just returned from the Western Wyoming Plein Air Competition and show in Cokeville, Wyoming. It's a small competition held in conjunction with the Minerva Teichert Invitational Art Show. This was my second year in the plein air competition. 

Cokeville is located in the beautiful Bear River Valley, surrounded by hills and mountains. Scattered throughout the valley and lining the edges of hayfields are old cottonwood trees. Originally my plan was to camp up in the mountains and paint there, but from the day I arrived, I got on a cottonwood kick. Here is the first one I painted, Tuesday afternoon: 

Old Ranch Cottonwood, 12" x 9" Oil on Canvas Panel
While painting this, a fast moving storm chased me into a nearby cabin. After the storm passed, I dragged my painting gear back out to the same spot and began painting again. As I finished the painting, a horse came by to visit me. The horse brought with it lots of flies, many of which promptly stuck themselves to my painting. Somehow, the flies continued to stick themselves to the painting even after the horse left. I had to do a lot of fly removal and painting over spots to complete this piece.

Wednesday morning's sky was cloudless, but a waning gibbous moon hung over the western sky just in the right spot to become part of the next painting:

Morning Moon Over Cottonwoods. 11" x 14" Oil on Canvas Panel
The second painting I tried that day didn't work out, so I wiped it. Later that evening, I did a little landscape painting down the road from the Dayton ranch with the shows organizer, Charles Dayton. Thursday, I walked out into a hayfield, set up and painted this:

Red Roof and Cottonwoods, 9" x 12" Oil on Canvas Panel
I just love the gestures, postures and attitudes of the Bear River Valley cottonwoods. Working outdoors has it's benefits for wildlife watchers. There were a few pairs of red-tail hawks in the general area. When one red-tail would wander into the territory of another, a running skirmish on the wing would occur until the trespassing red-tail was chased from the airspace of the resident hawks. There were also sandhill crane and glossy ibis. While I was painting near a large flock of ibis, a red-tail hawk swooped low over the ibis, spooking them and causing the entire flock to take flight. Occasionally, a nearby marmot would chirp it's protest at my proximity to it's burrow. Over on the other side of town, I got out the panel I had wiped the day before and painted this:

Legion Park Lane, 11" x 14" Oil on Canvas Panel
Friday morning was my last chance to paint for the competition. Paintings had to be framed and ready to hang by late afternoon. Near Pine Creek Canyon I found my last subject to paint:

Pine Creek Canal, 9" x 12" Oil on Canvas Panel
Saturday morning, I headed off to explore the Bridger - Teton National Forest for future painting opportunities. At one point a weasel ran out in front of my car. It stopped and turned to look at me as I braked to avoid running over the little predator, then it darted the rest of the way across the dirt road. Driven by the curse of wondering what was around the next bend I drove farther than I should have and had to drive through part of Idaho to get back to Cokeville. Arriving twenty minutes late for Saturday's opening of the show, I was surprised to learn two of my paintings had already sold! Later that day I was awarded the peoples choice award in the plein air category. 

This had been a good trip. The weather had been great, and the painting had gone well. Plus I returned with more income than expenses! But by the end of the week, I was worn out.

Driving home Saturday evening, I passed a large herd of pronghorn antelope, including a few bucks. Pronghorn are maybe common enough in Wyoming to not merit much attention, but I always enjoy seeing those harlequin Antilocapra americana.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Driving Miss Muse

This was written in October 2009 for Terra Nova Gallery's annual plein air painting competition, Plein Air Provo.

Plein air painting requires focus, and the ability to work outdoors under often distracting circumstances. You work with what you can control, and ignore or deal with what you can't control. There are relatively few things that can prevent me from finishing a plein air painting once I've started into one. Some things that have caused problems in the past have been: huge swarms of biting insects, 40 mile-an-hour winds, close lightning strikes, a rattlesnake, and even some guy I didn't know who flashed a gun at me as he drove by while I was sketching!

Limited painting time was once more of a problem for me than it is now; The sun moves, shadows change, the sun sets, it gets dark, and I'd be left wondering which of the dark blobs on my pallet was blue, which was green, and which was brown. With practice, limited painting time has become more of a positive than a negative thing. Working quickly helps avoid the distraction of superfluous details or the muddiness of overworked areas. The painter must focus and get to the point.

But sometimes I still push time constraints too close.

This was my second year participating in Plein Air Provo. During the competition, there were no problems with insects, after Wednesday the weather was good, there were no dangerous animals, people were pleasant and nobody brandished weapons of any sort. Two of my paintings were completed Thursday. Friday I was worried I might not make the 2:00 deadline, so I got my first two paintings framed and delivered to Terra Nova Gallery, and set out to paint a third one. First I drove to an old shack in south Provo. I walked around the potential subject framing the building with my hands trying to work out a composition. I started to set up my equipment, and then decided to skip it. The muse wasn't there. Next I drove out to west Provo, to a spot near the river where I've painted a few times before. Still no muse. From there I headed down near the lake to another familiar spot. The muse wasn't there, either. I decided to drive to an area near the airport where I've painted several times before. On the way there I passed an old house, and it was as if the muse was in the car with me, telling me to forget the airport, turn around and paint that house!

During the painting, I checked the time. It was 12:30. Still enough time. The next time I checked my watch, I was surprised to see it was 1:20! Time to hurry! Focus and get to the point! A few more quick brush strokes, and what wasn't done was now finished. I tossed everything into the car without cleaning up, and was off to the framers!

The framers did a quick and professional job framing my last painting. Nonetheless, I anxiously fidgeted until I got the framed piece back. I delivered my third painting to Terra Nova Gallery with only fifteen  minutes to spare.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Determination of Gnats

There's a painting I may try again when conditions are better. The first time I tried to paint this scene on location, the conditions were terrible. It wasn't severe weather, a rattlesnake, or a gun flashing weirdo that sent me packing, at least not this time. It was the seasonal plague of the high desert pinion/juniper country, the no-see-um (Tormentus Woeisus.)*

No-see-ums are tiny dark gnats that would probably go unnoticed if it weren't for the irritating bites they can inflict out of all proportion to their tiny size, sometimes in large quantities. They infest the pinion/juniper country of the southwest U.S. generally in the months of May and June. Visually unimpressive, you may not even see no-see-ums before they get you. If you looked at one under a powerful magnifying glass, it might look like this:

Long sleeved shirts and long pants help defend against their assaults. Tucking in clothing helps, too. If there are any gaps in your clothing, however small, no-see-ums will find them. You will know when they do. These little vampire gnats are small enough to crawl through the weave of knitted socks and bite your ankles!  DEET never deterred them from my blood. However, in visitor center gift shops of some Southern Utah state parks, I found an insect repellent that works. It's called "Bug Away," and comes in little two ounce bottles. Some people find that sunscreen or baby oil works to protect exposed skin, too.

My first experience with a no-see-um mass attack was one early June at Hovenweep, in the Four Corners area. The pastel painting I attempted at that time never quite got finished. I had to flee back to my car to protect what was left of my skin and my sanity! There were over two dozen bites on each of my arms, plus more on my face and scalp! The welts lasted for maybe two weeks or so. Around a year later, I experienced similar gnat conditions at Capitol Reef National Park. This time I was prepared! I had my "Bug Away" repellent and those little bloodthirsty beasties weren't going to get me. Indeed, even though no-see-ums swarmed thickly around me, I was bitten only twice as I painted. I can deal with that. But another problem became apparent. This time I painted in oils. Fresh oil paint is wet and sticky. A bug or two or three stuck on an oil painting is not a big deal, and is easily dealt with. The no-see-ums that day, however, were swarming in vast numbers. First one, then two and three gnats stuck to the wet paint. I kept painting. A few more embedded themselves in the oily mire, and then a few more. I thought I could still succeed. The number of stuck gnats grew exponentially. After a while, I stepped back to take a good look at the painting. It looked like someone had taken a pepper grinder to it. Overwhelmed, I decided this was another painting the no-see-ums wouldn't let me finish. It seemed as though the gnats decided that if they couldn't get me, they'd destroy my painting, instead. Spiteful buggers! 

My unfinished painting, sprinkled with gnats.

No-see-um season should be about over now, but mind broiling hot weather is beginning to build over the Desert Southwest. It might be a little while before I can try that painting again.

*Not it's real scientific name. Seemed appropriate, though.
**Maybe they don't really look like that, but I wouldn't be surprised if they did.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

First Gallery Demo.

People like to see a painter at work. Interest runs from curiosity to fascination. Many will watch for a short time, while some will sit and watch from a picture's beginning to it's completion. I enjoy talking with visitors for a little while as I work. I've had many stop and photograph me as I paint. I don't mind - in fact some of the photos I use on line have been taken by people I've never met before - but it does make me feel like a curiosity.

To help promote my artwork, I'll occasionally do free painting or drawing demonstrations for the public in galleries that show my paintings. Since the demos have been in galleries at night, and because I want to demonstrate drawing from life instead of photographs, my demos have been of people. It's much easier to get a model into the gallery than a real landscape! The demos are usually in pastel because that's the medium I am most comfortable painting people with. An outdoor landscape painting would most likely be in oils.

Here are some photos from a pastel demonstration I did at Terra Nova Gallery in December of 2010. All photographs in this post were taken by David Hawkinson. This one shows the initial sketch with charcoal pencil:

Laying in color with pastels. Occasionally turning the painting upside-down helps to reveal problem areas in the drawing:

Blending and adding detail with pastel pencils. The model's beginning to look tired - must be about time for a break! It's interesting how there are THREE images of the model in this photo:

The finished piece, after a little cleaning up back at the studio:

The gallery had two demos going that evening. I was painting a portrait in a back gallery while a woman named Crystal was painting tulips in the front gallery. A few people, including the gallery owner, were watching me work when a man walked into the room. The owner greeted him, and the man said,

"I wanted to come see what was was going on back here."

Trying to be funny, I replied with,

"Out front she's painting tulips, but back here I'm painting two lips, two eyes, two ears and a nose, so there's a lot more going on back here!"

The model cracked a smile.

The gallery owner then said,

"James, this is Crystal's husband."


"Sorry, I didn't mean anything by that...", I said.

"That's OK," Crystal's husband answered, "that's a pretty good joke."

I have to admit, though, the foot in mouth moment was at least as funny as the joke!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

People or Places?

Some seem surprised when I say I find portrait drawing easier than landscape. It's true that rocks, trees and even mountains can be moved around in a landscape painting to suit the painter's needs, but rearranging eyes, nose and mouth on a portrait will not help the composition, despite what Pablo Picasso tried to tell us. So, doesn't that make it harder? Well, that depends upon one's motivation. Over time I have put more into learning the human face than the landscape. Early on, when I lived in Pennsylvania, commissions ran probably twenty to one for portraits over places. When I began entering juried art shows, judges were quicker to accept my portraits and figures than my landscapes, The portraits were hung better in juried shows, too. So a little money and prestige motivated me, but more importantly, I am absolutely fascinated with the human face. In my teens, I was obsessed with learning how to draw people. The life and individuality seen in a person's face, the light in their eyes, is mysterious and endlessly fascinating.

While I continue to practice and hone my people drawing skills, developing landscape skills has been more my focus in recent years. If my love for landscape lags behind my fascination for the human face, it's not because I don't feel strongly about it. The vast amount of time I've spent out in the landscape, most often by myself, has shown to me it has life and light of it's own. The landscape has light and life to give, when it will, perhaps in ways not unlike the giving nature of the best of people.

The commissions for places I received when I lived back east were for civilized places; homes, churches, a golf course. Those were of course fun to paint, but my heart is in more wild places. What a civilized landscape has to offer seems limited, sometimes even restricted. It's puzzling to me that many people don't see themselves as part of the natural landscape. The perspectives offered by people and the landscape might be different, but aren't we made of the same stuff? The influence we have on each other is profound. Each is tied to the well being of the other. Forms and rhythms apparent in both people and landscapes are like a family likeness, and reveals our relation to our mother earth.

While I continue to build representation in professional galleries more interested in landscapes, my interest in the human form and face will continue. It's my goal, eventually, to combine people and the landscape in some of my paintings.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Wasatch Plein Air Paradise 2011, and Another Demo.

The Midway plein air competition (WPAP) just ended. The main competition began Friday, June 24th, but I didn't get registered and start painting until the next day. The river was running much higher than usual. Some of the places I had planned to paint were flooded.

As I scouted around Heber Valley, I saw these signs posted at every river access, giving me something else to worry about ( as with most images here, click on picture for larger image):

I found a place to paint and set up:

At the earliest stage of the painting, I tone the canvas panel, and work out the composition and drawing:

Without waiting for the under painting to dry, I begin blocking in with color:

Then I begin to work from larger shapes to smaller shapes:

Here's the finished painting, an 11" x 14" Oil on canvas panel.

Later in the day, I attempted another painting, but wasn't satisfied with the results, so I wiped it. Two days later I went back to where I first saw the bear poster, and was attacked - by mosquitoes! They have posters there for that, too:

I took the 9" x 12" canvas panel I wiped on Saturday, and painted this:

Here's the second one of the day, with frame; an 11" x 14" oil on canvas panel:

The next day I went to a different section of the river. There I saw another poster warning about bears. I thought it was funny where they put this poster - on a public restroom! I've always heard that "bears do it in the woods," but maybe the DNR is potty training them. Better knock first before going in there!

Here's the efforts from that day framed, 9" x 12" oil on canvas panel:

While painting at this spot, I was visited by a water snake, a couple muskrats, and a Western Grebe. The grebe kept popping up onto the water's surface for several seconds at a time, and then would dive underwater again for a while.

The following day, Wednesday, began partly cloudy and warm. I drove way up Snake Creek Canyon to paint.

Is this gate half open or half closed?

That's what I thought!

There were a few minor challenges farther up the road:

I set up overlooking Heber Valley, and started painting. Then the clouds began to thicken. Soon there was thunder and lightning, some of it a little too close! Rain started, became heavy, and mixed with hail. I took shelter in the car, and tried to paint under the hatchback from time to time when the storm would let up a little. The temperature began dropping fast, and I began to get chilled. Rainclouds completely obscured the valley, and I decided it was time to quit and get out of there! 

A lot more heavy rain, lightning and thunder as I headed back down the canyon. I had driven up with the air conditioning on, and drove back with the heater on full blast! (I do have warmer clothes and rain gear in a day pack I brought with me, but I decided to wear the car, instead.)

Here's what the weather allowed me to paint that day, 9" x 12" oil on canvas panel, framed:

Monday, the Fourth of July, was the Midway quick paint. Check in between 7 and 9 AM, and turn finished paintings in by 1 PM. The day was overcast with occasional drizzle. Here's my morning's efforts:

I'm looking forward to the rest of the plein air competition season!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Pochade Box

In the last post, I mentioned something called a "pochade box." That will be the focus of this post. In researching pochade boxes, I found these definitions for "pochade":
  • oeuvre peinte sommairement
  • croquis en couleur execute en quelques coups de pinceau
  • composition litteraire legere vite ecrite
  • oeuvre litteraire ecrite rapidement
And this in English:
  • A freshwater fish stew from Savoie containing rasins and carrots.
I may have to try that last item some day, but by way of a definition that's more suited to my present purpose and in my own language, a pochade is a small, quickly executed sketch, particularly in oils, painted directly from the subject. A pochade box is a small, portable box designed to hold the painting surface, a palette, and often other supplies such as paints, brushes, etc. Used by many painters in the 18th and 19th centuries, pochade boxes seem to have fallen out of favor until the 1980's. In recent years, they have become very popular with many outdoor painters.

My pochade boxes are made out of wood, and can be attached to a camera tripod. Some pochade boxes can hold small painting panels in various sizes. Mine do not. I have them in two sizes, 6" x 8" and 8" x 10". Here is one of my 8" x 10" pochade boxes:

I built this box out of maple, walnut, and baltic birch plywood. The hardware is brass. The lid will hold three panels, and keeps the finished wet paintings separated. The palette slides out, making the storage compartments below accessible. In them are kept paints, brushes, palette knives, medium cups (if ever I use them) and a few other items. The arm that holds the box open detaches and is stored inside the pochade box when not in use.

When painting larger than 8" x 10" I use a full size portable easel. The easel is light enough to carry a short distance if need be, but when I really want to go for a long hike in search of my subject, or when time only allows for a small painting, nothing beats the pochade box. It can be used for quick notes taken in oil color as the muse dictates, or when she is willing to accept my company for longer periods of time, more finished paintings.

In future posts I'll write more about my painting equipment, including other pochade boxes. I'll also write about my experiences painting with them.