Tuesday, November 14, 2017


Dark Water, Bright Light
8x10 oil

Lately I have struggled with painting, producing turkeys - whether from a lack of enthusiasm for my results, general ennui surrounding the coming months of rain, or maybe just the heavy anchor of inescapable aging.  Whatever the reasons, it is discouraging to feel not just a lack of progress, but a loss of ground I thought I had gained.  This feeling is compounded when I do a little straightening up and encounter the stacks of failed and miserable canvases and panels that I know I should just paint over and ready for a new attempt, but then the idea of having those dozens and dozens of waiting canvases seems too great a burden, and so things are just rearranged, old work stacked like cordwood.  This piece above feels a little like a success (I am happy with the tones, the composition, the original idea and the mood) but it lacks finesse and feels clunky in the brushwork.  It was a departure from my normal process: I worked mostly with the panel on a table instead of upright on an easel, and I tried to work up a soupy underpainting into which I could add delicate passages.  But as often happens with me, I get caught up in color, or temperature, or some other specific element and my brushwork becomes crude and unpleasant.  I think I could have gone back into this one after the paint had a chance to set up just enough to be blended or modeled to improve things, but unfortunately Life got in the way and by the next day things were dry and it was too late to make those kinds of improvements.  

What I often do when I hit these walls is just keep plugging away, doing portrait sketches in notebooks, honing the ability to quickly capture likeness, hoping against hope that the miles of brushwork will eventually lead down a path with a pot of gold at the end.  What is my destination?  Why, again, am I devoting so much of my waking life to painting?  My intention was never to become a "painter"; Originally, I simply wanted to get better at occasional painting so that when the mood struck I could entertain myself and end up with something good enough to hang and announce "There, I dabble."  But as I encounter the endless challenges, all the things one must learn, I am caught up in the struggle, I love the mental exercise, and I especially love the way my eyes and mind are awakened to the beauty that surrounds me in ways uncommon to the average Joe.  Painting is a beautiful way of being.  I feel it keeps me connected with a better way of living - with attention and focus and purpose.  It is a meditation, a spiritual quest, and I am as unlikely to give up on it as one is unlikely to walk away from a religion.  But I suppose that doesn't mean there won't be times where I question the existence of God, where I wonder if I will ever bust through these walls.  

One of the many sketches I have worked on recently.  I am playing with the ability to arrive at likeness by using various beginnings; this one was started with a big brush and broad plains of dark and light, avoiding all detail at first, slowly pushing paint around to arrive at a face.  I now have three notebooks of multimedia paper that I first gesso so that I can work in oil without the paint being sucked into the paper.  It keeps me from worrying that they need to be anything other than what they are - practice - and it also is a tidy way of keeping track, a record of my journey that doesn't have to be stacked up in a corner.  

And sometimes Nature is just beautiful in a way that doesn't lend itself to being captured on canvas and I need to learn that that is okay, too.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Where the Wild Things Are

Summer is gone and the vivid natural growth fades, but the colors left behind are far from drab.  Even as the days grow shorter, and the skies are often gray and overcast, there come moments of clarity, light streaming through, exposing the wildness of the color all around.  It is more of a challenge to capture the essence, with cold and rain intervening, but the goal is never to give up.  Inspiration comes in fits and spurts, and maybe there is more quiet time in the studio working over old ideas, or old faces.

Along the Columbia River, at the confluence of the Sandy, what is called The Thousand Acre Dog Park provides endless opportunities to discover the muted and tender colors of autumn as the trees give up their summer garb and go into hibernation.  There are lessons to be learned in mixing grays.

The delicacy of these colors is compelling, and I struggle to find a way to convey them, lacking the very light touch needed. 

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Working Fall

On Golden Backwater
18 x 24 oil

This Fall seems like a time for reflection, both literal and figurative, and I find myself drawn to subjects that are complex and offbeat.  I know I should break a painting into large tonal areas, simplifying and creating a composition, rather than trying to transcribe the landscape I see, but one of my weaknesses is that I feel indebted to Nature for providing a beauty that is not easily translated, or at least I don't have all the skills necessary to translate it into a language that can be shared, and so I tend to keep trying to provide more detail than perhaps is needed.  This one I will call a work in progress, because I see a lot that still needs to be done; I do like the "S" shape formed by the water, and I think it can be an effective way to lead the eye into the painting.  It can probably be emphasized  by darkening the foreground and the mid ground, or at least by exaggerating the temperature difference.  I'd like to learn to observe my work more and make changes over a period of days or weeks, and I do see things I'd like to add, but it is a question of reinvoking the spark of focus that comes in the original rush to capture the feeling.  Perhaps practice is the answer to this, as it is to so many things about learning to paint.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

A Reprieve

Riverside 16 x 20 oil

After a pounding storm that drenched us and blew down trees and cut off power, we find ourselves enjoying a relatively rare week of autumnal sunshine and balmy temperatures, so it's back outdoors to make hay while the sun shines.  Normally we don't get to enjoy the golds and reds of fall like other parts of the world, because our leaves usually get soaked and drop to the ground too soon.  

I feel it is such a privilege to go out into the world with the eye of an artist.  Not that most people aren't also enjoying the beauty of Nature, but that as a painter I am obsessed with the visual sense, transfixed by the nuances of color and temperature, translating them in my mind into mixtures on the palette, ever exercising the craft that is so elusive, so demanding and yet calls to me like a Sirene.  Even when I repeatedly fall short of capturing on canvas what I see or imagine, the rewards are still there, in the journey and process.  I imagine even the stragglers in a marathon can experience the runner's high.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Hanging on to Life

Of course I'm not talking about hanging on in the sense that one is in peril, but instead I am referring to trying to hang on to the practice of painting from life that I have committed to every Friday since this past Spring.  The weather has turned enough that my reluctance to get soaked and cold overwhelms my desire to get outside and paint from life, so I turned to the only model who is always available and willing to pose for me: myself.  In order to make this somewhat easier, I set up my portable easel in front of the mirror and then painted actual size; this allowed me to check measurements by slapping a ruler against my face (to check the distance between the eyes, for example) and then check the painting to make sure the distance was correct.  I find sometimes that the classic method of holding a brush at arm's length and positioning the thumb to gauge a measurement is untrustworthy for me, since if I don't hold my arm at exactly the distance from my eye, or if I don't position it correctly time after time when checking the painting, it can lead me astray.  Give me scales and numbers every time.  In fact, the ruler I most often use is an engineers scale, a triangular ruler with six different scales: one in inches, divided in tenths instead of sixteenths, and the other five are labeled 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60.  It is very useful in scaling up a painting from a reference.  I will try a post on using this scale at a later date.  This painting was done using a limited palette of yellow ochre, medium red, white and black.  Limiting the colors in this way seems to help create a harmony that is simple and direct.

oil on board, 12 x 16

Recently I have been going through old letters and photos from the distant past, previous lives that have been boxed up and tucked away for decades, and I came across some old photos of the gorgeous landscape in southern Montana where I once spent a summer working on the B Bar Ranch, a ten thousand acre spread that borders Yellowstone Park near Gardiner, Montana.  The mountains and hills there were so unbelievably moving to me, and the speed with which they changed character as summer rolled into autumn, have long fascinated me, so I tried to get down something of the scene in a small oil.  I think I need to spend more time working on this subject, and I hope I can tap into the emotions that I know for me are still tightly attached to the land there.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Finding Nemo

Cannon Beach 
24 x 36 oil

Actually, this post has nothing at all to do with Finding Nemo, but this recent painting is one of the few seascapes I have ever attempted, and Finding Nemo is a catchy title that everyone probably has feelings about, so tip of the hat to Disney films.  I'm waiting for the paint to dry a bit so that I can go back in to glaze more Manganese blue over the sky and get rid of the blotchiness that comes with working too soon to glaze it originally; I find that Liquin tends to lift up paint that isn't entirely dry, leading to frustrating results.

Another sketchbook portrait dashed off with more verve than normal, bigger sweeps of the brush, less concern for resemblance.  I discover that the more I work at these, the easier it becomes to get down a face that is truly close to the model in terms of placement of features.  The only measurement I tend to do now is when something seems really "off" and I measure after the fact to see which elements need to be changed.  

I had a chance to finally drive out to the Columbia River Gorge this past weekend and witnessed for myself the damage done by this summer's wildfires.  This is looking south from across the river in Washington, near Multnomah Falls, and the damage is obvious in the amount of red visible.  Overall, however, I was surprised by how the forests seem to be checkerboarded, with many viable patches of trees left standing, and I am hopeful that the land will be able to recover, despite the danger of landslide now in spots.  It may still be a long while before popular hiking trails are reopened.

Lastly, it is a marvelous time of year to observe the richness of color in the landscape as autumn begins to sink in her teeth, and not a day goes by that I am not out there in Nature being schooled about how many subtle variations on green there can be.

Monday, October 2, 2017


While I know how important it is to be able to paint with abandon, to have a loose and painterly touch, I struggle to allow myself to do that.  The above is an example of me trying.  I started with very diluted oils, lots of turps, drips running down the surface (I hate to have paint everywhere, so I first had to put towels under the panel to catch the runoff.). Then I tried going in with rough brush marks, no blending if I could help it.  In the end, I would never want to hang it on the wall, but I guess for me it will take baby steps - lots and lots of baby steps.

Everyone in my plein air group decided to bail out this past Friday - imagine, a little rain in Oregon!  But not wanting to ruin our perfect record, I wandered out on my own and plastered a quick little piece beside the Tualatin River, under a small but dry cover at the river's edge.  I still appreciate the practice in trying to find the rich color provided by the overcast sky.  We live in a very green world in these parts.

But the bulk of my painting time this week was spent on portrait sketches, a few of which are below.  I can't think of any other pursuit for which I can find such an endless reservoir of patience; if this were any other endeavor, I would have given up long ago, and yet I find that I remain dogged, for some reason, in my attempt to improve at this painting thing.  The progress feels so very slow in coming, like pitch leaking from a wounded pine tree, but I'm still looking for...what, some retsina to be made from all this effort?