Thursday, December 28, 2017

River Mood Sketches

I find myself drawn again and again to the river for inspiration, and I have to admit that a great many of my paintings are either of the Willamette River (as above) or its tributaries, like the Tualatin or Oswego Creek.  The mood is always different depending on the light or the atmosphere and in the cold of winter, it can sometimes be bleak, but most often the light is remarkable in one way or another.  I never tire of it.  It is constantly inspiring and exciting to the senses.  

It has been hard to find time to keep at a schedule of painting with the holidays and the eating and drinking that go along with it, but this morning afforded me a nice long walk along the banks of the Willamette at Mary S. Young Park, and the following sketch was a result.  We watched for quite some time as a sea lion lifted his head above the water and trashed a big steelhead again and again, whipping his strong neck so as to rip bite-size pieces he could swallow, slinging the fish several feet away.  Seagulls harrassed him, hoping for some scraps.  A bald eagle drifted overhead observing it all.  That, and a foggy light - who could ask for more?  These first two paintings are 16 x 20.  The one below took just over an hour, and I still need to figure out how I can slow myself, and spend more time on a painting.  Careful intention has a place in my painting that I am displacing with the rush to achieve other aims, and having no instructor standing behind me, I need to learn to direct myself better.  But I still feel I got what I was after in this painting, sketch or not - the feeling of the special light on the water and in the atmosphere.  I intend to do a larger version of a recent painting, and the sheer size of it will require more of me.

I am not done with the recent painting "Below the Powerhouse"and there were several things about it that bothered me, so I did another version of it, but rather than doing it in a larger size, I did the opposite, and made it smaller, 11 x 14.  I am happier with the composition, but the original version may have captured the feeling a bit better in its somberness.

Lastly, a portrait sketch for making myself get to the easel, to warm up.  If nothing else, it is drawing practice, and I think there can never be a point at which one no longer needs to be concerned for drawing.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Morning Light

24 x 24 oil

Those morning walks are proving uplifting, the eyes are rewarded with a special kind of light, not as soft and warm as that evening light, but instead pure and clean.  The sandy beach, almost frozen under the cold, clear sky, crunches underfoot, but takes on a magical blue cast.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Tender Art

Below the Powerhouse. 16x20 oil on board

Above is a recent start, a work that I stalled on after pausing to take a look at it, since I observed a number of things I want to change but I am not ready to alter it yet until I better understand what I am trying to do here.  I was working at composition and trying for the values I was after, and paid little attention to the method of paint application.  I was attracted to the power of the compositon, the dark promise of the stream leading into... there's part of my problem.  I didn't really want it to lead to a destination, but instead to pull one deeper into the somber overall tone.  It is more an exploration than a finished thought.  At one point I almost felt it should head off into abstraction, and that's also a possibility still.  This is the first thing I have worked on in which I felt the pull of abstraction, but my nature still resists it, wanting something more concrete.  Is it my experience as a builder that steers me in certain directions?  Does my process derive from methods of construction in some way?  I do know that I feel a certain impulse to slap things down quickly, move along, and I think it is the years of framing houses that makes me feel the need to push through toward structure, rather than delicately add marks that accumualte into a coherent whole.  And I have not resisted these urges, even when I question them, because I have believed that there is so much to learn about composition, value, color temperature, etc.  It seems to me more important to learn lessons than to create finished work.

But at what point do I need to change that way of thinking?  Have I deluded myself into thinking it is okay to just forge ahead, assuming that a voice and a style will miraculously appear out of all that effort if I just persist.  Am I kidding myself?  Is this an excuse for not doing the hard work of learning the skills referred to in the following quote from John Ruskin?

From The Elements of Drawing by John Ruskin:  "...there is one quality, and, I think, only one, in which all great and good art agrees; - it is all delicate art.  Coarse art is always bad art.  You cannot understand this at present, because you do not know yet how much tender thought, and subtle care, the great painters put into touches that at first look coarse; but believe me it is true, and you will find it is so in due time."

There is little tenderness in my process.  I have observed other painters working, and I have witnessed their tenderness in mark-making, envious of their almost magical touch.  And yet when I grab a brush, it feels more like a power tool; I feel the need to hammer out something, scrubbing it down, scumbling, sloshing, stacking...  When does my inner maestro wave that wand?

And even realizing all this, even seeing the need is not enough to convince me that I have to make a dramatic change in what I do.  I instead try to plunge ahead in search of passion and meaning.  I do not discount the notion that little by little I may succumb to the truth that a part of my mind can recognize, but in the end it is even more critical to me to hold on to the interest in the doing of it.  It has to be fun, too, and not all intellectual self-direction.  As my friend, Andre Bonhomme, once told me "C'est le plaisir qui count."

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Blue Dawn

This is from this morning's walk with the dog, on the bank of the Willamette at George Rogers Park.  The light was wonderful and rich and moody, the river was high, silent and flat with no wake or wave to interupt the calm.  We had a good time there, Greta and I, letting our souls link with Grand Nature, updating our moods like new software for the Iphone.  

In an effort to recycle old canvases, I have been painting over old work.  When I have small boards under 11x14, I will normally use paint off my palette to give a solid coat of a random color and then let it dry, ready for use.  But when it is a larger canvas, like this 20x16 above, I tend to paint directly on the old work, making the underpainting a little difficult, since so much reads through from below.  But I charged ahead in this case, trying to use a little heavier application than I normally use to get the thing done in one sitting, rather than waiting to let the underpainting dry.  So it came out a little choppy for my taste, but I was really trying to see if the overall effect was going to be what I was after; call it a larger color study.  As usual, the photo distorts the color a little, but I think I might revisit this one at some point to make it more finished.

It isn't often that I don't find my work wanting in some aspect or other, but this above portrait of Javier Bardem is something I futzed with over a couple of hours and it's just fine the way it is, for a notebook sketch.  I love his nose and his expressive eyes, so heavy-lidded and relaxed.  He would be fun to paint from life.

And yet another study of Oswego Creek, endlessly complex and changeable.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Looking Forward

 The next couple of paintings are works in progress in search of a different direction.  Sometimes I just follow a path not knowing where it is going, but like a rat in a maze, I seem to encounter a lot of dead ends.

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?

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Out In The Air

Upper Clackamas River

With the changing of the seasons, I feel a need to hurry outdoors even more, paint from life while there is still enough warmth and comfort left to me.  I do not expect to be out standing in the snow and rain, shivering while rushing through a quick plein air painting.  It seems there may only be a few weeks left, so sometimes I do a very quick sketch like the one below, from the Yamhill area:

And while we can, LOPAS is still sticking to our weekly plan; last Friday's outing was to Bryant Woods.  We didn't realize it, but while we sat there painting in the meadow, a coyote was watching us with interest, until Jean got up to look at Randall's work and the coyote ran off.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The Tualatin River

Our plein air outing on the Tualatin this morning was pleasant and beautiful, but I just didn't feel I had it in me today, and so I am posting a painting I did this past week from the same spot.  Even this one feels like the start of something as yet unfinished, but I am not inclined to linger on it, since I have other things to get to.

This notebook sketch of Ezra Pound was interesting to me because of the tipped back angle of his head, and the almost haughty look it gave him.  He was an interesting figure in American poetry; some great poets who followed him felt he introduced the modernity that was to follow, but his reputation was marred by his adherence to Fascism leading up to World War II.

And this above is one of my work-out sketches, dashed off in brief moments between sets of lifting weights.  It is small (5x7) done with a largish brush, but I was satisfied that it captured a bit of character.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Beauty on the River

Friday is always plein air day, and today Randall and I were the only ones to show up, so we selected this spot with a small roof over our heads overlooking the Tualatin River at Field's Bridge Park in West Linn. What a gorgeous spot!  It is baffling that I had never been down to the river at this particular spot, especially given that I had lived for seven years just a half mile upstream.  Granted, this park has been developed since I moved from there ten years ago, but still....  This place is a plein air painter's dream.  There are so many different motifs, and plenty of light and relative privacy.  Below is the painting from today, sitting on this overlook.  I wished it could have been developed further, but frankly I was so pleased with just sitting there and soaking in the beauty, the color of the water, and the good conversation, that I didn't worry too much about the painting.  We will be back, certainly.

And from last week, another plein air piece of a lawn and cottonwoods.  I didn't think much of this one when I finished it on site, but when I got home, it grew on me a little and despite the glaring flaws that I won't go back and change, I am happy with the overall feeling of it as a painting.  It is simple, but it conveys a bit of what I felt there, and it deserves to be developed in another painting, using this as reference.

And finally, another art blog to share:  Terry Miura writes a wonderful and informative blog that has been a real help to me in learning things I might not otherwise consider.  He paints landscape, cityscape and figurative pieces with a fresh looseness that is instructive to tight beginning painters like me.  He is generous with his expertise and takes time to explain the intricacies of his process.  I have long hoped that he will one day take the time to compile his past posts into a book, and I think it would be a successful one if he ever did, but I understand how time consuming that would be and it would take away from his painting time, so for now I just go back through his blog to explore ideas that are helpful to me.  Below is a sample of his landscape work.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Art Blogs Two

For whatever reason, I have been unable to convince myself to pick up a brush for the past couple of weeks.  I set aside time, I think about it, and then I find excuses for not doing it.  This hasn't been a problem for me, strangely, and I know it is a danger for a self-motivated person in pursuit of an artistic goal, but now I find myself in these familiar doldrums.  I tell myself that it is because the past month has been filled with emotional challenges on so many fronts, (and I am glad that August is behind me) and that might be all there is to it, really.  But a part of me fears that if I lose some of the drive that has kept me going in the difficult learning stage of painting, how will I manage to face the inevitable discouragement and failure?  So I fret, and ignore, and wait for another day.

In order to force myself back into the routine, I started a portrait, below, and working with only white, black, yellow ochre and vermillion, I got a reasonable likeness, but not a finished piece.  I stopped to let the paint dry enough not to lift color back out as I was trying to add glazing over it, but when I came back to it.....  Let's just say her expression of unhappiness compares to my own feelings lately.

One thing I have no trouble doing is joining in on our Friday morning plein air outings; the camaraderie alone is worth the time, and I find I can paint easily enough because I'm not after a finished painting, just the effort of observation and attempt.  It seems like it has to be good for one's mental health, at the very least.  In the photo below Randall and Jean paint the gardens at Luscher Farms last week.

But this post is about Art blogs, so I will mention another of my favorites.  James Gurney is well known in artistic circles, and he may be the hardest working of anyone I am aware of in the field.  He writes helpful and friendly posts nearly every day, he has a large following, he writes books on painting, he illustrates for scientific magazines (dinosaurs) and he creates videos of his painting process.  He paints on location often and fills notebook after notebook with watercolor, gouache and casein.  I check in on Gurney Journey nearly every day, and I am never disappointed with the offerings I find there.

Another art blog that I follow frequently is Painter's Process by Randall Tipton.  He is the fellow in the cap in the photo above.  I first came across his beautiful work years ago, and I remember feeling awe and mystery.  I tried imagining who this man might be, but his work was so unlike that of other painters, so hauntingly beautiful and true, exotic and mysterious.  I was just starting out on my journey into painting and I couldn't imagine ever being able to paint like that.  But I noticed an announcement on his blog that he was having an open studio one fall, I stopped by, and Randall was friendly and welcoming and gracious and we have become friends.  I've watched him paint on numerous occasions, and I still can't imagine being able to paint like him, because it is still a mystery to me how he arrives at his finished piece.  

A third art blog I follow is Art and Artists, by Poul Webb.  Nothing like the other two, this is a compendium of work of various artists.  Poul selects an artist who interests him and then posts painting after painting, giving you an in depth visit to the body of work.  It is a way to see painters I have never heard of before, but it is also a way to see work by famous artists whose work I thought I knew well.  The past postings are a good resource for study.