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.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Art Blogs

Top of Phantom Bluff

Though the purpose of this blog, for me, has been to force myself to keep painting in order to have new work to post, and as a way for me to plot my progress as I try to learn how to paint, I realize that there may be other things I can do here that might be of value to the few readers who return to follow my musings.  I in no way would want to presume to teach, since I am still such a student myself with so much to learn, but that doesn't preclude sharing.  I have made it a practice to follow a number of art blogs each day, gleaning bits of information or inspiration from them.  I also watch an inordinate number of Youtube videos showing technique or the collected paintings of great painters, or the advice and tips from other painters working to improve their own art.  Why, then, not share some of my favorites here?

One blog that I can recommend without hesitation is Stapleton Kearns.  He really seems to be done with blogging, having posted only ten times in the past four years, and I don't go to him daily to check up on what he has recently added.  Instead, I treat the collection of his posts as if it were a massive reference on learning how to paint well, which it is.  He has posted nearly 1,000 posts, and each one is thoughtful and full of intention, sharing what he learned as a painter taught in the atelier system that was the classic means of instruction in the past, but has fallen from favor in the past century.  He is earnest and dedicated in his sharing, posting nearly every day even while he was working to make a living from his painting, and he acquired quite a following because of the value he offered to the world of art.  His own painting is representational landscape, though I'm sure he learned figure painting and still life as a part of his instruction.  His wicked sense of humor makes reading him even more enjoyable.  He frequently presents paintings by others and then offers a critique, helping us all to understand what makes a strong design, what makes a good painting.  He also covers the work of many great painters of the past, sharing some of their better work, commenting on their technique or on their strengths.  Below is one of Stapleton Kearns' paintings, to give you an idea of his style:

And below is a brief selection from one of his posts.  I hope I am not stepping on any publishing taboos by sharing this here; I certainly don't intend to offer this as my own work, nor am I being financially rewarded in any way for sharing it.  My only intention is to get you to go dive into the vast wealth of information that is Stapleton Kearns:

I referred to the "big look of nature" the other night, and I want to add a little to that . It is a crucial concept and is so important that I want to be certain that I have explained it completely. If you already have it, forgive me, this will be a review.

There are two ways of seeing any scene before you. One is the "big look" and the other is piecemeal. The big look, is when the eye apprehends all of the scene before you in it's unity and entirety and it is thus expressed. "Piecemeal" (now there is an old fashioned expression, I wonder if it is still in use?) is when the artists represents each section of the scene as it looks when it is studied on its own with no reference to the larger view. A piecemeal painting is actually a number of small paintings on the same canvas.

The most important quality that a painting can have, (or any other kind of art for that matter, including a song, a design for a chair, or a Greek vase) is

Unity of effect is when the painting is perceived as a whole, one unit. Failure to get the "big look" is such a problem because it destroys unity of effect. Sometimes a painting is said to "hang together" when it has unity of effect. This can be observed at a considerable distance. I can often tell whether a painting is professional or not from across the street, sometimes even before I can make out its subject.

One of the reasons fine painters often downplay detail is to keep the unity of effect, detail scattered all over painting can do that. A painting can be filled with detail and still have unity of effect, but that detail has to be part of the larger unified system and keep it's proper place in the tableau.
Art students like to make sketches and rough unfinished work because the unity of effect is intact, no area has been worked up very much, so no two areas fight with one another for our attention. Unity of effect is easier to get in a quick study and hard to keep in a protracted one.

So if you are working to learn as much as you can on your own, or even if you are taking classes and workshops or are enrolled in an art school, it won't hurt to take a look at Stapleton.  The nature of blogs is that they are backwards, that the most recent is at the top, and I have found it more useful in this case to go back to the beginning and try to work my way forward.  The volume of the posts is probably equivalent to a huge tome, something over 2,000 pages in length, so it will take some time to work through it.  I have been going back to it for several years and still haven't read it all, since I try to save it on a tab on my browser, but eventually the computer is shut down for some reason and I have to try to go back and find where I left off.

And now back to my own work:  LOPAS, our plein air society, continues to meet every Friday, and though I don't get from my efforts any work to hang, I do gain a bit of confidence and comfort, and I am working toward being able to more accurately put down what I see or what I intend.  Below is last Friday's result.

I tend not to continue on these once I am back in the studio, even if there are glaring flaws, since the purpose isn't the painting, but the experience.

And below is another portrait I started, but it needs so much help at this point.  I will probably still try to make a few corrections (the eye on the right - his left - is TOO SMALL!) and everything about it is too rough to be considered complete.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Painting in the Heat

The Pool in August

The heat of summer has changed the landscape, dropping water levels, bleaching stone and sharpening the colors.  I find it hard to do more than work on short studies; Time seems to be whispering in my ear too often for me to spend hours toiling on any one thing.  

Where I Walk the Dog

Sometimes as I begin a piece and get the lights and darks blocked in, I have a feeling that it might turn out well, that I'll be able to nail it this time.  But as I sling paint and do the hard work required to bring it to a finish, I discover my skills didn't play out exactly as I had hoped, and the thing looks a little cartoonish, or unfinished or just plain disappointing.  Like old age, painting ain't for sissies, so I pick myself back up and start something new.

More often than not, I change gears and try quick sketches to loosen up and hone skills.  I pull up old photos on the laptop and pick a few faces.  Below are a few done in one sitting.  A couple of them took only ten or fifteen minutes each, and though they aren't finished paintings, I recognize my friends in them. I doubt they'd be flattered by the portrait, but that wasn't the point of the exercise.  Sometimes you just have to do what you have to do to keep working at it.  Maybe the glory and success comes later.

Nature, though, is the real artist, and the wonderful thing about painting is all the time spent admiring what Nature has accomplished.  If painting does anything, it causes one to see with eyes more open to the nuances surrounding us.  It is a bit tedious at times to translate everything taken in through the eyes into paint colors, and sometimes I find I'm not listening to someone talk, but instead I'm evalauating the color on their brow, noticing the spread of their eyes or the hook of their nose; it's like living in a Kurasawa film sometimes.  But I find it so rewarding that I don't mind at all that my inner life flies along on a trajectory I would not have imagined a few years ago.  

And finally, just for the heck of it, a photo of an artichoke I had recently: I've never seen one with such a coppery color inside.  Or maybe I'm just hallucinating now with painter's eyes.