Friday, September 27, 2019

Even More Outdoor Work

Because the weather is still great, much of my painting time has been spent outdoors--as noted in other posts. And again this past week I've spent a lot of time outdoors, either sketching here along Druid Hill Creek or at other locations.

Even though it is late September, Druid Hill Creek remains lush with foliage--leaves, stems, vines, roots--tangling along both shores. The trees are almost invisible behind the curtain of leaves. This watercolor is about 5x9. Working on the spot outdoors I painted the abstract patterns, going from larger to smaller to tiny shapes until gradually the creek emerged from the jumble of shapes. After the entire thing dried thoroughly I went back and added texture with a .05mm black technical pen. A lot of shapes are intended as suggestions of foliage masses.

Not far from my studio the Raccoon River winds its way though the center of the city. The river tends to be untamed and the surrounding flood plain has not been developed. One morning last week I worked on a 9x12 oil along the bank of the river. Because I had less than two hours it was critical to me to make each brush stroke count. I toned the canvas with a thin wash of an earth red and then painted the bend in the river, beginning with the cool light of the sky, then the distant trees, followed by the river bend in the lower left, then finishing with the trees and undergrowth on the opposite bank. I scratched the distant bridge into the paint and then added faint lights for the steel trestles. In each area as I progressed I tried to paint the darkest dark for the area, mindful of the light from the southwest and the distribution of shadow and reflection in the river. Capturing the abstract patterns in each area of the painting were important to me too.

Previous posts on this subject:
Thoughts on Painting Outdoors
More Thoughts on Outdoor Painting
More About Plein Air
Equipment for Outdoors
Plein Air on Druid Hill Creek
The Great Outdoors

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Festival Memories in Watercolor

Once in a while memories show up preserved in our sketchbooks. Not long ago I posted a travelogue
that showed a few of the dozens of watercolor postcards I've mailed to friends while traveling--good memories. And that watercolor travelogue of Rome from a few weeks before that came out an old trip journal that I had forgotten. The memories came back fresh and clear. This post isn't about travel, though.

Today I found some sketches from several different arts festivals I've participated in around the Midwest. Manning a booth all day at a festival can be boring, exciting, frustrating, and even exhilarating, but there is a lot of time to fill. Because of that these events provide lots of opportunities for sketching.

In 2015 I was an exhibitor at the Uptown Art Fair, an enormous multidisciplinary festival held in the Uptown district in Minneapolis. Just across from us was a food vendor called Chef Shack. Sitting as I was in front of my booth facing the truck, I had all day to work on this 3.5x10 painting. As a bonus, because we let them store a generator in our tent overnight, they gave me fresh donuts free for two entire days. An excellent trade!
There were quite a few food trucks not far from us at the Uptown show, and like Chef Shack they made for interesting sketching. These two were down the way, one a frozen yogurt concession and the other a general food truck. Both of them did brisk business.

That same year I showed work at the Omaha Summer Arts Festival, a big show traditionally held along Farnham Street in downtown Omaha. The parkland alongside was cooling and inviting, compared to the hot city street, and I made a few  watercolors of the trees and booths from the cool shade of the park. The show had to move to a new location this year.

In 2016 we returned to the Twin Cities for the Edina Fall into the Arts Festival, another big show in the Minneapolis area. Across the way from us was a sculptor who worked in steel. His display of a three-foot-tall steel seahorse caught my eye so I did this watercolor of the critter. The contrast of the dull warm metal against the blue background was very satisfying.

One of the shows we've done consistently is ArtFest Midwest which is a very large indoor exhibition every June during the Des Moines Arts Week. Unlike the other show downtown, this is indoors and doesn't suffer from heat, rain, wind or other issues. In 2017 I sketched a fellow in a shirt with remarkably colorful and puffy sleeves, topped off with a vest and high hat. He was across from my booth, meandering through the show. I extended the sketch and made it gradually less and less focused to show distance.

Sketching isn't just practice, and it's not just studying for bigger works. Sometimes it's a way make memories.

Friday, September 20, 2019

More on the Great Outdoors

Since my last posting about outdoor painting I've managed a number of outdoor sessions, alone and with a group of painters from here in the city. The thing about painting outdoors is how it forces me to confront the scene at hand, dealing with changing light, clouds, winds and all the other vicissitudes, coupled with the need for accurate observation and quick decisions. As expected, it's been a fruitful several months. These are a few of the results.

"Rocks Downstream." oil on panel, 12x16
The first painting here is a study of Druid Hill Creek and how water flows over it. "Downstream Rocks" is 12x16, oil on panel. The fun of painting water is the evanescence of the colors, reflections, ripples and eddies. This particular work, like others posted this summer, was done on the bank of the creek, not more than twenty yards from the studio door. I feel blessed to have ample subject matter so close at hand.

"In the Garden," oil on panel, 9x12
The painting to the left is the result of an outdoor painting session at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. Local master gardeners maintain a permanent demonstration garden there, and even when the Fair isn't in session the flowers and plants are a beautiful spot to paint. This shows a small statue of a girl holding a flower pot, surrounded by annual and perennial flowers. The garden is quiet and almost completely devoid of visitors despite being open to the public.

So long as summer cooperates, outdoor work will continue.

Previous posts on this subject:
Thoughts on Painting Outdoors
More Thoughts on Outdoor Painting
More About Plein Air
Equipment for Outdoors
Plein Air on Druid Hill Creek
The Great Outdoors

Tuesday, September 17, 2019


Dragon and Phoenix are Symbols in Traditional Chinese Weddings
Although blue is the favorite color of most people, red is a favorite, too. Depending on what survey you read, red ranks among the top four colors in popularity--second in the United States to blue, but fifth if we're talking about automobile colors. In any event, red is certainly popular. As a color, red is associated with emotional intensity, danger, courage, warfare, sex, anger, and heat. In many Asian cultures red is the color symbolizing happiness and good fortune. And of course red is the international color of communism.

Red may be the oldest color used by humans, in the form of ochres (iron-containing clays). Archaeologists have discovered many traces of red ochre in cave paintings and paleolithic burials. Other natural minerals--cinnabar or vermilion (both containing mercury) and red lead--and compounds from insects were in wide use in antiquity. Red was an exceptionally important color in ancient Rome, denoting Mars, god of war. So much so that Romans covered their victorious generals in red pigment. New cadmium pigments made 19th and 20th century colors brighter and more saturated. And now we have many newer synthetic reds based in organic chemistry--naphthols and quinacridones for example--that provide brilliance, high chroma, and permanence.

In the standard color wheel, red is opposite green, its complement. With blue and yellow, red is one of the primary colors in a standard wheel. Mixing red plus yellow makes orange; red plus blue makes violet. complements tend to cancel and make a neutral hue, but when placed next to one another in a landscape they give a pleasing vibration to the image. This means, for a landscapist, giving a support an undertoning of red for the greens of trees and grasses to dance against.

Claude Monet understood toning his canvas and sometimes used a thin and pale violet wash, presumably because it is the complement of yellow light. And of course he was a master in using colors. In "Route de Giverny en Hiver." 1885 (right), despite the overall coolness of the snowy landscape, the clouds, snow, and trees all have a warmer undertone likely from underpainting. Moreover, he also made red and red-violet accents sharpen the branches, especially on the far right and offsetting the cooler blues of the branches in the left background. It is a masterful example of his thought.

But red does even more in modern and contemporary works, where it becomes the principal color. A famous example of such a use of color in contemporary painting is "The Red Studio," 1911, by Henri Matisse. In this work he makes red the dominant color yet confines it to background, making instead his abstracted studio and artworks take the perceptual foreground. Matisse has also composed the simage so that our eyes enter and follow a preset clockwise pattern. This painting from more than a century ago destroys three dimensional conventions yet remains clearly and obviously representational. A neat feat.
In the middle of the 20th century Mark Rothko came into prominence for his stripped-down rectangles of color, termed "color field painting." In those works he balanced two different rectangles of color against a third color, sometimes pushing one or the other into the background, often employing very hot combinations of red-orange or crimsons against competing dull yellow ochres. In Red, Orange, Orange on Red (1962) he showed his understanding of color. Many have felt an emotional charge from viewing these canvases, and Mark Rothko remains an emblem of 20th century abstract art.

For those of us with a less dramatic flair, red is a perfect hot spot for the center of interest. In my watercolor sketch of the Discovery Garden, ISF 2019, I downplayed the chroma and intensity of most of the flowers because it seemed to me more important to give an overall impression. In the closer foreground beds the colors become higher in chroma until the bright reds of the closest hibiscus stop the viewer's gaze from going out of the frame.
The red serves as an important contrast to the dark greens of the background foliage and statue. Using a contrasting and high chroma color in a field of its complement provides interest and "pop" to a work, as many of our predecessors knew very well.

Similar posts:

Friday, September 13, 2019

Two More River Sketches

Our recent visit to friends in Virginia was a wonderful respite. Their place is a calming retreat in the Alleghanies a few miles from Roanoke, along the bank of a small, clear-flowing river. The river was cooling, the wind in the sycamores a quiet rustle, and the gyre of civilization remote as the South Pole. People float the river during summer, especially on weekends, but their passing presence is cheering, not disturbing. We arrived after Labor Day, so there weren't many rafters to break the quiet.
Across the Hayfields, oil on panel, 9x12
As I wrote in the earlier post linked above, there was plenty to sketch and paint. In truth, it was easy to paint multiple subjects from the same place. You could paint the river, banks, trees, and the cliff across the way, or the distant mountains, or a farm far across a hay field with little change in position. The oils in my previous post showed the cliff which is northeast, and the distant mountains across a farm and fields to the south. The two posted here were slightly different, the first of a far barn and silo was done looking almost due west but the house in the final panel was done from a different position to study the blue house.
The House on the River, oil on panel, 9x12
The blue house was the last outdoor oil I managed and only a ninety minute sketch of a house on the river, done from downstream along the bank. The house has a barnlike silhouette and the turquoise siding is a beautiful complement to two red painted houses behind it. I stood in the shade of a big sycamore and laid this one in with mostly strokes of paint. The photo is somewhat lighter than the actual work, which flattens the depth. The reds of the background are a value or two darker, and if the work was available I'd darken those in the studio. As it happens, it went to our hosts as a memento.

Again it seems to me that painting outdoors is a real opportunity to go to the sources--the greens are different and the flowers more brilliant. Shadows show their colors in ways not obtainable in photos. The purpose of working outside might be to produce finished, marketable paintings but in the case of these works the purpose was to study the colors and light of the landscape where we stayed, and as a way to continue working outside using my new plein air setup. The setup was very handy and portable, satisfyingly so. And working outdoors is becoming more comfortable and routine. Working outside pays dividends, at least for me.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Animals in Art

In past entries I've mused about animals and how they challenge me as a realist artist (for example, Animals for Fun and Practice). An understanding of animal anatomy is as critical as a knowledge of human structure, so one of my aims with sketching has been to study various species, from farm animals to birds and even exotic creatures.
"I'm Really Sorry," digital sketch
It's important to me to show more than accurate structure, though. Capturing a mood or movement can make the animal look real and alive. Animals show sorrow, unhappiness, sharp interest, antagonism, and a lot more in their gestures and eye positions. Capturing those sorts of nuances is a matter of constant practice and study, so here are a few from the recent past.

The digital sketch of a guilty dog is an example of the way some studies evolve. I had seen similar looks very often with my own dogs. Almost anyone who has lived with a dog knows the expression of guilt that a dog can show when reprimanded or when she knows she's offended you. We've all seen it. As it happens one of our pooches has occasionally shown such regret too, so when I saw a similar photo I did a quick sketch that combined the expression with my own dog's appearance.

"Rojo," digital sketch
A sketch of an aroused and belligerent rooster from not long ago was similarly triggered by another image I saw, but was also based on previous experiences with an angry fowl, since we raised chickens when I was a boy. (A lot of times as a little fellow I was relentlessly pursued by a protective rooster.) Since our own rooster featured a bright red comb, his name was Rojo, and so this sketch was named in his honor. He had a real glint in his eye that threatened mayhem.

Finally, from my visits to the Iowa State Fair came a number of sketches of horses. I had attended a showing of  huge Percherons and Clydesdales during one judging awed that their owners' heads often barely reached the horses' shoulders. This particular drawing is a digital essay of an expression I seemed to detect in the eye of these horses--the kind of calmness that comes from enormous strength.

Related Posts
More Animal Drawing
For Dog Lovers
Cats, Cats, Cats

Friday, September 06, 2019

Down on the River

These past few days we have been visiting dear friends in southwestern Virginia. They live in a wonderful area of mountains and rivers, full of craggy vistas and cool valleys. Our friends' home is on a river bank and has been home to members of their extended family for several generations. One of the family has an actual log cabin on the bank that could date to before the War Between the States. The river runs sweet and clear, cooling bathers and rafters on hot summer days. Opposite our hosts is a rocky cliff rising maybe forty feet, capped by dense trees. The rocks are veined and fractured, and the sloped, gravelly base of the cliff shows the effect of water. The bottom is layered with smooth river stones.

The Cliff, oil on panel, 9x12
The day after our arrival I painted the cliff face and the cool water below, trying to match color, value, and shape. I began by massing shapes, then refining into smaller and smaller shapes as necessary, but couldn't complete the sketch and spent two more hours finishing it the following day. The colors of the rock and foliage danced in the water as day trippers floated by (it was a weekend). The sun was warm in the cool breeze and the day was quietly beautiful.

Across the Hayfield, oil on panel, 9x14
On the other side where we were staying is flat farmland that has been cultivated for decades--more likely more than a century--in the river bottom. Beyond the land rises to low ridges and beyond to the Alleghenies and a blue ridge and peaks. The farms and fields are bright green in the late summer sun.

The Opposite Bank, watercolor and in, 5x9
Besides working in oils I also did a few sketches in graphite and in watercolor and ink. The differences in methods and techniques provides opportunities to exercise different mental "muscles" while preserving personal impressions of the woods and river.

Using small and lightweight setups has been the key for me during this trip. Ease of setup, simple cleanup, and sturdiness of my new pochade box have been real benefits.

There will be other paintings to show from this journey, another time.

Tuesday, September 03, 2019

Postcard Travelogue

A habit of mine has been useful when we travel. During trips one of the things that is useful for me is to make small watercolors on postcards and mail them back to family and friends. The old tradition of travel postcards is long gone, but these are fun because the recipients get an original watercolor complete with stamps (sometimes foreign ones) and a little personal note. Reviewing some of those postcards recently was enjoyable because of the memories they conjure. Here are some from trips of the past.

This is a postcard of the Pont d'Avignon in France. Behind the famous bridge are buildings surviving from the times when the Catholic Popes lived there. This bridge no longer spans the Rhone and only the four arches shown have remained since the late 17th century. This is a view from our river boat which navigated the river from Avignon northward.
During the same trip, not far north of Avignon we visited Chateauneuf du Pape, the wine region named after the summer castle of one of the Avignon popes, who enjoyed the cooler high country in summer. Although the actual castle is in ruins, just below it is the village by the same name. Surrounding the village are extensive vineyards and wineries
that still use the label "Chateauneuf du Pape." This postcard shows a vineyard near the ruins and the Rhone far below in the distance.

On another trip some years ago we visited Almeria on the south coast of Spain. It's a less-visited coastal city that dates to at least the 10th century, perhaps even to Roman times. Almeria was a city of the Caliphate of Cordoba, named for a citadel (the Alcazaba) built above it in the 11th century. The moors left in the 15th century. Today the city is
one of the seats of agriculture in Spain--there are more than 100,000 acres of greenhouses near, despite the arid weather. Furthermore, the international film industry has filmed dozens of movies in the citadel and in purpose-built movie sets north of the city. We sailed into the harbor and had a great view of the harbor light that guards entrance. I painted this postcard of the the light and mailed it home.

During the same trip we spent a day in Tangier, much of it visiting the famous kasbah. The city was founded several thousand years ago by Phoenicians and has successively been ruled by Carthage, Rome, Vandals and Visigoths, the Umayyads and then successive European countries. Today it's a striking city on the Mediterranean that is one of the principal cities in the Kingdom of Morocco. We only had a few hours to visit, so a tour of the kasbah was our best bet. The kasbah and medina sections of the city are old and dense, with streets that are mere passageways between the buildings. For a time in the 20th century Tangier was home to

American and European expatriates, partly because the city was at the time administered by a group of European nations and was called an "international city." We made a walking tour of the old quarter, where much of the walls and many doors are painted blue. As you might expect, cats are prominent residents, no doubt because of their practical value. I saw this cat on a doorstep in the kasbah, calmly regarding the passing parade of tourists, and made a postcard to send home.

Not long ago we made a visit to southern France and stayed just next to Monaco, the tiny nation-city on the coast. Like other coastal settlements, Monaco was founded by Phoenicians thousands of years ago. In the 121th century the Grimaldi family became rulers and remain so today. It is also home to the famous casino named Monte Carlo, from which it derives substantial income. The Grimaldi palace is on the original high promontory called Le Rocher (the Rock) that juts into the Mediterranean. It's easy to see why someone would settle in such an easily defensible place. For centuries you had to
climb stairs to the top of Le Rocher, although modern elevators now exist as well. Besides the Grimaldi palace, the old town, Monaco-Ville, with its narrow streets and beautiful views remains a great place to visit, shop, and dine. We had lunch in a place called Fredy's and enjoyed a grand time wandering the streets. The National Oceanographic Museum with it's yellow submarine is another prime spot to visit on Le Rocher.

In retrospect I got more from these little watercolors than intended. My original thought was that doing them would keep me drawing and working at least in a water-based medium. Once I began doing them, though, they also became an end in themselves because they are so enjoyable to do. And now it turns out they're excellent as memory devices too. Too bad more painters don't do something similar.