Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Imagination and Memory

Sometimes imagination is as useful to me as memory - both can be wonderful aids to breaking through the two-dimensional picture plane of the photographs that are often my source material in the winter months. A place I've never been, if it's the right kind of place, can invite me in and make me want to explore a landscape, to capture something of it's essence. Even if I don't know what a place sounds or smells like, and even when I have no idea what's just over 'my' shoulder with these static points-of-view, a pleasing combination of colors and contrasts arranged by nature 'just so' (or manipulated by me to alter the view a bit) can still work it's magic.

For a couple of weeks I've been working with photographs of the national parks of Wales:

There seems to be a bit of New Zealand in these views to me - a folded landscape with deep clefts - and the presence of moving water gives them a built-in sound that's attractive too.

In February, we're off to Joshua Tree National Park for a day, so I've been researching hikes and landscapes we might want to investigate if we can. This view of a sometimes dry reservoir called Barker Dam had wonderfully dark late afternoon shadows coupled with the golden glow of sunset on the rocks, but it started with a drawing that nailed the depth and motion of tumbled stones. Some days things just work - even if the drawing was dashed off in the front seat of my car while waiting for the kids to get out of school:

As always, clicking on any of these gives you a larger view...

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Winslow Homer and Prout's Neck, Maine

I recently went on a roadtrip up to Portland, Maine to see the "Weatherbeaten" show of Winslow Homer's work related to his home in Prout's Neck. The museum has just finished restoring his studio building, which they now own, and had put together several shows to celebrate: one of his work, one of his circle of contemporaries and local plein air painters, and an exhibit of commissioned photographs.
Portland Museum of Art Weatherbeaten exhibit

Terrific CBS Sunday Morning segment on the studio and Prout's Neck

I had been studying a monograph of his watercolors from an earlier show at the Art Institute of Chicago (Waterolors by Winslow Homer: The Color of Light). It was a real treat to seethe watercolors up close (or as close as they'd let me get) and I now have a much better understanding of his mastery.
Link to details of Breaking Waves at AIC

After the museum and lunch, we made the 12 mile trip down to Prout's Neck to see what we could see in the late afternoon light.
Google map of the area

It was a magical day, though a bit gray, and I'm so glad I got to share it with my family and my mother who was in town for a visit.

So far, the experience has resulted in one painting. Though our day was calm, I tried to capture a hint of Homer's raging surf through a bit of artistic license...

Friday, November 16, 2012


So far on my watercolor painting journey I think I've learned the following:
  • You cannot achieve good painting without good drawing, but you CAN achieve bad painting with good drawing.
  • Good paper is more important than good brushes which are more important than good paint
  • Eyes make the painter, not the tools; but good tools can sure help the eyes
  • Simplify, simplify, simplify
  • Do not be afraid to fail, but learn when to stop and how to wait.
  • Gravity can be your friend. And also your enemy.
  • A "breakthrough" painting can almost shame much of your earlier work, and it can take a long while before it has worthy company.
  • Practice does not make perfect. But it sure helps.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Sometimes you have to go for it

Working from a photograph on a chilly day I tackled a shaded hillside in northern Victoria, Australia. Mostly I was trying to catch the shade under the trees, the atmospherics of the distant hills, and to give some sense of the steep perspective as the hill falls away at the viewers feet.

At this stage, I was fairly happy but I knew that I needed to make a few adjustments. The next hill over was too brown and warm for the rest of the painting (especially in this photo). I didn't feel the shadows under the trees were strong enough. And I knew that I had chickened-out instead of including the scattered flock of sheep in the reference photograph.

So after strengthening the shadows I did a bit of research looking at how other painters have tried to show distant sheep with just a few strokes, then held my breath and went for it.

I'm still not thrilled with the brown hill... but the sheep seem to "work". They're small.... but they're sheep! 

This is 9" x 12" on Arches 140 lb cold press, entirely painted with an Isabey 2/0 Squirrel Quill Mop brush, except for the sheep which needed something smaller and stiff. A teeny bit of gouche for the sheep whites. This second photograph is more true to the actual color.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Boston from Buck Hill

We had a glorious warm autumn day yesterday, so I packed up the field gear into my backpack and headed off to the Blue Hills Reservation in Milton, MA. This wonderful network of trails, ponds and hills is within a half hour drive and offers surprisingly grand vistas for a spot so close to the city, so close to the coast here.

I chose Buck Hill, taking a brief but very steep and rugged leaf-covered trail straight up from Route 28. Suffice it to say I was reminded of my own sloth, lack of exercise and even mortality on the climb up. At the very least, I was rather grateful the trail wasn't any longer!

I don't have much in the way of photos here: just the painting (9 x 12) and a documentation of what I was looking toward. When I started there was still a bit of haze and/or fog hovering over the city presumably due to temperature inversions of some sort, but there wasn't a cloud in the sky. We're already a bit "past peak" for many of the fall leaves - they came and went in a hurry this year!

Thursday, October 11, 2012


The difference between the way a painting looks at arm's length (the way it's made) and from across the room (the way it is often viewed) can be truly mysterious and sometimes astonishing, even to the painter.

When I stand back to look, I'm often looking for nebulous qualities. Things like "Does the painting hold up?" or "Is that detail lost?" become just as important as judgements about color, shape, composition, emphasis, and whether or not I've successfully conveyed what I set out to convey.

The recent paintings below are deliberately shown small here to give you some idea what they look like from across the room. They're all less than 9" x 12". But if you click, you'll get a better sense of how they look to me when I'm painting...

The bottom one is a first sketch attempt at depicting a complicated and colorful scen along the Charles River in Newton, Massachusetts. Lilypads, turning leaves, reflections, forest shadows... these are all significant challenges for me and up close I didn't think I was getting them down in a coherant way. But from across the room something magical happens - I had caught more than I thought!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Thank you!

Last weekend's debut showing at Jamaica Plain Open Studios was:
  1. exhausting
  2. fun and exciting
  3. very gratifying
  4. all of the above

No wrong answers there. Thank you so much to the many old friends and new who stopped by and said very gracious things about my work. Fourteen paintings woke up to find themselves in new homes on Monday, and for that I'm grateful as well as a little wistful. They may have "left the nest", but they will be missed for the joy they gave me in the making and for what they taught me.

Thanks too are due to my battery-mates at the First Baptist Church: our hostess with the mostest and a spectacular photographer Ashlee Wiest-Laird; Ginny Zanger whose monotypes set a great standard; Richard Youngstrom whose mosaic creations made for a lively presentation all weekend. The sculpture studio's terrific Polar Bears, Annie Cardinaux's wonderful patchwork landscapes and Alicia Fessenden's pottery held down the fort outside. Thanks much for the cheerful encouragement and the fine example you all set of "how it's done".

And truly: thanks are due to the frisky folks at whose Mini Business Cards were a surefire attention grabber. In the midst of so much larger art vying for attention, something about our evolutionary biology and those cones in our eyes that give us peripheral vision made nearly every passing potential patron stop in their tracks and zoom in for a look at these things, about a third the size of a regular card:

Finally, here is a peek at a last minute effort to create some "smaller inventory" for the show. This scene is from the pond at Forest Hills Cemetery here in Jamaica Plain, not far from the final resting places of playwright Eugene O'Neill, and the poets Anne Sexton and e.e. cummings (among others)...

That half sheet of Arches was cut into nine rectangles for the show. A patron could find one they liked or build a triptych. They look great framed too:

Even the smallest painting can change the course of the future!

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Jamaica Plain Open Studios 2012

This coming weekend, September 22-23 is Jamaica Plain Open Studios and marks my debut showing as a painter.

I'll be exhibiting my work at the First Baptist Church, 633 Centre Street, Jamaica Plain from 11am to 6 pm on both Saturday and Sunday.  There is art all over town, and seven of us at this location:

The work I'll be showing includes these original watercolors, almost all of which will be available for purchase:

Thanks for your support,

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Three, six, nine

Jamaica Plain Open Studios is rapidly approaching - my first ever art fair- and I've decided I might not have enough small, entry-level paintings to offer. So, I stretched a large half-sheet of Arches, and drew a nine-block grid on it (approximately 4.5" x 7.3" for each rectangle), and headed over to Jamaica Pond with the intention of "mass producing" nine little paintings at once. I tackled one row at a time, working in a sketchy, continuous panorama style.

I was quite pleased with the results, and tried slight variations in style for each row. But now I'm wondering if I've really produced three triptychs. Or perhaps one triptych and six little paintings? It seems every "solution" creates new "problems"!

Friday, September 7, 2012

East Boston Sojourn

After twenty four years in town I finally made it over to the shores of East Boston to take in the view and to squeeze in a painting before my true ulterior motive in going revealed itself. What a revelation!

Very pretty Piers Park is the highlight, carved out of the mostly downtrodden industrial waterfront with a view across the harbor to the Customs House downtown.

Just down the road a bit I sat down to paint this old dry dock facility and ended up with this:

A little hasty with the values, but in my defense I was distracted by the sound (and smell) of the Manly Sea Eagles vs. Canterbury Bulldogs rugby match blasting out of the East Boston Shipyard location of KO Pies, the newest outpost of our local piece of Australia. Sam, the owner, and the boys were enthusiastically enjoying the match, and it was nice to see another of the Aussie Pies signs I brought him put to good use over the pie case. And... since it was one of the last truly hot days of the year, I needed a thirst quencher to go with my Classic beef pie and sausage roll...

Nothing could be much finer than this. The sausage rolls seem improved from my very first visit, but I think I'm now acclimated to the braised lamb shank pies I usually order, and missed it a bit!

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Ode to a Dexter Mat Cutter

My trusty Dexter Mat Cutter has been with me for more that forty years now. There is a real, err, art to using this sleek, heavy, ergonomic piece of streamlined chrome without destroying lots of mat board. It's certainly one of those instances where "practice makes perfect" - or close enough. A bit like bike riding, you never quite forget how it's done.

The blade hides in that central gap and can be tilted to several angles. But once you get ready to cut, with the left edge flush against a straight edge or T-square, the blade is hiding out of view under your thumb. The pointy end does you no good at all when it comes to aligning your cut. A Lefty would find it a very difficult thing to use. Still, cutting mats is a slow, delicate and dangerous process that takes an extremely steady hand (at least with one of these). A constant recitation of the old carpenter's mantra "measure twice, cut once" is a good policy. These really are one of the classic tools of all time.

Over the last few weeks I've cut nearly fifty mats, mounted my paintings on a foam backing behind the mat and then gently slipped each one into an archival acetate envelope. There are more to come as I get ready for Jamaica Plain Open Studios. Each one is a little seed of hope and joy, presented as efficiently as possible.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Plein Air Watercolor Sketching

 Painting rapidly outdoors on a relatively small scale - say, 6" x 10" - can be a highly satisfying way to paint on most days. The materials are not overly expensive or, consequently, intimidating and I've developed a loose, sketchy style that allows me to translate directly from my eye to the page with very little intervention or distraction.

I've often been using a small and soft 3/0 Squirrel Quill brush that allows for very loose flow of paint. Good paper (Arches 140lb cold press cotton rag when possible) makes a huge difference compared to the student grade wood pulp stuff I sometimes use for these. That brush offers a kind of freedom that's a bit like Chinese calligraphy, I reckon: it takes confidence, practice and discipline to do it well and all three of those traits are intertwined, one flowing from the other. As with most things: the more you do, the better you get. Or perhaps it's just the more of them I do, the higher my chances of achieving a satisfying result every once in a while.

This seems to be my most "natural" style, and it's sometimes a bit of a struggle to paint in other ways. Somehow it's very easy for me to edit out the detail in my mind's eye and depict the 'feel' of a place, but very hard to metiuclously replicate every little nuance of a scene before me.

So... I'm going with the 'flow' when possible.

Here are two from a beautiful warm, bright and very dry day at our favorite haunt: Crane Beach in Ipswich. With that much sun and a slight breeze holding back the Greenhead flies it's very hard to judge the wetness of the paper and paint, difficult to add things and make ammendments. You can see that in the top edge of the clouds on the first one: the initial outline to define the white space was dry by the time I put in the rest of the sky wash and the two didn't blend together as I'd hoped:

Here's a view of the same day looking South towards the huge sandbar we had walked at low tide. I was trying to work on the clouds and sky this day, but it was not as cloudy as this looks. Wearing brown-tinted sunglasses can sometimes alter your perception in uninvited ways!

Here are two quick ones from last week at Jamaica Pond while the boys were fishing with their cousins. During the summer weekdays, the Courageous Sailing group hosts a sailing camp on the pond and the five boats were out for a little good-hearted racing.

This wood pulp paper is not very good - it has a "harder" and more smooth surface that doesn't behave in the same way as cotton rag does... too many 'blooms' in the color mixing, and tilting the paper makes it all run together more than usual, but sometimes that's fun to work around.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Almendres Cromlech Meets Manet

One of the most magical lunches I ever had was a cheese and cracker picnic in an islolated part of the Alentejo in Portugal in about April of 1992 or so. Four friends and I were traveling throughout central and southern Portugal for a couple of weeks, and near Evora we decided to track down the Almendres Cromlech, a four thousand year-old megalithic site several miles down a dirt road.

This photo always reminds me of Manet's famous picnic scene in  Le Déjeuner sur l'
Herbe "The Luncheon on the Grass", even though we're all wearing clothes. As peaceful and beautiful as that place was that day, there's something just a little disconcerting about casually eating cheese next to a truly ancient and mysterious construction of stones. Disconcerting in perhaps a similar way to Manet's ladies.

So, taking a few liberties, I've started some sketches toward what will be, for me, a rather ambitious painting. I started with a quick, amended drawing of the scene (sorry Martha!):

... and I quickly discovered I had a few composition issues to work out, so I tried another version using a different photo of the stones from that day:

And then one in color just for kicks:

I'm still not "there" yet, but I decided to move on and do some more paint studies to see if I could capture the feel of the stones and the place without the picnic (for now):

And then... back to another compositional study, mostly to see if I would have trouble painting the figures:

I think I'm getting closer to what I wanted, but I'm not quite ready to tackle integrating the whole scene in a large format just yet... but stay tuned! This part of the process is fun, a traditional painterly approach and ultimately important to the final result.

Here are my photos of the stones used for painting reference: