Friday, November 17, 2017

Painting Out On Overcast Days (Revised)

I love drama and I usually try to create it using strong light and shadows.  Recently I reviewed my files of other artists' work and realized that most of the images involved bright light.  Depending on where we live many of us are faced with overcast conditions.  I'll admit that I often find excuses not to paint out on those days.  In low light the range of values is diminished.  The contrast is less dramatic and the colors less saturated.  Below is a plein air piece I painted on a very gray day-

While I was painting, a patch of blue sky developed and I quickly blocked it in using white and tiny touches of Prussian blue and cad. yellow light.  Even though there is no direct sunlight on the scene this created a break from all the gray tones.  After I got to the studio I pushed the color a bit more.

Here is another plein air study on a gray day-

The darks in the clouds are too dark even though I wasn't painting from a photograph.  A value checker (red film) can help with this.  I reworked it later to add some warmer blue showing through and added more light on the trees.  I think these changes improved the painting.

Consider these thoughts about gray day paintings-

Try for a strong composition and make light and color less important.

The light does not change as quickly on overcast days so you can take more time to finish.

Look for spots of more saturated color for contrast (flowers, man-made objects, patches of blue sky showing through).  These colors will sing next to all the gray.

Try enhancing atmospheric perspective (fog, mist).

Look for water reflections.  Make some up by adding a pond or puddle if you can do that.

So no more excuses!  Go ahead and paint out on those cloudy days.  (And I'm talking to me, not you.)

Happy painting, and many thanks to artist friend Mary Houston for her input on these thoughts.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Planning a Plein Air Painting Trip with Friends

My last post was about packing for a plein air painting trip.  I have taken a number of traveling workshops.  It was great to have instruction at fabulous locations, but lately I have wished for a trip with painting friends to paint whatever we wanted each day and to enjoy each other's company.

This August I went with a group to paint in Maine.  We planned it almost a year in advance. It spread by word of mouth among friends.  We decided on a location in Maine- there are endless possibilities there.  I don't think you can go wrong on that coast in the summer or early fall.  We picked Harpswell with plans for a day trip to Monhegan Island. We stayed at a large inn which is a B&B on the point.  We could have painted there the whole time but we found some wonderful areas close by.  To get to Monhegan from the inn was an hour's drive and then a 2 1/2 hr. ferry ride each way.  Our time on the island was limited though we had lunch  (lobster rolls!) and time for one painting.  I would love to go back to the island and spend at least 3 nights.

Planning a trip is not difficult if you have a group of plein air painters.  We had 7 with additional family  members but 3 or 4 would have been fine. I liked using an inn because if someone had to cancel it would not have affected anyone else's plans or cost.  5 nights was adequate considering the proximity of the local sights.  A full week would have been even better.

We planned some locations but also played it by ear. It was very different from a workshop and we learned so much about the area.  We did not try to do everything together since we had a larger group with a variety of preferences.

Though this was a plane trip for most of us, it could just as well have been a road trip. I would like to try that in the future, maybe with multiple destinations.

Happy painting travels, and get out there somewhere.

                                                    Fish Creek, Monhegan Island  8"x10"

View from the Point  9"x12"

Painting at the Point

                                                        Photo courtesy of Bruce Dean

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Packing for a Painting Trip

Recently I had the pleasure of taking a trip to Maine with other painter friends.  This was not a workshop.  We wanted to get together to paint beautiful scenery, talk about our shared passion and enjoy each other's company.

Packing for such a trip can be a challenge.  This was my fifth time to prepare for air travel with my gear and I have a system I'd like to share that works well for me.

If you are bringing paint with you it will have to be in a checked bag.  Another option is to ship it ahead of time.  There is always a chance that your bag won't make it to your final destination, though items shipped are occasionally lost as well.  So far I have taken my chances with the airlines.  If you will be in an area with an art supply store and you don't want to check a bag you could also opt to buy paint once you arrive.  You can't fly with mineral spirits so some kind of arrangement has to be made for that unless you use water mixable paints or some other medium.  (I have a friend who has painted with nothing but vegetable oil when traveling!)  For this trip I shipped mineral spirits to a friend who was coming by car.

Supports can take up a lot of space in the suitcase and add significant weight.  I allow myself 3 canvases/day- 6"x8", 8"x10" and 9"x12", a total of 12 for 4 days of painting.  I'm talking about cut pieces of canvas, not stretched or mounted.  I bring 3 plastic corrugated sheets cut to fit my wet panel carrier.  On each I tape the panels for day one and tone them with burnt sienna.

Canvas cut to desired size with a little extra for the tape-

Now taped to the plastic panel along the drawn lines, toned.  I use black panels to keep the light from coming through the canvas while I'm painting.

My panel carrier can hold 3 of these.  The canvas piece can be any size as long as it's small enough to tape on the panel that fits in your carrier.

I put the remaining canvas pieces in a storage bag with my roll of artist tape and pieces of wax paper.  (Don't forget the tape!)

At the end of the first day I remove the paintings, tape new pieces on the plastic panels and tone them.  And so on each day.  At the end of the trip I have a very thin stack of painted canvas pieces which I put in the storage bag with wax paper in between each. The last day's paintings go back into the wet panel carrier still taped to the panels.  Any smudges/accidents that occur in transit are usually very minor and quickly touched up. And for the "keepers", refer to my post on mounting painted canvases on panels.

I have previously posted the contents of my backpack-
For travel I re-arrange things.  I can't include the small can of extra mineral spirits which I usually carry in case of spills.  I have to put my paint container in the checked bag and I pack it like this-  the jar with extra tubes in it is for my used mineral spirits once I'm there. It will be left behind for the trip home.  I only bring small tubes on trips and I bring an extra tube of blue and white along with solvent free gel.

The label says "artist's pigment in vegetable oil".  So far my paints have not be confiscated.  I also put my pochade box and my empty mineral spirit can in the checked bag. Metal containers can hold you up in security even if they are empty.  This time I put my tripod in the checked bag also.  This freed up lots of space in the backpack which was my carry-on.  I filled it with toiletries, pajamas, sunglasses, Kindle, etc.  My brushes, reusable trash bag and smaller painting accessories stayed in the backpack.

My checked bag weighs about 8 lbs. when empty and is 24" x 10" x 17".

This is how I pack the bottom of the suitcase- the glass jar is rolled up in a painting towel.   The turp can is also in a baggie because it will likely be dirty for the trip home.  

The bag with the blank canvases is in the top zipped compartment which keeps it from getting creased.  Next I put a plastic sheet on top-

This keeps my clothes separated from gear, more important for the trip home in case there is wet paint on anything.  There is plenty of room in this bag for paint clothes (one pair of pants, one top for every 2 days, my collapse-able hat, a hooded water-proof windbreaker) and something to wear in the evening (one pair of nice jeans and some tops).  I put one pair of flats in the suitcase and wear my athletic shoes on the plane which I wear while painting. I wear jeans on the plane which gives me an extra pair just in case-  I often spill coffee on whatever I'm wearing on the plane.  If your hat doesn't collapse you can wear it.

So here is what I have to manage in the airport-  if I carry a small purse it fits in the backpack too.

This time we stayed in an inn with no elevator so I was glad I didn't have more stuff, and getting through the airport was a breeze.  I wear the backpack so I have a free hand for the coffee I'm about to spill....

More on painting trips later.  This is just "Packing 101".

Have paint will travel!

Here is a link for the plastic panels.  Cut them to fit your carrier-

Saturday, August 12, 2017


I have mentioned that I save older paintings and revisit them from time to time.  I don't mean the ones I should pitch, but the ones that have potential.  The near misses, the ones that could be good but aren't quite.

I will pick three that weren't terrible but needed something. I like to push myself to find out why a painting doesn't work and what I can do about it. Once they are dry it is easy.  Any changes can be wiped off without ruining what is underneath.  You can try again if it doesn't work.  Don't be afraid to do this, and if you do somehow ruin the painting it is OK. You didn't love it, so what have you lost?


I used this in a recent blog on how to mount a painted canvas on a panel.  I picked it as an example because it was dry and ready to mount, not because I thought it was a hugely successful painting.  Several things bothered me but what really hit me was how cool the painting was.  I am used to painting southeastern landscapes which are quite warm (and GREEN).  I constantly have to remind myself to introduce some cool colors throughout my paintings to make them vibrate.  This was painted from my reference photo taken in Colorado where I rarely get to paint.  Even the greens there look cooler to me, and with the distant mountains and creek it is a pretty chilly sight.  Another issue is that the light doesn't make sense.  The strong shadows indicate a very sunny day.  In Colorado the sky is usually very blue in sunny conditions.

Here I have added distant gray greens into the mountains, more so in those that are closer but even the far away ones.  I made the sky blue with a few fluffy clouds for variety and now the shadows look right.  I added a few warm areas to the shadows and worked on the trees to the left (more bare branches and a few more sky holes).  The trees on the right are also a little warmer.  Overall I think this is a better painting than the one above. The sky could probably be a darker blue and I might try that.


This is a plein air piece from 2013, an early one that I considered a success at the time.  It has long since been out of the frame and in the reject pile.  It is a landscaped area by a pond.  The symmetric nature of the plantings bothered me and I didn't like the way the sloping trees to the right made me fall out of the painting.  The reflections aren't very exciting.


Here I have removed one of the tall cedars so there is one dominant vertical instead of the "twinsies".  I reshaped the more distant trees on the right.  I added more darks in the saw palmettos, which are meant to be the center of interest and brightened up areas of their foliage and their reflections.  I also reworked the sky with a warmer blue in some areas. From a compositional standpoint I think this is a better painting.  


Problems with the horizon are distracting.  Here is a very simple example of how just a few strokes can make a difference.  I painted the above in a workshop 4 years ago.  I had help with the clouds and loved the result.  The reference photo was mine from an island in the Bahamas.  The composition is good- there is a low horizon because it is all about the sky,  but the Bahama water and distant beach are also important.  Notice that there is a line across the beach.  Also notice that it is not straight. This is a very amateurish mistake- always look for this.  Use a ruler if necessary.  

This is subtle, but I only used about 10 strokes to eliminate some of the blue line close to the beach, straighten the line of the water, and add just a couple of darks and lights to the land mass.  I also put a few thicker strokes on the water though that might not be apparent in the photo.  

This is fun to do.  Go through your paintings and see what you can do. This last one was in a frame in our powder room for a few years.  It bothered me but I waited a long time to address it.  It took 10 minutes!  

Thank you for reading this blog.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Zeroing In on a complicated scene.

Below are some photos of a beautiful area in my neighborhood where I love to paint.  I have painted there many times but have only once produced a frame worthy painting. The rest have been unsuccessful attempts.  That has not kept me from returning to the site because, well, I'm stubborn.

The trouble with scenes like these is there is so much information and deciding what to include can be a challenge.  Painters new to plein air tend to include everything they see in their painting.  Using a view finder to limit the scene can be very helpful.  In a recent workshop our group was given the task of focusing on very specific areas at the above site.  We were to paint 4 or more small (6"x8") paintings that were simplified close-ups of compositions we found interesting.  Here is what I did-

I liked these little pieces much more than anything I have painted there before. The ones on the above right and the lower left are the exact same spot at a slightly different angle. I barely had to turn my easel. I liked the composition on the lower left the most so I painted it again on a larger panel.  My only reference was my small painting.  I did not use a photo.


Here it is (12"x16"), maybe not better, but at least I tried.  Larger paintings require more information and it is easy to lose the freshness of a small quick sketch.  That said, try making small studies when confronted with a big complicated scene. Zero in on something that interests you and see what you can do with it.  

Keep painting!
And thanks for reading.

Friday, June 2, 2017

A Useful App- Part Two

This January I  wrote about an app called Art Set Pro and showed examples of how you can use it to try revisions on a photo of an existing painting or to improve a reference photo.  Take a look if you did not see it.

Recently I made some changes with this app on the photo below to see what I could do with it.

I liked the light and shadow patterns, the planter itself and the color of the water.  I didn't like the grill, etc. in the background, the unattractive window and doors and the neighboring house.  This was a lot to deal with so I decided to work with it on the app. After a few tries I came up with this-

I didn't change the planter or pool but in place of the neighboring house I painted sky.  I replaced the grill with another planter and simplified the house in order to make the pattern of light more apparent.  I changed the shape of the hedge so it wasn't a sharp line (it was actually a vine covered wall). I cropped the foreground and left side for a better composition.

Using the above as my reference I painted the scene-

My intention was to make the planter in the foreground the center of interest.  The path in shadow leads the viewer to the planter in the background and the pattern of light on the house.  Now look back at the original photo.  The busy details in the background would have been very distracting.  I could have made a preliminary sketch to accomplish the same thing but it was helpful to work it out with color.

When you take reference photos make a note of what it was that drew you to the scene. That is what you want to emphasize.  The rest can be left out or simplified.

I used my usual simple palette of cool and warm primaries on top of a tonal block in with burnt sienna and ultramarine blue.  Occasionally I add a wild card- in this case thalo turquoise, a seldom used color in my paint box.  I cannot mix the color of the pool water with my usual palette.  (I also use this color when painting caribbean water.)

So more photos, more notes.
Thanks for reading!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

On Discouragement

Just about every artist who writes has written about the ups and downs of a painter's life, especially the downs.  Carol Marine devoted an entire chapter to painter's block and discouragement in her book Daily Painting and included writings from other artists.  We can lose sight of the progress we have made when we are in a bad place mentally.  Here are some of my own lows over the past nine years.

I'm haven't improved- maybe I'm just not talented (when I first started painting).
Painting is like any other discipline.  It takes many miles of canvas to acquire the necessary skills to make successful paintings.  Truly accomplished artists were not born with the ability to paint like they do.  One of my favorite quotes regarding talent, by Richard Schmid in his widely read book Alla Prima, is: "Don't bother about whether or not you have it.  Just assume that you do, and then forget about it."  He goes on to discuss talent in a way that has been very helpful to me. When well meaning people tell me I'm talented (and exempt themselves by saying they can't draw a straight line...) I have to remind myself that it is a compliment.  What I'm really thinking is that this pronouncement makes it sound as though all I did was pick up a paintbrush one day and instantly produce reasonably good paintings, which couldn't be farther from the truth. When up against everything there is to learn, a beginning painter can easily get discouraged to the point of giving up.  If this is where you are on your art journey I encourage you to talk to other artists about it and read everything you can on the subject. Believe that you will improve and keep at it. There are no shortcuts.

I used to be a better painter than I am now (when looking at my older files)
With few exceptions I have photos of every painting I have ever finished- even the very worst ones.  I did this so I could gauge my progress.  Sometimes this has backfired.  Early on I occasionally knocked one out of the ball park, at least for my skill level at the time. A few of those paintings are still favorites.  When I've had a run of unsuccessful paintings and happen to look back on an old one that turned out well, I have convinced myself from time to time that I have lost it.  In reality, though I did paint some good paintings 3 or more years ago, they were the exceptions.  When I study my failed paintings from the same period, I am able to see that I am a more consistent painter now. Also my standards are higher, meaning that my definition of success has changed.  If I compare my failures now to my failures in past years, they are better failures. A very accomplished professional artist recently told me that 75% of her paintings are not successes.  This undoubtedly reflects her high standards, but no matter where we are skill-wise we should not expect to succeed every time we approach the canvas.  And as many have said, our failures help us grow.  Instead of letting many failures lay you low, consider the possibility that you have set a higher bar for yourself.

I'm will never be accepted into the national shows.
This is the one that has occupied my thoughts the most in the past couple of years.  I have entered 2-3 of these every year for about 3 years.  I never have an expectation of being accepted, yet I must admit that when I see the DECLINE button I allow myself a 5 minute pity party.  (It doesn't help that the day the results are announced Facebook is filled with posts from happy acceptees.)  The important thing is this- I get right back to work.  If I never get into a prestigious show it will have been a goal that inspired me to study and paint, and for that I am truly grateful.  It also gives me specific deadlines which I would not have otherwise.  Debra Groesser recently wrote a great article for the Oil Painters of America about getting one's work into exhibitions.  She mentioned that it took her 13 tries to get into the OPA National Juried Show.  I encourage you to read it if you are entering this stage of your art journey. 
From the judging side, Barbara Jaenicke blogged about what they are up against and a bit about her own path to the nationals.

I can't get in a good gallery, so I must be a bad artist... 
Fortunately I have moved on (and I'll get back to this) but it can be a big one for many emerging artists.  Even the top professionals sometimes have difficulties finding galleries that are good fits for them.  Being in a bad gallery or one that does not treat the artists well is not worth it.  For professionals who must support a family with their art I do not have meaningful advice as that is not my situation, but I have heard wonderful podcasts on The Savvy Painter with many well known contemporary artists who have achieved financial success. I encourage everyone to check out this website because it is well done and interesting.
For those of us who do not have to make a living income with our art I do have advice. There are so many ways to get your work out there.  You do not have to be in a gallery. Selling online is easy to do and financially beneficial.  I have reached the point where I cover all of my expenses and make a modest profit.  Word of mouth adds up with time. Local events call attention to your work, so participate whenever you can.  The best way to grow as an artist is to paint what you are passionate about, not what a gallery tells you to paint or what the market demands (which can change on a dime).  Though it is all well and good to be in a gallery and selling, make artistic growth your top priority.

I don't feel like painting today though I know I should....
It's OK!  Because the daily painting movement has become so publicized through books, articles, websites and the never ending "challenges", there is pressure to paint daily no matter what.  I am often asked by painters and non-painters alike whether or not I paint everyday. My answer is no.  Frequent painting is the way to improve, but forcing yourself to paint is rarely productive.  Some have suggested these are good days to clean the studio or do some other art related chore on the "to do" list.  I like to take time out for photography which gives me inspiration.  Keeping a regular schedule to paint is a good practice, but allow some flexibility.  Do whatever it takes, guilt free, to clear you head.

Because blog posts should have at least one photo (I hear) I will close with this-

Spring in Charleston.  Photo credit goes to Bruce Dean. Sorry this was so long but if you made it here thanks for reading!