The Pleasure in Painting Slowly

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This may make little sense to folks who have seen me hammer out a painting in 2 hours tops, but I've had the recent pleasure of sitting down to paint at a leisurely, meticulous, focused pace, and its been lovely.  For me, that means paintings that take 5 or 6 or 7 hours, including the sketch.  Of course, I've painted this way before, but it'd been a while.  It's a different way of painting, with a different pleasure and a different goal.  Just as painting with brevity is about the process and the loose painterly results that come from it, painting slowly is also (to me) very much about the process, where the meditative, focused attention to detail leads to a measured final result that has a different kind of clarity to it. 

My parents recently sold their house.  This is where I grew up.  It's been in the family since the Gold Rush- by California standards, that's a very long time.  Some things you know are coming- death, taxes, seasons-  but, oddly, there are just certain things you think are going to be around forever.  This was one of them to me, and it's been a difficult transition.  In a swamp of emotions, I sat down and just began to paint.  Slowly and meticulously, lovingly and painstakingly, I created the first image- this window up above.  For a time, as a child this was my room. After it was done, I drove back up to the foothills and took more photos, doing all the drawings on site and making color notes as I compared my photos to reality.  Last week I made a second and then a third painting.  I'm doing more still, that I'll probably share in time.  I may have the opportunity to go back once more.

It's been a quiet, healing process.  Of course, I'm still building compositions, and thinking about values and hues and focal points, but I'm also just paying attention to details.  There's a kind of alchemy that can happen- using details to rebuild memories that sink into and then echo out of the paper.  Each painting is an homage to a much loved space, one delicate forgotten cobweb or neglected chip of paint at a time.  Painting slowly has allowed that to happen.  It's a great pleasure and a privilege to have the ability now to make these paintings when I needed to.  It's also been a simple, uncomplicated pleasure to paint something that has real personal value to me, and isn't simply an interesting image.  It's made me think some about what it is I choose to paint in general, and why I paint, and what it is I might like my paintings to say- about myself and my loved ones and the world around me. 

Having said that, let's dive into the paintings...


Some Things Can't Stay the Same-

For this painting, like all of them, I drew it freehand.  I thought about using a ruler, particularly since it’s architectural, but the goal of these paintings wasn’t fidelity to straight lines.  The goal was to have a personal experience painting them, and to have the final product reflect that experience.  So I drew my straight lines as best I could, but really focused on simply letting my gently wobbly lines be “perfectly wobbly”. 

For this one, I started painting by making a grisaille with Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Sienna.  This is a technique best known for use with oils.  The idea is to do all your black and white work, all your value work, and then you glaze your color on top.  This worked particularly well because the color shapes here are simple.  Also, this image, to me, is really about the bold value contrasts of the cast shadows on the closed drape, with the repeated white lines of the panes dividing those shadows.  This seemed like a good subject to try a grisaille on.

It's hard to see from the comparison photos, but on the right there's actually a creamy white wash on the siding, while the earlier black and white glazes for the windows and shadows have been left stark and white.

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Living In The Present-

I knew this corner of the barn well.  We used to have a cow when I was young, Maybell was here name, and this is where we would lead her to get milked. The shelves weren't there at the time.  ;)

As with the window, I drew it free hand.  This sketch was done on site. I shifted a few things around (such as making the two jugs touch to form a terminus for the eye at the focal point, but in general I ffocused on fidelity to the experience of being there, the warm reflected light, and getting that dusty yellow-brown veneer on things as much as I could.


Here you can see the first warm washes I did, and the beginning of some of the darker line work.  The whole painting is done almost entirely with Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine Blue.  Just a bit of red added in for the faux cherry of the shelf and the labels on the jugs, and some Cad Orange to make the Burnt Sienna punchy in the warmer light.  As I've been doing, the back of the paper was made wet and stuck to the backing through water tension.  When I start the front is totally dry, but the paper is cool to the touch and gently full of water inside.  This allows for complicated washes to be applied with greater ease.  The washes are done with mops, but the line work is patiently done almost entirely with smaller synthetics (1/8" to 1/4" round).


Bit by bit, more and more washes go in, making the left be in a bit of shadow, while the right becomes progressively comparatively warmer and hit by indirect light.  Perhaps I do 5 or 6 or 7 washes in total.  The distressed wood, such as the area above the jugs, slowly comes to life as I cut edges and build texture.  There's a lot of dry brush work, but there's actually a lot of wet into wet work in the washes too, as I create gradations.  Note the subtle shift on the white post, as it goes from warm on the left, to a pale blue on the right, and the movement from hard to soft edges on the jugs.


Again and again, I drop darker bits into smaller and smaller areas.  I'm definitely not afraid get get to black in some areas.  Also, towards the end, all the funny little bits that make a space come to life start to go in.  That's when I know I'm in the last hour or so.  Cobwebs, of course, go in only at that point, but also yellow dust on the top of the jugs.  Little white flecks that must have been mummified bugs?  LOL.  Details on the lids and rims of the jars, etc.  Some go in to answer a desire for fidelity.  Others go in for compositional reasons, to open up too dark areas, or to lead the eye.  Some just feel right.



From the Inside Out-

My personal favorite of the three, but everyone's entitled to their opinion.  ;P  I love the topsy turvy boards that are all tilted in the same direction, like the fingers of a waving hand, and the water damage on the wood.  The barn is, honestly, pretty junky, and yet it feels like it's been there forever, and that it will continue to be so long after we're gone. Of course, that's a sweet kind of lie, but it feels true- a contradiction I try to embed in the painting.

I drew this on site, standing in the barn, with my gatorboard and paper propped on what I think was an old lamp.  First, it's worth saying that the photo doesn't do justice to the warm light and pleasing clutter of the space.  As such, the photo is always just a reference.  Photos are great at recording the arrangement of shapes, but don't do such a good job at recording high contrast values, nor at revealing subtleties of complimentary hues.  After I took the photo, I stood in the barn and compared it to reality, and spent the time noting what it recorded well and what it was misreporting. When it came time to paint, I relied on memory and emotion for many color and lighting aspects of the image, much more than I did on the photo itself.  The photo is, of course, also a handy too, and wonderful at revealing little discard bits of things, scratches and shadows and such.  Great as a supplement for this kind of slow painting.


As with the previous painting, almost all of this is done with Burnt Sienna and Ultramarine Blue.  Perhaps a bit of Cad Orange or Cobalt Blue early on,  and some Viridan here and there later on, but absolutely no Black.  I started with a warm orange wash, preserving my whites along that upper edge and in the cracks between the planks of wood, dropping my blues in where needed and letting my edges dissolve.  I was very interested in the contrast of cool and warm hues, particularly for my focal point- the collection of objects on the shelf, hit by light.  From there, I began dropping in darker values, cutting my edges.  Then dropping in my first set of dark line work and deepening my shadows.  The shapes start to come into view, but this was half way at most.


Sadly, I'm missing the other steps, but if you look closely, or open the image up in another window, you'll see details.  I scrumble in textural darks alot in these sorts of images, as well as reserve bits of line work for the end.  As I did a few warmer washes up top (above the shelf and on the ceiling), and cooler, darker washes down below, some of the line work was softened, and needed to be gently reinvigorated here and there.  And yet, also, the softening of some of the edges is left alone, which can help integrate shapes and values.  Of course, cobwebs and such go in almost at the end- although these too I also did a wash over, to soften and integrate them. 

Of utmost important all the time, however, is a) keeping the light where I've got it, and b) pushing these deep (almost black, but not quite) darks along the shelf, where the glass lamp cover and photo albums and watering can dissolve into and fuse to the recesses.  It's also worth noting various choices made to the composition too- to leave the watering can paler and cooler than in reality (for a stronger contrast), to make the area below the shelf darker and cooler so it would recede, and to add cobwebs as I saw fit, to lead your eye this way and that, linking shapes and locations together.

This one I can almost smell.  I hope you get to paint things you care about too.

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Recent Plein Air- End of 2017


This is one of the first years that I've tried to get out and do plein air work in the Fall and Winter.  Summer has it's own problems (heat, paper drying too fast), but I've gotta admit- it's been cold and windy!  And that can dry out the paper just as much... 

Over the last two months, I've gone out on my own twice, and with friends a few others.  Of course, subjects that really matter to a person often take some forethought to find and map out.  As such, beyond the obvious pleasures of good company and being outdoors, I often find plein air work like a bit doing scales- it's really about challenging yourself to find a subject, build a composition, and really pay attention while painting (how do values really work?  how do color truly recede? etc etc).  This sort of learning process really pays off later, when you go to paint other work. 



Each location goes through a kind of visual alchemy, as you find the elements you want and assess where you want to lead the eye.  It's also always worth noting that many brightly lit locations don't photography well.  As such the colors in my painting are much closer to what the experience was really like.  Photos distort and record in their own way- they're definitely not more "truthful" to me.

All in all, I was happy with this one- particularly as my palette actually got picked up by the wind and thrown off my shelf, more than once!  My friend Sonia was a real trooper and painting along with me.  Brrrrr!



This is up in Calistoga.  As I noted recently, I've not been taping things down, but I wish I had for this one.  My paper kept blowing off!!! LOL  Eventually I had to pack it up.  It was just to hard, and damn cold.  I knocked in the lights and my shadows back at home. 



Again, we see here the issue with relying too much on photography.  Either my sky is correct, and I lose all color, or I shoot for color, but absolutely blow out all my highlights.   As usual, I'm hunting for a patch of white to build the painting around.  Including people, of course, always helps our minds generate a story. 

Have fun painting this coming year!  Plein air is challenging, and I wouldn't say it's the end all be all of all painting, but there's a lot to learn from it.  If your goal is to learn how to better choose and simplify your subjects, it can be a sometimes harsh, but useful, teacher!  :)


Upcoming Workshop and Shows

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Upcoming Workshop in Benicia, Jan 11- 13th-


I'll be running a local 3-day workshop for interested folks on January 11, 12, 13th.  That's a Thursday, Friday, Saturday schedule from 930-300.  We'll be starting with the watercolor clock, as always, but we'll also jump specifically into the logistics of painting landscapes, thinking in values and glazes, and building notans.  If we can make it work, we'll push into people attempting to paint some of their own photo work.  It should be a blast!

Class will be held at the Arts Benicia classroom, and registration goes directly through them.  The fee is 295$.  Here's the link-


Reception for 48th Annual CWA show is Jan 6th-


This floral piece of mine is part of the 48th National CWA show.  The reception is this coming Saturday, 1/6, at the Marin Society of Artists in San Rafael from 3:00- 5:00.  I'll be going to the reception, which should be fun, but the show will go until the end of the month.  The address is 1515 3rd St., San Rafael and the gallery is normally open Wedensday to Sunday, 12-4.

It's quite an honor to participate, and I hope some of you can make it!  The Juror of Selection was Dean Mitchell, and the quality shows.  I got to see some of the work when I dropped off my painting- there's some lovely portraiture and figure work, some floral work, some interesting abstract work, city scapes, etc etc.  There's some good work in this show from nationally recognized artists.  Of course, as always, if you're interested in my piece, it's for sale.  ;) 


Acceptance to the Yosemite Renaissance 33 Show-

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This piece, "I Wonder Where It Goes", was accepted to the 33rd annual Yosemite Renaissance show.  This show has its reception the evening of Friday, Feb 23, and will be exhibited at the Yosemite National Park Museum Gallery until Sunday, May 6th.  I got accepted last year as well, and the show is honestly really very interesting- full of lots of different media and interpretations!  From there, it's a traveling exhibit through local central valley and mountain exhibits until the end of the year.  It's super cool to get to participate.  Having grown up in the foothills, going to Yosemite many many times as a kid (and adult), the park is very near and dear to my heart.

Workshop Review- Herman Pekel, pt. 4- "Having a Vision"


Some Of My Own Work-

I wanted to start today by sharing some of my work from later in the workshop.  Over the last few days of the trip, painting kicked into high gear.  I also greatly enjoyed painting in Capilano Gorge, where I took Herman's challenge, and went and found my own subject.  This is harder, because you can't follow his lead technically.  The goal is to apply your own thinking and assess your own composition, just in the context of Herman's input.

Here I tried to push my darks, to middling effect.  Note how I tried to include the falls from the hatchery in the distance, proving Herman's point pretty clearly-- that it was a subject that would be hard to render intelligibly at a distance.


Here too (below) I attempted to find my own subject at Capilano, turning around completely and looking down the opposite direction of the gorge.  Of the pieces I painted in class, this is what I liked best from the workshop. 


Later, Herman commented on how he liked that I had "made a painting out of nothing", and this was some of what I also liked about the subject.  Subjects like this, without an obvious focal point, require you to choose what you want to focus on.  For me, it was the sunilt rocks sticking out of the water, and I bent everything as best I could to call you down into that area and to make that space compelling.  Later, when Herman gave my work as a whole a critique, he came back to this sort of focus  and noted that although my technique was fine, I needed "to have a story to tell.  Light, texture, color.  Find what draws you in.  Don't just paint a subject because it's there. When you have something for the painting to be about, exaggerate it.  Pick one thing and make it dominant. Always exaggerate it. Push it.”

Afterwards, a few of us went out to paint again, when the light was low in the sky.  I started working on this piece, knocking in the sky and distant hills, when the barge/tanker slowly muscled its way into view.  I immediately knew I wanted it to be my focal point, and did the cardinal sin of changing my composition part way through.  But this one was so much better!  :P  So I cropped my paper (which had more on the left originally), and built things around the warm evening light on that big ol' orange-red boat. 



Getting Beyond Technique-

On the fourth day, as the workshop wrapped up at the studio, Herman came back to this idea of painting for yourself and choosing your own subjects. “When I look around, I see a whole lot of technique, but I don’t see a lot of emotion," he said at one point.  "People are spending too much time painting and not enough time thinking."  That's probably a fair critique- we spend a lot of time as teachers and students on technique because (despite being difficult) it's the easiest thing to teach and learn.  And a certain amount of technique is essential.  But in the end it only gives you mark-making tools.  It doesn't give you anything to say.

In that vein, Herman told us he didn’t care too much about his tools or how he used color, and that played out in the way he taught, which often seemed to disregard technical details... sometimes (to my eyes) seemingly on purpose.  Almost like he focused on his disregard as a pedagogical tool.  It just truly didn't seem important to him (except for brushes!  he liked scruffy brushes!!).  I got the vibe from him that he felt almost all students (and many teachers too) stressed technique far too much and didn't focus enough on figuring out "what one wants to say."  Of course, it's easy to be flippant about that sort of stuff when you're very skilled.  ;)  Still, the goal was to get us to see past our tools- “if you want to make your own marks, you need to use your own brush, find your own subjects.” 

Even when you see "accomplished" artists, so many paintings seem technically adequate but sort of soulless.  Why are these works being painted?  Where's the mark of the artist behind the canvas?  Why should we give a damn?  Did the artist give a damn?

“Things only look weird to paint because they've not been painted before," he said.  "There are a lot of painters who make fine paintings, but not good art. Imagery should be a personal thing. You should paint what you want."

"We teach rules, but also- all good art breaks rules.  And those are the ones we remember."


Thinking About Edward Hopper-

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Herman went on about Edward Hopper for a while as well.  This was a really interesting to me, and fed in to the idea that, as he said, "You only have to have enough technique to say what you need to say.”  The gist of his critique was that there are better painters than Edward Hopper technically, but that he was a far better artist than most of them because Hopper always had a story to tell.  You knew exactly why he painted what he did.

Hopper's shapes and use of color can be very strong, and his value contrasts are too, and because of that it's clear where he's leading your eye- "look at this light here on this person", "look at this color here in the window", "look at this cast shadow", "look where this figure is looking", etc.  What the psychological focus is is up to you, but it feels clear there is something being said, that something is being pointed at.



Independent of Herman's critique, I found this quote from Hopper himself.  I thought it so pertinent, and echoed so clearly what Herman was helping us focus on, that I wanted to share it too-

"Great art is the outward expression of an inner life in the artist, and this inner life will result in his personal vision of the world. No amount of skillful invention can replace the essential element of imagination. One of the weaknesses of much abstract painting is the attempt to substitute the inventions of the human intellect for a private imaginative conception.

The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of color, form and design.

The term life used in art is something not to be held in contempt, for it implies all of existence and the province of art is to react to it and not to shun it.

Painting will have to deal more fully and less obliquely with life and nature's phenomena before it can again become great."

Just this last week, I also found this post on James Gurney's blog about the portrait photographer Phillipe Halsmann.  In it, Halsmann is quoted, as he discusses the art of portraiture.  It also echoed Herman and Hopper, and did it so well that I've included some of it here, shortened for clarity and brevity.  What amazes me is how it applies equally well to portraiture, or landscape painting, or urban sketching...

"If the photograph of a human being does not show a deep psychological insight it is not a true portrait but an empty likeness. Therefore my main goal in portraiture is neither composition, nor play of light, nor showing the subject in front of a meaningful background, nor creation of a new visual image. All these elements can make an empty picture a visually interesting image, but in order to be a portrait the photograph must capture the essence of its subject.... Herein lies the main objective of portraiture and also its main difficulty. The lens sees only the surface... (but) the end result is another surface to be penetrated, this time by the sensitivity of the onlooker."

What a great way to describe almost all art-making.

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