Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Plein Air Pointers

Three Trees 5x7 pastel on primed paper
This past weekend was another plein air event and it was so much fun. Well, except when it wasn't.  For the most part it was a great weekend. Met new artists and painted new things. The downfalls were that I slightly melted in the sun and unknowingly set up near a decomposing animal.  When the wind hit just right I was fully aware that it was nearby, it also alerted the turkey vultures. That's the circle of life.
I'm fairly new to plein air painting. I started going out in 2013 and it was very few times. In 2014 I hit the ground running and went out as much as I could and still didn't know what I was doing. By 2015 I figured a few things out and this year I've gone out painting almost every day, even in the snow and rain, but still have a lot to learn. I know some people who would like to get started but feel like they're not ready. If you're one of those people here's your invitation to the plein air party, YOU'RE READY and Mother Nature is patiently waiting for you to come out and paint.  It's much like learning how to ride a bike. Once you learn how to ride and get comfortable you can go further and further each time. If you never feel like you're ready you'll always be stuck riding up and down the driveway. Or worse, just looking at your bike collecting dust.
Here are a few things I've learned that may help you take off your training wheels.

  • Know your equipment-  You're going to need something to paint on while outdoors. It doesn't have to be fancy, expensive or pretty, it just has to work. Get familiar with your easel. Know how to set it up and use it before you take it out. Practice using it inside first, or even set it up in your backyard (if you have one). Do a few paintings with it before you go out, that way you'll learn the layout.  You'll know where you can set your palette, how high to set the legs (although that could change depending on where you're setting up, but you'll get a general idea of how high/low you need to set things) and any modifications you may need to make. 
  • Less is more- I was the queen of carry all. Yes, when I first started I tried to take the whole studio with me. I had (still have, they're in the garage) the "old lady" shopping carts that I tried to cram full with all of my stuff.  That's fine, it's good to be prepared but hauling everything with you really limits you to where you can go.  Carrying fewer things also keeps you better organised. If you take only the necessities you'll spend less time rummaging through your gear which gives you more time to paint. This is another reason to get familiar with your easel. A lot of easels are set up so you can carry your equipment within them. The French easel has a nice long drawer for holding paints and brushes. Set up your easel and see what can fit inside. 
  • Prepare for the elements- Sunscreen, bug spray, a hat and extra socks are what I always keep in my car. Sunscreen and bug spray are self-explanatory. The hat is a necessity because wearing sunglasses distorts the colours. This website has a nice page that demonstrates and explains what happens when you wear different coloured sunglasses. Extra socks are always a good idea, they're multi-functional. If you forgot your gloves you can put them on your hands. If it's flippin' cold out you can double up and they will help keep you warmer. If you happen to get your feet wet you'll have a dry pair of socks to change into. These things take up very little space and can easily be hauled around with you while you're out painting. If you're like me you only like to apply bug spray if it's absolutely necessary and sometimes you won't know that until you decided on a location to set up so carrying it with you is a good habit to get into. After you go out a few times you may discover you're in need of an umbrella. The umbrellas are good for keeping the rain, snow and sun off of you and your painting (when the light changes you can get an awful glare on a wet oil painting which makes it hard to see, same goes with the palette).  Don't put a lot of money into this sort of equipment before you get started. You may buy the wrong umbrella or discover the one you bought doesn't work with your easel. Start with the basics then add on with accessories like umbrellas later on. 
  • Make a check list-  Nobody's perfect, we all forget things. The worst thing is packing up and heading out to paint only to realise you forgot an essential piece of equipment. Planning ahead and being organised helps out a lot but even still there's the possibility you'll forget something.  Whichever medium you're planning on working in make a checklist for the bare minimum that you need to paint. Example, if you're working in pastel you need pastels, paper, tape/clips and a board to put the paper on.  That's the absolute bare minimum to get something done.  It's not a bad idea to add glassine to the list but it's not essential. Another example is watercolour, you need the paper, tape/clips and a board and it's really important to bring your paints and brushes. I've set out many times and forgot to bring water with me but a nearby river or pond supplied that for me. The one thing you should always keep on hand is a sketchbook and a pencil/pen.  There have been times when I got somewhere and forgot a crucial piece of equipment but I had my sketchbook so the trip was not a total loss since I was able to make thumbnail sketches and use them for reference later. 
  • Have fun-  Plein air painting can be absolutely frustrating and absolutely amazing, either way you should keep an open mind, try to learn things and have fun. 
This is my pastel setup for when I paint on location. I've tried several different setups and this one seems to work the best so far. This is the other thing that I think is fun, creating better and easier ways to carry materials.  Last week I had all of this stuff strapped to my bicycle and it worked really well. You never know what is going to work for you until you get out and try it. 
Here are some links to other artists' lists for plein air painting. 
Plein Air Muse-Plein Air Painting Equipment (FYI-Pochade is the French word for pocket, which most people translate to small, compact paint boxes as opposed to a full sized French easel, no artist lingo necessary.)
There are numerous other sites with tips and advice, but the best advice is to just get out there and do it. You can follow someone else's advice all day long but it might not be what works best for you. Get out there and figure out what works best for you, then you can share your own tips and tricks that might be beneficial to the next person. 

Monday, May 30, 2016


Another Monday, another movie. This time it's about Amedeo Modigliani. I'm personally not a huge fan of Modigliani, but I've found that as long as you keep an open mind you can still learn from things you don't like.  When I look at his portraits of women it reminds me of the mean boys in school. I went to school with a girl who had odd features but was the sweetest person you'd ever meet. She had a long face and a long nose and the boys would always ask her, "why the long face"? They thought they were so funny but they weren't . So when I see Modigliani's paintings it either reminds me of how cruel people can be or makes me wonder if he had some sort of fixation with horses. Either way they made a movie about him and Andy Garcia plays Modigliani.  You can never go wrong with Andy Garcia. This movie focuses more on his time in France and his rivalry with Picasso and his love affair with Jeanne Hebuterne.
This funny article I found about the "feud" between Picasso and Modigliani makes it seem like they too were mean school boys, fighting over things like clothes. Modigliani was the snazzy dresser and Picasso wore fishermen's sweaters and patched trousers. There are still to this day artists who could be described as dressing this way. I don't know that they feud over such things but there's always a possibility.
The movie is two hours long, which is just long enough to lounge around and recuperate after a long weekend. The whole movie can be seen via Youtube with the Spanish subtitles again.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Moulin Rouge

The movie for this Monday is Moulin Rouge. This is the 1952 version so there's 100% less Nicole Kidman and 97.2% better.  You can watch the entire film via this Youtube channel although it does have Spanish subtitles. You can ignore them or learn what, fue el amor el que nos canto una cancion inolvidable, means. It's a Hollywood version of the life of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The most amazing thing about this film is that there are several moments where you could pause the movie and actually see a painting. Not literally, but you know.
 Something very interesting I learned while at the Art Institute in Chicago was that one of his most famous paintings, At the Moulin Rouge, looked very different at one time. The above picture is how it looks right now hanging on the wall and how most of us know it. However it once was missing the woman's face. The information given was that at one time either Lautrec or an advisor had told him to cut her out of the picture so that it would sell. There was some concern that the "garish" face of singer May Milton would prevent it from selling.
The Art Institute has a black and white X-ray type photo on display that shows where the painting was cut. Whoever put it back together again did an excellent job because you have to be looking at it just right in order to notice the seams. Here's a link to the Institute's information about it.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Plein-Air Painting Mistakes

Skunk River 11x11 pastel on paper
Plein air painting is not for the weak. Seriously, I had to fight off so many spiders today and even had to call in for reinforcements. A few bees were buzzing around and the gnats were swarming. I don't think a finished painting ever tells the whole story. If it did we'd be putting ourselves in the painting with squinty eyes and flailing arms, sunburns and sweaty brows. That's all part of being "the man behind the curtain". FYI, only the male painters have sweaty brows, girls don't sweat.
I went out painting with a small group today. After a delicious lunch and great conversation we spread out along the bank of the Skunk River. Choosing what to paint here is difficult to say the least. Every view and every angle there's something that's paintable. As I was contemplating what to paint and struggling with my decision I was reminded of something my friend David Garrison shared with me, his list of Ten Common Mistakes Made By Beginning Plein-Air Painters. Now this is the ten common mistakes, trust me, there's more than ten and my count is still going. Unfortunately as I was trying to remember this list the only thing I could remember was the part about not having enough wine. Unfortunately I didn't have any wine with me so I failed miserably at that, but I went home with two paintings that may not be masterpieces but I learned plenty from them.
Pile of rocks in the water 4x10 watercolour on paper

Monday, May 9, 2016

Edvard Munch

Wasn't sure there was a movie about Munch but I found one. It's filmed like a documentary, I don't know if that classifies it as a mocumentary. It does have subtitles and at times it feels as if you could be watching time melt but I think that's how you're supposed to feel. Munch went into a bit of a depression and his work changed and this film really puts you in that frame of mind. A lot of critics say this is one of the best films ever made, which is odd that I just stumbled upon it. If it is one of the best you'd think we'd all have seen it by now. It has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  It's available on Amazon Video for $2.99, or to purchase the DVD set and Vimeo for $3.99 per part. It's a 3 hour 45 minute movie so it comes in two parts. I try to figure out the best place to find the movie for others to watch and I found this site Just Watch which allows you to type in a movie and it searches for the best place to stream the movie if it's available. According to Just Watch you can also watch this on Fandor. It looks like a lot of rain in the forecast this week, might be a good time to stay inside and watch a 3 hour 45 minute movie about a great artist.
This next bit is a continuation of my post from yesterday. If you're not interested in the trials and tribulations on mixing paint then feel free to skip it. Yesterday I wrote about mixing greens and how picking up a tube that says yellow and one that says blue won't always give you what you're expecting. Most artists I know use ultramarine blue, which is the warmest blue. This is where a lot of people get confused, how can blue be warm? Ultramarine blue is biased towards red, it's a more purple blue.  A pthalo blue would be a cool blue, it leans more towards the green side. That's the easiest way, for me, to differentiate a warm and cool blue. Same with the other colours. If a red leans towards purple it's cool, if it leans towards orange it's warm and so on and so forth. The colour wheel might seem a bit elementary but they're pretty handy for those just learning how to mix paint. About those greens I was trying to achieve yesterday.
The thing is, once you've learned how to mix and what theoretically should work you then have to sift through the many brands of paint and their nuances. One brand's cadmium yellow can be quite different from another's.  I did a small test to see what could be my issue. Here are four different brands of paint of Cad Yellow deep. First is the Winton brand from Winsor Newton (a relic from my college days), Rembrandt, M. Graham, then an M. Graham Indian Yellow (I was just curious to try it), then Gamblin. Now these all lean towards an orange so they're going to be a warm yellow. Keep that in mind and you can probably figure out what will happen when you mix with an ultramarine blue. Both are warm and going back to the elementary lessons, blue and orange are complimentary so they "cancel" each other out. That's the terminology I was taught, in actuality it means you should get a duller/greyer colour.
Here is my swatch test. The top half is mixed with ultramarine blue and you can see the mixes are dark and dull, which may not look pretty but are very useful. The bottom half are the same yellows mixed with viridian.  You can click on the picture to enlarge if you need to. The M. Graham and Gamblin mix very similar which is nice to know. The Rembrandt is very different, which was what was causing me issues while painting yesterday. You can probably tell from the previous picture that the Rembrandt is the one I prefer to use. Since I was running low I picked up the other brands and clearly should have tried them before I set out to paint on location. Again, all of these mixes are useful in some capacity so they're not bad, but it's just frustrating when you expect to get a certain mix and get something quite different.
Mixing paint is fun for me.  It's like playing "mad scientist" and magician at the same time.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Mean Green

Weeds 8x8 oil on Masonite panel painted on location on the Des Moines River
It's that time of year again, the trees decide to dress themselves and no longer leave their limbs bare. Yea, that was a pretty bad play on words. Trees are difficult to paint without any leaves but don't be fooled into thinking they're easy to paint when they do have leaves. Mixing greens is no simple task. Well, mixing paints can be incredibly difficult, especially for beginners. Check out this fun video about how red and blue don't always make purple.
If you want the more in depth explanation about mixing paints check out this site handprint.com John Preston sent me some info from that site just recently and I had no idea it existed, It's a treasure trove of knowledge. Here's a link specifically for mixing greens.
Greens are much like the video on mixing purple. There are yellows that lean towards orange/red and blues that lean towards green or purple. If you figure that out before you start mixing you're on the right path.
Why mix your greens instead of using tube greens? So many reasons why, but here' a few.

  1. It's easier to carry around two tubes of yellow and two tubes of blue. Some brands of paint have over 50 different greens. Do you want to carry 50 tubes of paint around? 
  2. Cost effective. Do you want to buy 50 tubes of green paint? 
  3. When you mix your colours you tend to have better colour harmony on the canvas. 
  4. Tube greens don't always match what you find in nature. 
Tube greens aren't evil, they're just not always necessary. My personal exception is Viridian. It's one of my go to colours but I rarely use it straight from the tube, it's almost always mixed to make greys or other variations of greens.
Green Pond 5x7 watercolour on Arches cold press
Mixing greens in watercolour can be just as difficult as with oil paint if not more.
I could probably write a post every day for the next month and still not cover everything there is to know about mixing just greens.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Museum Girl in Colour

Museum Girl 8x10 study oil on canvas panel
A few weeks back I posted an ink sketch I did of this girl at the museum. You can see the black and white sketch here if you missed it. The last two weeks I've been busy finishing up paintings and framing them to get ready for shows. Last weekend the Iowa Pastel Society had a meeting and a show in Greenfield, Iowa. Don't worry, I'd never heard of it either. It was a long rainy drive across the state but everything is turning green so it wasn't horribly drab and I got third place so that helped brighten my day a bit. Artist Tom Christopher gave a demo at the meeting and critiqued the show afterward. He gave a lot of good advice and great ideas on all matter of things. One thing he said that I found funny was when he was discussing a piece and mentioned how part of it was very difficult to draw no matter how great of a draftsman you are that particular shape he was speaking of is hard to do. Then he went off on a bit of a tangent talking about how some artists will avoid doing hard things. Hands, he was talking about hands and how some artists will either hide the hands, put hands in pockets or behind the back simply so they won't have to do them. It was funny to me because I was once painting with a group of people and one of them was supposed to be the teacher. When someone asked how to correct their perspective the answer given was to just paint a tree in front of it so you don't have to worry about it. Uhhhh....no, wrong answer.  In my mind I'm asking myself, do people really do that? Obviously they do.  Tom's answer is to paint them in. They don't have to be detailed down to the wrinkles on the knuckles, just the basic shape and size to make them make sense. As for the perspective question, if you ask a teacher and they just tell you to cover it up you might want to see if you can get your money back.
With all of this swirling around in my head and not much energy to start a new painting I decided to paint the museum girl, hands and all, for practice. I was really practicing timing myself for two hour paintings, but I thought I'd practice the hands too. After the two hours was up I wondered how long it would take to figure out a creative way to hide her hands. Better to just try it instead of wasting time figuring out ways to hide them.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Painters Painter

Here is a short documentary about Diego Velazquez.  I was just talking about the painting Las Meninas this last weekend and I was curious if there were any movies made about Velazquez. Once you get passed the narrator's annoying mispronunciation of Seville it's a pretty good documentary.
Las Meninas is an art historian's dream come true. There's very little documentation about it so they can speculate and project their own ideas as much as they want. If you can't tell by now I'm not a huge fan of the BS art historians and docents throw out there about paintings. They say crap that only makes sense to someone who's never painted anything before. Stuff that even a non-judgmental eye can tell is nonsense. All of the hidden symbolism that they find in paintings, they should be psychoanalysts not art historians. I used to be a volunteer for an art program called Meet the Masters and it was painful to go by the script. Kids know when you're reading them a line of crap but thankfully their parents teach them to be polite enough not to call you out on it.
Anywho, the history, the actual history, surrounding this painting is very interesting. In 17th century Spain paintings were merely regarded as a craft. Considering what we now classify as a craft and what is a painting it's kind of sad. Yes, a shoe maker has to be very skilled at what they do but can it compare?  It shouldn't really be a surprise, after all barber surgeons were still practicing at this time.
One thing I find most intriguing about this painting is it's much like the John Singer Sargent's painting The Fountain, where he is painting Jane Emmet de Glehn as she paints something else. What was she painting while being painted? Velazquez has a canvas in this painting, what was he painting on that canvas? There are so many possibilities.  I have an initial reaction to this painting then it usually says to me, it's just like the annoying neighbour kid when I'm out working in the garden. I'm working and they just pop up and start asking questions. After they can't take a hint to go play in the street I put them to work. Velazquez could have very well been working on another painting and the royal brat wouldn't leave him alone so fine, sit there and be painted. Hmm...maybe being an art historian isn't so bad, making up stuff about paintings is kinda fun.