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Nov 12, 2014

A Decent Fake Lead White...

Another quick one for today...

I was talking to someone at Gamblin Oil Colors this morning and our conversation reminded me of a photograph I took down in Laguna Beach last month. Many of you know I am a bit old-school and like to paint with Lead White (a.k.a., Flake White). And as of late it has become harder and harder to find suitable lead white in stores across the country because the quality has been going down or the cost has been going up. Why? Because fewer color houses are making it for oil painters. Scared away by the terrors of over stated toxicity.

Here I am, last month, on the main beach at sunset during the 16th Annual Laguna Beach Plein Air Invitational. Working on the painting honored with the Mathewson Foundation Award. No lead white paint being used here, but another 'magical elixir' instead...

As a result I've recently been using a combination of Titanium/Zinc White and Gamblin's Titanium White from their Fastmatte™ line. I often put both on the palette side by side. (see below)

The Fastmatte White is extremely short and stiff and it imparts both qualities to any other paint you mix it into. So I have found if you mix a little FM Titanium white into a traditional titanium white and add a teenie-weensie bit of yellow or cadmium orange to warm things up you will end up with a mixture that looks and acts a lot like lead white. The FMTW softens the opacity of the T/ZW, and the shorter, stiffer characteristics retain the texture of your brush strokes. It's great for quickly building up a paint layer or for applying those last touches of juicy impasto. And yes, it is perfectly okay to mix the two kinds of paint in any proportion. No worries there.

Not every painter will like the way this combination works, but I do. Plus, the alkyd resin in the Fastmatte acts like an accelerator and speeds up the 'drying' time of your thicker paint film – making traveling with wet painting easier. This FMTW plus traditional TW is what I took to Europe last year and my paintings were dry to the touch within 18 hours.

My palette during the Laguna competition...

This close up photo shows how I have been laying out both whites on my larger palette. The traditional T/ZW is on your left and the FMTW is on your right. With the whites in line like this I can use a brush or knife to quickly scoop up one or the other as needed. Or I can easily pick up a little of both if I want an intermediate mixture.

I still love to paint with lead white and want to see it survive as an option for future painters because nothing can truly replace it. Not even this ad-hoc solution. But these days I am less worried that some crazy ill-informed congress will legislate it off our palette. If that actually occurs in the near future I will be frustrated, but at least I know there is a viable option if it does.

If you try this let me know what you think...


Nov 9, 2014

"One more time, but with feeling"...

Just a quick one today:

I've been reading about painting, more than I've actually been painting since I came home this month. Not so much about the how of painting but the why. It's easy for me to forget why I paint when I become caught up with the how, not that I am suggesting that art needs a reason to exist beyond itself. I'm just saying it is good for me to pause and think about such things every now and then.

Here is a quick excerpt from an obscure book on the laws of Japanese painting, published in 1911. Yes, from way back then. Not even sure how I ended up with the volume but it always amazes me where artistic redirection can come from...


"One of the most important principles in the art of Japanese painting—indeed, a fundamental and entirely distinctive characteristic—is that called living movement, sei do, or kokoro mochi, it being, so to say, the transfusion into the work of the felt nature of the thing to be painted by the artist. Whatever the subject to be translated—whether river or tree, rock or mountain, bird or flower, fish or animal—the artist at the moment of painting it must feel its very nature, which, by the magic of his art, he transfers into his work to remain forever, affecting all who see it with the same sensations he experienced when executing it.
This is not an imaginary principle but a strictly enforced law of Japanese painting. The student is incessantly admonished to observe it. Should his subject be a tree, he is urged when painting it to feel the strength which shoots through the branches and sustains the limbs. Or if a flower, to try to feel the grace with which it expands or bows its blossoms. Indeed, nothing is more constantly urged upon his attention than this great underlying principle that it is impossible to express in art what one does not first feel." 

From Henry P. Bowie's book, “On the Laws of Japanese Painting”, with black and white illustrations. Paul Elder and Company Publishers. 

If there is a why to painting then this is it.


( FWIW: I think perhaps the spelling of 'sei do' is more properly seido, which translates to accuracy, institution, organization, precision, or system depending upon the context. And as the author above implies, kokoro mochi seems to translate pretty closely to feeling.)


Nov 5, 2014

"Excuse me sir, but I think your painting has a certain, um...'Jen ne sais quoi?'"

It seems these days there is an online painting competition around every corner. Enter your art here. Enter it there. And if it wins something then enter it somewhere else. Perhaps it has always been like this but I don't think so. At least in terms of how many there are. The number of competitions these days is staggering.
Ha! Even as I started drafting this post I received a notification about yet another competition – one from the 'Museum of Biblical Art'. (whaaah?) Apparently they would appreciate it if I would consider submitting any tile mosaics I've created in the past year that expresses a religious narrative. Not sure how I ended up on that mailing list...
With every painting you enter there is an entry fee attached – usually running between $25 to $60 or so, depending upon the association or event. Philosophically I'm not against racking the credit card for such things but sometimes I wonder where all the money goes. Or if participating helps my career in any way.

But in truth, there are competitions that can elevate your profile, put cash in your pocket, garner esteem and accolades from your fellow artists – and attract collectors down the road. And, in my opinion, Raymar Art offers a terrific opportunity for this every month.

I will be the judge for this month's Raymar Art Contest
and I'd like to share a few thoughts with you...

I don't know about you, but whenever I decide to enter a competition the first thing I do is check out the judge's website in the hopes of gaming the system. (Ha! joking!...) Then I cherry pick paintings from my stacks guaranteed to sway the judge. (Ha again!...) And let me tell you, it works every time! (Ha! ha!...) 

Nope, not in my experience. I have come to the conclusion that trying to second-guess the judge in the hopes of affecting a difference is a fool's errand because he or she will always surprise you with the quirky nature of their final picks. In reality, if you are chosen as a winner you will instantly feel as if you are riding at the top of the world – that everything is beautiful, and all is good. If not, well, your world collapses into a burnt out cinder of ennui. 

But then, another competition comes along and your prospects seem rosy again! It's an up and down cycle and sometimes manic. So don't take competitions too seriously.

However, having said all that, there are few things you can do 
to increase your chances of being noticed by the judge. 

1. Photograph your work well. It all starts with that. Without a good jpeg to upload, you have no hope. If you don't have access to the services of a professional photographer then you can shoot it yourself. Bring your painting outside between 10 and 2:00 and place it in the shade if it is a sunny day (north-facing is preferred.) If it is overcast then set up in the best light available. Mount your camera on a tripod and set the meter reading to 'average' (see your camera's manual). Then, use the 3-second shutter timer to eliminate any camera shake. If you can, place a white card next to the painting at the same angle. The camera meter will then automatically white balance (color-correct) the digital image for you. This really works and is easy to do. And no, you don't need the latest and greatest 24 meg digital SLR to shoot your work. Most point-and-shoots you buy today are sufficient.
2. Square up the painting in the camera before taking the shot. It's easier to do it in-camera than on a computer. When you put it on your computer be sure to crop out whatever isn't part of the painting. This means editing out the white card I just told you about. Delete any errant tufts of grass along the bottom. And for goodness sake, do not include that French swirly faux-gold picture frame your mother loves so much. Crop out anything that isn't the painting itself.
3. Read the contest submission requirements closely. Then reread them again before you click 'upload'. If you intentionally or accidentally violate one of the requirements it's game over. No judge will look past that. 
4. Submit your paintings and pray – assuming you believe in prayer. Because that is all you can do from this point on. Well there is something else you can do. You could start another painting because it is likely to be a better entry for the next competition that comes along. No matter what is decided by the last judge you must keep going.

But how do those sum's-a-b*&%#$tch judges pick their winners!!!?

There are no formulas, and honestly, I can't shed any light on how other judges think – but here are some things I look for when asked to evaluate a competition. Admittedly, my criteria can appear a bit subjective but it is supported by a formal art education, a deep knowledge of art history, years of teaching in a BFA program and offering workshops, and thirty years of pushing paint around. But let's cut to the chase: I want you to submit what you believe is your best work, not what you think I think is your best work. Did that confuse you? Just show me what you believe is your best work. I can't emphasize this enough.

What I look for (which is as good as admitting a few biases right up front):
1. First, I ask how much did the artist reach for in this painting? Was it a softball toss or did he or she take some risks? 
2. Okay, so maybe there is a risk here. Did it pay off? 
3. Does this painting create an emotional impact? A technical tour deforce is all well and good and it can generate some appeal but if that is all that is present then the entire effort skids toward taxidermy. I kid you not, if I feel gut-punched by looking at a painting then I know something powerful is present. The how and why I feel tat way comes second. 
4. Technical expertise. I am going to go with what I've always been taught – that craftsmanship should simply be expected. Because, unless you are talking to another artist of your own ilk, the non-artist (civilian?) wants to feel your painting, not be amazed by the manner it was made. I am not being pedantic by drawing this distinction. It is no less meaningful to be awed by the view driving across the Golden Gate Bridge without any idea of how it was built than to also be able to explain the engineering involved. In art, method and technique are the plumbing, not the raison d'ĂȘtre. So I encourage you to submit the content that excites you emotionally. Make it personal.
5. Paintings which have an immediate read will usually make the first cut, but paintings lacking in further complexity are unlikely to make the second. I appreciate how confusing that may sound but really, most great works of art encompass both things. Submit work that can draw viewers in from across the room and then reward them for coming close. Yes, this can be a difficult thing to embody in a single work but there you have it: making art ain't easy.

I promise I will do my best to pick good paintings out of the work submitted this November. I have done this sort of thing in the past for other venues so I know what difficulties lie ahead. I am honored to be asked by the folks at RayMar to do this and feel accountable to every artist who chooses to submit their work and all the judges who have preceded me. This is a high-caliber competition, with high standards, and while it may be an honor to critically evaluate the efforts of one's fellow artists, it is always a difficult task. 

Because, as any artist who has ever been asked to 
appraise the work of his or her fellow colleagues knows... 

"When you are the judge you don't have a friend in the room..." 

Good luck!


Nov 2, 2014

Teaching at the Scottsdale Artists' School...

Hey all, I've been asked to come teach at the prestigious Scottsdale Artists' School and I need to choose between three possible dates: 

 November 16-20, 2015

February 15 -19, 2016 

or March 21-25, 2016

For those who live in the area, or anyone who is interested in leaving the harsh cold winter behind and traveling to the Southwest to work on your painting skills, let me know what date works best for you!

If there is a clear majority I will commit to that date. 

This 4-day SAS workshop will teach you how to sketch, paint, and photograph in the field in preparation for working larger in the studio. We will spend one or two days out painting en plein air in the stunning mountains and canyons of the Tonto National Forest (shown above), and then two more days in the beautiful SAS studio walking you though the entire process. Learn to paint small and then take it big. From start to finish. 

If you tell me what date is best for you I will do my best to settle on it!

And yes, we will also have a lot of fun. We always do!  ;-) ...

If you have not heard of the SAS, check it out. It is an amazing place to work on your painting chops: http://scottsdaleartschool.org/ And here's some info about the Tonto National Forest as well: http://www.fs.usda.gov/tonto



Oct 1, 2014

Mad Dogs and Englishmen...

I've been painting en plein air outdoors for over thirty years now, long before anyone knew what to call it, and spent even more years before that hiking, camping, and climbing various mountains under the sun. There was even one summer back in the '70s when I worked high up on the slopes of Mt. Hood as an outdoor lifeguard at a BSA summer camp. I stood around all day on a dock wearing nothing but a Speedo and way too much baby oil. (No, no, do not attempt to picture that!...

So like an idiot, I've exposed myself to a lot of UVs in my life and it seems to be finally catching up with me.

That goofy hat you see me wearing when I paint comes with a reason. It offers the best coverage from the sun I've found, apart from dunking my head in sunblock SPF 250,000,000,000. Which I also now do as well.

It is a Paddler's Hat from REI and what makes it great for the outdoor painter is the way the brim is shaped longer in the back and points downwards to increase neck coverage. Even better, the underside of the brim is colored black and it absorbs any light bouncing off the ground, the water, or snow at your feet. (Such reflections are a concern because you can still get burned from below.) And this hat crushes into a small ball for easy packing. It washes and dries quickly. And it provides ventilation around my head so I can continue painting during the hottest part of the day. (Do you know the old Noel Coward song: "...Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun...?" And now, apparently, plein air painters can be added to the same group.)

Here is a good review of the hat. I agree with what this guy says except I don't have trouble with the liner and I replaced the pointless fob on the strap with a zip-cinch that works. My hat stays on in gale-force winds. It flaps around a bit, maybe, but stays on my head...

So hey, if you don't mind looking a little goofy give this hat a try. Because in the end buying a good sun hat is a lot cheaper than paying for a bunch of Mohs surgeries. Besides, if I have any more of my face scraped off I'll start have to start wearing an eye-patch and spontaneously yelling out, "Arrrrrrrrr!"


If you are interested in taking one 
my painting workshops the next 
one will be held this February in 
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. 

I have invited two great outdoor painters Anne Blair Brown and Frank Gardner to come teach as well. Besides being a very informative and entertaining time for everyone who participates, San Miguel will be a fine place to paint afterwards, during the depths of winter, and the culture and citizens offer many delights to every kind of artist.

For more information click here

Mi amigos, it will be a painting experience like no other!...


Sep 25, 2014

Sometimes you just have to have enough sense to leave it alone...

This clip was shot surreptitiously by one of my students during a Carmel plein air workshop I taught in September. She later shared it with me and it seemed a nice thing to share with you. And below the clip is a scan of the demonstration itself. I think the whole thing ran a little under one hour...


Bird Island (as seen from the southern tip of Weston Beach)
Point Lobos, California
approx. 8 x 13 inches | oil on linen | 2014


If you are interested in taking one 
my painting workshops the next 
one will be held this February in 
San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. 

I have invited two great outdoor painters Anne Blair Brown and Frank Gardner to join me and teach as well. Besides being a very informative and entertaining time for everyone who participates, San Miguel will be a fine place to paint afterwards, during the depths of winter, and the culture and citizens offer many delights to every kind of artist.

For more information click here

Mi amigos, it will be a painting experience like no other!...


Sep 24, 2014

Building a Plein Air Shelf...

Me, painting over the Arno River, in Florence, Italy, loving the shelf...

I painted with a French easel for almost 25 years not knowing there were any other viable options out there to consider. And, for the first twenty years, there wasn't. However, about six years ago I ran into some friends who preferred painting outdoors using a clamshell design utilized by the Openbox M™, the Easy-L™, Alla Prima Pochade™, and now the new Strada™ and I could immediately see why.

A clamshell design is great for its compact simplicity and robust nature – if you mostly paint at 16 x 20 inches or smaller. The open and close, hinged form makes it a convenient and easy set up for any painter on the move like me. 

But there is one problem...

If you prefer to paint with your canvas vertical, and have your mixing area vertical as well so the light falls equally on both, then having a place to put your solvent, paint, brushes, knives, and other gear becomes an issue. Sure, all manufacturers of clamshell easels offer a shelf in some form or another but if you use their solution it will restrict the angle of your palette to something not too far off from level. Otherwise your stuff will roll off unexpectedly.

Not exactly what I want to be dealing with as I am pushing the paint around.

So I designed a shelf for the tripod underneath the easel, only to discover that everywhere I went other painters wanted to know where they could get one. I'd tell them I made it myself, and that when sized to fit it can act like a cover, and blah, blah, blah... with the conversations invariably ending with photos being taken so they could build their own.

The shelf, in all its humble and simple glory...

Personally, I am too busy traveling and painting and have no interest in becoming a 'plein air shelf manufacturer' so you can find the specs below. Anyone with moderate woodworking skills, access to a decent table saw and a few tools, can make their own. I can't think of any equipment mod I've ever come up with that has improved my outdoor painting experience more than this shelf. I can paint faster, my back thanks me, and well, apparently it just looks b*tchin' out on the street...

The measurements in bold should work for most, if not every tripod I've encountered, assuming the legs are set at the standard angle. (I try my shelves out on everyone's tripod I come across.) I've even used my shelves with tripod legs set at a 45 degree angle under windy conditions. Although admittedly the shelf tilts sharply backward when I do. And no, I've never had a shelf collapse. After you place weight on it the structure becomes stable. As much as 10 to 12 pounds.

The last mod I've been thinking about incorporating into my shelves is a slot to accommodate a stemmed wine glass. After all, one must remain civilized while we paint outdoors, yes?


For more practical advice about painting en plein air, consider taking one of my workshops. Like this one in San Miguel de Allende, this February. Mi amigos, it will be a painting experience like no other!...