Thursday, October 29, 2009

Mexican Silver

Mexican Silver, 12X16, oil on linen panel

Hi Everyone,
Well, Ann and I spent the last three days traveling cross country in a car that was stuffed to the gills (including two cats!... who were great, btw). We arrived safe and sound in Arizona and have started the moving process. I'll be back in Minnesota next week to finish getting the house ready to put on the market. Then I'll be in Arizona permanently. The amount of time I can spend in front of the easel lately has been almost none, but I did manage to paint this still life. I almost never paint still lifes because I can't get into the traditional subject matter. Flowers, fruit and vases ain't something I can get into. It's just how I'm wired. But a pair of spurs with mexican silver, well, now your talkin'. I originally set these up to do a quick painting of them, you know, the "painting a day" kind that are so very popular now. But what I discovered was that, even though I could lay it all in quickly enough, I wasn't going to be happy with the spur rowels (the pointy wheels that are used to get the attention of the horse) when I painted them fast. They just looked sloppy. So I slowed down and took my time with them. I put a single light source on the scene and added some silver coins and wooden beads. The edges are loose in the areas where I want the eye to pass over. Since I wanted the spur wheel on the right to be the focal point, I made it the area of greatest contrast, as well as the hardest edges.
Thanks for looking, Steve

Friday, October 16, 2009

Canyon de Chelly paintout post #2

Sunset at Spider Rock, 9X12, oil/panel

Hi Everybody,
I'm in the middle of moving a house packed full of stuff from the basement to the top floor, from Minnesota to Arizona. Now I remember why I never wanted to have to move again....Hmmmm. But, it's all worth it to be moving toward something as great as living in the West. I won't have to jump on an airplane in order to paint the mountains anymore. Now I can slip out my back door and I'm there. Within a couple of hours to Sedona, the Grand Canyon, Phoenix and Flagstaff. Within driving distance to....Canyon de Chelly! Not to mention my Gallery. Several lifetimes worth of painting material right in my back yard. I'm feeling so blessed right now....I just have to get through the MOVE!!

But I have a spare moment, so I wanted to post the rest of my Canyon de Chelly paintings. The painting above is of Spider Rock or Tsi na ash jeii, probably the most well known and easily recognizable of the rock formations at the Canyon. This rock spire is 800 feet tall, so you can see that the vantage point is above the spire and is probably over 1000 feet. According to Navajo legend, atop Spider Rock lives Spider Woman, a deity who taught Navajo women to weave. She's also believed, by the Navajo, to carry naughty children to the top of Spider Rock.

The way to do a painting with quick moving light, such as this, is to lock in the shadows quickly (no details), and leave them. Do not try to follow the light. If you get your values down quickly, the whole time checking them against one another, you will have enough information to add the details later if you need to. Even if you have to do it in the studio later, you can, as long as your values are accurate. For this painting, I had plenty of time to do it all on site. Partly because the arc of the sun is relatively low across the sky in Northern Arizona, so when it gets close to setting, it does it more slowly than I'm used to. Which is a blessing.

My friend Rusty Jones and I, sat down to paint this on a rather windy evening. Rusty is an incredibly talented plein air painter and all around good guy. I truly believe that in the two hours we took to paint at this site, the temps dropped twenty degrees. I've painted in a lot of cold weather since I live here in Minnesota, but I have to say that I have never been colder than I was when I painted this one. I wasn't dressed for it in just a t-shirt. Luckily I had a wind breaker in my back pack, cause if I hadn't I don't think I'd have been able to finish it.


Tsegi Overlook, 11X14, oil/Canvas Panel

Painted on location at Canyon de Chelly, Sept 21, 2009 approx 2pm on a very very windy day. In fact, this painting has a great deal of sand embedded into the paint. It was impossible to turn my paint box to keep the sand out of my paints or off my painting. This painting was painted in wind gusts I have to guess were 30 to 40 mph. So I painted it with one hand holding the paint box and panel and the other holding my brush. This painting truly holds a special place in my heart. My wife calls it my "Sand Painting". That's about right.


Canyon Passage, 9X12, oil/canvas panel

There are still Navajo families living and working on the floor of Canyon de Chelly. They farm and raise livestock and the fences you pass by while in the Canyon are put up to keep curious tourists out and their livestock in. I've learned that there is an incredible amount of water just a couple of feet under the surface and cause the cottonwoods to be this incredible neon green. If you painted them that way, no one would believe they were that color. So I dial down the saturation in the tree on the right side. The trees in the middle ground are a greyish blue green. I don't know what kind they are, but I thought they were a nice variation of all the cottonwoods.


Ancient Waters, 9X12, oil/canvas panel

I love the depth of the cliffs in this painting. I didn't have to change too much in this composition. I stayed pretty true to what was actually there. The only change I made was adding water rivulets. Originally the tracks were made by the jeeps that drive through the canyon. All I had to do was fill them with water.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Canyon de Chelly plein air post #1

Navajo Fortress, Canyon de Chelly, 10X20 oil/canvas board

Hi All!
I wanted to talk today about my recent experience of painting at Canyon de Chelly and how you can approach painting such a daunting subject. OK, so you've traveled a long way to this place, you've already painted it in your head a hundred times. You know how to do it, I mean, it seemed so easy when you did it in your head. No problem. But now that you're here with the panoramic vistas and the wind, and your humble place in the Universe are staring you in the face. Time for a deep breath. Painting the cliffs here can be overwhelming if you stand there thinking you have to get it all in. I mean, how do you paint the Grand Canyon, or even the humblest mountain? The key, of course, is the same key as you need to use to paint anything. This isn't any different at all. Just remember this. Simplify. There is no way to keep up with all the visual information you will be faced with. Not to mention all the other stimulation you will be given. As I painted on the rim the last evening I was there, I was dive bombed by a crow (or a raven, I can never tell the difference between the two). It would come at me from behind, and I could here the wind through the beating of his wings as he got close. It also was very windy that evening. So as you stand there trying to paint and tune out all that's happening around you, you need to boil down the scene to it's essence. What's your focal point? Is it in the shadows or the light? If it's the light, you need to keep your detail in the shadow areas to a minimum. At my first plein air workshop, Joe Paquet used to try to pound this into my thick skull. As an illustrator, it didn't make sense to me. How could the detail in the shadows be any less important than the details in the light? I mean, i could see the detail in both when I looked, so how come I had to weed those out? The answer is: you don't paint everything in because, our eyes don't see everything like that. Think about it for a moment.........I'll wait.........yep, when we focus on something, the other things we see are in our periphery. We only see a blurred representation of what surrounds our focal point. So what I'm trying to do as a painter, is a visual representation of what I truly see. Don't stare into the shadows, and you'll get a good idea of what you need to leave out. All that detail of the cracks and crags is wiped away and you're left with only the big shapes. I make sure that the detail I do put into the shadows is minimal and the values are kept pretty close to one another. This gives me a more cohesive painting and a much more pleasing work of art. Thanks Joe for teaching me what to see.

Sandstone and Shadows, 9X12, oil/canvas panel

The second thing that you can do to not be overwhelmed by an overwhelming subject is to play a mind game. Tell yourself that what you are seeing is a big puzzle, with pieces that are unequal in size and shape. Don't think in your head, 'Holy Moly, That is one big canyon down there. No way can I get that down in a couple of hours'. Think of it as putting together a puzzle, and at the end of your time, you'll have a painting. I have to get everything blocked in to judge anything. Now, lord knows I'm not the fastest painter you'll ever come across. It's one of the reasons i usually decline the offer to do a demo. I take my time and work and rework a painting till I feel it's right. I call myself a 'grinder". But I do try to block things in simply and quickly. I can't judge accurately the value of a cliff I've put down until I have the surrounding trees and ground plane and sky in that surround it. Save the details for later. Cracks in the cliffs, tree trunks, variations in warms and cools of the grasses. All of it can, and should be saved for the time that the big shapes are sitting on their proper planes. John F. Carlson's book, "Carlson's guide to Landscape painting", should be in the library of every landscape painter. And every landscape painter should be painting en plein air. No excuses unless you're bed ridden. Then you get a pass....I guess. Carlson's book gives you a great explanation of how atmospheric perspective works and the values of the planes of what you're seeing. I don't want to get into too much detail here, since i don't want to put you to sleep, or give away the surprise ending of the book (the butler didn't do it). But it's a thin book with a lot of gems in it. I don't reread books usually, but I do come back to this one, and every time I do I find more gems. Things I wasn't ready to soak in on my previous reads, I guess. Anyways, you can find it on Amazon used, but even new I think it's only ten bucks or so. Dover also sells it on their website since they're the publishers.

The first painting is called "Navajo Fortress, Canyon de Chelly". The cliff in the center of this painting is famous as being the place where the last of the Navajo held out against Kit Carson, who was sent into Canyon de Chelly in 1864. The army decided that it was time for the Diné to surrender once and for all. This rock fortress was the place the last Navajo holdouts chose to make their stand. According to the story told, the holdouts reached the top of this rock face by using notched tree trunk ladders, which they pulled up behind them. Unfortunately for the natives, Carson simply waited them out until, starving, the final Navajo simply gave up. In the spring of 1864, when the ordeal for the Diné should have been over, another was about to begin. The Long Walk, as it's known to the Navajo, took all the captives from Canyon de Chelly to their new place of exile in Fort Sumner in New Mexico. It was known as the Long Walk because only the sick, the very oldest and youngest of the captives rode. Once at Fort Sumner, the conditions were beyond horrible. The Navajo were one of the few tribes to negotiate with the government to get at least some of their native lands back and eventually were able to return, where they have lived to this day.

The second painting is "Sandstone and Shadows". This was painted within the Canyon, which requires a Navajo guide to accompany you. Kaye Franklin of the Outdoor Painters Society, arranged our guide and four of us split the cost. Traveling in the canyon gives you a point of view that is completely different from painting on the rim. Whatever the time of day, you can find interesting compositions to paint. When I painted this one, I came away feeling that something was missing from it. I put it away for about a week and when I came back to it I knew that it needed another cliff behind the central cliff. So I painted in the far off cliff. I could do it because (thanks to Carlson's book) I understood atmospheric perspective, and the colors of the distant cliffs were still fresh in my mind. I knew what they looked like, so all I needed to do was to put in an interesting shape. I also added some wispy clouds for direction and interest. There weren't any clouds just about the whole time we painted there. Well there was one tiny one that looked like a bean, which we quickly named, but it didn't help much.

I'll post more paintings from the trip later in the week and talk about what I learned, which hopefully can help you too!

Thanks for looking, Steve

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Prescott Arizona plein airs

Hi Everyone,
It's been too long since I posted some new paintings here. But I do have an excuse. For me it's the best kind of one, I've been traveling for the past few weeks. Painting on location is something I enjoy doing more than almost anything else in the world. The studies I'm posting here are from my trip to Prescott, Arizona. Recently, Ann and I have purchased a home in Prescott and will eventually be making our home there. We're pretty excited about living out west. Ann is a native Arizonan, while not. Hmmm. I've got lots to get used to there. I've always lived in a place where I'm at the top of the food chain. So, even though I'll be getting used to coexisting with the rattlesnakes, scorpions, coyotes, tarantulas and other assorted creepy crawly things that bite, scratch, or stick you, I'll be doing it amongst some of the most beautiful western landscape you can find anywhere. I am happy to tell you that I killed my first black widow spider and lived to tell the tale. Relax, she had moved into the garage and had laid lots of eggs. She broke the cardinal rule in my house, They can live there..... as long as I don't see them. If I do, they're fair game. All rules go out the window.

The week we recently spent there was full of pulling the most evil weed in the world. Of course I'm talking about the dreaded tumbleweed. The scourge of the desert. We've discovered there is no easy way to remove this weed from your property. Ya just gotta pull 'em, and keep pulling 'em. And then pull some more. But, I did get out and paint almost every day. One of the things I need to remember to do is spray BOTH arms with sunblock. I sprayed my right arm, but forgot to spray my left painting arm. I will never make this mistake again. Oops. Here's what that looked like

here are some of the studies I produced that week

Williamson Valley, 10X20, oil on canvas panel

This is the view that overlooks the Williamson Valley and is the location of our new home.
Until very recently, the Williamson Valley, located in the shadow of Granite Mountain, was prime cattle grazing country. It's true that there are still plenty of cattle grazing in the area, though, admittedly, these days there are more homes and less live stock. You can still see lots of wildlife here though. Pronghorn antelope are abundant. Coyote can be heard yipping their lonely songs at night, and warily skulking across the roads by day. Horses are corralled in the valley alongside burrows and cattle. It's a wonderful place to visit and experience the wide open spaces of the West.


Granite Outcrop, 9X12, oil/canvas panel

The paintings I did this week were to get me used to painting rock formations. The kind of formations I don't see much in Minnesota. I was going to be painting in Canyon de Chelly the following week with a group of incredibly talented painters, so I didn't want to show up and suck. This is how I prepared for the paintout. It was my homework. And I think it paid off when I went to the paintout at the Canyon.


Desert Scrub, 12X12, oil/canvas panel

The desert has a completely different palette than I usually paint on location. Everything has a dusty, subtle color to it. The greens aren't quite as green. It's why, those of us who are crazy enough to paint on location, do it. Those differences just don't show up on film in quite the same way. You simply need to be there to see the difference.

The Granite Dells is a world unto itself. The granite rock formations there have a kind of melted ice cream look to them. There isn't a hard edge to be found on the stone formations. I've been told that Tom Mix used the Dells in many of his movies. I will be doing many paintings here.


Corriente Creek Wash, 12X9, oil/canvas panel

This is a wash that is around the corner from the house. There was no water in the wash at this time, but I added a trickle to help with the composition and to have something that leads your eye into the scene.

Tomorrow I'll begin posting the paintings I produced at the Canyon de Chelly National Monument in the heart of the Navajo Reservation. Along with some of the photos of the paintout.