The creation of my first painting series (a group of works based on a common theme and style), was an important point for my artistic development. In August of 1984 I attended a “Painting in France” course put on by Paul Deggan (in conjunction with Capilano College in Vancouver). I and three other students stayed at Deggan’s home / art studio in the small, medieval village of Montaigut-le-Blanc in central France (the Auvergne region). For three weeks (after a week in Paris) we explored and painted this picturesque village (with it’s old chateau, a church and village walls) and surrounding rural areas.
The paintings in Part 1 of this series blog post are works that were painted “en plein air”, right there looking directly at the scene.
A number of other paintings were created as part of this series but they were done after the trip, back in the studio, from sketches and reference photos. These other paintings are featured in part 2 of this blog.
For the second year, the first week of July has been an opportunity to escape the city and normal responsibilities for the serenity of the countryside and the inspiration of being around like-minded artists.
A group of 12 painters gathered at the Lazy M Lodge in rural central Alberta for five days of rest, relaxation and rejuvenation.
My main goal for the week was to focus on painting but I knew my eye would be drawn to many more sights than I could attempt to paint. Therefore my camera would be close at hand and be put to good use capturing references for current and future landscape paintings as well as for some things that are just more suited to photographic images than paint.
My goals for the week were pretty loose but I did want to focus on landscape painting and I did want to work larger and looser with acrylic than I had done the previous year. So I did away with the backpack and pochade box and working on by 9 by 12 inch boards. This year I wouldn’t be packing my gear – I brought some medium size (22 by 28 inch; 56 by 71 cm) stretched canvases, a portable easel and a (5 foot long) folding table. I pre-mixed my acrylic paints half-and-half with a heavy gel to help hold the texture and to extend the working time. I also would use a couple of stay-wet, sealable palettes for color mixing. I used a split-primary color palette and would do mos of my painting thick and with a palette knife)
Of course, my eye was looking not only for landscapes that I could paint quasi-en-plein-air but also for inspirations for future studio abstract paintings. I re-visisted my long-exposure with camera-motion technique to generate some of these ideas:
A project that the group of 12 painters undertook during the week was to produce this composite canvas (4 feet square) to be left at the Lazy M Lodge:
It wasn’t a highly productive week in terms of completed canvases. In fact I completed only 2 (and one is not a keeper). I got a good start on another couple of canvases forming a landscape diptych. Nonetheless, it was a very beneficial week – the rest and rejuvenation benefits can not be understated.
For more photos visit my Lazy M 2014 Flickr album.
On the fourth day of the 2012 Federation of Canadian Artists (FCA) workshop on Salt Spring Island, our group was with Stephen Quiller [see my introductory post about this workshop]. Our location was at a private farm, on the coast, a couple of kilometers south of Ganges [see map]. This was another location that offered some subject matter to suit everyone’s tastes – there was the farm, with trees, chickens, road and fences and nearby, ocean-side fields and beaches.
Stephen Quiller is a water-media artist, not making a big distinction between water color , acrylic and gouache media. He is very comfortable with and knowledgeable about all. Quiller is noted for his work with color and has a number of products and books relating to his Quiller color wheel. In fact, having studied his books, was how his name popped out for me, amongst the four workshop instructors. One of the key lessons from Quiller related to his efforts in identifying color complement pairs amongst the many hues of colors available today. By mixing these pairs one is able to obtain some very nice clear greys, or neutral tones. Interestingly as he was unable to find a perfect complement to cadmium yellow light, he had his own created – Quiller Violet.
As in the days that we spent with the other workshop instructors, the format was to have a demo/talk first thing in the morning and then the participants would disperse over the area to work on their own and then we would gather again just after lunch for another demo. On this day we also got together for a group critique at the end of the day.
The demonstration started off with a description of Quiller’s color theory and then he got into working on a piece – an abstracted depiction of the landscape in front of him (using acrylics). Quiller\s approach was to start with thin, transparent washes and work his way to applications of opaque paint. Before starting the actual painting Quiller asked that any questions be saved until the end so as not to disrupt his process. I expected him to be in the “zone” and therefore completely silent during his painting process but while he was clearly in the zone, there was one side of him that was still giving a very useful running commentary of what he was doing and thinking.
Having so many possibilities for paintings around this location, it was difficult to choose. I hiked down the shaded path from the farm area to a large grassy spit which featured a greeny bay at low tide on one side and the open water and a rocky beach on the other. On the land was a large grassy field bordered by some trees sporting dramatic autumn colors.
The field/tree scene won out for me so I set up my pochade box in the shade looking out over this scene and got to work. I was experimenting with my process again on this day – still trying to find the best way to use acrylics for this plein air work. I learned on the previous days that my paints were just drying out too quickly on the palette – even when I used the Sta-Wet palette with a wet sponge underneath.
This day I tried pre-mixing my tube colors with heavy gloss gel to slow the drying time and also to give me a thicker paint, which I prefer for the impasto style. I stored these premixed colors in little plastic cups with lids, which were great for ensuring that the left over paint could be saved for my next session. I still used the Sta-Wet palette as my surface for mixing (and saving) other colors.
It was a good day with Stephen Quiller. the information on his color theories was good but largely review. there were a couple of things that he said that while not new or revolutionary, really stuck with me during that day and I’m still thinking about them.
- “See the stroke – put it down” is what he said. These are simple words, a simple concept but oh so important so as not to muck about in one’s painting and thereby destroy the freshness and expressiveness of the image.
- “Always finish your paintings”. There is a tendency to give up on hopeless cases, canvases that you just know can’t be saved. Quiller said that the last 15% of a painting can be very hard – but very beneficial. Keep working on the problems and you will learn something and probably something that will help prevent you from making the same mistake again!
John’s forte is painting urban scenes with watercolor. Our painting location for this day was the Garry Oaks Winery. This place wasn’t an urban location but John found a suitable building on the premises to use as the subject for his demonstration piece. Not being particularly drawn to buildings myself I found this site with many opportunities for landscape paintings. I’m particularly fond of the parallel lines of the rows of the vineyard.
Shortly after our arrival at 9 AM, the group gathered together and John began his demonstration. Unlike many instructors who do not like to actually demonstrate by creating a full work from start to finish, John did. He did do a few things in preparation before the group arrived and also did a bit of work while we were scattered in the fields. Nonetheless, through the two demo sessions that he did we got a good idea of how he approached his work. John works in watercolor so many of the tips and techniques (e.g. masking off sections of the painting and use a mouth-blown sprayer) of that he shared won’t have direct applicability to my current style but I have carefully tucked away his approaches for future use.
One thing that John talked about which is fully applicable to any media, concerned values and planning your composition. He said to consider that your scene has three regions: a foreground, a middle ground and a background. Also consider that there are three value families: Light (say values 1 to 3, on a nine point scale), middle (values 4 to 6) and darks (values 7 to 9 ). John suggested doing thumbnail sketches of the composition using all of the combinations of value families with the three regions. For example you could do the foreground in your darkest values, your mid-ground with your middle values and the background in your lightest values – or you could flip that around making your foreground lightest and background darkest. Or maybe you make your middle ground darkest
There are 6 combinations of the value families that you can assign to the three different sections of your painting and each can impart a different mood on the scene. Also worth remembering is that you don’t need to be a slave to reality – just because nature is presenting you with a scene where the background (e.g. distant hills and sky) are very light, your painting does not have to be the same (it could be – but that your choice!).
This lesson stuck with me, it was with me through that day as I tried to apply the idea, but it was also there in the back of my mind throughout the rest of the week. A good principle, a good lesson!
After the morning demonstration, I wandered up and down the road beside the vineyard looking for just the right scene to capture my attention. I ended up finding a nice spot in the shade under a massive old oak tree, looking out over a section of the vineyard with curving rows. I would spend the rest of the day in that spot and although the painting, didn’t turn out to my satisfaction. I kept repeating my mantra from Day 1 ” I don’t have to produce a finished painting, I am just here to learn”!
During the course of the day, John made the rounds to visit the students scattered around the property, offering individual suggestions. He got to me quite late in the day and suggested that I add a figure as a focal point. I don’t often include figures in my landscapes (although I often thought I should). Anyway, I did put in a suggestion of a figure and have to agree that it does add a focal point to an otherwise ungrounded painting. What do you think?
So that was day 2 – another day of solid learning, another day of not so successful painting – and all in a very beautiful locale. [click here to read about Day 3]
Simplify – that is the message I took from Elizabeth Wiltzen, our group’s first-day instructor at the 2012 FCA workshop, on Salt Spring Island. (for an intro to this workshop, see my first post in the series). Liz is a very accomplished oil painter of landscapes, from Canmore (Alberta, Canada) who had worked in watercolors for years. Interestingly, she is also a life coach and an avalanche rescue (with dog) volunteer.
I liked the way Liz started off the workshop: encouraging, no demanding, that we drop any pressures (self imposed or imagined) to have to complete paintings during the week. We were there to learn, to experiment, to try and fail, but ultimately to grow. She joked that the “wet paint sale”, scheduled for the last day, was not happening. It was of course, but we were to act as if it wasn’t and not feel under any pressure to produce. I though this set a very good tone, not only for this day but for the entire workshop. I know I adopted that mindset and while I would get frustrated with a lack of quality output, I kept telling myself that I was there to learn and if I didn’t end up with even a single finished painting, that was okay – that thought settled me down on more than one occasion.
On this day, our group was on a beautiful private property, right on the south coast of the island, between Ruckle Park and Fulford Harbour. The views looking towards the water were particularly stunning. The views looking inland weren’t bad either, with fields, buildings, trees and rocks.
Liz started off with a good talk about her plein air painting equipment as she set it up for her first demonstration – of the exercise she wanted us to take on that morning. During that day we were given 2 exercises. That first one was to simply a scene to a few (5 to 10) large shapes and assign each shape one of just 5 values – and then paint it like that! This sort of exercise is nothing new but it was nonetheless very valuable. It is so easy to get overwhelmed by a scene, all the details and color. What this exercise demonstrated is the value of getting down good solid “bones”, an infrastructure for the painting! When you’ve got a believable value composition down, you are half way there!
On the right is my small painting resulting from that morning’s exercise – again the goal being to simplify shapes and values (and of course it is not as easy as it looks)!
The format of this first day of the workshop was typical of each day. We would get on site by 9 AM unload our gear and gather as a group (of about 25). Our instructor for the day would then give us a talk and demonstration (for maybe half an hour) and then we would scatter around the site to get down to painting. When done for the morning we would typically eat the lunch that we had brought and then gather as a group for the afternoon demonstration.
At our afternoon gathering, Liz demonstrated the exercise that she wanted us to try that afternoon. Still on the theme of simplifying. the challenge was to do a painting using just 50 strokes of the paintbrush. Well this was interesting – she made it look easy but of course it was not. A good starting point was to follow the lesson from the morning by establishing your composition with a limited number of large shapes. When it came to the painting, one trick (especially in the early stages), was to load up a paintbrush and without lifting it from the surface, sweep it all about to fill in the large shapes. Later strokes would be shorter and useful for adding highlights and providing definition to the painting. One of the unexpected challenges of this exercise is keeping track of the 50 strokes – once you get into the painting zone it is so easy to lose track of a simple thing like counting. Before I started painting I took a couple of pine cones and pulled off 50 scales, put the 50 markers in a pile.. Then after each painting stroke, I simply tossed away one of the scales – when they were all gone, my painting was “done” (“remember, it’s just an exercise”)!
It was a good first day with the exceptionally beautiful landscapes that I was expecting, great weather, a chance to meet a few of the people in my group and of course a couple of lessons in simplification that stuck with me through the week (and beyond).
The 5-day workshop ran from Wednesday September 12th through Sunday September 16th. There were about 100 participants divided up into 4 groups. For the first four days, each group spent a day with a different one of the four workshop instructors, at a different site on the island. On the last day, everyone painted in and around Ganges on their own.
Every day we were out painting “en plein air”, in landscapes which offered views of coasts, fields, forests, buildings and animals – something for everyone!
The four workshop instructors were: John Salminen, Elizabeth Wiltzen, Carla O’Connor and Stephen Quiller. Each instructor focused on a particular media but were able to provide valuable guidance to everyone, in whatever media the participant chose to use.
Another very unique and welcome feature of this year’s workshop was a talk on Friday evening, given by the world-renowned (and Salt Spring Island resident) painter and naturalist, Robert Bateman. Bateman is obviously a man with a million stories (and opinions), a good an passionate speaker (looking way younger than his 82 years). On this evening he spoke about his development and influences. I learned that he had once painted landscapes in the style of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven (and quite frankly, that earlier style appealed to me more than the his realistic wildlife work). I was also impressed by (and would never have guessed) his appreciation for abstract expressionists such as Rothko, Kline and Still. He demonstrated how he was influenced by their compositions and incorporated them into his high-realism wildlife paintings. Overall it was a very enjoyable evening in a very good week.
Our last day of the workshop (Sunday) was different, but nonetheless valuable. We painted in Ganges, had group critiques of the work’s week as well as the opportunity for one-on-one critiques with Robert Genn. Late in the afternoon there was a two hour “wet canvas” sale – an opportunity to show and sell paintings. The well organized workshop week wrapped up with a very nice banquet – a excellent meal and an opportunity to chat and reminisce with old and new friends, on Sunday evening.
Next year’s FCA week-long workshop is being organized for Whistler B.C. in September 2013. After this years experience I will be giving serious consideration to attending that one too.
In future posts on this blog I will share some of the things that I learned during this week on Salt Spring – there was something learned everyday and from every instructor – stay tuned! [go to Workshop Day 1 post]
I’ve always felt that plein air painting is the ultimate but I’ve never done enough of it to really feel comfortable. Hopefully that will change now that I’ve outfitted myself with equipment that allows me to take-off on my mountain bike with my painting gear. While riding around the river valley here in Edmonton I’ve often noticed views that cried out to be painted. Until know I have had to be satisfied with taking a quick reference photo and then working up a painting in the studio.
The first piece in the puzzle was the pochade, a self contained studio-in-a box. I have long heard of the Guerrilla Painter line of plein air boxes and after much deliberation decided to go with their 9 x 12 inch pochade. I wanted something as big as possible but it had to be small enough to carry on my bike. That meant I had to face the limitation of the bike bag (pannier) that I would use. At first I did not think I’d be able to find a bag to accommodate the 9×12 box and so had been thinking I’d have to go with the 6×8 box. But I did find a pannier at Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) that I thought would work – but it didn’t. Even though the dimensions of the bad were adequate the opening at the top was just a tad too small – the bag wouldn’t stretch and the wooden box can’t compress to fit through the opening. I returned that bag and picked up another one (the Urban Shopping Tote) which had a large top opening and ample room inside (not only for the pochade box but also for my collapsible stool).
It looks like the bike may be side-heavy with the bag/box on just the one side but I noticed nothing unusual in the bike handling as I was riding. I set off down the bike paths and then dirt trail within Edmonton’s river valley arriving at a place about 10K from home that I had long wanted to paint. It is a little pond set on a flat section, half way down the river bank.
Having picked my scene, I got set up to paint. The pochade and stool came out of my bike bag easily and set up quickly.
I had decided, for this first test run, not to use a tripod to support the pochade box since I’d prefer to travel light and not to have to carry a tripod. One thing I quickly discovered was that I couldn’t just support the pochade on my lap. I ended up sitting on my stool with one leg crossed up over the other to give me a more stable platform. This worked reasonably well but was not the most comfortable position and it did not allow me to easily back away from the painting to get the big picture of how it was coming along.
At one point I did put the pochade upon my stool so I could back-up and take a look. Another lesson was learned at that point. The stool is not the most stable thing.
As I got a few paces back, I saw not only my painting and the inspirational scene but in slow motion, I watched as the stool collapsed and my pochade box fell and dumped its contents at the edge of the pond.
Fortunately there was no damage – the canvas stayed in the lid and none of my paints or other equipment actually hit water. I picked everything up and put the finishing touches on my painting.Considering that the point of this day’s outing was to test my equipment rather than produce a great painting, I was moderately satisfied with the canvas. I used a limited palette: alizarin crimson, Winsor yellow, olive green, and cobalt blue with an alkyd mixing white. The mixed colors turned out muddier than I would have liked but were probably representative of reality. In the end I wasn’t too pleased with the value range – it seemed pretty dynamic in the field but after the fact it looks very flat and the darks just are not very dark. Both of these issues though I can work on and if I do a larger work based on this sketch I expect that I can and will improve the color saturation and values.
I am already looking forward to my next plein air excursion on the bike. I will take along a tripod to hold the pochade box and also will experiment with different clothing, that might be a bit better for both cycling and painting.
A while back I reviewed a handy little iPhone app called ValueViewer. It helps artists (especially plein air painters) to see, to simplify the number of values (white, grey, black) in a scene. I liked the concept but thought that the original app had some serious flaws – primarily that one couldn’t save the image that the app produced.
On April 20th, 2012, version 2.1 of ValueViewer was released. It is a winner! One can now open any image from the iPhone camera roll (or take a new photo on the spot) and most importantly save the modified image back to the camera roll. From there the image can be uploaded to a computer and printed out. This is of great value to me for generating a reference print to use in the studio.
The user interface is a bit different from the original version and maybe not quite as intuitive but with the built in Help info and a bit of practice I think it will be fine.I like that one can flip from portrait to landscape format, adjust the window to any standard canvas size and to zoom in or out with simple finger action.
My only complaint is that one can not select the number of levels displayed. You can select gray scale (“infinite” levels), Notan (two levels: black and white) or three levels (white, gray and black). I would like to be able to choose, say 5 or 9 levels. The app does allow one the flexibility to adjust the mid-point on the value scale and the range of the gray region.
In conclusion, this version (2.1) of ValueViewer kicks the app up to the “very useful and recommended” level.
Last week (2011 July 11-15) I attended an inspiring painting course: “Color in the Landscape”. The course was one of eleven courses running in the Series program that week. Series is a long-running summer visual arts program put on by Red Deer College in the City of Red Deer [map]. Each July for the college offers a selection of week-long learning experiences in the visual arts. There are courses in every imaginable visual arts media from painting and drawing to sculpture, glass blowing, photography and jewelry-making. I have taken advantage of these programs many times over the last twenty years. It is always wonderful to get away from home and immerse oneself in art making (and learning of course). In conjunction with the courses, students have the option to book accomodations in the on-campus townhouse residences, which really helps to avoid distractions and to keep the focus on the art.
My week started with the 2 hour drive down from Edmonton, late on a Sunday afternoon. After a quick and efficient check-in at the residence office I had my keys and was unloading my stuff into my room. The courses start Monday morning at 0900 so after finding our classroom/studio I moved in with my boxes of painting and sketching supplies, canvases, etc. The instructor for our course was David More, an excellent landscape painter whose style I have admired for a long time. He was taught courses in the series program for many years and I consider myself fortunate this year to finally get into one of his popular courses.
After introductions, and a slide show/discussion we were off to do some painting for the day, out in the countryside in and around Red Deer. This would be our daily schedule for the week – meet in the class, critique the previous day’s work, discuss some aspect of color theory, get a map for the days destination and then by mid-morning be on our way.
The first day we went to an urban park in Red Deer, Bower Ponds [map]. While most of my classmates, promptly set up their easels and got to work painting, I chose to wander about the park with my camera(s) looking for interesting view points and capturing some reference photos for future use.
I chose not to bring along a french easel or pochade box on this course. One of my goals was to see what I could accomplish for field sketches with a much lighter and more portable set-up. In particular I was interested in using pens, watercolor sticks and oil pastels. On this first day, after doing a lot of walking around the park I eventually did four ink drawings in my small sketchbook and then captured the values and local colors using grey and Pitt colored brush markers.
This Path sketch would be the inspiration for an acrylic painting done in the studio later in the week.
Monday evening featured a welcome dinner put on for the Series particpants which was an opportunity to get to know a few students in other classes taking place that week. Following dinner I wandered around campus with my camera taking some photos of the dramatic skies as a prairie thunderstorm rolled into the area.
Wednesday Nov 14, 2007, my third full day on Salt Spring Island. It is a cool, overcast day but painting in on my agenda. I load up my gear and head out to the Cusheon Creek area that I had scouted out the day before.
I painted a couple of small studies focusing on the creek, the orange leaf litter and the green trees but I was not happy with either one. Admittedly I had not been doing much plein air painting recently and I was feeling very rusty. Still I hoped that I had captured something of the feeling of the area that I could use, along with my reference photos, to create a decent painting back in the studio. By the time I had done the 2 sketches, the 5 degree temperature had made me feel quite chilled, so I was happy to head back to the villa for lunch (and to warm up by the fireplace).
After lunch, I headed back to the creek area but I didn’t take my painting gear, electing instead to hike with my camera and collect more reference photos. I want to explore a different portion of the valley this time so I walked up to the end of Creekside Road and then descended into the valley and hiked back along the creek – trying to follow it all the way to where the creek empties into the ocean. Unfortunately the trail seemed to fade away and I never did get all to way to the coast. Nonetheless I had a great walk and captured another 100 photos of the area.
That was pretty much the day. After dinner I started reading Emily Carr’s book Hundreds and Thousands. Emily Carr of course is from Victoria and painted coastal landscapes that inspire me and are reminiscent of some of the landscapes that I’ve been experiencing on the island.
As the rain came down during the evening I decided to fore-go a planned hot tub soak but I did do a bit of painting. Set-up on the kitchen table I reworked the “Trees” painting that I had done earlier in the day, down by the creek.
(Incidentally, I used only palette knives for all my painting on this trip)