Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Shiny Objects

What kind of art do I do in December? Answer: Decorate a big Christmas tree. Or, others might change the emphasis to say: Decorate a big Christmas tree.

My husband, who loves a decorated tree but not the decorating, is beginning to think this twelve footer of ours is gigantic. He has been making suggestions that it would be fine if I only hung, say, three hundred decorations and let the rest stay in their boxes.

But that doesn't work for me. I need the tree encrusted with every shiny bauble and ball we have. For one thing, I am attracted to shiny, glittery objects. "Hollywood," I call it. Besides, every ornament on the tree is a meme. "My mother gave me this one." "This one was a birthday present from Jennie." "Christopher made this one in Sunday school." "Eric and I got this one in Germany." "This one is from Denmark." "Oh, this was Aunt Lil's." Boxes and boxes and boxes of memories get hung on the tree.

This year I was hobbled by a new knee and counseled by my physical therapist not to be on a ladder. Going up and down wasn't going to damage the knee, but, apparently the nerve receptors near my knee can't yet send clear messages to my brain that the muscles need to make a correction to keep me balanced. My friend Roz came to the rescue.

Roz came with her artist's eyes and trimmed a part of the tree too high for me. And this was a real gift: Roz is the friend who doesn't even like to go over high bridges let alone stand on a tall ladder. You can read her comments on the tree trimming and photos of our tree on her December 8 and 13 blog entries.

We had lots of laughs. A good one at my expense when we talked about how Eric does not like to trim the tree. "I don't put things in the right places. You always end up moving most of what I hang up anyway," he says. "It's not that he puts things in the wrong places, I just need to tweek things, say, when I have a large ornament and there is no place to put it except where he put a tiny one. Or maybe three pink ones don't look the best hanging in a row. It is just a matter of composition. I move things I hang up constantly," I told Roz. "No wonder he doesn't like to trim the tree!" Hmm, now I see his point. There you have it: Roz, friend, artist and marriage coach. Eric did do the rest of the top and it looks terrific.

All in all, when the tree is all trimmed, the boxes back in the basement and the tree lights turned on, the week of work is worth it. Good thing it doesn't take as long to take it down.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Utah Journal

A few weeks ago my friend Roz Stendahl posted an article about the journal I kept on my recent trip to Utah and a discussion of my renewed interest in painting in oils. Included was a mass photo of all the Utah paintings and lots of photos of my journal. Here's the link to her post.

It seemed worth while to add a few things she did not include--for example a photo of the outside of the journal itself. Like other journals Roz has made this one was a real beauty: the paper was Aquarius watercolor paper, the cover a perfect rusty brown-red and the stiching on the spine looked like tire tracks. How great is that for a fall road trip!

It is my custom to draw and paint what I see out of the car windows as my husband drives along. This works just fine since I use a Niji waterbrush (where the water is self contained in the handle of the brush) and my traveling watercolor palette which sits easily in my lap. With those two pieces of equipment and some paper towels I'm all set. This photos shows the scenes as we crossed from Nebraska into Iowa on our way home.

Below are two pages from the last signature of the journal in which I glued small digital prints of the thirteen paintings I did in Utah.

In the envelope are the thumbnail sketches I did before each of the paintings. I needed some place to keep a record of my thinking process behind each of the paintings. Even with the pocket I made to hold literature from the trip, there was still room in the spine to hold an envelope with the sketches.

Below is a very fast sketch I did after lunch the day we went up to Sundance. When I say fast I mean less than 5 minutes. The fact that the top of Mount Timpanogos does not fit on the page actually reminds me of just how huge it was--so a "mistake" in drawing can be a good thing. The whole tone of this photos is yellow. I am blaming it on my ineptitude with the camera.

In this spread western Wyoming (home of countless antelope) was flying past the window. Later I noticed that the colors I used to paint the scene were identical to photos of the antelope in a brochure we picked up.

A few random things I wanted to remember:

More road paintings:

And, appropriately, the "tire tracks" on the spine:

Keep a journal. It's a great way to record an experience and, there it is to help you relive it later.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

New Show

The University of Minnesota Morris is the setting of the lastest Project Art for Nature (PAN) Show. I'll be exhibiting along with twelve other artists. PAN is a collaboration of artists and illustrators from Minnesota and Wisconsin who work independently and collaboratively to create artwork which promotes stewardship of threatened natural areas.

Dusk, 6 x16 1/2", pastel

The two locations I focus on for the PAN collaborative are the area near our cabin on the north shore of Lake Superior and the large open space between Bald Eagle Lake and Otter Lake, two of the many lakes in the Twin Cities area in Minnesota. The open space is filled with meadows, woods and marshes. The imagery of the marshes is often found in my art.

Evening, 5 x 16 1/2", pastel

The two small pastels above will be in the Morris show along with several other pastels and a set of four monotypes. 20% of the proceeds from sales of the art work are donated to non-profit environmental conservation organizations.

The show opens tomorow, Thursday, Ocotber 22, 7-9 pm at the Humanities Fine Art Gallery, University of Minnesota Morris. 104 Humanities Building, 600 East 4th St., Morris, MN. Gallery hours are Monday-Thursday: 9 am - 8 pm; Friday: 9 am - 6 pm; Sunday: pm - 4 pm.

Please come see the show if you are in the area.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Evening Painting

Evening is my favorite time of the day to be painting. The light is luminous and the shadows are deep. Best of all, I have to put myself on auto pilot and just paint; no second guessing, no overthinking. Why? The light is fading fast forcing me to make decisions and stay with them. Otherwise I can get caught in the plein air landscape painter's trap of chasing the light.

The painting above was done on my recent trip to Utah. The sun was just setting. Cottonwoods were catching the last direct rays and were lit up to a chome yellow and the field in front of them was still sunny. Everything else was in that sort of early evening mountain shadow where they were gently illuminated by the reflected light from the sky.

The painting above was done another day but also in the early evening. (Actually it is the third painting done the day I painted the two from the last post.) As you can see, neither has much blue in the sky. Just a faint bit in the part farthest from the sun. So the yellow light of the sky is present in the rest of the landscape and influenced my choice of pigments. Doing a bit of forensics will help me remember my instinctive, auto-pilot choices since I foolishly did not take good notes. Now that I'm back home and attempting some studio paintings with these as reference I sure wish I know exactly what I used. Another lesson learned.

Here is a lesson I did learn: The advice that one should always lay out one's palette the same way is smart. When you obey this rule you don't have to wonder if you are dipping into cobalt or ultramarine or violet or alizarin in the dark. Believe me, after the sun goes down, they look alike.

Both paintings were done on gessoed board. The two above each had one coat of regular white acrylic gesso and one coat of clear acrylic gesso. I like the bit of tooth given by the clear acrylic gesso but I have wondered if it causes too much of the paint to be absorbed. I use a bit of odorless solvent but no medium. The result are paintings that dry relatively quickly (a day or two) and have a matte finish except where I have laid on really thick layer of paint.

I took a wonderful workshop from Marc Hanson this summer and have been using his suggested palette with the addition of Ultramarine Violet:

Titanium White, Cadmium Yellow Light, Cadmium Yellow Deep, Cadmium Red Light, Permanent Alizarin Crimson, Magenta, Light Red, Transparent Red Oxide, Ultramarine Blue Deep, Cobalt Blue, Viridian, Yellow Ochre.

This a nice palette for landscapes--especially representational ones.

Last week I went to a lecture by a representative of Gamblin Oil Colors which prompted me to drive to Wet Paint to get some new pigments. Stay tuned!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

What I Saw

My husband Eric and I just returned from a trip West to get out annual mountain fix. To accommodate all of the paraphernalia that goes with plein air painting and fly fishing, we drove. It was wonderful. We took a relaxed three days to drive to Utah and returned the same non-rushed way. In the middle he fished and I painted for a week using Park City as our base of operation. On the drive to and from Utah I did small paintings of the scenes along the road in my journal. I'll show some of them in a future post.

We had been to Utah to ski and had seen the state in the Summer but we were not prepared for the glory of Utah's Fall. Or the great fishing! The maples had turned a fluorescent red and the aspens were starting to yellow. The color is almost too much for a landscape painter to deal with. Frankly, it just doesn't look real. Painting it risks going down the road of sentimentality or cliche. As it was, most of the spots I found myself oil painting in were in the Provo River Valley near the good fishing waters of the Middle Provo River. No maples or aspen there, just the willows and cottonwoods of the river bottoms and long stretches of meadow. Fall color was obvious but not shouting at me.

I left home with about twenty panels primed with either a rusty red or a medium gray. It was good having the choice of grounds. Evening subjects turned out better on the gray panels. You can see a bit of the red ground showing on the image above. In the image below I used a gray panel. It turned out that not having to deal with the red ground helped me catch the mercury-like color of the water as it looked long after the sun had faded. In fact, I was doing this painting almost in the dark by the time I finished. The red you see around the mountains in the background are bits of the drawing I did on the panel using some thinned down alizarin crimson.

These two images were painted at the same site. The top one looks south toward giant Mt. Timpanogos, the second one, immediately above, looks north along a lower section of the Middle Provo.
I came home with thirteen paintings. I'm still trying to get to 200.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Thompson Lake Again, and More on Grounds

Here is another small painting done the second afternoon I was at Thompson Lake. It is the same scene as the last post but the view is widened to take in more of the shore. Again, it was done on panel primed with clear acrylic gesso tinted with cadmium red.

Since my aim is to do 100 oil paintings as quickly as possible I decided to use up some pieces of bookboard that are about 1/8" thick. Too thick for the books I make but perfect for doing the little paintings. Most are now primed the warm cadmium red. The red is a good ground color since many of the paintings will be landscapes that are predominantly green. Red, the complement of green makes a nice vibration in those spots that are not covered with paint.

Some panels are primed with white acrylic gesso to which I have added a bit of pumice. The white is appealing since a painting can be blocked in with the color (or its complement) of the subject. As a pastel artist I almost always use white Wallis sanded paper. My process is to block in the painting with pastel and then wet it down "melting" the pastel into the paper. You could get the same effect by doing a watercolor underpainting. At any rate, there is something familiar about looking at a fresh, white panel. And the color just seems to sparkle on it. I have been using the same process with the oils by putting down an underpainting of thinned paint.

Other panels have been primed with the clear gesso (untinted), that way I end up with the natural, gray color of the bookboard. Having a medium value gray makes it easy to establish the values in a painting since your eye is not fooled by the stark white of the ground if that is what you are starting with. I tried one painting on this gray panel today. When I get it scanned I'll post it.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Painting and Fishing on Thompson Lake

It was a beautiful day to paint. My husband, Eric, and I spent two afternoons at one of his favorite trout lakes last week. Located off the Gunflint Trail in northern Minnesota, Thompson Lake is one of those catch-and-release lakes that is small enough for me to have several good views to choose from. Today the sun was getting low and I turned my easel toward the west.

The sun was streaming in through the trees. A shaft of light was coming through the bushes near the bottom of this painting and the scene just glowed. Next time, if I try this view again in my studio, I'll jack up the yellow in the sun lit areas.

This painting was done on a panel primed with acrylic gesso tined with cadmium red. Most of the red is obliterated except for a some along the top and a tad near the bottom. It would have been better to leave a bit more. I've done about 25 paintings since my worshop in August. The practice helps!

And yes, my husband really does fish while I paint. I took this shot just before I packed up by easel. That speck near the far shore in Eric in his float tube with fly-rod in hand.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Two More Oranges

Lots of painting and drawing this week. The oils are getting easier and easier to handle. But it was not without many frustrating moments.

When things were not going well and I was getting discouraged I did two things: I went back to what I can do and that is to draw in graphite. Having some successes with a medium I know well gave me the lift I needed to try again with the oils. Second, rather than paint outside and deal with the changing light, I set the orange up in my studio where I had control over the lighting. Same subject as the last post: an orange on orange paper.

Then I had yet another go at the orange:

In each painting there is a lesson learned.
Yesterday I was back painting outside in the park across the street. Now with the added "brush miles," i.e practice, dealing with changing light went better than the last outside session.
The take-away is: keep painting. And, when all else fails, eating a little chocolate doesn't hurt. Or, to celebrate success, have a chocolate. For those who didn't remember--yesterday, September 4, was World Chocolate Day.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Julia Child and an Orange

Back in the '60s I used to watch Julia Child on TV. She made cooking look easy. Each week, in just half an hour, she would effortlessly cook up some complicated dish. After watching her one week I thought, "Hey, I'll make a Salmon Case for my new husband. It won't take too long." After all, I'd just seen Julia do it. Result: I spent hours and hours in my kitchen. The Salmon Case was edible but, with the skills I had at the time, it wasn't easy and it didn't look like Julia's.

I learned the hard way that the pros make things look easy because, after lots and lots and lots of practice, they know what they are doing.

I recently decided to learn to paint in oils. To start I signed up for a workshop with landscape artist Marc Hanson. How hard could it be to transfer my pastel painting experience to oils? All the concepts I preach in my classes about having a firm idea about what you are trying to "say" in the painting, good value structure, a strong composition, etc. were stresssed in the workshop. So far, so good. But when I got to putting the paint on the canvas I felt like I was painting with my elbow.

So, what's with the orange painting below?

It is the first in a series of back-to-basics practice pieces I am painting. Last week I did several little landscapes in black and white--just to keep things simple. Working in black and white I could concentrate on values and forget the issues that crop up when color is introduced.

But the brush handling was still tripping me up. The Hanson workshop was invaluable for the demos he did. Just watching how Marc used the paint was huge. Before the workshop I'd been practicing with the oils but, in retrospect, had been using paint much too thickly.

Ever the font of good advice Roz Stendal suggested I take a look at some YouTube videos of Duane Keiser (the orginal Painting-A-Day guy) painting. Viola! He made it look easy.

Well, like my experience with Julia, it is easier than it looks. My first mistake was to make a thin Ultramarine wash as an underpainting. I wiped off the space for the orange and mixed up the various colors in the fruit, the background and shadow. Had I let the remaining blue dry thoroughlyI would not have muddied the orange background and I would have been able to have bits of the blue show through. Other frustrations came with not being able to paint in the fabulous pinkish purple shadow. Or even get the value of the shadow directly under the orange right. It is so easy with pastel!! The above photo (taken inside) doesn't capture much except to show I did attempt a simple orange. I actually painted the orange outside in the shade. The warm orange fruit against the cool orange construction paper was really interesting. The reflected blue from the sky made that great shadow color.

I'll paint another orange tomorrow.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Traveling Light??

I have a habit of carrying some sort of art supplies with me at all times. You never know when inspiration will strike, or you see something that absolutely must be captured by a drawing or little painting. So, if these are supplies in my purse of pocket, how do I keep the weight managable?

I learned some great tricks from my friend Roz Stendahl who gave me the two little mini palettes you see below. One is for gouache, the other for watercolor. The quarter in the photo shows how tiny they really are. One of these palettes along with a Niji waterbrush, a section or two of paper towel and some pieces of watercolor paper or a tiny sketchbook and you are equiped. The gouache palette carries enough paint for many outings. In my earlier blogs you can see some of the small paintings done with these supplies.

The tiny palettes have gone a long way to replacing the larger traveling palettes below. I continue to use these larger ones when I go away for a week or two and want to have some backup. I still take the tiny palettes and use the bigger ones for when I am settled in my hotel room or am at the cabin's kitchen table. They have the advantage of having more mixing space. Part of the tiny watercolor palatte is visible on the right so you get a sense of just how small it is.

My bigger black windsor Newton "traveling" palatte just sits in one of my supply drawers. It is just too heavy.

So, what is this seeming fixation on simple, small, light weight painting gear? After all I am a pastel artist and lug around an outdoor easel and a brief case full of pastels and the various paraphanelia that goes along with them. The answer: my shock at discovering how heavy oil paint is!

I'm scheduled to take a workshop next week in Taylors Falls, Minnesota from Marc Hanson. The plan (when I signed up) was to push my pastels to another level. Marc Hanson is a wonderful pastelist. Some years ago I was stopped dead in my tracks by a pastel painting he did of three trees shrouded in fog. But, as the weeks went by I began to wonder if this was the opportunity to return to oils. Bottom line: I decided to order some oils.

So, out came the catalogues. I thought I did my research fairly well about brands and pigments but I forgot to think about what is now obvious: cadmuim paint is heavy! I knew that if I was going to give oils a try I better have plenty of paint and it seemed like a good idea at the time to order the paint in a size that gave me the best value. Voila! The 200 ml tubes were a much better deal so I orderd them. Yipes! When the boxes arrived on my doorstep I could hardly lift them.

Even loading up tubes of watercolor and gouache when I go to the cabin did not prepare me for the weight of the oils. But I had not really factored in the relative size of the tubes either--20 ml watercolor and gouache tubes versus 200ml oil tubes. Gosh, they didn't look that big in the catalogue....

"Not to worry, we will be close to our cars when we go out to paint and you are wise shopper to get the bigger tubes (I paraphrase)," Marc Hanson graciously responded to my e-mail wondering if I should be concerned about schleping the giant tubes.

The whole episode has been good for some hearty laughs and right now carrying around the pastels seems awfully easy.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Do those thumbnails!

Hayfield in July

Recently I was out scouting for good places to paint and came upon this newly mown hayfield in northern Washington County. Minnesota is gorgeous at this time of year. The day was sunny and it was later in the afternoon--perfect to begin to see the landscape defined by the shadows.

I made some quick thumbnail sketches (below). It is important to establish some abstract shapes to carry the painting and I also needed to decide how best to convey the sweep of the vista and yet zero in on the really interesting roll of the nearby fields. Thumbnails are invaluable to help establish the masses and format for a painting. Without some good "bones" it is pointless to continue. Get those established and you have a fighting chance to get a good painting.

The masses of trees on the left were so interesting and they swept nicely into the trees on the ridgeline. All together they made a nice shape that hung together as a single mass.

The sun was blistering hot by the time I finished the block in of the pastel. Maybe that is why the orange I chose for the closest part of the field seemed to be an appropriate color to use. I decided to stop and leave the piece with just a few layers of pastel. At this point I needed my umbrella and had not brought it. My wide brimmed staw hat was just not giving me enough protection. More work on the piece would have to wait for a return trip to the site or another day in the studio.

However, the sketches and block in make my favorite point: values and good shapes give you a darned good start.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Working from A Photo

Here is an example of an experiment: working from a photo. I can count on one hand the number of times I have tried painting or drawing from a photo. Let's face it--the camera distorts what is "out there." One does not get the feel of the panorama in a photo. I my mind the artist is better able to depict the three dimensionality of the place and put it into a two dimensional format better than the camera. And I have friends who can spot a painting done from a photo in an instant. I would rather work from life. But one day I decided to spend the day on composition issues and did about 50 thumbnail sketches from photos. I was more interested in the composition than anything else that day so I thought photos I'd taken would work.

Below are two photos taken in Yellowstone Park followed by six of the thumbnails and then two stages each of two paintings.


What interested me was the bright grassy meadow against the dark trees.


This second photo shows continuation of the panorama--just some visual information but nothing that "grabbed" me.

The question was where to crop the image. I ended up trying two options. First the upper left thumbnail, below, and then the thumbnail on the right.

More thumbnails

Using the first thumbnail I did a color study to see if I could work out capturing the feel of the day. Unfortunately I had not make a sketch of the scene and relied on the camera. For me a sketch has a lot more information than a photo. I have been able to develop paintings from sketches even without color notes. In a sketch your eye and hand do the editing and you get to the essence of what attracted you to the scene in the first place. And conveying that idea is what I want my painting to be about.
Below is stage 1 done on ColorFix sanded paper.

Stage 1

In stage 2, below, additional layers of pastel help push back the hills in the distance and give a little more shape to the grassy meadow.

Stage 2

The format was not working for me so I started a quick study on mat board coated with a few layers of transparent gesso. I like the texture of the brush marks and the gessoed surface allows me to wet the surface down after I lay in my first layer of pastel. You can see a bit of the underpainting where I have put down warm colors where the sun hits and cooler colors in the shady areas.
Stage 1 below.

Stage 1

Stage 2 of this study starts to tone down the intense yellows, give a bit of form to the trees and begin to soften up the distant hills.

Stage 2

The next several stages are yet to come. Time to put these studies away and return to them with fresh eyes.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Using Art Materials

Stage 1

Stage 2

In a recent pastel class I taught I gave the class several pieces of an interesting (that means I don't know what kind it actually was) brown paper that my friend Roz Stendahl had passed off to me. The color and texture was much like the brown kraft paper you find in grocery bags but with a little more tooth. The paper came from Wet Paint in St. Paul in a 9x12" tablet. Though not archival, it is fun to work on and I'm going to try to find some more.

As an experiment I tested how it pastel would work on it quickly blocking in the main masses I see of the scene outside my studio window (Stage 1, above). The next test was to see how well the paper took another layer of pastel. I gave the painting a spray with Krylon workable fixative and started in again. The pastel took remarkably well (Stage 2 above).

Another spray of fixative and I worked more on the piece as my cousin Leslie looked on. Too much talking--I forgot to take a photo of the next stages. I gave the painting to one of the students so I can't show you the result but suffice it to say, the paper kept on receiving pastel although with less enthusiasm.

The most fun of this paper was the abandon with which the students used it in class. I handed out several sheets to each one and suggested they just go-for-it. After all, it was free paper and they could experiment without the concern that they are going to "ruin" "perfectly good" art materials.

Which brings me to the point of this post: Work often and try to forget the cost of the art materials you use. Your time is your most precious commodity. Yes, art materials are often expensive, but the way to become the artist you want to be is to use those materials--the more the better. Be confident that the Universe will find a way for you and, maybe, some free art materials along the way. Works for me.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Check Out Cloquet

The Moose Lodge in Cloquet, Minnesota

Close-up of one of the paintings on the front of the Moose Lodge building.
Yesterday I found myself in Cloquet, Minnesota. Cloquet is a small town in northern Minnesota, just southwest of Duluth. It is best known for being the hometown of Jessica Lang, the home of a rather smelly paper mill and the location of the famous Frank Lloyd Wright gas station.
We usually whiz right past this town on Interstate Highway 35 on our way to the cabin in Grand Marais. No reason to stop. Yesterday, Cloquet was my destination. I needed to be there in the early afternoon to mark the death of a young cousin.
While looking for the funeral home I passed an interesting old building with a large red "Moose" sign hanging on its corner. I have heard of that fraternal organization but know nothing about it. Most often in sorts of jokes. The kind of jokes that conjure up images of the Red Green show on pubic television where men meet at Possum Lodge and celebrate the many ways to use duct-tape. But now I want to learn more. Looking at the well kept and carefully decorated building made me think that some serious work was being done by people who went there.
What caught my attention were several wonderful paintings on the front of the building. All celebrated community, families working together, camaraderie and (am I reading too much into them?) respect for the other creatures on the earth. A beautiful flowering crab blocks the view of the biggest painting but you can still see the linking of a moose antler with a human hand. I wonder what the symbolism means?
The paintings are wonderful. I suppose many would consider them folk art and dismiss them or simply see them as quaint. I see them as typical of the enthusiasm to make one's city better that you see in Minnesota. If you are near Cloquet, drive down to the main street (aptly named Cloquet Avenue) and check it out. And go two blocks west to the famous Frank Lloyd Wright gas station and fill up.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Sap Green and the Ubiquitous Shrub

A page from my journal showing drawings of buckthorn.
Here's a factoid in the category of "Who knew?" The original base for the color Sap Green is the buckthorn berry! This strange fact appeared in one of color-expert Michael Wilcox's books, The Artist's Guide to Selecting Colors.
Somehow this struck me as a rather amusing anecdote. I learned as a young watercolor painter that Sap Green was a color that was well avoided because it was fugitive. For you non-painters that means the color you painted will fade away if not disappear. Early in one's painting life the tendency is to collect lots of colors premixed in tubes in the hopes that having just the right supplies (preferably lots of them) will result in wonderful paintings. Sap Green is out there giving the siren call along with myriad other colors. Alas, it is "brush time" that gets you the results you are after. But that is a discussion for another day.
So, what is amusing about Sap Green coming from the buckthorn berry? It is because the buckthorn bush will not go away! Anyone who knows anything about buckthorn would wish it to be fugitive. Such irony.
Imported as an ornamental plant, often sold for use as hedge material, the buckthorn has become a full fledged invasive pest. The stuff is everywhere. The drawing above was done this morning right off my deck. Years of mowing, pulling, and poisoning have not kept it from our property. I have watched the beautiful oak savannah across the street from our house be invaded by buckthorn in the 25 years we have lived here. The stuff is nasty--it even has thorns. Worse, it is among the first to green up and the last to loose its leaves so you see it as a low (1 to 6 foot) green haze in the spring and fall.
According to Wilcox, Sap Green was originally made without a binder. The juice was sticky enough on its own. After it thickened it was kept in an animal bladder ready for the lucky painter. Wilcox notes that there are a few Sap Greens that are now more permanent, however he says it is, "usually a disastrous substance well worth avoiding. Such dull greens can easily be mixed from Ultramarine Blue and Cadmium Yellow Light, perhaps with a touch of violet-red." (p. 82)
I agree. Mix your own dull olive Sap Green color. And get rid of your buckthorn hedge if you have one.

Saturday, May 9, 2009


Here is a drawing I did in 2004 of a daffodil. It was back when lots of botanical drawings filled my sketchbooks.

No matter what the weather is like at this time of the year, seeing the blast of yellow made by a garden full of daffodils at least makes it seem like the sun is shinning. And today, especially after the wind came out and the clouds rolled in, the daffodils by my front door were a sunny sight.

Today dawned sunny but brisk (47 degrees Farenheit) for the annual Governor's Fishing Opener. It was a history-setting day in Minnesota because, instead of being at a northern lake, The Opener was right here, for the first time ever, in the metropolitan area of the Twin Cities. And, wonder of wonders, of all the lakes in the metro area, it was right here in my home town of White Bear Lake. What's the big deal? Fishing is big stuff in Minnesota and the walleye (our state fish!) brings in welcome tourist dollars to our fair state. Besides, it gives the Governor a chance to flee the Capitol during the end-of-the-legislative-session defugilties about the state budget.

I'm not a fisherman and will probably never be one. Instead I go along with my fly-fishing husband and paint and draw while he casts his line. The bonus for me is to go to all the gorgeous places where the fish hang out. We don't eat the trout he catches--those are carefully set back in the water. A true catch-and-release-trout man, he even kisses the first one of the season before he puts it back. True confessions here: He also fishes for my favorite fish, walleye. Those he brings home. Those we eat. (Another bonus.)

I digress from "Yellow." But the Fishing Opener reminded me that I was glad I was not on the lake today--too cold. Instead I enjoyed the daffodils.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Light on the Water

"Hungry Horse Evening," pastel, 6 1/2 " x 17 1/2."

A few weeks ago I was asked to give a talk on the subject of drawing and painting the landscape. The audience was a group of journalers who meet regularly at The Minnesota Center for Book Arts. The talk was to encourage the members who did not often (or ever) use the landscape as subject matter in their journals to give landscapes a try.

The subject of landscape painting is, appropriately, huge. But I needed to boil it down to something manageable in the time I had. After much thought about how it is that I do what I do when out plein air painting I came to the conclusion that my talk to could be summarized in one word: "Simplify."

For me it is a matter of getting down the basic masses and their values. Seems fairly simple to me now, but it wasn't always so. I think it has just taken years of looking and analyzing. And lots and lots of drawing. That said, I had to give them some other practical hints to take home.

I started to reflect on how it is that our preconceived notions sometimes get in the way of seeing. And I remembered the old problem most people have when they draw a face: the eyes are usually drawn way too high on the head resulting in a tiny forehead and a funny looking drawing that does not look like a person. We learn eventually to trust the classic diagram of a head based on actual measurements that shows the correct placement of the eyes to be smack dab in the middle of the face. The other parts of the face like the nose and mouth, distance between the eyes, placement of the ears, et cetera, really are where they are because we can measure them. Once we have measured the distance between features that usually calms down the part of our brain that is yelling at us to say "The eyes are too important. They must be higher on the face than half-way between the chin and the top of the head!"

So, I wondered, if there was an analogy that would help describe something about the landscape. Probably not since there are always some exceptions to the "rule." However there is a sort of rule-of-thumb useful for general lighting conditions from the famous artist/teacher John F. Carlson, author of Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting. First published in 1929 it is now available from Dover Publications, In it he describes his Theory of Angles.

Carlson believes that "the prime cause of the big light-and-dark relations in a landscape is the angle which such masses present to the source of light (the sky)." In a nutshell Carlson points out that there are four basic planes in a landscape: the ground or flat-lying plane, the vertical plane of the trees, the slanting plane of the hills or mountains and the arch of the sky which is the source of light. "Our landscapes' prime elements--tree, ground, mountains, etc--receive light from the sky differing degrees of light depending on their plane...." p. 33. The result is that the sky is the lightest element, the ground the second lightest, the upright trees the darkest and the mountains/hills the lighter than the trees and darker than the ground plane. (With some exceptions, for example, when the ground is covered by snow it will be lighter than the sky except for the part of the sky near the sun.)

The audience seemed to understand that. And then one of the audience asked me a question about light on the water.

Hmmm. A good part of my life has been spent staring at water or thinking about how light hits the water. In particular the great expanse of Lake Superior. I have, for hours, stared at, drawn, painted and studied the way light changes the look of the water. When she asked me how The Theory of Angles applied to water I could only think of the number of times I had seen it darker than the sky and then of the times it was lighter than the sky--or both at the same time.

(Below is a gouache painting I did one summer while looking out over Lake Superior. Here the water is darker than the sky, but the same scene on a cloudless day might look any number of different ways. In some cases the water would be the same value as the sky to the point that it is impossible to see the horizon. The painting, Hungry Horse Evening, at the beginning of today's entry, illustrates the "rule" that the ground plane--in this case the water--is darker in value than the sky.)

Untitled, gouache, 4" x 6."

As I drove home I realized having a set rule for how light behaves on water was one of those times as Carlson says, "If the student will once recognize the general and everyday value-differences in anything, he can easily see for himself any incidental departure from this common condition. He will in time despise any 'rule' concerning painting." p. 42.

So, in the case of water, look. Then trust your eyes.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

From My Sketchbook: Testing Some New Colors

Last week I talked about two new watercolors I tried: Daniel Smith's Transparent Red Oxide and Schmincke's Translucent Orange. (Note the Red Oxide is in tube form, the Translucent Orange is in pan form.) I did several experiments in the field and show some of them here. These pigments used with Cobalt Blue or Indanthrene Blue (PB 60) make some beautiful grays that are really good at capturing the array of grays the deciduous trees and bushes present at this time of the year.
Those of you who know my pastel paintings might wonder why I am trying to portray local color since my paintings are often anything but! Must be from looking at leafless trees so much of the year in Minnesota and wondering how to depict them poetically. This month, while waiting for the leaves to come out, I am simply acknowledging they are simply many, many shades of gray.

These images are from a small 4.5" x 5.5" journal made with Folio paper by Roz Stendahl. It is perfect size for carrying around on walks. I can paint in it and then hold it open while it dries and I am off to the next scene.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Testing a New Daniel Smith Watercolor

Note: Click on the images to view enlargements.

This is an interesting time of the year for a landscape artist: the leaves are not out yet so the structure of the trees is still plain to see. The snow is gone and the marsh grasses are chlorophyll-lacking shades of buff, ochre, khaki—well a zillion shades of brown. For those of you who know my work you know I am not one who is wedded to using local color for my paintings. However, the amazing varities of browns out there have caused me to try to duplicate some of the colors I see.

The solution came in a conversation with my friend Roz Stendahl (famous for, among other things, her galactic knowledge of pigments). The subject of (what else?) pigments came up. We often talk about favorite combinations of this or that pigment with a favorte: PB 60 aka Indanthrene Blue. While she tends toward a more muted result in her paintings I still need those essentail neutrals to show off the intense colors I love. We were discussing the interesting muted colors one sees outside now before the green-up, including the subtle color made by masses of red dogwood. As a suggestion for that pinky-red, Roz mentioned some of the new colors Daniel Smith has introduced, which she had just mentioned on her blog— in particular: Transparent Red Oxide. And soon we were on to the discussion of a great Schmincke color: Translucent Orange.

I made a trip to Wet Paint art supply store, bought my two new colors and the experiments began. The photos show some test spots.

In the first photo above, I have laid down some PB60 and Transparent Orange and mixed them on the paper. To the right (in the little rectangle) are the same pigments mixed on the palette. You can see one gets a much livelier result when the colors let themselves mix on the paper. The swoosh to the right of the rectangle demonstrates how Transparent Orange plays out going from wet to dry brush. I noted a shine indicative of gum arabic when the paint was applied thickly. I don't mind that but will have to keep it in mind so I don't get that effect when I don't want it.

This second photo above shows some experiments with PB 60 and Daniel Smith's transparent Red Oxide (as well as a reference stroke of Burnt Sienna gouache). Next there are two connected swooshes showing Transparent Red Oxide combined with Cobalt Blue! Fabulous grays result from both combinations. The first combo (on the far right) absolutely duplicated the gray basalt rocks found on the north shore of Lake Superior. The second is exactly right for those elusive grass colors.

Just for comparison I laid down a bit of Burnt Sienna gouache. It is a cooler, quieter brown next to the Red Oxide watercolor. (Of course we a dealing with a gouache to watercolor comparison so it is not apples to apples.) The Red Oxide has a kind of snap to it along with a very nice sedimentation. I love the color and will try replacing my Burnt Sienna with it in my watercolor palette. My experiments with the Red Oxide resulted in a bit less of the pinky Pipestone type brown that Roz found but it is a lovely color nonetheless. (She only had a dried paint spot to work from and I was using fresh tube color—that may be part of the difference.)

Next week I will show you some of the little landscape sketches I've done with the new colors. For now I am going outside! 70 degree weather in Minnesota is too good to miss after a long winter.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Easter Eggs

It took until last week but I finally got my Easter eggs out. They spend most of the year in the basement swathed in layers of tissue paper. I always hold my breath until I get them all out of their boxes hoping that the ones I consider really special are still intact.

Over the years we have dyed eggs at our house using a variety of methods. Naturally some are simply colored from the drug store tablets of dye, but those don't get the special treatment like the ones hand-painted with acrylics or watercolor or dyed using onion skins or pieces of silk fabric.

The three you see in the photo are some that my mother's sister, Eleanor, painted many years ago. These are the eggs that I hope survive from Easter to Easter. The largest is a goose egg. Norie meticulously painted it with a landscape and a fellow paddling a canoe in what looks like pretty rough water. On this large egg the magic of the forest and rocks along the shore are rendered with that sort of realism that only a true artist can capture. To the left is a quieter scene: a swan swiming in a more placid lake. Above them is my favorite: a snow scene with a group of children skating on a frozen pond. Not that one necessarily wants to be reminded of snow at Easter time, but, every few years there is snow outside the window on the day the bunny delivers his chocolate eggs. If there isn't any snow, we can all be glad it is gone.

Norie painted these eggs using model paint and tiny, tiny brushes. They were sealed with a satin varnish after the egg inside dried out. Like the eggs that I paint or dye, they were hard-boiled and then decorated. Gone are the days that I blew the contents out of the egg shell. The resulting shell is just too weak to stand up to being stored year after year. Over the months the cooked egg inside the shell dries out and becomes like a marble that rolls around inside the shell. A word of caution about painting hardboiled eggs with acrylic or something else that will seal off the shell of the egg and prevent the moisture from evaporating from inside the egg: either let the hardboiled egg dry out before you paint it or paint it with a medium that will allow air to pass through the shell until the egg dries out. Some people just paint the raw egg without boiling the egg first. If anyone has experience doing this, tell me how it worked out. I fear an unpleasant mess.

Happy Spring!