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GO TO YOUR ROOM ! I borrowed this phrase from the recently deceased Canadian painter Robert Genn who believed that there is only so much we can learn about how to paint from the many fine instructors and resources available today. The true learning comes from going off on our own and doing it - Go to your room!

I have had the good fortune to take instruction from outstanding artists in Canada and the USA. I am now focusing on my own development ( Going to MY room!) and sharing what I have learned and continue to learn. I created this blog primarily for those attending my workshops to keep in touch and to further share as we grow together. If others are interested in following that would be great.

Enjoy the journey.

Friday, 14 September 2012

Weekend with the Masters - Joe McGurl Workshop



Joe McGurl is a highly regarded East Coast artist ( Cape Cod). His work is representational. His skill is outstanding and his landscape compositions are very strong.  I selected his workshop because I feel I overdo my landscape simplification (abstraction)  and believe it to be good practice to tighten up and improve my accuracy of observation and recording periodically – sort of a checks and balances thing. 

Joe uses his plein air sketches to accurately record information that he can take back to the studio to build his large studio pieces with. He does not work from photos – he uses his plein air sketches and his imagination ( years of experience) to build his larger pieces. That is quite unusual – he says absolutely no photo references.

So his plein air pieces are tight and try to hold to the scene as it is. He does not vary from what he sees – unlike most of us who take or leave as needed to make a plein air composition stronger – he does that back in the studio using the sketch as reference. So I thought this would be good for me to see.

Joe uses sight-size to help him record accurately.  To do so he sets a view finder the size of his panel next to the panel and carefully positions it to view the best the scene has to offer. Closing one eye and holding his position he then sketches in the large shapes according to what he sees through the viewfinder. He used acrylic burnt umber and white to create a value sketch – and works HARD to put down  his values as he sees them. He then applies colour.  He generally finishes one area at a time – to capture, for example, the sea in this case, before the light changes.

To make sight-size work the viewfinder and canvas/panel need to be at eye level. That is easiest with a plein air  set up that separates the canvas from the palette – like the Soltek or the Art Box that I have chosen to work.


The set up is home made - but similar to the ArtBox I use

Viewfinder same size as panel 

Sketch done with acrylic burnt umber - using brush to measure



Establishes value shapes with acrylic  umber then  adds oil colours






Joe uses a full palette of colours – does not like working with a limited palette-  and uses a John Pike watercolour palette with oil colours in each section.

Joe also emphasizes “ colour matching” – comparing the canvas with the real colours seen in the viewfinder – close side by side.

Joe had us work with our canvas in the sun – same as the view we were painting - to more accurately compare colours and values. I have never painted with the panel, palette and the subject positioned in the sun – and this was San Diego at almost 40C – so he works with his sunglasses on. Something I would not have considered doing – but it worked and is an approach I will be trying more.  He does not like to paint looking into the sun – with the panel in shadow.

(As an aside, I have not worked with the sun on my palette or pane previously because I most often work in acrylic which would  dry too quickly. Following the workshop, I made a few more sketches this way and found that the final product was often too dark (because it was judged during painting with the sun on it) so one need to be able to adjust.)
My set up - the James Coulter Art Box

Sight size - using 8x10 cardboard - my view

I found  Joe’s approach challenging - my eyes kept wandering outside the viewfinder looking for interesting colours in the water and sky to include. It would take some practice for me to learn to work " inside the box".  Still it would probably be very helpful for me  when accuracy is needed ( correct relative size of things) such as cityscapes, harbour scenes etc. I used card board cut out 8x10 viewfinder for my sketches. I plan to make a 6x8, 8x10 and 9x12 of plywood when I return home.  I don’t know how often I will use them, but am sure they will be good to add to the tool box.

Joe’s demo was excellent – his finished piece an accurate representation of what we saw. He is a good instructor and a very pleasant fellow to spend time with. It would be special to do a studio workshop with him focusing on accuracy and  detail. 

Jennifer McChristian doing a demo in her workshop near us



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