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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.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

MITCHELL ALBALA Blog - and Matt Smith on Plein Air




If suspect that most of us subscribe to Mitchell Albala's blog and have purchased his book: Landscape Painting: Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice. If not, I recommend them both.

But I mention this becuase of a recent post that references an article Matt Smith did for Plein Air Magazine a few years ago.  I thought it interesting - particularly the last paragraph. 

PS - why does Blogger sometimes put in these darn background changes and how do you get rid of them??????

Monday, 17 September 2012

Post Workshop Blues



A good workshop should shake the student up with challenging ideas and skills.  I enjoy spending time with a skilled instructor and a group of like-minded “students” as much as anything I do.  But following, particularly the best workshops, I often find the stimulation to be over-stimulation - and it plays hard with my head for a good while.

 That happened with my recent workshops-  information overload – pulling my head in different artistic directions. Six days of intensive portrait/ figurative studies and two  plein air instructors – each challenging me with new skills. In the week following the workshops I have been RVing  our way back to Canada 6 to 8 hours a day.  While driving my mind has little to do but work at high intensity thinking of all the new skills  I should be trying and frustrated by not finding much time to paint- and I badly NEED to paint following workshops to play with the new ideas – for fear I will loose them and my effort and investment will have been wasted.

 In the past these ‘post workshop blues”  would often last for weeks.  During that time it was like I had forgotten how to paint and I would get quite down and angry with myself.  My wife would have enough of my self-pity and tell me to get  to the studio and work my way out of it. And that’s what it took – to work long and hard, sometimes for weeks, and I would finally work my way out of it and start feeling good again.

I share this because I thought others might experience the same feeling lost and confused as I did and not be sure just what is happening. In  my early years these down times really bothered me until I went through and recovered from enough of them that I knew they were the normal result of the learning process and being challenged by new ideas. So you need to know that these too will pass – its part of the journey.

The last three  days we stopped travelling and stayed at one of our favourite places – Pacific City on the Oregon Coast. For two days I painted my brains out – 14 small pieces in the two days – nothing special but  each trying something different that I was exposed to from these recent workshops. Nothing very good resulted other than the effort and the learning and I feel SO much better.  I can’t wait now to get back home to Comox and my studio and really put some of the ideas to the test.

So if, like me, you feel frustrated and even fearful when new ideas seem beyond you, trust your self, put brush to canvas and work work work.  My guess is you will work your way through it and come out better for it.

Premixing and placing spots of colour testing for relationships



Laying in underpainting then building thick with palette knife

Tight sketch using charcoal over underpainting

Finish using palette knife - thick 

Drawing scene and figures using paint and sight size



Friday, 14 September 2012

Weekend with the Masters - Ken Auster Workshop



I have admired the work of Ken Auster since I  became aware of him and visited his studio in Laguna Beach in 2007. His confident, bold abstractions – particularly of  cityscapes and people - put him on my list of an artist to spend time with. I bought his DVD and liked his philosophy of art and painting.  I got the chance with Weekend with the Masters.

Not all good artists are good teachers. Ken quickly proved to be both.

Day One - Cityscapes

Ken spent the first hour discussing his philosophy of art and of learning to paint. It is mostly in his DVD – but was well worth listening to. Ken describes the painting process as moving from INTELECT to PASSION and back to INTELLECT.  It is a nice way of saying – begin with thought and planning, pick a subject that will work, do what you have to do to increase your odds of success and begin with a good sketch from which to work. Then let go – let the passion to paint kick in – paint with the intuitive skill you have learned. Once the  canvas is covered – hopefully correct values and close to correct colours- switch back to intellect – refine your composition, strengthen the focal point etc etc.   A very helpful description, particularly for those new to plein air, and he describes it well and with enthusiasm.

Ken works with a limited palette – a yellow, ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson and carbon black. He often adds cad red light.  He uses a Soltek and covers the palette with freezer paper . His brushes are old , well used and never-cleaned hogs hairs – in fact he never seems to clean anything.

Demo 1.  Ken chose a cityscape and identified his center of interest – a palm tree.  He marked the spot for the palm then built his composition around it. Everything he now does is to build interest and context for that center of interest. Ken uses the site-size method for cityscapes – he measures what he sees and applies it to the canvas to insure reasonable accuracy.  ( I wondered how much he would benefit from Joe McGurl’s view finder approach) . He did the rough lay-in using back ( first artist I have seen use back to develop the sketch – he uses it because it neutralizes colours  on top – moving towards gray) .

Ken using sight size and black to lay in  plan 


 An other  Austerism I liked is to group common elements in the painting as “animals” – for example,  all trees are one “animal” – so he makes a pile of tree colour (the paint for the “animal” is its “DNA”) that is the average colour for that “animal” – then warms for the forward trees and cools and lightens, blues and grays for the distant trees – a neat and effective way of describing and simplifying.  Same with the high rise buildings – are all one animal – the closer are more saturated and warmer and the distant are cooled and lighted – all from the pile of building grays ( building DNA).
Painting the tree " animals"

Mixing the " DNA" for the tree animals

establishing the basic " DNA" for the grasses


Canvas is covered - now back to intellect and build the center of interest 


Thick and juicy detail at center of interest


Thick and juicy paintings and thick and juicy equipment

Ken uses another analogy – the spider and spider web. The spider is the center of interest and the web is tighter near the center then becomes less detailed as it moves away. In his work Ken greatly increases detail close to the center of interest and reduce it as it moves away.
Ken finished the demos moving to small brushes and putting detail in and close to the centre of interest.

His paint is thick and juicy and works to create contour and abstract interest.
One of Ken’s “absolute truths” is that most failed paintings are made because of selection of a bad subject or view point – often picking a “battle you cannot win”. 

The second demo Ken showed how to build  people INTO ( a part of)  the painting –not to appear pasted on. He did a quick block-in from a photo – using black again. Then started to fill in colours holding values as needed. He then cut around the figures and cars – negative space painting- until the shapes were clear – then placed colours while again nicely holding the values.
Working from a city scape photo with people and cars




Figures - colours laid over black sketch and then carved from background

Kens sketch and photo reference
Ken then demonstrated his simplification of grouping people.








Ken Auster Day 2. Beach Day Plein Air

Ken repeated much of his philosophy on painting and learning to paint – useful enough to repeat.

Ken generally paints foreground to back ground – placing areas and spots of colour and carving using negative space painting. That is my approach with acrylic and I try the same with oils but often end up deep to my knees in paint – so helpful to see his approach of clearly laying in spots of colour beside one another with little overlap.

He stresses that to make a 3 dimensional illusion work on a 2 dimensional surface one needs to be skilled at creating atmosphere, form and perspective – studying the fundamentals.
He also stresses  that one needs to paint what they know – not just what they see – and use what you see as the reference using what you know (fundamental knowledge ) to make the illusion interesting and read.

His first demo was of a group of palm trees. A good example of creating form through value then adding details

Sketch of palm trees - initial DNA and  DNA cooled as trees move  back 


Carves out tree from background 

Ken did a demo of people on the beach.  He carved the people, as yesterday, from a loose sketch and used colour and value to create believable shape and form.





Ken does not agree with planning your subject by creating thumbnail sketches to work out your composition first.  I strongly disagree on that point as I believe it is not helpful to artists new to plein air to avoid this step. Jennifer McChristian was conducting a workshop near ours and it was fun to remember how strong she was on establishing a value plan through thumbnails – I had spent a week with Jennifer a few years prior and she does a great job of emphasizing advanced planning ( as does Ken but using a different approach).


Jennifer McChristian student working from value plan - something I like and recommend


A very good two days and I highly recommend a Ken Auster workshop. 

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