Small World

Happy Isles Bridge Painting
My progress on my Happy Isles Bridge demonstration painting during our Monday outing.

I recently returned from a week painting in Yosemite. I live just about 20 minutes from the gates of this national park, so it’s not unusual to find me up there painting, but this week was different.

A few years ago I began volunteering a week annually, to take Yosemite visitors out to paint the unbelievable sites found there, on behalf of the Yosemite Conservancy. For those of you who don’t know, the Yosemite Conservancy is a non-profit organization, supported completely by donations. It uses the funds, collected through those donations, to issue large grants to Yosemite National Park to restore, improve or preserve. They recently granted Yosemite $20 million of the total $40 million required to carry out the Mariposa Grove project. Past donations have restored the facilities surrounding Lower Yosemite Falls and enabled electronic tracking of Yosemite bears. They’ve just begun a National Park partnership to give a new face to the facilities surrounding Bridal Veil Falls.

I donate MY time, so the small fee the Conservancy charges for participation in my outings ($30) goes into their kitty. It’s a wonderful place to spend a week painting with others and each day I meet new and interesting people, from all over the world.

Mordack's Dragon Statue Image
Sierra Online’s “King’s Quest V,” entering Mordack’s Castle.

On day one, Monday, we didn’t stray far from the Art Center in Happy Isles and I took a group of 6 out to paint the stone bridge nearby. Because it was nearby, we walked to the location, getting to know each other as we traveled (we more frequently utilize the park shuttles to deliver us to our destinations).


Porn Corp Image
Sierra Online’s “Leisure Suit Larry 5.”

One of the pleasures of my annual volunteer work is learning a bit about each individual taking the class. Often times, I’ll find at least one visitor with whom I have something in common. So was the case this day. The husband in one of the two married couples in the group, was involved in software development, a programmer. As it so happens, I spent much of my former commercial art career as a Chief Creative Officer for video game companies. My duty was to determine what games we developed, then guide teams on each product through the complete development process.

EcoQuest Image
Sierra Online’s, “EcoQuest.”

At nine years of age, this particular individual had played many of the games I developed, early in my game career, for Sierra Online. Sierra, a pioneer in video gaming, was located in the town of Oakhurst, CA, in the Sierra foothills and was my introduction to the area. My fellow painter this day was not unique in having played one of the games I’d developed, many of the younger video game team members I managed in the later part of  my career, had played these early Sierra produced games, when they were kids.

Small world!


Work the Entire Canvas

Miner's Camp Finished Painting
“Miner’s Camp,” 18″ x 36″ oil on canvas © 2014 Trowzers Akimbo

Whether you’re painting a portrait, still life, landscape or anything else, it’s important to work the entire canvas. Too often I see painters taking one area of interest to them all the way to finish, before working the rest of the canvas. To be blunt, that really isn’t PAINTING, it’s rendering.

Miner's Camp Turp Wash
Turpentine wash darks underpainting

Painting is playing one area of your canvas against the other, letting it tell you what elements in the composition need to be darker or lighter, warmer or cooler, contain more detail, be handled more loosely, etc.

Juxtaposition is a fickle mistress. You work diligently on an isolated area until you’ve adjusted the value of a particular dark to perfection, only to have your hard work negated, once you stroke in the surrounding values, which of course, changes everything. The flesh tones you’ve achieved on the live model you’re painting down the center of your, otherwise, pristine white canvas are the best you’ve ever painted, but when you add the cool background surrounding her, she’s suddenly suffering from a severe sunburn.

Miner's Camp Darks
The darks are in and some of the mid-tones

This is due to the dynamic range, or selected range of values from light to dark or colors from warm to cool,  in your subject. No given subject contains all values or all colors in the spectrum. Each subject encompasses a subset of the entire spectrum. A color or value is right only in comparison to the other colors and values in the particular dynamic range of your subject. That dark gray is perfect sitting next to the pale yellow of the dress in your painting, but choose a different color/value for the dress, say a darker yellow ochre and now the gray is too light. Every color or value is effected by the colors or values surrounding it. This is why a color may look perfect isolated on your mixing palette, but looks wrong when applied to your, in progress, painting.

When you develop the entire canvas, working dark to light, you avoid this problem. Utilizing this approach, colors/values are chosen based on the whole of your painting.

Miner's Camp Lights
With darks & mid-tones in, begin to add lights & details

You also want to avoid developing detail in any isolated area of your canvas, while you ignore the rest. I like to compare the developing of detail on a canvas to a sculptor working a block of marble. The sculptor begins with large chisels, knocking off gross chunks of the block, roughing out the overall shape of her subject. Then, slowly working towards a more refined finish, she employs smaller and smaller tools, as she goes.

I approach painting the same way. In the beginning, utilizing large brushes, broad strokes across the entire canvas, roughing in the masses, then slowly refining the whole, as I progress, relying on smaller and smaller brushes, as I go. This approach makes clear to me, the areas screaming for detail and those that can left in rougher states. You want more detail in the areas of focus in your work, less everywhere else.

I’ve found this historically time-tested, all encompassing approach to be the most efficient, consistently achieving the best results. If you’re not already working this way, give it a shot. It’s just paint, what have you got to lose!

Group Painting in Yosemite

Photo of Me with Students
Me (in straw hat) instructing students from my paintbox, © 2016 Kerby C. Smith (detail)

Time is quickly approaching, when I’ll be taking visitors to Yosemite out to paint plein air in the Park, for the Yosemite Conservancy. We’ll be painting with acrylics this year from September 10th – 15th (oil paints are not allowed in Yosemite).

We begin each morning at 10am and paint until 2pm and the Park only charges visitors $20 per day (I volunteer my time). You’ll never find a more economical opportunity to receive painting lessons and you’ll be doing so in one of the most breathtaking environments on the planet. Your fee supports an organization working to keep Yosemite the natural wonder it is, now and for future generations.

I live in the Sierras near Yosemite and  travel up to the Park solo or with friends to paint in the open air, often, but this week each year allows me the unique opportunity to meet painting and natural wonder enthusiasts from around the globe. The groups during this week are generally intimate, just 5 to 10 individuals, which allows me to offer personal attention to all participants.

Even if you’ve visited Yosemite before, PAINTING this natural wonder is a very different, Zen like, experience. Remaining in one location, examining one phenomenal vista over multiple hours, your mind clears, your breathing slows, vision, hearing and sense of smell sharpen. You no longer seek out the Park, the Park approaches to you! The creaking, cracking, chirping, sloshing rushing of the wilderness, rises in your ears. Colors you never noticed were there become your focus. Local forest inhabitants show themselves, as you become a fixture in their environment.

The experience is well worth your time. Interested in joining me? Learn more on the Yosemite Conservancy website.

Hope you can join us!

Pressure Under Fire

Group Painting Photo
Photo (detail) © 2018 Kerby Smith

Working alone in your studio and among others are very different experiences from one another. When working in a group, it’s natural to experience increased tension or stress. You might think you’re the only one susceptible to this condition, but I’ve been painting most of my life, often  before others in group situations or when giving a demo and I’ll admit, it’s just not the same as painting alone in my studio. I may not feel the increased level of stress, while I’m painting in public, but when the activity is over and I return to my studio, I’m exhausted. I can paint 8 or 12 hours in my studio and never feel as tired as I do when a paint alongside others or give a demo for 2 or 3 hours. The level of stress deceases with experience, but I don’t believe it ever goes away.

This stress is there, I believe, because we all want to perform well before our peers. We want to appear accomplished. There’s that illogical nightmare running deep within us all…the fear of looking foolish…of finding ourselves in a public place in our underwear.

No matter what your level of accomplishment, you want to continue learning, pushing forward, always striving to become a better creator. There’s always more to know. Painting with others is a wonderful opportunity to learn, to pick up tips from others, to see how SHE does it, but there’s a significant pitfall of which to always remain watchful.

Because there’s pressure to perform well, it’s very easy to slip into a comfort zone, to rely on solutions with which you’re very comfortable, that have come through for you time and again. When you do this, you stop “seeing” what is before you and instead deliver your subject through a pre-conceived, pre-resolved approach that’s been successful for you in the past. You substitute a previous solution for an eye, for example, that you’ve been pleased with many times before, instead of communicating the eyes of the subject before you.

Don’t do it!

We always want to view our subject as if we’ve never seen anything of its kind before. Great art is less about skill with brush or chisel and more about “seeing” clearly what is before us.

If we can learn not to succumb to ego and remain focused on subject, painting with others can be a highly rewarding, educational experience.

Painting Digital

Preston Sullivan Portrait

While oil paint has to be my favorite overall medium (I relish its malleable qualities) I also enjoy working with other creative materials: watercolor, pastels, acrylics and the newest creative medium in my paintbox, digital.

Having spent much of my commercial career as a chief creative office in the video game industry, digital creative tools aren’t at all new to me. I first began creating digital images on a Commodore 64 desktop computer in the middle 80s by programming sprites in Commodore Basic. Prior to this, as an animation director, I was directing the creation of digital imagery, as part of television commercials, through a technician on high end online video paintbox systems, like the Quantel and DiVinci systems.

But I didn’t think of using any of the available digital art tools for fine art until Apple’s iPad showed up on the scene in 2010. Once I got a hold of my first tablet and a copy of the Brushes app I began fine are experiments.

Farmer Sketch
Layout sketch created on the iPad using Sketchbook Pro.

When I frequented my first Yosemite Western Artists live model session in 2013, I’d never before visited their historic Gertrude Schoolhouse headquarters and had no idea what facilities were available to artists there. So, I showed up with nothing more than my iPad, figuring I could stand and create on it, no matter what the limit of space or facilities. Working among other artists using traditional mediums, my goal was to use my digital tools (this time working in the

Soil Tiller Image
Final digital iPad portrait.

SketchBook Pro app) to create a portrait following a procedure similar to the one I employed with oils: layout drawing, monochrome wash underpainting, final development of the entire canvas with opaque color, working dark to light.

I’ve found I often get a bizarre, if not hostile reaction to my digital paintings. “It’s just Photoshopped,” is a common statement. While on face value this comment would not appear to be any kind of judgement of the work, I’ve realized, over time, that the critic is implying that I simply uploaded a photo into Photoshop and used one of the many available art style filters to make it look like a painting. While using those filters is a fun exercise and can deliver amazing results, MY goal is simply to use digital tools as another painting medium, not to cleverly process photographs I’ve taken.

Preston 01 Image
Underpainting from live model.

To squelch those doubters who don’t believe digital art can also mean original art, here are images of one of my digital paintings in different stages of development.

preston photo
My reference photo of the model.

Working on my iPad in the Sketchbook Pro app, I began with a drawing and underpainting from the live model, during one of Yosemite Western Artist Friday live model sessions. While there I took a reference photo to work from later, back in my studio, after the model session was over.

Preston 02 Image
Forms more defined, I realized his eyes were too low and moved them up.

Once I had more of the forms defined, I realized his eyes were too low, that he had too much forehead. This type of problem often goes unnoticed in the drawing and under painting stage, only showing up when the forms are more defined through the addition of proper opaque values and color. One of the great advantages of digital painting is the ability it offers the artist to easily edit their paintings at any stage of development. To correct the eyes, I simply selected them with the selection tool, copied and pasted them in their proper location and touched them up to fit with the surrounding area.

Digital tablets add amazing portability to artists. You carry a full art studio along with you in one of these devices, an unbelievable convenience when traveling.

Working digitally isn’t all advantages, though. A huge down-side is that it’s difficult to add refinement while viewing the entire painting. Instead I end up zooming into the area I’m working and then back out to see the results in relation to the whole. This need to constantly zoom in and out of your image, while you work, is a true annoyance. With analog painting using my long-handled brushes and maul stick, I refine while taking in the whole…a much nicer way to work.

The biggest disadvantage of digital painting is that your end result isn’t anything you can physically hold in your hands or hang on a wall. For that, you have to print the image. Acceptable quality prints require that your image be created at high resolution, at least 300ppi at the actual size you’re printing. This isn’t a problem, when working in Photoshop on a desktop computer, but it’s much more convenient to work on a portable tablet you can take to a model or plein air session. So far, most tablet art applications don’t support larger images at 300ppi, limiting your printed output to something like 8″ x 10.” The only current exception I’m aware of is the ArtRage App, which actually creates a resolution independent file of your work. While your image saving options are limited to the same small print size within the tablet application, ArtRage boasts that parring the tablet version with their $90 desktop version of application allows you to print your image as large as you’d like, at the necessary 300ppi. I don’t yet have a copy of the ArtRage desktop application, so haven’t been able to see if it truly works. I’ve also heard rumors of applications that do a great job of enlarging the small files for printing, without degrading the quality of the image, but haven’t yet tried any of these out, either.

If you haven’t given digital painting a go and have access to a desktop computer or tablet, you owe it to yourself to try it on for size!



Artist Diaries

Hockney Interview Image

First person insights on the hearts and minds of famous artists of the past are rare.

Thanks to his prolific letter writing (almost daily) to his brother, Theo, we know more about Vincent Van Gogh than any other artist throughout history. We know about his struggles with poverty and sanity. We’re privy to his hopes and dreams. We learn of his relationships with other artists and neighbors, but most importantly we have a front row seat of his creative process, on a granular level: his goals, failures, successes, and his approach to painting on a technical level. Marvelous…if you haven’t read his letters, do so…what a treat to share the journey with this troubled creative genius.

Yellow House PaintingBe warned, I initially walked away not liking Vincent as a person very much: the constant whining and complaining, his continuous begging for more funds from his younger brother, but I’ve since learned of the details of his arrangement with Theo. The paintings Vincent created belonged to Theo…Vincent shipped them off to his brother, in bundles, once they were dry enough to travel and they were to remain Theo’s, until Vincent could return the funds he’d borrowed to support his creative efforts, in full.

Young Hockney ImageOver the weekend, I viewed artist interviews on YouTube, here and there, whenever I took breaks to cool down and rehydrate during my brush clearing efforts (it’s that time of year again, up here in the Sierras). I ended up viewing a lot of David Hockney interviews and discovered how many with this artist were up there.

Hockney Middle Aged PhotoMr. Hockney is a favorite of mine, he was recognized and successful at an early age. He’s thoughtful, loquacious and, at age 81, has accumulated quite a catalog of video interviews. The sessions run the gamut of his career, he was interviewed at the beginning, in his 20’s and 30’s, across the decades, right up to the present.

Hockney Today PhotoI was struck by the similarity of this collection and Van Gogh’s letters. The videos document David Hockney’s thoughts, opinions, working methods, etc., across his career, who he was at the beginning, his evolution over the years and who he is now.

What a gift to artists! Hockney isn’t alone. Through catalogs like YouTube, you can gain incite into the workings of all the major artists of our times.

Great Time to Paint!

Bedroom in Arles Image
Vincent Van Gogh, “Bedroom in Arles.”

We’ve all dreamed of being a painter during one of the great historical art movements: Impressionism, Post Impressionism,  Romanticism, Modernism, even the Renaissance. What would it have been like to have been a guest at the Medici estate during the Italian Renaissance, to sit around a table sharing conversation over a glass of absinthe with the likes of Manet, Pissarro, Renoir, Monet and Degas or to have attended a party in Gertrude Stein’s Paris apartment, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Picasso and Matisse?

As artists working in the 21st Century we’ve come to take for granted all the art conveniences we avail ourselves of each day. Painters of the past didn’t have it as good!

Take, for example, our box of paints. Not only are they highly portable (up until the middle 19th century they were traditionally stored in ram’s bladders), but the variety of available colors and the pigment’s permanence makes this a great time to be an artist.

Classic Palette Graphic
The mineral color palette of the Classic painting period, © 2018 Gamblin Artists Oil Colors.

Take a look at the mineral color palette to which artists of the Classic period (through the first half of the 19th Century) were limited (thanks to Gamblin Artists Oil Color for all these palette graphics).



Impressionist Palette Graphic
Colors added to the Impressionists palette, © 2018 Gamblin Artists Oil Colors.

Driven by a need for pigments in commercial industry,  the Industrial Revolution developed abilities to fuse inorganic materials, such as cadmium, cobalt, and chromium together at high heat, greatly widening the spectrum of available colors for artist. The permanence of these new highly intense colors was not always great. Here’s a comment from Vincent Van Gogh about the problem, in one of his letters to his brother Theo, “All the colours that Impressionism has made fashionable are unstable. […] all the more reason boldly to use them too raw, time will only soften them too much.”*

20th Century Palette GraphicOrganic chemistry, in the 20th Century brought  new pigments into existence (Hansa Yellow, Phthalo Blues and Greens, Napthol and Perylene Reds, Quinaquidones, Dioxazine Violet, Hue and Permanent versions). The new colors may look similar to those from the industrial revolution, but many boast better permanence and the new colors retain their chroma when changed in value, through mixing with white or other colors, which is not the case with older ones, they lose chroma as their value is changed.

While we’re on the subject of new colors and color substitutes, have you ever wondered what the descriptive “Hue” meant on a tube of paint, such as in Cerulean Blue Hue? The Hue versions are generally much less expensive than the original. This is because Hue versions have substituted multiple, often less expensive pigments to simulate the color, rather than using the traditional pigment. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as often the Hue version will use more permanent or less toxic pigments in this simulation. Read the available information about the color, understand the details before you buy.

All things considered, we’re living in a great time to be a painter!

* This emphasizes the importance, today, of understanding the permanence of the pigments you’re using. That information is usually available on painting manufacturer’s websites, is available behind the “pigment info” tab accessed by clicking the paint color identifying number on the Dick Blick website and if all else fails, at the end of a Google search. More stable substitutes are available today for many of the less permanent colors, such as Alizarin Crimson Permanent in place of Alizarin Crimson.

Turning Pollution to Paint

Reclaimed Earth Violet Photo

Through Gamblin Artists Colors I learned of a fascinating new project they’re involved in with artist and activist John Sabraw and Ohio State University. I found out about this new project in the Gamblin newsletter. I’ve been transitioning to Gamblin oil paints over the last few years, since I learned of all they’re doing to make painting materials safer for the artist and the environment.

If you’re unfamiliar with Gamblin, I suggest you become familiar with them. You can visit their website at, but here’s a brief overview of their founder, Robert Gamblin and his company.

Mr. Gamblin began his career as a pigment creator, working for the Smithsonian. He’d been hired to recreate paints for the organization’s art restorers that matched the formulas of the pigments originally used on the works they were bringing back to life. This led to a thorough investigation of the makeup of artist colors through history. I’m guessing he was shocked by the toxic ingredients of many of these historical pigments and surprised by the fact that today’s modern artists colors weren’t all that much better.

At any rate, after his time with the Smithsonian he decided to start a company to make artist’s materials and, in turn, their studios a safer place. Gamblin Artist Colors has accomplished much towards this goal with many of THEIR versions of traditional colors free enough of toxins to be packaged without the traditional warning labels. Their turpentine substitute, Gamsol, is virtually orderless and much less toxic than Turpenoid. They’ve developed a line of solvent free painting mediums and to help keep toxic pigments out of the landfills, they suck escaping pigment dust from the air during the paint making process, turn it into paint and give it away free, as Torrit Grey, a grey made up of all the colors of the rainbow (a bit different with each batch).

Now Gamblin is working on a Kickstarter project with John Sabraw and Ohio State, where they’ll take water polluted by toxic coal mine drainage, which kills aquatic life in streams and waterways worldwide (1,300 miles of these polluted waterways in Ohio alone), remove the toxins from the water, neutralize it and turn the product into pigments and paints. With the sulphuric acid and heavy metals removed  the clean water is returned to its original location where it can now support aquatic life.

During their process the captured heavy metals are reduced to iron oxides. This now non-toxic orange colored iron oxide is set aside to be dried and ground for use as a pigment. They’ve found if they heat the pigment 1000 degrees, it becomes a deep red. Heat it 2000 degrees and it become a beautiful red-violet. It’s this red-violet that Gamblin is turning into a limited edition artist oil color they’ve named, Reclaimed Earth Violet.

With our federal government currently relaxing pollution regulations for coal miners to reanimate this dying industry, this project seems well timed!


Left to the Village Image
“Left to the Village,” by Trowzers Akimbo, rejected by the 2016 Yosemite Renaissance exhibit/competition

First, let me apologize for my lack of new posts over the last two weeks. I’d received two new commissions for mural paintings from two different children’s hospitals a few day apart from each other and they required me to create 4 designs in 16 days. This, along with the 3 workshops I’ve been teaching each week, made it impossible for me to put together new posts.

Anyway, now that I’m writing again I wanted to talk about rejection. It seems to be going around lately! I recently ran into an artist friend, at an opening, who told me her submission had been rejected from a recent exhibit/competition. This from one of the most sought after, financially successful artists I know.

Two days later, at a local art organization holiday party, two more artist friends presented their work, prefacing with the fact the pieces had been rejected by recent shows. This prompted me to ask all present (about 50 artists) to raise their hands if they’d ever been rejected from an exhibit or competition. Every hand in the place shot up!

These bold admissions illustrate an important point for all artists, beginning or well established, to remember. Rejection is just a part of being an artist and rarely has anything to do with the piece of art being rejected. Instead, it has everything to do with the judges making the selection: their personal tastes or bias, their education, life experience, relationships, mood, even what they had for breakfast and their drive to work that morning. Different judges or a different day, completely different result.

Vincent Van Gogh only sold a single painting, during his lifetime.They hated his stuff! The Impressionist proudly chose their art movement’s name from a “catty” art critic, rejecting their work in whole as simply impressions of paintings, in a newspaper review he’d written.

All artists, big and small, are faced with rejection of their work. It goes with the territory. It signifies nothing. Don’t let it discourage you!

Brush with the Infamous

Hope Town Photo

A recent announcement in the news reminded me of an incident I hadn’t pondered in a very long time. I apologize for straying from my discussions of art in this post, but couldn’t resist sharing this experience, once it came to mind.

Back when I was in art school, my father, brothers and I were into off-road motorcycle riding and motocross racing. My father was seriously involved in a motorcycle club which shared these interests, the Dirt Diggers. In fact he eventually became president of this organization.

Hope Town Race ImageThe Dirt Diggers biggest event of the year was to hold a pretty famous motocross race at Hope Town, a collection of old movie sets, then owned by Bob Hope, located in the Santa Susana Mountains of California. The course took participants along a serpentine route which included travel down many old western town streets. We’d all travel out to Santa Susana, the weekend before the race, to grade the course with tractors, set up hay bales in corners, string flags, generally, build the track. A bonus was that after all the work was complete, we could start our bikes up and give it a few test runs.

While we were running the course, one of my younger brothers thought he’d improve the track by adding a side trip down a short unpaved road to the dirt front yard of an old run-down ranch house. There we could plant one foot on the ground, cross our handlebars, crank the throttle, perform a tight doughnut turn (throwing a rooster tail of soft dirt into the air with our back tires) and head back onto the rest of the course.

Biker PhotoA few trips down this addition and we’d apparently interrupted a couple of guys working on dune buggies in a nearby open garage on the property. A few more trips and they walked over to where we were making our turnarounds, yelling, screaming and shaking big wrenches at us.

Typical teenagers, right or wrong, we didn’t respond well to threats, so on our next and last trip down the side road, we directed the dirt streams thrown from our back tires, as we made the hairpin turnaround in this makeshift cul de sac, all over individuals shaking tools at us.

A year later, when along with the rest of America, we were familiarized with every detail of their sinister, horrifying actions, we learned who we’d offended. Whether Charlie Manson was present at the Spahn Ranch that day, with those members of his dune buggy army, we’ll never know, but the experience made clear to me that you NEVER know who you’re dealing with.