Artist in Residence – Day 3

In Progress Chilnualna River Painting
Today’s in progress plein air painting of the Chilnualna River.

No, you didn’t miss a blog post, I’m posting day 3, before day 2, because I’m back in my studio tonight and I forget to bring the day 2 painting back with me from the cabin.

I don’t have an Internet connection (I’m told they shut their Internet connection at the cabin down in the winter. May is winter?) or even cell phone service anywhere in the Wawona area of Yosemite National Park, where the Yosemite Renaissance artist in residence cabin has been provided for me. Thank you AT&T! What are you thinking? No one with one of your cell phones visits Yosemite? I’m going back up to the cabin tomorrow afternoon, after I finish teaching art to  my two 5th grade classes at Woodland Elementary School tomorrow, so you won’t see another blog post, until I’m back in the studio, late Sunday.

Here’s today’s in progress plein air painting. It was my second day painting with artist friend, Sandy Kowallis. This time we hiked down the trail that runs from the top of the falls, along the river, to where it joins the south fork of the Merced River. We picked a section we liked and set up there. The water is so ice cold that any slight breeze sends air-conditioned air in our direction. It made for a very comfortable day, at a temp much lower than what we found, as soon as we left the river’s edge.

Tomorrow I’m painting with friend, photographer and artist, Kerby Smith. Something other than the Chilnualna, I suspect.

Artist in Residence in Yosemite – Day 1

In progress Chilnualna Falls, oil on canvas 12″ x 9.”

I’ve been awarded artist in residence by Yosemite Renaissance, which comes with a 2 bedroom cabin at Wawona, in Yosemite National Park, for a week.

I’ve invited many artist friends, in the area, to come up and join me, so we can go out together and paint plein air. Some are staying with me overnight in the cabin for a day or two, others coming up for the day. 7 days of painting with friends in Yosemite.

I’ve decided to use the week to see if I can make selections and simplify enough to finish the paintings on location, in one sitting. True plein air. It’s tough for me, because I generally like to add a little more finish to my paintings. I haven’t been able to resist taking all the plein air paintings, I’ve produced so far, back to the studio for more polish, but it’s hard to justify all the extra work put into paintings so small. Better to find a personal shorthand I can apply to my plein air paintings.

Today was the first day of the residency and I was joined by Carolyn and Sandee, two artist with a lot of experience painting plein air. We chose to paint a location close to the cabin, Chilnualna Falls. With all the rain and snow we had this winter, combined with the current warmer temperatures, our waterways are breaking records. This normally trickling stream’s been converted into a torrent of quickly moving, twisting, splashing gallons of water.

All good, but I didn’t reach my goal today. This painting still needs more work, before it’s finished, even by plein air standards. I think, with the waterfall, I took on too much for the time allotted. Wish me better luck tomorrow.

Growing an Oak

Bare Tree & Pond Image
The final, finished 12” x 16” pastel.

I recently completed the above pastel. Back when I was in high school, I used to create work with pastels all the time. I didn’t have a dedicated place to work back then, I worked on my bedroom floor: a bedroom I shared with 3 younger brothers. I couldn’t leave anything I was working on out. Projects had to be set up, worked on then put away until I had time to work on them again. Pastels allowed for quick set up and take down. An oil left out in the bedroom, for example, would likely get a hand, tongue or other body part (don’t ask) dragged across it. We were animals!

I also used pastels from time to time in my illustration and animation work (I directed and designed animated tv commercials for about 16 years), but I think this might have been the first time I used them in creating a landscape. I generally paint landscapes in oils, watercolors or acrylics.

In Progress Pastel 01 Image
My pastel at the end of the plein air session.

Anyway, since this was a fairly new journey for me, I thought I’d take you along for the ride. The piece was started during a Yosemite Western Artists (YWA) plein air outing I hosted at my place in the Sierra Foothills. We’ve had an unusual amount of rain this year (we needed it to end our 6 year drought), so the ground everywhere is pretty soggy and you can’t plan on not having rain on the day of the event, given you have to schedule ahead of time. We’ve got a large covered deck on the back of our home, with a great panoramic, unobstructed view. Good thing we chose this spot, it was freezing that day and we experienced both rain and hail throughout our session.

I was working on pretty smooth pastel paper. On a surface like this, I like to rub my first layer of chalk into the paper to lay down a ground. I find later applications lay down better, if I do. Hosting the session, I didn’t get as much done as I generally would. The group worked 3- 4 hrs. that day.

My pastel at the end of the second session.

With the next working session, I really started to dig in. Working from far to near, I detailed the background first, ignoring the tree, knowing myriad thin branches would be involved later in the execution and I didn’t want to have to work the background around them. I generally set aside 4 hrs. for each of my working-week daily sessions, but there was a lot going on, on the gallery show front, during the creation of this one and sessions could be 1 1/2 – 4 hrs. I felt I’d really nailed the pond reflections in this session.

I begin to work on the tree.

Now that the background was pretty much laid in, I moved on to the tree in my next session. I was beginning to dread the fact that I chose to paint this complicated oak, without leaves. Even if I greatly simplified and reduced, there was going to be a lot of branches to execute on this one. I really felt this was my only decent composition choice, though, the weather confining us to the covered porch.

In Progress Bare Tree & Pond 04 Image
Added a lot of lights, to distinguish branches from background.

Another session, where  I really started to hone in on which branches I HAD to execute and which I should eliminate, to give the tree interest and represent the silhouette that was in front of me. I really didn’t want to add any more than I had to. I may be detail-oriented but I’m not a masochist. This I find to be the hardest part of painting: the necessary simplification.

Bare Oak & Pond Final Image

Next to the last session, where I added detail to the grasses and did what was necessary to separate the parts of the tree that I wanted to stand out from the background.

That took me to the final session, where I added the nit-picking details, like lacy masses to represent micro branches/stems and the beginnings of buds: whatever was necessary to communicate it was finished.

Getting it Done!

Trowzers Painting Bjork Photo

Artist friends are always complementing me on the volume of paintings I produce. Interesting, because in my mind I’m not getting into the studio to paint enough. And I’m a slow painter. I work slow to be sure I’m paying attention to the details of every painting as it develops in front of me. I study as much as I paint. I never know when a “happy accident” will occur, leading me in a totally new direction.

My art school illustration professor, Harold Kramer, used to quote another painter or teacher he knew (terrible, but I can’t remember who that was) in saying, “Work slow, finish fast.” In other words, work too quickly and you make mistakes, travel down roads that dead-end, need to backtrack and start over. Work slowly, but meticulously, thoughtfully and you’re more likely to determine what is working and not working at the start, avoiding the dead-ends, keeping the painting moving in a fruitful direction to the finish.

Anyway, on the off chance that my friends are right and I do produce a lot, I’ll share how I work. First, I aim to paint everyday of the working week: Monday – Friday. Why not work Saturday and Sunday? I’d love to, but I have chores to complete, like everyone else, a home and cars to maintain, errands to run, etc. And parties or get-togethers are generally planned for the weekends. The rest of world runs on a Monday – Friday working week, with Saturday and Sunday off. Buck the system and you’ll find your painting time interrupted by personal commitments and unexpected visitors.

Next, I set aside a dedicated time to paint each of those working days, the same time each day. I try to get into the studio every day as early as I can, but if all else fails, when my dedicated painting start time arrives, I stop whatever else I’m doing and head into the studio. My family knows and respects this as my painting time and truth be told, probably enjoy the fact that they have a given time each day, when they don’t have to deal with me.

How much time you set aside, depends on your personal schedule, how much time you realistically have to paint. In my case it’s 4 hours a day. Why not 8? The experts say running your own business is 50% production and 50% infrastructure and marketing. The other 4 hours in my day are spent running and marketing my business.

From time to time things do occur, which prevent me from getting into the studio on time (I’m on the road returning from picking up art supplies or I set up everything to shoot my work and it’s taking longer than I planned, etc.), but just because I’m starting late, is no excuse to skip working that day. I get in there as close to my designated start time as possible and use whatever time is left, no matter how little, to paint.

If you’re not working to a dedicated schedule already, try it; I think you’ll discover a significant increase in your production!


Brothers & Sisters in Art

CalArts - Chouinard Logo

Last weekend I made the trip down from the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where I currently live, to Los Angeles, where I was born and raised, for the CalArts/Chouinard Art Institute alumni reunion. I don’t often make it to these get-togethers, but they were giving special awards to my good friend, artist, Dennis Lewis, and posthumously to my illustration lab professor, Harold Kramer, so it was a must attend.

Only 4 of my actual classmates were there, the group ranged from geriatrics to students currently attending CalArts. I was sitting next to an architect, a graduate from a class many years before my own. I unexpectedly ran into, Tony, the son of artist (a Chouinard graduate) whom I’d worked with for 12 years, when I was directing animation for Kurtz & Friends. Tony and my own son used to hang out together at all the Kurtz & Friends events that included family, which were most of them.

The reunion presentations were fine, my friend, Dennis’, acceptance speech being the highlight of the program. Dennis is a great natural storyteller and can’t help but crack the room up with his cast of a thousand in character portrayals of student interactions, from his many years of teaching and his rendition of how he met his beautiful wife. But there was a rich reward, above the joy of watching my close friend of 50 years receive the recognition he deserved and that was introductions to and conversations with the alumni, most of whom I’d never met before.

Art knowledge is timeless, so when you converse with an artist that’s 90 years old or one that’s 19 years old, you share common interests and speak a common language. Age or generational differences melt away as you discuss Richard Diebenkorn and the influence Matisse had on his work (a current exhibit at SFMOMA) or the Calder retrospective at LACMA last year or the student from this class or that who’s recently gained international recognition. In the company of artists you share like interests far beyond those bound to generation and become part of a living, breathing organism with a focused passion for art.

Pick up a paintbrush, chisel or other creative tool and you’re rubbing shoulders with Leonardo, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, Hockney and all artists past and present. Welcome to the fraternity of artists, take full advantage of your membership!

Fear of Varnish – Part 2

Varnishing Photo

Varnishing Acrylic Paintings

In the previous Fear of Varnish blog, I explained the proper procedure for preparing and varnishing an oil painting (the way I do it anyway). In this blog I’ll cover the proper way to varnish an acrylic painting. The recommended procedure has changed several times since 1953, when the acrylics we use today first became available to artists, so even if you think you know the right way to varnish an acrylic painting, you might want to follow along. I utilize the latest discoveries and recommended procedures in my process.

Acrylics, including acrylic varnishes, harden, but never truly dry, as oil paints do, instead, they remain slightly tacky. You may have noticed this yourself, if you ever laid two of your acrylic paintings face to face and then separated them. Recently it was discovered that on a microscopic level, acrylic paints actually attract dust to them and then attach that dust to the surface of the painting, through this tackiness, dulling the painting over time. So, the old method of finishing your acrylic painting off with a coat of acrylic varnish, will attract dust to the surface and dull your painting over time.

For this reason, experts began to recommend applying regular removable oil painting varnish to acrylic paintings as the final protective layer. They later discovered that removing that varnish to clean an acrylic painting, if it became dirty, was removing micro particles from the surface of the acrylic painting, along with the removable varnish.

Given the above, experts now recommend a couple layers of permanent acrylic varnish, followed by a couple layers of regular oil painting removable varnish. This way, when removal of the oil painting varnish takes a micro-layer of acrylic surface with it, it will be taking it from the sacrificial transparent layers of acrylic varnish, not from the surface of the painting itself.


Applying the Barrier or Sacrificial Layers

Allow your finished acrylic painting to dry for at least 72 hours. Make sure the surface of your painting is free of dust or dirt and apply the first coat of non-removable acrylic varnish, either brushing it across the painting horizontally or vertically. You only want to apply a thin layer and don’t over brush or overwork it. Overworking this varnish can cause it to cloud. Acrylic varnish comes in gloss, matte and satin finishes. You can also get it in a spray can, if you prefer that to brushing it on. Let the first coat dry 24 hours and apply a second coat of the permanent acrylic varnish. Apply this coat by brushing it in a direction perpendicular to the direction you brushed in applying your first coat. Allow this final layer of permanent acrylic varnish to dry 72 hours, before proceeding to the application of the removable painting varnish.


Applying the Removable Painting Varnish

Once your Barrier/Sacrificial layer has dried for 72 hours you can apply your removable varnish layers. Like with the acrylic varnish, apply the first layer either brushing on the varnish in a horizontal or vertical direction. Apply your removable varnish layers thinly and don’t over brush or overwork them. Doing so can leave brush strokes in your varnish layers. Removable painting varnish is also available in gloss, satin and matte finishes. You can get it in a spray-can version, if you prefer that to brushing. Allow this layer to dry for 24 hours, then apply a second layer of the removable painting varnish, brushing it on in a direction perpendicular to the direction you used with the first layer. For more detailed instructions on application of the removable varnish see the blog Fear of Varnish.

Happy varnishing!

Fear of Varnish

Varnishing Photo

With our local open studio tour, Sierra Art Trails, on the horizon, it’s time to think about getting some varnish on all those dry, but unvarnished, paintings in my studio. I’m reminded of all the recent conversations with other artists about the varnishing process and of all the confusion and misinformation out there. So I thought I’d share the latest and greatest information on the subject, uncovered by my own ongoing research, the methods I currently use in varnishing.

The process of varnishing and preparing for varnishing is a little different, depending on whether you’re varnishing an oil painting or an acrylic painting. I’ll cover varnishing an oil painting in this blog and varnishing an acrylic painting in a future blog.

Varnishing an Oil Painting

Normally, an oil painting needs to dry for 6 months to year before you can apply the protective painting varnish. The length of drying time necessary is dependent on the thickness of the paint that’s been applied. The best test I’ve discovered for telling if an oil painting is dry enough to apply varnish is to put a little turpentine on a rag and lightly rub one of the thick applications of pigment on your painting (If you’ve used Titanium White in your painting, it’s a good color to test, as it’s one of the slowest drying paints). If any of the pigment appears on the rag, it’s not dry enough yet for varnish.

If you use Gamblin’s varnish, Gamvar, you can varnish sooner. Here’s the test they recommend for determining when you can varnish: lightly press your fingernail into one of the thick applications of paint. If it makes an impression in the paint, the painting is not ready, if it does not, you’re ready to varnish.

Oiling Out

Before you varnish, however, an oil painting should be “oiled out.” I’m surprised by how may artists I know have never heard about this. What is “oiling out” you ask? Oil paint can “sink in” to your painting surface, as it dries, giving an uneven sheen to the surface of the painting, with some areas more matte than others. This is because some of the oil binder in the oil paint has been absorbed into the painting ground. Many factors contribute to this phenomenon, an in-properly prepared ground, how much or little medium or linseed oil was used in the painting process, etc. If you apply your protective varnish to a painting in this condition, the varnish can be absorbed into the matte areas of the painting, just as the oil from the oil paint was, telegraphing the same uneven sheen across the surface of the varnish that the painting had before you applied the varnish.

So, before you varnish, you want to “oil out” your painting. Actually, since oiling out, unlike varnishing, can be done as soon as your painting is dry to the touch, it’s a great aesthetic interim step anyway, evening out the sheen across the surface and providing a better presentation for exhibition, before the painting is dry enough to varnish.

Oiling out is accomplished by applying artists painting medium to the surface of the painting, either by gently rubbing the medium into the surface with a lint-free rag or brushing it on the surface and then after 2 minutes, removing any excess medium with a lint free rag. If after oiling out and allowing the painting medium to fully dry, your painting still has matte “sunken in” areas, you can do a second oiling out. Here is how Windsor & Newton demonstrates the process: Here is how Gamblin demonstrates the process:

Varnishing the Oil Painting

Once your oil painting has dried for the prescribed period of time (6 months – 1 year) and you’ve “oiled out” the surface of your painting (the oiling out medium must be dry to the touch), you’re ready to apply the varnish. You want to make sure you’re applying a removable painting varnish. In addition to enhancing the color and richness of your unvarnished painting, varnish protects your painting from elements in the environment that it’s exposed to over time. If, many years from now, your varnished painting has become dirty, it will be the protective varnish that has taken the abuse, not the painting itself. A removable varnish can be dissolved away with mineral spirits and a new clean layer of varnish applied.

You also want to be sure the varnish you choose is described as clear and non-yellowing. You don’t want to apply varnish on a rainy day. Doing so can sometimes cloud varnish. Application is recommended with the painting lying on a flat, horizontal surface. Since varnish is not very viscous, it has a tendency to run, while wet, so your painting should remain horizontal until the varnish has dried. Traditional varnish has a powerful odor and the vapors aren’t great for you. Unfortunately, all recommend you apply varnish in a room without a lot of air movement to prevent dust traveling around and landing on the varnish as it dries, which mean applying it with doors and windows closed. So, you’ll want to choose a location where you can apply the varnish then leave the room, close the door and not return until the varnish is dry. I’ve made the move to Gamvar, as it’s virtually odorless. Most recommend, “tenting” your painting while the varnish dries, to prevent dust landing on the surface. I do this by using four bottles, jars or cans of equal height, as posts, placing one at each corner of the painting. I then take a piece of cardboard or mat board, slightly larger than the painting and balance it on the four these four posts.

Varnish comes in gloss, satin and matte versions and you can mix the various versions to arrive at a custom sheen. Varnishes can be applied with a brush or sprayed onto the painting (Gamblin’s varnish, Gamvar, is brush on, only). Follow this link to see Windsor & Newton describe their various varnishing products and demonstrate applying varnish with a brush: Follow this link to see Gamblin demonstrate applying their varnishing product with a brush:

Armed with the above, you should feel confident that you’re taking advantage of the latest information, when varnishing an oil painting. In the next blog I’ll discuss the slightly different process involved in varnishing an acrylic painting.

The Balancing Act

Bare Tree and Pond Image
In progress pastel painting, “Bare Tree and Pond.”

I chose to use pastels during last month’s Yosemite Western Artists pleinair outing. It had been awhile since I’d worked with the medium and I committed to perform a pastel painting demo in June. I like to have a lot of new samples, in the medium I’ll be using, to display during demos, so it will be pastels from now until the June.

I spend most of my time painting in oils, but last year I painted in acrylics all year long in prep for a week of taking park visitors out to paint Yosemite, on behalf of the Yosemite Conservancy’s Art Center. They didn’t want me taking groups out to paint in oils for fear they’d irresponsibly dispose of their solvents.

I work in a wide variety of mediums, oils, acrylics, watercolors, pastels (haven’t dabbled in encaustics, yet), always have. I think I’ve discovered something useful to all artists in my experience doing this.

With great painting the elements in your subject matter determine application. You apply paint different when painting water than you do when painting trees or rocks, for example. Here’s where balance comes into play: whenever you become comfortable with any given medium (balance), you begin to take its application for granted.  It becomes too easy to rely on past “pat” successful application approaches, instead of letting elements determine fresh methods of application.

When you work with a medium you haven’t touched for awhile, you have no choice but to work with the attributes particular to that medium, redetermining application approaches. You’re a bit out of balance for awhile. The attributes of pastels, for example, force different application solutions when painting water, trees or rocks, than working with oils does. Acrylics, another unique set of attributes, as is the case with watercolors or graphite pencils or encaustics, etc.

When you return to your original medium of choice, you do so with fresh eyes (having been away from it for a time) and possibly new application approaches. For me, anyway, this ongoing introduction of imbalance, through use of a variety of mediums has kept me moving forward and cut down on repetition. I highly recommend it!



Who’s Teaching Who?

(Image: Drawing from upside-down reference. (Left) Reference: Picasso’s Stravinsky, (Right) Student Drawing)

I’ve volunteered as a teaching artist in the Mariposa School System for the Mariposa County Arts Council this year. I’m teaching art to two 5th grade glasses, one hour a week, over twelve weeks. I’m a little more than halfway through the session right now.

I started them off with several right brain drawing exercises: the dual human profiles that create a vase in negative space, drawing a complex image, while viewing it upside down, contour drawing without looking at your paper, etc. (one of my high school art teachers, Betty Edwards, actually wrote the book on right brain drawing techniques). Enough for them to gain a glimpse of what it feels like to draw in the right brain zone, as a seasoned artist does. Few of them could stay in the zone long, so in a short time, during every session, the buzz of talking would rise and I’d have to focus them once again, reminding them that they couldn’t be working in the right brain and talking at the same time. The left brain handles all communication. The right brain is incapable of conversation.

We soon moved on to single point (vanishing point) perspective, discussions of the events and developments that triggered the transition from representational art to abstract art, systems utilized in abstract art, actual painting using these systems and last week, team work on a large collaborative painting (the most fun, so far).

Working with these individuals, about to transition into adolescence, has been a joy and eye opening. In these two classes of 24 to 30 students each, only a small percentage, 2 or 3 students per class, show a focused interest in art. I’m guessing this aligns with the percentage of our society, as a whole, that shares this level of interest. Naturally, these students of focused interest also show the most potential (also a likely reflection of society).

More than this, to some degree, the art exercises reveal the personalities and psychological states of the students. The whole class appears to truly enjoy learning about and participating in art, but a couple students have difficulty following instructions, others ignore the exercise and draw or paint what they want, one or two ask a lot questions, a couple are insecure about whether they are doing things properly, another seeks precision, there are a couple of clowns, one does not participate and another’s actions reveal them to be working out some problems.

I wonder if exercises in other subjects reveal similar things, if the same students exhibit the same behaviors consistently across all subjects or if students respond differently to each subject? Makes me wish I had more time with these kids. Would love to see who each of these individuals becomes in the future.

New Ground

Yosemite Falls from Sentinel Swinging Bridge Image
“Yosemite Falls from Sentinel Swinging Bridge,” 30″ x 40,” oil on canvas, framed, $4,250.

I just finished an abstraction of the view of Yosemite Falls from the Sentinel Swinging Bridge. I work with abstractions as often as I do with representational pieces (actually more), but this one was more challenging.

My abstract forms are usually developed through multiple viewpoint perspective (MVP). For those unfamiliar with MVP, it’s an approach where the artist considers their subject matter from, not just a single point of view, but, instead, from all sides, creating images that represent multiple perspectives of the subject at the same time in a single image. The approach was pioneered by Picasso and Braque through their explorations with cubism.

Anyway, MVP depends on the viewer’s knowing what the subject matter looks like in its original state, before it’s abstracted, in order to be able to appreciate how it’s been abstracted. In a scene like this one, completely comprised of natural organic elements, representing elements from all sides can go unrecognized, so I had to depend on other systems of abstraction. I leaned heavily on geometric, organic and reductive abstraction here to arrive at my final solution. These methods of abstraction are generally called upon, to some degree, in all my abstractions, but this subject required me to rely on them exclusively.

Being forced to work without MVP took me out of my comfort zone, making me more insecure, a good thing for an artist. An indication that you’re exploring new personal territory and not relying solely on solutions that have been successful for you in the past. I highly recommend it.