Monday, July 13, 2015

Little Hike on the Soapstone Prairie

Soapstone Prairie
Last week my friend Christine found out that Fort Collins' Natural Areas Program was hosting a free guided art tour up at Soapstone Prairie, home of the famed Lindenmeier archaeological site. Subsequently she, myself, and fellow painter-in-arms Ken Knox took the hour's drive north to explore.

This year's rain had made the semi-arid desert lush with life. Pronghorn antelope lounged about and our trek was accompanied by flashes of black and white lark bunting wings.  We all remarked to one another that we hadn't seen this many wildflowers in years.

 Prickly Pear


 Even the locoweed was pretty

We were met in the parking lot by Gary Raham, who conducted the tour. Gary is a gifted science writer, designer and paleo-illustrator whose passion for the area's history was contagious. He began by showing us a yardstick with cultural periods painted on it: thousands of years of silent pre-history, with only the last 500 years of recorded human existence at the very tip. Or was the pre-history so silent? The ancient peoples who occupied the area might not have left written documentation, but they DID leave a lot of intricate tools that speak volumes to those who can decode their message. Gary explained the significance of the discovery of a projectile point stuck in a giant extinct bison's vertabrae; hitherto scientists thought that people hadn't migrated to the Americas before 10,000 years ago. With the new evidence jutting out at them, they had to reconsider the timeline.

Gary gave us handouts and showed us replicas of the projectile points, needles and beads found in an washed out arroyo in the distance. He described how the area hadn't changed much in the 80-odd years since the Smithsonian sent out an archaological team to investigate the finds. Artist Edwin Cassedy was a part of that team, recording the lay of the land in watercolor sketches, and it was fun to walk in his footsteps as we hiked past a riot of wildflowers: larkspur, Nuttall's sunflowers, mariposa lilies, and prickly pear cactus blooms. While Ken opted to paint in this botanical wonderland with another adventurer, the rest of us pressed on to “see what we could see” at the top of the ridge. We were rewarded with a view that gave us an idea why ancient peoples favored this spot: you could see forever!

We set up shop and began to paint. Well, everyone else got to paint, as it turned out that I'd forgotten my paint palette at home(!) Normally it lives in my backpack, but it had gotten so dirty from the last couple of trips I had taken the time to carefully wash it out...only to leave it behind on the sink counter where I'd left it. Arrrrgh.

Not to be deterred, I took the opportunity to do a slower sketch than usual with the intent to take color notes and paint it from memory when I got back home. And so I did:

 That'll teach me to double-check before heading out. Ha.

As we painted, we got to chat further with our guide as well as another artist who joined us, the lovely Cathy Morrison. She, too, illustrates books and was a great addition to our natural history expedition. The sun was intense, but a steady breeze kept us fairly comfortable. The only setback we had as we worked was that our location was discovered by various biting flies. I couldn't help but wonder if the original Smithsonian team was as harassed as we were! 

I kept expecting Julie Andrews to show up behind us singing, "The hills are alive with the sound of muuusic..."

As we headed back down, our guide stopped in his tracks. Was it a rattlesnake? Nope...a pair of dung beetles, rolling their “treasure” along the trail. Fascinating.

Barrel Cactus

Even though we'd run a little over in the allotted time, Gary was gracious enough to chat with us some more, and to share some iced tea and water he'd brought in a cooler. We had a real hoot, and learned a lot. In fact, we half-joked that from now on we should hire a natural history guide for all our paint-out adventures!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Plain Speaking about “Plein Air”

I have a bumper sticker on my car that says, “Secret Society of Plein Air Painters”.  On more than one occasion I've been asked, “Plein air? What's that?”

The reason I created this sticker is two-fold. First, as a way to identify my painting friends' cars in a crowded parking lot, and second, to subtly point out that the French-derived art term plein air is (in my opinion) a bit pretentious.

Borrowing words from France is a linguistic habit that goes back, a long way back – to when England was invaded by William the Conqueror nearly a thousand years ago. All of a sudden French was considered the superior way to speak. So instead of saying you were going to eat cow or lamb for supper, you'd say you were going to have beef or mutton; and instead of having a drink, you'd have a beverage. A blossom became a flower, and a foul stench became an unpleasant odor

"It wasn't me, your Highness."

Fast forward to today, and we're still doing this. Even though artists have been painting landscapes on location at least since the mid-1800s, I would posit that “plein air” is a term that's being appropriated for modern purposes, mirroring the outdoor painting movement that gained momentum at the turn of the 21st century.  As a new wave of artists rediscovered the joys of painting outside the studio and began forming societies and festivals and competitions, someone, somewhere decided that “Landscape Painting” or “Open-Air Painting” needed a marketing makeover. En plein air fit the bill. The logic must've gone like this: if hors d'oevres and escargot sounds better than "snacks" and "snails", why not rebrand landscape painting, too? Paintings are considered a luxury item, after all, and to use a term easily understood by the common folk would be, how shall we say, déclassé.

Fresh Snail. Mmm-mmm! 

Now, I'm not against having borrowed words, or even the lovely French language – I'm just a tad weary of having to explain what plein air painting means on a regular basis. Outside of art circles, it's just not catching on. Yes, there's a spirited campaign in some quarters to “get the word out” about our love for painting outdoors under the plein air banner, but sometimes I think using unfamiliar words at best confuses people and, at worst, appears elitist.

I am not French. I don't speak French. I don't say I'm a peintre des oiseaux when I'm out painting birds, nor do I say I'm painting à l'intérieur when I'm in the studio. So until plein air becomes as recognizable as, say, restaurant or ballet, I will continue to say, “I paint landscapes on location.”
C'est aussi simple que ça.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Goings On: PAAC show, NM trip and AVES

Entry 1: "January Thaw" 9x12 watercolor on 140lb cold press paper

All sorts of things have been going on lately. I've been painting more landscapes, more birds, and learning a lot.

Last month I entered the Plein Air Artists of Colorado (PAAC) National Exhibit for the first time, and found much to my surprise that both entries made it in!  The show will run July through August at Mary Williams Fine Arts Gallery in Boulder, Colorado and is going to be amazing. It's an honor to be included in such an experienced, talented group.

Entry 2: "Gentle Spring Morning in the Canyon" 9x12 watercolor on 140lb cold press paper

I've also been packing for a week-long trip to paint in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico with my local painter's group. It's gonna to be a road-trip, so it should be quite the adventure!  We're hoping for drier weather than we've been getting in Colorado. The constant rain had been great for the garden, but not-so-great for painting outside.  Due to everyone being crammed inside the last couple of weeks, I appear to have contracted a cold with a side of strep throat. Ergh.

A couple additional projects are also in the works, the biggest one being the book cover and chapter illustrations for the next installment of the AVES series by C.J. Berry.  Due to copyright agreement, I can't show you anything from it yet, but so far it's looking even better than the work I did on the first book.  Just like last time, there's the main characters in various chapter scenes, but there's quite a few new locations and species, as well.  I've been meeting with CJ to update him on my progress over coffee, and his enthusiasm for his story is infectious.  One of the best things about working directly with an author is that you get to ask them questions and get inside their world a little more than you could just by reading their book (or in this case, a draft). Which is a good thing, because I want to portray his characters as close to how he imagines them as possible.

 Coy and Red having a conversation in AVES, book one.

Well, I'm off to attempt some more drawing, and then perhaps some warmth and rest to recover from this throat bug.  If one's best work comes from adversity, I'm set!

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Art Studio Tour!

Every year there's a studio tour event in town, where people come over and visit artist's workspaces on a brochure map.  Since my studio is a bit off the beaten path, I've decided to make a video, instead. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

An Artist's Resolutions for 2015

 First painting of the year. Brrr! Photo courtesy of Marilynn. :)

Happy 2015, dear friends! I hope it's going well for you so far.

Although I know it's not everyone's cup of tea, I'm one of those people who find it useful to make New Year's resolutions. The secret to keeping them, I've found, is to resolve to do things that are both manageable and specific.  Here's the ones I've made relating to my art:

  • Get out of my comfort zone by exploring at least two new mediums.

  • Improve my observational skills in the field.

  • Become more adept at avian anatomy.

  • Embrace my colorblindness as an asset, not a limitation.

  • Less complaining!

  • Make better use of my studio time by improving workflow and eliminating distractions.

  • Further optimize my outdoor painting gear.

  • Maintain a more regular online presence.

  • Make time to look at art, not just create it. Visit at least three museums.

  • Read ten books related to my subject matter; take notes and make sketches about what I learn.

  • Pass along vital knowledge to other artists, especially those who are young and/or starting out.

  • Engage with artists who are more experienced than myself.

  • Encourage those who are struggling.

  • Be gentle on myself when a painting fails.
      (and lastly...)

  • Review this list at least once a month.

Whew! That's a LOT of resolving.  I'll let you know how it went this time next year.  

Thursday, December 04, 2014

The 2014 "Chasing Light" Art Exhibition

If you've been following my frenzied activity on Facebook and Twitter, you know that the second annual “Chasing Light” exhibition is finally up and running! The opening reception will be this Friday, on December 5th, from 6—9pm, and the art will continue to be on display until Saturday, the 13th.

The show consists of the work of twelve Northern Colorado painters: Jenifer Cline, Larry DeGraff, Ann Dezell, Andrea Gabel, Ken Knox, Victoria Lisi, Margueritte Meier, Scott Ruthven, Will Spear, Linda Temple, Christine M. Torrez, and myself. Amid our varying styles and mediums, our common bond is that we all attempt go on plein air “paint-outs” together at least once a week – wind, rain, or shine:

What sets this show apart is that it's extremely local, in both its artists AND subject matter. Want an original painting of the Armstrong Hotel, the Holiday Twin drive-in theater, Lake Estes, the Poudre River, or the Devil's Backbone? What about irises from a secret garden, or a fox named “Dwight”? It's all there, and more.

In addition to our show, the work of the Rocky Mountain Woodturners will be on display; if you're into finely crafted workmanship, this is also a must-see. 

If you don't make it to the big opening reception on First Friday (6 to 9pm), no worries -- the gallery will remain open on Saturday, December 6th from 12-6pm, and then again on Wednesday the 10th through Saturday the 13th, 12-6pm. (Please note: on Sundays, Mondays or Tuesdays, the gallery is NOT open.)

I plan to be there on both sets of Saturdays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, doing demos and discussing all things artistic.

Can't wait to see you there!

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Tales of the Tottot

John A. Ruthven and me at SKB

Hi all! Sorry about my extended online hiatus; I was at the Susan K. Black workshop in Wyoming for a week, then on my return was inspired to paint like a madwoman for a week...and then (perhaps due to lack of sleep and the cold, wet weather) I came down with the flu and was down for the count. I think it was my body's way of saying, "HEY! SLOW DOWN!"...and so I did just that.  But now I've got so much to catch up on, in both in the studio and the house, that it's kinda daunting.

The workshop was outstanding; the expertise was top-notch, of course, (John A. Ruthven! James Gurney! Morten E. Solberg! John Seerey-Lester!) but the support and camaraderie is what really made it special.  Just as there are many sub-species of writers i.e., poets, journalists, novelists, screenwriters, etc., there are many sub-species of visual artists, as well; and while one can find a writer or artist in just about every town, it can be difficult to find someone who fits within your "tribe", as it were.  My work doesn't find much of a niche in the Modern/Conceptual/Urban art ecosystem, so it was a joy to be amongst those who get my penchant for researching Victorian watercolors or sketching stuffed birds in museums.

Speaking of birds, here's a few photos of how I put my latest oil painting together.  It's a Ptilinopus roseicapilla or Mariana fruit dove, also known as the tottot.  They used to live all over the island of Guam in the Pacific, but are now quite rare and only found in the Northern Mariana Islands. We happen to have one at the Denver Zoo.  He's so very lovely with his bright eyes and exotic colors. 

The underpainting, done in burnt umber on gessoed hardboard panel.

Eye detail. I can't continue on until I get this right.

Defining the beak and starting the body. 

 Making adjustments to the bird before starting on the background.

I use a bathroom mirror to check lopsidedness and sometimes use the bright lighting for photographing my work.

Sometimes it helps to put a frame on your work to see how it's turning out. 

The final painting.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Susan K. Black Foundation and Other Shows

"Tarnished Gold" 4.5 x 4.5 inches, framed watercolor on 140lb cold press paper.

One thing about painting outside all year is that you really notice when the earth is tilting away from the sun. Even before the leaves begin to turn, the light seems more angled, the sky a different depth of blue.  A cool weather front has brought rain to the Front Range, so I'm inside the studio, trying to bring order out of creative chaos.

I've got my work in two shows this month, and a two more coming up.  "Dreams of Crane" and "Morning's Glory" are over at the Lincoln Gallery in Loveland, Colorado, and "Code Blue" and "Tarnished Gold" are in the Artist's Association of Northern Colorado's gallery on Oak St. in Old Town, Fort Collins.

My latest is a piece I recently did for the Susan K. Black Foundation workshop and miniature show up in Dubois (pronounced "DOO-boys") Wyoming.   It's a real honor to be included alongside some of the most talented nature and wildlife artists in the country.  Hopefully some of their knowledge will rub off! I've included the schedule below, for those who might be in the Yellowstone area next week:

Susan Kathleen Black Foundation
                                                   Headwaters Arts & Conference Center
                                                          20 Stalnaker, Dubois, WY

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

Instructor Quick Draw 9:30 a.m., Ballroom

Featuring James Gurney, John A. Ruthven, Mort Solberg, Matthew Hillier, Greg Beecham, Jeanne Mackenzie, Mark Kelso, Guy Combes, Christine Knapp, John & Suzie Seerey-Lester,  Lee Cable, Andrew Denman, Nancy Foureman, Janene Grende, Heiner Hertling, John Hulsey, Wanda Mumm, John Phelps, David Rankin & Connie Spurgeon

Silent Auction 5-8pm
Quick Draws, Original Artwork, Africa photo safaris and much more open for bidding.

Miniature Art Show open to the public Sep 15-19, 2014
Vote for People’s Choice – win a prize!

"One-hundred seventy-five career artists and art industry professionals will attend from around the country.  The SKB Foundation has assembled some of the nation's top nature artists.  (landscape/scenic, floral, western, figurative, still-life, domestic and wild animals) whose work you may bid on.

The silent auction representing work and other donations by the artists and instructors will be available to bid on Thursday, September 18, 5-8 p.m.  100% of the auction proceeds go to benefit the Susan Kathleen Black Foundation’s art education programs.  Join us for this important cultural event."

More info can be found on their website at

And here's a sneak peek at the painting that'll be in the miniature show amongst all that amazing art.  It's a pair of young rufous hummingbirds waiting for their momma, painted life-sized against a 9 x 12 background to give a sense of how little and vulnerable they are.  I've decided to call it, "Sibling Reverie".

"Sibling Reverie"
(zoomed-in detail)

I don't know what got into me when I set out to make this piece.  I somehow reckoned I'd paint it using only transparent watercolors, on rough cold press paper with a teensy-weensy No. 0 synthetic brush. Madness, I know. Blame insomnia, or the supermoon.  But I really wanted to see if I could do it.  Now I know that it's possible...but it took roughly 26 hours and my neck and back are yelling at me for it. As someone once said, "Artists must suffer for their art. That's why it's called painting."

Masking tape and paper to keep the working surface from getting dirty

A tape measure for a sense of scale. (About 4.5 cm for my metric-loving friends)


From now on I think I'll stick to painting cassowaries, albatrosses, or ostriches....

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Making Progress

Red Barn, 2012-2014

For the last three years, my friend Christine and I have painted the old red barn on Highway 287.  It's been very instructive to compare our newest paintings to the older ones, to see how we're coming along in terms of making progress.

The first couple of times I painted this scene, in 2012 and 2013, I used oils and a smaller format. In the latest rendition (on the right), I've switched to watercolors.  A bit of a difference, yes? Even though I saw much better compositional opportunities, I had to go with the same view for comparison's sake; adding in the surrounding foliage to make it a little less static. So there's some improvement there. I like to think I paid more attention to my values and perspective. It's also interesting to note the 2014 version was done under trickier weather circumstances that the previous versions: partly cloudy, where the sun alternates from light to dim, bright to shade, over and over like someone's playing with a switch.

But no matter; it was a fun time.  We even had several more friends show up. I think there were ten of us in all! Here's a little movie of us doing our thing on YouTube:

There's been some talk going around that the barn might be dismantled or removed, but I hope it's just a rumor.  It'd be great fun to keep painting it, year after year, honing our skills until we get it just right.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Plein Air Gear (Watercolor Edition)

Some painters are known for their minimalist, light-weight gear. I am not one of those painters. Nope. Like a Victorian explorer on an expedition, I drag into the field pretty much everything I like to use, which happens to be a LOT.  And unlike a Victorian explorer, I don't relegate it to a porter but carry it all myself; I really don't mind the added weight.  If I did, I'm sure I'd find a way to pare it down.  Yes, there are days I only use one brush, but I like having five more options available, should I feel that's what the scene needs.

Here's a comprehensive list of what I've been lugging around lately:
Plein Air Pro duffel bag
Plein Air Pro "Advanced Series" watercolor easel with shelf
Sunpack 6601 UT tripod
Jansport backback (Used it for over 15 years. Does that make it vintage?)
Recycled water bottles (3)
Alvin Heritage Paint Palette
Extra paint tubes
Martin/F.Weber Co. Just Stow-it brush holder containing...
-- Winsor Newton 7/8 Mop brush
-- Master's Touch No 10 round
-- Master's Touch No 3 round
-- Robert Simmons Sapphire No 14 round (My workhorse brush)
-- Robert Simmons Sapphire No 6 round
-- Robert Simmons Sapphire No 10 flat
-- Robert Simmons Sapphire Liner
-- Creative Mark No 6 scrubber
-- Creative Mark No 2 scrubber
-- Creative Mark T-26 palette knife
-- Old toothbrush
-- Clear wax crayon
-- Piece of sponge
Global Art pencil case containing...
-- 4B Derwent sketching pencils (3)
-- Bic .7mm Matic grip mechanical pencil
-- Blending stump
-- General's kneaded eraser
-- Aluminum pencil sharpener
5 x 7 Moleskine sketch journal
Business cards
Annual pass to Rocky Mountain National Park
Arches 140 lb cold press watercolor paper blocks (usually carry at least two in varying sizes)
Recycled carryout container with lid  (for holding water)
Spray bottle
Paper towels and/or travel tissue packets
Masking tape
*Flexible sports field cones
D5200 Nikon camera
Extra camera battery and lens cloth
Cell phone
First aid kit
Lip balm
Fox40 whistle and button compass on lanyard
Black Diamond Headlamp and backup flashlight
Bug spray
Hand sanitizer
Small bag and laundry pins for trash
Ziploc bags
*Cooler with ice packs

*Usually left in the car

I have a slightly different configuration for cold weather, and for prolonged hikes, but overall this is what I normally use.  If you're just starting out, I hope this list might give you a place to start. If you've been at it awhile, feel free to add a comment below about what YOU choose to take (or not take) whilst painting in the great outdoors.