Category Archives: painting

The Painting Business

big paintings outside copy

I have a new show of my paintings in oil up at the Sullivan Goss Gallery in Santa Barbara. It’s shocking to realize that I’ve been in their care for over twenty years, and this is my tenth major show with them.

big paintings out back3

Every time a show is coming up for me, I set out a considerable display of new paintings in my back yard for the gallery representative to come out and select the pieces.


I hope for about a third of what I present to be chosen to show in the gallery, but sometimes it’s less. I’m always nervous about this, because I have my favorites, and the way I work, with several distinct styles and different palettes, means that selecting paintings that will hang well together, and not claw each other off the walls, is a challenge.

My personal desire is to have a range of sizes, approaches, and palettes represented, and I favor keeping prices down. There are curious prejudices though, where some buyers will look at a lower-priced work and decide the price is its real value. Not so. Paintings in a show like this are always underpriced. Each one is far more than the hours of work and research it took to paint. Each one represents the artist’s life to that moment, and is made by the tides of all the past. Because of this, any hand-made piece of excellence should  rise over time in value. And as for me, I’d prefer my small paintings to be a gateway ‘drug’, reasonably affordable, so that my paintings will go out into the world and be enjoyed by all kinds of people.

studio replete

Fifty percent of each sale goes to the gallery, which may seem high to you, but you must remember that the gallery has a range of upkeep costs– advertising, staffing and security among them. It’s a complicated business, and requires expertise and judgment. Galleries come and go at the drop of a hat. The staff need to have a good sense of people, and when a strong match might be made between a particular work and a particular customer. I’ve tried selling my work, but I am untalented at this matchmaking. Looking at what the gallery people do, I can only feel intense gratitude that I’m represented by them.

When you think about it, a painting should keep its person company for a lifetime.





Filed under blog, painting, plein air


I gave in to the sketchbook idea after realizing that our old truck’s gas mileage book kept traveling to my studio to have some notations converted into a painting. Plus the book was crammed with little lines and shadings, the heavy-set man at the gas pump or the palm trees in the night lighting of the station, so the gas amounts and mileages were fighting for their survival. Now I use a sketchbook in which I jot everything from color roughs of landscapes to simple line drawings of our cats, and this travels on my lap when we drive, especially on longer trips. I’m accustomed now to sketching on the fly, sometimes putting a few color notes, some perfectly non-technical ones like noting that the shadows have the hue of spilled ink on a wood table, or that an old leaf matches my cat Porthos’ eyes.

I prefer to paint alla prima, which maximizes the clear brilliance of my paint, which lies on an untinted ground with the light penetrating through the skin of paint and bouncing off the white gesso beneath. A colored ground would solve all color problems, because it would alter every hue laid over it, but colored grounds also can show through in time since even oils become more translucent with the passing years. So I try to solve all color issues on the run, on the fly, and I paint as though I will never return to change a thing. But in all of this, I have been experimenting with a wet-in-wet technique that lets me rough in the dark shapes I want and then paint into them. This makes me commit to a bold execution and also lets the light and dark work into each other fresh on the surface.

I wanted to study and paint the rich power of a field of grass, so here are my first five minutes on the board.


I hate anything tentative or uncommitted. Five minutes later–

TwoAnd then give me a couple of hours…

The grasses



Filed under blog, Drawings, painting

One place, two ideas

I went to a cliff over the sea and considered the Monterey cypresses standing in attitudes. Here are the two oil paintings that came of it.

number one cypresses


number two cypresses

For my part I find it fascinating what shapes my brain seized upon in each of these, what’s missing, what’s not. One is brutally simple, almost like a wood block, the other fretted and trammeled with the little urgencies of branches and twigs as they trap the negative spaces like prey. I also see some darkness in the eye on the second one, the true brilliance of the day didn’t make it through, though I can argue that’s not important– both are interpretations, my own translations of the place and time.

1 Comment

Filed under blog, painting, plein air

Reluctant Landlord

Ha ha!

What is this? It’s a shot I didn’t mean to take in my work storage. You know there’s this thing my camera does of taking a photo if I touch the screen? I often forget that exists, and so we get great fuzzy shots like this one…

What am I doing? It’s a sad story. I have rats in my shop storage area. I have way too many little nooks and corners and stacks of work and boxes of paint and jugs of brushes. Bottles of solutions and glazing and painting medium…and then there are the books.

So it’s like the perfect protected abode of rats. Apartments, rent free. No predators. Maybe a draft or two, but all a rat needs to do is chew up a little canvas or some of those handy books and make a nest. I don’t know how familiar you may or may not be with rats, but the fellows who live here in Southern California and inhabit places like my studio are not the invasive European breeds, but a local, Neotoma macrotis, the big-eared woodrat, Trade Rat, Roof Rat, or Pack Rat.

Why, you ask, “Trade Rat“? This is a rat that collects things. She likes bright and shiny, or odd and glittery, unusual items. One time I cleaned out a nest that contained a cheap gold-colored wrist watch, a handful of plastic beads, some pebbles and over forty clear plastic headed push pins. Made me wince to think about how the rat must have carried them in her mouth with faithful fascination for this delightful new gem. I’ve heard stories about how a Trade Rat will drop one desirable item for another, like a shopper running out of hands. This has led to people feeling that the rat is trying to trade one thing for another– and you should hear the Gold Rush tales of Trade Rats who left gold nuggets in exchange for some trinket or even a coin.

He’s handsome, personable, diurnal when it suits his plans, vegetarian– in fact frugivorous. You think of a rat as a heavy headed, mean-eyed sneak, but our Trade Rat is often light brown or deep blonde with soft thick fur, often has some fur on his long tail, possesses huge meltingly dark eyes and big ears. This makes him look like a magnified slightly plump mouse, rather than a rat. Plus he’s curious. See below for a fast sketch:



So I have a fondness for this creature, but it doesn’t extend to what she does to my garden. Oranges, feijoas, apples, persimmons, kumquats, even oh horrors, my beloved tomatoes– Neotoma eats them all. You who have followed this blog over the years, will have seen my posts on how these rats have decimated my Concord grapes and all my peculiar efforts to keep their depredations in check.

As for the storage– well, I have torn everything out of place, disinfected and deodorized (I swear by SCOE 10X as a deodorant of real use that truly disassembles these odors,) washed, dried out and washed and dried again, and established a factory grade electronic squealer on a timer that makes the air hideous in the room from about nine thirty PM to six AM. I also tossed a huge number of items, because, alas, Neotoma cements his nest with feces and urine. You may ask, did I seal up all points of ingress, and to that my answer is are you kidding? This place used to be a greenhouse before it got moved to be part of our house in years long before our residence here, and there are more entries than exits…! At the end of these ten days of labor, I have a refreshed storage– almost a new room. Not only that but I set to and photographed every painting with its master RMG number to enter images in my computer files. I already keep an Excel file of all the paintings I deem worthy to be in my permanent records. Now I have the numbers properly tied to images.

In good time I shall report on that squealer to you all, and let you know if I think it works. But now it’s time to make paintings. I have a one-woman show coming up in March under my painting name of Robin Gowen, at Sullivan Goss in downtown Santa Barbara. See you there?








Filed under natural history, painting, rats

Don’t Let the Big One Get Away


Too many people avoid painting a big canvas when doing plein air work. Don’t miss the fun! The seven foot canvas is one of my favorite things— makes my blood race. I feel I am in jeopardy every stroke of the way. You need to know you are not safe.

Here are the rules

  1. Take care of yourself. This means hat, long sleeves even if you think that makes you hot, or if you must do short sleeves and shorts, grease yourself to whiteness with sun screen. Jug of water. gloves. (I’m bare-handed in the photo because I’m sketching in schoolroom chalk, but the moment the paints come out, so will the nitrile gloves. Sweat will fill those gloves— it’s uncomfortable and you’ll need to change out every so often when they get too full of sweat. Sweat will run down your fore-arms. Yuck. But the amount of sweat is your warning to drink, because the sweat on your body is being constantly dried away by the wind and sun and your clothes wicking it from your skin.
  2. Be bold. Commit to the canvas as a whole— the broad sweep of the land must be caught on your canvas. Don’t mire down in detail, or some cute corner that charms you. Cute is the enemy of good work. Remember to get the shadows sketched in as though they were ‘things’ they are part of your essential composition and matter as much as any rock or hill.
  3. Stop when you have the sketch. Look at the shapes the canvas has been divided into. Are they good shapes? Do all of them hold your interest? Do they ‘talk’ to each other across the extent of the canvas? You are looking for power in this sketch. Settle for nothing less.
  4. Don’t stop. Many people will say you need to step back from your work to assess how it goes. I have two answers to that. One is a  3/4” wide brush on the end of a three foot stick. Duct tape is your friend. After the chalk sketch I take brilliant Indian Yellow or a Quinacridone Coral, with turpentine to loosen it, and sketch using this extended brush arrangement. Because the length of handle allows it, I can truly see what I’m doing in terms of the entire composition. Second, too many stops to look and edit what you do, make for a stutter in expression, tentativeness. These things won’t help you cover the territory. Consider my number two. Commit. Lay down paint, rich thick paint. Once you have serious paint going down, put off stepping back and thinking too much. Let the brush work, let your hands do the thinking. Only step back every half hour or hour to see what’s happening. Sometimes I hardly look until I’ve been at it for hours and have a third of the big canvas covered.Massing Hills II
  5. Get lots of rich buttery hues on your palette. Don’t water it down, don’t over-mix. Over-mixing physically breaks down the brilliance and purity of the paint. Fiddling about trying to get the color exactly right has two things going against it— first it doesn’t matter, only the value matters.. Two, it can’t be done within the context of dashing at a plein air work. The colors of real things are too complex for a batch of paints in tubes to match. Don’t ‘scrub’ paint thin on the canvas or board. You have no time for approximations— the world is changing. There are few common experiences other than painting en plein air that force you to realize as keenly that the world is turning. Slap down the pigments, keep the colors clean. This is the stage where I break brushes. This is why I buy cheap brushes.
  6. KEEP YOUR MEDIUM CLEAN. I’m sorry I shouted, but I can hardly emphasize this one too much. This is your one chance to get the colors pure and strong. Overpainting later never can recreate the clarity. You will never have good colors if you wash your brushes in your medium. So what to do with a dirty brush? Either set it aside for when you will need that color again, or dip it in turps and scrub clean it on paper or rag, re-dipping in turps as needed. Turps are for underpainting and cleaning brushes. Medium is for painting and glazing. Do not wudgle the rag or paper up and do not litter. Flatten the soaked dirty piece out to dry and put a rock on one corner. Later you will take these bits home and dry then thoroughly outside before discarding. These are the materials that spontaneously combust and are the reason why studio fires are a thing.
  7. Think about value. Not money values, but the blackness and whiteness of the landscape. Try to imagine you are mentally photographing the land using black and white film, and you will see the values then. You want to have a sense of how dark or light regardless of what color your shapes of landscape are. If you are in doubt, turn your canvas upside down and see if the composition works in the imagined black and white ‘translation’ in your mind. We humans see predominantly in value tones — know that a painting that works across the span as a black and white will be a successful one. The range of color blindness in human beings is amazing, it is more likely than not that we are all seeing something different when we talk about color. Color is trivial.RMG#577 Haze in Hills copy
  8. That said, paint boldly, using bright light colors. You think of the pigment white as very full of light, it’s the most so of all your paints. Light as white may be, hold it up against the sky or better yet, the brilliance of reflected light on a straw on the ground and you will see that what you have on your brush  is muddy and dull by comparison. You cannot paint as light and bright as the world can be.
  9. Take note of the darkness in your eye. This is a phenomenon that occurs in a great many painters’ work, making dull, unengaging paintings. The world outside is full of light so your eye physically closes down to protect itself. Like a camera lens it closes down to a very small aperture. This means that you stop seeing a great range of what is visually around you. You’re shut out. So you must use your brain to re-imagine what the world around you was like before your eye created this abbreviated perception. Compensate. Put back in those high values and bright colors— they are still there even if you are partially blinded by your own physical adaptations. One of the reasons I use atmospheric hot colors like orange and pink to sketch my composition at the start is to remind myself not to go dark. Even so, you may be dismayed by the end of day when you take your work which seemed so full of light, back in to the studio and see a sooty sky and dull hills with black trees.magenta and blue
  10. Don’t stop. You should be able to get the bones of a seven foot by three painting down in three to four hours with enough color notes slashed in that if you can’t come back out to finish, or the weather changes, you will have a complete guide to the premise of the work.
  11. Now step back. You will see that in many ways what you have made lacks subtlety and actually has only a rude sense of the reality. That’s what we want. Only God through nature can make a landscape, and only an artist can be so inspired as to translate it in to his or her individual language.

So you will have some questions, like, if the nitrile gloves are so uncomfortable, why wear them? The answer lies in the chemistry of your materials. Every oil paint and medium has toxic elements, some more than others. These can be absorbed through your skin. When you are a full time painter, there is no reason to marinate yourself in toxins. They may not make you sick today, but many accumulate in your liver, neural tissues, kidneys and other organs. It’s not glamorous to go insane from poisoning. It’s not adventurous to need a kidney transplant and it won’t make you popular when you’re asking for a piece of liver from your friends. So, why not use water based oils? Because even if you bypass some of the toxins, others still are there in the compounds that create the hues. What many folk don’t realize is that water color and pastels also contain toxic elements. Be careful, don’t confuse daring with foolishness. Know your ingredients. I’ve said it before and shall again, ignorance never saved anyone.

This means of course, never eat or drink without using extreme care when you are painting. Smoking also. Indeed, I don’t allow food or drink in the studio, but outdoors the need to keep hydrated demands more flexibility.. You do not want to ingest by any accident any of your paints or painting materials. I heard a rumor that Vincent Van Gogh ‘pointed’ his brushes in his mouth as he painted. Given the many toxic compounds he had in his palette— heavy metals, arsenic, lead, mercury, he may have had many reasons to be ill and have neurological symptoms.

I used to love to paint bare-handed, putting my fingers into the work for certain effects. Making dirt or pebbled soil look real by dabbing down high contrast values and then patting my palm across the surface. I do it with gloves now even though I admit it’s harder. But the more you hone your skills, the less it matters.

A side comment to the rant I just gave about the vital importance of value and the relative frivolity of color. Some days I will change all the colors on my landscape, paint pink hills and orange sky, purple trees and aquamarine shadows. If I get the values right the painting will have the authority it needs to assert pink hills and aquamarine shadows. It will look ‘right’.

A brief mention here about atmospheric perspective. When you are standing outside painting, remember this basic law. More distant objects generally look paler and grayer than the same colored objects up close. The values are higher, lighter. Think about all the air between you and those more distant things. Think about all the dust in that air, the veiling layers drifting between you and the far things. All that dust catches and diverts the light, thus graying out the intensity of value. Be aware of this in your work.

RMG#787 Following the Fence

What about using a colored ground? You can, but if you do, keep it thin and light in hue. Over time your paints will become slowly more translucent, and if you use a dark ground, every value in your painting will become more and more identical until, in sad cases, a lovely work ends up a brown soup. Too thin to satisfy. Yes, a colored ground will solve your paint harmony issues because every hue you put on the colored ground will be subtly harmonized by its influence. I feel it’s a bit of cheating as well as potentially compromising the quality of your work over the years or centuries to come.

I like a white ground, it makes me think and correct the color I use, every step of the way. And I know that should my painting survive for thousands of years, it will be close to what I made here, upon this day when the world was young.


Moonlight under the oaks


Filed under blog, painting

A little surprise of a visitor

It’s November and I’m working away on my nanowrimo novel, but of course other matters abound and distract. I’ve been involved with political and local issues, digging up and manuring the rows I want to plant lima beans and peas in, starting the cauliflower and broccoli seedlings, transplanting baby leeks… and what turns up? A tiny wonderful bird. I’ve never seen a ruby-crowned kinglet so unmistakably clear before, the brilliant tiny splotch of red like an extravagant punctuation on the back of his elegant head. A fast sketch later and now I need to go out and soak those lima beans for planting.

ruby-crowned kinglet btr

Leave a comment

Filed under blog, natural history, painting

A Painting Liar

black eucalyptus

“You must have so much fun, painting,” someone in the crowd at the gallery reception says.

How many times have I heard that? Too many to count, that’s for sure. How do I answer? Reflex takes over and I lie. I nod, I smile appreciatively, I give assent.

I lie because, no, it is not fun. It’s not following my bliss. It is what I do, it is a bred-in powerful sequence of systems kicking into action that mean when I am painting, I am possessed. It is the kind of prayer that wrings out the center and leaves it void.

I’m not in control, not guiding my brush, if anything the brush is taking me. For my part, I wreak revenge, I’ve been known to snap brush handles and break bristles when I paint, I hit the board or canvas with intemperate force and I cannot possibly paint fast enough. This possession is riding me, I am riding this possession, afraid to get off because like a tiger it might vanish into the grasses out there and I shall never find that particular tiger again.

Sunburst ii

You look at my paintings hung orderly in the gallery and they seem pastoral, the smooth curves of the persistent land, a sweep of one hill merging into another, transforming over the sequence from surge to fall. You look at the colors, balanced; even in my dissonances, there is a sense of one section or one extreme taking part with others so that each work pulls into a whole no matter how loud the tangerine of sun-soaked rise or cobalt-steeped dip.

Evening Flows Down

You tell me my paintings are pretty or even beautiful and I look humbly surprised and pleased. It isn’t humility, it is surprise, because I don’t really have a memory of making my work. When I say I am possessed when I paint, I mean I am no longer the self who sits here today and types out this attempt at an explanation for you. I have little memory of the acts of painting, only scraps at best. I do not choose what color comes next, I instinctively reach out, take what I need, squeeze my tubes in the middle to make them splurt out the colors my inarticulate need dictates. My hands fumble for the next sacrificial brush, trying to catch up to the idea that drives my hands. My hands, not my brain.

Funny because I have spent so much of my life acquiring techniques and honing skills. Adding everything I can to the toolbox, so that I have mastery over the options. But in the act of working, there is nothing temperate about the effort. Nothing civil or studied, nothing calculated by some cunning plan.

Unnamed Hills cropped

You know what I look like, a small dumpling of an older woman with silver-streaked black hair and thick glasses. Usually wearing a home-sewn jumper with thrift store blouses rolled up to conceal the frayed and splashed cuffs. Someone’s grandmother, decent, well-mannered, surely a gardener in her spare hours. But I am another thing when doing this work. I am the tiger, the tiger is me. I am predator after my prey, driven to take hold of it and rend it with all ferocious hunger, to remake as I feel it must be.


The land I paint is complicit– it tells me how it wants to become onto the canvas and I channel that surge. Pastoral, what a word full of deception. Those mountains and hills, those waves ranging upon the sands are all savages with their own agendas, survivors, but never safe, they speak in terrible tongues of a drive to go on, to keep being, even though they will never be the same for more than an instant, that instant passing. All impermanent all doomed, all full of a fury at their dying moment. That is what they speak to me and when you praise the peaceful measures of my sloping hills, I smile, and I lie.

Yes, it was fun, I say, as you expect me to say.

Eucalyptus Glow

I wrote this because I just had a marvelous lunch with new friends who somehow prompted this rant out of me, and said I should, after all, tell the truth!

Looking down into Surprise Valley


Filed under blog, experiences, painting