Tag Archives: painting

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



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A few images

Wall RMG 1366

These paintings all are recent work. I’ve had a ‘flu and still feel sticky-brained, so I figured it was time to share some of these instead of words.


A Walk RMG 1374


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a glimpse of the coming night


Along the California highway night comes, the sunlight compressed into an acute warmth against the coming chill. There’s a call box for the traveler in trouble on the right. Maybe I meant something by that when I included it in this painting; all I know for sure is that it belonged here, as I did, as we did, on this evening facing west.

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Don’t Wait

I am so afraid of my own procrastination that I work fast, in a fury of action. I break brushes. No, not the hairs, the handles.


I learned early on as a painter that the point is never THE painting, that when a painting is done, you continue on with the accreted abilities, and passionate insights gained, each piece building on that base, no end, thank God, in sight. My mother said once when I raged at the failure of a day spent painting, “Your time is never wasted. If the painting is bad today, your hand and eye learned from your mistakes. You will never lose that learning.”

My gallery owner likened me to a volcano, spouting forth upon the horizon, painting after painting, surprise after surprise, and he never, ever– let me praise him– tried to influence me to compress myself to a single style or limit myself to a predictable palette.

He made the comment that the price upon a given work didn’t matter, keep it low, even if you have the fleeting thought it may be your best ever. Each piece has to leave its maker, go out and make a difference somewhere not restricted to a little studio. In those days my studio was little indeed; I painted in a four foot by four breakfast nook, my easel set diagonal to fit.

Then I realized this applied to writing as well.

“You have a lot more than one novel in you,” my husband said when I completed the first draft of Night Must Wait.

Yes, I remember the surge of power that went through my hands and shoulders at that remark. It’s just like the painting, his words reminded me. You don’t make just one and hoard it forever. You don’t have that liberty.

No painter has only one painting in him or her. To think so is to let the maker perish. One work? Well, that’s a different matter. I’ll get to that.

But don’t fall in love with the one story, the one character-love-of-your-life, the one landscape, the one painting, photograph, song, play or sculpture. It would be as false as keeping all your passion focused on one day in your life; however rich that one day, you have cheated yourself of all the others, and in particular, the future. There are so many, many more days to come.

And that’s my message for the day, the week, and forever. The work is not, never will be, one singular bit. It is a stream, an ongoing ouevre as the days of your life are only fragments of your life. Jim Svejda said in his radio essay on Beethoven, that the Beethoven was the work; not any single symphony to pick out as ‘best’ or ‘core’, but all Beethoven’s enormous outpouring of his evolving creation. In Beethoven’s case– written in a medium that could rage and sing and triumph across ages. That is what any artist, writer, composer, scientist–we makers, do. Work builds on work, experience, technique, concentration and insight mixed with inspiration–the work is never over, it goes rolling on through time and rushing through different lives, translated through languages and the personal filters of experience. Each piece a new part of the greater work that is the maker.

So my advice to you, unpublished writer, artist, scientist, is this, don’t wait for the perfect contract, for the biggest bid. Publish, and write then create again. Let us have your work outpoured, ongoing, to read to share and criticize. You were formed to do this, making, creating — and you will do it, if the drive is there. You will do it in the silence of your room or the busy chaos of McDonald’s, you will make the things you were born to make, and you will and must share them because nothing is done until it has been shared. The cast pebbles of our works make ripples, and no one knows how far they will expand or how they will collide with others and make yet more patterns. Influence is immortal, and the rings of expanding impact, infinite.

Don’t love your products, don’t keep them at home. Move them on. Make more. If you are a real writer, a real painter, a real composer, a real scientist, there is a lot more than one piece in you. Each is a mere fragment of the Work.

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a fall of snow


I’m painting snowscapes out of memory. I sit in my studio in Southern California with the bzzzt of hummingbirds flashing by, the dull fog rising and sun glimmering through. But I’m not here.

I’m in winter, trudging across the slopes in New Hampshire. Former family land, once farmed by my blood. I stroke the brush laden with blue, thinking about the Grandfather I barely met but heard in stories, dropping his rare word, ranging the acreage he ran with his brothers. Winter meant time to wander, for him. I see him walking the crusty hills,  cutters and pruning knife on his belt, using the rise of snow to reach the tops of his apple trees and clipping a branch here, shaping a bough there, cultivating the trees for harvests to come. I see his shadow reaching cobalt across the shimmer of glazed snow, hear the crunch of his snowshoes as he steps back, assessing through narrowed eyes in his cold-stung weathered face under the time-bleached cap.

Years later, long after his death, as a teen I would escape the too long silences of the rooms and my own dulled winter drowse to breathe the cold clarity of the wind upon my grandfather’s hills. I would pause and look over his trees, the branches grown unwieldy without his care. Sold to strangers long ago, my only heritage the right to pass, the right to imagine.

Now, decades later, why should I be still returning, raising my eyes to the pure curve of snow against sky and the hedgy branches russet against both? I find myself looking down on the old onion field covered by a sweep of deep snow, sun in tree branches, the sweep of sky-colored shadows as day slips away. At eventide, I stand in a shiver, the blue shadows on blue snow and the rose-flushed sky, lying that there still might be warmth somewhere.



Why should I be going back after all this time, what is the haunting to which I now respond?

Why do I still live here, when I haven’t returned in years?


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Of Paintings, Permanence and Picnics


  Here’s a twenty-year-old sketch for a painting, done in ink on paper. The original measured about seven feet by four, though I’ve cropped this image because of the torn bits and the logs I put down to keep it flat for photographing. If you saw the entire original photo you’d also see the feet of the ladder I climbed in order to get the proper angle and distance.

            Did I make a final work from this sketch? Yes and no. I painted a seven by four on gessoed panel, cradled on pine. What colors? You know how it is when you peel a brown onion and shades from mahogany through amber to translucent cream emerge? Those were the colors I chose, with a late sky shading from rose to lavender. Biggest problem was where to put it. When my new gallery saw the work they wanted it, but I had just noted a warp beginning from some flaw in the panel. Tried to correct that warp but it kept growing.

            In the meantime a gentleman saw and wanted to buy. I explained that the structural problem wasn’t repairable, given that it was in the wood itself. He still wanted it, and I confess the cash would have been most welcome, but I had to deny him. After all, a properly made oil painting should be good for two thousand years, (maybe more.)

            In the end I lent the painting to a friend who had a large wall. My decision not to sell has proved correct for the warp has only grown more acute over time.

            These days with the large paintings, I prepare the ground differently, stretching canvas over a good quality doorskin mounted and well-cradled before I surface the canvas. I’ve never again had a problem. However, as you see, there’s a lot more to painting professionally than grabbing paints and entering blissful transcendence.  Mind your engineering principles, heed the chemistry, check the integrity of what you do so that you can indeed stand behind your own work. There are many ways to go wrong – I recall my painting techniques professor telling us about a painter who wanted a buttery glossy handling for his paints and mixed them with mayonnaise. Better on bread than canvas. I don’t know if he ended up spreading a toxic picnic for the ants, but permanent, no. Meltdown in less than five years.

            Unfortunately I don’t have a digital depiction of that flawed work, but here is another in similar hues so that you can imagine!



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Elcin Painting at Sedgwick

Elcin Painting at Sedgwick

Here’s a graduate student painting in the field on a morning that went from chilly fog to open hot light.

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August 19, 2013 · 2:48 am