Sunday, June 14, 2015

Solo show and talk at the Studio Gallery

Every 18 months or so, Rab Terry and Jennifer Fariss, the owners of the Studio Gallery in San Francisco kindly offer me a forum to exhibit work that I've compiled. As I work full time, it takes me awhile to accumulate enough pieces that are 'gallery worthy'. I primarily work plein air, but the impetus of a show like this encourages me to generate some studio pieces as well. This show is a good representation of my regular painting 'haunts': the routes I take to and from work in the east bay, some coastal pieces from my Pt. Reyes workshops, and work from my annual Sierra painting pack trip, plus the summer workshop I teach up at the Sierra Buttes. 

The show went up a few days ago, and this afternoon is the reception. I'll be heading over soon. I'll also be giving a talk at the gallery, this Thursday, the 18th of June from 7-8. 

Part of the studio wall where candidate pieces for the show wait before being selected, signed and trimmed.

Some framed pieces line the crit rail, and a few other 'hopefuls' are pinned above.

The nerve wracking part of this process, after cleaning up all my edges, signing and photographing them, is to trim each piece within about 1/8th of an inch of its border, to fit it to the acid free foam core backing it will be hinge mounted to. 

Here's a few pieces from the show:

Tomales Bay
This was painted on site at the Marconi Conference Center during the CAC winter retreat. It benefitted from hanging all spring in the studio, where I had time to ponder how to clean up and organize the sky a little more. I've been studying skies and clouds at work as an ongoing project, so used some of my thinking from that exercise to explore temperature shifts as a way to separate very close values between the cloud and the sky.

Painted up at the Sierra Buttes last summer, during my workshop. This is Love's Falls on the north fork of the Yuba River, which I've painted aspects of many times. I tried doing a large studio version of this, but it did not have vitality of the original plein air piece, so this one is in the show, and the studio version did not make the cut. 

The Edge of Moonlight
Here's a studio piece that did make it. Last summer's pack trip was up into the Sabrina Basin, to Drunken Sailor Lake. We were camped on almost solid granite, and there were a few other lakes within walking distance, including Moonlight Lake, which had a beautiful emerald/turqouise color to the water from glacial silt. This type of subject is a favorite one of mine because it combines aspects of water, plus a celebration of reflected light in shadow, which on pale granite manifests itself in subtle temperature shifts that vary from the angles of the rock.

That's it for now. I gotta run to the opening. Hope to see a few of you there. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Pt. Reyes Workshops: A few spots left for May, and a date for Sept.

My upcoming workshop out at the Pt. Reyes Historic Lifeboat Station in May has a few spots open. The workshop runs from Fri. evening, May 8th, to Sunday the 10th, around noon. We can walk to several great spots to paint from our storied accommodations, and if necessary, drive to other ones. It is an adventure to stay out on the rim of the continent in a sturdy old building with other artists. We have a potluck on Saturday night, where everyone pitches in with a contribution. There are several lectures and group critiques. We may have sunshine, fog, wind, and more than likely, all three. There is beautiful (and ever-changing) light here. For sign up information, go to this website.

My next workshop at this location will be September 11-13th. This is a Fall session, and sign ups are not yet enabled on the website. I will keep you posted when they are open. If you have any questions, feel free to post in comments.

From the cliffs in the afternoon

A morning demo 

The upstairs classroom where we have our indoor sessions

Pirate hats are not required, but do contribute to the 'sense of place'...

                 Painting by the old park ranger's residence, a short walk from our accommodations.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Gear Update

 Back in the late 90's, when I thought I would seamlessly transition from pastels to oils. I purchased an Open Box M pochade box, along with an umbrella and a tripod to mount the whole rig on. Once I decided to stick with pastels, I kept the umbrella, which I mounted on the tripod, while I sat nearby on a stool with my pastels laying on the ground in various boxes. That setup explains why I regularly lost so many umbrellas over the  years. A gust of wind would periodically blow the whole rig away from me while I was seated on my stool, and when I couldn't grab it in time, would helplessly watch the umbrella transform into a wounded bird with a broken wing, never to fly, or shade, again....

One cannot blame the equipment for such ineptness on my part.

About 4.5 years ago, I did a blogpost on what gear I was then using for plein air work. I've altered my gear considerably since then, so I thought I'd give an update about what has changed, what has remained, and why. The photo above shows the setup I'm currently working with outdoors. 

 First off, kudos to the Bestbrella, which I'd just started to use back then. I'm happy to report that I've not broken a single umbrella since I started using it. I credit the entire system... the flexibility of the fiberglass umbrella ribs, the sturdy mount, and the poles, which are strengthened at the joints by a sliding tube. A gale wind will likely demolish anything, including this setup, but for most painting expeditions, this works very well. The weakest link in that system is the poles themselves, as they have a short threaded insert that can become loose over time, causing a bit of play and wobble. Patty Kellner, the owner of Bestbrella, advised me to fix that with a specific type of thread locking glue, and it does the trick. 

Next up, I changed from a small All-In-One easel, to a Heilman backpack box, both of which will mount on a tripod. I enjoyed the All in One for its light weight, and ease of use, and it came highly recommended. The reason I discontinued using it was that I had developed some problems with numbness in my fingers after about 6 months.  I have a full time job, where I daily use a computer with a tablet, so any plein air work with a specific configuration could either ease, or possibly exacerbate, any underlying issues I might be already having. Such was the case, unfortunately, with the configuration I was using at that point. The primary problem was that the image area was only an inch or so above the box holding the pastels. Think of a very small open suitcase with the pastels in the bottom, and the artwork mounted in the lid, set at 90°.  In order to keep my wrist and arm out of the pastels, I started raising my elbow up to the height of my shoulder, and within a few months, I was suddenly dealing with numbness in my fingers, and a fair amount of pain in the tendons in my arm, etc. Conversely, the easel for the Heilman box is like a small music stand that plugs into the top of the box and keeps the image area comfortably separated from the pastels. In addition, the easel is slightly tilted, so that one is not, by default, restricted to a 90° angle on the work surface. I should note that All in one has since changed their hinge setup to allow for other tilts. In addition, many artists use their product with no issues at all. 

A view above of the Heilman Box mounted on a tripod, with one compartment open. One of the benefits of this design is the way the foam covered box lids lock down on the pastels to prevent them from moving around during transport.

Here is the easel mounted onto the box. It is adjustable, and has the capacity to keep the artwork well elevated above the sea of pastels  below. This was the ergonomic remedy I was seeking. 

Here is the bracket that mounts the box to the tripod. It is an Arca-Swiss compatible type, which is a wedge shaped mount that is an industry standard in professional grade photographic equipment. These brackets come in different lengths depending on the weight and size of the equipment to be mounted, and are available from many manufacturers. This one is made by Sunwayfoto.

For the tripod mount, I chose what is called a leveling base.  Also available from several manufacturers, they offer a limited range of tilt, and are used to level equipment when the ground plane is uneven, without having to resort to changing the lengths of the tripod legs. This mount was designed for photographic use, but it serves some useful needs for the artist. First, the limited tilt range of a leveling base means that it is unlikely to unexpectedly flop so far over as to dump all your pastels out of the box. The tilt range of the mount I use is limited to 10° in any direction. I consider this a built in fail-safe mechanism. Like any regular ballhead type mount, it can swivel 360° in any direction, which is useful when a tripod has a non-rotating center column, as mine does. This means you can rotate your art and your pastels to keep work in the shade, or to paint a different view, without having to pick up and move the tripod.
The mount I use is made by Acratech. Here is another picture of it:

The top element is the Arca-Swiss compatible clamp that grips the wedge on the box. 

You can see in this side view, how the box can be mounted level, while the center post of the tripod is off vertical, and the tripod legs are set at different angles. There are many types of mounts that can achieve this,  but I chose what I did for simplicity, ruggedness, and light weight.

The primary qualities  in a tripod that a plein air painter benefits from are stability, ease of use, and light weight. The weight is really only an issue if you regularly carry all your gear a fair distance to paint.  Since I periodically hike several miles into some locations, I am always interested in lightening my burden. It is certainly true that I could lighten my load more effectively by going on a diet.

 In picking the Gitzo 1541 I found I reduced the weight of my tripod by half a pound, and gained noticeably more stiffness and stability. The catch is that it cost more than 3x as much. I chose to use professional photographic equipment because it is designed to securely hold thousands of dollars worth of lenses stable, in all sorts of conditions, and still be portable and reliable.

In about 18 years of using tripods, this will be my third, and possibly the last one I'll ever need. Does that mean it's perfect? Nope. I do wish it had the leg angles I was used to on my old bogen/manfrotto, or the tripod sold by Easyl, that I last used, but I've compensated by setting one leg longer, and at a wider angle, than the other two, so that it has a stance not  unlike a Gloucester easel, which gives it a stable footprint. 

Here's a typical setup with a few other functional elements to point out. First, I do use a small accessory tray (available from Heilman) that hooks onto the side of the wooden box to store pastels that I'm using for a scene. In this picture, I'm also using the wooden lids to lean against the back of the easel to keep direct sunlight off my sticks. This does not work at all in the wind, by the way, and makes me miss the All in one box that self-shadowed my pastels by design.  Lastly, I have a rag handy to clean my fingers and pastels while I work. And, like many, I still feel the need to haul more pastels around than will fit in my box, so you can see a Blue Earth box (and lid) sitting on top of my other sticks. What a mess! I can't say this is the 'ideal' setup by any means, but going this route has kept my RSI from recurring, improved overall stability, and lowered weight.

During my research, I did look carefully at mini-gloucester type setups where the box is mounted on the tripod legs, below the apex, and the artwork is on a separate easel that attaches to the tripod head. In terms of weight distribution, I think that is one of  the most stable of all configurations, as it significantly lowers the center of gravity. Accordingly, I tried the Easel Butler out and also ordered a fitting that allowed me to mount the detachable Heilman easel to the tripod head. I was not satisfied with the result, however, as I was very nervous about the pastel box getting knocked off the 2 bars, as the weight of the box (~11 lbs) was enough to slightly tilt forward the aluminum cross brace holding the bars. Yes, one could bungee it on, etc., but at this point the setup starts to become more laborious, as the shelf has to be assembled and mounted, the box placed on it, then secured, the easel separately put on, etc. 

If Heilman made a version of their box with a fitting that was dedicated to mounting on tripod legs, I would definitely give it a try. There are several such boxes made for painters, by the way, of which the Coulter is perhaps one of the original, and simplest, versions of such a design. 

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Light and Color in Film - Winter 2015 Class at the Animation Collaborative

Last winter I taught this class for the first time, and enjoyed it very much, so am happy to have the opportunity to do it again. Though I've taught classes for many years on light and color, with an emphasis on observing and analyzing natural light, this class allows me to focus the curriculum on the kind of problem solving I do at Pixar, and while it may certainly be influenced and inspired by nature at times, it is primarily in the service of the narrative, and uses contrast and color as a means of expression, symbol, continuity, and other mechanisms that underly film design.

The class begins in late January, and runs for 12 sessions on Thursday evenings from 7-10. If you're interested, go to the Animation Collaborative web page here to sign up. I am requesting a portfolio submission for this class to understand the skill set of the applicants, and to even it up a bit, if I can. I don't wish to discourage anyone from submitting, but I am looking for folks with enough art skill to engage with this subject with confidence. You'll be using your visual and conceptual skills to solve problems in film.  It is NOT a beginning painting, or landscape class.  We will be looking at film as a sequential structure, and how color plays a significant (and delightful) role in the process. That said, we will be venturing outside to paint a few times on the weekends to examine first hand how nature fits into the equation...

The image below is a compilation of lighting and set concept studies I did for an abandoned Pixar project called 'Newt', that was to be directed by Gary Rydstrom. The eagle eyes among you might suspect that the final image at the bottom is more than reminiscent of a certain John Twachtman painting, and they would be correct! Inspiration can come from anywhere when solving problems for film. The art of the 'dead' is a fantastic resource.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Upcoming Pt. Reyes Workshop Oct. 3-5

I've been teaching workshops out at Pt. Reyes for several years, and have enjoyed the immersion into that particular landscape, as well as the camaraderie with the students that comes with a weekend adventure, painting and cooking together. This one is coming up in a few weeks, and I still have a few spots left. We will be staying at the Historic Lifeboat Station, an old Coast Guard Barracks, way, way out on the point, near Chimney Rock and the Lighthouse. Cliffs, cypress, seals, rolling hills, deer, cattle, and the ocean are right outside the door, so to speak. Go here for more information, and to sign up.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sierra Painting Pack Trip 2014

A group of 8 artists, Paul Kratter, Terry Miura, Ernesto Nemesio, Michelle De Bragança, Robert Steele, Lori Putnam, and myself, hiked and rode up to (drunken) Sailor Lake in the Sabrina basin in late August. It was a bit of a long grind going up. But, no one was hung over, nor was it raining, so much better than some other years. I am not in great shape though, and the higher elevation of this spot really had an effect. At 11,000', I could only plod very slowly on any incline. If I went any quicker, I simply could not breathe and keep moving. Its pretty humbling. One lesson I learned years ago on these hikes was that I usually could not enjoy much of the view while moving, as I needed to constantly pay attention to where my feet were, to avoid falling on my face, so stopping in order to breathe was a great way to appreciate the scenery as we climbed out of the lake basin. We hiked around towards the back side of Sabrina, roughly level, among many small aspens, and then began to ascend, via switchbacks, and some long, steep inclines over talus slopes, crossing several watercourses along the way. 

The hikers at the Sabrina trailhead. L-R: Lori Putnam, Michelle De Bragança, Ernesto Nemesio, and Terry Miura.

After a few hours of huffing and puffing the point of view begins to change. Those are the Piute Crag  looming behind the Lake Sabrina basin. Less than halfway there, but progress!

About 3 miles in, after surmounting the back wall of the basin, we arrived at Blue Lake, which looked good enough to make us wonder why we needed to go any further, yet we were only half way to our destination. We stopped for lunch and a rest, then continued our upward journey through fox tail pines, amid a landscape dotted with huge erratic boulders, granite benches, walls, and numerous small ponds. We often found ourselves hiking over acres of solid granite, with the trail being marked by stones on either side.

At Blue Lake (actually shot on the hike out). Pretty nice scenery and water here.

The mules had passed us at Blue Lake, so the 5 of us that elected to hike in, were strung out somewhere behind them. I straggled into camp in the late afternoon, met the cook, Ally, and her grandfather, Jerome, who was helping her out. They had a full on cook tent, that looked like a small house, with a metal frame, heavy canvas walls, and a large supply of propane tanks for cooking and heating. I grabbed my gear from the tarp, set up my tent, and started to survey the landscape possibilities.

The view from camp towards Picture Peak. Mt. Haekel on the right, and Clyde Spires over the left shoulder. The cook 'house' to the right of Terry Miura.

 We were camped on the shores of Sailor Lake, which was, in my mind, more of a very shallow, meandering pond, in a descending glacial basin. About a quarter mile 'up' the basin to the west, was Hungry Packer Lake, out of sight over the U shaped ground plane that ended visually in the rocky slopes of Picture Peak, a ragged pyramid that dominated the skyline in that direction. To our left, was a small waterfall, fed from the outlet to Moonlight Lake, which could be reached by a short scramble. A curving wall of cracked granite flanked our north, dotted with small trees, over which some larger crags were visible. If we looked roughly east, down the basin, towards the desert floor, we could see the White Mountains glimmering faintly miles away, while the sloping foreground was a series of ponds, stands of pines, and boulders, which ended in Topsy Turvy Lake. The rest of our horizon was ringed with jagged escarpments and shattered rock slopes, well above the tree line.

A study looking down the basin in morning light. 6 x 9", pastel on paper.

Here's a wider view, looking the same direction, painted on the last morning of the trip.
9 x 9.5", pastel on paper.

Morning Icon worship

Charles Muench, who painted at this spot last year, had advised Paul and I that he felt the scenery was dominated by this singular view of Picture Peak. As a result, I deliberately avoided painting this view all week, though I did paint parts of the mountain.  Others, however, went at the peak every morning from sunrise on. It was very convenient to paint from camp in the morning, as we were served hot coffee at our easels by Jerome. Quite a luxury in such a location. 

North of Morning Coffee, 6 x 9, pastel on paper

The Wall to the West, 9 x 9.5, pastel on paper
Here's an example of painting just a part of Picture Peak, emphasizing atmosphere and scale relationships. Not painting the 'thing' or the object, but elements or aspects that can make for an interesting painting.

The first lake outside of camp that we visited was Moonlight lake, which was a 10 minute scramble to the south. It was big, deep, and unusually turquoise. Ernesto and I painted there one cloudy afternoon, then returned one sunny morning with everyone for a delightful day of painting, and even a little swimming, though it was too cold to stay in very long. 

Sun Spot, 9 x 9.5, pastel on paper
My first painting from Moonlight Lake. The clouds built up pretty quick, but small spots of light would would periodically glow and drift amongst the peaks. This is a view of Clyde Spires, which is visible in the photo above, to the left of Picture Peak. I usually don't do very wide views, and this is a good example of how a small section of a scene will suit me.

A great day at Moonlight Lake. We are often on our own, so it is rare, and fun when everyone is in the mood to paint at the same spot. 

Moonlit Shore, 9 x 9.5, pastel on paper
The south shore of the lake nearest us was full of boulders and cliffs that ran down into the turquoise water. I picked a small section of that to paint. 

Cloud Study, 6 x 9, pastel on paper

We had several consecutive days of cloud build up that threatened a big downpour, yet we never had rain, just masses of cumulus looming over the peaks to the west, then dissipating towards the desert to the east. The edge of this mass would swell and retreat for hours, constantly shifting in form and color.

In the evening the clouds would create enormous variations of light and shadow patterns on the peaks, from ridiculous and unpaintable to sublime 19th century evocations, channeling Bierstadt and his ilk. 

Don't try this at home...


We had one day of wind on the trip that just wore us out. It started blowing around 5 am, and did not quit until around 9 that night. Gust were strong enough to demolish one person's tent. I don't know how my cheapo, Big 5 dome tent held up, but it did. Maybe because I piled rocks at all 4 corners to hold down the poles. I still did 2 paintings that day. I put rocks in my tripod bag and hung it from the center post to keep everything from blowing over. No umbrella was possible. I just faced towards the sun, and held a board up with one hand to shade my colors, or huddled near cliffs and trees, to keep the light off my work. People think we are in some kind of paradise up there, but it can be really difficult conditions to work in at times. 

Talus Wind, 6 x 9, pastel on paper
The first painting of the day in strong, gusting wind.

Waterfall, 9 x 9.5, pastel on paper

The wind blew until well after sunset, so we all crammed into the cook's tent on the last night, which was the best thing ever. It was toasty in there. Nothing like suffering all day, then celebrating with good pals near the end of an adventure.

We held a pop up Art show the next morning before we hiked out. It is always a revelation to see the range of work everyone produced. Even when we painted in the same location, we chose different things to paint. Very inspiring. 


 Comparison with the other locations: I do feel that there were scenic elements common to Iceberg, the Nydivers, Ediza, Chickenfoot on the Mt. Morgan side of the lake, and the upper Garnet melt pond area, all within about a 15 minute hike from camp. So, after ten years, there is a lot of familiar territory to be found in a location like this.  That is a big plus. The wind was a negative, but it can be dealt with. 

As a postscript, I must add the following:

We had the worst toilet EVER on this trip. It was so bad it was funny, and was a topic of conversation throughout the week. It was a kid sized toilet seat that was loosely duct taped to a milk crate with a garbage bag stuffed below. This getup was sandwiched between two blue plastic tarps that would blow into you whenever a breeze came up.  A complete ergonomic and hygienic insult in every possible way at every juncture of the process. I finally resorted to seeking other options a discreet distance from camp that were far more functional and comfortable than this setup.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Spring into Summer

I've been able to get outside to paint fairly regularly since January, on my own, as well as during some workshops I've been teaching, and with small groups of fellow artists. Here's a selection of pieces from about February to June with some notes and observations. 

The hills around the bay stayed green  for several months in spite of the drought. Depending on the position of the sun one may see the rich translucent color of grass as in the image above, or  less saturated range one gets from other angles that reflect the light of the sky. Viewed through the curtain of atmosphere, even the saturated greens attenuate towards the blue. Its a range of color specific to those conditions.

 For several weekends in February, I would drive out towards the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse at the southwestern tip of the land, passing all the alphabet ranch properties (Historic Ranch E, F, G, etc.) This area, cloaked in muted browns during fall and winter, resembles one vast Andrew Wyeth type panorama, with windswept hills, old barns, cattle roaming the hills. The range of green in winter and spring evokes other qualities and moods, and driving out there one constantly finds views on the way to one's destination that are tempting to paint.  I must have seen this 3 or 4 times before I finally pulled over to paint it.  One constant throughout the year is that any tree that has matured will betray the prevailing direction of the wind, whether it is blowing or not. In addition, this tree has been manicured to clear the road. I may still work on this one to push the road going into shadow more, as well some edge transitions.

There's alway rocks to paint regardless of the season. This was painted in March during a workshop I taught in Pt. Reyes. We were painting along the edge of a cliff, a short hike from the Historic Lifeboat Station,  where one could see the mist between folds in the cliff picking up a warm bounce off the sunlit sides facing away from us. Frequent marine painters must be very familiar with this effect, but from a painting point of view it was a quality I hadn't consciously examined before. One more sublime artifact of facing towards the light

On a warm day, I will often drive into Canyon to paint. Its a narrow valley with several redwood groves in it, not far from where I live. There's a small creek that meanders alongside the road, rimmed by bay laurel, redwood, and oak, with copious amounts of blackberry and poison oak. I find that even in mid-day, one can find interesting patches of light streaming through the foliage, dappling whatever forms it comes to rest on. The challenge of these scenes is that they have a very short life span, as the dapples slide off whatever they were illuminating in a matter of minutes. Sometimes another patch of light comes along that conveniently substitutes, and other times you are left to your own devices. This is where a field sketch done prior to the start is helpful insurance. 

There's a few reasons dapples are so elusive. A ray of sunlight that passes through a tree has been filtered and cropped by branches and leaves countless times so that a single dapple is a brief, fortuitous alignment of numerous 'holes' before it hits the ground. The slightest breeze, and/or the relentless motion of our planet will eventually eclipse that narrow opening. Another cause is that the field of view in an image like this can be quite small, and the narrower the field, the more rapid a pinhole projection of the sun will appear to move across that space. The same effect occurs when looking at the moon through a telescope on a tripod. The more it is magnified, the faster the moon slides out of view through the eyepiece. It is simply the rotation of the earth that is manifested by these observations, whether through the telescope, or just painting in a forest on a summer's day. 

These are the familiar colors of summer in my part of the world...the 'golden' hills of California which are dotted  with manzanita, scotch broom, and the small oaks that find enough moisture in the folds and seeps of the terrain. What can be fun to observe and paint is the range of color in shadow, and how that relates to the warm sunlight reverberating amongst the yellowed and reddish hues of the grasses. In shadow, the washed out, yellow grasses are subject to the cool ambient light of the sky, which can give them a relatively greenish cast on certain folds of the hills in the distance. In addition, near the edge of the shadow/light zones, the brilliant complement of colors becomes evident, which I think is due as much to the strength of natural light as to our own visual process which generates an exaggerated complementary response when confronted with a field of saturated color that changes value and temperature abruptly. I do believe that if one isolated and measured the actual colors between these two areas, they would not be as complementary as we perceive in the context of bright sunlight. So what do we paint? Color as measured in isolation, or our response to color in bright light seen in the context of other colors? I tend to err on the latter choice, as our paintings can only approximate a compressed version of the strength of natural light anyways, and the visceral, physical perception to me is an honest and personal response. Paint the effect. We are not reproducing nature.

Here's another one I'll probably work on some more, or head back to the spot and do more studies. I'm drawn towards the modulation of color in the water, how the submerged branches sit 'under' the water, and the foliage textures as a pattern on the upper right. The reflection on the left also inverts the gradient of the sky along the edge of the tree. That's enough right there to convince me to do more, in order understand the play and balance of these elements better. I think there's an idea for a more refined result than what I was able to achieve in one outing.  I've been reading the journals of Eugene Delacroix, and he has some very thoughtful observations about painting that are getting under my skin. It is stimulatingto have a voice talking from the 1850's, like some sort of 'art conscience' whispering in my ear.