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The Plein Air Zone Archives

from 2006

December, 2006

December has arrived and the end of the year is rapidly approaching. It’s a great time to reflect and to assess one’s artistic growth during the past eleven months. Have I improved my drawing and design? Have my color schemes expanded, or am I using the same mixtures? Have I challenged myself with new subject matter?  Have I made efforts to step outside my comfort zone? These are just a few of a whole litany of questions that I perpetually ask myself, but especially when I’m assessing my year’s production.

And then there’s the big ones: Why, after a painting fails, and it hurts and there’s no place to rub, do I stagger back into the studio and start all over again? Where is this creativity sourced? Why am I even doing this?

A few years back, I was on a painting trip in the Dordogne of France. Not far from the town of Rouffignac, I found myself 10 km. below the surface staring at an arched ceiling full of the most incredible Paleolithic paintings. The journey to that point had taken me past hollowed beds where mammoths had wintered and past walls with friezes of wooly rhinos, antelopes, engraved faces and strings of mammoths. Who were these Magdalenian artists, with their animal-fat torches, bone blowpipes and seashells full of earth pigments? What strange compulsion drove them through perilous tunnels to a point more than a half mile below the surface of the earth to grace the universe with these beautiful, curvilinear paintings?


Of course there are any number of pragmatic theories of why these works of art were created, but, in fact, there may be nothing at all utilitarian about these marvelous creations. In a sudden epiphany, I understood my connection to these artists who, thirty-five thousand years ago, were motivated by the same eternal “source” that inspires my creative spirit each day. 

We artists, teachers and students alike, are blessed (or cursed, as the case may be) with a necessity to snatch inspirations from the ether and express them as a reality for others to experience and appreciate. What choice do we have? It’s a calling, a priesthood, if you will. And so we hone our technique in order to become a purer conduit, and to better express these gifts from the art muse.

As we reflect on 2006, I offer one final thought. When teaching workshops, I tell my students that if they go home, wanting to paint like me, I would be flattered but a bit disappointed. There are so many seductive art styles, and I often see students wanting to copy this artist, or that artist. Never forget, that you were endowed with a unique voice. Develop that voice and don’t rob the world of an opportunity to experience your distinct contribution.

 There’s an old phrase, something to the effect of, “You were born an original – don’t die a copy.”

November, 2006

A few years ago I was on my way to Cape Cod to do some painting in the autumn colors. As an added bonus, it was the season for the cranberry harvest and the bogs would be flooded with the most beautiful violet that you could imagine.

 My flight was headed into Boston, where I would pick up my car for the trip to Cape Cod. I knew that the Boston Museum of Fine Art had a huge John Singer Sargent watercolor collection, and I knew that I couldn’t travel that close without seeing it. So I had phoned ahead to make an appointment for a private showing.

 The museum took me to a private room and brought me box after box of matted, but unframed Sargent watercolors. All in all, I looked at about seventy paintings. There I was, holding the master’s work in my hands, speechless and somewhat choked up. I was astounded at the quality of the paint. The strange granulations and deep pigmentation were never visible in the reproductions that I had seen in catalogues and books.  The whole experience left me breathless and was a real epiphany for me.

 As most of us know, the museums rarely exhibit their works under glass. As a result, the public gets robbed of viewing some of the most incredible artworks ever created. What the public isn’t always aware of, is that, if the museum is a public institution, you can request a private showing similar to the one I had in Boston. I could have just as easily requested to see their Winslow Homer collection as well.

 Quite honestly, I personally consider Sargent to be the greatest watercolorist that ever lived. I know this is a risky statement when one considers some of the English watercolorists and painters like Anders Zorn. However, in comparison to the watercolorists that I am aware of, Sargent’s drawing, color, design, bravado application and alla prima approach seem unparalleled.

 Occasionally I get, “Yes, but he used white paint with his watercolors”. How dreadful! He also used a wax resist to create shimmer and highlights. The point is this; he used his paint and the necessary tools as a means to an end, and never as an end in themselves.

 Personally, I seldom use white in my watercolors and I rarely use masking fluid. I prefer to leave the white paper for my lightest lights. The irregular look of painting around the whites shows the artist’s hand and that irregularity adds life to the painting.

 But one should never say “never”. In the painting “Wildflowers – Trinidad Lake”, I got to the end of the painting and felt that it needed some foreground interest. So I took out my titanium white paint and added some flowers to the lower part of the painting. It creates an initial point of interest and allows the eye to gradually melt into the distant part of the painting. Block out the patch of flowers and see the difference.

In the final analysis, we, like Sargent, are making “art”, and we should never be afraid to use whatever tools are necessary to achieve our intentions. We will address this in depth in a later newsletter.  


October, 2006

Using the Watercolor Sketch to Develop a Painting

Well, it’s the Mardi Gras of trees here in southern Colorado. Autumn is creeping in and the trees are donning their new colors. The days are getting shorter, the grass is browning up and the light is angling lower on the surrounding mountains. Everything is moving toward winter, my favorite outdoor painting season.

 I was thinking about that the other morning, and, because of an afternoon commitment, I decided to do something small in the studio. I was browsing through my watercolor sketchbooks and came across a plein air piece I had done last winter in Weston, Colorado

.I’ve actually painted this house in every season in watercolors, pastels and oils. It’s off to the side of  Rte.12, the “Highway of Legends”, with a good spot to set up and a natural composition built right in. So I decided I would use my watercolor sketch as a foundation for a 12x16” oil.

 One of the beautiful things about sketching on location is that one can look at the sketch a year later and recall the situation with an amazing amount of clarity (much more than looking at photographs). This watercolor was no exception.



the original watercolor sketch

The mantle of snow simplified the landscape into basically strong lights and strong darks and not too many middle values. I remember rapidly striking in the sky, mountains and foliage, carefully painting around the snow areas and the house. After that, it was pretty much a matter of indicating shadows and laying some half tones over the flat snow areas. The elapsed time was about an hour. I don’t dawdle too much when it’s 50 degrees and I’m standing in the snow.

 When I painted the oil painting in my studio, I purposely limited my time to about an hour. I felt that this would help to keep the painting as fresh as the plein air piece. That rarely happens, however, it did keep me from overworking the painting.

Although I generally paint full-time every day, commitments can sometimes encroach and limit my productive time. That’s when I dive into my cache of sketchbooks and select a subject that I can complete in the available time. This is a clear example of why it has been so important for me to amass a library of sketches that I can draw upon for inspiration and the groundwork for new paintings. 

So grab your watercolors and your sketchbook and take your art on the road.

Building a storehouse of watercolor sketches will energize your muse, promote your artistic growth and also provide you with an abundance of reference material.


Weston in oil, 12" X 16"

click to enlarge

September, 2006

The Sketchbook

“ A sketch is generally more spirited than a picture. It is the artists work when he is full of inspiration and ardour, when reflection has tuned down nothing; it is the artist’s soul expressing itself freely.”

                                                                                                     Denis Diderot – 1765

No other aspect of an artist’s work is more revealing than his sketchbook.

The artist’s sketchbook is his diary, a private domain in which he can experiment, record impressions and explore, unencumbered by prying eyes and other-approval. Its pages can disclose more about an artist’s character and working methods than his finished works.

My sketchbooks have remained my faithful servants and friends throughout my entire career. They not only provide me with a cache of experiments and impressions, but also are a true record of my artistic growth over the past twenty-five years. What a tool! White pages waiting for me to work out problems, try out new designs or simply record fleeting impressions of my travels at home and abroad.


Take, for example, the accompanying sketchbook page. I was on a painting trip in the Dordogne of France. The village of Alles les Mines lay stretched out on the hill in front of me. I’m not sure if it was the red roofs or the lay of the houses, or both, that inspired me to do a quick ten minute thumbnail for future reference. As I’m finishing the thumbnail, a horse cart comes clopping down the road. Bon chance! I jot down a quick note, and then crawl under the shade of a tree and try to compose the two elements into a plan for a more finished painting. Good? Bad? Not important. I’ve just been awarded the opportunity to gather more material for my visual reference library.

It’s that simple! The hour spent recording these quick impressions and the accompanying experience have provided a wealth of information that I can utilize when I return to my studio. That’s what sketchbooks are all about. Enjoy!