Art theory Bay Area Parks Landscape Oil Painting Other Art Blogs I Read Outdoors/Landscape Painting Places Plein Air

Lake Temescal Reflections, Angels With Road Signs, Breakthroughs

Lake Temescal Reflections, Oil on panel, 8x8"
Lake Temescal Reflections, Oil on panel, 8x8"

I have a theory about the paths we take in life, and how important it is to notice what I call “Angels Holding Up Signs” along the way.  Sometimes those angels take the form of a person offering helpful information or silently pointing the way by example, an intuitive thought, or an unexpected turn of events that makes you pause. When I see or hear an angel holding up a sign, whether it’s “Yield”, “STOP,” or “Go This Way” with an arrow, I consider it a gift and give it serious consideration.

Disclaimer: I’m not a New-Age angels and crystals sort of girl. But I do believe there are angels all around us; good, kind, generous people, like Adam at Kragen Auto Parts today who helped me dispose of gallons of old motor oil and their containers that had been abandoned in my garage (long story; don’t get me started!). Thanks Adam!

…And like the angels who’ve held up signs in my art life lately, including Kathryn Law and Ed Terpening who’ve both helped me to a breakthrough in my understanding about why simplifying is important in oil painting, especially when painting plein air. I’m always attracted to details, and so I’ve fought against that principle, and then fought my paints trying to put those details into my paintings.

Then I saw these paintings (below) by Ed Terpening on his blog, Life Plein Air, made during a workshop in which the instructor,  Peggi Kroll-Roberts, challenged the class to break the scene into as few large shapes as possible and paint those shapes with a large, fully loaded brush in one brush stroke.

© Ed Terpening
© Ed Terpening
© Ed Terpening
© Ed Terpening
© Ed Terpening
© Ed Terpening

Each study evoked in me a mood and my mind created a whole life story for each of these women. A mom at the beach trying to keep her kids in line; a sad, matron, wondering where her life had gone; a glamorous, young society lady at the country club watching a tennis game while sipping a martini….

How did so much come from such simple paintings? Leaving out the details left it to my mind to fill them in. This is something I so needed to learn: that simplifying and omitting detail doesn’t make a painting boring—it lets the viewer’s mind play and be creative, making for an exciting, rewarding experience. Thanks, Ed, for holding up that signpost!

Another sign-toting angel came via email this week: a request to purchase this plein air oil painting I made last summer at Lake Temescal. There I was at the crossroads, wondering whether to give up plein air oil painting, and this angel popped up with a sign saying, “You’re on the right path, don’t turn back.”

And now about my process with today’s painting. First I tried to simplify by painting large color shapes with the plan to create a color study for a work to be done in the studio. I also focused on the composition, picking a focal point, being careful not to divide the canvas in half as I have a tendency to do, making the subject (the water) the largest portion.

Here’s how it looked when I’d covered the whole panel:

Lake Temescal Reflections, phase 1
Lake Temescal Reflections, Phase 1

I’d worked quickly, using a palette knife, going for big shapes of color. I should have stopped there and gone for a walk. But instead I messed around for another hour and muddied up the design and the colors:

Temescal Reflections - Phase 2
Temescal Reflections (muddied), Phase 2

But the great thing about palette knife painting is that it’s easy to scrape off passages and repaint them. So later that evening I put the photo of Phase 1 on my computer monitor side-by-side with a photo of the scene and worked on the painting until I was satisfied with it (as posted at top).

And I’m very happy with another breakthrough: the way I was able to enjoy the plein air painting process without worrying about making a Painting with a capital P while I was out there.

Life in general Oil Painting Outdoors/Landscape People

Lake, Little Girl & What Makes You Happy?

Little Girl at Lake Temescal (Revised)
Little Girl at Lake Temescal (Revised)

Updated: I worked on the painting and tried to make the little girl sunnier (ABOVE). When I compared the finished painting to the original photo I discovered that the girl and the ducks were way too big compared to the actual scene. Oh well.

The original is BELOW:

Little Girl at Lake Anza, Oil on Gessobord, 8x8"
(Original) Little Girl at Lake Temescal, Oil on Gessobord, 8x8" from photo

When I woke up this morning I was feeling grumpy because it was my last day of vacation and I’d hoped to accomplish more in the studio than I had. I tried to think of an antidote to grumpiness so I didn’t ruin my day. I decided to write down everything that makes me happy and was surprised that it took three pages in my  journal. When I finished writing I was feeling much more cheery.

I’d be interested to hear what makes you happy.

About the painting: I took the photo when I was painting at Lake Temescal in Oakland last month and cropped it to experiment with a square format. I pretended like the image on my monitor was a plein air scene and tried to paint as if I was outdoors. I must admit I didn’t really fool myself, and knew the light wouldn’t change and the little girl wouldn’t move.

What makes me happy: (in the order it occurred to me this morning):

A nice walk, fun in the studio, a good meal, a beautiful rainy day being cozy indoors, an enjoyable movie, a snuggly cat or dog, comfortable clothes, good art supplies, loving friends and family, a good book, a day to myself, learning something new, a new art magazine in the mail, days off work, a hot bath or shower, unscheduled time, bursts of creativity, being pain free, comfortable shoes.

A warm beach, windows into other peoples’ lives, my guardian angel (don’t ask), great art, beautiful art books, libraries, book stores, art supply stores, wearing colorful bandanas, finding the right shade of lipstick, looking and feeling cute, tall men with strong arms, drawing people, drawing anything, the flow of watercolor on paper, a successful painting.

A clean house, a toasty warm bed on a cold night, doing dishes, scooping the litter box (I know, I’m nuts), a speedy computer, learning to see colors accurately, my framed art hanging on the wall, a good workout, a small garden, smooth stones, shells from the ocean, the scent of the sea, eating fresh oysters.

Remembering my Grandma, seeing my sons happy and healthy, a hug from my sister, a good laugh, a hike and catch up chat with a friend, organizing things, an air conditioner on a hot night, a refreshing drink when I’m thirsty, a latte made with love (and Peets coffee), a smooth road without potholes, competence, a good teacher.

Good news for a change, financial security (someday), walking instead of driving, people who work for common good, generosity, kindness, puppies, kittens, rain, having someone say “God bless you.” My GPS (not getting lost anymore), my spunky little Toyota RAV4, my Soltek easel and plein air cart, my fuzzy slippers and ratty sweatshirt, my closet for storing canvas, my washer and dryer, owning my own little house.

My neighbors, the internet, my iPhone, good healthcare, a nice cup of tea, writing and/or sketching daily in my journal, a fridge full of fresh healthy food, silly kitties, a massage and sauna, my special black-handled cereal spoon (was my mothers from her 1950s kitchen).

What makes you happy?

Art theory Landscape Oil Painting Outdoors/Landscape Painting Plein Air

Plein air painting: What’s it good for?

Lake Temescal Backlit, Oil on panel 9x12"
Lake Temescal Backlit, Oil on panel 9x12

An artist friend once said that in her opinion, the definition of ” plein air” is “bad landscape painting.” While I have seen some really great plein air landscapes, I’m finding that its challenges often lead to results that look clunky and kindergartenish. It takes a lot of practice to be able to successfully capture a scene in the two hour window you have before the light changes and everything looks completely different.

When starting a plein air painting (or any painting for that matter) it is recommended to first simplify the scene down to its most basic elements, the largest shapes of value and color. However, because I love detail so much, something inside me often rebels at simplifying and then I find myself with an incoherent mess.

I like to think of plein air painting as akin to figure drawing, rather than a way to achieve finished works of art: It’s good for you, but not an end in itself. But if I spend my painting time mostly working plein air, I end up with lots of crappy paintings and frustration from working small. And that leads to messing around with  the painting at home instead of leaving it alone.

Painting process

Below is the sketch that I painted at Lake Temescal on Sunday. It was a gorgeous day and although the lake was smooth and reflective and beautiful, the backlit trees along the lake were calling out to be painted. Below is the original version of the scene painted plein air.

Original painted plein air
Original painted plein air

When I brought it home I broke my rule (that I have yet to follow): Leave plein air paintings alone, call them sketches and move on.  Instead, after dinner I started messing with it, using a photo reference.

Today I studied the painting, still dissatisfied, trying to figure out what was wrong. I converted photos of the scene and my painting to “grayscale” in Photoshop and compared them. Immediately I could see that the photo had strong value contrast and that my painting did not. I worked on it some more, adding some dark accents. Here are the photos:

When a painting isn’t working I turn it into a little laboratory for learning, pushing it until it’s total crap or I’ve learned what I was trying to learn, or both. I think I should have just left this one as a happy color study.