Thursday, December 16, 2010

Canyon Spirit


Last September, I was blessed to see some of the most amazing scenery while vacationing in the Canadian Rockies with family. There were soaring jagged peaks and fantastic glaciers but the place I wanted to paint the most was Maligne Canyon. It's a lush forested place accessed by a trail that crosses the chasm via six bridges. I didn't have my painting setup with me but took many photos. I came back and looked at them and at first nothing stood out. I finally settled on a concept combining cliffs and a large raven that followed us around for about half the hike. What I had in mind was very different from anything I had done before. I wanted more mood and looser brushwork but didn't know how to achieve it. Inspiration came while painting with artist and friend Jeff Legg in October. Besides painting I also benefited just talking about art and practical things like brushstroke variety. The final piece of the puzzle came from re-reading Richard Schmid's "Alla Prima." I could finally envision what this thing was supposed to look like and how I would get there.

After tinting the 11 x 14 canvas a warm gray, I made my first marks with a large flat brush. I tried to make every stroke accurate and visually pleasing. I was planning on leaving exposed areas showing the initial brushwork. I painted the bird as dark of a black as I could mix.

My next goal was to go for a finish on the background and rock face. I used large brushes (for me anyway) and thicker paint. I tried to mix some colors on the canvas, worked thicker still and finally went after it with a palette knife. I painted the negative spaces around the bird, defining it's silhouette. End of first session.

Canyon Spirit, 11" x 14", oils

The next day I was happy to find most of the painting still wet and workable. Painting the highlights on the raven, every stroke was calculated and thought through. In my reference photo, I could just make out the highlight in the bird's eye but chose to leave it out in order to add mood and a sense of mystery. I'm sure that eye detail would have made the bird "cute" and I didn't want that. I finished up by pushing the highlights on the bird's rocky surroundings. I'm very pleased with the end result.

Canyon Spirit detail

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Late Fall at Sailboat Cove


Brown and Blue, 8 x 10, oils

This piece happened quite spontaneously. I was working on a painting in the studio and was about done for the day. Getting ready to scrape the paint off my palette, I thought, why don't I transfer this paint to the palette of my pochade box and go knock something out instead of throwing it away. It was 57F outside, very warm for this time of year and I instinctively headed for Sailboat Cove. There was one boat in the water and I decided to do a symmetrical composition. I felt like one of the impressionists while painting the water. The boat was anchored but slowly turning in circles so I could only work on it when it was 'in position.' A good exercise in memorizing detail. I laid down most of the paint in an hour. I went back the next day to work on it more but the boat was gone and the wind made painting impossible. I ended up spending a bit more time on it in the studio working from memory.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Big Cedar Paint Out


Autumn Gold, 9 x 12, oils

The Worman House, 9 x 12, oils

Hilltop View, 11 x 14, oils

Marina Nocturne, 9 x 12, oils

This was the first plein air event held at Big Cedar Lodge on Table Rock Lake in the Missouri Ozarks. Over 70 artists participated and the weather could not have been better. Jeff Legg, friend and fellow artist joined me for the trip. Except for completely bombing out on the "Quick Paint" competition (why did I pick roses?) I felt confident painting and learned a lot that I want to apply to future efforts. Doing a practice nocturne a week earlier really helped. On awards night I won Second Place for the Night Paint Out and sold a large painting. Jeff won Second Place Best of Show and sold two paintings. Special thanks to Jeanie Morris, Lyn Phariss and Louise Thies for making this thing happen.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

First Nocturne


Riverfront Park, 6 x 8, oils on hardboard

The original definition for "nocturne" was a piece of music evoking the evening. James Whistler named several of his paintings nocturnes and so now we can apply it to the visual arts as well. I've always liked them and have wanted to do my own, especially from life. This is a trick to do and the traditional way is to use spelunkers headlamps. I could tell that wasn't going to work for me so I came up with my own setup using two booklights clipped to the top of my easel. One has a tungsten bulb and the other two LED lights. This gives me balanced light and makes it so that my hand doesn't cast a shadow on the palette or painting. My daughter (and good luck charm) Annie joined me for my first effort down at the Berkley Riverfront Park in Kansas City. We found an old industrial building that loads and unloads railroad cars with the Broadway Bridge and lights of KCK in the background. We started painting after the sun was down but while there was still a bit of color in the western sky and when we finished about an hour later all we could see was city lights and their reflections on the water. You can't tell for sure what your painting looks like until you bring it into the light later but somehow the colors all held together. This was really fun and I plan to do more.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Borrego Palm Canyon Demonstration


This will be my first step-by-step posting. A 20" x 20" studio painting on canvas based on my own photographs. The scene is Borrego Palm Canyon, a beautiful oasis in southern California that I hiked back to last March. After working out a square composition at 8" x 8" I scale it up to the big canvas by drawing a grid. I do this because it's hard to see a large canvas all at once and very easy to get proportions out of whack. I start on white gessoed linen and do the under drawing with a thinned down brown tone using a large brush. I don't want to get too caught up in detail because I'm going to cover everything up with thicker paint.

Now it's time to squeeze out some serious paint. I begin blocking everything in the scene that I perceive as in shadow. If you think of white as 0% and black as 100%, I'm painting everything that's darker than 50% gray. I'm going pretty quickly here, thinking more about big shapes and not details. Everything lighter than 50% I leave as canvas white for now.

The next step is to paint all the lighter areas of the painting in the same manner. My goal in this session is to get the entire canvas covered with paint. No details yet, just major shapes. I know, the triple palm looks silly without any trunks but I would rather paint the distant hills as one mass and then paint the thin trunks than try to paint inside the little negative spaces between them and try to make it match. This is the part of the painting I'd rather not have someone looking over my shoulder. After finishing this block in, I can already see values and hues that I'm going to have to adjust. To put it bluntly, there are some things here that bug me. But that's what I like about oils. I can add more paint.

What was bugging me the most was the big white rock pile in the middle. It was stealing the show so I knocked it back with some warm and cool grays. I've also added those palm trunks as well as details in the background, the rocks on the upper left and the water.

In this session I finished the water feature and tuck lush foliage all around it to emphasize it's life giving power. The goal here is to contrast the water and foliage with the surrounding desert.

At this point I started to sense a composition problem. My eye wanted to flow from the upper left to the lower right and out of the picture. To fix this I added some palm foliage above the big rock on the right to hold everything in. Finally I go all around the entire canvas, taking each area to the level of finished detail that I feel it needs. I then sign the lower right and call it done.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Early Art 2: The Sequel

Beneath the Planet of the Apes, 8 1/2 x 11, Bic pen on hotel stationery, 1970

The other piece of childhood art. This one was saved by a schoolmate, passed on to a cousin and finally came into my possession two years ago. I did the drawing when I was ten after seeing the film at the old palatial Fox Theatre. It was one of the few places in small town Missouri where a kid could get a real sense of awe. The thick asian rugs, the tapestries, the statues and finally that immense ornate ceiling. It made every matinee movie seem important. The drawing was most likely done at our dining room table with a stack of "Famous Monsters of Filmland" magazines for reference. With crosshatching and very light pressure, I found I could get a full grayscale of values.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Early Art: From Aunt Esther's Kitchen Table

Anachronism, 8 1/2 x 11, Bic pen on typewriter paper,1969

I only have two drawings from my childhood. This one was saved by my Aunt Esther. It was done when I was nine years old on a stormy summer weekend when we were forced to entertain ourselves indoors. My influences at the time were a stack of old Mad magazines and the film "The Planet of the Apes." As if combining Taylor, the Statue of Liberty and a few Tyrannosaurus weren't enough, I've also turned the torch into an ice cream cone.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Studio Stuff pt. 2


Alexander Valley, 11 x 14, oils

The scene is Geyser Peak overlooking Alexander and Dry Creek valleys. All part of Sonoma wine country. I include the photos below to help show the process of rearranging elements, removing elements and even making things up (like the grape clusters.) It's an unusual composition, but my goal was for it to be about the repetition of the vines and rows, with enough other things for the eye to follow to be interesting.

Photos by Terry DeGraff

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Studio Stuff pt. 1


Wilkerson Pass, 12" x 16", oils

This is a much larger version of a painting that I did in January. I've always like big sky paintings with low horizons. I started this central Colorado scene months ago but wasn't satisfied with it so I just let it sit on the shelf for a while. I would come back to it when I knew what it needed. With time I realized that the two cedars in the lower right were the center of interest but they weren't, well, interesting. There wasn't much to go on from my photo reference so I did an image search on cedars to get a better feel for them. I didn't copy the new reference, I just let it advise me on what was needed. Here's the original study piece:

Wilkerson Pass, 6" x 8", oils

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

STEMS Plein Air Part 2


Water at Play, 11" x 14" oils

I worked on this waterfall scene for a couple of hours until the morning light changed and I had to quit. I came back the next day to finish only to find it was bone dry with a fat water mocassin crawling right up the middle of it. I'm sure he was as confused as I was. I can't begin to describe how empty a dry waterfall is. You even notice the lack of expected sounds. It's a landscaped feature and a staff member told me that the water is pumped up from Wolf Creek so if we don't get enough rain, it quits. It was almost a week later when we got some rain and it was once again a thing of beauty. I'm so glad I had the chance to finish it.

Both nights he noticed me up on the bridge.

For my next painting I hiked down to Wolf Creek to paint an interesting bend in the river. I worked on this for two sessions in the evening. On both occasions the same deer came down for a drink at exactly the same time. The only difference was the second time a raccoon was sitting on the opposite bank. They noticed each other and froze for a few seconds (of course I forgot to bring my camera.) I guess if you want to see wildlife, go out to the country near sunset and just stand quietly in one place for an hour or two.

Raccoon Rendezvous, 9" x 12" oils

In the end I chose to submit the first three painting for this Kansas show. I still like the last one but it doesn't feel finished and I was out of time.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

STEMS Plein Air Part 1


Day's End, 9" x 12" oils

On May 22 I joined approximately 100 area artists, kicking off the STEMS Plein Air Event with a sunset paint out. It was a bit of a reunion painting along side so many artists I have gotten to know over the last twenty years. The location was the Overland Park Arboretum and Botanical Garden in Johnson County, Kansas. At 6:30 we were off and had two hours to turn in a painting. I've had bad experiences trying to paint actual sunsets before so this time my target was the southern sky where the light doesn't change so fast but still has all the color. There were very few clouds so there wasn't much drama but the golden hour with it's lengthening shadows made for some interest.

The Monet Garden, 12" x 12" oils

Gina joined me for Sunday's outing. After we toured most of the gardens, I settled on painting about the most complex scene there. And it probably would have been a disaster if not for the bright overcast sky. As it turned out the light changed so little that I was able to spend 5 hours on it. Cloudy days are great days to paint.

Monday, May 10, 2010

More Spring Plein Air


Forsythia, 6 x 8, oils
This was painted during a couple of lunchbreaks right outside of where I work.

Red bud, Lowenstien Park, 6 x 8, oils
Both these paintings were done on cloudy days. In spring you can still have a lot of color without sun.

Amigoni's Cabernet Franc, 6 x 8, oils
Mr. Amigoni gave me a personal tour of his vineyard and let me paint the new growth on his vines. European grapes growing in western Missouri. He's a pioneer.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Augusta Plein Air Event


Becky's House, 8 x 10, oils

New Growth, 8 x 10, oils

Take the Long Way Home, 9 x 12, oils

Like last falls trip, bad weather was a major factor in this event held in beautiful Augusta, Missouri. I'm sure the locals were impressed to see dozens of artists painting in the pouring rain. Still I was able to get some painting done and submit three pieces for the show.

About the pieces: I noticed that another artist had painted the same house. He was from nearby and said "Oh, that's Becky's house." I asked who Becky was and he said "I don't know, that's just what everyone calls it." The twisted vines were painted up at Sugar Creek Winery. It went on to win an Honorable Mention and was purchased in a silent auction. I started the third one in the rain and went back and finished it a week later.

The Augusta region is a beautiful place to paint. I feel like I've just scratched the surface. I also thoroughly enjoyed hanging out with so many great and friendly artists and volunteers. I will definitely go back next year.

Left to right: Me, Laura Kratz, my son-in-law Alan and my daughter Annie.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Combining Two Passions

Verasion 8" x 10", oils

All red grapes start out green. Verasion is when they begin to take on take on their true colors. They won't taste good or make good wine for a while but I just love all of the intermingled colors. Zinfandel grapes growing in Alexander Valley, Sonoma County, California.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Place that could be Almost Anywhere...

Another scene from central Colorado. This is a photo of Willow Creek west of Poncha Springs. As the title suggests what attracted me is the near universal appeal. Little streams like this can be found everywhere and capturing something that so many can can connect with can result in a more powerful painting than a specific place like, say, the Grand Canyon. The first challenge with the scene is that it's too complicated. I would have to simplify the shapes into larger masses and save the details for the center of interest. The next challenge is the stream itself. I've had little instruction on how to paint water but have found that it's a tricky balance between painting the colors exactly as you see them (water is not always blue) and exaggerating colors, especially cool ones (like blue!) Then there is that gray log. I wanted it in there but it would have to be seriously toned down to not draw too much attention. The last touch was punching the contrast and color where the creek disappears in the distance.

Willow Creek, 6 x 8, oils

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Missing fame by just 29 feet

Mt Ouray from Marshall Pass, 6" x 8", oils

I'm still mining last years Colorado trip for painting subject matter until warmer weather arrives. For my second effort using the thumb box I chose a photo of Mount Ouray from the dirt road to Marshall Pass. At 13,971 feet, Mount Ouray is just shy of the magic number that would make it the goal of thousands of more hikers, climbers and photographers. It still looked huge and majestic from where I was standing. Painting note: on these 6 x 8 pieces I'm starting out on a white background. For years I've been painting on a warm gray surface. I had good reasons for doing this but began to have problems with them being too dull and the values all jammed in the midrange. Though the results are a bit lighter or higher key, I really like the cleaner colors and greater contrast.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Big Thumb's Up for Small Paintings

The Thumb box. Pictures don't really show how small it is

Last September when Ken Chapin and I were painting as part of the Colorado Mountain Plein Air Fest, we decided to hike back (and up) to Agnes Vail Falls on the southern flank of Mt. Princeton. For me it meant carrying my pochade box, heavy tripod, supply bag and camera, about 20 lbs. I look over and Ken is carrying this tiny sketch box. It was a Julian Thumbbox, and every jagged, uneven step of that hike I became more jealous. During that week he did a couple of really nice little paintings with it. This was quickly becoming something I 'needed.' Besides, Kevin MacPherson once said that he learned to paint by doing about 1,500(!) little 6"x 8" paintings. So after a couple of hints to my wife, I found one under the Christmas tree.

The coldest, snowiest winter in recent memory has made taking it out in the wild difficult, so instead I've been painting indoors from photos. Here's my first effort:

Late afternoon at Wilkerson Pass, 6 x 8, oils

Monday, February 8, 2010

Colorado Mountain Plein Air Fest


My painting setup next to the Arkansas River

In September, fellow artist Ken Chapin and I participated in this annual competition in the mighty Sawatch and Sangre de Cristo mountains. The constantly changing weather made for great photography but perhaps the toughest painting conditions I've ever faced. We had rain or snow every day and the lighting never settled down for a minute. We got started on top of Monarch Pass at sunrise in freezing rain, the sun cutting in and out of ragged drifting clouds. It was the highest elevation I'd ever painted (11,312 ft.) During the week our painting efforts took us to locations along the Arkansas River and it's tributaries, to a waterfall, an abandoned mining town and getting caught in a sudden blizzard at Great Sand Dunes National Park. We didn't win any hardware at the gallery show but Ken did win 1st place in a 'paint out' in Buena Vista. Big thanks to artist, Joshua Been for organizing the event and loaning me his tripod.

Mt Aetna from Monarch Pass at sunrise, 8x10, oils

Ken Chapin putting down those first brushstrokes

Arkansas River near Buena Vista, 9 x 12, oils

Painting always attracts curious onlookers