Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Fall in La Plata - plein air, pastel

Fall Along La Plata Canyon Rd
12x16 inches - pastel on black Artagain
© 2011, S.Johnson
During fall color season, the PAP4C group meets weekly for paint-outs.  Today was a return to La Plata Canyon, which is about 10 miles west of town.  The first paint-out I did with the group was in the same area, although on a private ranch, back in mid-June.  Those paintings can be seen here.

Today was another of those "easy to find a location" paint-outs, right along the side of the road.  I've taken photos in this location before, in different seasons, and even before I lived here.   The huge Fremont cottonwood made an easy center of interest, and the slope directly behind was covered with scrub oak in their range of rusts and crimson reds.   Patches of aspen on the base of the mountains show some color.

I didn't get photos of the rest of the group's paintings today, but I had a funny thing happen while I was painting:  A car with two older couples visiting from Germany stopped, and they all came over to see my painting and ask me questions, like where I lived, and where was my work for sale, etc.  And, for whatever reason, they wanted to take photos of me standing next to my easel.  And, they took several photos of the painting itself, which was about 85% finished at that time.  Yes, my painting and I became an international tourist photo prop.  The straw cowboy hat I wear when painting probably added to the "wild west" image of everything - ha!

I don't know what it is, but for some reason, people feel compelled to actually *touch* the pastels.  They never ask; they just touch one of them, and lo and behold - they get "chalk dust" on their fingertip.  Thankfully, that's only happened one other time, but it's sort of amusing.  

At any rate, they were friendly and polite and I offered to take their photos with essentially the same view I was painting in the background, and they were delighted.  The woman who spoke the most English wished me the best of luck for all my paintings, and then at my suggestion, they headed up the highway to Durango.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Plein air along the Animas, and facing fears

Sunday's plein air painting, from nearby Santa Rita Park...

Perins Peak and the Riverbank
9x12 inches - pastel on Artagain
© S. Johnson
What does plein air painting have to do with facing one's fears, and the relevance with this painting, you ask?  At first glance, not much.  In fact, I wouldn't have given it much thought save for a couple of coincidental circumstances that got me thinking about it and how it relates to what we do as artists, and how it all does tie together.

I mentioned in a recent post about an agenda I have that I feel necessitates as much on location painting as possible, and I didn't have time to post about it then, but last week, I bit the bullet, so to speak, and registered for the Plein Air Moab '11 event.  This is both exciting and a bit daunting - I have never been to a plein air event, let alone participated in one.  In fact, this is really the first season I've done any appreciable landscape paintings on location, so it's not like I have the years of experience that probably most participants will have.   But, I really groove out on painting on location, and with the landscape of the southern Utah canyon country being my favorite, I really wanted to give it a go.  The fact it's not an invitational event made that possible.

For various logistical reasons, I'm going by myself and am planning on heading up early Tuesday and staying through Saturday until paintings can be released.  Part of what I hope to participate in is at least one of the quick draw events.  For those not familiar, a quick draw paint-out is usually at a predetermined location, and artists have 90 minutes to complete a painting, which goes immediately on display and into the competition - talk about performance pressure!

While painting with the PAP4C group on Saturday, I inquired if anyone there was planning on attending.  No one present was.  One of the oil painters, whose name I don't remember, said she can only handle one plein air event a year, and then explained that she gets very anxious participating in the quick draw events, and because of nerves, won't drink coffee that morning. I honestly hadn't given that any thought as a possibility for myself, so I found it really interesting!

The coincidental aspect of her comment is that I happen to be reading a book from our library right now on that very subject, by Taylor Clark - Nerve:  Poise under pressure, serenity under stress, and the brave new science of fear and cool.  You can read reviews and more about it HERE.  I'm finding it an absolutely fascinating read, perhaps because I've never read anything specifically on the subject before, although I can relate to much of what he discusses.  For anyone who has ever dealt with fear or phobias or even anxiety from a seemingly innocuous event like public speaking (which polls show many people fear more than death!), I'd recommend this book.  Heck, I'd recommend it just because it is such an interesting read, and because you are bound to learn something new.

The book is filled with anecdotal stories of people who both thrive and choke under conditions of stress, fear and anxiety, and delves into the neurophysiology and the evolutionary basis for fear.  And while it's not meant to be a self-help book, it goes into examples of individuals who overcame their fears and how they did so.  I also realized how it related to my participation in the Moab Plein Air event, and how I am preparing for it.

Why and how?  Well, despite the fact I don't have years of experience landscape painting (about 2 years now), let alone plein air painting, I feel comfortable and relatively confident in doing it.  Part of the reason for that, I think, is that I seldom have any expectations when I set up to paint on location, other than to paint.  Will it be successful or not?  Answer:  who cares?  In my mind, it is the process that is important, more so than the outcome...because, as I like to say:  a bad plein air painting is better than no painting at all.

What I don't have a lot of experience with, however, is painting within a time limit, at least on location.  So, after I registered for the event, I determined that some "training" for the quick draw was in order.  In this case, painting under the watch.  This has the effect of both familiarizing me with that particular parameter, and repetition...both of which are effective for combating the fear and anxiety of performance-related events.   Practice and training - it's what makes people better at whatever they do.  And if you've got a fear of something, the only real way to make it go away is to face it head-on, as uncomfortable and unpleasant as that is.

So, from now until the few days before I head for Moab, I'm going to be doing two things in preparation:  1) doing timed paintings on location; 2) doing more Utah-oriented landscapes in my studio, from photos.  This way, I can fine-tune my plein air palette to that landscape without (hopefully) any "I'm missing these colors!" anxiety.

The painting in this post?  Done for time - 90 min.  To that end, it was a successful painting.  I was drawn to the various elements in it (pale yellow grassy hill vs. the eroded bank of the Animas in shadow, the river and exposed rocks, and the distal peak of Perins and the gray shale slopes of the hogback), and working efficiently during the allotted time.  Of course, it's got issues, but nary a painting I do doesn't.

Now, I ask you:  what are your fears as they pertain to you and your art, and what, if anything, do you do to address them?  Fear of failure?  Fear of forgetting how to paint?  Fear of gallery or juried show rejection?  It's really more of a rhetorical question to make you think, but feel free to comment on it if you wish.

In the meantime, here are some non-fear inducing photos from our hike yesterday, in lieu of painting.  Tripod in tow, I scrambled down steep banks and through brush to capture some of the falls and fall color of west Lime Creek in the San Juans:


Falls revisited from Aug 31 blog/FB post...this time, with wide angle lens and tripod
Wayne along a meadow section of the trail
Hmm...that rock behind him is in an unfortunate position, isn't it?
Sorry, Wayne!

Abandoned mining equipment near the end of the trail

A set of falls earlier on the trail shot on the way back with better light

Twilight Peak with the "Lime Creek Aspen Slope" in full color, as seen from Hwy 550
We've started calling these the "thermonuclear aspen", as they glow an intense yellow-orange even when in shade of the adjacent slope

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Fall in the San Juans - plein air, pastel

I'd hoped to get this posted yesterday, but didn't have time.  Yesterday, the PAP4C (Plein Air Painters of the Four Corners) had a paint-out at Andrews Lake, which you may remember from previous blog posts.

(NOTE:  this post is very image was a full day)  

Hillside Aspens 
12x16 inches
pastel on black Artagain
The weather was absolutely perfect - mild and sunny, with no wind or chance of rain, and no insects.  Aspen are coming into fall color rapidly along Hwy 550 in the higher elevations.  It is what early fall in the San Juans is all about.  At the lake itself, there are no aspen, and I originally thought about painting the lake because it is so attractive.  However, when fellow pastelist Jan and Mary Ellen arrived, they wanted to paint fall colors, which sounded more appealing, so I decided to follow them back down the highway.

I ended up pulling off before they did, at a huge slope of yellow and green aspen right at a large pullout, and while I was originally planning on painting that stand (in photo below), as I climbed up a small hill and looked to the east, I knew immediately I had my painting.  Aside from the brilliant yellow stand of distal aspen, the pale gray Leadville limestone pushing up through the dried grasses was the perfect lead-in and clinched the deal.

And, in an unusual moment of foresight, I actually thought to take a few photos of the painting in-progress.  I always enjoy it when artists post their painting in its stages, so I thought I'd do the same.  They aren't that amazing, but painting on black is different than using a lighter surface as far as approach goes, and maybe some will find it interesting.

Initial block-in:  I used a NuPastel in bottle green to sketch in the horizon contour and basic shapes of the main elements.  A light gray NuPastel was used to suggest the initial rocks, with a few strokes of earth colors to define some planes and edges, and then I jumped right in with the color.  

The surface looks gray because it is in full sun and there is the shadow from the top of the easel (stood for this painting, using my French easel).

Sky was put in to help anchor the painting and values.  From that point, I work sort of randomly across the paper, going back and forth with different colors, working on different elements, usually just a few strokes before picking up another color.  I find this keeps things from getting too mechanical and maintains the degree of disorder and contained chaos that nature presents.

The finished painting at the end of the plein air session, with final detail added.  This is the largest size (12x16") that I've used on location so far, and it took me about 2 1/2 hrs. to complete.  After the critique session suggestions, I made some minor adjustments back in the studio that you can see by comparing this to the top painting.  
There were a total of seven of us at the paint-out, and at 1:00 PM, the critique session was held at the small dock at Andrews Lake.  Here is the group photo of everyone's work, a few of which weren't finished:

Media, from top L to bottom R:
oil, w/c, pastel, pastel, oil, w/c, oil (almost out of the picture)

After the paint-out critique wrapped up, Wayne (who had come along to hike the Crater Lake trail while I painted) suggested we drive to Silverton, which is about 8 miles away, to get something to eat and check out the fall colors.  It turned out to be better than we hoped, with aspen firing off in full color throughout the Silverton area.  Here are a few photos, and it's probably easy to see why artists and photographers are just wild about aspen in the fall:

The aspen stand I almost painted, south of Andrews Lake
Quaking color 
Aspen quartet outside of Silverton
A stand of orange aspen frame part of Anvil Mtn. west of Silverton along Hwy 550

Beautiful brilliant yellow aspen stand just south of Silverton, flanked by spruce

Looking skyward - aspen along Hwy 550 south of Coal Bank Pass
Trunks and shadows and complimentary colors
Leaf still life on boulder

Friday, September 23, 2011

Early fall in Durango - plein air, pastel

I've been slacking on location painting lately, partly because of recent bad weather and partly because we have been taking advantage of the current amazing fall weather to get up in the mountains and hike before the season ends.  

These paintings are part of an agenda I have, which I'll discuss in a later post.  Suffice it to say that my plan is to paint on location as often as possible for the next few weeks.
Dry Fork Cottonwoods
pastel on Strathmore Artagain - 12x9 inches
© 2011, S Johnson
 Today's plein air painting, done from the trailhead near Dry Fork, which is west of town a few miles.  We hiked there yesterday afternoon, and these small leaf cottonwoods were in nearly full color, and despite taking some reference photos yesterday, I decided this would be the ideal place to paint today...after missing the rendezvous with the Friday plein air group this morning.

Remember the Barnroof Point painting from a few days ago?  The eastern edge of its cliffs can be seen in this painting.  The orange/rust slope is the scrub oak that form amazing patchworks of color on the steep slopes around town.

Riverside Colors
pastel on Strathmore Artagain - 9x12 inches
© 2011, S Johnson
Painting from Wed late afternoon, along the banks of the Animas.  The cottonwoods aren't turning along the river yet, but these bushes were.  Plus, it was another excuse to practice painting water and reflections.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Studio stacks

Something different (and fun, I hope).

I recently discovered Seth Apter's blog - The Altered Page, which is geared towards mixed media artists.   I find mixed media fascinating and wonderful, probably because I don't do it and it seems daunting to me. He regularly profiles mixed media artists on his blog, and it's always a good read, regardless of the medium you work in.

In today's post, he invites artists to post photos of their stacks:  of art, paper, journals - whatever...because yes, we've all got 'em.  I've got stacks of pastel paintings, some carefully stored in a covered storage box, and more recent ones haphazardly stacked atop each other on my shelves.  And lots of oil paintings - on canvas paper, board and panels.

So, I rounded much of everything up, including a 20 year old sketchbook, and made stacks on my studio table downstairs.  What you don't see is the surrounding clutter and shelves full of art supplies, large unfinished paintings and frames on the floor, and the general miscellany that goes with being an artist.

Studio stacks - the gestalt
Included is an in-progress painting and the computer monitor I use with my laptop,
the bin for my oils and my pastel trays
The pastel stack - over 200 paintings!
Most finished, some not (including several plein air pieces)

Side view of the pastel stack - the scrapbook holds earlier ones
Behind the stack is an old wooden box for still life props
with all the 1:2 format plein air pastels I've done this summer

The stack of oils, my favorite sketchbook, and some small pastels in glassine
Good grief!  Now I need to put it all away...

Monday, September 19, 2011

Early fall in the San Juans

Yesterday was the first sunny, rain-free day we've had since we got back from Boise last week.  So, it was up to the mountains for us!  With the system that came through the region, we got much lower temps and rain, but the high country got its first snow of the season above 12,600' or so.

I brought my plein air gear (including chair and folding table) along for the ~3 mile RT hike along Cascade Creek.  However, the resultant painting was so horribly bad (on the black construction paper...last time I bring that along) that it's going straight in the trash whenever I get around to breaking out my plein air box.

In the meantime, here are some photos from the hike and a drive up to Molas Pass to scope out the fall color situation.


Engineer Peak as seen along Hwy 550 on the way to Cascade Creek
Lookin' good, as always

Mourning Cloak butterfly
These butterflies are one of the earliest to appear in spring (I saw them on our trip to Cedar Mesa back in early April) and keep right on going well into fall.  They are extremely wary, which makes them difficult to approach and photograph.  Because I didn't anticipate any butterflies on the hike due to the low temps, I didn't bring my telephoto lens on the hike.

This was shot @70mm holding the camera near the ground, carefully moving it as close to the insect as possible, and shot blindly.  Sometimes, that works!

The Cascade Creek trail
My painting location was to the right and closer to the large boulder near the trail

A pair of Clouded Sulfur butterflies (male in front) feed on some late season red clover

3-part pano shot taken at Molas Pass - view is to the northeast
Molas Lake is seen in the middle
(click on photo to see larger view)

Snowdon Peak as seen from the Colorado Trail after it crosses Hwy 550
View is to the south

Friday, September 16, 2011

Back to black - pastels

Two quickie pieces done today on some black paper picked up yesterday at the Hobby Lobby in the bustling metropolis of Farmington, NM.

It was black, smooth, acid-free, 12x18" and CHEAP (50 sheets/$3.85), so what's the risk in giving it a try?  They don't carry any of the fine art black paper in pads I was looking for, so I had to settle for this:  construction paper.  Yep, the stuff kids use in elementary school to make things.

Mesa Skies
9x12 inches
I used my #220 sandpaper on it, and the resultant texture was much rougher than the Strathmore black papers.  If not for the fact it is probably not lightfast and it's not quite as thick as the Strathmore, I'd be content using it.  Not that the lightfast issue really matters that much since so little of the paper shows.

Towards Barnroof Point
9x12 inches
Both based on photos, with the goal to work quickly and keep things loose and stick to massed shapes. This paper is really good for that, actually - much better than the colored Strathmore charcoal paper I've been using recently.

I really dislike the blue for the cliff shadows in the second painting, but I just didn't have the right shade of gray I needed.   Despite their shortcomings, they were satisfying to produce.

Coincidentally, the local art supply store finally came through with the pad of black Artagain I ordered over 2 weeks ago, so now I can go back to that for my black paper fixes.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Along the Pine - pastel

Along The Pine
pastel on Strathmore 400-series charcoal paper
9x12 inches

Started last week (on the day I got sick), and finally finished and photographed.  Done at my computer with my plein air set, because I've just been too lazy to move the painting operations to my downstairs studio.

I could have titled this:  "What I would have painted if I had painted on location", because that's essentially what it is.  Over Labor Day weekend, we decided to hike/fish/paint along the Pine River, located east of town about an hour away.  In fact, the Pine River (also called "Los Pinos") trailhead is about 1/4 mile from the recent PAP4C paint-out piece I did - "Late Summer in the Pine River Valley".

I brought my streamlined plein air set-up with me (stadium chair, pastel box, foamboard with this 9x12 piece of paper taped to it) intending to paint while Wayne fished.  The Granite Peak Ranch (where we painted) is huge, and one must hike about 3 miles along the ranch easement in order to get to FS land and thus fish and camp, but luckily, the trail is is level and a really easy hike, so I didn't mind hiking the gear in that far.

Painting didn't happen - got distracted with photographing flying things, and the rapidly building monsoon clouds eventually killed the light completely.  But, I took this one photo of the river and knew I'd paint it.  I also discovered that my stadium chair is ideal for protecting my pastel box from getting soaked when hiking back in a rainstorm.

Biggest challenge was that dark forest background and trying to balance abstract shapes with just enough detail.  One thing I've noticed is that my darkity-dark-dark pastels are actually *plenty dark* for this tan paper, vs. the black Strathmore, where I was always working to get things dark enough.  Gee - who knew?  So, I found it much easier to obtain those values.

Some obligatory photos from the hike:

Unidentified flower, filterized
A section of the trail through an aspen stand
"Me and My Shadow"
A Green Comma butterfly shows off its brilliant topside colors on a dead tree

Green Comma on white thistle
With folded wings, it looks like a dead leaf - perfect camouflage! 

Monday, September 12, 2011

Back from Boise and beyond

What a week.

Illness, travel, spending time with friends, shared creativity, and remembering the tragic events of a decade ago all wrapped into 7 days.  I'm not sure what it is about early September, but this sort of mild chaos seems to happen to me around this time of the year.

The "festivities" began last Monday afternoon, when I started feeling ill a few hours after eating something made at home with deli meat purchased shopping an hour earlier.  What initially was mild nausea went on to become full-blown food poisoning within the span of 6 hrs.  Thankfully, the emetic aspect of the illness only lasted a few hours, but I was left with a headache of epic proportions and a feeling that I was run over by a truck that lasted for the next 36 hrs.  Aside from the fact I was unable to do anything other than lay around completely wiped out, the more concerning issue was that we were scheduled to fly to Boise on Wed morning, and it was looking like I might have to skip the trip.

However, by some stroke of healing and luck, on Wed morning, I was 90% recovered, and able to proceed with the travel plans.

Wayne's boss is currently living in Boise, and had invited Wayne out to visit and discuss some company business.  When he graciously offered to buy me a ticket as well, I was thrilled, as Boise is not only a great town in itself, but it's also where my good friend and fellow artist Sarah M-B lives.  Have a look at her blog to see the amazing sculpture she does.

Before I started working in pastels and 2D landscapes about 2 years ago, I did mixed media realistic equine sculpture.  Not so much sculpting, although I have done some smaller pieces, but lots of painting of resincast sculptures by other artists.

"Jax" - slipcast ceramic bas-relief sculpture of jumping horse 
~ 9 1/2 x 5 inches
 © 2008 S Minkiewicz-Breuning
Kiln-fired ceramic glaze finishwork to chestnut sabino:  S Johnson

This piece was actually started over 2 years ago when I was last out in Boise.  Sarah hosted a mini retreat for myself and another artist, and I got as far as cleaning the greenware (unfired) clay casting, and adding the purple and blue art glazes to the fired bisque.  Ever since that visit, I'd been looking forward to finishing it.  

Ceramic work, and in particular the underglazing/painting process, is a fascinating and somewhat magical process to me.  It is completely unlike anything else I've ever done, art-wise.  Unlike cold painting methods, in which the end result is "what you see is what you get", the process of working with earth-based pigments and a ceramics kiln takes much of the control away from the artist, and it's not until you open the kiln lid 8 hours later that you have any idea what the final result will be.

The basic technique involves masking off areas that are to remain white with either tape, cellophane or Miskit.  The eye is also masked.  

-Next, layers of underglaze pigment mixtures are applied in a directional manner using an airbrush to accentuate shading and subtle tonal shifts, just like you see in a real horse coat, along with the gray skin areas.  These pigments handle similar to watercolors, so you can't use a regular paintbrush to paint these areas or it will produce unpleasant streaks.  Mistakes are very difficult, if not impossible, to fix - another thing I'm not used to when I work in oils and pastels!  

-The masking is removed, and the piece is low-fired in the kiln to lightly "set" the colors, and cooled.

-An Xacto blade is used to selectively remove areas of pigment and form more intricate areas of white, such as this sabino pattern.  The hitch is that you cannot handle the piece except along areas where art glaze was applied (the purple/blue rectangle) or white areas since the underglaze pigments are very fragile in this stage.

-The eye is hand-painted, in this case, blue.   The hooves have a mix of hand-painting and airbrush (an experimental technique that worked very well).  Pink is airbrushed for the nose and areas of white where the fur is thin and the pink often shows through.  At this point, the colors are only somewhat suggestive of the flaxen chestnut color I chose, and very dull and chalky.

-Once all the work is done, layers of clear glaze are applied to the entire piece, also with the airbrush.  This leaded glaze fires clear but has an opaque dye in it when applied, so that by the time the piece was ready to go into the kiln for the final fire, it was a pale pink with no visible color anywhere save for the background.  

-Then, in it goes for the final firing to set the glazes.  Sarah has two electric kilns, and the smaller one (named Maury) uses a very low-tech but fascinating means of reaching the proper temperature and firing time:  a small stick of material, known as a pyrometric cone, is placed in a holder within the kiln.  Upon reaching the required time and temperature parameters for the particular glaze or pottery, it bends and the kiln shuts off.  The process usually takes 8-12 hrs.  This piece was fired at cone 06, I believe, which is considered low-fire at close to 1800 degrees F.  This heat produces a chemical reaction between the clay, underglaze earth pigments and clear lead glaze to fuse them into a single layer with rich colors that are essentially unlike what was originally applied to the surface.  The clear lead glaze gives a jewel-like sparkle to the final piece.  

"Jax"was finished yesterday morning.  Sarah excitedly came in to tell me how cool it looked, and when I saw it in the kiln, I was stunned at how different it looked, and how beautiful it turned out, especially since it is literally only the second ceramics bas-relief I've ever done.  

The fact it was done as a collaboration through the strength of friendship and generosity, and came to life out of the fire on the 10th anniversary of 9/11 - an event associated with loss and destruction - gives it symbolic significance that I will never forget.  

On that note, it was odd actually flying home yesterday on that anniversary.  In the Boise and Denver airports, it was business as usual, with passengers hustling about to their connection, or engaged in whatever activities they do to pass the time between flights.  A bar TV showing the football game of the NY Jets had a memorial tribute during half-time, and it riveted people's attention.  A woman sitting behind me cried as she watched it.  

Here are a few photos taken during the Boise-Denver flight with Wayne's Coolpix.  I like taking these photos, as they are great for taking my mind off of the irrational fears and thoughts generated by my lizard brain (amygdala) that happen while flying, particularly after take-off when the air can be bumpy.  Despite this, I always try to get a window seat because I love looking out the window:  

Cumulus, viewing

Farms, abstracted

Mountains, folded

Storms, forming

Clouds, entering

Denver, approaching

Highways, curving

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