Friday, July 12, 2019

Plein Air - My Favorite Way to Paint

Three Florida Leaves
8"x10" watercolor on paper

Plein air painting, or painting out of doors from observation, is one of my favorite pastimes. I love being outside, I love the challenges; the moving sun, the rising and falling tide, and even the possibility that the subject might leave the scene, which happens a lot with boats! It’s more intense  than painting from a photo. Of course there are inconveniences, like bugs, and wind, and even rain, which will pretty well put an end to the session. I think I do my best work when I can observe the three dimensional scene and translate it into two dimensions on the spot.

Beaver Brook Marsh In Spring
8"x10" oil on canvas panel

Our plein air season is pretty short here in New England, and it’s fun to travel south in the winter and do some painting there.

Florida Fishing Boats
8"x10" oil on canvas panel

It’s commonly thought that plein air painting was started by the impressionists, and indeed, they did popularize it. John Constable is credited with beginning the movement with an exhibit of his paintings in France in 1824. It caught the eye of the painters who became known as the Barbizon school. Many years ago I saw an exhibit at the Tate Britain of Constable's paintings. There were two of each painting, an outdoor study, and a studio version, both were the same size and quite large. To my 21st century eyes, the field studies were much more fresh and appealing. But that was not the case for the British art crowd of the time, and the field studies were just that, studies for the studio paintings. I was totally inspired by the exhibit! 

Distant Pink
6"x6" oil on canvas panel

The invention of the camera pushed outdoor painting to the back of the room for a while, making it easy for artists to paint landscapes from photos in their studios. Fortunately plein air painting has had a revival in recent years, and paintouts and festivals that specialize in plein air painting are summer events in many states. You may well have seen painters at work out of doors in Maine’s vacation meccas.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Tools of the Trade

Last week I had the pleasure of doing a demo at the Boothbay Harbor Yacht Club in Maine. I thought as well as doing some painting, I would  go through a few of the basics and tools we use to paint, especially outside. The gang loved it, and wanted a list of the gadgets and tools I showed them. Here it is.

Paint Boxes and Tripods

Open Box M paintbox and Manfrotto 5 section leg tripod (3 sections in use)

 EasyL paintbox on a heavier Bogen tripod

I brought two paintboxes. The smaller one (top above), which I use for travel, is by Open Box M, and the larger heavier box is an EasyL by Artwork Essentials. The former is very lightweight and fits into the laptop sleeve of my backpack. The later can open flat for use with a Gloucester easel.


The tripod I use with my large box, is a Bogen that my Mom used with her camera years ago, with a Manfrotto MA496RC2 ball head. The tripod I use for travel is a Manfrotto available on amazon. The Manfrotto tripod has 5 sections on each leg and folds up small enough to fit in my backpack. When you are buying a tripod to go with your paintbox, remember that the weight rating given for the tripod is for a camera, which is much smaller on each side than the width of your paintbox. Don't buy one with a maximum camera weight the same as your paintbox, it won't be stable when you try to mix paint near the edges.

Brush and Knife Holder

I use a Hershey's candy container with a chips clip to hold my brushes and knives out of the way when not in use. I got the idea from Carol L. Douglas, who uses a Pringles can for the same purpose.

Guerrilla 10 oz Stainless Steel Brush Washer

The brush washer is used to clean your brush when moving from one color family to another. You can usually thoroughly wipe off a brush and continue to use it when moving from one value to another in the same color family. I hang the brush washer off the edge of my paint box on a hook. The thing to look for when buying a brush washer is three clamps to hold the lid on. If you get one with only two clamps, it will leak. This one is available on amazon here.

Gamsol solvent
Gamsol, by Gamlin, is the best solvent to use with oil paint. It is much cleaner and safer than other odorless mineral spirits, because it is made with processes from the cosmetics industry rather than the industrial paint industry. With any solvent, when working inside, make sure your room is well ventilated. I turn on the nearby bathroom fan or open the windows when I use it inside. I take a small container of clean Gamsol with me as well as the dirty Gamsol in the brush washer. It's available on amazon and in most art supply stores.

Kemper Wipe Out Tool

This is great little tool for taking off oil paint. You can buy it on amazon here.

Baby Wipes

It's amazing what good quality baby wipes can remove from your hands and clothing.

Artwork Essentials ValueComp

From Artwork Essentials, this is a useful gray scale and filtered viewer that removes color so that you can see values. You can buy it here. Note that if you are buying more than one thing from Artwork Essentials, you will save on shipping if you place your order by phone. They have numerous other tools that are very useful, in addition to the paintboxes.

Hog Bristle Brushes

Hog bristle brushes work very well for oil paint, because they hold lots of paint, but don't use them for acrylics. Synthetic brushes are best for acrylic. I don't have a recommendation for the former because my favorite Robert Simmons Signets have just been discontinued. I like Robert Simmons Titanium brushes for acrylics. I use mostly flats, with a few rounds in the small sizes.

Canvas Panels

I demo'd on a canvas panel from Ocean State Job Lot, a great value at less than a dollar each for the 8"x10" size in a pack of 5.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Drawing Boats

Drawing boats can be challenging on a number of fronts; getting the basic shape, making your boat float, and building believable reflections. A simple way to draw your boat uses a figure eight. Read through this post and you'll be able to see the figure 8 in the boat above.

Drawing Your Boat

The diagram above demonstrates drawing a boat using a figure 8. The figure 8 becomes the gunnels of the boat. The gunnels (or gunwales) are the tops of the boat's sides.

Step 1: Draw a figure 8 as in the diagram. Note that the right hand orb of the ellipse is smaller then the left orb. We'll make the smaller orb the bow.

Step 2: From the highest point on the right orb, draw a line down and to the left to create the bow, and another line down and to the right to create the stern. These lines can be somewhat curved as in the diagram or straight depending on the kind of boat you want to draw.

Step 3: Draw a line to connect the bow and stern. And connect the right side of the bow to the bottom of the boat.

Step 4: Erase the line that is dotted in the figure, which is not visible.

Step 5. If the boat has a square stern, draw a line across the back of the left side of the figure. If the boat has a square bow, follow the same process.

Floating Your Boat

To make a boat look like it's floating we need to understand the water line, which is the line that marks where the top of the water hits the boat. The waterline is flat (horizontal) if the boat is at eye level, just like in the photo of the blue lobster boat in the top photo above. Note that this is true even though we are looking at both the stern and side of the blue boat. If you've seen a boat in a painting that looks like it's going up hill, it's because this was not understood.

As you begin to look down on the boat more, it moves off the horizontal as in the photo on the bottom left. The more you can see of the inside of the boat, the less horizontal it will be in your painting. In the photo on the bottom right, where we are standing at the end of the boat and looking directly down on it, a line from the center of the bow to the center of the stern is vertical.

Note also that the figure 8 approach works best when we can see part, but not all, of the inside of the boat. In the bottom two photos where we can see all of the inside of the boats it's not as helpful.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Using the Pixlr Editor App to Posterize

Photo of Beaver Brook

In a previous post I introduced Carlson's Theory of Angles, a great approach to simplifying and understanding the values in landscape painting. Now I'd like to show another example, and a useful tool to help you see the values more easily. The photo above is Beaver Brook in Westford, MA, at a spot where I like to paint. Carlson's theory seems to be working, the sky is light, the marsh grass is a little darker and the trees are definitely the darkest. Is there a way to see this more clearly?

Yes, there is. You can turn the image to black and white, and then posterize it. Posterizing is the process of limiting the number of values in a photo. It's easiest to see in black and white, and we are looking for values, so that works well. You can do this with Photoshop and Photoshop Elements, but it can also be done with a free app on your phone, called Pixlr Editor (not Pixlr Collage, though I'm sure I can find a use for that one too!). It's available for iPhone and Android, and also for your computer. Below is a step by step demo.

Download the app to your phone.

Choose the photo that you'd like to process. you'll then be in the editing screen.

At the bottom of the editing screen, find Adjustment (second from left), and click that (see below).

Now you will see the screen below. Move the paintbrush slider to the left to change your image to black and white.

Click OK at the upper right, and you'll be back to the Edit screen. Now choose Effect (to the right of Adjustment) and find Posterize, near the far right, see below.

Click Posterize. You can use the slider to adjust the number of grays, the farther right you go, the fewer levels. Usually 4 works best, as we have here. Finally, click Save in the upper right. Now you have the posterized version, see below.

And Carlson's Theory is still looking pretty good.

Note: This can easily become a crutch, so use it to learn, but don't rely on it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

My 5 Favorite Islands You Can Visit by Ferry - #2 - Peaks

A Casco Bay Ferry departing Portland

I'll admit it, one of the best parts of a trip to Peaks Island is the ferry ride from Portland. Sailboats, Lighthouses, the civil war era Fort Gorges, lobster boats and buoys, there's a lot to see. 

The Windjammer Frances

Sparkle 10"x8" oil painting

Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse

The Ferry Landing at Peaks Island

But there's a lot of fun to be had on the island too. Just three miles from Portland, Maine, Peaks Island is home to almost a thousand year round residents and many more in summer. Imagine living on an island in beautiful Casco Bay, only a short ferry ride from the vibrant city of Portland. That  sounds idyllic to me. There is the Richard Boyd Art Gallery, several restaurants, interesting museums, and a wonderful road that follows the edge of the island all the way around. Rent a bike at Brad's Bikes, or bring your own, and take that ride. You'll see cottages, the rocky shore, the bay and the ocean, and lots of boats. Stop to visit the Fifth Maine Regiment Museum, where I once had a delightful tour full of great stories, and the Umbrella Cover Museum, yes, you read that correctly.

Peaks Cottages

The road around the island

For me, the bike ride with my plein air gear is the best part of a visit to Peaks. Most of Casco Bay is protected from the sea and lacking in surf. On the outside of Peaks, there's a rocky shore and a chance of a few waves crashing on the rocks. Perfect for doing some painting.

My painting, Rocky Shore, 8"x10" in front of that shore now covered by a higher tide

The ferry to Peaks leaves from Commercial Street in Portland with 16 trips a day in the summer.

My list of favorite islands is not being presented in order. Stay tuned for the other three.

Monday, April 29, 2019

Value Planes in the Landscape - Carlson's Theory of Angles

Merchant's Row 8"x8" oil on canvas panel

John Carlson made many useful observations in his book, Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting. One of the most fundamental is that light from the sky illuminates planes in the landscape differently depending on their angle to the sun. This concept is known as Carlson's Theory of Angles and Consequent Values, or simply, Carlson's theory of Angles. He proposes that we consider four planes of the landscape, 1) the ground plane, 2) the verticals, such as trees, 3) the plane of mountains or slanted roofs, 4) and finally, the sky.

When the sun is overhead, the sky will be the lightest value. The ground plane, which gets the full force of the sun, will be the second lightest. The plane of the mountains and slanted roofs, will be third lightest, and the darkest will be the trees. I hope that you can see this in the image below, which represents the upper left corner of the painting above.

There are, of course, complications to this, when the sun is not directly overhead. When the sun is low in the sky, shadows are cast on the ground plane, and verticals can be in sunlight or shade. And in the case of my illustration, where the ground plane is water, the surface of the water in wind is usually much darker than when calm and reflecting the sky like a mirror. Even with those caveats, when I keep Carlson's theory in mind, I'm able to find these values in my landscape and use them to make a stronger  painting.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

My 5 Favorite Maine Islands You Can Visit by Ferry - #1 - Monhegan

Monhegan Skyline

If once you have slept on an island
You'll never be quite the same;
You may look as you looked the day before
And go by the same old name,
You may bustle about in street and shop
You may sit at home and sew,
But you'll see blue water and wheeling gulls
Wherever your feet may go.
You may chat with the neighbors of this and that
And close to your fire keep,
But you'll hear ship whistle and lighthouse bell
And tides beat through your sleep.
Oh! you won't know why and you can't say how
Such a change upon you came,
But once you have slept on an island,
You'll never be quite the same. 

 - Rachel Lyman Field

There are many more than five islands in Maine that you can visit by ferry, and I'm going to share my favorites in the next few posts. Perhaps these will help you with your summer vacation plans. At the top of my list is Monhegan, the artist's island, ten miles off the midcoast Maine shore.

"Monhegan" comes from the Algonquian Monchiggon, meaning "out-to-sea island." It was first visited by Europeans in the early 17th century and became a British fishing camp and trading post. The island was caught in the conflict between Britain and France for control of the region, but even during the times when the island was not inhabited, the protected harbor was a stopover for ships. The current lighthouse was built in 1850, after its 25 year old predecessor was damaged by storms. There is a wonderful museum in the Lighthouse Keeper's cottage.

 House on Monhegan - Bobbi Heath

By 1890 the island was established as an artist's colony, which continues to today. Edward Hopper, Rockwell Kent, and Jamie Wyeth are names you've probably heard. What inspires artists to paint here? The light and the subject matter. Many places that are surrounded by water are wonderful for painters because the light bouncing off the water is everywhere, sparkling and giving life to the shadows. As to subject matter, the island is made up of the village, the harbor, forests, meadows, and the dramatic cliffs on the ocean side facing the Atlantic. There's plenty there to paint.

Monhegan is .7 mile wide and 1.7 miles long, and is not developed like the rest of the Maine coast. There are less than 80 year round residents, a working lobster fishing village, and a thriving artist's community. The island has no paved roads and visitors cannot bring cars, but if you are willing to walk, you are in for a treat. Two thirds of the island is protected as a nature preserve by the Monhegan Associates, "an island trust which has accepted the responsibility of holding and maintaining the land in its natural form, for all future generations to enjoy". Seventeen miles of natural trails encircle and crisscross the island, through meadows and forests, onto the headlands, and along the coves and ledges. Birdwatchers, nature lovers, and photographers will all find something to interest them. You'll likely see painters in both the village and on the ocean side cliffs. You can download a trail map of the island, courtesy of the Monhegan Associates, here.

How can you get there? Monhegan is served by ferries from three Maine harbors, from southwest to northeast, BoothBay Harbor (Balmy Days Cruises), Round Pond (Hardy Boat Cruises), and Port Clyde (Monhegan Boat Line). You can visit for the day or longer.

 Downtown Monhegan - Bobbi Heath

My recommendation for a day trip is to take a walk through the village and then visit the lighthouse, where you'll get a fabulous view of the village at your feet and the island of Manana, which makes up the other side of Monhegan's harbor. If you have time, continue past the lighthouse and walk through Cathedral Woods to White Head on the backside. To get a beautiful view of White Head, turn right on the trail and walk to Gull Cove. Alternatively, the walk to Lobster Cove is beautiful, and your rewards is the rocky cove and the remains of the wreck of the D T Sheridan. And FYI, these walks are somewhat rugged.

Where can you stay? The largest hotels/BnBs are the Island Inn, the Monhegan House, and the Trailing Yew, each offering an experience unique from the others. And there are 11 rooms/homes listed on and at the moment.

And if you do visit Monhegan, please let me know how you found it.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Mixing Color

Green Ledge 2003

Rachel Carson Marsh 2014

When I first started painting, I used very bright colors, mostly green, blue, purple, yellow, and white. I didn’t understand that there are 3 dimensions to any patch of paint you put on a canvas: hue (the named color on the color wheel), value (how light or dark it is), and chroma (intensity or saturation). Think about the last one as bright (highly saturated) versus dull (grayed down). Grays are very important to balance areas that are bright, but mixing grays can be confusing, since they can become muddy. As I watch individual painters evolve over time, I often see the same progression I went through; from bright, out of the tube colors, through a phase where the artist is trying their best to paint what they see in nature, to a place where they create their own color palette. And here I’m not talking about what you squeeze out onto your physical palette, but what you mix with those colors and place on your paintings.

Here are a few things I’ve learned.

Guideline 1: Mix efficiently

Regardless of what color you’re trying to create, if you don’t know how to mix efficiently, you’ll end up with lots of paint you can’t use. 

Start by mixing only two colors together. A primary and white is the simplest example. Let’s use white and ultramarine blue. Squeeze out some of both, with some space in between. Is the blue you want closer to the tube ultramarine blue or to white in value? If it’s closer to the ultramarine blue, then pull a little of the white into your ultramarine blue pile and mix them together with the back of your palette knife. It will probably still be too dark, so pull in some more white and repeat mixing. Continue to do this until you have the color and value that you want. If what you wanted was closer to the white in value, then do the opposite, pull a little ultramarine blue into the white pile, mix, and repeat as above.

Contrast the above with plopping down two pretty much equal blobs of ultramarine blue and white and simply mixing them together. To get what you want, you’re going to have to add more and more of one or the other, and you’ll have LOTS of paint by the time you’re done.

The above is illustrated in this video.

Guideline 2: Use a limited palette

Color mixing chart for a limited palette of lemon (Hansa) yellow, cadmium yellow, cadmium red, quinacridone red, ultramarine blue, and phthalo blue, with white (+W)

The more pigments you mix together, the more likely you are to get mud. A limited palette helps prevent this. You’ll also spend less money on paint and have less paint to carry around if you use a limited palette. What is this limited palette? Ideally it would be just the primary colors and white. The secondaries can be made from the primaries, but not vice a versa (try it if you’re not sure). The primary colors tend to have only one pigment in the tube. The problem is that none of them are exactly the color we see on the color wheel. Ultramarine blue is a little on the purple side of blue, and cobalt and phthalo blue are a little on the green side. But we can take advantage of that. If we mix a red and a blue that lean to the purple side together we get a really bright purple. And if we mix the red that leans toward yellow and the blue that leans toward green, we get a grayed down version (see the color mixing chart above). So if we have two of each primary and some white we can make everything we need, with a minimal chance of mud, and control over our grays. My paintings improved so much once I mastered this!

Guideline 3: Limit your use of white

White isn’t always the best way to make a color lighter, yellow can be a better choice, especially with reds. And it’s best to first block in the darks and then the lights (those mixtures that contain white), because it’s very hard to paint dark into light paint while both are wet.

A Great Exercise:

To practice paint mixing, get some pleasing color chips from the hardware paint department, and try mixing them. When you’re close, put a little of the mixture on the paint chip. Is the color right? Squint to make sure the value is right. Thanks to Leslie Saeta for this idea.