Monday, May 25, 2015

Unplugged & Off The Grid

Sometimes it feels like time is speeding up. With social media, texting, tweeting, and GPS, we seem to always be on, and Life threatens to become a blur. So, from time to time, I relish pulling the plug, leaving the network, and falling off the grid. And that's just what I've done for the past 3 months: no Facebook, no internet, no cell phone, and -- yes -- no blog posts.

I've been roaming Texas backroads and byways with my wife and kids, sketching wildflowers and expansive landscapes (on paper and panel), reading a few books (all printed on paper), listening to the murmur of the cottonwood trees, and recharging my soul. It's been a delight!

the first bloom began appearing on the trees before the final frost was 
behind us, and I was there to record it

For the first time in several years winter rains were at near-normal levels and everyone was hopeful that this would mean the return of lush carpets of wildflowers.

As our depleted pond has gradually refilled the shoreline has been decorated with the wave after wave of wildflowers

Wildflower season always begins along the border and gradually works its way north. So, as soon as we heard the first reports of wildflowers in the San Antonio area, we hit the road.

I frequently find it useful to use my free hand -- to steady flowers against 
the breeze, and to convey the scale of my subject

From Fort Worth our first road trip of the season took us southwest to my favorite small highway in the state -- US 281. Route 66 was known as "Main Street USA" but most of it disappeared with the coming of the interstate system (which bypassed many smaller communities) and it only stretched from Chicago to LA. US 281 runs from the Mexican border all the way to the Canadian border and its route literally runs down Main Street in most of the small communities it passes through (not a fast way to cross the country but, oh!, such a wonderful way to discover it.)

limiting color to the subject adds focus and depth to the image

Our backroad adventures are very slow going. Anyone can call a halt by simply exclaiming, "Oh! Would you look at that?" In fact, if the average traveler's road trip is equated to a brisk walk, our is a leisurely window shopping stroll; we don't get anywhere fast, and there's lots of "oohing" and "awing". (Actually, it could be said that our road trips are less one long journey and more a chain of very short trips: each culminating in an adventure, sketch, or painting.)

stages of a bloom are sometimes captured through a simple sequence of images

During our stop-over in the San Antonio area we spent several days circling the city on the 1604 Loop. (Parts of the Loop have been heavily developed over the past decade, but some sections still retain a rural feel -- with only scrub cedar, prickly pear cactus, and rolling stretches of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrushes going on for miles.) 

I am delighted and amazed at the variety of color, texture, scent, and leaf pattern

and, of course, where there are plants there are insects (such as this fascinating parasite wasp)

On our return leg we made a brief side trip to Buda, TX, to visit the folks at Ampersand Art Supply, where we were treated to a tour of the facilities and a demonstration of how my favorite panels are manufactured. (In addition to all the different surfaces available, I found it interesting that Ampersand manufactures different lines for the U.S. and metric markets, and offers customized service for artists who require panels in non-standard sizes.)

After leaving Buda we also opted to leave IH-35 and find our way west to intercept US-281 (which meant exploring a route we'd never driven before and making lots of additional sketching stops along the way -- Slow Travel at its very best.)

over the years I've gradually lost most of my sense of smell (due, I suspect, to spending too much time with 
volatile solvents in inadequately ventilated studios), but the massive carpet of bluebonnets (only hinted at 
in the photo) we discovered in Marble Falls, TX gave off waves of intensely sweet perfume -- 
a divinely intoxicating experience

I hope spring (autumn, if you're in the southern hemisphere) has been as colorful and enjoyable for you in your neck of the woods. Thanks for letting me share with you, and I hope to see you again soon.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Won't You Be My Valentine?

winter rains and spring-like temperatures have made getting out with my pochade boxes a delight
(I've even added picnic items to my day kit)

Well, I've been off the grid for the past two months -- communing with Nature, prepping for this year's adventures, and working on the second book in the North Cascades series (and having a grand time of it all.)

the warm sunshine has rendered my free-range subjects very cooperative
(after the sketch is completed I can even indulge in a little light reading... or snoozing)

But, while I've been completely unplugged from social media I haven't forgotten my friends. And, with February 14th this weekend, I thought this might be a nice time to send everyone a little Valentine's Day "gifties."

join us as we explore "our" river, or for our grand adventure in Ireland

So, if you haven't had the opportunity to read/experience all of my enhanced ebooks, this week is your opportunity to get a FREE copy of one (or all four!) If you own an Apple device (iMac, MacPro, MacBook Pro, or iPad) -- or, for that matter, if you know someone who owns a Mac device -- and have internet access you can go to the iBooks Store at iTunes and download any, or all, of my titles free beginning Saturday, Feb. 14. The offer ends Monday, Feb. 16, so don't delay.

find words and images that inspire, or join me for 6 weeks in the Cascade Mountains

If you like what you read and see you can even extend the Valentine's gift to your friends too. (And. if you'd like to post a review of your experience, that would be most welcomed too.)

Thursday, December 11, 2014

One Hour And Thirty Minutes

The goal: one hour and thirty minutes -- that's how long I have to complete an onsite painting before the light patterns shift to a completely different arrangement (maybe better, maybe worse, definitely different). For the upcoming adventure in Zion National Park I'd like to have that down to 60 minutes. (Canyon Country light can change very quickly, especially when it's at its most dramatic -- sunrise and sunset.) But, for now, I'll settle for an achievable 90.

The solution: get out and sketch and paint every chance I get till it's time to go. (I know, it's a tough job. But someone's got to do it. Right?)

Still Waters: Sunset, Ocean Springs, 12"x9", oils on panel, 
$500 unframed ($550 framed) plus S&H

This week's exercise finds us on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, in the small (and oh so picturesque) community of Ocean Springs.

Composition -- a composing frame, either homemade or commercial, aids in quickly and accurately determining what to include (and what to omit) from the final image.

when the clock is ticking a linear sketch in graphite 
can be the fastest way to go

Identifying the prime shapes and plains -- a quick thumbnail sketch helps me identify the most significant shape/masses and their position in space. (Absolutely no consideration is given to detail at this stage.)

Yellow Ochre-toned gessobord with graphite underdrawing

Underdrawing -- many plein air painters will opt to do this with a brush (and I frequently do too). But, if speed is of the essence, a pencil is faster. (It doesn't require constant "reloading" from your palette and it gives me more time to identify the specific colors I'll want to squeeze onto my palette.)

blocking in the basic tonal areas -- initial stage (above), final "rough" (below)

Blocking in -- the priority here is the shadows, since they will be the first to change as the sun continues its journey across the sky (and the first lost if clouds move in). General shapes and compositional arrangements are also established at this phase.

refining the shapes and tonal shifts within the 3-4 spacial planes 

Fine tuning -- awareness of relationships (of shapes, colors, edges, and space) begin to become more accurate at this stage. Still working working rapidly (i.e., no details). Fine tuning form, shadows, middle tones, and introducing highlights.

adding the finishing touches (boldest highlights, core shadows, and fine-tuning gradations)

Finalizing -- identifying and placing the boldest shadows and highlights, adding a bit more variety to the pattern. At this stage I'm frequently spending more time observing and comparing, less and less time actually applying paint.

Polish and Details -- are reserved for the occasional (larger) studio works (and only a few of the plein air sketches will warrant that kind of special attention). For this one, however, I'm thinking maybe 24"x18". What do you think?

Monday, December 1, 2014


"A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step"
                                     -- Laozi (c. 604 BC - 531 BC)

In canyon land the most dramatic lighting is usually experienced in early morning and late afternoon. And -- if (either by accident or by fortuitous planning) you find yourself in the right place at the right time -- you may have no more than an hour to capture on paper, canvas or panel that fleeting delight.

Time (and the sun) wait for no man. So, it would be a dreadful mistake waiting it trying to find the right brush, or paint tube, or to figure out where your darkest shadows or lightest highlights are to be found.

So, well in advance of my actual departure I train: I train my eye -- sharpening my observational skills and increasing my perceptual awareness (the goal being to quickly and accurately capture the essential while editing or eliminating the superfluous); I train with my materials, till my brushes and pencils become an extension of myself and I know intuitively precisely what color combination will get me the specific hue, tint, or shade I'm observing.

During my upcoming adventures I plan on producing some step-by-step demos and time laps videos to share with you. And, since reshooting may not be a practical option, I'll practice creating a few of those now too. (Let me know what you think.)

I've used my View Catcher to select my composition and, starting with a 6"x6" gessobord panel toned neutral gray I rough in the shapes with graphite and begin blocking in the shadow areas (working from a cooler, less intense background to a warmer, more contrasty foreground).

With the shadows in place I begin to block in general areas of middle tone and light middle tone (but reserve my lightest lights and darkest darks for the final stages -- when I am most focused and my observations are most accurate).

I am still working on general relationships at this stage -- light/dark, cool/warm, dull/intense, shapes, and overlapping planes.

I haven't introduced the sky yet. But I am now keenly aware of my lights and shadows, five advancing planes, and the split complementary (red/green, orange/blue, purple/yellow) that dominates my subject.

As my awareness of my subject becomes more specific I continue to fine tune colors, contrasts and shapes -- particularly in the foreground.

Almost there. I now introduce the sky (to compete the color contrasts) and begin finalizing the highlights (reserving the boldest and brightest for the foreground).

Spider Rock, Canyon de Chelly, 6"x6", oils on Gessobord

At this stage of the adventure prep I'm working on 6"x6" and 6"x8" panels. As my skills sharpen (and especially once I've shed some of my desire to include too many details) and scale up to 8"x8" and 9"x12" panels -- making sure to scale up my brushes too (and reserving my #2 round sable exclusively for signatures only).

If you'd like to see more of these step-by-step demos (with the occasional video demo thrown in) during the lead-up to our little road trip how about dropping me a line and letting me know what you think?



Looking for unique gifts for the holidays? Why not purchase a one-of-a-kind work of art and know you're also helping support my upcoming adventure too? (Spider Rock, Canyon de Chelly can be yours for just $250 unframed/$260 framed, plus shipping and handling (and you'll be billed via PayPal for added security). 

Email me for details or to enquire about other available artwork.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Autumn Sunrises and Honing Skills

I don't know about you  but I absolutely love getting up at the crack of dawn (well, technically just a bit before the crack of dawn) when there's a little nip in the air and heading down to the pond to catch the sunrise. If I'm really lucky there's a scattering of small cumulus clouds  just above the eastern horizon to catch the sun's first rays. (Admittedly, with our drought this year there haven't been very many mornings when the sky wasn't completely devoid of clouds. But, when they are present, the view is sublime.)

Sunrise Over Still Waters, 8x6, oils on Gessobord

 Autumn mornings are also a delightful time for long, slow walks with our Welsh collie. We both find the air invigorating and enjoy exploring for new sensory experiences (her for the olfactory type, while I seek visual). After the passage of a rather intense (and wet) cold front this weekend the foliage is taking on its fall colors and there's a good bit of foliage that's been blown to the ground. Hanna (the dog) found this Cottonwood leaf while sniffing about and I was intrigued by the gall on its stem. I drew the front and back surfaces and then dissected the gall with my pen knife (and found it filled with dozens of bright lemon yellow aphid eggs).

Cottonwood Study, 4x6, graphite and w/c on paper

I really like the tingling sensation in my nose as I inhale crisp, cool air and the way you can feel each breath right down deep in your lungs. I savor the smell of smoke from someone's early morning fire as it mingles with the chill in the air. And I take pleasure in the rustle of the breeze through the cottonwood trees (and how it sounds just like a mountain stream). I can't capture that experience in a painting or a drawing. So, I carry a pocket notebook to jot down the thoughts and experiences as they happen -- or write them directly onto the back of a sketch or panel.

Over the coming weeks I'll be working on honing my technical and perceptual skills. I'll be posting the new pieces and observational notes here. And -- just in case you're looking for one-of-a-kind holiday gift-giving ideas -- I'll also be posting the best works in the new online gallery shop on my website . 100% of all sales revenues will go to support my upcoming Zion "expedition". (So, you could purchase some one-of-a-kind artwork AND provide invaluable aid to an art adventure at the same time.) I hope you'll follow my posts here and take a look at the gallery shop too.

Thanks for dropping by. (You're always more than welcome.)


Monday, November 17, 2014


Anyone up for a little High Adventure?

Sunrise, South Zion NP 5-14a
sunrise in Zion National Park (to say that the light in Zion is "dynamic" would be an understatement)

The National Parks Service folks at Zion National Park have made their selection for the 2015 season and I've been invited to participate! ( In fact, not only am I going to spend a month drawing, painting, and video taping in this awesome natural wonderland... I'm going to be doing it during what is arguably the park's most colorful season -- autumn! (

Zion National Park - Grotto Building - First Visitor Center
during my stay I'll be living in the Museum-Grotto House (built circa 1927) -- 
just sets away from the Virgin River, hiking trails, and awesome canyon views

Early Fall, Zion National Park
my residency period will begin with the onset of fall color and run through the full (spectacular) range of color change

The current plan is to spend one week driving to Zion (with a couple of "painting breaks" en route -- at Canyon de Chelly and Monument Valley) and four weeks in the park itself. Watch for the launch of my new Kickstarters! crowd funding venture soon. (I'm planning some really interesting "thank you" gifts for my supporters this year -- including artwork, DVDs, and much, much more.)

Zion Canyon view from Angel's Landing - Zion National Park, Utah
you can expect some really spectacular views from the canyon floor (and maybe a few from the rim)

I even plan to try painting by headlamp (mine, not the car's)

I'll be posting regular (well, as regular as internet availability permits) updates here on the blog -- during the lead-up prep, en route, while in the park, and during my return). And I hope you'll join me here when we launch this exciting voyage of discovery. In fact, if you find yourself in the southern Utah area during my residency, I hope you'll consider joining me for the FREE public workshop I'll be offering (date TBA); I can pretty much guarantee a good time (and door prizes) for all!

Once a Home, Grafton Ghost Town, 4-30-14s
my residency at Zion will even allow a sketching & painting excursion to the ghost town of Grafton 
(setting for the "bicycle scene" from the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid)

Stay tune for updates and additional details soon.


Image credits: All images in this article are used with permission under Creative Commons licensing agreement ( Copyright belongs solely to the original artists. My thanks to (from top to bottom) Don Graham, Alan English, Carl Berger, Jono Hey, Eric Ward (no relation), and Don Graham again. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Intrepid Sketch Hunters: Strathmore Softbound Toned (or "Here There Be Monsters!")

I generally begin each new sketchbook/journal with an inspiring quotation.

The neat thing about sketching in nature (well, one of the many neat things) is that you always encounter surprises... if you're observant.

This week I'm continuing my exploration and evaluation of papers for journaling. And, whenever possible I'm doing it outdoors. (I know, it's a tough job. But, hey! somebody's got to do it.) The selected papers/sketchbooks will be joining me on a new series of field adventures in 2015.

Strathmore - Softbound

Strathmore is a name artists have been depending on for fine papers for 115 years. Earlier this year the company unveiled their new Softbound series. I have my eye on 3 journals in the series for use in in the 2015 project and am testing the 2 toned paper journals this week. (Watch for a separate field test and evaluation of the landscape-formatted Softbound Watercolor journal, and Strathmore's Series 500 Imperial watercolor paper in a future posting here.)

While artists still choose to create most of their drawings on white paper, it is also true that working on a mid-toned paper is the quickest way to produce a tonal/volumetric study of a subject. It's also true that, because works on toned paper aren't as common as those on white paper, toned paper has a visual impact, or "novelty", that white paper doesn't.

rendering volumes on toned paper is a breeze (if you simply 
remember to let the paper represent the middle tone)

Strathmore's Series 400 Toned Gray has a subtle vibrancy due to the inclusion of fine red and blue fibers scattered throughout its surface. The paper will work flawlessly with graphite or pen & ink. But, personally, I find a white and dark (either black or Indigo blue) color pencil particularly appealing for fast, bold renderings in the field or in the studio. Add to this the fact that the surface can easily stands up to repeated erasures without smudging or fraying and you have both a versatile and dependable tool.

toned paper is far more gentle on the eye when working with harsh reflected light 

toned paper can be invaluable for capturing unexpected or fleeting discoveries
(like this fossil I found at my feet while sketching on the fractured limestone above) 

tip - putting down a light wash first will increase the "tooth" of the paper's 
surface and make it even more receptive for color pencils

As with the gray, the surface and sizing of the Toned Tan paper is ideal for graphite, color pencil, and/or pen & ink. The 118gm weight of the papers also means both are quite tolerant of repeated light washes, experience minimal surface buckling, and show no sign of fiber lift.

a drawing on toned paper can offer a visual experience that white paper may lack


And remember, when sketch hunting it always pays to be alert -- even when not actually sketching (otherwise you're likely to overlook "monsters").

here there be monsters!