Monday, September 21, 2015

Talking Rocks, Whispering Waters... and a Street View or Two (Zion Update 5.0)

(24 days and counting!)

California Coastline, 6"x8", oils on Gessobord

Some of you have noticed, no doubt, that craggy mountains and coastlines have been a recurring theme in my practice pieces during the run-up Zion. These two subjects are among my favorites -- both in landscape art, and as attractions in nature. And the link between red/orange mountains and the canyons of Zion NP isn't too hard to see. The snow, on the other hand, may simply be the wishful dreams of someone still in the firm grip of Texas summer heat -- although there is a slight possibility of snow in the high country before I leave Utah, and I want to be prepared to avail myself of the opportunity to play (um, that should probably read "paint" or "sketch") in the stuff, right?

High Sierras, 8"x6", oils on Gessobord

For anyone who has only visited Zion through images the link with water may not be so evident -- most photos, videos and paintings focus on the cliffs and desert trails, and Zion certainly doesn't offer the kind of float trips that the Grands Canyon and Big Bend NP are famed for. But it should be remembered that the tallest canyons in the US were sculpted by water, and in Zion that water is the Virgin River, and in some spots in the park the reflected blues and greens of the water team up with the reds and oranges and golds of the sandstone cliffs to present the visitor with breathtakingly sublime views. And, with a little luck and a lot of hard work, I'm going to do my best to capture them on paper, panel, still photos and video. (Wish me luck.)

A New Prep Tool --

the Grotto House, Zion NP, seen from the S side looking N

Wilderness adventures are a blast (and, yes, the canyon floor can get crowded at Zion National Park, but 90% of the park is wilderness with nary a crowd in sight.) But venturing far from home is best done with a bit of planning and preparation; after all, I don't want to get get all set up to do a light study of Angel's Landing and then discover I've left my brushes in Texas. If possible, I also want to avoid waste time during my adventure in Zion -- scouting out picturesque venues, determining compass coordinates, identifying nearby geological formations that might cast shadows (good or bad), and determining the best time(s) of day to get the most dramatic light effects.

the Grotto House -- viewed from the E looking W (above), and viewed from NNE looking SSW (below)

(I'm already thinking that, if I move a little to the right from this point, I might 
get a nice vertical image -- or two -- of house and canyon wall)

In the past, before visiting a new location, I would have read books and blog posts, looked at magazine articles and, if possible, contacted other artists who had already visited the location -- and I've done that again this year. But this year, thanks to Google, I've got a really neat new tool: Google Street Views!

Google Street View lets me "walk" the trail between Zion Lodge and the Watchman campgrounds, look in all directions, 
test potential compositions (see red box), and determine best time of day to get the optimum lighting effect 

Sure, you say, street views have been available for years on Google maps. But now there's so much more. (In fact, I don't doubt that a name change will soon be in order.) Now Google offers off-road views of trails in major parks and other sights of cultural or historical significance around the globe -- including some of the most popular trails in Zion National Park. And, thanks to the 360ยบ feature, I can even scout for landscape subjects (try out composition options, and determine their compass heading from a particular point on the trail) before I even leave home (which, of course, means that I can start sketching and painting that much quicker once I arrive.) That's cool!

Walter's Wiggles, looking up trail (above) and, wow!, down trail (below) -- now this I'll have to draw, 
paint, video tape... or all of the above (my thanks to Ryan Allison for sharing this with the Google community)

Friday, September 11, 2015

Comp Hunting: How I Learned to Stop Multitasking... and Have More Fun (Zion Prep Update 4.0)

thumbnail comp on grid paper, Bloc Rhodia No. 13

Multitasking is an all-to-common component in the modern workplace (even though studies have shown that it is not an effective time-saver and frequently results in errors.) Unfortunately, multitasking is the way we often approach art-making too -- trying to resolve the problems of composition, pictorial space, tonality, color, and even trying to capture our own emotional reaction to our subject all at the same time. And this, in turn can lead to frustration, misperception, misrepresentation, and even imagery that falls far short of our desired goals.

I personally do not enjoy racing the clock; I find it stressful and even disruptive to the creative process. But our revolving planet stands still for no man and even the most sublime lighting effect is fleeting. So, before a new adventure gets underway, I train hard to work quickly, and search for creative options that enable me to see more clearly, work boldly, and avoid time-consuming errors (both perceptual and technical.)

identifying shapes and tones, Bloc Rhodia No. 13

There are a number of ways of avoiding the stress and inefficiency of multitasking but I have found one that works pretty well for me (and has worked well for other artists too.) I simply break the complex, multifaceted process of creating an image into component parts -- resolving one "visual problem" (or small group of problems) before moving on to the other problem(s) involved in the art making process.

The first "visual problems" I focus on when painting plein air is deciding on a composition, identifying major shapes and spacial plains (background, middle ground, and foreground), and establishing the shadow/highlight patterns that give the subject the appearance of form and record the specific time of day. (At this stage I deliberately ignore color and atmospheric perspective.)

emphasizing plains, Bloc Rhodia No. 12

I begin by viewing the subject through my View Catcher composing tool -- moving the tool side to side, up and down, and forward and backward until I find the composition I'm happiest with. Then I use a graphite pencil (easy to correct and ideal for recording tone through simple changes in pressure) on Rhodia gridded paper to capture the composition while exploring the primary shapes, spacial plains, and patterns of sunlight and shadows of my subject.

To further sharpen this skill I sometimes go out "comp hunting" -- taking with me nothing more than a sketch bag filled with Rhodia grid pads, pencils, eraser, and View Catcher and, in the course of just an hour or two, record several strong compositional studies.  

the light blue grid is both easy to read and readily distinguishable 
from the thumbnail comp, Bloc Rhodia No. 13

In this way I develop an accurate understanding of the non-color aspects of my subject before I pick up my paint brushes. I build self-confidence through successful firsthand experience, and learn to see more clearly -- emphasizing the essential and eliminating the superfluous.

Then, when I am ready to begin applying paint to panel, I am free to focus on the next set of issues -- including the expressive use color and the creation of atmospheric perspective. (And, best of all, I find that I work faster, make fewer mistakes, and have more fun.)

If you think this method might be useful for you, why not give it a try? (And be sure to let me know if you have more fun too.)