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Midsummer Days

Summer is in full swing and that means a few things:
1. No kids. No teaching. So no need to shave, right?
2. Beach time.
3. Writing time.
4. Painting time.
5. Blogging time.

I’ve been dedicating most of my time this summer towards writing. In the fall I’m attending University of New Orleans’ online MFA Creative Writing program. Since I’ll be teaching at the same time, I want to make sure I have enough material prepared. I’ve been able to squeeze in art time as well, but it’s been mostly dedicated to filling out my sketchbook. It’s almost done, so a video tour will be coming out soon.

Last time I posted it was winter. And I still have two winter paintings to share before we get to the summer works.

After hiking Mount Lafayette, I hike Mount Cabot with my friend Mike. Cabot is the most northern 4,000 footer in NH. Here’s a picture of me at the top:

I’m sporting the hat I bought in Peru last summer. It’s perfect for winter hiking because it lets out just enough heat to prevent me from getting too sweaty.

The trees were absolutely covered in snow and frost when we were there and it was inspirational. I wanted to try my hand at painting the range of whites and regretted not even having a sketchbook. I took some photos and decided I would work on something at home.

The view above was what I settled on. I told myself to not get lost in the complexity and then did a sketch to work out the values and focus.

Cabot in White
9×12″

I only worked for a couple hours on the sketch and then put it aside with the intention of returning to it. I never did. Looking at it now, I’m actually very pleased with the result. I think it reads well, though it does look a little too illustrative, like it’s a still from How the Grinch Stole Christmas.

The reason I never returned to the sketch was because I moved on to doing a painting of my friend Dave at the top of Lafayette.

The block in was fun and I tried to maintain the looseness throughout the entire piece. My biggest struggle was separating the foreground from the background.

I spent too much time working on the jacket. It was fun to mix the oranges. In this second stage I adjusted his head and tried to make the foreground more cohesive.

King of Lafayette
9×12″

I’m happy with the final. I’m not the happiest with the photo, but I’m really limited with studio space at our current place. It is what it is. Let’s get to the summer.

Sarah and I spent the summer up at her parents’ place in Kennebunk. On the Fourth of July we went down to Mother’s Beach and spent a few hours in the sun. I forgot my umbrella so I slathered up in sunscreen and perched myself on the rocks to get a good view.

Because of the direct sun, I wasn’t able to judge the color perfectly. That’s why I have an umbrella usually. Yes, it helps keep the sun off me too, but mostly it helps me judge what the painting would look like indoors. That said, my colors came out a little too earthy, meaty, and dark.

By the end of the session, the tide had retreated quite a bit. This was a drastic change from the start when I had the water lapping at my toes.

Fortunately, we stayed up in Maine for a few days. The next day we went back to the beach and I set up shop once again.

Mother’s Beach on the Fourth
9×12″

My goal for the second session was to add a little more vibrancy through saturation. I tried to avoid including too much white in my mixtures. Still, I was working without an umbrella. I fiddled with waves for most of the time, not sure how to properly convey them. Several times I just stood and watched the waves and made mental notes. I still don’t think I got them right. Water continues to give my the most trouble in plein air paintings.

I did have fun with the figures. I kept them to simple and quick brushstrokes. Sarah makes an appearance twice. She’s floating with her cousin in the tubes on the left and then she’s seated next to the wall on the right.

I also managed to get in some sketches over the weekend. I’ll save those for the video, but for a sneak peek, here’s a look at the sketch I did last week at the RISD Museum in Providence, RI.

That pencil sketch took me about fifteen minutes. I was with my parents, so I did not want to hog all the time doing drawings. After the museum, we walked around Brown and Providence and I bought a bunch of 4×4″ and 5×5″ panels at the RISD store. This morning I got a chance to try them out.

After a little exploring on Google Maps, I decided I would go visit the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion in Portsmouth. It is the historic home of colonial governor Benning Wentworth and was built by combining several buildings together. This is why it has such a varied and unique appearance. I love the angles. And though I went expecting to paint the water and islands around it, I quickly decided it was the more interesting subject matter.

I walked around for a few minutes, concerned I was going to be thrown off the property. The signs said the grounds were open, but I was the only visitor at 10 am.

I realized I would have to stand in direct sunlight in order to get a good perspective. The sun would be at my neck, but it would be worth it. I went back to my car, gathered my supplies, and returned.

It was nice to have an umbrella again! I took time to sketch out the entire building on the tiny 5×5″ panel and then quickly blocked in the colors.

Above you can see how small the panel was on my easel.

When I’m painting, I often only use one brush at a time. It’s not the most effective method. Many painters keep a brush for each of the colors they’re working with. I gave that a go and dedicated specific green, blue, red, and yellow brushes. I feel that this simplified my process and kept the painting fairly unified.

I wrapped the painting up in about ninety minutes, spending the majority of the time working on color variety and value.

Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion
5×5″

It’s not perfect, but it’s my favorite plein air painting in a while. I’m definitely going to do more in this size in the next week or so. They’re quick and allow me to concentrate my efforts on my weaknesses.

Before I left I snagged a photo of the water and islands that the mansion looks out over. Tomorrow I go on a Boston museum trip with my mother!

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Mount Lafayette

Towards the end of break I hiked Mount Lafayette with a few friends. It took us a good portion of the day, but it was a decent temperature and sunny. Along the way I took a bunch of photos to practice my winter painting. It still hasn’t snowed too much here in southern New Hampshire and winter painting isn’t quite the same when all you’re doing is freezing and not painting snow.

Over the summer I tried to do a plein air painting in Kennebunkport, Maine, but time did not allow me to complete it. So I used it as an underpainting. You can still see the bumps and lines from the previous painting, which isn’t the greatest, but it’s a practice piece.

I spent two sessions on the piece for a total of about 3-4 hours. My goal was to test out atmospheric perspective with the mountains, but I think it reads a little better in person. The closer mountains got turned too green by the camera and lost their blues.

Hoping it snows soon so I can get out and paint a winter landscape for real.

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Winter Plein Air Painting

Merry Christmas! Hope everyone is enjoying the holidays. I usually start off these blog posts by mentioning how busy I’ve been and this one will be no exception. I have been working on applications for an MFA in Creative Writing. All my free time efforts have been going to that and so my art and this blog have unfortunately fallen by the wayside.

This year I promised I would have no grading to do over the holiday break. Somehow I managed to keep that promise. Which means I have been able to dedicate time to things I enjoy. Like reading. I’ve got so much reading to do. The last few years I’ve been steadily increasing the number of books I read, but I’m not going to reach my goal this year. Don Delillo’s Underworld absorbed too much of my time.

And since I’ve had some free time, I went outside for my first true winter plein air experience.

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Though we got hit with some back to back snowstorms a month or so ago, we’ve had little snow since, so the we wound up with quite a brown Christmas. Last year we got the opposite. We had a mini blizzard on Christmas day.

Snow is the main draw of winter plein air and without it I had to turn to the second best thing. Ice. It’s been cold enough for that at least.

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I drove a couple towns over to Durham and did some reminiscing as I went through the UNH campus. They’ve added some large buildings since I graduated, but it still feels like home. I parked at Durham Landing and walked along the Oyster River until I found a spot that intrigued me. I was very excited. The view offered rocks, ice, and flowing water. I’m thinking of doing quite a few studies of that spot as the winter progresses. When the snow comes, I’m sure it will be beautiful. Maybe one of my New Year’s resolutions should be to turn those studies into a larger painting. Man I should’ve jumped on the Michael’s Black Friday deal and bought the 5 foot canvas for $33. 

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I wanted to try a new palette because my last few plein air paintings have felt too consistent. Maybe that’s not the right word. Basically, I want to try to vary my color. 

I dug through a box of my unused paints (ones that my mom gave me or came free with orders from Dick Blick) and found some interesting options. I settled on: Sap Green, Transparent Oxide-Red Lake, Prussian Blue, Raw Sienna, Old Holland Yellow Light, Permalba White, Torrit Grey, and Ivory Black. Using the Yellow Light as my white, my hope was that everything would be a little dulled down since it is an off-white color. Then at the end I could come in with the Permalba White and make the lights pop. I especially wanted to try this strategy on the snow. 

But I waited too long and the Permalba White froze and wouldn’t come out of its tube. Which is fine, but definitely disappointing. I learned a few things from this session that I will carry forward to the next. Like: bring a lighter so that you can warm up the ends of the paints and get the caps off easily. Had to use my teeth. Which is something my dentist dad probably doesn’t want to hear. Also, getting carcinogens anywhere near my permeable membranes is not usually on my to do list. 

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The block in stage was quite enjoyable. Time has flown by and I definitely missed painting. I even talked to myself as I worked, getting hyped for my decisions. That’s not weird. Promise. But as the day went, I got colder and colder. It was about 20 degrees Fahrenheit in the sun and I was in the shade. My feet and toes got the worst of it. The rest of my body was fine. Even with both gloves and mittens on, my fingers turned red. The problem is that the palette hand simply stays in one position the entire time and the painting hand needs to be mostly free for mobility. 

Some hand and toe warmers will fix those issues I think. And if not, well we’ll see how much I paint outdoors this winter and if it warrants getting some nice winter boots. I’m planning on doing a lot of hiking this winter as well, so perhaps boots would be a good investment. 

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Though I didn’t include the bridge in this study, I’m planning on adding it in the next. With the bridge in view, I believe the shadows and light will make more sense.

I’m thinking each study will examine different perspectives of this view and also try different palettes. Then I can use them to rough in a large canvas before bringing it on location. 

I’ve been searching for videos that go over plein air painting rivers, but have found few resources. If anyone has some suggestions, please send them my way!

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I was listening to Steve Atkinson talk about plein air painting yesterday and he said that honest painters will admit they fail all the time. It’s part of the learning process. I’m not saying this study was a complete failure, but it sure did challenge me on many levels. Looking at the painting now, I can see that I lost the organization of my values. Everything seems to be all mushed together and there’s little separation between the different planes of the picture. Definitely something to keep in mind next time. That said, I believe this study reads the best from afar. So go ahead and take a few steps back from the screen. Does it come together? Is it easier to understand the relationships of the shapes? If not, I think the on-site photo does a good job of distancing the painting. 

I’m considering it a decent success and I’m excited to go back and do another.

See you next time!

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Tulips and Portrait

Last weekend I was transitioning from April vacation into the last work-heavy week of my internship. I needed a breather. An unbelievable amount of my free time had already been spent doing projects. Though I suppose since the work needed to be done, it really wasn’t my free time to begin with. Anyway, I took the weekend to do a little gouache painting.

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Self-Portrait in Gouache, 8″x 5,” Gouache

On the 30th we were waiting to go for some beer tastings and I decided to paint a self-portrait. The end result came out pretty decent. Even though gouache is opaque compared to regular watercolors, it still does not have the ability to reclaim lights and highlights as well as oils. Therefore, I always struggle going too dark too early. Here I used the white liberally to dig into the tan tones and pull out some light. Despite those struggles, I think the portrait came out well. The forehead needs to be a little warmer, but it was only a 90 minute sketch.

The next day we went to a tulip farm down in Rhode Island.

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Wicked Tulips, 8″x 5,” Gouache

It was beautiful but gray that day. I set up on the far end of the pick-your-own field and painted the farm buildings and the flowers together. I only had forty-five minutes or so to work and I’d love to go back and paint with oils for several hours on a sunny day. The sketch was fun though and I like the contrast between the bold, saturated colors in the foreground and the grays and browns of the background.

Got all my internship work finished, so I should be able to turn my attention back to art again! Just gotta apply for some jobs first!

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Peabody Essex, Neptune, and a Sold Painting

A couple weekends ago we traveled down to Salem, MA and went to the Peabody Essex Museum. I’d never been inside, but a little less than two years ago we were in town for a variety of activities (ghost tours, boat tours, house tours!) and we walked past the museum a few times. I’ve wanted to visit since then.

Sarah and I met up with my parents at the museum. We had few expectations. We just wanted to see what was inside. While buying tickets for general admission, the Yin Yu Tang Chinese House, and several local colonial house tours our admissions man found out that there were no more tickets for the house tour he’d promised us. He felt bad for misleading us, even though it was no setback, and he gave us all free tickets for Yin Yu Tang. We hustled over there to catch the next tour.

Yin Yu Tang is an 18th century Chinese house that was imported bit-by-bit to Salem and reconstructed at the Peabody Essex. It is breath-taking. Now I know superlatives and exclamations are overused, but not when applied to this house. This is a building heavy with history from a culture I have little experience with. I stepped through the front door into the courtyard and it was impossible to know Salem was outside. It was total immersion. I listened to all the stops on the audio tour. Even if we had seen nothing else that day, Yin Yu Tang was worth the trip.

After seeing the Chinese house we explored the rest of the museum and wound up at the special exhibit on Thomas Hart Benton. Here are a few of my favorites from that exhibit:

Self-portrait with Rita

Self-Portrait with Rita

Negro Soldier

Negro Soldier

Kentuckian

The Kentuckian

Benton was strongly connected to Hollywood, producing posters for many films throughout his life. He also created many pieces of anti-Axis propaganda during WWII. He liked social commentary for sure.

It’s hard to see how visceral and strong his style is from these photos. From his first paintings I knew I’d found a new inspiration. His figures just pop. They’re muscular and sculptural. Comparing his paintings to the photos I’m reminded of my first time seeing van Gogh’s work in person. Five or six years ago I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and was really overcome by his paintings. The posters I’d seen in art class didn’t hold up to the real thing. There’s so much life in every van Gogh brushstroke. While not done with as much impasto as van Gogh’s, Benton’s brushwork evokes the same sort of feelings.

I’ve been thinking about Benton off and on and the power of his figures. And perhaps subconsciously that came into play when I chose a subject for my plein air painting this Wednesday.

I went to Prescott Park to meet with the NH Art Association, though I didn’t see most of the other painters as they were on the other side of the park in the gardens. I was posted up in front of the Charles Hovey Fountain, which depicts a young Neptune catching a fish.

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I was umbrella-less that day, having accidentally left it at home, and when the sun peeked over the trees I had to end the session. I couldn’t see the canvas and my neck was melting. When I came back on Thursday the park was covered in a dense fog. This changed the lighting slightly, but surprisingly not too much. Though the highlights were not as strong on the figure I could exaggerate them in my painting to match the previous day.

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Neptune’s Catch   9″ x 12″

My favorite part of working on this painting was the pedestal. On the first day I had painted everything below Neptune that dark green color  When I finally worked on the pedestal on the second day I simply cut out its shape by painting the water lighter around it. Then I added a few shadows and highlights. It left the pedestal loose and impressionistic.

I wish I could’ve spent more time working on the background. I was held back. After two paint throughs of Neptune I realized I’d made his head too big and that was throwing the perspective off. I had to chop his head almost in half and repaint the whole face. That was a bit of work.

While I was working I talked to a man who told me the rod Neptune holds is a trident and that the triple-pronged end was stolen several times.They kept replacing it until they submitted to the thieves and just left it off.

On the first day, Wednesday, I was walking back to my car when I caught a good view of an old colonial on Court St. I set up in the shade of a tree and hashed out a quick 5″ x 7″.

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Two thirds of the way through the painting I met a nice woman who expressed a great interest in the piece. We agreed on a price and exchanged info. I delivered it the next day!

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Mustard    5″ x 7″

I almost forgot to snap a photo before I delivered the piece. This one was a little rushed and doesn’t show the depth of the yellow on the right.

I enjoy painting 5″ x 7″s a great deal and I’m contemplating building a body of fifty or so of them and then renting a booth at a large art or craft show.

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The Trestle at Bedrock Gardens

A short ride from my apartment is the expansive and unique Bedrock Gardens. I met several artists from the NH Art Association there for a plein air session. For the first thirty minutes I walked around searching for a subject. There was just too much to see. To avoid becoming overwhelmed I finally just picked a subject and went with it.

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Trestle 5″ x 7″

This trestle was standing in the center of a long stretch of grass lined by two parallel rows of young trees. I imagine that in ten years time, once the trees have grown, the trestle will sit at the end of a beautiful, tall, and leafy alley.

There was a lot of information to squeeze into my tiny 5″ x 7″ canvas panel. For twenty minutes I wrestled with the perspective drawing until I got the trestle constrained. I knew if I didn’t contain it at the beginning that it would only get harder to work with.

I hit my rhythm early on with this painting and had it done by noon. Everything seemed to fall into place.

Trestle is for sale at $70. If you’d like to purchase this painting, please send me an email at thewritingmann@gmail.com.

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Beside the Thirsty Moose of Dover

Last week I began an ambitious painting on a 12″ x 16″ canvas. I wanted to commit myself to a multi-day piece. My time spent in Portsmouth and Kittery made me want to paint major scenes from several seacoast towns. Since Dover is right down the road, I went there first. Dunno why I didn’t just stay here in Newmarket.

Due to morning errands, I had to start in the afternoon. I puttered into Dover around one and walked around for half an hour looking for a spot. Originally I had wanted to paint the mills and the Cocheco River, but I couldn’t settle on a view I enjoyed. Lugging my easel a couple blocks north I found something that would work. Standing beneath the awning of the Thirsty Moose I had a direct view of town hall.

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It was overcast the first day and very cloudy. The painting was a concentrated labor. I tried to stay positive knowing that the clouds would eventually move and the sun would give me some fun shadows and lights to play with.

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When the clouds did move I found my spot was incredibly hot. I put up the umbrella, but that didn’t mitigate the heat that rose up from the pavement. Additionally, I was standing at the middle of what was essentially a wind tunnel crossing. The streets behind me and to my right were lined with multi-storied buildings that funneled the air violently straight down, causing my easel to shake and rattle and in one instance fly up into my chest. I weighed it down after that with my bag of paints and luckily the worst of the winds were only on that first day.

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The canvas was still wet from some last minute toning when I began. This caused some of the colors to muddy as the color I mixed on my palette smeared together with the burnt umber background. Day one involved a lot of perspective work.

Dover Crossroads 2

Once I had the trees, light posts, roads, and buildings in their general positions I hammered in the lights and shadows. Part of this process involved developing the background and rendering clouds. I needed the lights in the sky figured out so I could use them as reference and compare them to the lights in the foreground. At first the clouds were much bolder, blocky, and meaty. That style pulled them too far forward. I scraped them down and it gave them a necessary softness.

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With the painting mostly finished I focused fully on color. I had pushed the shadows too red previously and needed to bring them back to the cool side. I’ve been watching a lot of James Gurney‘s videos on YouTube and taking notes on how he works en plein air. In his video on painting a taxidermic Galapagos tortoise he mentions how he paints the shadow under the tortoise blue in order to give it the appearance of being outdoors in natural sunlight. After watching that video I really began to see how blue shadows were outside. I tried to incorporate that into my painting.

Dover Crossroads

Dover Crossroads 12″ x 16″

The painting took 5 days to complete with me working three to four hours each day. I met a lot of people on the street and handed out a good number of business cards. If you’re reading this cause you took a card, well thanks for stopping by and talking! I do enjoy it.

I decided to call the painting finished after five days because it was beginning to feel that way, but also because I was beginning to tire of working in that spot. Honestly, I still think the perspective could use some work. I’m not sold on the depth in the painting. I’ve always struggled with that factor. Probably because I’ve mostly only painted in the studio. I remember being in Italy and painting and one of my professors explaining atmospheric perspective to me and just not having it click in my head. Of course he showed me one of the grad student’s paintings, as she was situated right behind me and had a similar view, and I could definitely see how her painting looked better. I could see how she’d made the mountains blue in the distance. I just wasn’t sure of how to go about doing that. It’s something I’m still working on. I just don’t often get a chance to practice painting from a point that has clear and defined atmospheric perspective. I’ve climbed a lot of mountains in the last couple years, and when I get to the top I sit and look at the layers of mountains receding into the distance and think about how simple it is to see the atmospheric perspective now, and how simple it would be to paint those mountains. But depth and atmospheric perspective works a little different at ground level. It’s still there, just much more subtle. And I know that exaggerating that effect could give my paintings some nice depth. I tried it a bit with this painting, blurring the buildings in the background and painting them mostly blue. I’m just not sure how successful it is.

I’m thinking of expanding my palette a bit. I’m using alizarin crimson, burnt sienna, raw sienna, gold ochre, cadmium orange, ultramarine blue, sap green, and a bit of cerulean blue. This limited palette has kept my paintings feeling unified, but I’ve noticed that painters on YouTube usually organize their palettes by having a warm and a cool version of each color. I might try this out and see what effect I get.

If you’re interested in purchasing Dover Crossroads, it’s for sale at the low, low price of $325. What a steal! Get it now! There’s a limited supply of only one! Hurry! Send me an email with your order to thewritingmann@gmail.com!