A semester in paradise.

I spent the first 12 weeks of this year studying weekly with my favorite teacher. I’ve taken several week-long workshops with him over the last 3 years or so, and that format fits really well into my schedule. I take vacation time and immerse myself in art and then get back to reality and farmlet chores. But he also offers a semester class, which meets in San Clemente every Tuesday night for 3 hours. Figuring out the logistics for that is much more difficult. This year I was finally able to make it work.

Anyone who lives in Southern California will understand the ways in which we have to work around traffic. I have Tuesdays off, so I could certainly go down to class and come home on the same day. But driving from Castaic to San Clemente during the day is a fool’s errand. I’m way too busy to waste that much time on the road. So every week I spent Monday night in Oceanside, then did my long bike ride of the week down there on Tuesday, and then headed home after class was over. So I killed all kinds of birds and didn’t waste time on the freeway. Everything about this experience has been incredible. It’s like a little mini road-trip every week, with my two favorite things: cycling and art.

Over the last several years I’ve developed a backlog of paintings that I want to finish but which I can’t quite figure out. In each case I need help with some small thing – how to convey shallow depth in water or the leaves on a tree in the foreground or the light on snow and so on. I need to see how the brushwork is done for certain things, and I need a critical eye to help me spot how my paintings could be improved. John Cosby is brilliant at all of those things. Every time he gives me some helpful revelation I get a little twinge of despair because I just don’t know how I’m going to find those solutions without him.

Over the last 12 weeks we’ve run through the most key paintings in my backlog. Most of them just needed slight adjustments and a bit of advice for what I can do back in the studio, and then I moved on to the next one. I chose those which I would learn the most from, and those which would allow me to transfer whatever lesson I took from it to another painting with similar issues. I wanted to make the most out of my time, since I know I can’t continue on through the summer. I need to plant the garden, and there’s always bee drama all season, so it gets harder and harder to spend a whole weekend day away from the farmlet. As the class wore on, I found myself ready for the end anyway. There are some lovely people in the class and I mean no offense when I say this, but I very quickly tired of the company. This is entirely a personal preference, and just has to do with how I view painting. For me it’s almost always a solo activity, by choice. I like to tuck myself away in some secluded spot and not talk to anyone for hours. And in the studio I’m always alone. So painting with 12 other people every single week wore on my nerves a bit. The logistics got to be a bit much too. I like to drive, I like to stay in little motels, but I started to approach that tipping point that every business traveler feels where it turns from fun into obligation.

Below are some of the paintings I worked on. Most of them still need some work (and some still have small but very apparent Cosby edits, which I usually paint over eventually so as to keep the integrity of my own work). We often touched on very specific things, and then Cosby gave me advice for further development in the studio. I debated showing before and after photos, but it doesn’t really work like that. The before versions of these paintings were my standard plein-air block-ins. And none of them are finished yet. The way to really see how I’ve made progress would be to compare these works once I finish them with others I’ve finished in the past, and those that I will finish in the future. I’m sure little improvements will be evident.

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I think I will miss my Tuesday rides most of all. Staying in a motel means no farmlet chores, so I could just get up and go. Having a full day free made it possible to do 50-75 miles each Tuesday. I rode through Camp Pendleton, up to San Clemente, down to La Jolla, out to Fallbrook and Escondido, and everywhere in between. The coastal rides were fun and beautiful as expected but I was pleasantly surprised by the inland areas down there. Nice wide roads with good pavement, wide shoulders for the most part, and stunningly beautiful landscapes, made even better by the deluge of rain. It was as green as could be everywhere I went, with wildflowers bursting into bloom over the course of the semester. Creeks which hadn’t seen water in years were full, and there was one ride in particular where I must have passed about 12 waterfalls. The terrain was more challenging than I expected, especially inland, which made each completed ride that much more satisfying.

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Cosby’s semester courses continue throughout the year. Some of his students keep going and going, but then again, most of them don’t live 3 hours away. I’m hoping to repeat this experience next winter quarter, if he’s still offering these classes at that point, and I’m looking forward to building up another backlog of work and questions in the meantime. So now, back to my regular irregularly scheduled painting road-trips…

Progress.

I started this journey in art in 2009, when this incredible teacher taught me how to draw in just 8 weeks. More drawing classes followed, and then some basic painting in acrylic. When my schedule changed and I couldn’t make the semester classes work anymore I started taking workshops. I tried a few in different mediums, all studio classes, with a tiny bit of plein air in watercolor. In the spring of 2014 I was lucky enough to stumble upon a week-long workshop taught by John Cosby, on plein air in oil. I didn’t know much about him at the time, but I looked up his work and loved it, and he was teaching in one of my favorite towns in California so I signed up. It was perhaps the most serendipitous event of this whole process. Cosby turned out to be an incredible teacher. I’ve since taken two more workshops with him, and I just signed up for his semester course. I still use his methods, and I consider him to be the artist who essentially taught me how to paint.

It really hasn’t been long since that first workshop. Just a tad over two years, with a brief intermission to explore the wonders of medical science. But it’s fun to see how I’ve been progressing. So I pulled out all my paintings from the past workshops to review…

These are the paintings I did in my very first Cosby workshop. They are all unfinished but I was so proud of my progress at the time. Little things made me so happy, like learning how to simplify masses in the background or create reflections. I remember being absolutely tickled by that street light globe, and I remember the frustration of trying to paint that oak tree. It would be quite awhile before I tried another oak and I still shy away from trees as the main subject of my paintings.

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At the end of the first workshop Cosby’s advice was to paint every day for at least two weeks. It just so happened that I was taking a two week road-trip immediately following the workshop, with painting stops planned almost every day. Beyond that I kept practicing and practicing, and practicing some more. Every chance I got I went outside and painted. I took road trips and painted. I went into my studio after work and painted. So by the time I took my second Cosby workshop in the fall of 2015, this is what I was able to produce:

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There are elements of all of them that I like, and a lot that I would change if I could paint them now.

My third Cosby workshop was just last week. I’m really happy with the results.

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I can’t wait to see how much farther I can go.

All done.

On a regular long-weekend road trip I might start 4 or 5 paintings, but in the past I’ve found that only one or two have successful “bones” and so those were the ones I finished in my studio. In January of this year I took a long weekend trip to Carpinteria. I started 5 paintings and it was the first time I saw good bones in every painting. I finished one of them entirely on location – another first for me. Throughout the year I slowly picked away at the rest, setting some aside and coming back to them later as the inspiration struck. I just finished the 5th and final, and thus it marks the first time that I’ve finished everything I’ve started on one trip.

In the order that they were completed:

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“Carpinteria Storm.” Finished on location. 12×9. Sold.

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“A Winter Morning in Carpinteria.” 14×11. Sold.

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“Winter on the Carpinteria Bluffs.” 9×12. Available. $250.

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“Passing Storm.” 12×9. Sold.

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“Rincon Beach Storm.” 14×11. Available. $280.

I think it’s time for a return trip to Carpinteria. Right after I finish all those paintings I started in Sedona…

Painting Arizona.

I’m not sure how I became an ocean painter. Maybe it all started with the charcoal drawing I did of a metal bucket in Drawing I. Before anyone ever told me that reflective surfaces are hard to render, I was in love. Drawings of glass followed. Then water sucked me in. I’ve never even been that attracted to the coast or the ocean, and somehow I found myself gravitating to the water and honing my skills on waves and beaches, and now it’s sortof a comfort zone. A challenging comfort zone, and one I don’t always render accurately, but a comfort zone nonetheless. So much so that most of my painting trips have been to coastal locations, and I can never seem to bring myself to head East.

Last weekend I toodled through Arizona in search of much different vistas. Sedona was my destination, but I booked one night in Phoenix so that I could paint saguaros. White Tank Mountain Regional Park looked perfect on google street view, and it did not disappoint in-person. It was the most incredible place to paint. The weather was perfect and hardly a soul was at the end of the road where I parked. Although as I hunted for the perfect saguaro I noticed that it kindof looks like they’re all flipping us off, it didn’t take me long to find the perfect specimen to paint, with a beautiful southwestern mountain backdrop in the afternoon sun. That painting turned out better than I expected, despite my running out of daylight to complete it in. I left feeling optimistic about Sedona’s red rocks.

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Sedona was overwhelming. It is a beautiful place, but translating it to a painting is a daunting prospect. I still felt optimistic as I started my first one, in my usual little 9×12″ size, but within about 15 minutes I felt like the painting was failing. It was a feeling I wouldn’t shake the whole time I was there. I haven’t felt so stressed or so demoralized about my paintings in a long time. I had to keep reminding myself that all my paintings used to feel this way, I think, and the process is worth it just for the practice if nothing else. I was also pushing myself to work in a bigger size, which I find challenging even in my usual scenes. Except for one 9×12, I worked in 11×14 the rest of the time.

So what, exactly, was so hard? Getting that red just right. In the sun it’s much lighter than you’d think. But if you go too light you lose the red. Light red is pink and those rocks aren’t pink. But they aren’t light orange either and don’t put too much yellow in or you’ll have to add more orange and then you’ll need more white but then it’s not red enough. OMG the mixing, trying to get to THAT red made me crazy. In the shadows, that red is much more purple or blue, but there’s still that red-ness to convey. And then there’s all these conifers that grow all over the red rocks, and their blue-green color in light and shadow. Then there’s some not-red mountains around, and other types of shrubbery, and sometimes a river and let’s not forget the perfectly blue sky that is somehow too blue to actually be that value. Add in painting wet-into-wet so you make mud when your red rocks mix with your green conifers, your purple shadows with your golden highlights. All while accurately rendering the shapes of some very complex rocks. It was maddening.

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I usually tone my canvases, because it’s easier than painting on a white surface and because the underlying tone can influence the painting in wonderful ways. My typical tone is anywhere from a muted golden tan to a brick red, and it does magical things to an ocean scene. I wasn’t sure how to tone my canvases for Sedona’s red rocks, so I brought a few of my usual, plus some done in a turquoise blue. Along the way I learned that none of these tones are right, and if I could do it again I would probably go with a very light golden yellow.

Sedona is supposed to be a magical, healing, energetic place. I spent most of my time cursing it and swearing that I’d never return. But my painting locations were amazing. It’s easy to get off the trails in Sedona and find secluded spots with views, where nobody will ever find you much less disturb you. It wasn’t even that hard to find little shady spots here and there under a pine or cottonwood, and I haven’t painted in such ideal weather in a very long time.

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When I got home I went out to my studio and breathed a sigh of relief to see all my recent ocean scenes that make me feel like a proper painter. Then I propped my recent red rock paintings up on shelves in my studio, next to those beach scenes, and started to feel better about them. For some reason they fit in with all the others. The vibrant red and starkly different scenes feel good mixed into my stacks of unfinished work. I started to see some redeemable qualities in a couple of them. I started to think I might keep them in the “finish these” stack rather than the “just practice” stack. And then I started to think about going back.

112 feet South of Biscailuz Drive.

I remember regaining consciousness in my jeep on the freeway. It felt like there were people all around me, and I think someone was above me, talking to me through the hole where the windshield used to be. I felt like I couldn’t move, and I was stuck in a weird angle, my body slumped to the right over the center console. I think they asked my name, I think I told them, I think they were talking to me, telling me they were getting me out. I think I passed out again. I don’t remember the ride to the hospital. I came to in the midst of complete chaos in the ER, with hands all over me and the sound of urgent orders being issued and machines beeping. By some miracle (or app) Greg was already there and when I saw him I felt like everything was going to be ok. It was only later that I realized just how close I had come to dying.

I made it into the local news. There was a picture in the Santa Clarita Signal, apparently, of my smashed up jeep on the freeway. A friend sent me the link. I never opened it, never looked at the picture. My attorney asked for the CHP case number. I looked at the report only long enough to notice that the officer drew little doodles to indicate where the damage to each vehicle was. I read the first line “112 feet South of Biscailuz Drive” and then I closed it and put it away. It was all too overwhelming, and I had to focus on recovery.

It’s amazing how long it lingers, how very sharp my memories still are. They tend to surface at the most random moments and all of a sudden I find myself thinking about some little terrifying, horrific moment I thought I had forgotten. And for some reason, even though I was unconscious for my ambulance ride, the sound of sirens, the sight of an ambulance rushing to save somebody’s life, makes me feel like I can’t breathe.

I’ve always been mindful about not wasting time, and especially not dwelling on unproductive emotions, but that’s been magnified after almost losing my time entirely. Now there is no bigger affront to what I’ve been through. My time is for LIVING. I’m so much better, it all could have been so much worse, there are oodles of people going through far worse things every day. Keeping that in mind, here’s where I stand, on the anniversary of the day I lived. My second birthday, March 1st.

I have a litany of lingering complications from my surgeries, from the metal holding my bones together, and from my facial nerve paralysis. All small things, and most are imperceptible to others. That’s very nice for others. But there’s a lot of them, I notice them constantly, some of them are painful, and cumulatively they are relentless and maddening.

When I’m not frustrated by it, I like my new asymmetrical face. Especially my asymmetrical smile. When they aren’t being painful, nagging, frustrating little assholes, my autonomous nerves and twitchy muscles make me laugh.

The metal plate and long, curving scar along my clavicle is my favorite. I think it’s really beautiful.

After having been so weak, so skinny, and so disabled, strength is what matters to me. I run or ride 4 days a week and do strength training almost every day. It’s the secret to keeping the pain at bay from the massive titanium bolt in my pelvis. It was the secret to healing my bones and making them strong again. My orthopedic surgeon said that most people respond to that kind of pain by becoming immobile, and we shared a moment of head-shaking about the irony that it’s actually consistent and vigorous exercise that solves the problem. I’m stronger and more fit than I’ve ever been before, and I’m grateful for the mobility which makes that possible.

I never used to be scared of driving, and I’m still not, except when it rains.

I have an irrational fear of it happening again, but I like to tell my passengers that they’re safe with me because I’ve met my quota.

There’s an interesting sense of closure that comes with passing this anniversary. The legal case is still pending (!), and I will never fully recover, which has both good and bad implications. But now, a year later, it’s time. To read that article, to read the police report, to look at that picture.

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Here’s to one more hurdle cleared.

Something happened.

“…loose, spontaneous work is full of accident and inspiration. And great paintings done in this manner can never be duplicated – the painter himself doesn’t know how he got some of his effects. All he knows is that he was outdoors. Something happened to him. He saw differences; he felt the shadows and the textures – and put them down. Such painters see their pictures even before they begin them – as if in a dream. The subject hits them hard. When they finish, the picture is better than nature, but never as good as what was in their mind’s eye. They worry about it, of course – but they also know that you can never achieve perfection. There’s never an end to things.”

-Emile Gruppé

Defining plein air.

En plein air is a french term generally used to describe painting outside. And that’s where the agreement on the definition of plein air ends. Read any artists trade magazine or technique book and you’ll find oodles of opinions on what does and does not constitute a plein air painting. Some say that the entire work has to be done outside, on the scene. Others say it’s fine to finish it in the studio. Some say photographs make fine reference material. Others say it must all be done from visual memory. I have to wonder if anyone other than the artists have any idea that all this arguing is going on, or if they even care.

For the most part I find myself in the middle ground. I think plein air can refer to a painting completed entirely on scene, or one started on scene and finished in the studio. If an artist wants to use photos, they should use photos, and if they don’t want to use photos, they shouldn’t use photos, and can we all please stop being so judgmental about the use of photos for goodness sakes. There are times when the definition of plein air matters more than usual, such as in plein air competitions and festivals. In that case, artists are all working under the same time constraints, trying to create and finish as many plein air paintings as they can by the deadline, and there’s usually a competition component to the group show. If an artists snaps a photo and then heads back to their hotel room to paint all day, I think in that case it’s perfectly ok to argue over the definition of plein air.

Finishing a painting entirely on location is incredibly difficult. Maybe pursuit of recognition for the accomplishment is why artists argue about the definition. After about 3 hours the light is too different to continue, except for night scenes and even then anything beyond 3 hours gets a bit tedious anyway. Being able to adequately represent a scene in just those 3 hours, with all the challenges of working with wet oil paint, is still my holy grail. Maybe because my usual way of working is so different. I tend to work on my paintings for hours and hours in the studio, sometimes giving them a complete overhaul. Both methods have their merits, and I think certain subjects are better suited to different ways of working. But with every start, my goal is to finish right then and there.

On a recent painting trip to Carpenteria I started five paintings. I’m happy with all five starts, and I’ll finish all of them eventually. One though, I actually finished on scene. The very first time I’ve ever done it. In just 3 hours I was so happy with my painting that I planned on posting it as-is. It was a cold and blustery day on the beach and I hunted down a safe spot to stash my wet painting while I packed up… and when I picked it up I saw a fine dusting of sand over the entire surface. Doesn’t it just figure. I let it dry to see how deeply embedded it was, and it’s definitely not coming off without damaging the entire work. So it’s staying. I’ll call it Added-Value. Character. Atmosphere. Doesn’t much matter as long as I get to call it done.

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…now somebody please take this paintbrush out of my hand because I’m just itching to add a couple highlights here and there…