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.

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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…

#keeppainting

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I used to take workshops at a wonderful art gallery in Lodi, and after taking some on pastel and watercolor and still life and such, about a year and a half ago I took a week-long workshop on plein air painting with John Cosby. I hadn’t really done much plein air painting before. Some failed attempts, not really knowing where to start, and some painting-from-photographs in the studio to see if I could do it at all. Cosby turned out to be my best and my last teacher. His advice at the end of the workshop: stop taking so many workshops, and paint for two weeks straight. I did both of those things, since luckily I was scheduled for a two-week road-trip right after the workshop and I made it a point to stop and paint every day along the way. I didn’t take another workshop, until last week, when I took another workshop with John Cosby.

Cosby is the best painting teacher I’ve ever had. Have you ever noticed that most artists will stop talking when they start painting? Some say this has to do with artistic and verbal skills coming from two different parts of the brain. In any case, Cosby can explain everything he’s doing, the entire way through a demo. He can help any student, regardless of their level, and he can critique anyone’s work in a useful and meaningful manner, and he does it in a way that’s relentlessly kind. If he taught more workshops, or I should say, if I could afford to follow him around the country taking all his workshops, I’d take them all. For now, I just know that I’ll at least repeat his annual Fall workshop here in SoCal.

I had signed up for this workshop before the accident. In fact my deposit was due pretty much the day I ended up in the hospital. I wondered if I would still be able to do it. I wondered if I would be able to walk by then. Would I be able to stand all day? Would I be able to see? Would I be in pain? The day before the workshop I came down with a cold, my first since the accident, and the weather went a little nutso and gave us hot, humid, still days, even right on the coastline. We were all being seared by the sun and dripping in sweat as we worked and my head felt like it was in a vice. But for the thrill of being able to paint all day every day with my favorite teacher, it would have been miserable. But I could walk. I could stand all day. I could see. And I wasn’t in pain. My teacher and some of my classmates were kindof fascinated by my accident and recovery and we talked about it a lot. At the end of the workshop Cosby said to me “I don’t know how you did it, after what you’ve been through. Even at the end of the first day I was dying.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I also went for a run every night after class. It’s training and consistency that keep me strong and pain-free. As with art. I’m going to keep running, riding, and training, and I’m going to keep painting.

Sold.

My first plein air painting festival was in downtown LA last year. The fact that downtown is so familiar, and the organizers were so welcoming, and that it was the inaugural of that particular festival made it a nice easy introduction to the sport. I put one painting in the show just to have it in the show, but didn’t try to sell it. Having that event under my belt, and having recently attended the Mendocino Open Paint Out (just to see what it was about, not as a registered artist), helped prepare me to participate in Plein Air at the Lost Coast last week.

The event was held in Shelter Cove, a tiny seaside town in southern Humboldt County. The closest “civilization” was a strange, unruly little 101 rest stop called Garberville. That’s where I stayed, trading a 40 minute winding mountainous drive for a luxury hotel at motel 6 prices. Garberville was full to the brim with homeless hippie kids and uncultured rednecks, who somehow coexist in an addled haze of various forms of intoxication. I am never the type to be intimidated by a strange town. I’ll go for walks with Otter and go for runs at night and do pretty much everything I usually do, with a little bit of added wandering. And I will paint anywhere, anytime. But Garberville gave me the willies, and I stuck pretty close to my hotel when I returned to town each night. On one of my many trips over the winding mountain road to and from Shelter Cove I gave a ride to some rough hippie hitchhikers and when I mentioned I was staying in Garberville one of them exclaimed “OH MAN isn’t that a GREAT town?” So I guess it’s all in your perspective.

Shelter Cove is a strange place too. It has a Edward Hopper vibe to it, if Hopper was stuck in 1985, with lots of lonely, bland structures and seemingly fewer people than all those structures would call for. The homes were strange and it felt like they all stuck out like sore thumbs. It was impossible to find a view of the coast without structures in it, such as the unimpeded views you might find in Big Sur or San Simeon. And I’m sure this is unusual, but the weather was oddly sunny and still for the entire festival. Coupled with it being hard to get to, it’s not a place I would choose to return to and paint, without the incentive of the festival. Hopefully nobody takes offense to that, because to each artist their own scene and this one just doesn’t sing my siren song the way San Simeon does.

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On one of the festival days I took advantage of an amazing opportunity given to 10 of the participating artists, to paint at a local monastery nestled in the redwoods on the Mendocino/Humboldt County line. It was an incredible place, in both architecture and scenery. Art and design had been considered in every detail, right down to the way our lunch was laid out for us by the nuns who run the monastery. It was all very spare and minimalist, and integrated with its surroundings, an aesthetic breath of fresh air. My painting spot down by the river was so peaceful that I was joined for a time by a grazing deer. And also a few squirrels who kept hurling acorns at me. Little messages from God perhaps.

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I start many plein air paintings, but finish few. Having a looming deadline for the final show though was fantastic motivation to get a few done. On the night before the deadline I stayed up until 4:30am finishing four that I had started. When I tried to turn them in the next day I learned we could only hang three so I took out the weakest link, and then went back to my hotel for a nap before the show.

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When I pulled up to the community clubhouse that evening it was so packed one could hardly move around in the space. I heard later that the attendance was around 220! I found where my art was hanging, and then took a spin around the space to see all the other art. By the time I made it back to my paintings, I had my first red dot. My first sale ever to someone other than my friends or family. Another toodle around the space, some snacks, some chatting, and I returned to find my second red dot. At the end of the evening I made arrangements with a new friend to bring my remaining piece over to Garberville the next day, to save me a couple trips over the mountain. She texted me in the morning to tell me I had sold it. Three pieces hung. Three pieces sold. Granted, I sold them at my friend rates (more on pricing in a coming post), but I’m just happy that they’re living with people who obviously love them and want them. Selling one was a milestone. Selling all three gave me some much needed validation and motivation to continue.

The second annual Los Angeles Plein Air Festival starts tomorrow, and this time I’m approaching it with a whole new perspective on what I’m capable of.