Try harder.

A lot of planning goes into plein air painting, to maximize time and light at the right location in the right weather on the right day. Invariably something goes awry and the plan has to change. On a recent trip to Laguna Beach I made a plan to paint at a well-known spot near the Hotel Montage, where I should have enough time to work on two paintings that I had already started in that location on prior dates. The weather had other plans, with high winds churning the surf into an entirely different scene than what I had painted before, low tides messing with my compositions, and freezing cold temperatures making everything seem harder than it should have been.

Plan B. I meandered a bit and found a stunner of a view that for some reason I’d never seen before. I bundled myself up for the Arctic wind and set everything up, feeling great about capturing this beautiful scene. I thought it should be a relatively familiar affair, given that it had so many elements that I’ve painted so many times. The ocean is where I go when I want to feel like I can actually paint. I don’t struggle with it like I should. I don’t struggle with it like I do with everything else. It should only take a coupla hours and then I can go over to the other spot and maybe put some finishing touches on that other painting, if the afternoon tide and light are willing.

About an hour in I was struggling. Something wasn’t right. I was having a hard time with the most basic elements. I couldn’t even draw the scene accurately. I was being pestered endlessly by looky-loos wanting to know if I was painting, what I was painting, and if they could take my picture. Many of them just stood silently behind me for absurdly long periods of time, perhaps not realizing that it’s not performance art. Perhaps they also sit on their lawn and watch their gardener snip the roses?

My alarm was counting down the minutes until my parking meter ran out. Stupid Laguna Beach and their stupid 3 hour parking limit, and nobody was there to watch my stuff for the 10 minutes it would take me to feed the meter. My painting was awful, my fingers were purple, and I was at my limit for stupid comments. I packed everything up, fully intending to throw away the canvas. At the very least I was going to feed the meter and then work on my other painting for the last hour of decent light that I had left. I went to survey that scene and the weather still wasn’t agreeing with me so I contemplated how to maximize an hour of painting time while I huffed back to my car to feed the city more money.

As I walked I realized that the more productive use of an hour would be to go back to the scene that was defeating me and turn it around. That was the one I wasn’t happy with. That was the one that needed the most help. That was the one that couldn’t be completed in the studio without more work on location.

After recharging my determination and the meter I headed back to the same spot. I’d only been gone about 10 minutes and it was already occupied so I planted myself right in the shrubbery nearby with the permission of a groundskeeper who was busy watching for whales, and set up for another hour as the circus side-show in the freezing wind. I did my best to ignore everyone, since I was sure to say something inappropriate, and I raced against the light to turn the painting around. The irony is that in the golden hour before sunset, the light gets better and better but it does so faster and faster until you can’t see anymore. I didn’t even have time to recharge my palette when I ran out of white in the final minutes, making every last stroke count with what I had left.

In the end, I came away with a painting with very good potential. A far cry from being worthy of the trash bin.

Trying harder was the right call. Trying harder is always the right call.

Dust yourself off and try again.

A little over a year ago I had one of the most frustrating and stressful painting trips of my life when I visited Sedona for the first time. After experiencing the technical challenges of painting scenery that I was completely unfamiliar with, along with the feeling of ineptitude from trying to capture Sedona’s overwhelming beauty in 11×14 format, I swore I would never go back.

And then I did.

Despite some of the same technical challenges and feelings of inadequacy, and the addition of some severe weather, it was one of the best trips I’ve ever taken. I feel like I’m finally privy to the magic of Sedona.

On the first day I was a little late getting into town so I decided to go to a spot where I’d painted before. The convenience of knowing the location and the scenery would afford me more time to concentrate on the painting. This painting in particular presents a great opportunity for me to show how far I’ve come over the last year. The one I did at this location during my last visit is one of the few that I haven’t worked on in the studio at all. And since I haven’t had a chance to work on the new one in the studio yet, you can see side-by-side what I was able to produce on-location a year ago vs what I’m able to do now. One was done in the morning and the other the afternoon, and one is a bit zoomed in on the same scene, but otherwise the days were pretty much the same. You can see how in the more recent one I did a better job of atmospheric perspective, and captured the feeling of foreground vs. distant trees. It’s still in need of a lot of work, but I’m getting farther along in the 2-3 hours I spend on-location than I did before.

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The weather was pretty brutal on this trip, with highs well above 100, dry air and wind, and intense sun. Standing in the shade was a must. On the second day I found the most luxurious spot, right outside my motel room, in the full shade of the building for the morning. I was standing on a sidewalk, next to a little ledge where I could put my coffee. Compared to the rough wilderness spots I’m usually painting in, where I deal with severe weather, dust and dirt and miscellaneous bugs, and strange lighting situations, this felt like a spa day. I like the composition and promise of this one, and I thoroughly enjoyed the colors of this scene, although I can see where I made a few mistakes. I ran out of time when the sun encroached on my spot and beat me back inside for a siesta.

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Those two paintings left me feeling pretty confident. And then everything went off the rails from there.

It was so hot that I couldn’t paint at all between about noon and 4pm. So I used that time to explore a few potential painting spots for the afternoon. I was trying to take the afternoon light into account, along with parking, finding a spot in the shade with a good view, trying to avoid the tourists, and limiting the amount of hiking I’d have to do. I thought I had found a perfect spot, but when I came back at 4pm it turned out I had horribly misjudged the lighting. I found my subject basked in direct light, with almost no shadows. In this scenery that’s a huge challenge to capture. It becomes about conveying all of the really subtle changes in the red of the rocks, playing up the differences in the different planes. But keeping it from becoming a flat painting is really hard, and not what I had in mind while also standing in a hot blow-dryer with cactus spines in my shoes. I was so frustrated after about an hour and a half that I just quit.

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The next day I needed to get out of town by about noon to get home at a reasonable hour, but that left me able to do one painting in the morning. I found the most ideal spot, which I had seen on my run the night before, at the edge of a public park in dappled shade that would last all day, with a magnificent view. But a few minutes in I found myself struggling to make the paint work the way I’m used to. I think the humidity must have dropped significantly that day, since the paint was drying like acrylics. Acrylics are fine, but they’re a whole different animal, and I’m not used to working that way. If I had known, I would have brought a medium that slows down the drying process. This one too made me so frustrated I had to just quit. It’s one of the worst paintings I’ve done in years, which is doubly frustrating because the scene was so gorgeous and I was just so darn proud of the pleasant, peaceful little shady spot I found.

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So two paintings show promise, and two I’m not sure I’ll finish. Compared to the feeling I had last time I was in Sedona, this is a huge improvement. Overall I didn’t feel that same stress that I felt last time. I approached the whole trip with more confidence and a more relaxed attitude, allowing myself the leeway to make mistakes and even to quit. After painting each day I took myself out to my favorite wine bar and enjoyed some live music and local beer, and then went for a late night run around the neighborhood where I was staying. The motel and neighborhood I stayed in was actually a mistake on my part, since I thought I had booked a place in West Sedona, but Oak Creek turned out to be peaceful and charming, ever so slightly less touristy, and there were some more secluded painting spots nearby. It was a happy accident, as so much of plein air painting is.

I think I left a little piece of my heart in Sedona this time. Even though it kicks my butt, it’s now on my list with San Simeon as one of my favorite places in the world to paint. I can’t wait to go back.

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…


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.

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