Friday, July 12, 2013

Painting in the Sierras with Jeremy Lipking

I recently returned from a week in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains in California. I attended a workshop given by one of my favorite fine artists, Jeremy Lipking. We painted at least twice each day for five days, with Jeremy giving daily live demonstrations and he also would come around to help each of us as we painted.

The first time I had ever been to the eastern Sierras was on a week long backpacking trip with a school group in 1989, hiking from Mammoth Lakes to Yosemite Valley, across some rough terrain. And I had gone back a couple of times to Mammoth and Mono Lake with friends. But this workshop took me back up into the really high country--painting at around 10,000 feet almost every day. There wasn't too much hiking involved in this trip. But the little bit we did do was made a bit more taxing with the thin air and the fact that I am no longer a teenager! But it was an awesome backdrop for plein air study, so I didn't mind.

This workshop was also the first time I have done so many plein air paintings in so short a time. Usually, back at home, after I've done one three hour outdoor session, I'm ready to call it a day. But we stayed out all day, in the sun, wind, and occasionally bad mosquitoes to do two paintings each day of the trip. The constant focus and mental energy required in these outdoor environments really showed me some of my weaknesses.

The main bad habit that was made obvious was how I often rush through the early stages of a painting to get to the "fun part." Watching Jeremy work so carefully and methodically was really great to see. He took his time laying in the initial drawing, and then still took his time as he started blocking in the big shapes with color. He took great care to design the strokes and edges, right from the beginning. Jeremy could have stopped his painting at any time and still had a really nice composition. That's something I need to remember well.

The other bad habit I noticed is how I always include too much subject matter in the composition. There's nothing inherently wrong with trying to paint a grand panorama in 3 hours. I generally work pretty small. But I do that too often. Which usually results in a blocky, crudely captured scene with very little subtlety. One great demo Jeremy did one day was at the edge of a large grove of aspen trees in Lee Vining Canyon. He spent all his time on one single aspen and the shadow it cast on the ground. It was more of a meditative portrait of that single tree than what most people think of as a plein air landscape painting. Everything else was sort of out of focus ending in a vignette of the scene. By focusing on just the one tree, he was able to really explore the subtle shifts in color within the shadows on the trunk and give a nice variety of edges to his shapes.

Finally, one other thing I learned in the workshop was how it's not important to always try to pick "the perfect view" which lends itself easily to a classic landscape composition. A great painting can be found in a small corner of a canyon, or next to a couple boulders, or some small detail you might pass by on a nature hike. It can be minimalistic or not classically "pretty." The critical thing is to just get out there, no matter where you are, and find something that catches your eye. Plein air painting teaches you how to compose and re-arrange elements to serve the composition, how to economize your brush work, make quick on the spot decisions, and learn how to capture the light and atmosphere of the time of day.

Here are some of the pieces I did on the trip. They range in size between 6 x 8 and 8 x 10 inches. Click on the images for a larger view.

At Mono Lake with most of the workshop group.

Friday, April 19, 2013


Here's a new little oil painting I did this week from a photo of Lincoln. I love antique photos. The people back then had so much character--wearing their life stories on their faces more than we do today. I had to invent the color, of course, keeping the values darker than the photo and a bit on the warm side. I wanted the mood to feel warm, inviting and reminiscent of older paintings that darken with age, and where the original artist was likely to have painted the sitter by candlelight.

This is 11 x 14" on a linen panel.

And a larger detail shot.

Saturday, March 30, 2013


Here's a painting of model Valerie from last week's Art Gym open workshop at the San Diego Art Institute. She was posing for the figure, not portrait, and had to change her pose shortly after she began because of discomfort. So I ended up scrubbing my first session and had a little less than two hours to do this study. 12 x 16". Oh, and I had to set up pretty far from the model--about 20 feet away. The distance and the short time helped me stay loose, I think.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

At the Presidio

The quarterly paint out for the San Diego chapter of the California Art Club met at The Presidio in Mission Hills last weekend. I haven't done a lot of architecture in my plein air studies in the past. Generally, I prefer the look of untouched nature. But the old missions around California do provide some pretty good subject matter.

I painted this by starting with a warm Burnt Sienna wash in the dark areas, and then kept the colors relatively warm throughout the painting. The morning started off very overcast, but when the sun came out, thankfully it was behind this building so everything here remained in shadow for the two and a half or three hours I was there.

9 x 12 inch gessoed panel

Thursday, February 28, 2013

A trip to the museum

My, it has been a loooong time since I posted last. I apologize. I have been busy with one job after another. And updating the blog just kind of slipped my mind.

But I would like to get back into it by sharing a bunch of photos I took at the "Illustrating Modern Life" show at the Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. The works on display there are all Golden Age illustrations from the Kelly Collection. And it was one of the best collections of illustration art I have seen in person since a trip to New York I took several years ago.

The "Golden Age of Illustration" is considered to be the period between 1890 to about 1930. So much fantastic art for publication was produced during that period because of the development of halftone printing in the 1880s. The Golden Age came to an end in the late 1920s or early 1930s as tastes began to change and this type of work was seen as old-fashioned and irrelevant.

In my opinion, the Golden Age was indeed the peak of illustration art. Very few artists since then have ever come close to producing the quality and quantity of popular art that was made then by the likes of Howard Pyle, J.C. Leyendecker, Dean Cornwell, Norman Rockwell and many others.

If you ever get a chance to see a show like this, even if it is several hours away from your home town, you should do it. Seeing these illustration pieces in person is incredibly inspiring and informative. There is so much that can be learned from getting up close enough to breathe on them. What I saw in many of the works, in this show at the Weisman, is just how thickly and loosely many of these canvases were painted. Most of them are very large, and the artists really explored the physicality of the paint. Even the Leyendeckers had some very thick areas on them (not many though). And in many of them, like the Rockwell, you can see much of the underpainting showing through the thicker brush strokes, giving an idea of the aritsts' process and methods.

Most of these works should be considered no less than truly great fine art, regardless of the original commercial reasons for creating them. I always like to tell people that the Old Masters from the Renaissance like Michelangelo, daVinci and Raphael were essentially lowly commercial artists, commissioned by the church and the wealthy to do very strictly designed propaganda to sell an ideology and lifestyle to the masses--which is basically the same as advertising art and commercial illustration.

Most of all, seeing shows like this makes you want to go home and paint, and paint boldly--not just get through your assignments or commissions with the bare minimum of work to complete the job, but to go out of your way and take pride in every piece you do, no matter what the purpose of the illustration is or how small the publication. You may not start working that way instantly. Because working with the ethics and care of the Old Masters is hard--really hard. But the idea germinates for a time, hopefully takes hold and finds its way out of you.

The "Illustrating Modern Life" show will be on display until March 31, 2013. You can see more of the collection online and find out about the show here:

Click the images below for a larger view.

Howard Pyle's "Dead Men Tell No Tales" 1899

Dean Cornwell's "Waiting" 1920

Dean Cornwell's "$2000 Reward" 1921

Dean Cornwell illustration from the book "The Man from Gallilee" 1928

 Mead Schaeffer's "Hide the Body" 1933

 J.C. Leyendecker's "Kissing Cupid" 1923

 J.C. Leyendecker's  "Beau Brummell" 1925

  J.C. Leyendecker's "Tally Ho" 1930

 Norman Rockwell's "Dreaming of Adventure" 1924