More January Plein Air Painting!


Trinidad State Beach scene
Trinidad State Beach scene

One decent storm came through but now it’s back to sunny and cool to cold. I went up to Trinidad yesterday afternoon. It was very windy and pretty cold, so I set up in the van just like I did when it was snowing in Yellowstone last September. I sit in the driver’s seat and use the wheel as support for the piece of foamcore I tape the watercolor paper to. The paint and water container are on the passenger seat.

Trinidad Harbor rock
Trinidad Harbor rock

I’m really liking this rock and the way the light lands on it in the afternoon. It may end up being my version of Monet’s hay bales for awhile. It’s around 9×6″.

Trinidad Head from Little River State Beach
Trinidad Head from Little River State Beach

Last week I drove down the hill from our house to the parking area across from the beach and did this quick study (motivated by the nippy temperature) of Trinidad Head, so-called because a Spanish ship made landfall there on the Feast of the Trinity on June 9, 1775. You can read more about the town and its history here. It was cloudy with no sun, but I wanted to get in a little location painting time so figured I’d do a small piece. It’s about 6×9″.

The top piece was done on Saunders Waterford 140lb. hot press. The other two were done on Arches 140lb. hot press. I used my set of Yarka watercolors and a ProArte synthetic round brush. I have a bunch of different brushes and am trying them out one by one to see which, if any, I like best these days.

Trinidad State Beach
Trinidad State Beach

And, yes, we’re very fortunate to live only fifteen minutes away from such a beautiful beach.

Don’t Miss This Great Plein Air Workshop! Sign Up Now Before It Fills Up!

I’m extremely pleased to announce that my friend and colleague James Coe will be coming to northern California to hold his first ever workshop out here in July! Below are all the details. We expect his workshop to fill up, so get your reservation in soon! As I’ve made the arrangements, please direct any questions to me.

Source of the Saco by James Coe

Nationally known landscape painter, bird artist and author James Coe will be giving his first-ever West Coast workshop, “Plein Air Landscape Painting in Oils”, July 9-14, 2012, to be hosted by Westhaven Center for the Arts.

This will be an intensive 5-day program which will explore the challenges of working en plein air directly from the landscape and also introduce the traditional methods and materials of alla prima (direct) painting in oil. There will be a presentation and orientation session Monday evening which will include topics ranging from the history of plein-air painting to the preparation of homemade painting panels for use in the field.  The session will also include a step-by-step presentation of the instructor painting outdoors and in the studio, using plein air studies as references for larger studio canvases.

The workshop will be based at Westhaven Center for the Arts, which is located in Humboldt County on the beautiful and scenic north coast of California, about six hours north by car from San Francisco. Painting locations will include coastal seascapes and beaches, redwood forests and the nearby fishing town of Trinidad.


Instructor: James Coe
Dates: July 9-14 (Monday evening orientation, Tuesday-Saturday plein air sessions)
Workshop fee: $600 ($100 deposit due upon sign-up)
Class size: maximum of 10
Location: Westhaven Center for the Arts
501 S. Westhaven Dr.
Westhaven, CA 95570

Supply list, travel information and lodging/meal options will be provided upon registration (fee is for workshop only)

For more information or to reserve a space, call Susan Fox at 707 496 1246 or email her at sfox at foxstudio dot biz (email address format is to foil web crawlers; use normal format for emailing me)

Encroaching Shadows, Roadside Barns

About James Coe: Jim’s oil landscapes, which typically feature natural settings and rural scenes from New York’s Hudson River Valley and Northern Catskills, are recognized for their naturalistic palette and painterly handling.    

A signature member of the Oil Painters of America, and chosen in 2011 as a Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum Master Wildlife Artist,  Jim has been featured recently in PleinAir magazine, Western Art Collector and Wildlife Art Journal.   

His art has appeared on the covers of Sanctuary, Bird Watcher’s Digest, Birding World and The Auk, the professional Journal of the American Ornithologists Union.  He is represented in the permanent collections of the New York State Museum, Hiram Blauvelt Art Museum, Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum, Massachusetts Audubon Society and the Bennington Center for the Arts.   

Jim lives with his wife and two children in a farmhouse on the western rim of the Hudson River Valley, where he continues to seek a balance between plein air landscapes and larger studio canvases of birds in natural settings.

No Electricity, No Problem?… And Plein Air Painting in 1930s Scotland

I may have found the perfect solution to safely heating water in a ger without a fire or electricity. Whoever designed this really backed up and asked themselves what problem they were trying to solve. And what they came up with was this:

Esbit Pocket Stove
Esbit Pocket Stove

This is obviously perfect for backpackers or anyone who might find themselves in a survival situation. The two upright ends fold down flat, so the dimensions are 3″x4″x 3/4″. It weighs 3.25 oz and is made in Germany, can you believe it. I haven’t tried it out yet, but it uses a solid fuel that is non-explosive. It burns about 13 minutes and is supposed to boil a pint of water in about 8 with no smoke. No kerosene bottles or other stuff that the airlines don’t like or allow.

I’ve thought of another use for it, too. Last winter around eight children died in Mongolia when they got caught out in an unexpected storm while herding animals and couldn’t get back home. What if they had had something like this to stay warm long enough for rescuers to find them? And the adults who also died in the cold too, of course. I’m going to see what I can find out about the issue when I’m there and see what might be done.

Plein Air Information Discovery!

I’ve been down with a cold since a week ago Saturday and it’s been a tenacious one. I’m almost over it, but still needing to take it easy. I’ve been doing a lot of resting and reading and decided to dive into the Peter Wimsey mysteries by Dorothy Sayers. I’m not a mystery fan, but I love these because they are so delightfully and excruciatingly English. I just started “Five Red Herrings”, which takes place in the western borderlands of Scotland. The area is heavily populated with artists, one of whom doesn’t play well with others and is deceased by page 17. Wimsey visits the site where the body was found. It appears that the artist was painting on location, took one step too far back from the work in progress and fell off a cliff, the kind of thing that can be an occupational hazard for those working in the great outdoors. In any case, Wimsy thoroughly paws through all the artist’s things, possibly providing clues but absolutely recording what a plein air painter in Scotland circa 1930 would be hauling around.

He gave his first attention to the picture. It was blocked in with a free and swift hand, and lacked the finishing touches, but it was even so a striking piece of work, bold in its masses and chiaroscuro, and strongly laid on with the knife.”

“Idly, Wimsey picked up the palette and painting-knife which lay on the stool. He noticed that —– used a simple palette of few colors, and this pleased him, for he liked to see economy of means allied with richness of result. (My emphasis. Wouldn’t we all?) On the ground was an aged satchel, which had evidently seen long service. Rather from habit than with any eye to deduction, he made an inventory of the contents.

In the main compartment he found a small flask of whiskey, half-full, a thick tumbler and a packet of bread and cheese, eight brushes, tied together with a dejected piece of linen which had once been a handkerchief but was now dragging out a dishonored existence as a paint-rag, a dozen loose brushes, two more painting-knives and a scraper. Cheek by jowl with these were a number of tubes of paint. Wimsey laid them out side by side on the granite, like a row of little corpses.

There was a half-pound of vermilion spectrum, new clean and almost unused, a studio-size tube of ultramarine No. 2, half-full, another of chrome yellow, nearly full and  another of the same, practically empty. Then came a half-pound tube of viridian, half-full, a studio-size cobalt three-quarters empty, and then an extremely dirty tube, with its label gone, which seemed to have survived much wear and tear without losing much of its contents. Wimsey removed the cap and diagnosed it as crimson lake. Finally, there was an almost empty studio-size tube of rose madder and a half-pound of lemon yellow, partly used and very dirty. The large compartment, however, yielded nothing further except some dried heather, a few shreds of tobacco and a quantity of crumbs, and he turned his attention to the two smaller compartments

In the first of these was, first, a small screw of grease-proof paper on which the brushes had been wiped; next, a repellent little tin, very sticky about the screw-cap, containing copal medium; and thirdly, a battered dipper, matching the one attached to the palette.

The third and last compartment of the satchel offered a more varied bag. There was a Swan vesta box, filled with charcoal, a cigarette-tin, also containing charcoal and a number of sticks of red chalk, a small sketchbook, heavily stained with oil, three or four canvas separators, on which Wimsey promptly pricked his fingers, some wine corks and a packet of Gold Flakes.”

“A wide cloak of a disagreeable check pattern lay beside the easel. He picked it up and went deliberately through the pockets. He found a pen-knife, with one blade broken, half a biscuit, another pack of cigarettes, a box of matches, a handkerchief, two trout-casts in a transparent envelope, and a piece of string.”

I find it interesting that the paint is measured in pounds. With variations for personal taste, however, I suspect that any regular plein air painter’s kit today would have a similar accumulation of odds and ends. But….Peter noticed that something was missing. And since I’m only on page 50, I haven’t the faintest idea what it is and wouldn’t say anyway.

Visit the AFC site here

Seeing the Light

I’ve spent a good chunk of this last week or so working on the “light thing”, which, when you get right down to it, is what representational painters are painting. Or, in other words, the effect of light on an object, whether is be a tree, a barn or an apple in a still life. Besides a lack of good drawing skills, failure to accurately perceive, understand and represent light is one of the things one consistently sees in poor or mediocre paintings. Everything tends to be in local color (the “native” color of the object) and the shadows are too dark and lack life. This tends to come from painting from photographs.

Dawn on Dunraven Pass, Yellowstone NP
Dawn on Dunraven Pass, Yellowstone NP

Capturing the light is one of the major, almost addictive challenges of plein air painting. A given quality of light lasts about two hours at most, sometimes two minutes. It’s an opportunity to experience frustration and exhilaration almost simultaneously. Plein air painting also addresses the problem mentioned above about shadows. When you are in front of the scene, you see how much wonderful color and variation are in shadows that a camera doesn’t pick up, not even the digital ones, although they are much better than film was.

Another important point is that a given hue, value and temperature of a color exists only in relation to the colors around it. No color is dark and cool in and of itself. Not even black (if you mix your own, which you should) or white. It’s always a matter of “warmer than” or “lighter than”. How far one pushes the contrast between color value and temperature is a personal choice the artist makes in order to accurately express their vision and emotional response to their subject.

Along Goodall's Cutoff, Idaho
Along Goodall's Cutoff, Idaho

As primarily an animal artist, I found early on that when I wanted to put an animal in their habitat, I also became, ta da, a landscape artist. And that has proved to be much more difficult for me to get a handle on. I’ve taken at least as many, if not more, landscape painting workshops as wildlife ones.

I’ve done seven small landscape studies over the last few days, mostly just 6″x8″, working on two problems: that classic daybreak and afternoon glow and the wonderful effect of light on trees with dark clouds behind. The small size takes less time and lets me focus on the problem I’m trying to solve.

It’s a juggling act. What order to put the colors down, what values and what temperatures those colors should be. And I still try to do a decent composition and pay attention to the drawing.

Cottonwoods, late afternoon; Dubois, Wyoming
Cottonwoods, late afternoon; Dubois, Wyoming

The above paintings took around two hours each and were done on canvas panels with a round brush.

Oh, and I have integrated the Permanent Green Light and Manganese Hue into my palette. Haven’t quite found out what I’ll use the Permanent Magenta for yet.

More Mongolian poetry on Monday!


Nature is what you see and what you think about it. Artists change our thoughts about nature, and so, in sense, change nature. A masterpiece does not look like nature, because it is a work of art. The language you want to speak is art, so study art from the masters.

John Sloan