Sunday, October 26, 2008

4 from the studio

In my job as a designer for animated films, I am always in the studio, but for my own personal work, I gravitated towards the plein air approach, partially as a means of escape from the studio. In the 12 years or so that I've been working outdoors in pastel, these are the first studio pieces I have attempted for my personal work. Recently I found myself with some time to focus on my own art, so over about a 2 week period, I took some of my Sierra pastels and worked them up into larger pieces. Large is relative, as these pieces are 14 x 16". Too large for me to take out in the field with my current setup, but perhaps still considered small by many artists. Scale aside, what I found valuable about this process was the ability to contemplate, correct, and explore 'happy accidents', following many of the valuable paths and processes that enrich our experience and work as artists. When working outdoors, there are all sorts of constraints and conditions operating that are part and parcel of that experience. The dynamics of light and color are constantly and relentlessly shifting, the weather may be bearing down unpleasantly, and there's a practical limit to the size one can work in. These issues are not present in the studio.
What's missing there, of course, is the contemplative, focussed, witness of nature, through one's own eyes, the sense memory of place, light, and color, as well as the physical result of that, laid down in some form by the artist. Each process has it's own unique benefits, and combining them is a natural evolution, I am realizing. The fact that it has taken me 12 years to figure this one out, doesn't really bother me at all. It just gives me something to look forward to on rainy days.

I was partially inspired by an interesting essay written by Jean Stern in the spring 2008 California Art Club newsletter, provocatively entitled, "Plein Air Painting: Where Did We Go Wrong? I felt Jean was challenging artists like myself, who only paint outdoors, and have ignored the studio as a resource for the further development of what is found in nature. He seemed to be implying that we were just eating the cookie dough, instead of baking cookies!
Also, Sharon Calahan, a coworker, and talented fellow artist, recently exhibited some large oils at a Napa Valley show, based on her plein air work, that impressed me.
The father of all this for me, has to be Clyde Aspevig, whose catalog 'Field Studies' was responsible for getting me up into the Sierras to paint in the first place. That catalog is hard to come by, but fortunately, most of the paintings in it are also reproduced in a wonderful book on Aspevig's work, entitled 'Elemental Solitude', which can be ordered from his own website.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Painting in the Sierras

This year marks the 4th year of an annual Sierra backpacking/painting trip that I have put together with the help of artist and friend Paul Kratter. The basic goal is to be high in the mountains with the freedom to focus on painting, in the company of other artists. Towards that end we hire a pack station that provides mules to haul our gear up, and a cook to keep us well fed. It is not by any means 'roughing it.' One just has to be fit enough to hike about 8 miles at altitude to get to the spot, willing to sleep in a tent, put up with the occasional bear, and deal with the possibility of daily thundershowers. This year we had clear skies and a few bear visits, but Penny, our excellent cook, has a dog, "Nowena", who did a great job of driving them out of our camp.

Our destination this year was Lake Ediza, on the East side of the Sierras in the Ansel Adams wilderness. We hiked in from the Agnew Meadows trailhead, at a packstation run by Reds Meadow. 9 painters and one photographer made the trip this year: Sharon Calahan, Kevin Courter , Tim Horn, Greg LaRock, Paul Kratter, Kim Lordier, Clark Mitchell , Terry Miura, and Bob Watters were the folks.

For other reports on the trip, check out the 'Studio Notes' on Terry's website, and Sharon's blog.

Our camp was on the North side of the lake, on a slight bluff, so we had good views across the water into the granite slopes and boulders, as well as the towering Minaret peaks to the Southwest. I painted a few studies almost every morning, using my tent as shade from the rising sun.

The color range of the light throughout the day provoked a discussion amongst us about the cool nature of the midday light. From about 10-4, the brightest light on surfaces appeared a light shade of blue, lemon yellow, or even a light green to my eyes. Only in the mornings and late afternoon did the light have a characteristic warmth with accompanying blue shadows. Was it the intense blue of the sky coloring the same surfaces as the sun? Was it an increase in the blue end of the spectrum towards ultraviolet that high altitude exposes one too? I am curious to know the cause.

A few days into our trip, a group of us hiked up another 500 ft. to Iceberg Lake, which sits at the end of a long, narrow meadow at the foot of the Minarets. In 2005, Paul and Bob hiked to this lake and observed small icebergs floating in the water, broken off from a large snow patch across the lake. This year, the snow had retreated, and the lake was berg free. The feature that struck me most was the extraordinary range of turquoise and blue in the water, along with it's great clarity. I spent 2 days up there painting.

Iceberg 1
Pastel on Canson Paper
I was geeking out on the color of the water at the outlet of the lake, about to commit to painting there when Paul convinced me to walk a bit further, where a large boulder sat, surrounded by the same range of colors. I immediately set up and went to work. Within minutes, a hiker walked past us, marched out to the rock and climbed upon it. After awhile she started doing yoga-like poses and stretches in full view of us painters, perhaps hoping we would include her in our work. No dice!

The cool nature of the midday light is evident in this painting. The color range and transparency of the water was a big hook for me. It was fun to decode the relationships of form and color in the depths. There were numerous views of water with interesting rock forms at this location. I hope to do a few studio pieces based on the pictures and studies I did.

Iceberg 2
Pastel on Canson Paper
This is a late afternoon view across the right side of the lake. The slopes were very steep, littered with boulders and carpeted with vegetation ranging from a bright green to an orange/ochre color. The verticality of the trees really showed how steep the angle of the slopes were. The light is clearly warming up again.

Iceberg 3
Pastel on Canson Paper
Another water view with a rock 'foil', painted the next day, during the 'blue' hours. Ironically, I spent most of my time painting, and re-painting, the rocks and vegetation, which were giving me the fits. It was a relief to finally get into the water and submerged rocks, and not be so confined by specific, contrasting forms.

Iceberg 4
Pastel on Canson Paper
Late afternoon across the lake with a pronounced atmosphere and glare towards the sun.

The Blue Egg
Pastel on Canson Paper
This is a small, white boulder nestled under a massive, dark-toned boulder, which reminded me of a large goose egg my daughter, Julia, once found on a shady creek bottom many years ago. I had seen this view on the first hike up to Iceberg, and started talking about it to my companions, and finally made it back to paint it on the 5th day of the trip.

Above Ediza
Pastel on Canson Paper
This is a typical mix of fractured granite forms and grasses one could find in almost any hike out of camp. Painted in the late afternoon, looking into a shadowed wall over a mile beyond the foreground. The light values of the granite allowed brilliant colors to reflect and fill into the shadows

Ediza Shore
Pastel on Canson Paper
My last piece before the hike out. Kim Lordier and I had been puzzling over how best to indicate the numerous rock cracks and fissures one found everywhere, and this painting gave me some clues.

On our last evening in camp, we held an exhibit, placing our work, weighted down by rocks, all across a curving granite bluff. Then we walked all around, discussing each other's work. It was surprising and delightful to see the diverse choices, as well as similar views painted by different artists. Get thee to the mountains and paint! It's inspiring and a load of fun.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Sketches from Oregon and other news

8.5 x 10
Pastel on Canson Paper

5 x 6
Pastel on Canson Paper

5.5 x 14
Pastel on Canson Paper

7.5 x 12.75
Pastel on Canson Paper

4.5 x 7.5
Pastel on Canson Paper

Every summer for over a decade I attend a family reunion in central Oregon, North of Sisters. I have to credit that location with
starting me into working with pastels, as it is one of the first places I explored working outdoors with this messy, crumbly medium, while I was working on "A Bug's Life". But such gatherings are also about family, and my efforts there began to diminish in favor of being less isolated. This year, I was able to paint with my daughter, which was as good as an excuse as any to sit by a pond, or a high mountain lake, with good company at hand. We had a few days of thunderstorms, which ignited over 400 fires throughout the state. The air quality went from high desert clarity to a bad day in L. A. overnight. These were fairly quick and small pieces from two afternoons of work. Nothing serious, but always fun to immerse onesself into the problems at hand.


A talented colleague of mine, Sharon Calahan, has been ensconsed in the NE corner of Oregon for the last month or so, painting almost every day. She started a blog, so you can see what she's up to. There's some real gems on there. Check it out!


In a week, I'll be headed into the Sierras for my fourth year of backpacking and painting with 10 other likeminded souls. With mules hauling your gear in and out, and a terrific cook, it is not a journey of deprivation, but one of relative comfort in a region of extraordinary beauty. We'll be painting in the Ansel Adams wilderness for 6 days. Here's 2 pieces from the same region on our first trip there in 2005.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Totoro Forest Project

7 5/8 x 16"
Pastel on Canson paper

This was done for the Totoro Forest Project, a worthwhile fundraising effort via an auction of original art and the sale of a book, in conjunction with an exhibit at the Cartoon Art Museum.

The challenge put to the participating artists was to respond to the question: What is your Totoro? A constraint was that the original characters in the film could not be depicted. Almost 200 artists contributed work for this show, and the variety and styles of work is really fun to see. Check out the link above to take a look.

Saturday, June 28, 2008

Painting in The Grand Canyon

I recently spent 7 days rafting down the Colorado River with family, through all of Marble, and a good chunk of the Grand Canyon. We put in at Lee's Ferry (mile 0), about 17 miles below the Glen Canyon Dam, and took out at Whitmore Wash (mile 188). We ran rapids, got soaked and bruised, hiked up slot canyons to waterfalls, slept under the stars, and ate like kings. As one of our guides put it, you're on river time. That meant coffee at 5:15 am, breakfast at 5:45, and on the river by 7. We'd have a stop for lunch, maybe another stop for a hike up a tributary or side canyon, and then pull in to a beach in the late afternoon for the night, waiting for the shadows to come across the water.

It was easily in the 95-100+ degree range every day, Hot winds would blow up the canyon, drying you out in minutes. The water of the Colorado is around 47 degrees, so you don't really want to swim in it, though getting soaked repeatedly is more than welcome. The tributaries, such as the Little Colorado, Havasu, and the many waterfalls we hiked to, were much warmer. If I had done no painting at all, it would still rank as one of the best journeys/vacations of my life. To share so much beauty and crazy adventure with family was a real treat. But this is more or less a blog about painting, so here is my deft segue into shoptalk.

As the summer solstice ocurred during our trip, we had light from 4:30 am until after 9 pm. I put together a slightly smaller kit of supplies, mainly cutting down my paper size, and drawing surface, which was a piece of foam core with
canson taped to one side. I would clip my paper to this when I worked. I stored my paper and finished paintings in a pad of tracing paper, cut down to the same size as my drawing board. I've been having good results with Terry Ludwig Pastels, both at Pixar, and working outside, so I ordered a set of 'Southwest Canyon' colors, which contains 60 rectangular sticks. I probably used every color in it by the end of the trip. I did miss a range of some greens and less saturated violets, but overall, the colors provided worked well for more than 90% of what I was looking at. For a commercial set that is an excellent score. To allay fears of soaking all my supplies and paintings during the trip, I purchased my own dry bag from REI that would fit all my art supplies and paintings. This worked out great, as I could just clip it onto the central lashings on the raft, and not worry about it through the rapids, then easily grab it if we went off on a hike, or at the end of the day.

One thing I would do differently would be to purchase a waterproof camera. I found myself in the ongoing dilemna of seeing something we would be drifting by, scrambling to get my camera out of my dry bag, taking the shot, then packing it up before the next rapid. I got so tired of this routine, that I moved to the ziplock baggie-in-my-shirt method, which worked fine until I forgot to put the camera in the bag through one of the rapids. Well, at least the memory card and battery survived. 2 other cameras on the boat met a similar fate, so I didn't feel too dumb. If you're going on a river trip, I highly recommend a waterproof camera for all the point and shoot stuff you encounter on the water.

I painted in camp in the evenings, once in the morning, and on a few of the hikes, where there was enough time to work, getting 1-3 pieces done every day. The range of local color and the intensity of reflected light into shadows was sort of a 15 on a 10 point scale. I simply wasn't prepared for the scope of it, and was constantly gawking and pointing out 'extreme' examples of this to my raftmates. Of course, I've been doing this for years, so I was tolerated.

Upstream from Redwall Cavern
Pastel on Canson paper

Pastel on Canson paper
~10 x 10.5"

It really was that saturated in the shadows. Scary...

Little Colorado
Pastel on Canson Paper

The confluence of the Little Colorado and the Colorado rivers marks the official beginning of the Grand Canyon, and the end of Marble Canyon. What is extraordinary and unique about the Little Colorado is its color. When the floodwaters end, the river's water supply is maintained by a travertine spring which deposits a white blanket of calcium carbonate on the bottom, turning the whole river into the color of a radiant turquoise swimming pool. Google "Little Colorado river" and see for yourself.

I found some of my work to be indecipherable, or confusing, in absence of the context where it was painted, as illustrated in the 3 pieces above. It wasn't until the second or third day, that I started consciously working smaller, and simplifying shapes. As the canyon grew deeper, stepping back and up, more atmosphere came into play, which was a welcome ally. I found myself looking towards the sun to get the break into the distance, as many of the views had no sky in them, just wall after wall of rock, and triangular talus slope.

I came to appreciate some of the abstract qualities of what I was looking at, and felt that if I could anchor an image with something recognizable, like a cast shadow, or water, that it might just hold up outisde of the context in which it was created.

Above the Inner Gorge
Pastel on Canson Paper

Done at camp, the same evening as the shadows on the water posted above. A few miles below this point the river moves into the inner gorge, a narrow slot of Vishnu Schist, some of the oldest exposed rock on the planet, at over 2 billion years of age. Hard, glistening black, melted, twisted like taffy, and shot through with pink quartz 'snakes' of Zoroaster granite.The river moves fast, and there are a lot of rapids. No place to stop, no time to paint!

Above Blacktail
Pastel on Canson Paper

Looking downstream from camp. Sometimes we all sat in folding chairs
in the shallows of the river, cooling our feet, and drinking beer.

Deer Creek
Pastel on Canson Paper
~10 x 10.5"

This was a grotto of pink sandstone slabs into which a waterfall was pouring it's contents just to the left of this image. I felt the water below, and the cast shadows on the wall could tie this one together. I jumped into this pool and swam for awhile to cool down before picking a spot to paint, wedged into an essential sliver of shade between two dozing raftmates on a rock ledge. It was warm in the shade, and got downright sweltering when a blast of heated air blew in from the canyon. Interestingly, the waterfall generated its own substantial cool wind, so if one stood against the pink rock on the right side of this image, it became uncomfortably cold after about 30 seconds. Akin to wearing a t-shirt on a foggy, windy, San Francisco

Havasu Creek
Pastel on Canson Paper

We spent several hours here, tying off in swift current, and hiking narrow sandstone ledges up into this canyon paradise of
many pools and small waterfalls. I followed my usual pattern of swimming and jumping off of boulders to cool down, then finding a piece of shade to work in, while others hiked, rested, or swam. One could paint in this one canyon alone for a week. The color range in the water was fascinating to witness.

Bar Ten View
Pastel on Canson Paper

This was above the takeout point at Whitmore wash. We were choppered out in groups of 6, and spent several hours at the Bar Ten Ranch on the North side of the river waiting for a plane to take us to Las Vegas. That is a runway in the middle ground of the image, and the South side of the canyon is visible in the distance. It's 3 more days of floating to get to Lake Mead. I would have been happy to keep going.

Anyone interested in an Artist's raft trip down the Grand Canyon, email me. Even a 3 day float from where we took out to Lake Mead would be a great immersion into this extraordinary chasm of light and color. This is all theory right now, just looking at possibilities.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Heading into the Canyon..

Mountain Palace
Pastel on Canson Paper
10.5 x 10"

I'm embarking tomorrow on a multiple family raft trip down the Colorado river for a week. We're in powered rafts, and will cover 188 miles of the river. Obviously we'll be on the water a lot. My goal is to try to do a morning and evening piece onshore each day. Since we're near the solstice, there should be plenty of light to paint on both ends of the day. I've made a downsized version of my pastel setup that will fit in a waterproof bag. I'll post the results when I get back. This piece was painted in 2006 on a stretch of the Missouri River, that runs through a small canyon before spilling out onto the great plains about 40 miles West of Great Falls, Montana. Mountain Palace is the name of a peninsula of cliffs that the river wraps around. While my brother-in-law fished in a drift boat all day. I took his truck and trailer and would drive down river, find a place to paint, and go to work. After an hour or so, he would come drifting into view. I'd pack up and drive further downstream and start another piece. This was the last one of the day, done right near the takeout point.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Upcoming Napa Show

I've been trying to get out on the weekends and paint for the Napa Valley Art Festival that is happening at Copia on May 31st. The show runs from 10-4, and I'll be there, along with a few fellow Pixarians, Ernesto Nemesio, and Sharon Calahan, as well as a lot of the Sonoma Plein Air Regulars, including Paul Kratter, Randy Sexton, Kevin Courter, and Kim Lordier, to name a few. It should be fun, and there will be plenty of great art to browse. Here's some of my recent pieces that I'll be exhibiting in the show.

Late Spring
10.5 x 10" Pastel on Canson paper

Off Season
8 x 13" Pastel on Canson paper

10 x 10.5" Pastel on Canson paper

Dry Creek Crossing
8 x 12.75" Pastel on Canson paper

Diablo Afternoon
10.5 x 10" Pastel on Canson paper

March Morning
10 x 14" Pastel on Canson paper

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Cabo Quickies

I spent a few days in Cabo San Lucas with family over spring break. I didn't bring my pastels, as I was intending to sit under an umbrella on the beach and read. However, just in case of boredom setting in, I took some watercolors with me and a small
(5.5 x 8.5") sketchbook. These were all done sitting on the beach, and turning in different directions, sometimes with a margarita nearby. I'll not blame the beverage for the results, though. While I enjoyed painting as a focused diversion, the realities of lack of brush control, and color mixing, set in. It was a struggle, but I still had fun. Here's a few pages, and pieces from that trip. It is humbling to realize how hard it is to control watercolors.

I'll be in a group show up in Napa at the end of May, and I'll be posting some pastels I've done for that show soon.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Justin Wright 1981-2008

The Loss of an Artist and Colleague

Yesterday, I came to work to discover that one of the young artists on our story crew had collapsed in his cubicle and died the night before. Justin Wright was 27, and a happy, energetic, and talented guy. I can't say he was my friend as I barely knew him on a personal level. We had talked about music a bit, shared some cd's, had some amiable debates about the aesthetics of video games (about which he clearly had strong opinions). I watched him give a story pitch a few weeks ago, and was really entertained by his timing, drawing prowess, and ability to stage shots and blend humor and action... He was a talented young artist who was just digging into his work.

Justin was only 7 years older than my own son, and it put me in the position of the parent contemplating that loss, as well as that of the co-worker, whom you may or may not have gotten to know so well. The interview he gave to his former college alumni assoc.:,231,0,0,1,0

I think explains not only the reason for Justin's short time on Earth, but why he was happy to be alive. Anyone, any age, can learn from this. Life is short for all of us. Tragically short for some. Fortunately, Justin lived long enough to realize his desire to work as a story artist at a studio he admired. Some of his dreams came true.

My heart goes out to his family and friends, as well as his colleagues here at work who will miss his spirit and contribution to their lives.

Justin's blog:

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Place Where The Clouds Move Slower

Afternoon Clouds
~10" x 13"
Pastel on Canson Paper

Nor do they go away. Just like today. I've been trying to get out and paint, and the weather is making it tougher on the weekends. Over many summers, I 've spent a few days in a remote corner of British Columbia, ostensibly on a fly-fishing trip, yet I generally end up painting. (I would not call myself a fisherman) The weather up there can be quite varied every year, and I've grown accustomed to continuous drifts of clouds, and the periodic rainstorms that come with the territory. What I have observed up there is that the clouds seem to move slower, or perhaps it is just my imagination. Regardless, clouds figure into the equation, unless I'm painting portraits of fish that have been caught by my in-laws, nephews, and my son.

From that locale, I've learned to paint from a boat, correcting my view periodically with the oars. I have even painted in a boat while another was fishing, Such was the case with the image below. My brother-in-law Bob was dry fly fishing in the shallows as I worked away. To each his own, and it is nice to have company from time to time. There's a common ground between painting and fishing, which I shall restrain myself from elaborating on.

Happy Saturday.

Eagle Point
~8" x 13"
Pastel on Canson Paper

Andrew's Fish
~9" x 16"
Pastel on Canson Paper

Friday, March 7, 2008

The paradox of light and shadow

Silo Boulder
Pastel on Canson Paper
10 x 10.5"

Here's two pieces I painted for the Sonoma Plein Air show last September. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I often go looking for long, atmospheric views with a few elements in the mid, or foreground, but I periodically find something far more intimate along the way that stops me in my tracks. Rocks, for their patterns and local colors, as well as how they receive light, can do that, as well as looking into shadows, or painting from within a shadow. The human eye and mind grasps a wide range of color within a wide range of value... far better than a camera can without some manipulation. Part of the pleasure in painting lies in exploring that range. There's something profound and unusual about how we perceive objects in light and shadow. For one, an object that is seen under both conditions tells you more about its form and local color than if it was only subject to one condition. In addition, there is a paradox, that has to do with how we recognize that an object, or image, is 'one' thing when a shadow can effectively divide it into 'two' things. The act of painting makes this division evident. The perceived continuity of form and color transiting light and shadow is a cognitive miracle that many take for granted, whether we are looking at something real, or a painting. A persistent challenge in painting is to propagate that illusion, when the physical process of the medium implies the opposite! And lastly, seeing into shadows has a way of enhancing depth in an image. The eye is not stopped by a shadow, unless it is black. Instead, the eye crosses a threshold of sorts to look inside that dimmer volume, illuminated by ambient sources and colors. The same gain in depth applies when looking from a shadowed space into light, an effect that has been used for centuries. The behavior of color, subjected to light and shadow, is really an extraordinary event, I promise you!

Blue Friday
Pastel on Canson Paper
10 x 14"

Blue Friday depicts simple atmospheric relationships that interest me. Part of my fascination goes back to the notion of local color undergoing change due to a condition. In this case, the condition is atmosphere. Why do we think the leaves of a tree are green, when, in our world, they often turn blue when they are far away? The local color of any object functions like a filter to the dynamic conditions around it. As its appearance is not static, its 'absolute' hue and value is a mystery of sorts, as it is always subject to the conditions of varying illumination and distance from our eyes. If it is not the same from one moment to the next, how do you paint the dang thing? Luckily, when painting, the intellectual vapors are not so heavy as they are in this post. The simple answer for me is merely to relate and compare the colors and values of elements in the scene with each other. Those are evident, even if they are changing (and they are). Instead of pondering the elusive and ever-changing dynamic that is nature, I just look at shapes and make judgement calls like "lighter than... darker than.... warmer than... cooler than." The bottom line is you can skip all the intellectual mumbo jumbo and just paint! Just don't go assuming that leaves are green...

I had been intently studying mailboxes, and eucalyptus trunks lining one side of the road I was on, when the clouds drifting across the sky behind me started calling, along with the blue mountains, and a nice arrangement of trees and houses to sort out. On the film 'Cars', I was very inspired by Maynard Dixon's work, and freely adapted his playful cloud shapes he used so effectively. That afternoon's sky was a natural expression of those same qualities that Dixon drew from. I spent most of my time fussing with the tree and building proportions, as well as getting their edges to pop against the distant mountains. By the time I got to the clouds, they had exited stage right. Fortunately, I had done a thumbnail, sticking them where they seemed to do the most good.