Inspired by The California Impressionists

I’ve been thinking a lot about landscapes lately since we are traveling to Washington and Canada soon. I’m going to bring my paints, even though I haven’t painted plein air in quite a while, I’ll give it a try and see what happens.

For many years the California Impressionists have been among my favorite artists, William Wendt, Hanson Putuff, Edgar Payne and Daniel Garber to name a few.

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Their paintings were fresh with spontaneous color, using color harmonies in close value ranges. They were also full of wonderful greens, and it’s those wonderful greens that usually trip me up.

Researching on-line I came across the blog of noted landscape artist and instructor Phil Starke, who has a great assortment of free videos about landscape painting. Any artist could benefit from seeing the boldness with which he approaches his subject. There’s also an informative video download on his website called Masters Study, where he talks about how a group of special artists inspired his work.

Many times when I’m painting I’d like to have a visual reminder of how much variety I can get out of my limited palette, so I decided to make some color charts. Usually color charts are a mind numbing experience to me, and I think that’s because the ones I’ve done in the past were too general, it was hard to see how one color from 200 on a chart would pull my painting out of a troubled place.


This time the charts are going to be focused just on specifically what I need to see, what assortment of greens can I mix from Ultramarine Blue, Cadmium Yellow Light, Alizarin Crimson and Burnt Sienna. I used a small 8″ x 4″ grey palette pad (a smaller version of what I normally paint on), so that I can take it along with me. Since Ultramarine Blue is the common denominator in all the green mixtures, I made a the chart above with different amount of Cad. Yellow Light, Alizarin Crimson and Burnt Sienna with no white.

The top of each column shows the blue mixed with different amounts of each color, with more amounts of the additional colors as the columns go downward. This gives me an idea of what greens I can get out of four colors without any added white. In the photo it’s hard to read the darks, but there are some rich and varied greens in there.



This chart is identical except I started with Ultramarine mixed with white in every column. This is where those striking subtle colors live.

Sometimes in the middle of a painting there are so many things going on at once, keeping the values in check, the drawing accurate, the composition… yes, this will be a handy tool giving me some basic ideas, a spring-board to get me going.


Choosing a Point of View

This scene is from the Last Creek trail in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area. It was so exciting after hiking for about an hour to hear and see rushing water in the desert. The trail changes drastically nearing the foothills of the Spring Mountains.

When I sat down with the subject, I tried to visualize what it should look like as a painting. One good exercise to get me started;  look at the work of (in the case), landscape painters I admire. What things in those paintings are appealing to me? I’m not talking about copying but borrowing some paint language .

My decision was to draw attention to the foreground rocks, with their varied subtle tones and interesting shapes. This decision was a very personal thing, it all depended on my preferences, but having no Point of View is like someone who will not take a stand on an issue, the result is usually weak and boring. I foresaw there would be some trouble areas because the image contained some chaotic passages but I decided to figure it out as I went.

Last1demo1At this point of the block in I wasn’t feeling good about the harsh green and was on alert that this had to be toned down.

Last1demo2Hello chaos, the background’s twisted trees with green peaking through were fighting the foreground rocks for attention. This is a good time to distance from the painting and figure out what to do next. Years ago when I would arrive at this “problem” phase I would just keep on painting, trying this, trying that, just guessing at what might help, it’s an exhausting way to work.

What needed to happen in order to make it pleasing to my eye:

  • Kill the contrast in the dark tree on the left next to the sky
  • Unify the trees
  • Eliminate most of green in the background
  • Sharpen up the foreground with contrast in the water

LastCreek1lrI finally arrived at my destination, but couldn’t have found the way without a Point of View.




30 Paintings in 30 Days, day 12

This painting was more about not painting than anything else. That’s right, there was so much subtly going on in this dusk scene of a bank of trees, I spend far more time looking and trying to understand just what I was looking at then actually painting.

6PMAlbanyOregonLR2Thinking things like, is that shape lighter or darker than what’s next to it, is it cooler or warmer, were the questions I asked myself over and over. It reminded me of that passage in the bible “be still and listen”.

It’s such a temptation in a seemingly simple subject like this to just grab a brush and start slashing around. But really paying attention to what’s going on, and yes, “let the painting speak to you”, is the way to grab ahold of the subtle things that matter.