Sunday, July 11, 2010

Nora's Comments

After a frustrating winter of either being thwarted in our painting/photography attempts by weather or missing sessions all together, we got out in late spring and Peter painted one good painting after another. He is truly modest, but I wanted to share photos of him painting because I believe people are interested in seeing how he works. The paintings will soon be professionally scanned and on the web site.

We influence each other. Peter’s paintings now inform how I look at landscapes and I am startled sometimes when I realize I look at actual landscapes through the eyes of his paintings, such as in a recent photograph (below) of a landscape south of River Falls, Wisconsin. It could easily be one of his paintings.

I enjoy seeing him put down in paint what I have been looking at through a lens and admire his ability to look and see color and form so surely. Please note: my photographs of his paintings rarely capture the correct color as compared to the landscape. The colors on the painting and the colors in the landscape almost always look vastly different in the photo, which is not the case. I suspect it has something to do with how pigment reflects light; the painting of the pine tree was taken with a flash on a very cloudy, dark day. The flash would affect the painting much more than the landscape several yards behind it.

Peter’s ability to handle the medium of oil on board or canvas is especially impressive to me since I have done oil painting in the past, with several years of training at University of Wisconsin - Stout. I know how difficult it is, how easy it is to make mud. I marvel at Peter’s expertise in handling it; to keep the colors true and clear. I know I am not entirely objective, but I also know I am informed.


PS I have thought of a solution to his Shoal painting (which I like very much). If he simply paints a crouching puma on the shoal, it would solve everything. . . .

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Spring time painting part two

This post continues the discussion of painting in the spring, begun in the previous post. Thanks to Nora for the snapshots of the paintings; they are for the convenience of the reader only. I write about the top painting first.

The following week I tried a spot near the edge of a wood in the countryside near home, at Kinnickinnic State Park, along the St. Croix River. It was a gray day. There was a lot of the problematic color I mentioned earlier, the chartreuse greens and violet grays. I found a spot that had both wild plum blossoms and a stand of sumac whose red berries had survived the winter intact. It seemed to compose well in a vertical format because the masses of color value angled up in a kind of harmonized counterpoint to each other, first to the right and then back to the left, declining in angle as they approached the top of the picture plane, leading to a release point of much greater depth, where the foliage gave way to a bit of gray sky framed by a tree trunk and some dark cedar branches. The white plum blossoms and red sumac were contrasting spots of light and dark color value leading the eye to this. But they also cause the eye to linger where there is not enough of interest to see. This compositional problem makes for a dull painting, no matter how well you might render everything. Not that I rendered everything that well. The plum blossoms had shots of color in them that I did not get – pale oranges and pinks. The gray brushy mass underneath the blossoms was alright in its representation of the mass of value, and even suggests enough of the variety of warm and cool grays, but is lacking in the suggestion of the subtle structures of the brush itself.

The painting was a failure, and it does not feel good at the end of the day. But failures make the ground fertile for success. The seed has to fall before it can sprout.

I often find an antidote to the relentless greens and violets of spring by making compositions that feature water. Water is reflective. Many bodies of water have a local tint influenced by minerals in the area, or the presence of vegetation or whatever might be suspended in the water. Otherwise, big bodies of water are mainly influenced by the color of the sky. A smaller body, like the little trout streams abundant in this area, has that quality too, but is also more affected, because it is narrow, by whatever is along the banks. On sunny days the reflected colors on water are generally more intense than what they reflect, not as dark in the darkest areas as what they reflect and a little darker in the lights. In less intense light or on gray days they match the color of things reflected more closely. The masses of reflected color value are fractured by the patterns of flow in the water, and also affected by wind. These general observations break down if you move in close to one little section of water and observe it closely. Then you will see more of what could be referred to as the local color of the water. If it is clear and shallow, it appears to the eye to be the color of the bottom, sandy or muddy or whatever. If it is deep and murky, it is influenced by the sediment or by the color of whatever is suspended in it.

Color reflected from the sky into patterns on the water makes for unique design opportunities. I pursued this in a recent sketch I did along the Rush River in Pierce County, Wisconsin, north of Lake Pepin. The composition was of the surface of the river, cut at a sharp angle near the top by a pale rocky shoal. Other than the shoal, there was no reference to the banks other than what could be inferred from the reflections. The range was from a warm golden green to deep blue, with shots of warm sandy color in the shallows. There were pronounced patterns of flow defined by sky blues contrasting with deep blues from shadows on the steep banks, and deep greens from aquatic vegetation in holes under the banks. A riffle following the angle of a rocky shoal also caught some of this deep blue reflection and carried it across the painting above the pale colors of the rounded river rock on the shoal.

This painting was a near miss, not a success. I might be able to amend it with another trip to the sight - or I might miss again. As I look at it now it seems that I was doomed from the time I made my decision about how to crop the scene. It left me with shapes in the water in the upper left of the painting that are about the same size as some similar shapes in the lower part of the painting, the part closest to the viewer. Those shapes of similar size in background and foreground violate a natural sense of perspective, producing an unnatural flattening effect ( I suppose that might be a hazard of doing paintings with a shallow depth of field). These same shapes in the upper left are high keyed and intense in color, contrasting with dark shapes in the water in that area, and the contrast causes the eye to linger in that part of the picture. However, the shapes are not interesting enough to satisfy the lingering eye. So it becomes unsatisfied, which is the effect of a bad picture, even a near miss. It is another lesson in the relationship of rendering according to what you see, and composing it within a format. Degas used to accuse the French Impressionists of “Losing consciousness before nature,” and that is part of what he was talking about.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Spring time painting

You have to be truly hard-hearted to be indifferent to spring. Even the crustiest, most offensive grouch has to be moved at least a little by the “unlocking” season. Water runs where ice was frozen in dirty lumps; crooked trees take shame, so to speak, and cloth themselves in foliage; growing things sprout where snow was cast aside to languish.

It is not necessarily my favorite season for painting. Among paintings of my own that I call favorites, there isn’t much to represent spring. That is partly because in some years it is a very brief season. If cold weather persists through March and into April our spring in the upper Midwest can be condensed into two or three weeks in May. Early spring, when you have grass turning green and a colorful haze of buds on the trees, is more interesting in color but is also usually brief. The latter parts of spring, which are so joyful to experience in their warmth and fertility, are difficult for the painter because they are awash in chartreuse and gray violet hues.

Early in April we made two excursions to Rattlesnake Bluff, on the south shore of Lake Pepin near its west end, between Red Wing and Frontenac, Minnesota. This was before much green began to show. Buds were beginning to come on the trees. Some were greenish but many were warm colored, with tints leaning toward orange, or reddish. Some of the maples have buds that are scarlet. It is reminiscent of autumn, but more subtle. I did two paintings there. Both featured the west facing cliffs with some of the bluff side below, all in shadow, and some trees in the foregrounds of each painting lit by the morning sun. The most difficult passages in both paintings were the colors in the rocks of the cliff face. These were very subtle hues of grayed-down blue and yellow, better described as warm (yellow) and cool (blue) tints of gray, which I didn’t get at all in the first painting and only got closer to in the second painting. The latter painting is composed horizontally on the diagonal of the bluff side with the cliffs rising from that in complement, and sunlit hardwoods on the lower slopes. Those were colored pale red, (white, an oxide pigment and tints of cadmium red) with subtle tints veering alternately toward yellow and violet. That one might be good enough to show. The first painting is composed vertically with the cliff face dominant and the lower slope complementary, with a mass of sunlit hardwoods and a narrow strip of mowed field in the foreground. The buds on those hardwoods were an ochre hue tinted slightly in a narrow range from orange to green. I might be able to salvage this painting if I go back next spring at the same time of season and do further work on the cliffs. Or, I could turn it into an autumn painting this fall.

In mid-April, I stopped at a site near LaCrosse, a city on the Mississippi River in west central Wisconsin. The valley is wide there and the bluffs on the east side of the valley have tall limestone cliffs and rise up to 600 feet above the river. There was a view looking across Ebner Coulee and a saddle between two wooded bluffs to the far side of the valley, receding southwards miles and miles away. I first noted this view on a trip to the area a year ago. At that time, the leafing out had not yet begun. That day was partly sunny and not as bright as this day, so the contrast between near and far was greater and made a more dramatic composition. Still, even given less value contrast, the juxtaposition of near and far was intriguing.

I set up at the end of a point by the edge of a cliff. There were gusty winds, and I was obliged to keep one hand on the easel throughout the time I was there. The wind affects me while I am painting by making me anxious. I was downwind of the cliff, so I wasn’t anxious about blowing off of it. I was anxious about placing, or spotting, shapes with my brush. You can’t try to spot any specific shapes while gusts are shaking the panel because if the wind moves the panel as your brush hovers near the surface, the two will collide and the mark of the brush will be made for you, where you do not want it. You have to try to remain patient.

The trees were advanced in their budding and many were leafing out. On the wooded bluffs there were very bright sprays of new green making the shapes of some trees distinct, with duller greens, colors influenced by the orange-ish and brownish color of buds, making up the larger percentage of color, and making less distinct tree shapes. There were the colors of light and shadow on the leaf fall of the forest floor – reddish browns and blue browns and blacks – the occasional dark spot of cedar or evergreen, and the pale blue grays of the far side of the valley. Along the spine of the saddle the sun lit some of the new greens to the same value as the pale blues in the distance. Those same blues became darker and more tinted with yellow as they approached the middle ground of the picture beyond the saddle shape.

I spent two hours there on a panel of 8 x 16 inches. I got the overall values down well, and the colors to a passing grade. However, the minor values within the larger masses of value had exaggerated relationships to each other. In painter’s parlance, it was spotty. This was caused by the difficulty I experienced in handling and rendering the character of the scene. Each brushstroke made to represent the variegated hillsides had to render a shape and value and also create the illusion of space and form on the hillside. Budding trees in sunlight have a unique quality of revealing space within the tree crown when raked with light edging over a steep hillside –an “airy’ look - so instead of seeing relatively simple masses of light and shadow on masses of full foliage, I could also see more of the underlying tree structure as well as some of the structure of the hillside beneath, colored by the sunlight on the cover of rusty brown leaf fall and the dark or mottled cast shadows of the trees themselves. You try to suggest all of that by getting the spots of color and value correct. As you work, you must try to get just the right amount of paint of the correct value and hue applied with each stroke as you go over the initial thinly washed lay-in of the painting to achieve the affect. Too much or too little paint, and values that are a little too dark or light, make it spotty. I’ll define spotty as visually hard to read; both leading the eye and confusing it at the same time, like prose with too many adverbs.

One of these paintings is suitable for showing, and the other two could be fairly easily amended, because the compositions are sound. In my next post, I will talk about paintings with design problems that aren’t so easily fixed.

Photo of Rattlesnake Bluff by Nora Koch

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it. Mark Twain said that, I think, or Will Rogers, or maybe H. L. Mencken; one of those cranks. Perhaps it was Spiro Agnew – remember him? – in one his diatribes against weather forecasters. “Snow, sch-mo,” he said. That was during the days of the Vietnam War, Watergate, runaway inflation, and nuclear proliferation. It was a more innocent time.

(Note: don’t Google any of this. Please see the Disclaimer at the end of the post.)

It has been a beautiful spring here in the upper Midwest. The weather began to warm as if on cue around the first of March. It was like a door opened and winter left, while spring came in and set up shop and proceeded with its work in steady increments. Temperatures were, on the whole, above average. We have received regular rainfalls, all followed by an almost literally perceptible swelling of green growing things. Budding trees and flowering plants were all a few weeks ahead of schedule. Temperatures cooled to more normal levels at the end of April, slowing the budding and flowering and thus allowing us to enjoy them a little longer.

However, during the last few days of this first week of May, we have endured a stretch of cooler weather. Our forecast held true in all its details yesterday. It rained in the early morning and the late morning, at lunchtime and after lunch, at mid afternoon and in the late afternoon. It rained all day, just as the forecasters said it would. The high of 45 was not much different than the low of 43 of the night before, just like they predicted. We were left to hope that the next part of the forecast, the one to two inches of snow to come in the very early hours of Saturday, would not come to pass. I could not help but reluctantly recall times in the past when it has snowed in May. I remember well the ten inches we got in Minneapolis on May 9th or 10th, 1984. See, I even marked the date (more or less) in my mind, 26 years ago, so I could repeat it to unbelieving ears in my senility. It piled up in wet slushy heaps, and some of it was still around a couple of days later. No, wait - it didn’t melt until Memorial Day. I mean Father’s Day.

The prospect of snow in May is very discouraging, even though you know it won’t last long, even when March and April have been as kind to us as they were this year. You realize that, living in this area, you are subject to the possibility of snow about 8-1/2 to 9 months of the year, and you kind of feel like all those years when it didn’t snow in May, or September or October or April – this year, it didn’t even snow in March - were just a sort of sucker’s delusion intended to soften you so that when the blow came, the reality of snow in May, the real world borne in like sharp splinters of ice driven into your heart by rockets, it would hurt all the more.

The relieved anticlimax is that we received no snow last night. Oh, I heard that some rooftops out in the countryside were dusted with it, but even that did not survive the dawn. So, don’t go counting your disappointments or disasters before they occur. I always say.

Late breaking news: Nora has just come in and informed me that we’ll have to haul all those plants in again tonight, because they are predicting clear skies and frost. Hey, I remember in ’91 or ’92, when it froze on the 20th of June. Really. Cornstalks fell over in the fields as if gunned down, and baby birds dropped like feathered ice cubes from their nests…

[Disclaimer: I don’t really think Will Rogers was a crank, or even Mark Twain, although Mencken could qualify. Spiro Agnew didn’t really say “Snow, sch-mo,” at least not on the record. It did freeze hard in this area around the 20th of June in one of the years mentioned, or thereabouts, and some corn was damaged, although it didn’t fall over – it’s not very tall yet in June - and I don’t recall hearing anything about baby birds, but I certainly hope none were harmed.

Above all, the early seventies were not really a more innocent time.]

Sunday, March 28, 2010

March 28th, 2010

Sometimes you set out to paint and it happens that you don’t. You may go to your studio, or that corner of the attic, basement or spare room that serves as one (well appointed studios are over rated, as are most well appointed things), lay everything out and stare at the blank or incomplete canvas for hours and do little or nothing; or you may drive forty or fifty miles to some beloved or much anticipated location for which you’ve been longing and find that the spirit seems to have deserted you. I suggest it is more likely that somehow you have deserted the spirit, or that the spirit is calling you to pay attention to something else. I could write more about all of that; for now I will just say that sometimes we are led where we would rather not go.

We made another trip to Frontenac State Park along Lake Pepin today. We were there three weeks ago and I had a productive day painting. I did not paint today although I came fully prepared and with the proper intentions, at least in the forefront of my mind. Okay, it was windier and colder than I expected and I could have worn another layer to help keep me warm; still, I found several sheltered locations that would have served. I brought a long, horizontal panel along for composing the wide compositions this location offers abundantly, and a standard sized 11 x 14 as well, just in case. I was anxious to paint. I walked around looking at one long view of blue ridges and sparkling water after another; distant horizon lines fused in sunny haze beyond the sharp, bare terminal branches of burr oaks and red oaks, hickory and basswood waving in the intervening space in the wind. I wanted another successful day, like the one I had last time. In this sense, I had already deserted the spirit. I was not open to what it was offering me.

I hate to go out with the intention of painting, and not paint. It feels like a great defeat. I walked around muttering. Yes, I really do mutter. It’s not a figure of speech I am using to approximately describe a condition. Ask anyone who knows me. I thought of an expression a friend of mine used to use: “Some days its chicken and some day’s just feathers.” I thought of steely eyed Commander Riker on an old Star Trek: Next Generation episode. When the crew of the Enterprise is outmaneuvered by some creepy Romulans, he stands beside Picard as the Captain gives the order to withdraw and says “Some days you get the bear, and some days the bear gets you.” No chickens or bears here, only my over active imagination, and a little sadness and desperation as the beautiful morning passed away, punctuated by the long, deep diesel growl of a freight train in the valley below. Places to go, places to go.

I was physically tired for various reasons. The kind of tired you feel when you have used up reserves of energy and they have not been replenished. I hesitated to begin something that would take several hours of fairly intense effort, with a kind of emptiness waiting at the very end. I value discipline and it usually carries me through. The spirit is present in discipline and perseverance too - more so, in my opinion, than in inspiration, especially in my middle age. However, my discipline – my discipline, this thing I am proud of – was inadequate. Proper discipline – I call it “proper” for lack of a better term, and contrast it with discipline rooted in pride at what I have done or can do – perseveres in a task until it is finished, for some purpose other than self aggrandizement, because it is the right thing to do, but yields when something of equal or higher value calls for some action on my part. Proud discipline can blind me to whatever that need is.

Where was I being led that I would rather not go? Not to martyrdom, like St. Peter. Only to a very brief tomb: the death of my hopes for that morning. And then a walk with my wife, down a path I had never gone, making observations about what we saw here and there; signs of burning from habitat restoration, including the charred stump of an immense cottonwood and the remains of its great trunk on the ground; a ravine with light and shadow patterns suitable for framing, and the end of the trail at a point overlooking the valley bracketed with bluffs east and west, Frontenac below, a red barn with horses in its yard, and Lake Pepin making its great bend to the southeast, the big sweep and sparkle of a great river under the sun.

Photo by Nora Koch, view of Lake Pepin and Frontenac, March 28, 2010

Monday, March 8, 2010

Sunday March 7th, 2010: a mild, cloudy morning. The snow cover continues to thaw. You wouldn’t know it looking across Lake Pepin from the top of “Point No Point” in Frontenac State Park, Frontenac, Minnesota. It’s a vast white plain beginning 500 feet below and continuing to the far side of the lake, where it stops at a border of hazy bluish gray, the forested bottom land of the delta of the Rush River on the Wisconsin shore, about two miles away.

There are ice fisherman on the lake, their trucks parked near them, dangling lines through holes in the ice into the dark water below. The tracks of their vehicles etch the ice in paired lines, silvery gray, crossing and crisscrossing until they fade off into the whiteness of the ice plain. I hear a truck start up now and then, and the metallic rumbles it makes as it crosses a pressure ridge. I am startled occasionally by the singular clarity of a human voice coming up from below. I cannot understand the words but I hear matter of fact, work-a-day inflections.

I’ve started a picture. I remember to be thankful because it doesn't come naturally. I am thankful for this day; thankful for the long dark of Warrentown Ridge, for the haze from the thaw melting into the gray of the sky up the Rush River Valley, and for the faint shadow that is Carson Ridge, millions of tons of ancient sea bottom hardened into limestone and carved by pre-historic floods into a humped shape, velvet gray.

After rubbing in a gray tone, I lay down the shapes of the ridges, the lowering sky, and the snow on the plain. Crows make a racket; an eagle flies by, close enough to see its yellow eye, the hook on its beak; not far away but far beyond my reach. The crows continue to riot for a long time. A buck white tail with stubs of new antlers grazes in the sumac near the top of the ridge a hundred yards up. His hidden mates are a little deeper in the woods, no doubt. He looks a little rough. I spot the lighter areas on Warrentown Ridge, openings in the trees, steep hillside meadows, silvery. A juvenile eagle rises from below, brown and spotted, broad winged. He soars away and a little while later soars back again. The crows are off chasing the elder cousin. I spot the shapes of groves of evergreens, the same shade of blue gray, their shapes distinct. Homesteads, maybe cemeteries.

I shift my weight, and shift again; just cold enough to get stiff. The paint is sticky like it is on a hot day. I’ve kept it in the freezer too long. I squint at a haze of branches, the dull mossy greens in a slender tree trunk. A freight train wails on the Wisconsin side; the clack and the rattle and the deep diesel rumble echo. Then it is still. Cardinals flit from branch to branch. They aren’t singing just now. I turn and look south, where the sun is beginning to blaze through the fog where the lake makes a big bend east, making yellow glare in the sky and on the ice, and the ridges sit like stoics under a cloak of blue frost. The haze is lifting and my time is up, and I have only grasped a little of what I have been given. “Your way led over the sea, your path over the countless waters, and none could trace your footsteps.*”

Photo by Nora Koch, an eagle over Lake Pepin, March 7th, 2010.

*Psalm 77: 19, The New Jerusalem Bible.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Use of Photographs

When I was editor of the Classical Realism Journal I once interviewed the painter Jeffrey Mims. I’ll paraphrase what he said about the use of photos in painting: if you have a good photo, why not be content with what it is, instead of imitating it in paint? It’s a good point. Of course the obvious answer is that an oil painting has a romantic cachet about it that photos lack. Some people are pursuing that, and are willing to use photos to get it. But remember: if you work from a photo you are copying the effect of an emulsion on paper, or ink on paper, or photons (or whatever they are) in a computer screen. There is no getting away from that. You may be able to bring some artistic sensibility to bear on it that transforms the image effectively into paint, but I would not venture to advise anyone about how to do that. There may be practical reasons for making paintings from photos that have to do with making a living, but again I wouldn’t casually advise in favor of it.

Do I use photos to make my paintings? Almost never. Have I tried using them in various ways, as aides? Yes. There is one painting posted on my website that was generated by using photos. It is the painting of the two polar bears on an ice floe. It is obviously not a plein air painting. I did not copy any single photo to make it, but used numerous photos as references, as well as studies I had painted from nature of water and ice. None of the other paintings on this site were generated in whole or in part from the use of photos. They were all generated on site from nature.

My biggest personal objection to working from photos is that I find it to be tedious and boring. I can’t stay interested in it. Would you rather look at a video of your favorite vacation spot, or go there? Do you prefer looking at a picture of your good friend, or being in their presence?

My wife Nora takes digital photographs. She has a gift for composing and I am frankly envious of the sheer number of beautiful images she can take, or the subjects she can explore with her camera that would not be suitable for painting. I admire her photographs very much, and I am interested in looking at thoughtful and creative photography in general. I want to make it clear that I am not dismissing photography.

But clearly photography and painting are two different things. Photography has not replaced realistic painting, as it was once supposed it would, although it has influenced how it is done and largely assumed some of the tasks once reserved for painting. Painting nature, or anything else for that matter, from photographs puts you one more step removed from your subject and the direct experience of it. You should ask yourself before you start if you can afford to work that way.

Am I saying that I will never use photos? No. If I am someday incapacitated by age, illness or injury and cannot go out in the field to paint, will I turn to the use of photos? I can’t say no, although I also can’t imagine how I would suddenly not find it tedious (although that I cannot imagine it does not mean that it cannot be so), or suddenly lose the desire to work directly from nature in some capacity.

The photo at the top of this post was taken by Nora in January of this year at Afton State Park, Minnesota, on the eastern border of Minnesota with Wisconsin. Winter seems like it's been going on a long while by this time of February - and it has.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Notes on Gear

I like to travel light. I don’t want to haul a ton of gear around. I use the typical “French” fold-up box type easel. I attach a strap to it to carry it over one shoulder. I haven’t found an umbrella I like. If I did I would use it. They act like sails, or they fall over, or they don’t stay clamped to the easel. I always set up with the panel in ambient light, never direct sunlight. I try to keep the subject parallel with the panel if possible. Sometimes I will work at right angles, but it is more difficult to compare the work to nature that way.
I don’t take a stool, but I’m getting older and I might change my ways some day.
I always have a hat to shade my eyes, and to keep the bugs out of my hair in the summer. I’m a blue eyed boy and glare is a big problem for me, especially in winter. I carry water in the summer. I use bug repellant, chiefly to deal with these pests: ticks, deer flies, mosquitoes, and gnats. I use sunscreen. You can get a bad sunburn in a short time without it on a summer day when the sun is high.
In winter I dress in layers and stay dry. Never buy cheap shoes. A cheap hat will get you by, not that I’m advocating such; but cheap shoes will make you suffer.
I’ve worked for up to an hour and a half at temperatures in the single digits in locations sheltered from the wind. It doesn’t take much wind at 5 degrees to make it cold. I work bare handed if I can, but I will use insulated latex-coated gloves. The latex coating makes it easier to grip a brush. On occasion I have even painted with mittens on. My style of painting depends more on wrist, elbow and shoulder motions than on digital dexterity, especially while doing the kind of “big look” work I do on site. I will also use the oxygen activated hand warmers inside the gloves. They help. I like to say that generally I will work out in the cold until my hand is taking half a second too long to respond to the command from my brain. Then I know that I must get to a warm place expeditiously. Painting outdoors in winter is not like chopping wood. You are standing still, and once you get chilled you have to move around or go somewhere warm. I don’t use warm drinks. Coffee (actually caffeine) dilates your capillaries and thus makes it harder to stay warm. Obviously alcohol is out of the question, and all drinks eventually cause the urge to pee, water used judiciously on a hot day being the exception. Please don't get me wrong, I advocate staying hydrated; just think about how you want to do it before hand.

I formerly used what we called a chromatic palette, sometimes derided as a candy palette. It’s loaded with strong, brilliant pigments like cad orange and red, at least two shades of cad yellow, a strong purple like Old Holland’s Schevenings Violet, ultramarine blue, etc. It teaches you to use primaries to make secondary colors and to neutralize, but I was unable to neutralize it enough to convince my eyes. As in some other things, it took me too long to accept that I had to change.
Over the past few years I have gradually shifted to a palette that relies on earth colors for its basic mixtures while retaining smaller amounts of the cadmiums for tinting. I have discontinued use of Schevenings Violet for the time being. I may take it up again as a tinting color someday. I will not use it again as a basis for dark notes because I don’t feel I can neutralize it sufficiently. In other words, it is too strong a shade of purple. My current palette is: titanium white, cad yellow medium, cad yellow light, yellow ochre, ultramarine blue, ivory black, cad orange, cad red, light red (Windsor Newton’s variety), caput mortuum violet and burnt umber. I keep thalo blue on hand for rarely needed tinting, and chromium oxide green because it makes a good middle range neutral in certain conditions when combined with a red or a violet or umber. Ultramarine blue with cad orange and lots of white makes a very versatile light to medium gray that can be shifted from warm to cool without adding other pigments. I still find that the greens of summer in strong sunlight require substantial doses of the cad yellows to look true. I mix all of my greens with yellows and ultramarine or ivory black as a base. Bear in mind that a green can be anything from the chartreuse shade of a newly budded leaf to a smoky shadow on a dull day, deep in some cedar in winter. Cad red is almost always on the palette in a small amount, but often I don’t use it at all, and when I do I use it very sparingly to spike a warm note somewhere or to hit a shade of some autumn or winter variety of color. Just the right amount of it is sometimes admirable for warming up a dark neutral note without making it rusty brown or purple. I don’t think it mixes with white very well for high key warm notes in most landscape painting applications.
These days I am using mostly Blockx and Sennelier pigments. They are ground in lighter oils that keep the working surface open a little longer and they have the buttery consistency that I generally like. Most of my paintings are completed in one session. Since I am not building paintings up in layers of wet over dry, I am not too concerned about the softness of, for example, poppy seed oil in comparison to something like cold pressed linseed oil. The old adage is that simple, direct painting makes the most durable surface. I have no doubt that cold pressed linseed oil makes a superior durable paint film. But I think that many impressionist paintings made in the nineteenth century with pigments ground in poppy seed oil and painted simply and directly have also proved to age well.

The photo above is by Nora, taken in December of 2008 at Kinnickinnic State Park, as I worked on the painting Park Road.

I want to thank my brother John for helping me create Peter's web site. I really had no idea how to do it; he held my hand and did a lot of work for us along the way. He has been generous with his time, patient, good humored and kind during the entire process.

John is also an amazing fly fisherman, just as our father was, both of whom could settle tiny fluffs of feather and thread onto an equally tiny creek. He tried to convert me to fly fishing, giving me all of the gear I needed after Dad had years before taught me to cast. When I got on the river I found I also needed to understand the fish, what they ate, the time of day and year they ate it, the location they would be looking for it and try to replicate that. I was a fly-fishing failure. I still love to watch John fish with such skill, and occasionally he is as bad at it as I was.

To See John's beautiful prints go here


Field notes, part 2


Time frame.

As I said previously, I generally spend 1 ½ to 2 ½ hours on site; usually closer to 1 ½. I develop the painting away from the site according to information gathered on site, working another 2 -4 hours. If some people consider this to not be plein-air painting, so be it. I am not interested in debating about what is plein-air painting and what isn't, beyond eschewing the use of photographs. There will be more on that in a subsequent post.

I find that the amount of information available on site is so overwhelming that my poor brain cannot generally deal with it for more than 90 – 120 minutes. After I've been studying something for awhile it is as if my mind has broken it into a lot of little pieces and I literally begin to see it that way. I can combat this for a time by looking away from the scene for a few moments so my eye is freshened before I look back, or by squinting to resolve things into light and dark value masses, but that method breaks down as conditions change.

I am adamant that I will not chase effects of changing light and conditions if I can possibly help it. That is, I commit myself early in the process and hope for the best. I consider anything else a waste of time. Obviously there are times when conditions change after I have made an initial commitment. I just do my best, even though it may turn out to be inadequate that day. How do I know how to "do my best?" The first answer is, I have done hundreds of paintings on site, and I've developed a sense that I trust. The second answer is, I don't always know. Sometimes I'm wrong. Light conditions change radically on sunny days in the time frame mentioned, especially early or late in the day, or during the months of short daylight, or when you are working on compositions that depend on patterns of light and cast shadow. Light conditions often change very subtly on cloudy days as well, mostly in warm/cool shifts and slight value shifts.

The photo above is of Buffalo Lake from King's House Retreat Center in Buffalo, Minnesota; early morning on Saturday December 12th, 2009, taken by Nora. Later that day, I did a drawing with some elements of the same scene, but including the far side of the lake.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Field notes

Field Notes
Almost all of the paintings shown here were painted on location. After returning from the field, I do some finishing work in the studio from information gathered on site.

There are a couple of exceptions to this rule. Obviously the painting Two Bears was not done on site. It was painted from a variety of photographic sources. I leaned heavily on Winslow Homer for the surging water and breakers; also on sketches I once did along the Lake Michigan shore in winter. I don’t normally do this kind of painting. I did Two Bears in 2001 and I haven’t done anything like it since. I do not, in principle, exclude the possibility of doing that kind of work again; working that way has its moments of excitement. But for me it does not compare to working outside. The spontaneity, the urgency and the direct response to nature are invigorating. Working on some aspects of the paintings immediately upon returning from the field continues that same sense of urgency and response. I am trying to develop passages based on notations I have made in the field while the experience is still fresh in my mind. At this point my experience of the work of other artists and the accumulated effects of my own experiences with nature and painting come more into play.

Advent Retreat and December Night were also not painted on site. They were painted from drawings made on site supplemented by written notes on color and value shifts. I don’t know of any practical method for painting nocturnes on site, which isn’t to say that such a method doesn’t exist.

Rainy River, a pastel painting, was also done from a pencil sketch and written notes made on site.

I usually spend one and a half to two and a half hours on site. The amount of time varies with the subject and the quality of the light. Under most conditions there are variable factors, such as the particular quality of light at the particular time of day, or the patterns of light and shadow which underlie the composition of the painting, which change sufficiently over a period of a couple hours to make further work impractical. Having been trained to observe carefully and compare my work to nature, I find that I want to chase shapes or effects as they change to make my painting look more like what I see, and that is not a good thing if you have established a composition or captured an effect that is now gone. As a rule I try to stick to my original conception. I have had many more misses than hits trying to chase effects.

With luck it is sometimes possible to anticipate an effect. In the painting Dusk at Lakeside I hoped as I began that the evening sun would come under the clouds and light up the white pines on the point in the middle ground of the painting. I knew from experience that under those conditions there was a good chance that would happen. On that occasion I got my wish.

The paintings represent a variety of times of the day and all the seasons. I usually begin in the morning because my energy level is better then, but afternoon and evening paintings are also represented.

The image above was taken by my wife Nora near the summit of Mt. Monadnock in New Hampshire in June of 2007.

Saturday, January 16, 2010


Each week my wife Nora and I travel a short distance from our home to paint and photograph what we find there. Occasionally our forays go farther afield, but most of the images found on this site are from the countryside near River Falls, Wisconsin. All of the photographs of me painting are by Nora.

The top image is of me at the conclusion of a painting session at Kinnickinnic State Park near the western border of Wisconsin in January of 2008. There are a couple of prairie restorations in the park and one is behind me.

The bottom image is of Nora from friend Susan's garden tour and a stop in her "leopard lounge," in Madison, Wisconsin. Many thanks are due to Nora for all her work on getting this blog and my website up. Thank you, Nora!