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!