tips and techniques

Petaluma Evening

Petaluma is a small city in Northern California. As you cross the Golden Gate Bridge out of San Francisco, and pass through Marin County, Petaluma is the gateway to Sonoma County on Highway 101 there. You'll know it because while Marin County is pretty nice, you suddenly enter this area of nearly endless rolling hills and oaks.

Petaluma Evening 24x30" oil on panel Original art available

Petaluma Evening
24x30" oil on panel
Original art available

Sometimes, as in this painting, there is essentially no pre-drawing, I just paint as I go.

Sometimes, as in this painting, there is essentially no pre-drawing, I just paint as I go.

I mentioned last time that I was going to branch out from vineyard related paintings for a bit, and part of that is from wanting to explore this area more. I just said that Petaluma is endless rolling hills, but this painting only indicates two such, and focuses on trees; well, actually it focuses on light.

On the same trip where I took reference for this painting, I also took reference for the right side of "Turning Point." I saw enough gorgeous stuff in one afternoon walking around to inspire a dozen paintings. Now it's just a matter of finding them time to paint them!

Outside of my illustration work and Hearts for Hardware, a lot of my other work doesn't really utilize pre-drawing these days anymore. That's quite a change from my earlier days. I just go straight to paint. Sometimes that means "drawing" with the paint, other times it just means massing in the forms and defining as I go, as with my still life paintings.

The smooth transition of evening sky was much simpler to just paint as a mass of sky and then paint trees over it, rather than try to maintain the color gradations in all the little holes in and around the branches and edges of the tree shapes.

The smooth transition of evening sky was much simpler to just paint as a mass of sky and then paint trees over it, rather than try to maintain the color gradations in all the little holes in and around the branches and edges of the tree shapes.

The Same, But Different

While my work has shown changes over the past few years, notably in a spreading out of subject matter, it is also true that I tinker a lot behind the scenes. Most of these experiments are not game-changing ones, and most are not even really intentional. But sometimes, at the start of a piece I'll just decide to do something different for no reason in particular.

"Pine Cone" 6x8" oil on panel Sold

"Pine Cone"
6x8" oil on panel

The last time I did a couple of still life paintings, I did them in a limited palette, as discussed in the videos that resulted. I don't always work in limited palettes, but have done so more often in the past year or two.

When I painted this still life at the very end of 2016, for no particular reason I decided to choose a limited palette: Titanium White, Cadmium Yellow Medium, Perylene Red, and Ultramarine Blue. I hadn't used that Red much, and wanted to experiment a bit more with it.

Happy with the result, when a few days later I did another small painting, and my first of 2017, I took my palette out of the freezer (where I store it between sessions) and, noting that I had quite a bit of paint left, decided to just continue using it, albeit with a very different overall color cast.

"Concha" 6x8" oil on panel sold

6x8" oil on panel

So this second piece uses the exact colors as the prior one. It's been fun to do this from time to time. I don't know if it'll stick long-term or just remain a way of working on occasion. What I do know is that following this piece, I then worked on a larger 18x24" landscape piece for my Times and Seasons series, and what do you know: I just kept on working with that palette, although in that case I did add Cadmium Yellow Pale because Medium did not have the punch needed for some of what I was doing there. I look forward to sharing that with you soonish.

From there, I took a few days away from the easel to do an event and start working on taxes and stuff, so that paint won't be usable anymore next time I sit to paint. So it's off to a different thing.

Thoughts About Teaching

I've talked a little

regarding my relation to teaching. But now I am a few weeks in, working with the fun folk participating in

Art Camp

this summer. It's my first time being an instructor and spending dedicated time helping others. It's been enjoyable and eye-opening, and challenging as well. Remember, I've been out of a formal class setting for 20 years now. That was essentially pre-internet, certainly pre-digital art in any form in which you'd recognize it today. A lot of water has passed under this bridge; for example, just the fact that I'm doing this instruction online in a forum that didn't exist when I left college.

I thought I'd go over some general comments and thoughts that have arisen consistently among the students, some of whom are going or have gone to art school, some who are in or went to college for other majors and are circling back to a "first love." Some are self taught, and others are attempting to start their careers already. Others still don't necessarily intend to pursue illustration. But the similarities across these groups can be large.

  • Pencils are new? One of the assignments called for folks to experiment with dry media, try new things and so on. I was a little shocked at how many folks had never touched charcoal in their lives. Further shocking was how many people considered doing pencil drawings, "experimental." I have to believe most of them doodled in pencils when young, but perhaps now that is only for a few short years after graduating from crayons and before buying an entry-level digital tablet say, in high school?? I don't know, this blows my mind, but more importantly, this bodes ill because...
  • Removed from digital, you see what an artist can do. I have now watched folks, comfortable with digital tools, attempt to draw with traditional media, which they rarely do. This, IMO, is where you get to see what an artist can really do. It's easy to hide your crutches and cheats in digital, and let me say what I've said before: for the purposes of illustration, none of that matters. Only the final product matters. But, there is the art, and there is the artist. The illustration can be good, thanks in part to Adobe and Wacom, while the artist remains far less than the output suggests. And don't get me wrong, I use digital tools in the prep and pre-viz of almost every piece I do. It has its place, but that place is not instead of developing ability. I could forego it entirely, I'd just be slower.
  • Impressionism has hampered generations of painters. When artists begin to approach oil painting, it is very common to see them painting very thick from the get-go. It's not like paint jumps onto the canvas of its own volition: to put thick paint down, one needs to load their brush up with lots of paint, place it, and leave it. Where do people get the idea that painting should be thick? I think it is during our formative years of being exposed to Impressionists and their descendants, most of whom used a lot of paint. When "Starry Night" is a cultural touchstone of Great Painting, I shouldn't be surprised to see painters defaulting to thick on their first attempts. If that movement had never occurred, then during our formative years we'd study the masters before them and their forgotten contemporaries: most of whom painted much, much thinner, or who used texture strategically. It would never then enter a painter's mind to put that much paint down, because it'd look wrong compared to their mental picture of how a painting was supposed to look, in that alternate history.
"Starry Night" (detail) by Vincent Van Gogh. I know there's no real "supposed to look" about painting, but if you're starting out, really, don't start here. Move there later if you'd like.

"Starry Night" (detail) by Vincent Van Gogh. I know there's no real "supposed to look" about painting, but if you're starting out, really, don't start here. Move there later if you'd like.

Because they can't handle thick paint, which slides around, won't shift color easily, and doesn't lend itself to accurate drawing (see above picture), students get stuck in quicksand, and the more they try to correct, the muddier it gets. The period of learning through this phase would be saved if it weren't for the above. Believe me, I suffered this same fate when I was in Art School too. Though my earliest paintings were thin, I was sort of shamed into painting "ballsier," which meant, somehow, with too much paint to be accurate. It created bad habits in me that took years to shed, and that after only taking two formal painting classes before abandoning the painting department and focusing on being a Drawing Major.

  • "Master Copies" are good. Copying the work of your betters is a great practice. I self-taught myself this way a lot before, during and even after college. The coursework at Art Camp includes copying others, and I heartily approve. Frankly, I think even in Art School there should be a class on Master Copies. Below is a not-great photo in a not-great lit room (the blues are gone), but a year ago or so I came across a college copy I did, I think in '92 or '93. I wanted to learn more about Darrell K. Sweet's work, which I'd seen not long before when he was Guest of Honor at a local convention in the Bay Area. I've talked about him here before. His work looked like oils, but was acrylic, and I was largely painting in acrylic at that time. So I copied one of his pieces, from a book cover. In particular, I always liked his landscapes, so I ignored the figure/horse in the original painting and focused on the landscape, in acrylics.
Art School study, after Darrell K. Sweet. 16x20" acrylics on canvas

Art School study, after Darrell K. Sweet. 16x20" acrylics on canvas

  • Portraits are not the best place to experiment. Portraiture carries challenges of its own. Even a good painter and draftsman regularly engaged in representational art, but who doesn't practice portraiture regularly, will have to work harder when they try it. I know that's the case with me. Good portrait painters are in the habit of recreating likenesses day in, day out. Those muscles are strong.

    Apart from that, even drawing faces well, in general, is a challenge requiring anatomical study, teaching and a ton of mileage and correction. So on assignments where students are to try new media (wet or dry), I am saddened to see that so many run back to trying this stuff out on portraits, when they haven't yet reached competency in portraiture. What happens is the student will then get caught up and challenged by the formal aspects of portraiture, and focus less as a result on noticing how the new medium works. My advice: when trying something new, do something fairly visually simple like a still life of simple objects. Something you know you can draw and observe clearly. That way, you free up your anxiety to be spent on taming your new medium.

    Again, some of these comments are general advice for students, primarily. If you can practice it early, you'll save yourself a lot of time and frustration when attending a painting class or something online like Art Camp.

Lunacon Schedule!

Lunacon is approaching this weekend! For those who will be attending, or are considering, here is where to find me and my art...if that's one of the things you're interested in doing:

Art Show:

I will have a bunch of original art available for view and purchase at Lunacon. I don't usually run "sales" on my originals, but these shows operate on an auction-system. So to encourage people I will have the starting bids slightly lower than my website pricing, with most work in basic frames. There will also be a selection of prints available for purchase (at regular price). This will be the largest showing of my original art in one place...I think ever, and will (hopefully) include 2 new paintings not currently on my website. One of them isn't even finished as I post this!

Hours: Friday, 7-9:30pm|  Saturday: 10am-9pm|  Sunday 9-11am and then 12:30pm-3pm

To-scale mockup of a part of my showing. This reflects 1/3 of the art I'm bringing.

To-scale mockup of a part of my showing. This reflects 1/3 of the art I'm bringing.


Art Technique Workshop:

4:30-5:30pm, Westchester Ballroom A3:

Bring a project you're working on, your sketchbook and dry media to work in (optional). I'll be happy to talk technique with you in a constructive manner to help you in your work, or as you work. I can suggest topics of study that might help you overcome hurdles, or new perspectives that can help push you further down your current road.

Art Show Reception:

Friday, 10pm - ?, in the art show.

Mingle, look at art, drink and eat things--not sure about that last part, but what art reception have you been to without things to gnosh on?


A busy day at the show!

Painting at Lunacon:

Grand Ballroom, South. 10am-12:55pm

I'll be painting in the art show in oils, giving a live demo of my work and methods. Come and watch, ask questions!

Agency/Small Shop, or Freelance?:

1-1:55pm, Poplar Room

From the program: "What approach works the best in getting projects and work? Should you form a coalition/small shop, join a big company, or stay freelance? How do you manage finances in each scenario? Pros/cons, joys and shite." I'll be joined by friend and fellow illustrator William O'Connor to have this discussion, moderated by Stuart Hellinger

Artist Guest of Honor Presentation:

2-2:55pm, Westchester Ballroom B.

I celebrate my 20th year freelancing next month. Come and see an overview of my career, learn about what it took to maintain a career for two decades, and get a view of an artist's progress across the history of the modern interwebs, 3 major media changes, 4 countries and 3 states. Q&A welcome.


3-3:55pm, Westchester Assembly.

Time to whip out my Sharpies, and sign whatever you care to have me sign. I have a pay-by-mail signing policy the rest of the year, but at these events feel free to bring as much as you want me to sign, for free.

The Decline and Fall of the Book Cover:

4-4:55pm, Westchester Ballroom A1

"Do book covers matter? Are they only done by formula now, and do the formulae actually increase sales? This panel is inspired by an article in The New Yorker magazine". This all-star panel includes the legendary publisher Tom Doherty (TOR Books), Matthew Kalamidas (Art Director, Science Fiction Book Club), Roy Mauritsen (art director, Padwolf Publishing), and artist Alan Beck

Sunday: I have no formal schedule this day (whew!), so you may see my wife and me floating around until it's time to tear down the art show. But feel free to say hi if you do.