Category Archives: Plein Air Painting

Pushing Paint

Oil paint has many unique qualities, including variations in texture, from light, watercolor-like washes, to impasto strokes of full body oil. Lately, I’ve been exploring the latter, painting with a fully loaded brush that creates bold strokes of color (called “impasto”, the technique of laying on paint thickly so that it stands out from a surface).

I’ve found this technique to have many benefits: it gives painting a sculptural “presence” that reminds the viewer this isn’t a photograph, it’s made by a hand with passion; it allows for richer color and interesting edges, as the loads of adjacent paint strokes combine at the edges, creating a marbleized co-mingling of color; using impasto for foreground elements makes them move forward in the picture plain, especially if you paint the distance in a thinner wash; and finally, there’s something more about it that’s difficult to describe….I think it’s perhaps the fact that the painting’s fluid surface gives it an organic quality.

Here are a few recent seascapes painted in this vein:

Lifeguard Station

Lifeguard Station

8×10 inches
$325 *

Cove, Maui

Cove, Maui

8×10 inches
$250 *

Juicy Rocks & Surf

8×8 inches
$250 *

Shell Beach Bluffs

Shell Beach Bluffs

8×10 inches
$225 *

Sea Cliff Bluffs (San Francisco)

Sea Cliff Bluffs (San Francisco)

10×8 inches
$225 *

Juicy Rocks & Surf
Juicy Rocks & Surf

Juicy Rocks & Surf

8×8 inches
$250 *

Seeking Balance in Plein Air Painting

“Isn’t it intensity of thought rather than calmness of touch that we are seeking?  And in impulsive working conditions such as these, out on site and of this nature, is a calm, well-ordered touch always possible? Dear Lord, it seems to me no more so than when on the attack in fencing.” 

Vincent VanGogh in a letter to fell artist John Russell

VanGogh captures perfectly the essence of a struggle plein air painters face: balancing the heart and head in the battle to create art on the spot.  When you’re painting, how do you balance the impulsiveness driven by the excitement of the moment, with a deliberative approach that substitutes intuitive painting for thoughtful—and some would say “tight”–painting?  Or is this a false choice and do both?

Painting and studying with some of the best in our field inform my opinion.  Of those teachers, the great Ken Auster comes to mind.  In short, his approach was that you start with the head (deciding what to paint and why, designing the picture, drawing…), move to the heart (reacting, for creating the kind of expressive brush strokes and sophisticated grays he’s known for) and end with the head to thoughtfully consider the painting from an objective standpoint, and ask yourself, “is it done?” Judge it.

I agree with much of what Ken taught me about this question, but I have a slightly different although complementary take: Painting en plein air is possible through building a solid foundational of skills that make automatic as much of the process as possible in the moment.  

Have you ever commuted home from work, realizing when you got there you were on complete auto-pilot, barely remembering the drive?  That’s what building a skill means to me: having the most complete toolbox of artistic skills so that I can be intuitive and responsive to nature without thinking about it. I want to use my heart completely in a picture.  This is my goal, but I’m not quite there yet.  I’ve worked in the corporate world too many years to escape a structured, self-critical mind. 

But like Ken, I do start and end deliberatively. Perhaps this is my failing, or an essential truth to live with.

This is a painting of mine that represents for me this principle. I started with a careful design—especially large shapes, light and shadow—and switched to a complete intuitive state (athletes call it “the zone”). I skipped the evaluation, self-judgment phase until the next day.  I’m glad I did.  I like it just as it is.

China Cove, Oil on panel, 8x6"
“China Cove”, oil on board, 8×6″, Click for availability.

new coastal paintings

On the way to and back from my recent solo show in San Francisco I stopped at Pacific Grove (and other spots) to paint plein air, capturing natural light in what was a beautiful week. I hope you enjoy these new works. All available online unframed (reach out to me if you’d like a price quoted for framed works).

Pacific Grove Bluffs, Oil on board, 12x9
Pacific Grove Bluffs, Oil on board, 12×9


Pacific Grove Color Study, Seascape, Oil on wood, 8x8
Pacific Grove Color Study, Seascape, Oil on wood, 8×8


Pacific Grove Rocks & Surf, Seascape, Oil on board, 10x10
Pacific Grove Rocks & Surf, Oil on board, 10×10


2037 Pacific Grove Light Study, Seascape, Oil on board, 8x8
Pacific Grove Light Study, Oil on board, 8×8


Shell Beach,Seascape, Oil on board, 9x12
Shell Beach, Oil on board, 9×12


Painting with Purpose: Color Spots

The problems most growing artists try to solve often boils down to a lack of singular purpose. For example, a common question plein air painters ask is, “how much time should I take seeking a location to paint?” I’ve been there, all too often taking longer to find a scene than painting—a frustrating experience I know many of us share.

Seemingly simple questions never have simple answers, but the solution depends on the goal for going out: are you out painting today to work on a particular technical skill, like color or drawing?  To prepare for a show?  To commune with fellow painters?  Do it all?  When I go out, even though like anyone I’d prefer to be inspired by a scene, I: choose a goal; quickly narrow my visual choices to achieve that goal; and then focus on it alone.

The most common goal for me is understanding natural light, and with that, accepting the constraints of plein air painting. Most of the time, we only have about 90 minutes to finish a picture before the natural light shifts to the point where the scene has changed enough to require a new start. The skills I’m most focused on is composition and color—and sometimes just one of the two. I try not to expect too much from one 90-minute painting: draftsmanship, color, selling, or winning a competition (or “likes” on social media).

Plein air painting is an essential tool for understanding natural light. When I judge a show, I can easily distinguish between a painting that captures natural light and one where the artist spent too much time and “followed the light” too far, for example, spending 3 hours on a scene where the light has moved far past the original light moment. To illustrate this, I’m sharing two plein air studies where I had the singular purpose of capturing the effect of light. Capturing light can be achieved by mixing small, exact color spots. I learned this from reading Charles Hawthorne.

Charles Hawthorne understood how to capture natural light through color spots. If you’re a plein air painter and haven’t read “Hawthorne on Painting,” by Charles Webster Hawthorne, you’re missing out!  Buy his wisdom immediately!  He describes an essential truth in painting in general, but especially true of plein air,

“Painting is the mechanics of putting one spot of color next to another. That’s the fundamental thing.”

This is a simple, essential truth often missed by painters who expect too much from a single painting session.

Here’s a color spot example. I was out on a beautifully clear day in San Francisco, a city where subjects to paint are endless. I ended up at a favorite, Crissy Field, where I could have painted architecture (including the Golden Gate Bridge), beachcombers, rocks and surf, long city views, hillsides, etc, but I was struck immediately by the dramatic color of this building. 

I started a color notes journey by painting small color spots for each element: the main structure walls in light and shadow; roof; lawn; sky and distant bay water behind the building (see below).  I didn’t fill in the broad shapes of color until each spot related first to each other.  And if one color note was off (I first painted the roof too dark), there’s a domino effect and adjacent colors notes change too. In this study, I repainted the sky color spot several times after all the other spots related correctly.

Color Spots Example, Crissy Field, San Francisco. This picture is a grey scale version with highlighted color spots used to seek the representation of natural light.
Color Spots Example, Crissy Field, San Francisco. This picture is a grey scale version with highlighted color spots used to seek the representation of natural light.
Finished color study of Crissy Field, San Francisco. Oil on wood, 8x10"
Finished color study of Crissy Field, San Francisco. Oil on wood, 8×10″

To keep focus, you’ll notice the building has no windows or doors.  Of course, it actually has, but painting that detail would have taken time away from my singular goal.  Having captured these key colors in this study I can later paint a larger studio work that includes this detail, but there was no need to do so in the 90 minutes I took to capture color notes here.

This is another example, a Pacific Grove scene of color notes I painted last week.

Give it a try, let me know how you do!  Also, to capture accurate color notes, refer back to this post on how I mix color outdoors.

San Luis Obispo Show: Painting on the Buchon Trail

“For a few weeks in August, 1976, Hollywood magic flipped the coasts of the United States and transformed the coast south of Moñtana de Oro State Park into Passamaquoddy, Maine. A lighthouse was built near Point Buchon as  part of Pete’s Dragon, the most expensive Walt Disney production to date.”  So reported local papers as Disney built a lighthouse on the Buchon Trail, the subject of a new show at the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art October 5-8.  I’m honored to be one of several invited artists invited to capture this landscape “en plein air” for a show of paintings fresh off the easel. The gallery above shows some of the paintings I plan to hang.

This incredible coastal area was only opened to the public a few years ago, and as far as I know, this is the first show dedicated to the unspoiled beauty of this land.  Being there last week, driven with my painting equipment in a 4-wheel drive on seldom used private dirt roads, I had a chance to see how the earliest Native Americans and their Spanish invaders witnessed an unspoiled California coast.

If you’re an artist or collector, chances are you’ve seen countless paintings of Laguna Beach, Point Lobos or Morro Bay–but you’re unlikely to  have seen this incredible landscape chosen by Disney studios to amaze movie goers.

And it is an amazing landscape.  Of particular interest (which I’m not posting here–come to the show and see it!) are the large rock stacks just off shore that are considered the “Stonehenge of the Pacific.”  They really are incredible, and I had a great time painting them to prepare for the show with fellow artists.  Several of us painted these icons, and they’re each unique.  Come see what each artist saw.

So, join us, by either viewing the show at the museum, and/or watching the artists (including me) paint the area live.  As a bonus, the proceeds from the show will help fund this local icon of Central Coast arts, the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art.  Click here for more detail, if you come, say hello!

Moss Beach

This is one of my favorite places to paint.  It’s nearby, and has many of the features of far away (well, 1.5 hours) Point Lobos.  I’ve been painting gouache studies recently for ease of travel, and they translate well to oil, being opaque.  I like this study and will–someday–paint a large studio version.  The ArtSavesLives gallery has offered me a solo show, so perhaps sometime in 2017.  For now, this is available on my Facebook Store here, framed for $300.

Moss Beach (late afternoon, plein air), gouache on paper, 8x8"
Moss Beach (late afternoon, plein air), gouache on paper, 8×8″

Palm Springs Plein Air

I had a great time painting plein air in Palm Springs last weekend!  I need to get back soon.  The combination of blazing, clear light; nature; and modern architecture make it a great destination for plein air painters.  Enjoy!

Indian Canyons (Palm Springs), Gouache on paper, 8x6"
Indian Canyons (Palm Springs), Gouache on paper, 8×6″

"Chilis Retreat, Palm Springs", gouache on paper, 8x6"
“Chilis Retreat, Palm Springs”, gouache on paper, 8×6″

"Chili's Retreat, by the pool (Palm Springs), Gouache on paper, 6x6"
“Chili’s Retreat, by the pool (Palm Springs), Gouache on paper, 6×6”

Using Art to Balance Life

Duboce & Buena Vista Park, Gouache on Paper, 4x6"
Duboce & Buena Vista Park, Gouache on Paper, 4×6″

I’ve enjoyed a long, fulfilling career in Silicon Valley.  It’s an incredibly diverse, constantly changing place and state of mind. It’s easy to be consumed here in a world where creating disruption is your job. It see it everywhere as I walk the city (my favorite past-time). I notice the first-time tourists who see San Francisco through fresh eyes contrasted with the emerging technology class glued to their latest device. Watching them, I ask myself, do they miss the wonder in the eyes of newcomers around them?  Can we maintain curiosity, and see the world anew every day?

As an Industry Analyst at Altimeter Group, my job now is to understand and council others in technology disruption. But I need a constant: a foundation that puts these ceaseless changes in perspective. How can you understand change without understanding the starting point? For me that starts with family of course, but also, seeing and expressing the undeniable beauty around me every day. So, I paint and sketch. Every day. Maybe it’s a “left brain, right brain” thing, but for me, creating something of lasting beauty in a world of ephemeral apps, devices and marketing campaigns gives me the foundation I need to notice. And noticing—being aware—is the first step in understanding the world as it is and can be.

Variations on a Theme

I was speaking to someone on a airplane last night about the visual arts and how they relate to music. Here’s my analogy: In high school, I played jazz trombone. Key to that genre is the ability to improvise. It’s a beautiful thing to hear a musician create new music on the fly during an improvisation. What may seem to be a beautiful, but haphazard, run of notes is actually the result of playing within the composer’s written sequence of cord progressions. The jazz musician creates in the moment, but she does so based on what’s in front of her: sheet music (in a sense). The same is very much true of those artists that create variations based on a theme. The subject is the theme (sheet music) and the art is the variation (improvisation).

For me, a recent theme has been Moss Beach, here in Northern California. The series of paintings below shows how I’ve studied this area, and created variations on this landscape. The first three paintings are based on the same spot, but with different mediums–oil, watercolor–and different perspectives. The last 4 are looking in a different direction, but again, studies of the same view using different mediums and ideas. From these studies, I’m learning to record and compare my feelings for the spot so I can later determine what resonates and where to build upon–as, for example, a larger studio work.

I hope you enjoy these improvisations of Moss Beach. More to come.

Moss Beach Cove, Oil on Linen, 9x12
Moss Beach Cove, Oil on Linen, 9×12

Moss Beach Cove, Watercolor, 6x6
Moss Beach Cove, Watercolor, 6×6″

Moss Beach Study, Watercolor, 9x12
Moss Beach Study, Watercolor, 9×12

Moss Beach Bluffs 1, Watercolor, 6x6
Moss Beach Bluffs 1, Watercolor, 6×6

Moss Beach Study 2, Watercolor, 6x6
Moss Beach Study 2, Watercolor, 6×6

Moss Beach Bluffs 5, Watercolor, 4x6.5
Moss Beach Bluffs 5, Watercolor, 4×6.5″


Moss Beach Bluffs #3, Oil on Linen, 12x9
Moss Beach Bluffs #3, Oil on Linen, 12×9″

San Miguel de Allende

San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico is a real gem. The centro’s architecture is Spanish Colonial, and the people there are  wonderful.  Love painting there, and finally got Mike to go on a visit recently.  Here are some paintings in watercolor and oil.  Enjoy!

Joyce's Pool #2 (San Miguel de Allende, Mexico), Watercolor
Joyce’s Pool #2 (San Miguel de Allende, Mexico), Watercolor

Joyce's Pool #1 (San Miguel de Allende, Mexico), Watercolor
Joyce’s Pool #1 (San Miguel de Allende, Mexico), Watercolor


San Miguel de Allende, Watercolor
San Miguel de Allende, Watercolor

San Miguel de Allende (from Casa Schuck), Oil on Linen, 11x14
San Miguel de Allende (from Casa Schuck), Oil on Linen, 11×14

San Miguel de Allende Sunset, Oil on Linen, 8x10
San Miguel de Allende Sunset, Oil on Linen, 8×10





Moss Beach Seascapes

I’ve found a new favorite place to paint, Moss Beach.  The spot I found (at Juliana Ave, Moss Beach, CA 94038) is small, but has it all: Monterey Cypress, ice plant, bluffs, a small beach. It’s also closer than favorite spots like Point Lobos, so I expect to return here often.

Enjoy this latest work, and as always, your comments are welcome.

This study is probably my favorite, as it’s closer to the loose, painterly approach that I’m aiming for.

Juicy Surf, Oil on Linen, 9x12
Juicy Surf, Oil on Linen, 9×12″

Here’s a gray day view of the bluffs.  Painting on gray days is often under-valued by artists, who prefer full sun, but gray days keep the light consistent for a longer period of time, so the plein air painter has more time to complete a painting.  You’re not “chasing the sun”.

Moss Beach Bluffs (Gray Day), Oil on Linen, 11x14
Moss Beach Bluffs (Gray Day), Oil on Linen, 11×14


Moss Beach Bluffs #2, Oil on Linen, 11x14
Moss Beach Bluffs #2, Oil on Linen, 11×14