Marla and Ben

So a few weeks ago a dear friend’s daughter, Marla, got married. I’ve known Marla since birth so it was great to see her marry Ben, a handsome and successful young man who appears to love her very much. They had planned the wedding for September of 2020, but as we know, very little celebrating went on in 2020. It was a blessing to be able to share their joy, even if it was a bit delayed.

So what does this have to do with art? I sent them a nice gift from their registry, but registries have always felt impersonal to me. I planned to take them a card to drop off at their ceremony, so I decided to paint a little watercolor sketch to put in the card. I didn’t really care what they do with it, but wanted to give them something of myself and my wishes that they have a life of travel and adventure. I chose a scene from Monet’s garden, but only loosely interpreted from the photo I had. My trip to Giverny was very special to me.

It’s a cute little sketch. It’s not meant to be a masterpiece. I decided to put two people on the bridge. They aren’t really meant to look like Marla and Ben, but I wanted two people in the scene. People are difficult for me and painting them is something I wish I was better at. I think people add interest to scenes be they urban or rural. So, I’m vowing to practice and get better at them. In the mean time, I hope Marla and Ben excuse the inadequacies of the people I included in their little sketch. I just hope that when they look at it and see the people on the bridge that they imagine all of the places they can go together. Wishing them many happy adventures!

My Sketchbooks

In my last post I mentioned that I was working on something in my sketchbook that I was going to share. One challenge with using sketchbooks is if you do something you really like it’s in a sketchbook and you can’t do anything else with it, because it’s attached to the sketchbook. Also, while you can get watercolor sketchbooks with good 100% cotton paper it’s still different from the paper I’m used to painting on. The way watercolor interacts with the paper, and the way the paper absorbs the watercolor is extremely important to the outcome, so I have become very picky about the paper I use. I always use Arches 140lb. cold press paper. You can’t buy a sketchbook with that paper, unless it’s hand crafted. I’ve gotten them off or Etsy but they are very expensive.

A few years ago, I took a class on Traveling with Watercolors at the Beverly Street Studio School in Staunton, VA. The teacher made her own sketchbooks with Arches paper. She would cut the covers from mat board scraps and she’d cut the paper to fit. Then she’d take the whole thing to Staples to have them punch and bind them. I did a little research and figured out that the binding machines don’t really cost that much, so after about a year of thinking about it I bought one and started making my own sketchbooks. I have done two so far. I just filled up the first and started painting in the second one.

Here they are closed so you can see the covers and how they are bound.

And here they are open so you can see some sketches on 100% cotton Arches 140lb. paper.

Anyway, one advantage to using sketchbooks that have nice paper is if you get really lucky and create a painting that might be suitable for framing, you can detach it and frame it.

I had taken a photo of a small barn in the valley across from Devil’s Backbone Brewery. I didn’t really like the setting, but the barn itself had a lot of character. I thought I would practice Steve Mitchell’s spontaneous watercolor techniques to do the background and then I’d paint the barn from the photo. Masked the barn with tape and then painted the background. The spontaneous method requires a lot of random paint, water, blending, running, dripping and spraying. Then you use the random shapes and create more detailed aspects of a landscape from it. I really liked the outcome.

It is looser than most of my work but the barn is still quite detailed. It also has white space around it, rather than filling up the whole page. That’s actually a function of the sketchbook because I don’t feel compelled to paint to the edges. I don’t have to paint to the edges on other paper either, but I have this engineer’s brain that really wants to fill up the page. I’m going to use this as an inspiration to stop doing that.

It’s small, about 7 x 9 inches. I bought a small frame and I’m going to remove it from my sketchbook and frame it.

Painting a bit, but not writing about it…

I’ve been doing a little painting, but haven’t been very inspired to write about it. When I was editing the photos for this post I got even more discouraged. The three paintings I’m going to share are all okay, but they feel simplistic and amateurish. I’m not getting better… but that’s because I’m not painting enough. I obviously need to work on discipline.

The first painting is from a photo of a stream crossing a field. The photo was taken a few years ago in the springtime. I’ve painted this scene before but I like it so I decided to do it again, using a few new techniques. I tried to loosen it up a little. I think I was moderately successful doing that.

What I like about this painting is the tree canopy in the background. I’m not really crazy about most of the foreground though.

The second one is a bit different than my usual style. This is a from a photo at the Three Ridges overlook in Wintergreen. I went with a really dramatic sky. I wanted to practice my hard edged puffy white clouds. I like them, but there were some places where it didn’t work. The can easily get too angular. I did some scrubbing of those areas and that gave me some really interesting wispy effects. I also had a lot of fun doing the highlights along the ridges. I like the way that came out. Some of the plants and trees in the foreground are okay. Others I don’t really like.

The last is a barn in a field in Afton Virginia. The photo for this wasn’t great – the lighting was very bad. I had to use a lot of imagination.

What I like most about this painting is that I got pretty good depth in the trees and field behind the barn. I enjoyed painting the trees to capture that each was behind the one in front of it. That may seem simple, but it’s really easy to miss that nuance and get a really flat image. The tree in the foreground had highlights that I wanted to capture so I masked part of it. I augmented these with some white ink, but I think it came out okay in general. The ground it kind of boring, and the barn lacks interest. The barn was the worst lit part of the photo, so it was hard for me to get a feel for it.

I think I need to play in my sketch books for a while rather than trying to do full paintings. I’m working on one there now that I’m kind of excited about. I will share soon.

Bye for now!

My Art Meets Design Thinking!

This is going to be a long post, but it’s something I really want to make sure I capture, for myself and others who might be interested.

During the later half of my career, I spent a lot of my time doing what is known as human centered design, or design thinking. Design thinking is a problem-solving approach with a unique set of qualities: it is human centered, possibility driven, option focused, and iterative. (2017, Liedtka, et al.) It is also known for applying designers’ sensibilities to problem solving.

I often talk about my engineer’s brain and my artist’s brain, and how the two don’t work together. It has always puzzled me that I could not figure how to get my design thinking experience to influence my art. One challenge to this was that I usually paint for myself, making me the human at the center of the design effort. This means that I either like it or I don’t. Yes, I learn from my failures and I move on, but it’s hard to put a formal process around this.

My friend Carlo, who follows my art journey, came to me some months ago and asked me if I could do a painting for him and his wife Mary, of a place they once lived on the Magothy River near Annapolis Maryland. I have never been there. He sent me a couple of photos and I did a quick watercolor sketch and sent it back to him just to get his feedback.

Carlo Sketch 1
Carlo’s original photo. While everything else changed, the sailboat remained.

It was a good thing that I did, because while I duplicated the photo pretty exactly (except for the townhouses), the scene he was remembering was really quite different. I realized at that point that I actually had an opportunity in front of me to use all that I knew about design thinking to explore Carlo’s memories and attempt to develop a scene that would evoke the pleasantness of those memories.

I spent the next few months going back and forth with Carlo. I learned from that first sketch that it was important to show the perspective of the distant shore correctly. He pointed out that the river is over a mile wide from this vantage point. He sent more photos and I did an additional sketch. Each subsequent sketch was a composite of the earlier ones applying what I’d learned.

Carlo’s photo that inspired the final design of the pier.
Carlo’s photo that inspired the coloring of the sky.
Carlo Sketch 2

From discussions about this sketch I learned that the trees in the foreground on the right were not actually there (or should I say, not really in the scene he was recalling). I also learned that the bright yellow sky was overwhelming and made Carlo think sunrise more than sunset. He also mentioned at this point that he liked the pier going straight out of the center of the picture.

Based on what I learned I did two more sketches. Note that I wanted to test giving him multiple options to compare, so I didn’t show these two until later.

Then, I posted all four paintings together on a private page of this web site and this time I asked him a set of pointed questions and ask him to respond for each painting. Here were the questions:

What do you like most about the painting and why?
What do you dislike about the painting and why?
How does the painting make you feel?

This turned out to be an interesting exercise for me and I think also for Carlo. I learned a few key things from his feedback. First, I learned that even though the first painting missed the mark in almost every way, he liked the coloration of the pier most in that painting. I also learned that sketch 4 was his favorite, so I had a target to follow. I learned that he gravitated toward a calmer water appearance. He reiterated that he didn’t like the coloring of the sky in sketch 2. He didn’t like the prominence of the pier in sketch 3.

The other thing that emerged from this discussion was the size of the planned finished product. We were originally targeting a large painting for over their fireplace, but as I did the smaller sketches he was reminded of another print of a water scene he has and decided he’d rather have a smaller painting that he could pair with that painting. He would never have made this connection if we hadn’t gone through the iterative process of doing the “prototype” sketches.

So based on everything that I learned, I painted the final product. The painting is 11.75 x 6, to match the print he wants to pair it with. That print has whitespace between the painting and the mat, so I taped off the frame on a larger piece of paper so he could duplicate that. Finally, I focused on the coloration of the sky, the distance of the land on the far side of the river, the calmness of the water, and the lighter coloration of the pier. Here is the finished product.

Carlo Final Painting

So, back to the original topic of this story, here’s what I took away from this process. Designers are artists, but artists are not necessarily designers. Even trained designers are really just artists when they are creating for themselves. Visual design takes artistic ability, but designing something someone else requires a human-centered process. This is where the connection is, with the act of designing for others, not with the underlying art. The real take-away is that I can use my experience in design thinking when I am painting for others to develop a product that they will be delighted with. If you got this far, thanks for listening.

Painting Square

As a landscape painter, most of my paintings are, as the say, landscape orientation. That means they are wider than they are tall. Sometimes you just want to do something different. To that end, sometimes I look for scenes that can be painted in different orientations, and lately I’ve been having fun painting square.

Today I’m going to share with you two recent paintings, both of which are eight inches square. The first one is of Natural Bridge, a wonderful natural landmark about an hour from where we live. The reference photo was taken in the fall of 2019. It was a stunning day and the leaves were at peak color.

The next is of a scene in the town of Nellysford Virginia. I’ve painted this a few times recently, so it might look familiar. The reference photo was actually taken in the spring, but I wanted an autumn version of it. Painting fall colors is so much fun.

Till next time…stay safe!

Friendly City Inn

I mentioned in a post a while back that a B&B in Harrisonburg Virginia approached me with a collaboration opportunity to hang some of my art in their inn where it would be for sale to guests and anyone else who might be interested. I saw it as a great way to increase my name recognition as an artist, so naturally I said yes.

The Friendly City Inn is in a beautiful old building that was previously known as the Stonewall Jackson Inn, but new owners Becca and Joel chose to change the name and minimize the Civil War theme. This required renaming and changing the themes in each of the rooms to something more focused on the beauty and landscape of the Shenandoah Valley. One of the big changes needed was to replace the Civil War themed art with something else, which led to an idea of collaborating with local artists. I am flattered and pleased to have been chosen.

They asked me to focus on local landmarks and mountain landscapes so I chose six paintings that I thought would show well. Then I was faced with the daunting task of matting and framing them all. This took a little time but I finally had them all ready to go so I took them to Becca last Thursday and she busily went to work looking for appropriate places to hang them.

I think most of the pictures I provided have already been featured in another post. Since I carefully matted and framed them all I thought that I’d photograph framed pictures for the post. It’s hard to photograph framed watercolors because of the glare from the glass, which you will notice in some of the photos. Still, I think you will get a feeling for each finished product.

Misty Morning (Shenandoah Drive)
Spring in Nellysford
Autumn Stroll (Natural Bridge)
Three Ridges Overlook
Sunset Behind the Blue Ridge
Shelter From the Cold

Stay Safe everyone!

Plein Air Painting on the Rappahannock River

So we recently got brave enough to take a trip in this age of COVID-19. We rented a house on the very tip of Virginia’s Northern Neck for a few days because water is a nice change from our mountains. It was even more secluded than here. The house was right on the banks of the Rappahannock River just where it meets the Chesapeake Bay. It was a stunningly beautiful location with gorgeous sunsets. The outdoor space had a dock, and a picnic table deck right on the beach. I usually take reference photos and then paint from them in my studio. I don’t do much plein air painting, but was such a wonderful opportunity to do some that I went for it.

Plein air painting is more about capturing the feeling of the place, and less about capturing a perfect image. It’s about painting loose and quickly. So don’t expect polished paintings, but I had fun and I like the sketches that I did.

The first is a view looking across the river toward the southwest. The dock was in the foreground slightly obscured by small pine trees. There were dramatic clouds in the distance with bright white tops. I was not happy with the clouds in this painting. I actually don’t like this sketch very much, but I was just warming up.

The second was looking the other direction, down the river towards the bay. There was a small beach and jetty in the foreground and one of the few sailboats we saw, which is odd given that October is a big sailing month for this area. There were small waves in the water reflecting the sunlight that I tried to capture. The sky was clear in this direction. I like this one better.

I was still annoyed with the clouds in the first painting and decided that I needed practice. I love clouds with brilliant whites and varying shades of gray. When I paint skies I usually do wet in wet to get softer edges. To get those dramatic whites you need to do hard edges and I can never get it to work. My engineer’s brain says clouds are soft and fluffy and that doesn’t mix with hard edges.

My first attempt has very hard edges but the darks are too big and don’t have enough gradation. Mostly this just looks messy to me.

In the second attempt I gave into my desire for softer edges, but I was careful to leave a lot of white. I like this one better, but this is something that I really need to practice a lot. Some people are so good at it.

Stay safe and be well.

Various Paintings and Other News

It’s been a while. I’ve been doing a little painting but have also been distracted by various other happenings. Still, I thought I’d share the few things I’ve been doing. Some are good…some are not so good, but as you know we share the good, bad, and ugly here. That helps me learn from my mistakes.

First up is a little ditty that I did of Three Ridges, which many of you know is a common subject of mine. In this painting I was trying to paint loose. I’m not crazy about Three Ridges itself in this painting, or the background mountains, but like the contours in the foreground mountain, and I like the light in the leaves of the trees. This was a new technique that I used where I left a white border between the trees and the mountains and then filled it in later to maintain the highlights. You’ll see that I used this again later and I like the effect. This painting is 12 x 6.

Second is a painting of a stream from a photo I took on a recent hike. I tried to do a time lapse of this one to share with you, but I had issues with the video. Also, I spent a lot of time painting rocks, and it wasn’t really that interesting. I am pleased with the feeling of depth that I got with this painting. It is 8 x 8.

Next we’ll talk about one of the ugly ones. I stopped on my way back from the grocery store a few months back and took pictures of a recently mown field that had hay bales…always a popular subject. I composed the scene using several photos and did the composite sketch in my sketchbook to make sure it worked. I still like the little sketch quite a lot. I wanted to paint this one big, because I need something to put above the bed in my guest room. I don’t know what I was thinking when I (over) contoured that front hill. I also don’t know why I was so compelled to show the mowing swathes. Plus, the contrasting distant mountains are darker and more prominent in the sketch. I lose some of the atmospheric distance in doing that, but might still like the result better. Here is the little sketch followed by the train wreck of a painting. I still think the scene holds some promise, so I might try it again. The big painting is 24 x 12.

I found an old photo I took along the Skyline Drive and thought it would make a fun painting. I don’t remember exactly when or which overlook I took it from but it’s a pretty scene, with misty mountains and flowers. I masked the flowers in the foreground so I could preserve white to make bright yellows and oranges. I also used the same technique as I mentioned earlier to preserve light in the treetops, but I don’t think it was as successful. I will keep working on it till I can get it consistently right. This painting is also 12 x 6.

Finally my friend Carlo, who follows my blog, asked me if I would do a water scene he from a place on the Magothy river that is special to him and his wife Mary. He sent me some photos and I did a small sketch that I was happy with. I shared it with Carlo and he had some suggestions about perspective and some other things that were not apparent from the photo. I owe him another sketch and eventually a larger painting that will fit in the space he has in mind. These are next on my list. This sketch is 10 x 4.

I am excited that I was contacted by the new owners of the Stonewall Jackson Inn in Harrisonburg, Virginia. They are prudently in the process of renaming the inn to something less Civil War focused and changing the decor accordingly. They want to feature art by local artists and have asked me to provide them with some paintings. These will be for sale, allowing guests to take home a memento of their stay, which I think is a wonderful idea. I am in the process of choosing and framing some appropriate paintings. Hopefully my next post will showcase my selections.

Two Versions – Nellysford Field

Nellysford is a town that is not far from where I live. It’s a small town, but it includes the neighborhood of Stoney Creek, which is the valley located part of Wintergreen Resort. There is a field just north of Nellysford on the east side of Route 151 that I’ve been driving past for years. I’ve wanted to paint it for a while. It’s very pastoral, which is a feeling I often try to bestow upon the viewers of my art. I recently stopped and photographed it. Here is the photo reference I used for these two paintings.

The first painting is 16 x 12 showing the field horizontally, with two layers of trees in the background, the silo in the mid ground along with three large trees on the right, and finally the stream in the foreground. I did this with my usual Da Vinci watercolor palette, which I confess I’ve been growing a little bit bored with. Here is that painting.

As you might imagine, doing the water and the reflections was one of the more fun and interesting parts of this painting. I enjoyed that very much. I masked the silo with painter’s tape to maintain its white and did that part at the very end.

As a landscape painter, I find very few opportunities to paint in a vertical orientation, which is sometimes nice. When I was done with the horizontal version of this painting I looked at it an realized that just the left side of it had nice composition in it’s own right so I decided to do a smaller version of just that part of the scene in a vertical orientation. This painting is 9×12.

While I was painting the first painting I watched a video from Steve Mitchell on his Mind of Watercolor YouTube channel. He is my favorite online instructor and the source of much of my inspiration. He created a limited edition palette of Daniel Smith watercolors that was being sold on line through a store in Minnesota called Wet Paint. It has some bolder colors than what are on my normal palette, which allow me to mix more variations of green. The second painting was done with this palette. I really enjoyed working with something different and I’m looking forward to doing more with it in the very near future.

Here is a scan of my swatches for this new palette.

The sad news is that two weeks ago would have been my week at Nimrod Hall Summer Arts Program, but they cancelled their full season due to the pandemic. I really missed my week painting. I’m looking forward to next year.

Be well!

My Painting Process

I don’t really think of myself as having a painting process, and if I do, it’s certainly evolving all the time. I’m still too new to this to have a fixed process. I follow a lot of Facebook groups like “World Watercolor Group”, “Watercolour Sketchers”, and “Watercolor Landscapes” to name a few. People post their paintings on these groups, but some also post time-lapse movies of them painting.

I became curious enough to want to try doing a time-lapse of myself painting. I bought an iPhone holder and suspended my iPhone over my painting table and gave it a whirl. It was actually very enlightening. I’ve not really seen how I paint, until now.

There was a time not too long ago when I never would have attempted to paint around light areas, but now I do. For the most part I’ve got it, but I struggle with small details like getting actual flower shapes in the yellow flowers. The negative painting around the grass was questionable but looked okay once I put the details in.

You can see where I switched from a brush to a pen to put in some of the details. I use watercolor to load the pen, so the painting is all watercolor, not watercolor and ink. This is a technique I started using recently and I’m still perfecting it. It worked okay here, but I’ve had more success in other paintings.

I did this painting in several different short sessions, letting the painting dry between sessions. You can see how much the paint lightens up when it dries in the transitions. I melded all of the sessions together into a single “movie”. It’s time lapse as opposed to an actual video recording, so it speeds by quite quickly capturing a few hours of work in 2 minutes and 49 seconds.

The painting is not one of my best, but came out okay. I might start doing this more, because I think I can learn from it. Here is the movie…as I said it’s only 2:49, so it won’t take up your whole day.

And here is the finished painting. I admit I did touch up around those flowers a little after the fact.

I’m still staying home as advised because of the pandemic, but I’m anxious for some new material. I’m going to sneak out soon with my camera to take some reference photos. Stay tuned.