A Past Kept In Shoeboxes [photography]

I used to keep my snapshot photographs stored in albums. When I married and had children, my wife and I did the same for many years. Then, somewhere along the passage of time, we stopped storing our photos in albums and tossed them into empty shoeboxes instead. Now we have 30+ years of unlabeled shoeboxes stacked in storage, filled to their brims with photos of births and birthdays and holidays that we barely remember. That’s why it’s fun to open a box and delve into those recordings of yesteryear, to refresh those memories, and to feel again the old days.

Last week, I tackled rearranging items in our basement storage room because I plan to use a corner as an extension of my writing room. So, while I moved some shoeboxes and peeked inside the last one, I found photos of my college days, back when I was an avid outdoorsman, wildlife artist and photographer, and often the bearer of flannel shirts and a bearded face. I know I’m the person in those photos, but he seems like a stranger: different in so many ways—from the clothes he wore and the food he ate to the movies he watched and the music he listened to. I wonder if I were able to travel back in time to those days, would he and I enjoy each other’s company. Hmm, story idea…

I always had my camera with me.
I always had my camera with me.
I always had my camera with me.
I always had my camera with me.
I always had my camera with me.
I always had my camera with me, even when it was hidden beneath my graduation robe.

Here are three of my many favorite photographs from my college years:

Red-tailed Hawk. One of my first honest-to-goodness wildlife photos that turned out decent.
Local church not far from my house.
Time lapse photography of downtown Corry, not far from my house.

Stranger yet was when I saw childhood photos that never made it into my old albums that are tucked away in bigger boxes. That kid was a 180-degree turn of the person I am now. And, oh, the stories I could tell him. He would be at his little portable typewriter for months writing about the old man who visited one day and told him some crazy things about his future. Hmm, another story idea…

Me at the bottom right, with some of my brothers and relatives.

The ancient Italian poet Virgil said that time flies, never to be recalled. Thankfully, 2,000 years after Virgil’s time, we have our albums and shoeboxes of photos to look back on.

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Water Shots [photography]

I have always been attracted to water and the life and world within it; perhaps it’s because I’m an Aquarian. Water can be hypnotic with its reflections and refractions of light and color, and it draws me to capture its many expressions. Here then is a sampling of local reflections and the sites that lay atop and within.

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Apple Blossoms [photography]

Occasionally, I get out my cameras and take photos of nature. Where I live, May is a month of blossoms all around me, and a time of beauty and rebirth. I used to compose my photos with ideas about the paintings I wanted to do. Now, while I photograph the outdoors, I compose stories in my head and then hurry to my notebooks and write until I am exhausted.

It is difficult to explain how the beauty in nature influences me to write dark fantasy stories. Perhaps it is the excitement of being outdoors that percolates my love of writing about imaginary things that have an edge of spookiness to them. It may be the Yin to my Yang. Who knows?

In any case, I always return home with beautiful photos and interesting stories to jot down. It’s win-win all around.

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Sketching Critters

I enjoy watching small animals skittering and dashing about with their daily activities. I have my favorites, like chipmunks and squirrels, that I try to capture with pencil and paper. But lately I have been studying birds more than usual. Although I’m not a bird painter, per se, I have done a few paintings with birds in them based on life sketches from my wildlife sketchbooks. And I did a finch painting based entirely from reference sketches.

Sketches in the Sun
Sketches in the Sun, Oil Painting, circa 2002

With so many species of animals, each with its own particular charm and beauty, the wildlife artist never lacks a subject. No matter where you live, there are always animals to sketch—in cities, gardens, parks, forests and farmland. Sketching them in their natural habitat gives you an opportunity to study their fascinating behavior. Whether sitting in a park, at a roadside, at the edge of a river or lake, sketching critters is a wonderful way to spend a day. And your sketches give a rich source of reference for your paintings.

When you have found a subject and settled down, spend a few minutes looking hard at the animal, in the same way as you would carefully consider a still life before starting to paint it. Ask yourself questions such as, “How long is the neck and how much of it disappears when the animal stands up?” This will help you understand the form better. Then, when the animal adopts an interesting pose, begin sketching. You’ll find this is when your patience is tested. The subject moves all the time, so you have to wait until it returns to either the original pose or something close. It might even scurry off or fly away and leave you with an unfinished sketch.

If the animal changes pose quickly and a lot, don’t continue with the sketch—it won’t be precise, and therefore useless for reference. To use your time well, have several sketches of different poses going at once, and dart around the page as the subject shifts position. This is challenging, but you should end up with a page of interesting studies. Don’t worry if the animal you’re sketching doesn’t return to the same pose—just a few lines can be full of information. And get down those shadows too. Their shapes help describe form and make your sketches more convincing.

Spend some time looking at the pattern of fur and feather masses, too—this is essential reference when you come to paint. Try to catch the “personality” of the animal by noticing any characteristic features that make it unique as a species.

Critters
You might find it useful to use cubes, oblongs and cylinders to describe the general body shapes. You can also use these to show the relative shapes and sizes of different species. If you are sketching many ducks on a lake, for example, do a whole page of these simple shapes. This is invaluable information when it comes to painting various ducks together. Try to show the size of an individual duck—or any animal, for that matter—by sketching its surroundings.

It goes without saying, of course, that you should take a note of the date, place, and time of day in your sketches—these will help you recall the scene later when working in your studio. Also, note the colors of the animal if you’ve not sketched it in color.

My favorite sketching tool is a box of watercolor pencils, but you should use whatever feels comfortable to you.

So make a day of drawing critters … and happy sketching.

Painting with Knives

Another old art piece of mine. This article was first published in an art newsletter dated 1998. The photos of my artwork that I’ve shared for this post range from the same year to 2001.

While oil painting this month, I’ve been having fun painting with knives. Frosting the cake is what I call it when I spread thick paints of color on my canvases, and then add flicks and swirls like a jolly decorator in a bakery.

Using a painting knife on canvas board.
Using a painting knife on canvas board.

Anyone who hasn’t tried painting with knives should give it a go. All you need is either a painting knife or a palette knife of your choice and several rags to clean your knife. I prefer using one knife to keep my painting area uncluttered. And the knife I prefer most is the painting knife. I enjoy the painting knife’s flexibility over the palette knife’s rigidness.

Just like brushes, knives come in a lot of shapes and sizes that lend themselves to various uses. The Dick Blick Company, where I buy my art supplies, explains the differences between painting knives and palette knives.

  • Painting knives are blunt with a slightly flexible steel blade and no sharpened cutting edge. They are used in place of a brush for applying paint colors, paste, pigments, and so forth directly onto the canvas or painting surface.
  • Palette knives are blunt with a very flexible steel blade and no sharpened cutting edge. They are primarily used for mixing paint colors, mediums, additives, paste, pigments, and so forth directly on the palette before applying them to a surface. Palette knives are symmetric, like a kitchen spatula.

I prefer using a large painting knife simply because it allows me to be freer when I apply paint to my canvas, leaving a variety of edges in the finished work, giving the artwork life and engaging the viewer with the painting.

Hard and soft edges and color contrasts.
Hard and soft edges and color contrasts.

Although I prefer painting on canvas, there are various kinds of surfaces to paint on. Stretched canvas allows me to dance the knife across the surface and create a variety of irregular shapes. This is why I use the less flexible painting knives because I prefer some control when I paint. Canvas board and Masonite let me control both knives better, but my pictures sometimes look motionless when I use a painting knife on them. I recommend using the more flexible palette knives on hard surfaces.

More hard and soft edges with color contrasts.
More hard and soft edges with color contrasts.

Whichever knife you choose, painting with knives gives your pictures abrupt color changes, making edges in the paint appear razor-sharp, which is nice when contrasting areas of your major focal points. But when an unimportant edge looks too sharp, a zigzag of the tip of the knife through the paint breaks any edge and puts it in its proper place.

Edges can be hard, soft, and lost. Using a variety of edges engages the viewer’s attention by preventing the picture from looking monotonous. I like to alter the edges in my paintings to enhance the rhythm and composition.

Lost edges look good in snow scenes.
Lost edges look good in snow scenes.

When hard edges are placed horizontally, they accelerate the movement of the viewer’s eye. When placed vertically, the eye of the viewer comes to a sudden stop.

Soft edges slow down horizontal lines and allow passage through vertical ones. Creating soft edges with a brush is easy; with a knife, not so much. That’s where the flicks and swirls I mentioned earlier come in play.

A mixture of hard and soft edges creates a type of movement like a driver operating a car with both the accelerator and brake at the same time. These stop and go edges are called  broken edges and are sometimes described as a Morse Code type of painting.

Lost edges are in water and atmosphere.
Lost edges are in water and atmosphere.

Lost edges are almost invisible edges and help keep the viewer’s attention focused on where the hard edges are. Lost edges play a major role of supporting hard edges, which, as I mentioned earlier, are often found in the main subject. You can see lost edges in the shadow areas of my paintings as well as in the main subjects. Using lost edges with hard edges lets the main subject look as though it is truly part of the scene, and not like it was cut out and pasted on. And equally important, lost edges keep the viewer’s eye flowing evenly from one area to another.

When painting lost edges, I find it’s important to use colors equal to or close to one another in value to keep contrasting values from creating hard value edges. Plus, to avoid hard chromatic edges, I use colors in the same temperature range. This unifies the elements of a painting and creates pathways, like light flowing from one room into another.

The paint dances across the field grass.
The paint dances across the field grass.

I recommend that every artist try doing an entire painting strictly with palette knives. Go ahead and give it a go. And most of all, have fun.

Buck: A Pastel Drawing

Still going through old art files and finding old drawings that seem to have been done by another person. I mean, I know I did the artwork and can remember (vaguely at times) doing it, but it seems like I did it in another lifetime. And, I suppose, I did. I am no longer the person I was then.

I drew this pastel version of a whitetail buck in January, 1991 and gave it to a family member for their birthday gift.

I miss doing that. I spend a lot of time writing now. The drawings and paintings I do are always commissions. I think if I had a way to travel back in time like some of the characters in my books, I would go back to when I drew and painted for the simple joy of giving away my work. I suppose it was seeing all those smiles when they unwrapped their gifts that came not from the store but from the heart.

Pastel Buck Portrait
Pastel Buck Portrait, 1991

Sad Panther Drawing

While going through some old art files, I came across this pen and ink drawing of a black panther drawn February 14, 1982. I was learning the craft of illustration, clearly seen in the clumsiness you see in my execution. Still, it is a nice drawing, which is why I kept it. Also because it made my seven-month-old son laugh. After all these years, when I see this drawing, I still hear his giggles.

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Drawings

I like to draw. Figure drawing, cartooning, doodling … you name it. Graphite pencils, pen and ink, inked brushes, wax color pencils, crayons, charcoal, chalk, pastels, various kinds of erasers, markers, styluses. Line drawing, shading, hatching, cross-hatching, broken hatching, stippling, entopic graphomania (you make a dot at the location of each imperfection in the drawing paper, then connect the dots using straight or curved lines) — the list could go on if I had more time.

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I have no favorite medium, drawing instrument, or even subject matter. I like to draw … period. As artist Grayson Perry said, “Until we can insert a USB into our ear and download our thoughts, drawing remains the best way of getting visual information on to the page.” But I don’t draw haphazardly unless I’m doodling ideas. And even then I’m aware of what I’m doing, which is usually observing size and viewpoint. The drawings can look childish, but I never toss out any childlike drawing. Most children instinctively draw objects from the viewpoint that gives the most information. So they draw a house from the front, but a truck from the side — because it’s from there that you can see the truck’s cab, trailer and wheels. I still draw that way today; whichever drawing has a viewpoint that gives the viewer the most information is going to be the easiest to understand. That’s what I look for in my artwork (and my writing).

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Everyone has their own ways of expression, and finding ways to say it can be a battle. The power of any kind of art is keeping it simple and understandable. Anyone who can do that can make the uninteresting things in life look complex, advanced, and largely exciting. That’s the true power of art.

Painting Alla Prima, Part 2 of 2

Many years ago, I taught wildlife and landscape painting classes. This is a lesson plan from those classes.

Understanding and controlling values should be one of your first goals as a painter. When I began painting landscapes from life, I realized that the objects in my finished paintings lacked convincing form. When I understood how light reveals form and began looking at the world with this in mind, my work began to improve. So will yours when you learn to see light and understand what it does to show an object’s form.

Recognize value in color. An object’s form is made of valued tones of color. It’s imperative while painting to be able to see a color in your subject and translate its value into paint.

Think about the picture and its center of interest. Think in terms of composition first. Plan where the center of interest will be located and how you will emphasize that area. Make your center of interest stand out with color and value contrasts and an interesting shape.

Inside, Looking Out
Inside, Looking Out, Oil Painting

When painting a center of interest, keep your eyes on that area of landscape (or model or still life) and nowhere else. Use your peripheral vision for the rest of the subject, but keep your eyes on the focal point as you finish the rest of the painting. This will help you make the rest of your painting harmonious with the focal point.

What can you cut? Are you saying too much and cluttering the picture space with too many details? Is there anything extraneous that you can remove from the picture? Can you cut detracting background by moving in closer or by cropping the subject with a viewfinder?

The overall design. When composing your painting, do not think “up and down” or “side to side.”  Rather, consider the depth you can create within the “cube” I’ve talked about in class—that three dimensional rectangular space that will be your painting. Then work with the overlapping forms within your vision’s periphery as part of the overall design.

A Brief Pause in an Apple Orchard
Apple Orchard, Oil Painting

Put it on and leave it alone. This rule is often mentioned to oil painters, but I’m suggesting it to painters using acrylics, too. Fussing with passages of acrylic paint can be more damaging than reworking the slower-drying oil paints.

When putting in the lights mix up thick, opaque color and put it down with simple strokes. The amount of paint on the brush and proper brush pressure is vital when applying your paint. Putting thick paint down boldly forces you to make definite decisions. Believe your first impression. Paint quickly; if you look too long, your perception may change. Be decisive. A boldly applied stroke looks right because the artist made a decision and stuck with it. Putting down a stroke and then restating it once or twice pushes the paint into the underlayer, making the color muddy. If the underpainting is too thick, scrape it off. You can lay paint over a thick area by painting the next layer even thicker.

Oil on canvas board
Oil on canvas board

Criticize your work from afar. Step away a good distance from the canvas and decide whether some shapes and edges need more emphasis. Judge artfully from a distance, not critically with your nose against the canvas. From Leonardo da Vinci’s Treatise on Painting we learn that from a distance “…the work appears smaller, and more of it is taken in at a glance, and [any] lack of harmony or proportion in the various parts … is more readily seen.” Remember to emphasize major areas—do not stray far from your painting’s focal point.  Add detail, or sharp edges at the end of the process.

Sketches in the Sun
Sketches in the Sun, Oil Painting, circa 2002

Impressionist Claude Monet described painting alla prima as this: “When you go out to paint, try to forget what objects you have in front of you, a tree, a field. Merely think, here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow, and paint it just as it looks to you, the exact color and shape, until it gives your own naïve impression of the scene.”

Painting Alla Prima, Part 1 of 2

Many years ago, I taught wildlife and landscape painting classes. This is a lesson plan from those classes.

Alla prima is an Italian expression that translates into “at the first try.” The technique of alla prima is a wet-on-wet direct method of painting that completes the painting in a single session, without previous preparation or later stages. TV artist Bob Ross paints alla prima.

The Impressionists introduced the technique of direct painting; however, Rubens used an alla prima style when he mixed his colors directly on the canvas itself without waiting for the paints to dry. The Impressionists painted their landscapes in a single session taking only three or four hours to begin and finish a picture. They tried to capture the impression of the moment by painting directly. They did not allow themselves to go back over what had already been done.

As when using any painting method, ask “Why am I painting this picture?” as you prepare to paint alla prima. If you have no answer, then you’re not ready to paint that picture. When you are ready, sketch in the drawing with a round bristle brush loaded with a mixture of blue and umber thinned with turpentine. If you’re using water-based oils or acrylics, thin your colors with water. Simplify the scene’s complexity by sketching in the main elements. Once the initial drawing is done, it’s now a question of filling in the spaces with color.

Oak Sketch Oil on canvas board
Oak Sketch
Oil on canvas board

Establish the mood first, before worrying about creating depth. The mood is determined by light, so observe the color of light, then consider how to alter that color to create elements in deep space.

What color is the lightest light? A white shirt drenched in warm lamplight may be pink, orange or slightly yellow—not pure white, as you might think. Never use pure white, but white with a small amount of color in it.

Waterfall Study Oil on canvas board
Waterfall Study
Oil on canvas board

What is the darkest dark? What color is it? How dark is it? Darks have light in them, so double-check your first impression. Put the lights in later.

Pick the easiest color to get right without a lot of mixing. If an object is the same color as Cerulean Blue straight from the tube, that is easy. To check a rich, bright color in nature, hold up a pure color, such as Cadmium Red Light, on the brush. Compare how lighter or less brilliant that color may actually be. When it looks right, put it on your canvas.

Establish shadow patterns. It’s easier to control light colors by first placing in all the shadow shapes accurately. When they’re in the right place, this step is done. Laying in the shadows first guarantees clean color throughout.

Cow and landscape study, 1990; oil on canvas board
Cow and landscape study, 1990; oil on canvas board

Lay in the lights. Keep all the colors of the light family lighter than the shadow shapes. Lay them down flatly and simply. Cover the whole canvas while thinking about shapes. Step away and recheck your color choices. Don’t hurry to produce a finished painting.

See objects in terms of simple shapes. Focus on shapes, not things. Think of your paintings as mosaics of interlocking shapes, some larger, some smaller, but all related. Make all shapes interesting, and pay special attention to negative shapes. Start with flat silhouettes of color.

Describe the effect of light on forms. Use hard and soft edges to convey the character and solidity of objects. Start your painting by keeping edges soft.  Hard edges attract the eye, so keep shapes and edges loose and fluid in the early stages.

All surfaces reflect color on any surfaces facing the light’s reflection. This is called reflected light and reflected color, and we see it when the blue sky reflects off water and snow, as well as when green grass reflects from the base of a white house.

A study from the 1990s; oil on canvas board
A study from the 1990s; oil on canvas board

Unfinished Projects [painting]

Unfinished Hawk
Unfinished Hawk

I have many unfinished projects. Whether artwork or writing projects, I’m surrounded by incompleteness. But I will finish some of my projects. Others I won’t because of time and procrastination.

I am not a morning person—I lack energy during the early part of the day. I’ve tried to be one of those people who are awake before dawn and barrel into the day with enough energy to power a continent. But I have a second-shift job that keeps me active past other people’s usual bedtime. Therefore, my brain and body don’t begin functioning until around 5pm. So, getting around to working on a project is a consequence of overcoming sleepiness, slowness, and often a ringing telephone. I may be half-asleep, but the “normal” world is active and busy reminding me that I have bills to pay and appointments to keep. I turn on my computer—my social connection and alarm clock—to remind me when it’s time to do A), B), C), or D): All of the above. Email notices chime away. Oh, look: WordPress is telling me that I have new likes and followers and that they’ve created a new theme that would look great showcasing my blog. And amidst the bells and whistles, I hurry to do this, that, and the other until writing the next chapter of my book or drawing/painting the detail of a wildlife picture has to wait.

But still I persevere, writing and making art, even though I’m a zombie until evening. I perk up then … and head off to my 9-to-5 second-shift job, unless I have a day off, which happens twice a week (though the days are not usually consecutive). My creative juices flow and I attack whatever current project I have on my agenda. And then my wife comes home from work and wants to socialize. My projects linger, unfinished for weeks, months, even years.

Oh well. Tomorrow is another day. With more of the same. But every new day gives me a dash of hope.

Always Busy Writing and Painting

Anyone following my blog would assume that I’m rarely busy writing or making art, simply because of the lengthy gaps between my posts. But that’s far from the truth. I’m busy every day working on my stories and art, from creating new chapters and editing old material, to sketching in my sketchbooks or actually composing and finishing a drawing or painting. All this takes time, leaving barely a few minutes to blog about it.

Blogging is often the last thing I do when I visit the Internet. Reading my email is top priority, followed by answering it, and then checking on family and friends at Facebook. I usually spend an hour a day at Facebook (sometimes two hours or more), and I often add my latest achievements there, leaving me little time to post anything here at WordPress other than a blurb before I turn in for the night.

That is a good description of my posts: BLURBS. They may never be anything poetic, but they’ll certainly keep you, my fans, abreast of my latest news.

Deer Sketch, circa 1988 Acrylic paint, white gesso, and graphite
Deer Sketch, circa 1988, Acrylic paint, white gesso, and graphite

Above is a deer sketch from 1988 or so. Old news, but it was a treat for me to find this photo among my old art photographs and share with you.

Meanwhile, I promise to blurb more often here at WordPress. I just have to learn to schedule my time better.