Category Archives: Landscapes

California scenes!

 

If you ever find yourself inside the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite, check out the paintings by Swedish/ American painter Gunnar Widforss. They are all over the lobby and some of them are huge. All watercolor and painted about 100 years ago. Some are better than others (just like with any painter) but they are all worth looking at. From what I heard, he was strictly painting outside which is remarkable given the sizes of some of his works. A truly dedicated artist!
Widforss painted the tunnel view (Yosemite) in his time. Nowadays you mostly see photographers there to capture the sunset. I also painted it many times in all kinds of weather/ daylight.

Anything can be good painting material, depending on the condition. Not many watercolorists tackle cascades and waterfalls as they are quite difficult to paint. In the right light, though, it can be a wonderful subject.

Before painting anything I always look for the following aspects:

Will the light work as a painting vs. as a photograph? This is not as simple as it seems. Often I am tricked into believing that a scene/photograph will make a great painting only to find out after painting it that it didn’t really work out the way I thought it would. Experience helps here.

Will the value pattern work? Just making sure I have everything from super light to super dark somewhere in the picture. There is nothing worse than a painting that’s all mid-tone.

Am I emotionally invested? If not, forget it! In other words, if I am not 100% sure I like the scene, if I am not really psyched, I won’t paint it. Done that many times and the resulting painting was always mediocre, at best.

Do I have a strong design and composition? Are there areas that seem unresolved? Is my focal point there?
This is also tough to judge, especially outside. When painting watercolor it is easier because there is drawing time first. While drawing it is often obvious what’s not so great and fairly easy to change before the paint goes on. In oils, I can always scrape off areas but that is definitely best avoided.

Lastly, I will think about my color palette for a particular painting. It is important to have good color harmony and think about the interaction of color in all the major shapes, i.e. foreground, middle ground and background.

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Yosemite Ranger stables

Visiting and painting a scene at different times of the day is a very good idea. I have my favorite scenes that I just keep painting over and over. This scene in Yosemite valley is definitely one of them. I keep learning about how light changes color appearance and value patterns.
For instance, in a back lit scene like the horses in the morning there is less color range compared to the afternoon scene. Or is there? Yes, in the morning the colors are predominantly cooler in temperature, the warm colors are there too but they are less warm than later in the day. That is the major difference in the two scenes. The morning is more atmospheric, however, both scenes have the full range of value from lightest to darkest.
In fact, one might argue that the value range is even more drastic in the front lit scene. Notice the darks under the roof of the barn building.
Both paintings do have warm vs. cool colors. The dark shadow in the afternoon scene is cool in temperature overall, but upon closer examination you’ll find warm accents within it.

In terms of painting, the interplay between warms and cools make a painting work. In fact it might be one of the most crucial things to learn to do right besides control of value.

On the road to Baiwucun Village (2018)

On the road to Baiwucun Village (2018)

The Quotidian (2018)

The Quotidian (2018)

This blog post was originally published in my newsletter earlier in March. Edited for clarification.

Being invited to the inaugural 2018 Huize Watercolor Exhibition in Qujing, China, was a big honor for me. I did not expect it. There are plentiful outstanding painters in the watercolor world, and I was surprised (and flattered) to have been invited. Our Western contingent hailed from Australia, Brazil, Italy, Ukraine, Russia, the US, and Germany. The Eastern contingent arrived from Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, and over 50 Chinese nationals from all over the country. I met so many first-rate, virtuoso painters, it was intimidating and especially inspiring! After 20 hours’ total travel time (San Francisco to Chengdu to Kunming to Qujing) I fell dead asleep in bed. Let me tell you, the airport at Kunming is regarded as “medium-sized”, with just over 150 gates. This was my first hint that It’s Different In China (and it wasn’t the last). Everything is big. People are everywhere. It took time to get used to that!

As this was a plein air event, the group of artists were shuttled to various painting locations: traditional villages in the heart of a bustling town or in a sweeping valley (It’s Different In China), a river surrounded by mountains, a factory in the countryside. Painters were given a choice of locations, and my selections, as a first-timer in Asia, were based on curiosity. As with painting outdoors, the first step is finding a scene. By the time you’ve decided, an Asian artist has already finished their first wash. While you’re waiting on your first wash to dry, they’re on their second painting. Some of the Asian artists were fast!

Portrait of a Chinese Girl (2018)

Portrait of a Chinese Girl (2018)

The work I saw were impressive explorations of composition, perspective, and proportion. Interpretations of scenes ranged from graphic to naturalistic, wildly imagined to actual color. The variety was exemplary. Not to mention the artists themselves who, despite the language difference, were affable. Art transcends many barriers: visual and visceral, it extends a hand to everyone, reminding us we are all the same inside.

There were other things to do, of course. A first-night opening ceremony was followed by a group painting demo and an East-West seminar the following night. (Yours truly croaked out a few jetlagged words.) An outdoor picnic the third night preceded a bonfire and celebration. I participated in jurying a student show on the fourth night. On the fifth and final day there was a public paint-out (a long strip of paper was rolled out and sectioned on a long table, and artists were invited to paint a section), followed by a closing ceremony and a public exhibition. Because this was a government-sponsored event, the care and detail with which they coordinated the last day was breathtaking. The only time we (as in Westerners, really) do something on a similar scale is during the Olympics. Yes, I am exaggerating, but not by much. As my Australian friend and fellow painter Herman put it, “in our countries they only sponsor football players”. Sad but true, the Arts are always the first thing scratched in most budgets…

Factory Mining Town (2018)

Factory Mining Town (2018)

Boulevard of Lanterns (2018)

Boulevard of Lanterns (2018)

On that last day, the Chinese held a public presentation at the Huize Hongse Culture Exhibition Hall. There were dance performances and gifts made by children in the local schools, professional singers, and celebrity MCs (It’s Different In China). There was a short demonstration of watercolor painting and calligraphy writing. Speeches were made by government officials, after that came a presentation of the results of the juried student competition. All the artists involved in the day’s earlier paint-out were invited onstage to stand behind their section of painting. Finally, everyone was invited into the Art Museum to view all the work submitted by the painters. Back at the hotel, one last dinner with multiple toasts from various officials and organizers concluded the event. Perhaps it was just coincidence that the Chinese Lantern Festival ended that Friday; at any rate, fireworks later that night were a very appropriate ending.

Three weeks later, I am still processing my thoughts on China. I’ve started posting images on Instagram (and Facebook), and I’ll continue through the end of the month. China was interesting on many levels, to put it mildly. Art is given attention that cannot be compared at a public (as opposed to privately-funded) level: travel and accommodations taken care of in advance; readily-available shuttles and cars to drive to painting locations; intriguing or eclectic painting locations; good, local meals; and engaging interpreters. The climate in southwest China is similar to California. It was very dry and sunny, not ideal for watercolor painting but not bad either. Thankfully it was not hot. I was able to take a break one day to walk along the streets, a brief respite from painting. Outdoor markets, the sound of children over the constant barrage of cars, stray dogs, people hanging laundry out to dry. Slices of life, a familiar refrain around the world.

Factory paint out!

Factory paint out!

That is not to say there aren’t problems in China. There needs to be better education about trash disposal and pollution in general, environmental problems to the scale of 1.3 billion people. Often the beautiful countryside is littered. People also smoke everywhere, inside and outside, like it used to be in the US 25 years ago. On our way home we flew into Shanghai, and true to all the rumors about air quality, the city was having a foggy day. Well, it wasn’t fog… But I digress. You’re here for the art, right?

Final thoughts: Personally, the best part was connecting with the people in the villages we visited. At one, an old man was so happy to have me painting outside his home, he invited me in for tea! A smile, an offer to watch my easel while I wandered looking for other painting spots, an impulsive gift of rosehip tea in a bag. The Chinese people are joyful and friendly, and despite not having much of anything, open their house to you. It was a humbling experience.

A gift of rosehip tea

A gift of rosehip tea

Would I go to China again? In a heartbeat. Once you get past politics and policies you always meet wonderful people wherever you go in this world.

There is still a lot to paint in China.

 

 

 


My heartfelt gratitude goes to Mr. Li, Mr. Tu, and all the organizers of this inaugural 2018 Watercolor Exhibition in Qujing-Huize, Yunnan, China for extending the invitation to me. To the hotel staff, the Tea Lady, our drivers (!), and the various people who turned out each day to watch plein air painting, thank you. Last of all, thanks to Dande and David, whose English skills were honed during those 7 days. Xièxiè!


A VERY, VERY BRIEF TREATISE ON PAINTING IN CHINA: The watercolor tradition in Chinese painting goes back as far as 400 BC. We are all familiar with the traditional style of Chinese painting: calligraphy, court/royal vignettes, grandiose landscapes. Exposure to Western art and artists, from the late 19th century onwards, gradually influenced subject and technique. Today, invitations extended to international watercolorists maintain that creative exchange, and the benefits can be witnessed on both sides.

 

“Water Rhythm Wumeng, Painting Huize” International Watercolor Plein Air Week

I am happy to announce my participation at the International Watercolor Plein Air Week in China, from February 25 to March 3, 2018. The event takes place in Yunnan province, the tropical area in southwest China, and the itinerary will include an exhibition, demos, seminars, plein air painting and sightseeing.

I will post pictures after my trip. Here are two paintings that will be on exhibit there:

Touching The Earth (2018)

The Coulee Region, WI (2018)

The Coulee Region, WI (2018)

A Most Songful Stream!

The first picture was the reference photo used to paint ‘A Most Songful Stream’. The location is one of the most visited places in Yosemite National Park, so painting en plein air was out of the question at this spot. Too many people and to make matters worse, this view is from a busy bridge. I thought it would be interesting to see how it was edited and simplified to become more manageable and paint-able!

Notice how the (point-and-shoot) camera always overexposes whites. The water certainly has some whites especially where it cascades down, but it wasn’t nearly as bleached out as in the picture.

I have added mist from the main falls which are located behind the dark trees on the right. I have also added a few bigger boulders as a foreground. The trees on the left side were given less attention as they don’t add much to the painting. I simplified the rocks so as not to over-model them and lastly, I added some dappled lights in the darker sections.

By painting sections this seemingly complicated scene can be painted effectively. Still, it is not an easy painting. I always look for the light and dark patterns and exaggerate them, that way I maintain a clear light path and order in my paintings. With flowing water, I try to pick up on its energy and make use of that as well.

This painting will be part of the first Annual Waterworks Exhibition at Laguna Plein Air Painters Association, May 1 to June 5. Please visit if you’re in the area! Click for more information.

Click to see this as an animation and more of my work on Instagram.

Now that winter’s over, it’s time for all-day plein air! My students have asked what equipment I use, so here it is for you: I use Daniel Smith pigments and Arches watercolor blocks. I paint with DaVinci Casaneo brushes using a Holbein Metal Palette 500. My portable/travel set-up includes the Sienna Plein Air Artist Pochade Box Easel, size Medium and the Sienna Tripod Easel. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask.

Same scene – different media – different times of the day

As you can see, I am experimenting with my art a bit right now. The fact is, I am always experimenting. I try to never get complacent, to fall into a rut and do the same thing over and over. Before you know it, as an artist, you are known to paint certain things in a certain way.
You become a ‘one trick pony’.

I avoid that at all cost. I don’t want to be put into such a drawer. I think it is important to never be static and to always change, to evolve, to move on. Artistically speaking, I mean. (Although you could make that argument for life in general as well, but that’s another blogpost… LOL)

On our last plein air outing near Bishop’s Peak, I felt I messed up my painting. At least, I didn’t like how it came out. Being there at the wrong time with the wrong light, I didn’t feel inspired but since my friends all painted I felt compelled to paint as well.

It took another trip to get better references and I feel good about the two I posted here. Both of them are not done plein air. To be honest, I had problems painting this mountain. After a few plein air attempts I figured I needed to move this into the studio to understand what it was I didn’t ‘get’. In the end, I think it was a combination of wrong light and lack of vision. I just didn’t really know how I wanted to see this painted.

The appearance of this peak changes dramatically during the course of the day, so it’s very easy to get lost. Despite all my years of painting outside, I made the cardinal mistake to follow the light. Not so much in the foreground but the light on the peak itself and promptly messed up the painting.

Repainting it in the studio made me realize what had happened. The sunrise piece is done in water-soluble oils. I used to paint lots of oils in the ’80s and ’90s and lately I have been getting back into it more. I apologize for the bad pictures, you can find a better version of the first one here. I need to learn how to take good pictures of oil paintings!

#52artworksin52weeks

People who have met me know I’m not exactly fond of social media, but the appeal of Instagram is its dedication to the visual and minimal words. Given that I’m not exactly a gifted wordsmith, I’m all for it. This year I thought I’d give Instagram a decent chance. And by decent chance I mean no more unfocused, badly-cropped pictures and half-assed captions. I would post sharp, nicely-cropped, squared-up paintings, make engaging captions, and even work in some clever hashtags. (Ha.) To dig a deeper hole, I vowed to post frequently, thus creating #52artworksin52weeks.

So far I’m up to #06of52, which happens to be this. Parents, I’m sure you’re all familiar with that look on her face!

 

And mind-bogglingly, #01of52 happens to be the most popular. Really. And it occurred to me: am I in the right genre? Should I be painting more animal portraits, less landscapes? More bichons, less barns? Someone thinks so. (Still waiting for AWS, TWSA, NWS, and CAC on their input…)

 

Last year, people were really drawn to these San Luis Obispo county landscapes. Central California is gorgeous, isn’t it? I’ve been thinking of doing a local workshop here… Watercolors and Wine. Or should it be Wine and Watercolors?

 

Finally, this city scene from Florence brings back some good memories… I conducted workshops in Tuscany in 2013 and 2015, and will be back again this year.

 

If you’re on Instagram, please drop by and say Hello! Hold my feet to the fire and make sure I get to #52of52! (And thanks for all your support.)