Category Archives: Painting

The editing process: a pain in the…

I had the chance to visit Ellicott City on my trip to Maryland last June. While there was no time to actually paint en plein air, I was able to take pictures in this remarkable town.
(the name is a bit misleading, it is definitely a small town)

Ellicott City was founded in 1772, so it is quite old by American standards. It is nestled in a narrow valley and unfortunately, that contributed to a devastating flash flood a few years ago. But the people are resilient, have battled their way back and rebuild their dreams!

I was immediately attracted to all the odd views of old Architecture, hilly terrain, beautiful craftsmen and Victorian style buildings. Busy streets and storefronts and some nice galleries as well.

In fact, finding a paint-able scene was quite a challenge, because there seems to always be too much in the viewfinder. Too much and all stacked up! Arguably one of the hardest things to find is a scene that can actually be good painting material. I did find a few eventually but not without doing some pretty drastic editing first.
Side note:
On the day I was there it was actually cloudy. Fortunately, my painter friend Thomas Bucci was able to take pictures the day before when it was sunny. This picture was taken by him and he was kind enough to let me use it.

This is the reason why I wanted to write this blog post: How do we edit scenes with way too much information in them? As with everything else in art, there is no easy answer.

A good way to think is like this: First, what is essential to the scene, what elevates the painting? What has to go in so you can ‘say’ what you have to say?

Second, what does not help the scene? What can I change and still say the same thing?
In this case, the building on the left has a very long extension to the right that does not all have to be there. So I shortened it. Needless to say I didn’t want to paint the trash cans.

The right side is also too complicated: the truck takes up too much space. I added people instead which, in street scenes, always seems to help develop a focal point. I changed the format to vertical and made the scene more mysterious by adding clouds and the background hill which is really not visible from my viewpoint.
Color harmony was created by the repetition of the red and by playing with shadow angles throughout I think I was able to paint an interesting, engaging scene.

As a final thought: these design problems have to all be worked out in advance. As should be pretty obvious, once we start putting pigment and water on the page it would be too late to try to resolve all of this. Time well spent before painting!

Watercolor vs. Oil

This is a scene I have painted many times. It is near where I live and to me, represents our area to the dot. Rolling hills, pastures and a barn setting. Since I started more oil painting again I thought I’d give it a shot in that medium. The watercolor was painted two years ago.

The oil is from a slightly different vantage point and it is also a different time of the year. The watercolor was painted in mid winter, when it is ‘greenest’ around here. That’s right, in California, it gets green in the winter because most of our rainfall happens then!

The oil was just recently painted in the spring. The green on the hills has already changed, turning a red-ish brown. That happens pretty much as soon as the rains stop. This is, however, my favorite time to paint them. In the winter, it is sort of a carpet of intense green (think New Zealand) and is quite difficult to do in a painting. The painting can become overloaded with sameness. To me the watercolor was harder to do for that reason.

Both mediums convey their own mood and feel. This will be one of those places that I’ll paint
over and over. Different times of the day and in different seasons.

Painting plein air, I believe the goal should be to capture something of the scene and not ‘make up’ something different. It is true that sometimes we have to change things around a bit, because mother nature just put too much information there. However, to me there is no point in painting plein air if I don’t really paint what’s there. In this case, it was the study of the hills and sky that make the painting. The interaction of it all. How it’s all one! If I change everything, why go out at all? I can take a picture and do all that in the studio.

To get the color and value right it is essential to observe right. The hills have colors of the sky in it and if the clouds are low enough, they will have some of the hill color in it! Notice how the greens change. The shadows, the sunlit parts, the foreground field. All different! I am so blown away by little things like that! It really excites me, such a miracle…well, not really but I find it endlessly fascinating! I can almost feel the scene…

To say it in the simplest most straight forward way: to paint well, all you have to do is observe right, mix the right color with the right value and put it in the right place. Done!

Small on-site sketches…or….little paintings!

I know that Jeremy Lipking and Scott Christensen teach the importance of making small on-site sketches whenever possible. I even heard that in Scott’s plein air workshops, students only get 45 minutes to finish a painting on each location visited! When some of the best painters have great advice, it certainly is a good idea to consider it!

The advantages are obvious and multi-fold:

  • It may be less intimidating to start a small sketch than a bigger painting.
  • Despite the relatively small size (only 5″x6″ or so), the painting process is the same. You still  need to work out values, color, drawing and edge just like in a bigger piece!
  • You’re going home with 3–6 paintings instead of just one (that you may or may not like).
  • Last but not least, you have multiple on-site sketches from which you can do a bigger studio piece from!

Oh, and here’s another one: often there isn’t enough time to finish before the light changes too much, but it’s almost always possible to finish a 5″x6″ piece. These sketches should really take no longer than 30–45 minutes each, no matter what medium you’re painting in.

I don’t even bother with an underpainting when doing these in oils. Since I am a watercolor guy, I just jot down a few lines with pencil and paint ‘alla prima’ (direct painting). The basic principle for Alla Prima painting is to observe, mix and put down the right amount of paint in the right place with the right value. If possible with little or no adjusting, changing etc.

Easier said than done! Practice, practice, practice!

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.

#WorkshopWednesday

Just a short public service announcement today: Please join me (if you can, barring the weather) next week at Yosemite National Park for my annual workshop! With budget cuts and poor funding being a stark reality for our national parks, I am proud to support this beautiful California landmark and climbers’ paradise in whatever way possible. Proceeds from class fees, materials purchases from the Art Center, and sales from my paintings go to The Yosemite Conservancy. I hope to see you there!

Read my past entries on Yosemite here.

Elsewhere (click to read):

Frank Eber workshop in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Conservancy Blog

Frank Eber workshop in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Conservancy on Facebook

Frank Eber workshop in Yosemite National Park

Yosemite Conservancy on Twitter

Frank Eber on Instagram

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!

Color harmony

Happy New Year, Everyone!

Today I thought I will post about color. Using color in a painting is a very powerful way to make a statement, but it’s complex nature makes it hard to understand. Color, like value, only makes sense in context. A color by itself has no meaning. Now, there is this concept that all colors are inherently warm or cool but that only makes sense if we compare it to other colors of the color spectrum. Let’s say you’re only looking at cadmium yellow, cadmium orange and cadmium red. Which one is warmer? You see where I am getting at? If we compare it to Cobalt Blue, then those colors are much warmer.

Many painters rely on formulas, mixes they fall back on no matter what is being painted. While I agree that certain colors are used more than others (simply because they do mix well with others), using general formulas for every painting is not going to work if we are truly painting what’s in front of us. (Just to be clear, I am talking about the experience of painting from life here.)
Here’s why: Predetermined color schemes do not produce an authentic version of the harmony in a subject matter. You cannot predict the colors that will be needed in a painting. Your own perception is going to dictate what you will use. How will you know what you will be seeing before you see it?

Understanding the phenomenon of color temperature is key to painting well. Colors do appear either warmer or cooler than their adjacent colors (!) The temperature of any color changes when we lighten or darken it, when the adjacent color changes, or when another color is being mixed into it. As if that’s not enough, colors change when the light on them changes. I remember when I was maybe 10 years old and tried to paint the hair of a blond woman, painting an acrylic portrait. I tried and tried but I just didn’t get it right. What I neglected to see was that she was standing under and next to green palm trees. Her hair picked up the green sheen of the palm trees! Of course it would! It was very subtle, but I didn’t see it because I didn’t look right! Her hair, the way I painted it, looked out of place!
How could you ever paint this correctly if you come into the painting with a predetermined color mix for blond hair?

Only by painting many paintings will we learn about subtleties like this. There just isn’t a good substitute for the real thing. Go out and do it. Paint from life!