Hello CA! This summer I spent an intense and wonderful month in the Hudson River Valley, north of NYC, using every waking moment to draw, paint, think about drawing and painting and studying nature. Here’s a little sum up of what I did and learned - I hope it’s interesting to some!
I was part of the Hudson River Fellowship, lead by Jacob Collins, Ted Minoff, Travis Schlaht & Nick Hiltner
Some of their work:
Well, obviously these are very competent painters, but they’re also really wonderful people - the entire group - and it was an honour and true pleasure to spend this time with them! For those of you who’ve been to the MB/CA.org workshops, the level of energy and motivation at HRF was very similar. It is much smaller though: altogether we were a group of 22 very motivated & passionate painters, some students, some professionals. It’s not really a workshop (hence the “Fellowship” in the name), more like a gathering of brothers/sisters in art. There were some lectures but mainly we would just get up early, go out in the woods and draw/paint! Sometimes in groups, sometimes on our own, whatever your mood that day. We stayed in two houses and in the evenings we'd talk shop, share books, look at each other's work. Three or four times a week we gathered and lined up all the new work in a big room to show what we've been up to and to nag each other (and especially those more experienced) for critiques.
It. Was. AWESOME. !!!
Great people, great setting, great everything!
Btw. for more info on the mid-19th century American art movement called “Hudson River School”, check out the Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hudson_River_School
Some of the original Hudson River School painter’s work:
Some things I learned and thought about:
Perseverance & Focus
So important! There are always things that can distract us and outdoors they are especially plentiful and hard to control. Spiders, flies, mosquitos, the sun suddenly coming out, the sun suddenly disappearing, a group of tourists walking into your painting and setting up a massive picknick… But as long as you’re reasonably save and it is still possible to see what you’re painting, there is hope. Rather than getting frustrated we can train ourselves to use these distractions to increase our focus.
I haven’t mastered this yet but it’s fascinating how everything changes as I am starting to seek out challenges and "training opportunities" among the distractions.
After getting pretty upset a few times by flies and bugs constantly crawling over and getting stuck in my painting, hair, ears… ARGH... I remembered the concept of “Making Sandals” that Josh Waitzkin mentions in his "The Art of Learning":
— Josh Waitzkin in an interview with Ben Mack“There’s this wonderful buddhist story, an ancient Indian story, and basically the parable is this: If a man wants to walk across the Earth, and the Earth is covered with thorns, he has two answers, he has two possible solutions: He can cover the entire Earth with leather, which will take a lot of time — that’s the external solution — or he can make sandals. That’s the internal solution. And I really believe in making sandals.”
So I tried to turn the game around. If a fly landed on my legs and started to walk around and tickle me, I just let it tickle. Breathe! Relax. And focus on the important task at hand: the drawing/painting. This is hard enough, I need every second of the day and every bit of concentration, I can’t afford to break my focus by swatting away bugs every 30 seconds and waste energy getting upset. So I use the distraction, thank the little fly for being here, because it gives me an opportunity to strengthen my ability to concentrate. Next time something similar happens it will be a little bit easier to stay focused – and the painting is likely to turn out that much better as a result. Slowly but surely we can learn to flow with things and stay in a relaxed but focused state while the world around might look chaotic and unbearable to others.
Opportunities to improve are all around us in everyday life, too. Other people’s cellphone ringtones, a neighbor’s lawnmower on a quiet Sunday afternoon, etc. They’re are everywhere! The more you practice, the less power they have over you, so that when you’re on the bus and a baby is crying and throwing her toys around, you can smile and continue drawing the dude a few seats back who is so utterly annoyed that his face has taken on the most fascinating color note.
Perception & Control
I have been thinking about this one for a while.
When working from life, trying to accurately study what’s in front of you, it all comes down to this: The more developed your perception (in terms of shape/proportion, edges, value, hue, chroma etc.) and control (motor control, body awareness, understanding of materials, etc.), the better your result.
And the less you need to think about these things consciously the more brain-power you can use for free self-expression or whatever else you deem most important.
It’s the same in music. Take a player who has developed a nuanced hearing sense and really understands his instrument and the structure of music to a point at which he no longer has to consider them consciously. The more perception and control are "automatic"/"intuitive", the more freedom the artist has to just let it flow. That’s probably not everybody’s goal but wow watching great musicians improvise blows me away! It is my dream and ambition to get to that direct, authentic, pure expression.
Draw draw draw!
Dealing with an infinite amount of information
I’m used to a small and very controlled studio, painting one figure or maybe three or four still life objects. Landscape painting is new and very different. Apart from the changing light and the many distractions, having to deal with a literally infinite amount of detail and information was something I needed to really think about.
The old rule still applies: SIMPLIFY!
Work from general to specific. Get the big shapes/colors/etc. first, make sure the general context of things is right before going in for more detail. Everything else is likely to make a mess... With experience we get better at juggling more things at the same time but it’s pretty much always a good idea to keep it as simple as you need to feel comfortable about getting everything right.
Also it helps me to establish a hierarchy of visual importance, finish and detail, ideally early on, and make sure to maintain it.
Dealing with changing light
While the path of the sun can be predicted and should be taken into consideration when choosing a spot to paint, the weather can be capricious and turn an exciting scene into something dull and completely different from what your painting looks like VERY quickly. But sometimes the changes surprise us with beautiful effects we didn’t anticipate.
- The shadows usually change much less than the lights – if the sun goes away for a few moments just keep working on the areas that have changed least
- There are different approaches for drawing & painting outdoors: closely studying nature or making a pretty picture. The latter gives you much more freedom and design becomes more important than trying to “match” what’s in front of you. But it seems to take much experience to pull it off successfully. (And experience comes from trying, failing, trying again.)
- Paint paint paint!
Working from back to front, finishing as you go
This concept was new to me but it makes sense. After you have the drawing (shapes, values, to some degree edges) worked out, finish the painting, moving from the back (elements furthest away) to the front (elements closest to you). Very efficient. But you need to have a pretty good idea of where you’re going.
It’s important to be around good people
In the end motivation needs to come from yourself but wow it sure helps to have people around you who are as committed or – hard to admit – at times even more committed than you.
Growth comes at the point of resistance
There were many many moments when I was ready to tear up the canvas or just wipe out the whole thing and start over. (Or, more likely, hide in the forest and cry...) My mind started to come up with excuses why a particular study will never turn out nicely and why it is best to just toss it. But THAT is when I need to stick with it. Sometimes it’s good to take a short break, walk around a bit, be amazed by nature’s infinite variety. When coming back to the painting I look at it with these three questions on my mind and WRITE DOWN the answers:
- What isn’t working in general?
- In those areas, what EXACTLY doesn’t feel right? Shapes/proportions? Value Relationships? Edge Relationships? Hue Relationships? Chroma/Saturation Relationships?
Those categories are the main ones for me when studying nature. I can also think about Composition/Design, Textures/Materials, Paint Application and Creating Volume. Find your own categories & criteria!
- What exactly do I need to do next to fix these areas?
The goal is to look at the painting objectively. Frustration often comes after a few minutes of not paying attention and making stupid misjudgments. I then need to step back and figure out where I went wrong - and actually fix it.
“A problem well stated is a problem half solved.” I think having a vocabulary and clear concepts of what shapes are, what color is, what the elements of composition are, etc. REALLY helps in figuring these things out. Over time, the meticulous analyzing turns into “informed intuition”.
To come back to the point I’m trying to make: when frustration urges me to abandon my project, I step back and take an objective look at what I’ve been doing and find rational ways to improve what I have. Oh. As you might know… This is #*ç&% HARD!
Sometimes you might need to run or jump around or scream for a while (I do not recommend punching trees) to let off frustration-steam but I found the paintings I’m happiest with are the ones I struggled with most. But then again I might be biased…
In any case, to me psychology and internal cultivation is a huge part of this art game.
first try painting water - almost went crazy over this and it’s still unfinished and there are things I'm not happy with but I’m proud I continued and got it to this stage at least!
Choose the right medium to work in and combine studies into a final piece
- If I’m after shapes and specific drawing information (details), I use a dry medium and draw. I like paint better for value studies and obviously color studies. More efficient & effective.
- If I really want to capture the intricate shapes and patterns of a flower for example, I will get them much much faster with drawing than pulling out 20 pigments and trying to make a painting of it. I can then make a separate color study that is much looser in terms of shapes (which will save SO much time) and then combine the two studies in a careful painting to get the best of both worlds.
- It’s hard to draw in paint (to get shapes really accurate), especially with constantly changing subject matter. So I can get one half of it by leaving color (hue and chroma) out of the equation and doing a drawing; just focusing on values, shapes and edges. A separate color study in paint will provide me with the two missing elements hue & chroma.
Btw: I think it’s ok to treat “Saturation” and “Chroma” as synonyms and maybe the same goes for “Tone” and “Value”. Use the word you prefer but understanding these concepts is KEY for anybody wishing to do anything in color that requires any amount of conscious control. How's that for a big all-including statement.
If you’re not absolutely clear about color and the relationships of hue, value & chroma, check out: http://www.huevaluechroma.com/
Keeping physical distance from large subject matter
The bigger an object or the closer you are to it, (in other words the more of your field of vision it fills) the harder it is to draw that object accurately. The rule of thumb is that the distance from you to the object you’re looking at should be at least 2.5 times the diagonal measurement of that object.
If you’re unfamiliar with this principle, try it. Stand a few feet away from a tall building or tree and try to draw the whole thing… then look at a bulding or tree 50-100 feet away and it becomes much much easier to see the whole and draw it.
With this tree I was sitting way too close, maybe 2/3 of the height instead of at least 1.5 times the height.
I kept looking up and down the three, trying to get a sense of proportion. Finding halfway points and looking for big angles as well as horizontal and vertical alignments helped. But it would’ve been smarter to sit further away.
Obviously though, distance affects the sense of perspective and foreshortening.
Interesting stuff! Need to learn more about lenses in photography!
pencil & ink, tree study, about 9 hours over 3 days
Using work from imagination as a testing mechanism
Another topic I was surprised and excited to hear about! Our group was working from nature very closely. You really try to draw THAT tree, THAT flower, THAT mountain. Not being lazy and just going “oh yeahyeah its something like that, this scribble will do”.
But working from imagination is very valuable, too. I think in all areas of drawing & painting. It shows you what you don’t yet understand. I’d say most of the old masters were able to draw pretty solid figures from their head. After many many hours spent studying nature, Jacob Collins for example can now make up skies that look absolutely convincing, Ted Minoff paints incredible seascapes that are essentially made up – combining understanding and sketches done on location. You simply can’t paint crashing waves by copying what you observe, they move too fast.. You need to understand! (There are some thoughts about photography below.)
I think using work from imagination to test one’s understanding is pretty much ignored or at least undervalued in most of classical art education today. DO IT!
(Some ideas: anatomy, skintones, dabbled light, color composition, drawing anything in motion, perspective, water, reflections, daytime vs. nighttime, etc. Make up your own exercises!)
quick plein air study in oils at North-South lake
I had forgotten the above painting at the site so in the evening I tried doing something similar from memory/imagination - oh well Luckily the real painting was still there the next day!
Painting from photographs
(This can be a touchy subject sometimes and I really want this thread to stay away from another photography vs. no photography discussion, thank you very much.) Anyway, here’s one guy’s spin on the issue - he is against using photography in his own work because:
- it's way more fun / enjoyable to work from nature than copying a photo
- it almost always makes the work weaker than it would be when working from life and understanding
- he feels he isn't at a point of skill and understanding yet where he can allow the luxury of photography into his working methods without it leaving its traces
- this attitude puts him into a niche in the art market and he likes it there
There are many pros and cons, in the end it's up to you.
Monochrome wipe-out value study or underpainting
This is a pretty cool and effective way to do a value study. Start with a smooth white panel or canvas, cover it with an earth color (often raw umber is just fine) and then wipe off the areas that need to be lighter and put on more paint where it should be darker. This can serve as a value study, a drawing study (shapes & proportions) or an underpainting that you can then paint on top of once it’s dry. (It is MUCH better to start a full color piece with an underpainting like this than starting on a blank canvas!)
Again, this method helps keeping it simple, focusing on shapes, values and edges and leaving hue and chroma away for the beginning. You can also split the consideration of proportions, values and edges into different steps. Finding the right values would go much much faster if a careful linedrawing is already there for example.
oil on panel, about 5 hours
oil on panel, about 3 hours, standing on a rock in a stream:
Introspection vs. actually working
I love thinking about stuff. Writing things down, coming up with concepts and systems to organize information, show hidden connections and discover underlying principles. I’m also convinced that a huge part of being a successful artist/illustrator/painter/anything is psychology and becoming very aware of one’s own strengths and areas of potential, bad and good habits, etc.
There was a moment during this month in nature when for a few days I kind of shut down and went into thinking mode. Maybe it was just too much new input and bigger questions that had been brought up and had me wanting to stop and digest for a bit.
So for 3 or 4 days I did almost no drawing or painting, but took notes, pondered new inputs, tried to put things together. I felt very guilty for being in such an amazing place and not actually working, outside. But it also felt right to spend some time in introspection.
I figured out many things, some of which lead to writing these this post. I kept thinking more but eventually stopped making any real progress and felt stuck. I realized that there needs to be a balance between introspection and actual execution. Going out there and DOING IT. Not being afraid of failing. Just going out there and doing it. Enjoying myself, being extremely grateful for this opportunity, time, great weather, healthy body, enough paint and panels and brushes and great people around me. Just enjoying it!! So I finally decided to get up again and go out and did some of my better work that day, building up enough momentum to keep going for the rest of the month.
The danger is both to get stuck in thinking and ending up not doing any productive work, as well as getting stuck in a mindless “going through the motions”. We need to use both modes in a dynamic dance.
Plain Air Materials:
Fellow fellow Sadie Valeri made a great blog post about the materials everybody at the Fellowship used. Take a look at - http://bit.ly/2M8bKJ
Well, that’s it! Thanks for reading!
I highly recommend going outside and just drawing & painting stuff, it teaches us SO much!
Any feedback, questions & additions are more than welcome!
Last edited by dorian; April 25th, 2012 at 09:14 AM.
Great Dorian! I friend of mine i currently studying full time with GCA, very jealous if him! Is there any way you could post your submitting portfolio here? Cheers Tim
[url=http://galleryonefone.blogspot.com[/url] This would be my gallery in Sweden
This would be my Pleine Air blog
Great post Dorian!
Really Fantastic Posts Dorian ,Great photos and Great Paintings. Many thanks for sharing.
I have to say, that month of painting and hanging out with you and all the others was one of the best arting months I've ever had. I was so inspired by everyone's level of skill and dedication. I've never been among such an intensely gifted and focused group ever. The quality of everyone's work was so high.
So much learned, so much to apply, and so much more to learn! I can't wait to see your final composition(s).
visit my online webFolio @
Excellent post dorian, the level of work created by you guys is nothing short of astounding. I hope someday to get the chance to participate in it!
My sketchbook: http://conceptart.org/forums/showthread.php?t=205399