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'In any land what is there more glorious than sunlight! Even here in the desert where it falls fierce and hot like a rain of meteors, it is the one supreme beauty to which all things pay allegiance ... The chief glory of the desert is its broad blaze of omnipresent light.'
-John Van Dyke

Monday, January 14, 2013

What can you do: Bunnies ARE cute

I usually avoid cuteness in my paintings. Beautiful colors and breathtaking light effects seem worthy challenges and their reproduction in a painting is usually a creative process. Just depicting an already beautiful face may be a challenge, but it's not art.. The same seems true of the image of an animal that appeals mostly through its big eyes, round face, fuzzy softness... I would have the same kind of problem with the fierceness of an eagle portrait...

But now I am painting a series of hares and bunnies. Please check out my natural history blog about Jackrabbits here. The first painting showed a Jackrabbit in a light-infused grassland. I just loved the bunches of dried cheat grass glowing in the afternoon sun.

Then I needed a wildlife portrait for a series of local animals and  found the long  Jackrabbit ears a nearly impossible composition challenge.

 The next one was vaguely inspired by Duerer's 'Ein Junger Hase' and was anything but cute. I used some old hot pressed paper and was unhappy how it handled, but the result wasn't bad and the painting sold the second time I showed it in a weekend show.

The next one was all about motion, and while the anatomical study of the  hare worked out fine, I am not quite happy with the high definition all over the painting - I think it should be blurred in places to further enhance the idea of rapid motion.

But the newest painting is of a back-lit Cottontail and - it's cute, nothing I can do about that. At least I stuck to a color scheme that is based on only blue and its complimentary burned orange ...In the end I liked it so much that I gave it a special barn wood frame and immediately produced a couple of 6x8 canvas prints.

Commission: South side of the Catatlina Mountains

I just finished a watercolor commission of the Catalina Mountains. My clients spend the winters in SaddleBrook and summers in Germany, isn't that a perfect arrangement? But one of them grew up in Tucson looking up at the ever-changing south side of the Catalinas, where morning glow is chased by cloud shadows or by color bleaching southern glare until the evening light models the relief again in strong warm contrasts. I know the view well, I lived for 7 years in the foothills at River Road. So I was going to capture some of that on a full sheet of watercolor paper, that's 21 in by 30 in. 

Since I had all summer, I waited for a monsoon afternoon with dramatic clouds. One late August afternoon the sky looked perfect and I raced from my home on the west side of Interstate 10 to Campbell Ave. north of Sunrise. The clouds weren't so great there, but their shadows still brought the mountains alive and gave good contrast to Finger Rock - and I knew that that formation was important to my clients.

I took a series of photos and painted a quick plein air sketch on dry paper (10 by 14 in). There is no detail in it, but it captures colors and atmosphere that I wanted to reproduce on the big studio piece.  Luckily, as a painter I can just ignore any houses and developments that have sprung up in the foothills since my client was a child there.
I usually compose my landscape paintings with detailed foreground vegetation and some optical path leading the eye into the depth. But this time I had been asked to emphasize the mountain shape. Even the format of the painting was originally planned to be much more horizontal than my 'golden cut' shaped piece of paper. With this in mind I decided to just stick to the horizontal band of foothill vegetation, mostly saguaros, that I had actually seen while sketching. 

I like to combine wet in wet with wet on dry techniques in my watercolors.  So after penciling in very loose outlines I took a garden hose to my sheet of paper and soaked it, then slid it on a smooth wet board (no stretching). As soon as the wet sheen had disappeared I began flooding in blues for the sky. The sky is lightest closest to the horizon, so I had the board tilted slightly towards the top to make the pigment flow towards the zenith. As the drying progressed I laid down a warm pink orange wash for the mountain. This would give them warm glow of the afternoon light, and it would also tone down any distant green areas. It's tempting to use earth pigments for a landscape painting. But they lack the transparency that I need when I add several layers of paint and they tend to create mud. So I use only highly transparent, staining Thalos and Quinacridones. The disadvantage of these pigments: once on the paper they will stay put. Lifting and scrubbing is hardly possible.
At this point the drying paper had to be taped down with masking tape. It would still warp slightly, but that is the nature of an original watercolor.

As I was going to define the characteristic skyline of the Catalinas next, I had to let the painting dry thoroughly first. Anyway, layering can only be done over a dry under-painting. The trick is then to not disturb the dry layers while still smoothly blending the new ones.
I tend to work all over the painting, establishing some darks while preserving my lightest lights. It helps me to get the midtones right without going back too often.
This painting would be dominated by cool colors, greens and blues. The warm colors of some bare, sun-exposed rock needed to serve as a counterbalance. Also, I fondly remember my first visit to Tucson, when my host was driving me north on Campbell in the afternoon and I asked him whether there was red rock like in Sedona up there...he said no, just  Alpine glow on granit...but the impression staid with me.

I had followed pretty much the shadow pattern that I saw in my reference photos, but at one point I realized that the shadows were giving a concave appearance to the mesa on the left that weakened  the impression of massiveness that I wanted to achieve. It's a myth that watercolors cannot be changed at all. The shadows were painted mostly in non-staining cobalt blue, so the could be partly lifted with the help of a toothbrush. Simultaneously a disruptive hard edge became a lost one (soft).

My clients liked their painting. They found that the careful layering of transparent colors produces a stained glass effect that is hard to show in these photographs, nearly an iridescence that changes the colors depending on the viewpoint. They also like the  high contrast that makes Finger Rock the slightly unusual center of intrest. I all my other paintings I soften the mountain edge to make the mountains recede. But the effect of the high contrast is not unrealistic. When the Souther Pacific railway hired painters to introduce tourists to western landscapes, their paintings were rejected by eastern art critiques for their lack of atmospheric perspective. The reason for this lack is of course Arizona's low humidity. It's a dry heat, even during the monsoon months.

I'll take part in an outdoor art show at St. Phillip's Plaza on October 20 and 21. Please come and visit!
Find more of my winter shows by clicking here

Commission: Dynastes Quest

This blog is about a watercolor that will be a belated birthday present. It's late because first the painting had to be painted and now it's delayed again by Hurricane Sandy because the recipient lives in Brooklyn.

It was commissioned by a friend of the little family whom I took on a beetle excursion this summer. The watercolor is meant as a lasting memento of that trip. The idea was an Arizona landscape with the mom and the two boys. As the people would be small, they would be recognizable more by their shape and body language than by their exactly portraied features. So the mom would be lovingly protective, the older boy growing more independent and adventerous at 7 and the younger, 5, still a little more clinging to mom (in fact, that only happened after we tired him out for three days plus jet lag).
There was a problem: The friend hadn't been part of the Arizona tour. To him Arizona is full of desert vistas with great saguaros. Somewhere in this wide landscape, he wanted the mother and the two kids depicted as they were searching for the elousive Dynastes granti.
Dynastes, however, does not like the desert heat, nor does this beetle live anywhere close to saguaros. I'm sure that the two bright kids are very awear of those ecological preferences and would not have accepted any artistic licence in that regard.
The brightly lit gas station on the Apache Reservation where we actually collected most of our beetles (on private property where we were allowed to hunt for bugs) was anything but picturesque.

A prettier place that the kids really enjoyed was the creek behind the KuBo cabin in Madera Canyon, and Dynastes beetles can actually be found there. I took some nice reference photos, and I photoshopped the people into position. But while the jumble of rocks and bone-white sycamore trunks could have made a great, nearly abstract painting, it just seemed too monochrome and stark as a backdrop for a happy little scene with children. I may still develop it into a painting one day.

Where the canyon opens into the grassland, the light is friendlier and there is more color. I did a loose scetch to explore that option. But just at that time I recieved another email from my client, saying how much he liked one of my landscape paintings that featured saguaros and agaves backed by a rocky slope with lots of maroon and purple ...I realized then that my creek scene really didn' t have anything 'typically Arizonan' for him.

I had a few photos of our little group posing on an overlook over the majestic beauty of Salt River Canyon. But it had been rainig there, the kids were tired, and we never climbed down to a more intimate setting within the canyon (a new bridge makes access much more difficult than it used to be).

From Salt River Crossing the road zigzags up to the Colorado River Plateau. Here it is bordered by fields of wild sunflowers, and creeks and rivers cut deeply into red and pink sandstone. These riparian areas are the real home of the Dynastes beetles. Scars in the bark of young ash trees tell of adult beetles who visit the trees for their juice. Dynastes grubbs spend years of feeding and growing in the mulch under oaks and sycamores along the creeks. Since we didn't stop to take any photos there, I dug through my reference files of photos and plein air paintings that I've done over the years in that area. The one above is from 1994 from a horseback trip with an Apache rancher.

For the final version of  this commission I now combined mom, kids, beetle, red rocks, cacti, ash trees and the mountain ranges of the Salt River Canyon to compose a painting that has much more of a narrative than my current work usually does. Can you find the beetle? I hope my clients are going to like it!