Saturday, December 13, 2014

Light and Color in Film - Winter 2015 Class at the Animation Collaborative

Last winter I taught this class for the first time, and enjoyed it very much, so am happy to have the opportunity to do it again. Though I've taught classes for many years on light and color, with an emphasis on observing and analyzing natural light, this class allows me to focus the curriculum on the kind of problem solving I do at Pixar, and while it may certainly be influenced and inspired by nature at times, it is primarily in the service of the narrative, and uses contrast and color as a means of expression, symbol, continuity, and other mechanisms that underly film design.

The class begins in late January, and runs for 12 sessions on Thursday evenings from 7-10. If you're interested, go to the Animation Collaborative web page here to sign up. I am requesting a portfolio submission for this class to understand the skill set of the applicants, and to even it up a bit, if I can. I don't wish to discourage anyone from submitting, but I am looking for folks with enough art skill to engage with this subject with confidence. You'll be using your visual and conceptual skills to solve problems in film.  It is NOT a beginning painting, or landscape class.  We will be looking at film as a sequential structure, and how color plays a significant (and delightful) role in the process. That said, we will be venturing outside to paint a few times on the weekends to examine first hand how nature fits into the equation...

The image below is a compilation of lighting and set concept studies I did for an abandoned Pixar project called 'Newt', that was to be directed by Gary Rydstrom. The eagle eyes among you might suspect that the final image at the bottom is more than reminiscent of a certain John Twachtman painting, and they would be correct! Inspiration can come from anywhere when solving problems for film. The art of the 'dead' is a fantastic resource.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Upcoming Pt. Reyes Workshop Oct. 3-5

I've been teaching workshops out at Pt. Reyes for several years, and have enjoyed the immersion into that particular landscape, as well as the camaraderie with the students that comes with a weekend adventure, painting and cooking together. This one is coming up in a few weeks, and I still have a few spots left. We will be staying at the Historic Lifeboat Station, an old Coast Guard Barracks, way, way out on the point, near Chimney Rock and the Lighthouse. Cliffs, cypress, seals, rolling hills, deer, cattle, and the ocean are right outside the door, so to speak. Go here for more information, and to sign up.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sierra Painting Pack Trip 2014

A group of 8 artists, Paul Kratter, Terry Miura, Ernesto Nemesio, Michelle De Bragan├ža, Robert Steele, Lori Putnam, and myself, hiked and rode up to (drunken) Sailor Lake in the Sabrina basin in late August. It was a bit of a long grind going up. But, no one was hung over, nor was it raining, so much better than some other years. I am not in great shape though, and the higher elevation of this spot really had an effect. At 11,000', I could only plod very slowly on any incline. If I went any quicker, I simply could not breathe and keep moving. Its pretty humbling. One lesson I learned years ago on these hikes was that I usually could not enjoy much of the view while moving, as I needed to constantly pay attention to where my feet were, to avoid falling on my face, so stopping in order to breathe was a great way to appreciate the scenery as we climbed out of the lake basin. We hiked around towards the back side of Sabrina, roughly level, among many small aspens, and then began to ascend, via switchbacks, and some long, steep inclines over talus slopes, crossing several watercourses along the way. 

The hikers at the Sabrina trailhead. L-R: Lori Putnam, Michelle De Bragan├ža, Ernesto Nemesio, and Terry Miura.

After a few hours of huffing and puffing the point of view begins to change. Those are the Piute Crag  looming behind the Lake Sabrina basin. Less than halfway there, but progress!

About 3 miles in, after surmounting the back wall of the basin, we arrived at Blue Lake, which looked good enough to make us wonder why we needed to go any further, yet we were only half way to our destination. We stopped for lunch and a rest, then continued our upward journey through fox tail pines, amid a landscape dotted with huge erratic boulders, granite benches, walls, and numerous small ponds. We often found ourselves hiking over acres of solid granite, with the trail being marked by stones on either side.

At Blue Lake (actually shot on the hike out). Pretty nice scenery and water here.

The mules had passed us at Blue Lake, so the 5 of us that elected to hike in, were strung out somewhere behind them. I straggled into camp in the late afternoon, met the cook, Ally, and her grandfather, Jerome, who was helping her out. They had a full on cook tent, that looked like a small house, with a metal frame, heavy canvas walls, and a large supply of propane tanks for cooking and heating. I grabbed my gear from the tarp, set up my tent, and started to survey the landscape possibilities.

The view from camp towards Picture Peak. Mt. Haekel on the right, and Clyde Spires over the left shoulder. The cook 'house' to the right of Terry Miura.

 We were camped on the shores of Sailor Lake, which was, in my mind, more of a very shallow, meandering pond, in a descending glacial basin. About a quarter mile 'up' the basin to the west, was Hungry Packer Lake, out of sight over the U shaped ground plane that ended visually in the rocky slopes of Picture Peak, a ragged pyramid that dominated the skyline in that direction. To our left, was a small waterfall, fed from the outlet to Moonlight Lake, which could be reached by a short scramble. A curving wall of cracked granite flanked our north, dotted with small trees, over which some larger crags were visible. If we looked roughly east, down the basin, towards the desert floor, we could see the White Mountains glimmering faintly miles away, while the sloping foreground was a series of ponds, stands of pines, and boulders, which ended in Topsy Turvy Lake. The rest of our horizon was ringed with jagged escarpments and shattered rock slopes, well above the tree line.

A study looking down the basin in morning light. 6 x 9", pastel on paper.

Here's a wider view, looking the same direction, painted on the last morning of the trip.
9 x 9.5", pastel on paper.

Morning Icon worship

Charles Muench, who painted at this spot last year, had advised Paul and I that he felt the scenery was dominated by this singular view of Picture Peak. As a result, I deliberately avoided painting this view all week, though I did paint parts of the mountain.  Others, however, went at the peak every morning from sunrise on. It was very convenient to paint from camp in the morning, as we were served hot coffee at our easels by Jerome. Quite a luxury in such a location. 

North of Morning Coffee, 6 x 9, pastel on paper

The Wall to the West, 9 x 9.5, pastel on paper
Here's an example of painting just a part of Picture Peak, emphasizing atmosphere and scale relationships. Not painting the 'thing' or the object, but elements or aspects that can make for an interesting painting.

The first lake outside of camp that we visited was Moonlight lake, which was a 10 minute scramble to the south. It was big, deep, and unusually turquoise. Ernesto and I painted there one cloudy afternoon, then returned one sunny morning with everyone for a delightful day of painting, and even a little swimming, though it was too cold to stay in very long. 

Sun Spot, 9 x 9.5, pastel on paper
My first painting from Moonlight Lake. The clouds built up pretty quick, but small spots of light would would periodically glow and drift amongst the peaks. This is a view of Clyde Spires, which is visible in the photo above, to the left of Picture Peak. I usually don't do very wide views, and this is a good example of how a small section of a scene will suit me.

A great day at Moonlight Lake. We are often on our own, so it is rare, and fun when everyone is in the mood to paint at the same spot. 

Moonlit Shore, 9 x 9.5, pastel on paper
The south shore of the lake nearest us was full of boulders and cliffs that ran down into the turquoise water. I picked a small section of that to paint. 

Cloud Study, 6 x 9, pastel on paper

We had several consecutive days of cloud build up that threatened a big downpour, yet we never had rain, just masses of cumulus looming over the peaks to the west, then dissipating towards the desert to the east. The edge of this mass would swell and retreat for hours, constantly shifting in form and color.

In the evening the clouds would create enormous variations of light and shadow patterns on the peaks, from ridiculous and unpaintable to sublime 19th century evocations, channeling Bierstadt and his ilk. 

Don't try this at home...


We had one day of wind on the trip that just wore us out. It started blowing around 5 am, and did not quit until around 9 that night. Gust were strong enough to demolish one person's tent. I don't know how my cheapo, Big 5 dome tent held up, but it did. Maybe because I piled rocks at all 4 corners to hold down the poles. I still did 2 paintings that day. I put rocks in my tripod bag and hung it from the center post to keep everything from blowing over. No umbrella was possible. I just faced towards the sun, and held a board up with one hand to shade my colors, or huddled near cliffs and trees, to keep the light off my work. People think we are in some kind of paradise up there, but it can be really difficult conditions to work in at times. 

Talus Wind, 6 x 9, pastel on paper
The first painting of the day in strong, gusting wind.

Waterfall, 9 x 9.5, pastel on paper

The wind blew until well after sunset, so we all crammed into the cook's tent on the last night, which was the best thing ever. It was toasty in there. Nothing like suffering all day, then celebrating with good pals near the end of an adventure.

We held a pop up Art show the next morning before we hiked out. It is always a revelation to see the range of work everyone produced. Even when we painted in the same location, we chose different things to paint. Very inspiring. 


 Comparison with the other locations: I do feel that there were scenic elements common to Iceberg, the Nydivers, Ediza, Chickenfoot on the Mt. Morgan side of the lake, and the upper Garnet melt pond area, all within about a 15 minute hike from camp. So, after ten years, there is a lot of familiar territory to be found in a location like this.  That is a big plus. The wind was a negative, but it can be dealt with. 

As a postscript, I must add the following:

We had the worst toilet EVER on this trip. It was so bad it was funny, and was a topic of conversation throughout the week. It was a kid sized toilet seat that was loosely duct taped to a milk crate with a garbage bag stuffed below. This getup was sandwiched between two blue plastic tarps that would blow into you whenever a breeze came up.  A complete ergonomic and hygienic insult in every possible way at every juncture of the process. I finally resorted to seeking other options a discreet distance from camp that were far more functional and comfortable than this setup.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Spring into Summer

I've been able to get outside to paint fairly regularly since January, on my own, as well as during some workshops I've been teaching, and with small groups of fellow artists. Here's a selection of pieces from about February to June with some notes and observations. 

The hills around the bay stayed green  for several months in spite of the drought. Depending on the position of the sun one may see the rich translucent color of grass as in the image above, or  less saturated range one gets from other angles that reflect the light of the sky. Viewed through the curtain of atmosphere, even the saturated greens attenuate towards the blue. Its a range of color specific to those conditions.

 For several weekends in February, I would drive out towards the Pt. Reyes Lighthouse at the southwestern tip of the land, passing all the alphabet ranch properties (Historic Ranch E, F, G, etc.) This area, cloaked in muted browns during fall and winter, resembles one vast Andrew Wyeth type panorama, with windswept hills, old barns, cattle roaming the hills. The range of green in winter and spring evokes other qualities and moods, and driving out there one constantly finds views on the way to one's destination that are tempting to paint.  I must have seen this 3 or 4 times before I finally pulled over to paint it.  One constant throughout the year is that any tree that has matured will betray the prevailing direction of the wind, whether it is blowing or not. In addition, this tree has been manicured to clear the road. I may still work on this one to push the road going into shadow more, as well some edge transitions.

There's alway rocks to paint regardless of the season. This was painted in March during a workshop I taught in Pt. Reyes. We were painting along the edge of a cliff, a short hike from the Historic Lifeboat Station,  where one could see the mist between folds in the cliff picking up a warm bounce off the sunlit sides facing away from us. Frequent marine painters must be very familiar with this effect, but from a painting point of view it was a quality I hadn't consciously examined before. One more sublime artifact of facing towards the light

On a warm day, I will often drive into Canyon to paint. Its a narrow valley with several redwood groves in it, not far from where I live. There's a small creek that meanders alongside the road, rimmed by bay laurel, redwood, and oak, with copious amounts of blackberry and poison oak. I find that even in mid-day, one can find interesting patches of light streaming through the foliage, dappling whatever forms it comes to rest on. The challenge of these scenes is that they have a very short life span, as the dapples slide off whatever they were illuminating in a matter of minutes. Sometimes another patch of light comes along that conveniently substitutes, and other times you are left to your own devices. This is where a field sketch done prior to the start is helpful insurance. 

There's a few reasons dapples are so elusive. A ray of sunlight that passes through a tree has been filtered and cropped by branches and leaves countless times so that a single dapple is a brief, fortuitous alignment of numerous 'holes' before it hits the ground. The slightest breeze, and/or the relentless motion of our planet will eventually eclipse that narrow opening. Another cause is that the field of view in an image like this can be quite small, and the narrower the field, the more rapid a pinhole projection of the sun will appear to move across that space. The same effect occurs when looking at the moon through a telescope on a tripod. The more it is magnified, the faster the moon slides out of view through the eyepiece. It is simply the rotation of the earth that is manifested by these observations, whether through the telescope, or just painting in a forest on a summer's day. 

These are the familiar colors of summer in my part of the world...the 'golden' hills of California which are dotted  with manzanita, scotch broom, and the small oaks that find enough moisture in the folds and seeps of the terrain. What can be fun to observe and paint is the range of color in shadow, and how that relates to the warm sunlight reverberating amongst the yellowed and reddish hues of the grasses. In shadow, the washed out, yellow grasses are subject to the cool ambient light of the sky, which can give them a relatively greenish cast on certain folds of the hills in the distance. In addition, near the edge of the shadow/light zones, the brilliant complement of colors becomes evident, which I think is due as much to the strength of natural light as to our own visual process which generates an exaggerated complementary response when confronted with a field of saturated color that changes value and temperature abruptly. I do believe that if one isolated and measured the actual colors between these two areas, they would not be as complementary as we perceive in the context of bright sunlight. So what do we paint? Color as measured in isolation, or our response to color in bright light seen in the context of other colors? I tend to err on the latter choice, as our paintings can only approximate a compressed version of the strength of natural light anyways, and the visceral, physical perception to me is an honest and personal response. Paint the effect. We are not reproducing nature.

Here's another one I'll probably work on some more, or head back to the spot and do more studies. I'm drawn towards the modulation of color in the water, how the submerged branches sit 'under' the water, and the foliage textures as a pattern on the upper right. The reflection on the left also inverts the gradient of the sky along the edge of the tree. That's enough right there to convince me to do more, in order understand the play and balance of these elements better. I think there's an idea for a more refined result than what I was able to achieve in one outing.  I've been reading the journals of Eugene Delacroix, and he has some very thoughtful observations about painting that are getting under my skin. It is stimulatingto have a voice talking from the 1850's, like some sort of 'art conscience' whispering in my ear.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Saying Goodbye to Twilight

When I first started seriously trying to do lighting studies with pastels on the movie, A Bug's Life, back in the mid-90's, I tried working on black Canson paper, as my inspiration for this, Ralph Eggleston, the Art Director of Toy Story, had done the same. However, I found in short order that I could not put down enough color to overcome the effects of the black ground, as Ralph could do so beautifully, so I went looking for other, less 'extreme' color choices. I quickly settled on the color  called 'Twilight', as it was a middle value, and the violet grey tone seemed to be harmonious with shadows and atmosphere in natural light, or at least the kind of light I was attempting to portray in my studies.

During that time, I started taking my pastels with me on bike rides around Pt. Richmond at lunch time, attempting little studies of nature, as I had noticed how fast the medium seemed to be. That violet grey paper worked pretty well outside. As I became more interested in working out of doors, the pastels
came with me on summer vacations to Oregon and Canada, and I incorporated the color Tobacco, a rich, warm brown, in my paper arsenal to allow for the colors of lakes, rivers, and streams I was studying.

About 3 years into this process, I began teaching periodic classes about the effects of natural light at work, to get folks that were lighting shots on computers, out of their offices to 'light shots' in nature, so to speak. Naturally I recommended they all use Twilight and for atmospheric views, and the other for creeks. That is my basic history with the use of those two colored papers over the last 18 years, though I have explored, and used, other colors.

Over the last few years I had noticed that Twilight was in short supply at local retail outlets, and had taken to ordering it in bulk from online sources. As I was prepping to teach a workshop, I wrote an online supplier asking about the shortage. He, in turn wrote Canson, and forwarded me their reply, which read as follows:

Twilight just didn't make the cut when Canson trimmed the colors to 50. Purely a business decision based on sales. 

Interestingly, I had started trying other lighter valued papers in the last few years, as I had noticed that I was getting a different range of brightness in the results, and perhaps the Twilight paper was making that expression more difficult. That said, I still use it regularly, but am left with a few conundrums to ponder: 

What to do when a reliable item one has been using for years is no longer being made?

How much of our work relies upon, or is defined by a specific element in our process?

The short answer to both these questions is "Stock up, and move on."

First off, I did locate and purchase enough sheets to last me awhile, but I am also fine with exploring other colors, and even surfaces. It turns out that Twilight is still in production in the 'Touch' line of lightly sanded papers that Canson produces out of Australia. Meanhwhile, I'm working with Moonstone, Dawn Pink, and Flannel Grey, among others. I don't feel,  nor do I wish to be reliant on a single color or surface to produce work that satisfies me.

In closing, here is a selection of my pastels done on Canson Twilight over the years as a tribute to its functional versatility.

So long Twilight!


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Rainy Day Notes (and some workshop info)

I've been more busy at work this past year, than I have been in awhile, so my personal work gets set aside, or at least takes a back seat to other issues. We've finally got some rain, and it was a good weekend to stay home, watch some of the Olympics, and do some cooking. This rainy morning provided the view of the hill beyond our back fence with a lovely, subdued value range, as well as palette of interesting colors...minty greens, warm browns, violets, and blue greys, everything harmonized by a steady, misting rainfall. I decided to put off cooking more comfort food, while watching young athletes tear up the slopes in Sochi,  in favor of painting a view from our back bedroom door. 

I see this view every morning when I wake up and look out the sliding glass door to see what the weather is up to. As we've been exceedingly dry this winter, the young grasses only turned that minty green about 2 weeks ago. Behind our house, there is a slight rise, and then it somewhat levels off for a few hundred feet before a small but steep slope rises up like a wall, covered with small oaks, and one old buckeye tree that shows its lichen covered bony branches every winter. At the base of the hill are a blend of ferns, blackberry vines, poison oak, and a few fennel plants. That's a scotch broom shrub in the mid-ground. All this is habitat for deer, coyotes, turkeys, bunnies, quail, and what have you. Tics are abundant.

Rain on the Back Hill, 14 x 14, Pastel on Paper

 Since I last posted, I taught a workshop out at Pt. Reyes at the lifeboat station, way out on the southern west corner of the park. This is a pretty stark and  dramatic landscape that is also subject to rapid changes in the weather. You can go from fog to sunshine in short order, and vice versa. The Lifeboat Station is a sturdy historic building with a kitchen, and bunks. A perfect retreat and place to stay snug at night. I'll be teaching another workshop out there in April. More information to be found here:
Pt. Reyes Workshop

Sitting in the rain, and thinking about summer, the workshop I teach up at the Sierra Nevada Field Campus every summer is now open for registration as well. Hope to see some folks this spring or this summer. Plenty of info on the Sierra workshop in previous year's posts, as well as on the website.