Monday, September 7, 2015

Water on the Brain

This summer marks the 11th year that Paul Kratter and I have organized a trip into the Sierra back country to paint with other artists for a number of days. The other artists on this trip were Ernesto Nemesio, Suzie Baker, Lori Putnam, Aimee Erickson, and Carol Marine. This year we chose (for the fourth time) Garnet Lake, which sits on the east side of the Sierra crest between Thousand Island Lake, and Lake Ediza. All these drainages form the headwaters of the San Joaquin River, which ends up in California's Central Valley. Surprisingly the headwaters were still running, and the lake, though down a bit, had plenty of water in it, but the only snow in sight was two permanent glaciers on Mt. Ritter and Banner that have been shrinking in size since the first time we saw them in 2006. This was the warmest weather we ever had, and there was also a fair amount of smoke from time to time throughout the week, a reminder of the fires that were burning north of us around Tioga Pass.

One of the interesting features of this location is a basin at the upper west end of the lake that sits right below Mt. Banner, and contains a large shallow melt pond, filled with boulders, surrounded by a large meadow. We first hiked up there in 2006, and though we were able to briefly paint there in 2007 before bad weather drove us out, I have long wanted to get back up there to paint again. This year I was able to get up there for 3 days in a row, in perfect weather. The place has a magical aspect to it.... something to do with the range of color in the water due to depth, as well as how the reflection of the sky can impede, adding another range of blue. Of course the overall location is rather spectacular, plus one gets to share it with other artists. After waiting for 8 years, I was not disappointed in either the aesthetics, or the challenge of painting up there. 

I did paint other views, some of which are shown below, but my primary fascination was hiking up there day after day to try and decode those colors and forms in that incredibly bright light and clear water. Here's a selection of paintings below with notes. 

I worked small this year, primarily 6 x 9, painting 2 paintings per 9 x 12 sheets of paper.
This was an image I did one afternoon, sitting on the ground in front of my tent, looking up the hill. While I painted this, Aimee Erickson started painting me amongst the trees, and Suzie Baker set up and painted Aimee, which is representative of the kind of synergy the entire group had.

The above 2 were painted one after the other, early in the morning on the shore of Garnet Lake before breakfast. As we've done in the past, we have a cook on our trip, and so we are free to work from the time we get up until breakfast. This was the second day in a row I painted these same views, just trying to warm up, and figure out all that was going on. I was especially interested in the soft blue cast shadows of the trees across the shallow water, seamlessly colliding with the reflection of the mountain. More research is needed...

I should mention also that many of us swam in Garnet Lake every afternoon..
It was wonderful. (photo by Carol Marine)

The melt pond at the base of Mt. Banner. Carol Marine, Lori Putnam, and Paul Kratter setting up to paint.

Where artists camp, the laundry looks different.
A few of Aimee Erickson's paintings.

Here's the first piece I did at the pond, after 8 years. The rocks under the water are often a very rich red. At the same time, the deeper the water gets, the bottom surface goes from an ochre to a turquoise. Then the sky reflection starts turning all the shadowed areas navy blue... 

A day or two later, same location, looking at a shallower spot, where you can see how red the rocks are underwater, while the shadows are reflecting the blue of the sky, but the shadow pulls the value way down... 

This image is about 20 feet to the left of the one above. The meadow that surrounds the pond is just an unkempt shag rug of multi-colored grasses, with little inlets from the pond cutting in. The boulder has a toupee of vegetation it.

We were right near the timberline, and there were very few trees above our position. Many of the pines that dwell up there resemble brooms of a sort, in that they are narrower at their base, and wider at the top, in contrast to the pyramidal icons we are familiar with. Above those regions are primarily rocky slopes, giving way to solid rock. This is a view of a ridge to the south, called White Bark Pass, which leads to the Nydiver Lakes and the Ediza drainage. The smoke from the fires added to the apparent atmosphere in views like this. 

Probably the most 'refined' piece I managed to do. This one is 9 x 12, and was painted on the 3rd day of hiking up there to study this stuff. Carol Marine made a very helpful suggestion while I was working: Squint!
Usually I do that to study value relationships, but in this case squinting actually made it clear how strong the sky color was overwriting everything under the water.

Art show! Always a favorite (and humbling) part of the trip to see what everyone else has been doing. Lots of beautiful work. 


I should also mention that on our way out, Paul slipped and dislocated his kneecap, leaving him totally immobilized in a matter of seconds. We were about 7 miles from the trailhead, and not on a regularly travelled path. Fortunately one person had a text based satellite phone, and another quickly hiked to a spot where there was cell coverage, so that in short order, 2 emergency calls were made reporting our position and the problem. Unfortunately we had to wait about 3 hours for a helicopter to show up to assess the situation. They circled us for a few minutes, sounded a siren briefly to acknowledge they spotted us, and then flew off. About an hour later they returned, and dropped a first responder named Megan. Following her assessment and guidance, we helped package Paul up, put him on a stretcher, and we all carried him up to the drop zone, where he was essentially zipped up into a giant duffle that the helicopter hauled up and whisked away. It was quite a departure from our usual hike out, and gave us a lot to think about. Everyone pulled together to help in whatever way we could, which was wonderful. In addition, it was evident that technology played a huge role in resolving the situation so rapidly. After the helicopter left, the hike out was quite a lighthearted affair, in late afternoon light, all the way to dusk and moonlight by the time we reached the pack station.

Another memorable trip with great folks. 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Solo show and talk at the Studio Gallery

Every 18 months or so, Rab Terry and Jennifer Fariss, the owners of the Studio Gallery in San Francisco kindly offer me a forum to exhibit work that I've compiled. As I work full time, it takes me awhile to accumulate enough pieces that are 'gallery worthy'. I primarily work plein air, but the impetus of a show like this encourages me to generate some studio pieces as well. This show is a good representation of my regular painting 'haunts': the routes I take to and from work in the east bay, some coastal pieces from my Pt. Reyes workshops, and work from my annual Sierra painting pack trip, plus the summer workshop I teach up at the Sierra Buttes. 

The show went up a few days ago, and this afternoon is the reception. I'll be heading over soon. I'll also be giving a talk at the gallery, this Thursday, the 18th of June from 7-8. 

Part of the studio wall where candidate pieces for the show wait before being selected, signed and trimmed.

Some framed pieces line the crit rail, and a few other 'hopefuls' are pinned above.

The nerve wracking part of this process, after cleaning up all my edges, signing and photographing them, is to trim each piece within about 1/8th of an inch of its border, to fit it to the acid free foam core backing it will be hinge mounted to. 

Here's a few pieces from the show:

Tomales Bay
This was painted on site at the Marconi Conference Center during the CAC winter retreat. It benefitted from hanging all spring in the studio, where I had time to ponder how to clean up and organize the sky a little more. I've been studying skies and clouds at work as an ongoing project, so used some of my thinking from that exercise to explore temperature shifts as a way to separate very close values between the cloud and the sky.

Painted up at the Sierra Buttes last summer, during my workshop. This is Love's Falls on the north fork of the Yuba River, which I've painted aspects of many times. I tried doing a large studio version of this, but it did not have vitality of the original plein air piece, so this one is in the show, and the studio version did not make the cut. 

The Edge of Moonlight
Here's a studio piece that did make it. Last summer's pack trip was up into the Sabrina Basin, to Drunken Sailor Lake. We were camped on almost solid granite, and there were a few other lakes within walking distance, including Moonlight Lake, which had a beautiful emerald/turqouise color to the water from glacial silt. This type of subject is a favorite one of mine because it combines aspects of water, plus a celebration of reflected light in shadow, which on pale granite manifests itself in subtle temperature shifts that vary from the angles of the rock.

That's it for now. I gotta run to the opening. Hope to see a few of you there. 

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Pt. Reyes Workshops: A few spots left for May, and a date for Sept.

My upcoming workshop out at the Pt. Reyes Historic Lifeboat Station in May has a few spots open. The workshop runs from Fri. evening, May 8th, to Sunday the 10th, around noon. We can walk to several great spots to paint from our storied accommodations, and if necessary, drive to other ones. It is an adventure to stay out on the rim of the continent in a sturdy old building with other artists. We have a potluck on Saturday night, where everyone pitches in with a contribution. There are several lectures and group critiques. We may have sunshine, fog, wind, and more than likely, all three. There is beautiful (and ever-changing) light here. For sign up information, go to this website.

My next workshop at this location will be September 11-13th. This is a Fall session, and sign ups are not yet enabled on the website. I will keep you posted when they are open. If you have any questions, feel free to post in comments.

From the cliffs in the afternoon

A morning demo 

The upstairs classroom where we have our indoor sessions

Pirate hats are not required, but do contribute to the 'sense of place'...

                 Painting by the old park ranger's residence, a short walk from our accommodations.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Gear Update

 Back in the late 90's, when I thought I would seamlessly transition from pastels to oils. I purchased an Open Box M pochade box, along with an umbrella and a tripod to mount the whole rig on. Once I decided to stick with pastels, I kept the umbrella, which I mounted on the tripod, while I sat nearby on a stool with my pastels laying on the ground in various boxes. That setup explains why I regularly lost so many umbrellas over the  years. A gust of wind would periodically blow the whole rig away from me while I was seated on my stool, and when I couldn't grab it in time, would helplessly watch the umbrella transform into a wounded bird with a broken wing, never to fly, or shade, again....

One cannot blame the equipment for such ineptness on my part.

About 4.5 years ago, I did a blogpost on what gear I was then using for plein air work. I've altered my gear considerably since then, so I thought I'd give an update about what has changed, what has remained, and why. The photo above shows the setup I'm currently working with outdoors. 

 First off, kudos to the Bestbrella, which I'd just started to use back then. I'm happy to report that I've not broken a single umbrella since I started using it. I credit the entire system... the flexibility of the fiberglass umbrella ribs, the sturdy mount, and the poles, which are strengthened at the joints by a sliding tube. A gale wind will likely demolish anything, including this setup, but for most painting expeditions, this works very well. The weakest link in that system is the poles themselves, as they have a short threaded insert that can become loose over time, causing a bit of play and wobble. Patty Kellner, the owner of Bestbrella, advised me to fix that with a specific type of thread locking glue, and it does the trick. 

Next up, I changed from a small All-In-One easel, to a Heilman backpack box, both of which will mount on a tripod. I enjoyed the All in One for its light weight, and ease of use, and it came highly recommended. The reason I discontinued using it was that I had developed some problems with numbness in my fingers after about 6 months.  I have a full time job, where I daily use a computer with a tablet, so any plein air work with a specific configuration could either ease, or possibly exacerbate, any underlying issues I might be already having. Such was the case, unfortunately, with the configuration I was using at that point. The primary problem was that the image area was only an inch or so above the box holding the pastels. Think of a very small open suitcase with the pastels in the bottom, and the artwork mounted in the lid, set at 90°.  In order to keep my wrist and arm out of the pastels, I started raising my elbow up to the height of my shoulder, and within a few months, I was suddenly dealing with numbness in my fingers, and a fair amount of pain in the tendons in my arm, etc. Conversely, the easel for the Heilman box is like a small music stand that plugs into the top of the box and keeps the image area comfortably separated from the pastels. In addition, the easel is slightly tilted, so that one is not, by default, restricted to a 90° angle on the work surface. I should note that All in one has since changed their hinge setup to allow for other tilts. In addition, many artists use their product with no issues at all. 

A view above of the Heilman Box mounted on a tripod, with one compartment open. One of the benefits of this design is the way the foam covered box lids lock down on the pastels to prevent them from moving around during transport.

Here is the easel mounted onto the box. It is adjustable, and has the capacity to keep the artwork well elevated above the sea of pastels  below. This was the ergonomic remedy I was seeking. 

Here is the bracket that mounts the box to the tripod. It is an Arca-Swiss compatible type, which is a wedge shaped mount that is an industry standard in professional grade photographic equipment. These brackets come in different lengths depending on the weight and size of the equipment to be mounted, and are available from many manufacturers. This one is made by Sunwayfoto.

For the tripod mount, I chose what is called a leveling base.  Also available from several manufacturers, they offer a limited range of tilt, and are used to level equipment when the ground plane is uneven, without having to resort to changing the lengths of the tripod legs. This mount was designed for photographic use, but it serves some useful needs for the artist. First, the limited tilt range of a leveling base means that it is unlikely to unexpectedly flop so far over as to dump all your pastels out of the box. The tilt range of the mount I use is limited to 10° in any direction. I consider this a built in fail-safe mechanism. Like any regular ballhead type mount, it can swivel 360° in any direction, which is useful when a tripod has a non-rotating center column, as mine does. This means you can rotate your art and your pastels to keep work in the shade, or to paint a different view, without having to pick up and move the tripod.
The mount I use is made by Acratech. Here is another picture of it:

The top element is the Arca-Swiss compatible clamp that grips the wedge on the box. 

You can see in this side view, how the box can be mounted level, while the center post of the tripod is off vertical, and the tripod legs are set at different angles. There are many types of mounts that can achieve this,  but I chose what I did for simplicity, ruggedness, and light weight.

The primary qualities  in a tripod that a plein air painter benefits from are stability, ease of use, and light weight. The weight is really only an issue if you regularly carry all your gear a fair distance to paint.  Since I periodically hike several miles into some locations, I am always interested in lightening my burden. It is certainly true that I could lighten my load more effectively by going on a diet.

 In picking the Gitzo 1541 I found I reduced the weight of my tripod by half a pound, and gained noticeably more stiffness and stability. The catch is that it cost more than 3x as much. I chose to use professional photographic equipment because it is designed to securely hold thousands of dollars worth of lenses stable, in all sorts of conditions, and still be portable and reliable.

In about 18 years of using tripods, this will be my third, and possibly the last one I'll ever need. Does that mean it's perfect? Nope. I do wish it had the leg angles I was used to on my old bogen/manfrotto, or the tripod sold by Easyl, that I last used, but I've compensated by setting one leg longer, and at a wider angle, than the other two, so that it has a stance not  unlike a Gloucester easel, which gives it a stable footprint. 

Here's a typical setup with a few other functional elements to point out. First, I do use a small accessory tray (available from Heilman) that hooks onto the side of the wooden box to store pastels that I'm using for a scene. In this picture, I'm also using the wooden lids to lean against the back of the easel to keep direct sunlight off my sticks. This does not work at all in the wind, by the way, and makes me miss the All in one box that self-shadowed my pastels by design.  Lastly, I have a rag handy to clean my fingers and pastels while I work. And, like many, I still feel the need to haul more pastels around than will fit in my box, so you can see a Blue Earth box (and lid) sitting on top of my other sticks. What a mess! I can't say this is the 'ideal' setup by any means, but going this route has kept my RSI from recurring, improved overall stability, and lowered weight.

During my research, I did look carefully at mini-gloucester type setups where the box is mounted on the tripod legs, below the apex, and the artwork is on a separate easel that attaches to the tripod head. In terms of weight distribution, I think that is one of  the most stable of all configurations, as it significantly lowers the center of gravity. Accordingly, I tried the Easel Butler out and also ordered a fitting that allowed me to mount the detachable Heilman easel to the tripod head. I was not satisfied with the result, however, as I was very nervous about the pastel box getting knocked off the 2 bars, as the weight of the box (~11 lbs) was enough to slightly tilt forward the aluminum cross brace holding the bars. Yes, one could bungee it on, etc., but at this point the setup starts to become more laborious, as the shelf has to be assembled and mounted, the box placed on it, then secured, the easel separately put on, etc. 

If Heilman made a version of their box with a fitting that was dedicated to mounting on tripod legs, I would definitely give it a try. There are several such boxes made for painters, by the way, of which the Coulter is perhaps one of the original, and simplest, versions of such a design.