What shape is your block?…

“a memory of walking with your grandmother through the meadow past the red barn to the orchard where you picked ripe apples, while laughing at the golden lab named Milton as he chased that crazy squirrel”

What shape is your block?

It’s calm, the morning dew hangs from long alpine grass while a low cloud lays lazily over the lake, it’s head on the northern shore. A bank of trees slopes in from the left, the sun just kissing their tops. The mountain slopes steeply from behind and scree forms fingers reaching into the cold glacial water. On the right? Well, nothing on the right and there’s a funny looking log hanging off a drab rock like a shipwrecked sailor.

I move on.

This happens several times. I look at different variations of the scene from alternate vantage points. Crop that out. I need to see more of this and less of that. I walk along the shore looking intently for nothing in particular but waiting for what I always wait for – the artistic sense detector to start clicking with more feverish activity. It’s kind of like that old childhood game we used to play – “your getting warmer….waaaarmer….REALLY HOT! Oh, colder, colder…. ice cold.”

Maybe there’s a subconscious art director in my head that directs me to move this way and that while not really telling me what it’s looking for until it finds it. The best scene of the bunch.

But based on what?

Where did this sense come from? What shaped it? Remember the blocks in different shapes and the board that had the corresponding holes activity we had when very young? I watched my children play it. Round hole, round peg! Yay! This is what it’s like I believe. We have developed a particularly complex shaped block based on many different influences. What art our parents, friends and mentors liked. What we read and watched and what art caught our uniquely personal eye. The shaft of light coming through the kitchen window, lighting the coffee cup and bagel on the table. Or simply the flowers in the crystal vase on the sill.

Something shaped our artistic sense. The like of a particular palette or style or subject matter was something shaped from birth and developed over years or decades. Events that had meaning for us whether positive or negative that move us in a particular direction. An art show, or a performance. An accident, a garden, a death, a birth, a sunset, a memory of walking with your grandmother through the meadow past the red barn to the orchard where you picked ripe apples, while laughing at the golden lab named Milton as he chased that crazy squirrel.

These moments over our lifetime. These inputs that our brains gather and fold or toss away. Large shapes, small shapes? Colorful or muted? Dark or bright, still life, landscape, portrait or figure. Formal or informal? Soft or hard, warm or cool. Combinations of each in thousands of possibilities.

There’s a reason we prefer certain things and dislike others. It’s something I’ve been wondering about. Why the landscape? What not flowers? What about abstracts? Portraits?

Well the landscape is obvious to me as my influences were all landscape artists early on mainly my grandfather as he was a landscape painter. I also have a had a deep connection to the landscape, especially the more intimate places where I feel alone, and connected. One reason why the “Grand Vista” has never played a big role in my art; I like a place nestled in the woods where I feel protected. Close to waterfalls or small open spaces with boulders or a small creek. I like swamps or small mountain lakes. I love the texture of nature close up. I need to paint more of this.

Flowers? They hold no particular sway with me. I mean, there nice to look at and may pose a challenge and I really admire those that can paint them well but it’s one subject that I’ll probably not bother with.

Abstracts? Simple…fear.
Portraits? Same thing.

So? What shape is your block?

Victoria Falls

Victoria Falls

9×12

Oil on Canvas board

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There weren’t many rocks to sit on let alone have room for an easel. So already I felt hampered. I found a spot after a awhile and managed to wedge my tripod into a shape resembling an octopus after a few shots of tequila. Pretty unstable. Patti set up below which was the best spot because she was a few minutes ahead of me. She also didn’t have to change out of her long underwear which involved heading out into the woods and trying to find a suitable spot where I could take off my boots, pants and sit down without being attacked by a rogue stick.

We didn’t have a lot of time as our ride out was leaving promptly at 4pm. We arrived hot and winded after climbing steps built by Lawrence Grassi shortly after noon and I was set up by one. It only took an hour for me to settle down to work.
The falls themselves were backlit by a very harsh sun and it was difficult to determine the values let alone get them down properly. I was also struggling with the mountain in the back and it took several attempts to get the right shape and proportion. After the big shapes were in place it was then down to adjusting values and colors.

I had most of what I needed by the time we had to start packing up. It was three when we started the hike back down which took a total of 45 minutes.

This is one painting which needed a fair amount of adjusting back in the studio. The mountain needed a lot of work and the values (as I suspected) were not correct. I was about 70% of the way there from the plein air but the entire lower section required a bit more developing. The waterfall itself I worked in stages by painting over what I had roughed in on site. Darks (wet rock) was laid in first and left to dry then I was able to start building over the top of this base with direct strokes and same dry brushing.

I was pleased with the outcome of this one as my original reference photograph was not the best. There was lens flair and I had to use a couple of different images to see all the areas I had included in the composition. There was a good deal of imagination and “artistic license”.

Happy painting all!

The Pond at the End of the Lake…

The Pond at the end of the Lake – Lake O’Hara

Painting #2

9×12 Oil on Canvas Board

When I look at the time stamps on the photographs, I’m amazed that I am seeing Patti and Patricia painting at the edge of Lake O’Hara at 4:00pm. Within 18 minutes I’m set up and ready to paint my second painting of the afternoon. I had been drawn to this spot on last years trip but for whatever reason decided not to set up there. This time was different. I had to acknowledge there was something within me that said “here is where you paint” I didn’t have a whole lot to say about it. I set up.

First off, I knew I didn’t have much time. I felt sunset approaching and I knew I had to get things down quickly. An interesting side note; I decided right off the bat that whatever I got down would be better than getting nothing down at all. It was simply an exercise or practice.

I knew I was drawn to the scene although it wasn’t your typical landscape. Slightly off kilter and subtlety obscure. I liked the bush nestled in the trees at the end of the pond. I liked the contrast. I liked the water, the bush, the trees, the mountain, and the subtle nudge it gave me. It would work.

“You need to listen more” myself whispered to…myself.
Pay attention to the direction I give you.

I listened. I tried with whatever I had, to get this down. This was a local contrast problem. There was no extra light. No sprite to help me out. I had to PUSH what I had. What was important? Obviously the bush was what drew me in. I needed to get that down and the mountain in behind was playing a pretty big role. The water was supporting actress while the trees were somewhat below that. There was a lot of information to get in and I had recently learned how to get rocks down. Paint the bulk of the rocks in the shadow tone and then add the mid, followed by the highlight. So I was able to get them in pretty quick. The rest fell into place easily as they were large masses. Everything was in shadow so much and my original values were not where I wanted them to be. Overall, I was on the dark side and I adjusted them in the studio. It’s still a shadowy piece of work. I think the thing I like the most about it is the fairly loose application of paint and the unusual composition and subject matter. It’s not usually what I paint.

I worked until the cold took over and I packed up and headed for the hut where my Jartini awaited. It was a great day filled with great people. Bliss really. The only thing that would have made it better would have been if Alice and Bill could have been there with us. All in all, I love the mountains, I love the small scenes that sing so loudly, but most of all, I love the friends I paint with.

Assiniboine 2017: Three Paintings Over Two Days…

This year I was lucky enough again to be a part of the annual PleinAir trip to mount Assiniboine organized by my artist friend Patti Dyment. Along for the adventure were Pat and Bob Allin, Michele Austen, and I had the added pleasure of bringing my son Sam along (he was going to fish). It was a bit touch and go as to whether or not we were even going to be able to go because of forest fires in the area and the park had been closed twice due to the danger. But when the time came, we were lucky enough to have the main portion of the park reopen. The fire was still raging several kilometres away and the smell of smoke hung in the air.

We were the last helicopter out which meant many of the supplies went with us. Laundry and beer seemed to be the bulk of it. When the pilot lifted off he paused for a moment a few feet off the ground, then slid sideways, went backwards to the edge of the clearing, tipped the nose down as he took a run at the trees to get over them. I looked at the staff member beside me and she simpy said “we’re a little heavy”. The flight felt like we were on an old country road with no suspension. Nevertheless, we made it with all our bits and pieces.

The first order of business was to get up to our cabin and quickly settle in as the group wanted to get painting as soon as possible and Sam wanted to get fishing. We were in the Jonesy Hut which had a covered porch which meant my ritual of staying up by myself, listening to a good book and having a nite cap in the company of my mountain friends could happen no matter the weather.

We decided to head up to Gog Lake to paint for the afternoon. I painted up there last year but looked back in the other direction at the “Lump” as Alice Saltiel described it.

#1 The Towers (day 1)

The Towers 2

I trudged around for a good twenty minutes looking for something to paint as I usually have the habit of doing. While walking I thought that this may be the time that I try a full vista. I normally don’t like full vistas because I find it unusually challenging to get the entire scene onto such a small canvas. Took me three attempts. Patti said that’s normal. Overall it was a great afternoon painting in great company.

Sam went off and fished and caught two.

Naiset Falls (day 2 am)

We were up, fed, and coffeed by 9am an then down the shores of Magog lake to scout out a spot for our morning paint. I decided against “The Grand Vista” and remembered the falls which are on a separate path that branches off to the right from the main path the the lake. The problem is you’re looking down on them. So I had to find a route which led me to the bottom of the falls without climbing down the rocks. I ended up here (you can see my easel set up on the right if you look closely). This was worked on in the studio but after looking at the work done in the field, I think I prefer the direction I had out there. I think I over worked it.

Jonesy Hut (day 2 pm)

The third painting was done close to home. We had lunch and decided to paint close by the cook shelter. I thought a painting of our hut was in order. I just had to find a good vantage point and I found one that fit the bill about a hundred yards towards the rangers station. Within a half an hour of starting I could see a large cloud moving in and as is typical in this area, I expected a good shower so I started to rush getting values down and trying to get the hut accurate before having to pack up quickly and making a run for it.

Then something odd happened… ASH started falling from the sky. It looked like a light snow. It got in the paint and on the painting. I got covered in it. I walked over to Patti who was about 50ft from me and we marveled together at what we were witnessing. This one is untouched and you can still see the ash in the work. As a matter of fact, the wet paintings which had been set up on the front porch of the hut got covered as well.

As far as the success of the painting, I’m not sure. Still, any painting shows you a path to the next one. I did learn a few things which I’ll take away from it.

Sam caught another three I believe. Overall, more fish in two days than he caught in months on the Bow.

After…

Before dinner we went for happy hour at the lodge and I asked the girl who runs the desk if that was a new fire? “I don’t want to talk about it” she said. “Too many fires”. After dinner the staff came by and took a roll call call of those present in case they had to evacuate but “not to worry “.

We had a great last night and got up early as we were hiking out 29km to the Mount Helipad and it was going to take all day. We headed up and over Wonder Pass which was breathtaking which looked over Marvel Lake which is where we’re headed. It was so beautiful.

The descent into Marvel was very steep but at least we were going down. Then a nice hike along the NW side of the valley to the Bryant Creek Ranger Station. From there, down to the very southern end of the Spray Lakes and after that?… kilometres of the most boring road imaginable back to the parking lot at Shark. Our bags got flown out and we had to drive into Canmore to pick them up. When Sam and I arrived at the parking lot our muscles had seized so badly that when we got out of the car we looked like a couple of very old men.

We heard later that they closed the park an issued an evacuation order at 10am. I wish I had known they were going to so I could have told all the hikers heading up they should turn around.

Overall, another grteat trip. Next on the list was Lake O’Hara in September.

A Painting Mount For My iPad Pro…

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Recently I broke down and picked up an iPad Pro 10.5″ with that nifty pencil. compared to the older versions we have in the house, this one performs unbelievably well. It’s snappy and there’s no putting it down and making a cup of tea while it loads a web page. I finally bought it because it runs a mobile version of Lightroom and also runs an amazing Photoshop style app called Affinity Photo. This means I can take it on location instead of my laptop (which died hence the iPad) and ingest the days shoot, make selections and perform some basic edits. Enough about the photography…

PAINTING

I also used my trusty laptop to display reference images while I was at the easel. It sat on an old tray clamped to a C-Stand. It wasn’t the most elegant solution but it worked for a time. So when I bought the iPad, I was trying to figure out a way to use it for the same purpose. It wouldn’t sit on the tray and I didn’t want to sit it on my painting table for obvious reasons.

I went looking for a mount that would secure the iPad to the easel solidly and in a position that would I could  see both the work and the tablet easily. I thought about music stores because I know musicians use tablets to display sheet music. Nothing was really suitable. I know photographers use mounts but again I couldn’t find what I was looking for. Then I remembered the iPhone mount for my motorcycle made by RAM. It was there that I found all sorts of ways to securely mount my iPad to my easel. The best part about it, was there are two places here in Calgary that carry them: GPS City, and GPS Central.

So far around $100 (I know, it’s a bit expensive) I have a very well built mount that I can easily attach the iPad for my painting sessions and remove it when I’m done to write this blog post.

Plein Air to Studio…

20-30 MINUTES OF FOCUSED PLAY ON A PAINTING THAT DIDN’T REALLY WORK

ohara-blog-210After getting back to Calgary and setting out the paintings I managed to produce on my recent trips to Mount Assiniboine and Lake O’Hara, I decided to rework some of them. I know this is a common practice in the Plein Air world but there are some purists who believe that once you pack up and get back in the car, then the painting is considered done. Let me state for the record that I am not a purist… If a painting needs more work (sucks) then it will get more work and may suck less.

These two painting were the first to go back on the easel. The interesting aspect of doing this is I had the choice to pull photos of each but I let the picture in my memory act as reference. I made value and color decisions based on what I thought was needed and where. I massaged pretty much every area adding a little in some areas and a little more in others. I tried to improve each area in isolation but as I progressed, these areas began to talk to their neighbours and a different harmony developed.

These were paintings which didn’t succeed in the original battle and needed more to carry them over the finish line. Whether I succeeded in making the paintings better or not doesn’t really matter; I think it was a great exercise in decision making. Something I can do to many small studies in my studio at the moment. Take a painting that didn’t really work and see if I can spend twenty minutes with it and make it better. What does it need? Play with color, brushwork, or push the hell out of the values. If it doesn’t really work, oh well, it didn’t really work in the first place.

Have fun and play with those dud paintings.

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Original Plein Air

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Additional Studio Work

 

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Original Plein Air

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Addition Studio Work

Plein Air Trip To Mount Assiniboine!

My Favourite Alpine Flower

My Favourite Alpine Flower

It was Sunday August 7th. The V-Strom, was loaded up with all the essentials for my painting trip into one of my favourite places in this world. A place I had been, by my recollection, 35 years earlier on a school trip with the Outdoor Class at STS. I kissed Steph goodbye and rolled out for the ride up to Canmore and then onto the Spray Lakes Road for the 36km gravel portion to the Mount Shark Helipad. It was about 12:15 by the time I arrived and it was very warm. I stripped off my gear, stowed it in the panniers and headed up the road to the waiting area. I rounded the corner and saw my group which included Patti Dyment and her daughter Megan, Laura, Anne, Sharon, Alice Satiel and her husband Bill. Oh, and yours truly. Four painters and four hikers. A wonderful group and a beautiful day to hop on a helicopter for the far too brief (8min) flight to Mount Assiniboine.


I was in awe as the chopper dropped in rapidly (I swear these young pilots have watched Apocalypse Now a few too many times) Mount Assiniboine and the surrounding vista called to a distant thread of memory from a time I can barely remember. I can’t describe the combination of feelings I felt that reverberated from my past memories of this place to the stunning reality that enveloped me now. It was nothing like I remembered it. The trees were bigger (naturally) and there were new cabins just below the helipad. These cabins were added maybe in the last 10 years and were made for guests who had my current net worth in their wallets. They were nothing compared to the rustic beauty of where we were all staying – the historic Naiset Cabins.

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Aster Cabin

They weren’t where I remembered them, but were 500m up the trail from the helipad. Our hut was one of several built by the Alpine Club of Canada in 1925. Ours was called the Aster and sleeps eight in two bunkbeds – and there not very big bunkbeds. Think advertised two man tent – then go look at it. Anyway, after getting settled in I headed down to Lake Magog with Patti Dyment and Sharon to try and get a quick painting in before dinner. The sky was a mix of blue, white and a bit of dark grey. To mountain people, that means anything is possible without warning. We all set up within a couple of hundred meters of each other and got to work – and within thirty minutes we were packing up quickly as the rain began to fall. I got something roughed in but not finished. Patti and Sharon faired about the same. It was back to the cabin and off to the lodge for happy hour where we met up with Bill and Alice for wine, beer and talk of art.

Dinner was fantastic and after, we all sang songs, laughed and enjoyed each others company. Then it was off to bed for the group but I sat up and listened to a story and had a nite cap sitting out on the porch of the cabin under the night sky, in the dark among the trees and the mountains. Simply beautiful.

DAY 2

The morning light sifted through one of the two small windows in the cabin as the slow stirrings of hikers and artists alike broke the stillness. In no time we were in the cook shelter – coffee in hand – discussing what we were going to do – where to paint that day or where to hike. Patti, Sharon and I decided to paint at Gog lake which was only a short 15 minute hike. It was again, beautiful in the shadow of what’s called “The Two Towers”. I could see Patti and Sharon and was pleased to see Alice setting up as well. I wandered around suffering from Moses Syndrome (looking for the promised land) and after about a half hour decided on spot much closer to the lake from where the girls were setting up. On a side note, I could hear a waterfall around a blind corner up at the end of the lake. I wanted to have a look but I thought I had wasted enough time and needed to start something. The falls were for another time.

Your first thought is to paint these iconic mountains and lake but I decided to paint the view 180 degrees to the west. A pretty nondescript mountain (not even sure of the name and I think Alice referred to it as “The Lump”) was in the background but it was beautifully lit and the trees on either side of where the lake began it’s downhill run to Magog were stunning. I loved the colors of the grasses and visual interaction of the reflections in the lake. Thank God I had my umbrella as it began to rain and I wasn’t ready to finish. My painting partners retreated to have a bite of lunch and a spot of tea. I finished up and headed back for the same.

The afternoon looked like it was setting up to be a repeat of the previous day with a full sky of mixed blessings and possible curses and we decided to go back down to where we began the previous day.assiniboine-processed-1-2 Since the light was pretty much the same ,I was able over two afternoons, to get this little 5×7 wrapped up and then it was off to the Lodge for a beer and more art talk.

 

The night again was filled with song, great food and for me, developing friendships. The night swept in and everyone headed for bed. I sat up and listened to my book and watched to the north where a developing thunderstorm lit up the sky, revealing the dark pines for a brief second. It was so peaceful. img_7357

 

Day 3

The next morning we awoke to clear skies and a very excited group who wanted to see what Assiniboine looks like at 6:15am and let me simply say it was stunning. I grabbed my camera and headed off down the path to take some reference shots as I didn’t want to miss the morning glow on such an iconic mountain – The Matterhorn of the Rockies.

 

After  the trek back up to the cabin, a cup of coffee and a bite to eat, Patti and I decided to head down to the flats in front of Magog to paint “The Queen” as Alice likes to call Assiniboine. I set up a couple of hundred meters below Patti and we got to work. I quickly discovered that there is a lot to take in in a scene like this. Not to mention trying to capture the fleeting early morning light. We both did the rough in with the intention of getting the light correct and then developing the details, ignoring the changes as the sun tracked across the sky.

Time passed, adjustments made, paint mixed and applied. Repeat.

Patti came down after she finished up and took a picture of me before she headed up for some lunch and a small break. We discussed heading up on a ridge between the Two Towers and Magog Lake for the afternoon but when I got back to the cabins, I couldn’t figure out where to go  or where Patti had gone.

assiniboine-processed-43I thought that I should investigate the falls I had heard at the far end of Gog lake the day before. The sound of rushing water excites me. It has been a source of a deep spiritual connection. I sometimes find that the lack of sound when in the mountains or sitting under the canopy of the forest almost *too quiet* The talk and banter of the water, and what it discusses with the rocks, stones and pebbles as it moves excitedly past on it’s way to some lake or ocean I find calming.

As I rounded the bluff, I could finally see what had invited me earlier. It was beautiful. Some falls are large and majestic, some small and reflective. These falls were lively – lacey. Going in several directions with a common intent. assiniboine-processed-44How the water fell through the rocks on the way down to Gog lake was well – inspiring.

I set up and gave myself 45 minutes to paint. I thought that the falls were going to be too challenging. More to take in than painting “The Queen”. I decided to rough in my underpainting with Alizarin (normally Ochre). I then wiped out the falls with a rag and thought the best way to go about this piece was to work from the inside out – paint the falls and it’s discussion with the bordering rocks and pebbles and work out towards the edges. If I had to stop, at least I didn’t waste time I thought, on what wasn’t important. This is where I ended up.

I learned more from this little painting I think than any other so far. It was quick and free. The brushstrokes placed without much thought but yet very deliberately. Confident because I didn’t place very much hope in it’s success. I knew I just need to get it down.

I was reminded of something an instructor at ACA said to me.
It has stuck with me since my time there – “Art in not precious”
I took this to mean that you need to keep an openness and freedom and innocence about what you make. Rather than restrict your work to whats saleable or what your friends or family will find acceptable. Let go. Art for art sake – work for your self.

I hope this little painting will continue to speak to me. It has been sitting on my windowsill since our trip and I’m drawn to it. It is closer to the way I want to paint than any other thus far.

Just as I was finishing up, Alice and Bill and Sharon wandered up and I was very happy to see them. Happy hour at the lodge was at hand, I had four plein air paintings in the bag and I knew another great night with new friends and song, warmth and a night under the Assiniboine sky was before me. I felt content and connected in so many ways.

It had been 35 years since I had been to Assiniboine with my crew from school. Some of the best people I have known. This trip, reminded me about how precious our relationships are – with family and friends, our passions and most of all, ourselves. It’s through who are, and what we value, that we can give the most.

Thanks Patti for everything. For creating an opportunity for me to become a part of an amazing community of such wonderful people – and inviting me back into an environment that I have found so inspirational then, now and in future trips.