Painting Notes from Nature

Painting Nature from the Field
Austinburg Sunset – Curtis Green


When painting and sketching in the field, I am taking notes from nature. These little sketches are meant to be fast.  Though the response is quick,  observation should take time.   Some meditations usually occur before the rapid action of painting begins. This morning I read a short passage in a book that refers to Psalm 104:24 which reads,

“O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creation.”

I can meditate on that and be reminded of a concept introduced to me as a painter several years ago. When painting nature in the field, one must take notes from her lessons directly from the source.  The study of the landscape, the situation of the landscape, the  little compositions that are happening here and there; her secrets reveal themselves and inform your future work, either in the studio or out in the open air.  So many times the point of the work is the essence of the thing, not the thing itself.

Travelling around Northeast Ohio last summer gave me an opportunity to do just that.  I did several quick paintings around Ashtabula County.  These quick studies bring to mind once again, the idea that every painting is essentially an abstraction.  The swift marks and quick strokes, are alone only smears of this color or that color.  More than that, they are the reaction, the response, the agreement, the witness of moment as it presents itself in real time.  It can also be the contradiction of prejudice, dispelling my idea of what was an assumed arrangement of shapes and colors.  For example, my idea of what it looks like may not be the way it actually is, and the example that I take note of, provides me that wisdom, of which I must be constantly reminded.




A Friendly Invasion of Space

Painting of a shady spot trellis scene in the botanic gardens
A Trellis in the Garden – Curtis Green

Painting in the straight up overhead sun is arguably one of the most difficult times to paint outdoors.  Sometimes, even a friendly invasion of space makes painting a little difficult. I went to the gardens and I was intending to go for a shady spot under a tree to get this view of the trellis there. A family, walking next to me had their eyes on the same spot. We both “claimed” it at the same time, I could hear the mumbling from them wondering whether they should pick a different spot and how I must have unsettled their idea of a picnic under the tree. 

We somehow co-existed and in the end, it was the child who broke the ice. The little boy curiously stared at me. I always like to set an encouraging example to the young ones and showed him my palette. The parents, after a quick assessment, joined in and encouraged their boy to name the colors etc. Next thing you know, we were swapping stories and getting to know each others names.  Our invasion of space turned friendly. Their father and mother were visiting from Ireland .. she is a painter too … I mean, we really hit it off.

They were such nice people. When we returned to what we were doing, it was like a movie scene had developed.  A family at their garden picnic.  An artist painting nearby.  From that point on, we were augmenting each others space instead of invading it.  It was so great.

Madrona Marsh Painting in the Less is More Show for Laguna Plein Air Painters Association

A View at Medrona Marsh
A View at Madrona Marsh – Curtis Green

Sometime in late summer I had my easel in the car and stopped my errands to venture into the Madrona Marsh in Torrance, CA.   The light was good and the landscape is spare and weedy.  An old California oak tree stands as a testament to time, the smells of dry grasses comes up and fills the air.  I stood in the shade of a small tree, painting this scene and at one point two birds landed on a branch right behind me.  It’s good to know that open spaces are considered important still by some.   This place offers a bit of sanctuary even as traffic surrounds the marsh on all sides.  It’s an unlikely place, however it is a wonderful place to visit as it represents an environment unchanged by time, despite the urbanity all around.

I am a newly minted member of the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association (LPAPA). Their 13th annual Less is More show is running now until July 22nd, 2019.  This painting was accepted into the online gallery and is available to view and purchase.

(Note: The show is now closed.)

A Philosophy of Simple Economics for Visual Dividends

Aliso Canyon - Curtis Green
Aliso Canyon – Curtis Green

Often, the simplicity of a painting will cause one to pause our critical thinking and allow us to just take in the image for its own sake.  This happens when a beautiful balance is struck “just so” between shape, proportion, light and shade and other components of a picture.  Our visual senses somehow evaluate these things on an inate level and we may then respond favorably for reasons we can’t explain.

I love these types of paintings and it is a quality that a lot of artists strive for.   Some paintings are for the purpose of telling a story outright with narrative props and actors, others deliver a specific point of view or social comment, and some are derived from a spiritual or philosophical search or connection.

Landscape painting, like this one I did of Aliso Canyon in Orange County, CA, is part of the latter.  The goal for me is to dillute the details into a comprehensive whole that works best as a balanced composition and to hopefully deliver that moment of simple contemplative engagement.  It could be like an investment strategy, where the economy of strokes delivers the maximum effect.  In this respect, the simplicity of the landscape reaches the edge of the formal modernists’ concerns for sublimation and search for form.  In other words, abstraction.  With this kind of analysis, however, the words just get in the way.

An Effect of Spring

Garden-Curtis Green
Garden Scene at Mendocino Arboretum – 2018

Spring is moving once again toward summer. The introspection and cuddled warmth of fall and winter give way to the exuberance of the brighter seasons.  The sun is higher in the sky, the brilliance of the noonday is nearly blinding with light.  The key of color and value is so near the brightest it can be that a painter is way up on the edges of the value scale.  Yet the chroma of color still remains in natures shadows.  It would be like a soprano hitting her highest notes while keeping a full timbre so as to not sound shrill or thin.

It’s easy then to understand perhaps, the often said idea that suggests all paintings are essentially abstractions.  The directness of the sun is bouncing light around everywhere, casting and mixing color in an interplay of photometric activity.  How would articulation of hyper-detail even have a chance to convey all that radiating jubilance?  No, the rendering of each petal of every flower would only wreck the dance.  Instead, the painter must be standing right on the balance of detail and fleeting shimmers.  Monet once said that he constructs his paintings simply by placing the color as he sees it where he sees it, which is from his witness of nature.

I can’t help but imagine, in a scene like this, how the artist might respond according to his or her discipline, music, dance or writing for example.  This response is an oil on canvas.



Beautiful Basics of Pencil and Paper

Roz with Guitar - Curtis Green
Roz with Guitar, 2018

For the longest time, perhaps too long, I stuck with acrylic painting for several reasons that I thought was beneficial at the time.  They are cleaner than oil, they don’t smell, they are water based so clean up is easy, relatively non-toxic and can be used safely in what was my living space without too much risk of damaging carpets or furniture or my lungs.   However, my desire for the flat, plastic character of acrylics gave way to the desire for the luster and juiciness of oil paint.  Thus began my quest to untangle the mystery of the fabled “medium of the masters”.

Oil paints often intimidate those starting with them for the first time.  It’s a medium that has a rich history and seems to shroud its secrets in a multiplicity of methods, recipes, anecdotes and lore.  Eager students often will hear that to handle oil paint one must have mastery, and to have mastery one must dedicate years manipulating and handling before the canvas, seek tutelage and fail and fail until the day comes when failure eludes.   Then there are those that say oil is the easiest medium to choose for its forgiving nature.  Books, and DVD’s, workshops, mentorships, trial and error, and the always mythical “Secrets of the Masters” .. OOoooohh!

And then, … there is the pencil.  The good ol’ pencil that everyone has used at least once to draw even a simple doodle and be satisfied.  As basic and humble the pencil seems to be, most really good artists and teachers that tend toward classic proficiency will say that only by drawing can painting be accomplished; Line, form, color, in that order.   When I go back and do drawings on paper, it is like going back to the most primary requirements for any artist, that is the connection between the eye and the hand.  The freedom to charge a guiding line across the paper, or to flail the wrist during the immediate action of shading the roundness of something, analyzing the subject then gesturing the hand, delivering the mark through the pencil onto the paper, producing the image.

A simple stick, made of wood and graphite.   No mystery here, except perhaps in how we revere the final rendering.

Perfectly Dull

Aycil with Orange Chair Unfinished - Curtis Green
Aycil with Orange Chair Unfinished

I was at the studio of a  good friend and sculptor the other day.  Surrounded by all of his maquettes, sketches, half finished studies, client portraits, public projects, and books upon books, and several flat file drawers full of tools, giant easels and modelling stands, it was the classic example of a full time, hard working and well known artist, complete with skylights softly providing the perfect light into his converted warehouse building.

We were having a stimulating conversation that somehow landed on the idea of extremes; perfect technique versus an intentionally naïve  approach.  Perfection in technique, we seemed to be surmising, especially in the age of the camera, is pointless.  The humorous opinion developed that, nowhere in art does dullness shine brighter, than from the lamp of perfection.  Perhaps, an artist’s technique can get so good and so perfect, that it could become necessary to “pull it back” to allow for the art to exist.   We were jumping off a previous idea that the little actions that are left as they are and not “corrected” can do several things.  One thing is that the so called “dithers” of tool or brush handling adds a certain life to the work, it can add interest that compels us to want to look closer or understand the image more.

Another aspect of “pulling back perfection” is the decision or choice of the artist needing to do so for some reason.   A certain exaggeration, exclusion or purposeful distortion may drive home an excitable energy; or quiet a mood.   Artistic intention can better allow the poetic idea or message to be communicated to the viewer.  In other words, these are the things that turn a perfect rendering, into a work of art.  They are those “certain things” that somehow make an artwork, as we say, resonate.   These choices are given other names in other disciplines as well.  For instance, the term hierarchy may be used in architecture to describe the one thing that is out of the typical pattern that draws our interest.  A composer may need to add minor key against a major key to create some compelling tension in the song or composition.

Ultimately it seems, that it is in our human nature to share our experiences.  The embellishment within the telling of the story is what is really captivating, but of course one must first learn to speak before exercising  artistic license.  Oh, but that certainly, would be another and perhaps very long conversation.

Note: This painting is of my friend and good working partner, Aycil Yeltan who is an actress and art model.  In no way could she be described as dull or uninteresting!  Thanks to her again for posing,  What would we artists do without our hard working models?


One of those Hot Lights

Midday at Medrona Marsh - Curtis Green
Midday at Medrona Marsh

Many times we may have heard about an artist looking for that particular “quality of light”.  This may prompt us to ask what in world that might mean?   I often think of the caricature artist in a blue smock and beret, sporting a Van Dyke beard running around and framing everything with his hands and saying, “Ah-HA!” every fifteen seconds.  We might whisper to someone to explain that he is “looking for the right light”.  Light is typically everywhere, and daylight especially is beyond our control in the larger sense, so what is there to possibly “search” for?

Well, talk to any photographer and he or she will most likely say that twilight is the “golden light”.  The shadows are long and soft, the form of things are readily defined and the sunlight has a flattering amber glow.   It’s this “amber glow and soft shadows” that are often referred to as light qualities.  A lot of times, painters (and photographers) rib each other if they always work at twilight because it is argued that it is hard to fail if working at that “golden hour”!  Although this is a familiar joke, light quality always seems to play a role in artworks.

Consideration of light quality may determine the success of a painting or may even be subject of the painting.  Consider the light quality in this painting at Medrona Marsh. The sun was almost a little bit past overhead, the day was hot and frankly, the location was dry and somewhat barren.  Like the caricature artist, I actually was walking around framing everything with my hands when I found this natural arrangement of brilliant afternoon light contrasted with the cool under canopy of the shade tree.  The light quality was so stark and the location so resilient in the pounding sunlight, that it resonated a kind of silent perseverance – (defined as: persistence in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success).  In a way, the shade was an invite from the harshness of the hot fields.  I hope that this painting may cause a few viewers to squint momentarily while looking at it and perhaps, sense a place to simultaneously stimulate and rest their thoughts.

Summer Poppies Pop

Poppies at the Theodore Payne Foundation - Curtis Green
Summer Poppies  – Curtis Green

Sometimes, the surprise of color shows up out of nowhere.   It may catch you off guard, looking for one thing and then finding something other than what was being searched for.  This occurred while visiting a site nested in the hillside north of Burbank, California.   The day was very hot, but the place was on the visit list for some time.   While exploring up a small trail, from behind branches of small oak trees, this explosion of color presented itself as a glorious surprise among the otherwise dry grasses surrounding it.

Fortunately, some shade was available from a nearby tree and I got to work very quickly as the inspiration had set itself up as excitement from this happen chance!

I believe most of this painting was done with applications from the palette knife.  I may have used a brush here and there.  That was another surprise, since I don’t often use the palette knife throughout the entire process of working.   The deliberateness of this process was enjoyable.  It caused me to lay out the facts of what I saw as it also invited an expressive interpretation as well.  This painting was done in June, so it was really amazing to still see a whole hillside of poppies still in bloom.


Immeasurable Details

A Sketch of Aycil Yeltan - Curtis Green
A Sketch of Aycil Yeltan – Curtis Green, 2017

Landscape paintings are easy; a tree is a tree, some say, as a landscape may be rendered any old way and still describe what it is.  Eh … yes and no.  A tree, it is true, does not usually have the familiar given proportions like that of the human body, so some freedom of the so called “artistic license” is understood when looking at a tree in a painting.  So here perhaps, is a large point  to consider when it comes to looking at art.  It is a point often discussed; is it necessary to render a thing so exact for the rendering to be considered art?

The human face, for example, requires more exacting observation in that we are built to intuitively understand the basic proportions and placement of our features.  We may look at ourselves in the mirror and lament that our forehead is too high or our ears are small or too large.  These are little moments of micro analysis, as we instantly determine how our features measure in relation to other things.  How much of this analytical critique is actually necessary in  regarding the essence or character of the face or for that matter, the landscape?

A common remark about paintings is about its detail.  Yet, many artists often remind themselves not to get hung up on the details.  If I may use an example, The Mona Lisa by none other than DaVinci, the most famous and possibly greatest portraits of all time, captures the sitters mystery that beguiles us to this day some six hundred years later, yet the portrait itself may only be a contemporaneous characterization of the woman?  For that matter, consider the lonely yet moving work of Edward Hopper, famous for his painting “Nighthawks“.  A lot of importance is placed on determining the quality of a work of art by how accurate it is in the rendering of the scene.  However, it is possible that the intrinsic impact toward the appeal of our emotion may be the real power behind a work deemed as great art, a quantity that often cannot be measured.