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.



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.


It’s All in There and Then Some

Roz Under a Great Oak at Deukmejian Park - Curtis Green, 2018
Roz Under a Great Oak at Deukmejian Park – Curtis Green, 2018

The great academies of art produced men and women capable of the highest pinnacle of achievement in oil painting and sculpture.  Mythical and immortal status befell some of these Masters, producing our idea of them as being ordained by a higher being with talent beyond that of normal humans.  True, some of us bend towards facility in some areas easier than others, such as art,  science, business or sports for example.   As it is said often though, talent will get you nowhere, therefore established academic training made those that excelled in painting even better and we now enjoy the fruit of their labors.   This was true particularly from around the 1400s through about 1850. During the middle 1800’s, the so-called Impressionist movement revolutionized the way we make and appreciate pictures.

While resting from a little hike to do some landscape painting, I sat down with Roz to do this casual (and spontaneous) portrait of her sitting under a grand oak tree.   I found us both thinking of just exactly where to be seated and how to pose.  While I set up my kit and started placing colors, I noticed she was already seated on a boulder, waiting until we got started.  I liked the casualness of it so I just started and Roz patiently remained in position with a few breaks in between.  I began to realize a little bit that even in this most informal  setting, a balance was being struck between so many considerations when it comes to making a painting.

When looking at early Impressionist or Barbizon paintings, it’s evident to me that the academic training is still under the surface of all that loose handling of painterly ease.  It had to be! The composition, value relationship and range, color theory, harmony and tone, and the outdoor quality of light providing color in the shadows, form modeling and anatomy, the emotional content, the comfort of the sitter that requires fast work, all in the ever changing light due to the movement of the sun!  No wonder outdoor figure painting is often considered the most difficult thing to do.   It is also inspiring to pull out the full bag of tricks, take a deep breath and do one’s best to utilize them with at least the hope and attempt of that elusive mythical ease and virtuosity.   I take comfort from a quote by the French painter Renoir, who at age 78 famously said, “I’m finally learning how to paint.”




Pull Up a Chair

Early Evening at Lazy W, Father Son - Curtis Green
Early Evening at Lazy W, Father and Son

In painting there are sketches, studies, and full paintings.  This one would is definitely classified as a sketch.  This unplanned painting was done within a half an hour to forty minutes in the early evening at a Summer retreat camp called Lazy W.   There are several cabins, creeks and trails among the camp grounds.

I went to do a fast sketch at one of the creeks, but while walking towards my intended location, I spotted two fellow campers, a father and son enjoying a little lingering sunlight in their outdoor chairs.  Immediately struck by the scene, the thought occurred to me, “Your real subject is right there with the father and son”.  My plan for the creek was abandoned.

I didn’t want to intrude or bother anyone, so I kept walking past and quietly began setting up to paint.  The casualness of them seated there was a primary nuance I wanted to capture.  I also liked the structure of the main subjects weighted to the left side, which is why I switched the canvas from vertical to horizontal at the last moment before I started painting.  I knew I only had a few minutes and therefore quickness was important.  Sure enough, after about ten minutes, the two got up to get ready for dinner!  The son bought the painting, and family will be able to enjoy this painting, hopefully, for years to come.





A Wild Whisper in Summer

A Wild Whisper in Summer - Curtis Green
A Wild Whisper in Summer

Summer seems to be a time of heightened awareness.  Everything is out in vibrant display.  The light is brighter and  seems to glisten and burst forward, as if a giant volume knob is, (to use a reference from the movie, “This is Spinal Tap” ) … turned up to “eleven”.

So, painting here at the wild edges of a California forest, I found that the intensity of the washed out color in the brilliant midday sun was in contrast to an equal amount of silence and tranquility.   The sunlight, warm, steady and bodacious, mingling in the leaves and rising from the dry grass, shares the space with the cool and quiet shade under the branches.

It occurred to me, that the presence of this scene will be as it is for some time, regardless of anyone to witness it.  The center of the scene seems to draw some curiosity deeper into the vegetation but also suggests that the visitor has ventured far enough.   I came away with the thought that it was like a wild whisper.