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.



“The Breakfast”, by William Paxton

The Breakfast, c. 1911
William McGregor Paxton (1869-1941)

With encouragement, I write these posts to invite appreciation of the visual arts. Each painting has a reason into how it came to be. Likewise, we as viewers can have many reasons for how we respond to it. Thus it begins, each time we go to a museum, to look at paintings, take them in and enjoy them for a while. This type of looking is not based so much on whether we prefer certain styles or colors, but a deeper kind of looking that guides our responses and shapes them into our own ideas or considerations.

Here, we come across a painting “The Breakfast”, by William McGregor Paxton. He was an American painter in the manner of the “Boston School” working during the turn of the twentieth century, roughly the 1880’s to 1941.

This narrative of a relationship become stagnant has been done by others but there is so much to read into this one. The painting is clearly beautifully done in a manner that combines a European impressionist touch of Degas, the American style of realism, and a compositional influence of Vermeer, a Flemish artist who Paxton admired. One could read this painting perhaps as a comedy, a la “I Love Lucy”, however, there is probably more here than just visual humor. This may be less comedy and more a portrait of situation, predicament and consequence.

The composition of the figures had to be managed in such a way for us to feel the deadness of the relationship that is in the air. For instance, the maid with her back to us, walking away on eggshells, what will she say behind the service door? As a middle-class nineteenth century couple with all the lovely provisions, what is his justification for his self absorption? Is his role to be on the matters of “important things” now that the wooing is over? Notice the basket of dying flowers in the foreground. What luster fell from the promise she thought was her future?

So, as we see, a painting can be constructed as a stage, with its cast (Paxton’s wife may have been his model for the seated woman), its lighting and set design. These narrative paintings tell a story that create a profound amount of inquiry and thought stimulation that may enrich us for a while. That, we get to keep as a freebie while we exit the museum through the gift shop.

Veterans Day in Art

The War Hero (Homecoming Marine), 1945 - Norman Rockwell
The War Hero (Homecoming Marine), 1945 – Norman Rockwell

As a way to honor veterans and those currently serving, here is a painting by American artist and illustrator, Norman Rockwell.  Most of us know that Mr. Rockwell provided nearly countless images for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post, a magazine especially popular during the years of World War Two.

Interestingly, the title “War Hero” seems to be shrugged off  by the expression of the soldier who has returned home.  The Japanese flag is symbolic of the fact that he has returned, perhaps still processing his service to his country.  Somehow, Rockwell was able to convey the soldier not so much in a posture of victor in battle but as one with a wider perspective of purpose and integrity.  Clearly, he is held in high regard as the gathering of his friends and family admire him gratefully for his selflessness.

Rockwell’s images are sometimes knocked for being too “sepia toned” in their bucolic orchestration of sentiment, yet he remains as one of the greatest American artists for his ability to render and intrigue viewers with a visual narrative.  Our civic respect still carries forward, as again today we pause to reflect on the men and women who serve for our security and our maintenance of peace.

Painting in Mendocino MOPO 2018 – Sonata No.1

Sonata - Curtis Green
Sonata No. 1

Some evening, I think on the second or third day, I went to the headlands on the west end of Mendoncino.   It is a popular point, especially during a sunset.  I drove down to have a look and found this view looking southward down the coastline.   The thing I found fascinating was the sparseness of the cliffsides.   My usual environs have many homes crammed side by side without much space to really even see a coastline for what it is.  I often think, when I stand at a place where the land meets the sea, about it being the edge of the continent on which I live.  There might be only ten or twenty feet left of the land for me to travel before I can walk no further.  Yet, I could walk three thousand miles in the opposite direction and experience all the life and sights the United States has to offer.  Conversely, the rest of the world is out over the horizon somewhere should I be able to fly or sail across the open water.

The sun was setting on my right side as I turned my attention to the land capturing the last of the days light.  Only a few indications of human tracks were noticeable.  A pathway leading to a cliffside look out, or a structure, barely visible on the distant shore across the bay.  I was virtually alone, able to tune into the sound and strength of the ocean the wind past my face, I could even hear the sound of the bristles across the course surface of my canvas.

The cliffside basks in the last light of the setting sun, the shadows indicate the waning of the day, wrapping itself into the promise of a new day only after the nights journey. The scene was an encompassing experience of the environment.  Looking at it was like listening to a beautiful piece of music, even the gestures in the act of painting was an attenuation of focus and meditation.  It was the word that came with the thought of visual music; Sonata.

Painting in Mendocino MOPO 2018 – Noyo Harbor

The Krystal at Noyo Harbor - Curtis Green
The Krystal at Noyo Harbor

Just north of Mendocino, CA is a town called Fort Bragg.  It reminds me of what Oceanside may have been like in the 1950’s.  The light quality, when the sun is out, is washed in an introspective glow with shadows of blue and grey against the warm strike of light.   Sounds don’t seem as loud, and the pace is easy going.  There is an interesting sub-culture around harbor towns.  I met one it’s characters while having lunch at Noyo Harbor.

Noyo Harbor is nestled in a small bay inside a narrow inlet from the open sea.  A bridge crosses high overhead allowing the Pacific Coast Highway to continue straight into and out of town.  Driving down into the harbor is like going into another micro-village with its own markets, restaurants, businesses, hotels and apartments, even it’s own version of a library!   Noyo, it appeared to me, is not just a place but a way of life.

While enjoying a plate of fish n’ chips at a table with a view, this scene depicted above caught my attention.  As soon as I was finished, I knew I was going down to the dock to paint it.  A spry woman, in her nineties and wearing a red sweater, arrived at the table and announced that she noticed the attention to the boat and said that it belonged to her, “That’s my boat!”, she said.  From there she regaled stories about her and her late husband, travelling the open ocean to as far Australia in that small fishing vessel!  She said they even saved the lives of those on board a sinking yacht during a stormy night,  even as they risked there own lives doing so.  She was a wonderful, sea going salt with a fiery glint of a life lived beaming from her eyes.

Later, I set up my easel and began painting the scene of the storied boat at the dock.  I began in the center, laying in the darks under the dock and around the hull, that would become the armature from which the rest of the painting would build from.  As I was forming the hull in paint, I noticed some people arriving on the lonely dock, one of them wearing a red sweater.   Oh no, I thought, they’re leaving!  The elder woman and her crew readied the boat and in minutes they were off, motoring past as I quickly painted a few details while the boat was on the move.

I waved to the two crew members bringing in the ropes. and to the helmsman, the woman in her red sweater standing just behind him. She was looking straight ahead, chin up and out onto the sea.