Saturday, October 29, 2011

How to Eat Oil Paint

Here's a detail out of an oil by Jan Vermeer  (Dutch, 1632 - 1675, which means the guy only made it to 43 and still produced so much amazing art). It's one of his most loved images, Girl with a Pearl Earring. I think it's fabulous. Below is an oil by Jean Michel Basquiat (American, 1960 - 1988). Long time readers of this blog probably know Basquiat is one of those painters I believe is seriously overrated.
What's the difference between these two paintings that leads me to think so highly of Vermeer? 

Art and food have much in common.

When I was young something that made a big impression on me were Christmas cookies. Other times of the year my mother would sometimes bake cookies, an activity I always approved of. While they always tasted good (and yes, the chocolate chip ones were the best) they weren't much to look at- modest little lumps of squashed down cookie dough. 

Once a year though out would come something special- our Xmas cookie cutters. I would be given the elite tasks of rolling the dough flat with a cool wooden rolling pin and then, best of all, pressing these
metal shapes into the soft dough. At age 6, this was high art!

I used to conduct an endless internal debate about which of the shapes was the most beautiful- was it the angel, even though her wing had an obnoxious tendency to break off when it was time to remove the baked cookie from the cookie sheet, or was the more reliable bell shape or perhaps the serviceable Xmas tree? Looking back I realize this was probably the first time I was consciously evaluating silhouettes for their expressive potential. My six year old taste buds were convinced cutting out the cookies into these special shapes really did make the cookie batter bake into a tastier cookie. In this early simple way, the power of visual art had me in its sway. 

Look back up to the Vermeer and the Basquiat paintings above. Both have silhouettes of course. But Basquiat throws down a shape and leaves it just the way it came out on the first pass. It's purposely haphazard, a sort of self consciously casual attitude the artist hopes will say to us "I chose not to be careful, could have done it more precisely but I want you to notice how sloppy I was." There's sort of an adolescent defiance to it that perhaps appeals to some the first time they see his work. How long it will continue to intrigue us is more open to question (for me the intrigue was short lived).

Vermeer drew and re-drew the outer contours of the woman's cheek, jaw and neck to get them just so.
There's a coming together of a deeply intuitive and insightful artist caressing the forms into the most expressive possible arrangement. The carefulness, patience, and judgement all say to the viewer "this is exactly the way these forms need to be." To me Vermeer is claiming the visual high ground here. He's telling us that being alive is something special, and that at certain moments we can all grasp its significance. He's going to try his darndest to help us see how certain poses and lighting reveal meaning.

I started talking about silhouettes by using the concrete example of cookie cutter shapes (and I bet as a kid Vermeer had some similar experience to mine in the kitchen). And paintings almost always begin with the artist considering her or his choice of flat shapes. They're building the foundation as if they're about to construct a house. Then they pour in their cooking ingredients into the carefully composed network of shapes. 

Vermeer would have had to grind his own pigments, a laborious and tedious process that did however give the artist an intimate knowledge of the paint- its exact intensity of hue, its viscosity, the fineness of its texture and so on. Like an expert chief painstakingly selecting their ingredients, the artist "pours" the color into the shapes, then slowly stirs and simmers the mix until the adjoining strokes of color meet up with their neighbors just right. Look at the two cheeks in the Vermeer- how beautifully he pushes the left cheek towards cooler greys and pulls the color in the right cheek closer to warm orange/yellow browns. The flow of color is so subtle you can't see where it is that cool turns into warm, but you feel the change.

Look at the remarkable expressiveness of the woman's eyes, especially the prominence Vermeer gives to the whites of her eyes. To make that happen he had to push the highlights on her cheeks down to a light middle grey tone even in the cheek's lightest highlight. This is an artist who's eye could see many things at once and balance the various "flavors" off against each other. Vermeer shows us chords of colors instead on one color at a time.

Basquiat in contrast paints the background black, stops, then picks up a tube of a red and plays with that and stops again. Then the white follows, and finally he splashes on a yellow. Fine tuning, adjusting, reconsidering all are out of place in this one-shot-and-we're-done world. It's immediate, but the aftertaste may leave one wanting.

Back in my boyhood kitchen in addition to the Xmas cookies I used to love to eat pancakes with maple syrup (see below). Whether Vermeer ate such things I have no idea. But I remember my 6 year old  tongue thinking the syrup tasted "really, really good." It's that sense of celebration I find in Vermeer's mysterious painting.

In another life perhaps Vermeer and Basquiat became chiefs. Based on how they cooked up their paintings, I think I'll get a table over at Vermeer's Diner. I hear you can usually get a table at Basquiats' Bistro.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Art in Embassies

Philip Koch, Recollection, oil on canvas, 36 x 72", 2000

Every few years Sarah Tanguy, Curator of the Art in Embassies Program of the U.S. State Department, asks to borrow some of my paintings to hang in one of their Embassies somewhere around the world. Three more large oils just headed off for the Embassy in Guyana in South America. 

I like the three selections Ambassador Brent Hardt and his wife Saskia made- they hang together beautifully as a thematic group. About  fifteen years ago my paintings began to shift away from reporting on actual places towards a more imaginative stance.  I began visualizing the earth as it might have existed long before we humans left our mark on her. In many ways this was my personal version of the theme of the "new Eden" that was a weighty symbol in 19th century American landscape from Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School on. 

To the eyes of the arriving European colonists, the America's seemed a vast unspoiled wilderness. Largely ignoring the native populations that were already here, landscape artists thrilled to depict this new expanse of what they imagined to be untouched nature. The paintings they produced are a remarkable celebration. Their paintings of wilderness conveyed a surging optimism, almost a crystallized vision of nature's awesome powers of expansiveness and creativity. Few other periods in painting convey the sense of our planet as a fertile, living thing the way the 19th century Americans did. Cole, Kensett, Gifford, Inness, and the others at their best are show stoppers.

My work takes a second look at this tradition of paintings of the vast natural world. In our time the enduring power of nature seems more fragile that it did for our 19th century painters, and perhaps because of that it takes on an added urgency. 

To me these aren't simply literal places but rather landscapes evoking a state of mind. My hope is they re-kindle our intuitive creative sides. Inventiveness, insight, wholeness, energy, promise are all words I'd use to describe what I'm after with this work. It owes a great debt to my artist forefathers. The themes that so fascinated them need to be re-visited by contemporary eyes. 

Philip Koch, Yellow Arcadia, oil on panel, 30 x 40"

Arcadia was a word that comes to us from ancient Greece. It was a mountainous region considered to be the most beautiful landscape, and the term has come to mean an ideal landscape. I love posing the question- what would the perfect land look like? Yellow Arcadia is one answer.

Philip Koch, The Voyage, oil on canvas, 38 x 38", 2000

This painting is the cousin of the similar composition The Voyage of Memory that is included in my eight museum traveling exhibition Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch. This one came first and used a sloop (with two sails) to make the perilous journey through these too narrow passages. The image is indebted to Thomas Cole's famous four painting series The Voyage of Life, now in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. The painting is actually highly autobiographical and I made a second version using a cat boat (single sail) instead as it more accurately reflected my boyhood experiences. The narrow passage was suggest to me by the high banks of the Irondequoit Bay just off of Lake Ontario about a mile from my home in upstate New York. I rely heavily on memory as well as imagination to make these paintings.

Friday, October 21, 2011

How to Beat Up on your Art

A few years ago I saw a wonderful Wayne Thiebaud exhibit at the Phillips Collection down in Washington, D.C. Thiebaud was one of the very few realist painters you'd ever see reproduced in the art magazines back in the late 1960's. Probably because the editors thought his paintings of pies and cakes dovetailed with the then super hot Pop Art phenomenon, they figured they could show such stuff without being considered "provincial." (I love the art world, but it's not a perfect place. It sometimes worrys way too much about whether it is cool enough). Me, I liked Thiebaud because he created such brilliant light as in the painting of slices of pie above. Often his work is best viewed right before lunch.

This was the first really comprehensive show of Thiebaud I'd seen and it brought me face to face with many paintings I'd loved for years from having seen them only in reproductions. Frankly the show freaked me out.

Half the paintings were damaged, some very badly, with concentric cracks in the oil paint radiating out from impacts the pigment surface had suffered (Thiebaud's oils were particularly vulnerable to this as they were very thickly painted over stretched canvas. When they were hit hard, the canvas would stretch further while the dry oil paint wouldn't, causing serious cracking). And these same paintings had old and heavily scratched up frames.

The other half of the show had oils in perfect condition (zero cracks). These paintings had top of the line frames, sometimes elegant gold leaf and snazzy custom fitted hardwood combinations. There was nothing to distract your eye from the pure visual sensuality the artist intended.

It struck me, Thiebaud started out just like every other painter, an unknown selling his work at very modest prices. His good fortune was that his work caught on with enough wealthy art collectors that it started to be taken seriously. Grabbing more attention from art magazines, museum curators, art writers, etc. And of course his prices went up, eventually way up. When that happens, galleries start handling your work with white glove treatment. The work starts traveling around the country in museum quality crates built and packed by professional art handlers. People who know what they're doing.

Earlier in his career, Thiebaud was framing his work as best he could and doing this on the limited budget almost all artists face. And art galleries showing his work treated it pretty roughly often enough for it to show the painful scars so apparent in the show at the Phillips Collection.

This whole Thiebaud business made a big impression on me. 

One of the things I've worked very hard to do with my own work is see to it that it's professionally handled. My just completed show at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center was both my largest exhibition to date (50 paintings) and one of my best. PFAC hung the work in a way that said "this is important art." The walls were freshly painted, the lighting was well aimed, and the wall text informed the viewers about the art without getting in the way. I think Wayne Thiebaud would have been pleased to see his work treated this way.

Here are two photo's from the PFAC show:

By nature I'm not a very organized person (just ask my long suffering wife Alice). Some months ago I even wrote a blog post about how a certain amount of studio clutter helps me be creative. I seem to need to stumble across paintings I'd temporarily put out of my mind to do my best work. That's all well and good.

But an artist's job isn't done when they place their final brushstroke on a painting- far from it. So many times I've found overtaxed art dealers don't have time to keep good records of the work you've sent them on consignment. They may handle 30 or 50 artists in their gallery. Work is always being hauled out to show a client, hung and then re-hung in this and that show, and sent out on approval to potential collectors. It's sort of a musical-chairs-from-hell game. Most dealers try hard to stay on top of it and to not damage the artwork, but things happen. 

I'm fortunate in that many hundreds of collectors own my work all over the country and that the prices for my paintings have gradually risen. As they have, I've noticed my work seems to get damaged less
(perhaps we could call this the Thiebaud Principle of art handling).

But I confess in the old days, I didn't store my work as carefully as I could have and my record keeping was less than systematic. Gradually I've been doing better. And I'm spending a lot more time wrapping and packaging my art when I ship it out of state to another show. It arrives in perfect shape, and the care I've taken in wrapping it send a subtle message "this is valuable." 

Here's a photograph of my storage area in my studio. These are the 14 largest paintings included in the Unbroken Thread show that was just at PFAC. Next month they're being carried out to the Saginaw Art Museum for their Dec. 9th opening of this same exhibition. 

The racks are sturdy as all heck, raised up off the floor to guard against spills. They have vertical braces every five canvas or so to keep everybody from leaning too hard on their neighbor. I buy huge sheets of corrugated cardboard from Uline company to stack in between the canvases.

My storage area was a work in progress for many years- gradually getting more organized and safer for its residents. As I surveyed the finished project I said to myself "Now I'm armed for bear!"

Life is short, Art is Long goes the old saying. It's true, but only if someone takes care of the work. Viewing those beaten up early Wayne Thiebaud paintings traumatized me. It's not impossible to take care of work and ship it all around the world safely if you want to. You just have to think of your art as being like a stick of butter on a hot day- the most vulnerable thing in the world just waiting for the accident to happen. 

Above is an oil by the great 19th century French painter/printmaker Daumier of a collector examining prints I've always liked. Maybe Daumier imagined this collector was looking at his own prints. Artists have to realize they're part of a long chain stretching far back into history. All made work that reflects the uniqueness of their lives and their times for posterity. Daumier did, and Thiebaud and Rembrandt and all our great art fore bearers did. When you stand in the National Gallery of Art in D.C. and look at their Rembrandt self portrait you're seeing a painting that old Rembrandt knocked himself out to paint, but also to protect and preserve. Art lasts because someone has loved and nurtured it into lasting. I'm really glad people started taking better care of Wayne Thiebaud's paintings. 

I'd like very much if they'd take care of mine as well. So I've gone to war against misplaced art and art getting damaged. Look out world!

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Looking at Old Friends

The mark of a really good painting is its ability to keep showing you new things even over long period of time. Sometimes 40 years.

Above is an old friend of mine, Edward Hopper's Western Motel. When I was in graduate school at Indiana University getting my MFA in painting from 1970-72 I taped a postcard of this painting on the outside of my studio door. You could see it from a long way away as you were coming down the hall. The funny thing was I always liked it best when I was ten or more feet out and less when I was close enough to see the details. Still, I kept it hanging there on my door for well over a year.

I'd forgotten all of this until 5 minutes ago when scanning through a pile of Hopper images on Google and a tiny thumbnail of this Hopper pricked my memory. This oil to me isn't one of Hopper's strongest, though I obviously have a nostalgic attachment. What I didn't care for was the stiffness of the figure and the sparseness of the interior. This is an imagined composition, based no doubt on a couple of the long driving trips Hopper and his wife Jo took out west. Constructed entirely from what Hopper could recall from memory and invent in the studio, it feels a little cold.

But even when he was a little off his game, Hopper can be pretty good. What caught my eye this morning was something I must have sensed all those hundreds of times I glanced at that old grad school postcard without being conscious of it. There's a rhythm to the tops of the low mountains in the far distance- one is completely level, then the two just in front of that slope down  and then up again. To me the most elegant pass my eye can take over the painting is sweeping in from the right hand side, descending along the first ridge line and riding upwards on the middle mountain. Then jumping to the inside, the top of the sunlight on the wall over the bed cascades downward again. Leave it to Hopper to come up with an ingenious way to knit inside and outside toghether.

My intuition is this was all invented as Hopper painted, sensing his interior and the frame of the windows alone would have felt just too vertical and box-like. It's little things like this that make all the difference in paintings. Check out the little strip of a window at the far right side- I'm guessing that too is an invention Hopper inserted just to let the mountains' silhouettes play a bigger role.

Here's  an earlier Hopper that I would have hung on my studio door instead had I been able to fine a postcard of it (sometimes you just gotta settle..). It's Cape Cod Afternoon and its quirky assembling of architectural shapes suggest to me he based it on some drawings he did on site. It's at once too weird to think up while being totally believable. That's a quality one so often finds in Hopper, the simple making of the improbable combinations of shapes and colors look completely possible and delightfully ordinary.

There must be at least 25 separate walls and windows in his pile of barns and houses, yet he pushes them all together as a solid wedge of architecture pushing into the painting from the left. Then to keep the view on their toes, he accents his undulating grassy fields with two extremely sharp triangles of shadows. For my money, there's nobody who could paint a field of tall grasses as well as Hopper. They're soft and solid at the same time. Usually done with little or even no detail at all, they still convey exactly the textural feel of millions of soft, fibrous stalks all standing and waving together. How the heck does he do it?!

One last point- color. Hopper ramps up the saturation of his ochre green grasses almost as far as they will go. Then to contrast that and cool your eye off again, he paints the blue-grey off-white shadows on the right end of the buildings as an island of calm.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Are Artists Nuts?

Philip Koch, North Passage, oil on canvas, 45 x 60", 2011

Sometimes I think we artists all have a kind of "divine madness." Other times I think we're just nutty.

We spend an inordinate amount of time focused on what's happening in our studios. We stop reading books, watching television, or going to football games. Sometimes I realize it's been days since I spoke to anyone but my wife.

When I was a boy I had a dog, Vicky, a sweet mutt who looked like an Irish Setter having a bad hair day. She might have been my favorite member of the family. One thing she did fascinated me. My mother would get bones from the butcher and give one to the dog about once a week. To Vicki this was a big deal. She'd have at the thing the first day like it still needed subduing. Then the next few days she'd settle down and just gnaw away at the thing for hours a day. Curious, I'd pick up the bone after a day or two of her doggy administrations. Every molecule of edible material by then had been stripped away but that wouldn't stop her. Days more chewing ensued as she soldiered on, certain only a bit more chewing would somehow split the thing open to offer up some further delicious meaty goodness. It never did, but she'd usually do 4-5 days on the darned things before losing hope and interest. She was a living monument to determination.

When I was a young artist I worked like mad to learn everything so I could paint genuinely accomplished work. As years went by I learned it usually took way longer to make a painting reach its potential than I'd originally imagined.

So often we artists are asked the question at one of our exhibits "How long did it take you to paint this painting?' I have to bite my tongue not to say to the questioner "a heck of a lot longer than you're thinking."

Paintings most of the time have to be allowed to grow slowly to reach their deepest level of success. Sure sometimes you can get lucky on a small one and blast it out successfully in one sitting (though I almost always stand when painting). But most of time it's about going back into paintings, nudging them up a inch to a higher level, then going back in again later to do the same again, and then once again. On some of my large oil landscapes (like the one above) I can say with no fear of contradiction I've painted 40 different treatments for the sky before I got what I wanted. We're talking serious hours here.

This process is not the same as my old dog Vicky going after her bone, as it usually does in the end succeed in finally kicking the darned paintings up to that last plateau where they're fully realized, accomplished, surprising, authentic, and all those good things. But on any given day before you finally pull the thing off, you're not so different that that crazy dog, chewing and chewing away out of some inner faith working away at a piece will eventually (you're never sure when) pay off. I like to think of myself as insightful and inventive. Sometimes though like the dog I'm just too stubborn to quit. Maybe that's part of the work you have to do to make the magic happen.

The irony is that once you've invested so much of yourself and your time in making your art you're then really obligated to your paintings to find an audience for them. Having shows, doing the publicity, shipping, etc. is part of the dues you pay to make your original investment of time in your studio meaningful. Is it something of a vicious circle? In my darker moments I wonder if this all isn't some kind of runaway narcissism. Was Rembrandt insufferably self-absorbed? I don't know. I hope not. I like to think its possible to produce world class work and still be a rounded person who's involved with others and the outer world.

I do know Vicky wasn't a narcissist. She loved everyone in the family, was always happy to see us and was never too tired to keep one company on a walk through the woods. I'm pretty sure she loved her life most of the time with admirable doggy self acceptance. Determined, persistent, but also a real accept-life-on-its-own-terms kind of gal. If there was something good going on she's be sure to enjoy it. In her own way I think she had a very balanced life. Did I mention she was my favorite member of the family?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Edward Hopper's Poetry of Empty Rooms

I've just been invited by Rachael Solomon who is the Program Director of the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY to have a mini solo show in one of their galleries.. We'll be showing some of my paintings of the interior of Edward Hopper's Cape Cod studio where I've had the great pleasure of enjoying 13 residencies since 1983. The Edward Hopper House Art Center is the boyhood home of the famous American realist artist. So much of what Hopper became stemmed from his early years there. So I'm excited to do the exhibit. It will be coming up in March through May of 2012.  

Hopper didn't teach. Yet I learned more about how to become a good painter by studying his work than by any other single thing. Art after all is visual. Words, even beautifully and aptly spoken can get in the way. And Hopper was legendarily tactiturn. I suspect had someone asked Hopper how to paint an empty room, his terse reply would have been "Don't!". 

Above is one of his last oil paintings, Sun in an Empty Room from 1963. It's the emptiest of all the rooms he ever painted. Yet it draws you in and holds your attention as well as any richly appointed interior. How did he do this? In a way he followed the imaginary advice I have him giving above- his room only appears empty. The boldness of the sunlight on the wall bowls you over it is so bright. As you look longer you come to see the thousands of gradations from slightly lighter to slightly darker. And his yellow walls are actually a family of yellows migrating from warmer to cooler and from more intensely colored to more silvery and greyed-out.

 I used to have a teacher in my graduate painting program at Indiana University, Ron Markman, whose favorite painting word was "orchestration." And that's just what Hopper does here- he sneaks into the walls all sorts of information about the little flickering changes in the lights and the shadows and orchestrates them into a symphony. Hopper's "empty" walls seem alive enough to start breathing.

One funny thing about the painting is the perspective he used. It's an invented space and Hopper casually breaks the rules about how perspective orthogonal lines are supposed to gradually converge to a distant vanishing point. His careen together at impossible angles, but it matters not at all. So firm is his hand telling you to focus on the shapes of the sunlight and the shadows that 99% of his viewers will never notice. 

Above is an old favorite, Rooms by the Sea, from the Yale University Art Museum. I've written about this painting before. It's an architecturally accurate rendering of his painting room and his adjacent bedroom in his studio in S. Truro, MA on Cape Cod. But wanting the walls to come to life, Hopper tells a big lie. In reality those walls face due north. Sunlight never falls directly on them. Imagine this painting without the drama of those diagonal sunlight shapes breaking up the walls. They would indeed be too empty and the painting's amazing energy would drain away to nothing. 

And below is another not quite as empty painting by Hopper from earlier in his career. It's remarkable as most of it is just the unadorned orange wall. But using the exact same device of diagonal sunlight breaking up the empty expanse, Hopper infuses the picture with a pulsating liveliness.

Hopper in this Girl at a Sewing Machine is orchestratring his empty wall space to dance with the figure. Look at how the long straight hair going over her shoulder and her bangs travel across the painting's surface at just the same angle as the shadows from the window frame move across the wall. This is a connection Hopper has installed into his painting that probably never really existed. But it connects the woman with the space around her in a way we come to love.

It's not that Hopper is saying don't paint empty space. Rather his work shows how to make emptiness resonate with feeling. He invents little surprises of tones, changes in his color, and subtle interconnections with his shapes to make the empty seem full. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

More Sharp Teeth

The experience of living can be like trying to take a drink from a fire hose- there's just too much coming at you too fast. 

In the previous post I talked about using drawings to pare down the overwhelming complexity to make the sense of it. Paintings that try to encompass everything fail every time. The irony is we have to back away from a direct confrontation with nature if we're going to make landscape paintings that can ever do her justice. Making drawings is a way to do that, stripping away color and dealing just with shapes and darks and lights. It's getting down to essentials. 

I'm illustrating this post with more of the series of vine charcoal drawings I did last week up in the Adirondack Mountains in northernmost New York State. I've been going there regularly for the last half dozen years and feel I get a better understanding of the potential of those mountains for making paintings with each visit. 

When I was still an undergraduate art major at Oberlin College I discovered the critical role making drawings played in Rembrandt's process. He did hundreds of them of all sort of subjects. He always tended towards radically simplifying most of the details in favor of an overall mood, light, sense of movement and an elegant but unpretentious drama.  I used to pour over his drawings for hours. Back then I couldn't understand their appeal as clearly as I do today, but their pull on me was profound. Rembrandt, through his work, taught me deep lessons about how to see the expressive side of forms and light. Four hundred years after he died he had a really, really eager student in me.

One other thing about drawings. Sometimes we really do have BIG ideas. Grand panoramic visions that need a huge canvas to get realized. But more often I think our best ideas come to use in just the other fashion. The sort of tip toe in, appearing at first to us as just hints of what they might become. If you don't have a quick way to capture these ephemeral little insights right when they appear, you're likely to loose them (good ideas love nothing better than to slip away again if you don't grab a hold of them). A drawing is fast- it summarizes more than it describes (especially the kind of soft vine charcoal drawings I make). It's the art equivalent of a good butterfly net- a medium able to capture a delicate winged little creature without hurting it).

Down below is a photo of me standing near the summit of Whiteface Mountain looking southwest towards the Adirondack High Peaks.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sharpening your teeth.

Does the world really need any more landscape paintings? If by that one means more of the work where the default setting is best described as "sweet", "restful" or "softly flowing" I'd say probably not. 

Reality has a sharp edge. It cuts though our outworn habits. When I'm painting I often hear the phrase "Nature has teeth"whispering in my ear. What I mean is that in finding her real beauty I'm going to discover something that comes with a jarring, a slightly unsettling surprise. 

Each generation sees a little differently than the one that went before. We need somebody to look hard at the world with eyes unencumbered by outworn blinders and expectations of just the predictable, The earth has a pulsing energy that always lies just a bit hidden from our view. For me working directly from nature has become my key tool- sort of like magnetic compass- to lead me toward the best of the unexpected that's out there.

I'm just back from a week long painting trip in the Adirondack Mountains of northernmost New York State. These days when I work outside I usually draw in vine charcoal instead of painting in oil. What I'm after is the space, the light, and the specific shapes of the locale. 

So I go out with one of my portable easels to make "working drawings", pieces that may serve down the road as a basis for an oil painting, perhaps a very large one. I work in vine charcoal as it helps me pare down the overwhelming complexity of the landscape into a few elemental forms. Its soft and always-ready-to-smear black dust forces a selective eye on you. It makes you radical, cutting out all but the shapes that pack the biggest expressive punch.

Above is a 9 x 12" as yet untitled drawing from the town of Lake Placid looking west. My goal was to leave foreground very light and play that off against a middle and far distance where the forms have been pushed darker than in real life. The foreground is held to basically two overlapping white and then off-white "stage flats" of foliage. While more detail could have been added to those trees in front, I was afraid it would allow them to drift into darker tones, lessening their difference from the more distant spaces.

So too above in this drawing of trees along the shore of Lake Placid itself (the town of Lake Placid is actually located on the adjoining Mirror Lake, just to confuse people). Here a shadowed interval wedged between two taller stands of trees is pushed far darker than in real life. At the tops of those tallest trees I've resorted to heavily outlining the silhouettes to keep their harsh, jagged rhythm clear against the sky. To resort to more detail of the finer branches and leaves here, on such a small scale drawing (12 x 9") would have diluted the impact of the drawing.

Here below is our hard working artist a few hundred feet below the summit of Whiteface Mountain working on another drawing. A lesser artist would have taken advantage of the convenient toll road that winds its way to the mountain top, but of course I shunned such inauthenticity and backpacked my way up the 3000' rise to gain the perfect view. Ironically I ended up right next to the aforementioned roadway.

With me is a "half box" french easel, some foam core boards to hold some cut-down sheets of Rives BFK etching paper (a terrific surface for charcoal drawing), my carpenter's square to measure out even rectangles on the paper, assorted erasers, a soft leather chamois skin for blending the charcoal, masking tape, soft vine charcoal sticks, and ziplock plastic bags to hold everything. Oh and if it's hot, water.

And here below is one of the small drawings I was working on in the above photo, a closeup selection of the wild ins and outs made by the irregular islands that largely fill up Lake Placid. Such odd but endearing shapes- things like this I could never just think up. I need to find it out in the weirdness of nature.