Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

Scaling the heights

Saturday, June 1st, 2019

As I began planning some studio paintings of our most recent trip to the western U.S., I was drawn repeatedly to a scene from Zion National Park, in Utah.  At the beginning of our riverside walk along the Virgin River, the sun and shadows had crept slowly across the canyon walls towering overhead.  Heavy snows over the past winter led to a heavier-than-normal runoff this spring, resulting in a fine-line waterfall over the precipice, further feeding the swelling river, and rendering the Narrows (a twisting, normally wadable section of the stream) impassable on foot.  So although we were unable to hike the Narrows on this trip, we were treated to this rare view of the falls.  I thought it was worth commemorating in paint.

Hoping to capture the early morning light on the majestic stone walls, my first effort was in oils. I realized how critical it would be to include figures within the composition:  Something was needed to provide a sense of scale to the scene.  Without including any figures in the image, the trees in the foreground might be assumed to be roughly the height of a person, which would minimize the apparent height of the canyon walls.  With the figures in place, however, the viewer realizes how comparatively tall the trees, in fact, are, which in turn provides a more accurate scale for the towering walls of the canyon.

"Springtime Fall, Zion National Park" by Charlotte Mertz, 12"x9" oil on panel.  190501

“Springtime Fall, Zion National Park” by Charlotte Mertz, 12″ x 9″ oil on panel

But despite this preplanning, for several reasons I still wasn’t entirely happy with the resulting composition.  So I rethought the concept and reconsidered how to more effectively express it, ultimately placing more emphasis on the towering height than on the sunlight’s influence on the stone.  This time I chose an elongated format in watercolor to emphasize the verticality of the scene.  Another technique I used was to emphasize the vertical fissures and de-emphasize many of the curving and horizontal cracks, except where they were needed to describe the broken character of the wall and the interrupted fall of water. Once again, it was critical to include figures in the foreground to provide a sense of scale.

"From the Heights," by Charlotte Mertz (12"x6" watercolor, #190502w)

“From the Heights,” by Charlotte Mertz
(12″x6″ watercolor, #190502w)

The resulting composition much more closely approximates the overwhelming sensations I experienced at the site.  Ironically, the sense of light improved in the second composition, as well, due primarily to my choice of a warmer dominant color to describe the hue of the sunlit stone.

Pursuing possibilities — Watercolor pencils

Friday, March 15th, 2019

As I look ahead to our spring and summer “seeing America” travels, I’m trying a different approach to quick, plein-air watercolor sketching–exploring the potential of watercolor pencils in lieu of using a full watercolor or oil setup.

I began by practicing with watercolor pencils in my studio, working from photos I had already used for previous paintings, just to get a feel for the process.  After creating the sketch and massing in the colors with the pencils, I used a moist brush to blend the colors to give the sketch a more traditional “watercolor” appearance.

From there, I graduated to doing some simplified sketches from life.  And now I take a small kit of pencils with me when I go out in the car so I can stop along the way to do a little plein air work without having to to get out an entire painting setup.  It’s also easy to use at our kitchen table or on our lanai for a spur-of-the-moment sketch to catch the atmosphere over the pond behind our house.

"Still Water and Riffles" by Charlotte Mertz  (5.5"x5.5" watercolor pencil, #190215wcp)

“Still Water and Riffles” by Charlotte Mertz
(5.5″x5.5″ watercolor pencil, #190215wcp)

My kit, which is roughly the size and form of a book (adapted from another less useful, commercial colored-pencil kit), includes a set of 16 (my own selection) of Derwent watercolor pencils, sharpener, Pentel waterbrush (with a reservoir in the handle), small piece of toweling, and either a 6″x6″ or a 4″x6″ cold-press watercolor pad. (Though hot-press paper would probably be better to use with the pencils, it is difficult to find HP in such small pads.) The pencils are held in place in groups of three with an elastic band and a fabric pocket to protect the tips.  Another piece of toweling wraps over the outside edge and top of the pencils to keep them from slipping out when the kit is being carried.

My watercolor-pencil travel kit

My watercolor-pencil travel kit

I may or may not use the brush on location, depending on how much time is available to complete the sketch.  If I haven’t time to use the brush, that part can be completed later.  The important parts are getting the sketch on paper and massing in the critical colors, either singly or layered, keeping in mind that they will blend more fully once they are moistened.  The resulting study may be a not-yet-ready-for-primetime sketch but is certainly sufficient for reference purposes or even personal souvenirs of a trip.

Learning the comparative strengths of the different colors and how much to apply of each pigment, particularly when layering, is my greatest current challenge and I expect it will become an ongoing study.

So far the process seems to be working well, providing a viable limited-fuss painting alternative for our upcoming travels.

The length and the breadth and the sweep …

Saturday, December 15th, 2018

Totally aside from the primary destinations of our travels, I enjoy seeing the unfamiliar countryside we pass between our stops.  Whether driving through open farmland, mountain ranges, forests, winding roads along tumbling rivers, or views entirely different, while my traveling companions may read or nap, I try to keep my eyes open to appreciate “the length and the breadth and the sweep” of the changing views.

I had been intrigued by the irregularity of the coastline, the network of meandering waterways, and the grasslands that separated them when we had flown over the Georgia coast last year.  In November this year, my husband and I had the opportunity to take a coach excursion through some of that area, particularly those low-lying tidal plains south of Savannah.

"Marshes of Glynn" by Charlotte Mertz  (9"x12" oil, #181103-o)

“Marshes of Glynn” by Charlotte Mertz
(9″x12″ oil, #181103-o)

The sky was overcast, and a persistent drizzle flecked the bus windows, but I found the lovely gray arch of the distant Lanier Bridge (named for the Sidney Lanier, author of the poem,“The Marshes of Glynn,” which lyrically depicted the wetlands) just as appealing as the autumnal colors in the marsh itself.

Although I could not disembark at the time to paint the scenery, and photos shot from the bus window were blurred with rain, I was later able to undertake a studio painting to depict my impression of the scene as we passed.

Sometimes paint can be a better recorder of memories than a camera.  It may not be as literally accurate, but it can be much more evocative of mood than a quickly snatched snapshot. And, when painted from memory or even poorly executed artist-created reference images, the painting process itself transports the artist back to the pleasures of the original experience.

 

An air plein trip-up to remember

Saturday, September 1st, 2018

One logistical issue I hadn’t considered when taking a plein air trip was brought to my attention quite suddenly this summer.  Although I had gone light, with only a small shoulder bag painting kit and a folding stool in lieu of an easel, on the return trip I decided to tuck my art gear and the small watercolor paintings I’d completed into my suitcase and keep my backpack available for comfort items I’d need while flying back home.  After a six-hour flight delay (plus the two extra hours I’d allowed before flight time) and missing my original connecting flight, I managed to get standby space on a later connecting flight home.  But my suitcase didn’t.

Fortunately, I had both more art supplies and clothing at my destination.  But I didn’t have the new paintings I wanted to blog about.  Nor had I yet made a photographic record of all of them.  The suitcase did not appear on any of the next several flights, so I began to worry that they might have been “permanently lost” or routed back to my other address rather than to the location where I would be for the next several weeks … and where I would need everything else in the bag as well as the art!

I should have learned my lesson the only other time I’d been separated from my luggage, which, that time, had held my wedding dress.  Apparently a panicky bride carries more weight than an artist at the end of a long day of multiple airline snafus.  The wedding gown had been delivered by taxi the following day.  This time, the suitcase with my paintings, art supplies, and clothing did eventually arrive, but not nearly as promptly.

Lesson learned:  Find a way to keep the critical stuff with you!

En Plein Air – Follow-up

Wednesday, August 15th, 2018

Besides learning techniques for painting outdoors, my recent plein air experiences have alerted me to some of the logistical issues, as well.

Early lessons learned included the need for proper equipment.  In Key West my backpack carried the easel and all my other paraphernalia, but it was slightly too small to allow me to zip the main pocket fully around the easel and shelf.  I used a bungee cord to hold it all together.  And though the tripod fitted into the side pocket and was anchored with straps up the height of the backpack, its length was unwieldy.  The pack also had so many pockets that I actually couldn’t access my camera, which had slipped down to the bottom of an inside pocket.  As a result, I wound up using my phone camera instead, from which it was more difficult to transfer images to my computer, as well as providing poorer quality images that were difficult to see on the small screen in bright sunlight.  Upon our return, I promptly ordered a Plein Air Pro backpack designed specifically to encompass my entire Plein Air Pro easel kit and tripod.

As I had long suspected, experience also confirmed that I needed to find a good painting umbrella both to protect me from the direct Florida sun (which makes temperatures seem noticeably and uncomfortably hotter than actual temperatures in the shade) and to protect my eyes, which tend to lose an accurate sense of color in high glare.  So that was another purchase I made this summer.  The model I chose is the EASyL Plein Air Umbrella, which is comparatively lightweight, forgiving of windy conditions, and fits, as the tripod had on my Key West trip, into an outside pocket of my new backpack, bound up the length with support straps.  Both the easel and the umbrella fit into a large, checkable suitcase but not into carry-on sized luggage.

I also picked up a small folding stool to have along in the car when I use with my pocket watercolor kit but when I don’t want to take a full easel setup.

And of course, techniques and equipment are only part of the equation.  As you have probably already seen in recent posts, time, energy level, and prioritization also play important roles.  We have to actually get ourselves out there to paint!  We can’t get out of our efforts what we don’t put into them.