Posts Tagged ‘camera’

Maintaining a Continuous Body of Work

Tuesday, July 15th, 2014

It’s one thing to keep my work consistent, another to make it cohesive, and yet another challenge to maintain a continuous flow of new work.

At the beginning of this year, I decided to aim for completing 100 paintings, measuring 10″x14″ or larger, by the end of the year. Half way through the year, how close have I come to meeting my goal of half that many pieces? If you’ve been following my progress on Facebook, you’ll know that I remained pretty close to target through the first several months. A month of travel in May to gather photographic reference material, and another couple weeks in June, threw me off track because of the difficulty of carrying larger paper or canvases along. But I’ve tried to get back into the flow since then to make up for lost time.


The key to my maintaining a continuous flow of new work is to be continually returning to the task. As soon as one painting is complete, I photograph it, critique it, revise it as needed, and then re-photograph it.

Why do I shoot it twice? Because I can often see in photographs problems that I hadn’t recognized in the original. Sometimes it’s a problem with composition, a matter of value, or some element that doesn’t work quite right. The photograph helps me identify any weaknesses more easily. It may be for as simple a reason as taking me out of the “painter” mode and allowing me to see through the more objective eye of an observer.

I often begin thinking about the next painting as soon as the first photograph has been taken. Is it a subject I want to explore further? Or is it time to find a different subject?

I keep idea files both on my computer and in a physical folder. A case of photographs often provides further inspiration if items around the house don’t suggest a still life. There’s no excuse for a shortfall of ideas to keep the artwork flowing.

A traveling studio

Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Traveling-Studio Supplies

As I mentioned in my previous article, “A Palette to My Taste,” I normally prefer to work with moist paints, fresh from the tube. I forego that luxury, however, when I travel. Instead I use a small “piggy back” palette, with a lid of its own, which serves as my mixing tray. This entire tray can snap into the lid of a larger palette, which I leave at home. Squeezing a limited quantity of creamy paint into the tray’s palette cups, I intentionally allow them to dry for several days, uncovered. Each cup is labeled with the color and manufacturer’s name so I can restock it with the same color when I get back home. After the paints have dried in the tray, they are no longer subject to airlines’ “liquids” regulation so can be packed into either my suitcase or a carry-on bag.

My other traveling-studio necessities include a soft drawing pencil, eraser, and a fistful of brushes—a #30 round synthetic (my workhorse), #8 round synthetic, a natural-hair brush somewhere between those two in size, a #0 round or liner for detail, a small scrubber, and (if I intend to use frisket) a small disposable round. An old toothbrush or typewriter eraser brush works fine for spattering paint or water.

I like to tuck in a compressed cellulose sponge or scrap of terrycloth (such as an old washcloth) with which to sop excess water from my brushes and to wipe up spills, in lieu of relying on paper towels or fast-food napkins, which aren’t always absorbent enough for my needs. A quart-sized collapsible water bucket is handy, too, but in a pinch, a jar, can, or even a small disposable cup can be used. (I avoid employing reusable food or serving containers when using any potentially toxic pigments, such as cobalts or cadmiums.)

Watercolor “blocks” of paper, up to quarter-sheet size (about 12 x 18), can be packed in a carry-on suitcase. These have the advantage of providing their own backing and do not require stretching. (I save any covers or backing boards to use as stiffeners for finished paintings to be repacked for my return.) Or a small watercolor journal can easily be slipped into even a mid-sized purse. Paper larger than quarter-sheet size poses more of a problem, since it must be bought at my destination and shipped back separately. I don’t use an easel. Since I prefer to work on a horizontal surface, and watercolor blocks include their own stiff backing, a table, flat rock, or even a lap can suffice when I’m traveling.

Other items are optional, depending on whether I anticipate needing them. Liquid frisket can be bought in small containers, either for packing or as an on-location purchase. Spray bottles (to be carried empty) are available in travel sizes. And drawing pads and graphite paper can also be easily packed if I expect to want them.

But whenever I’m traveling, the most crucial “studio” element of all is my camera, supplemented, of course, with extra batteries and memory cards. I don’t always have time to execute a painting on location, but I can almost always manage to snatch a moment to whip out my camera to record a scene, a mood, or a detail for future reference.

If you enjoyed this article, you may be interested also in my previous article, “A Palette to My Taste,” and the upcoming articles, “Selecting Paints” and “Staying Out of the Mud.”

Cruising Alaska, Part 1 (Wildlife)

Monday, November 1st, 2010

A trip to Alaska this summer has provided me with plenty of wildlife to paint in the coming months. Salmon were running … and crawling and jumping and squirming … over, around, and onto the rocks that made up the shallow stream beds we saw all along the coast. In Ketchikan, they were so tightly pressed together as they entered Ketchikan Creek that in places their backs formed what appeared to be a cobbled carpet across the surface of the water. In the harbor, they waited enmasse, apparently patiently, until those ahead of them had moved out of the way enough to make room for a few more. There, fishermen cast their lines to draw out their daily quota, since fishing upstream is forbidden in spawning season.

101003 Fishing for Complements

Mendenhall Lake, in Juneau, was where we found a black bear (exempt from the fishing ban) checking out another stream’s potential. Although not shown in “Fishing for Complements” (#101003) above, his ear was tagged to indicate that he had been more proficient in raiding garbage cans than in finding fresh catch. But he paid little heed to those of us who watched as he pounced, in vain, again and again on the salmon that insisted on slipping past his grasp.

A Kodiak bear, on the island for which he was named and illustrated below in “‘Til the Cohos Come Home” (#100901), had more success, nabbing four salmon in the hour we watched him. He carried them to shore, sometimes into deep grass, to dine undistracted and uninterrupted before returning to the river for more.

100901 'Til the Cohos Come Home

Other wildlife were as interesting but more difficult to capture through my camera lens. On occasion, pods of humpback whales blew spray on all sides of the ship, and then, in a graceful dance, easy to anticipate but difficult to follow, arched their backs and disappeared. Another spray and arch of back would follow, and perhaps yet another. Then the tail broke the surface, curving gracefully in a flash of reflected, watery light, and the creature would sound to depths we could scarcely imagine. We would have a long wait before the same animal resurfaced, sometimes to breach, shooting straight up out of the water and falling sidewise with an enormous splash, or sometimes merely to breathe, shoot another spray, and reveal its dorsal arch and tail before sounding deeply once again. A few hailed our passing with lateral rolls, waving their flukes as though in friendly greeting and farewell before submerging from our view.

Harbor seals swam past us as we lay in port, on their never-ending quest for food. Sea lions basked on the rocks of islands that we passed. And sea otters rolled and cavorted in the wake of our ship, seeming to body surf on their backs in the undulating water. Eagles soared against the mountainsides. And puffins floated in loose groups in the water near the glaciers’ face while gulls cried at us from above.

My favorite travel companion

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

Any time I travel, my camera goes along.  I keep an eye open for interesting flowers—particularly those that we don’t find near home—and people or animals that trigger my imagination.  I also look for scenes that speak to me about the specific locale in which I’m spending time.

Cayman Fish Vendor

On a recent visit on Grand Cayman, I found a tree burgeoning with clusters of velvety violet and white flowers.  Colorful chickens roamed freely along the roadsides, in parks, and even in open-air restaurants.  And along the shore, fish vendors had set up temporary stalls to shade themselves as they sorted and cleaned the morning’s catch.

The image of the vendors remained with me long after we left the island, so I combed through my photographs to help me tell that aspect of the story of our visit.

It would be foolish to have tried to combine the tree, a rooster, and the vendor’s stall into one painting; that would be overkill.  I find that it’s more effective to focus on a single subject in a painting; and the simpler it is, the better.  I chose to omit from Cayman Fish Vendor (#100401) a fisherman who had been in the background of my primary reference photograph, replacing him with the boat (borrowed from another photo), which provided simpler lines to offset the jumbled appearance of the fish and the rocks behind.  The composition could have been simplified further by omitting both the corner of the canvas tent and the fishing boat, though both help to “tell the story,” and the color of the boat’s trim echoes the color of the fish being cleaned.

A word of caution if you try combining photos, as I did:  It’s important that the light comes from the same direction and angle.  Scale is also a critical variable, so relative sizes may need to be adjusted.  This is a situation when digital photography and editing capabilities prove a great boon to the artist.

A photo jaunt of just a few hours on Grand Cayman have provided me with reference material for several different subjects to paint as the mood strikes.  Everywhere I go, I try to add at least a few more photos to my reference file.

Photographing wildlife as subjects

Saturday, April 24th, 2010

One evening recently, I watched a great egret preening his feathers, drawing the long filaments of his plumage through his bill and allowing them to drift slowly back down, one by one, to ripple individually in the breeze.  The setting sun glowed through his wafting tail and glazed one shoulder and his neck to emphasize his sinuous lines.  I longed to depict it in watercolor.  Unfortunately, I was too far away to see much detail in the bird, and my memory banks do not retain information as well as they once did, so I decided to use my camera to record the moment for later painting.

Great Egret Preening

Grabbing my digital camera, and opening the back door as quietly as possible, I glided across the lanai and hid behind a palm.

But the bird had become aware of my presence.  The moment was lost.  The egret turned and watched warily, standing as still as I, and even more patiently, to be sure that I represented no threat.  He posed gracefully as I zoomed the camera in on him; he contorted his neck, turned this way and that, and continued to watch me out of the corner of his eye while I recorded shot after shot.  But he did not resume his preening, and I was unable to capture the pose that had initially caught my eye.

Such are the vagaries of wildlife photography.  Ideally, you can catch a prize shot, with light from the right direction, the animal turned at a perfect angle, and everything falling into place.  More often, however, the sun slips behind a cloud, the animal is startled or turns away at the critical moment, your camera’s response is too slow, your battery dies, or your memory card reads “full.”  It happens.  Sometimes things simply don’t work out.  You work with the shots you get and do the best you can.

It’s at those times I realize how dependent I’ve become on photography as an artistic tool.  I take it as a warning that I’m getting lazy and allowing my drawing skills to atrophy.  As an artist, I feel I shouldn’t have to rely on photography as more than a dispensable tool I have at my disposal.  But the fact is that I do find it indispensable.

I don’t intend to take up hunting or start collecting taxidermy to provide myself with easy-to-study subject matter.  I’d rather risk the missed photos and keep my eyes open and camera at hand. I may never get that elusive “perfect shot.” But in the meantime, I’ll enjoy the vitality of the wildlife around me.  Even if I don’t capture it in my camera or successfully reproduce it in watercolor, the experience will have touched me in some way.