In the early years, my heart belonged to the Impressionists with all the swirling colors and textural brushwork. They inspired the broken color pastel landscapes I experimented with during high school.
Color! The world is a beautifully colorful place. Even in high school, I worked at getting every bit of color I could imagine to weave and mingle among shimmering trees and cascading skies.
In the landscape pastel painting below of hills and clouds, I used distinct lines of color to create motion and energy.
Color theory was not part of the high school curricula. Seeing works by the Impressionists in my Dad’s books inspired my choices. After that, I followed my instincts and played and experimented – a lot!
I wanted to see how one color placed next to another would affect those individual colors. Would they clash or become best friends – maybe both. How would that same combination of pigments change the feeling in the painting? How far could I stretch the color boundaries before the limits of my fascination failed or I felt I had gone too far?
High School art classes with Norma Sharma introduced me to charcoal, clay, block prints, watercolor – a multitude of media. Watercolor came in a close second to pastel, but the large set of Rembrandt pastels my parents gave me for Christmas was tough competition.
That is until I started taking advanced watercolor classes in college. That led me to experiment with both watercolor and pastel separately and then in combination.
I played with softer edges.
And with harder edges.
And then I combined the hard and soft edges and experimented with opaque watercolor.
The bright colors and sharper edges that I could achieve with watercolor were a wonderful foundation that led me to experiment with pastel over the washes to add textural qualities I wasn’t getting with watercolor alone.
I used not only pastels but stiff bristle brushes, salt, scrapers, gauche, and a host of other tools and ideas to see how far I could push watercolor’s potential. Below was a transparent watercolor painting called Summer Retreat finished in 1989. I used scraper tools to create highlights, tree trunks, and branches.
Even goauche was thrown into the mix. Those spots near the swan’s head show the fragile nature of water-soluble media. This painting got damaged years later when our washer broke and flooded our basement where I was storing my high school and college work. I’m just grateful it only got splashed a little.
Even when realism reigned during my illustration classes, imagination was still critical.
Below was an illustration assignment using transparent watercolor. I don’t remember the exact objective but when I saw the reference image I thought of a Maalox Moment. Throwing in a colorful fish head instead of bread to create his sandwich was just for fun. I was hoping to increase the humor of the painting and the engagement of the viewer. No, it was not a portrait of Donald Trump.
Experimenting with media, tools, and ideas ensures that our art never gets stale for us or our viewers.
My professors also taught the importance of shapes, line, and movement. In the Conte crayon drawings below the objective of the assignment was to use value and overlap to create the illusion of depth and suggest spatial placement – even when the shapes were visually flat.
Negative and positive shape relationships were emphasized – not focusing on objects, but the spaces around and within objects. We were taught to make each shape interesting irrespective of perceived reality – to see more with our imagination than with our eyes.
That’s how Child’s Play below came to be – pure imagination. We sprayed several colors of paint on top of the water that filled up a 50-gallon trash can, swirled it around a bit like witches’ brew, and dipped illustration board quickly, straight down into the mix and back out again.
Repelled by the water, the paint stuck to the board in a beautiful spiraling display. We were told to glue magazine clippings on top of the spray paint to fashion a story from the medley. Oil paint proved much more compelling and fun for me than magazine clippings to finish off this dream of castles and boats and childlike wonder.
Illustration and color theory classes encouraged increased innovation and created potential paths for experimentation. Below are three examples: A Night Out; 1 Red, Yellow & Blue Marker; and The Savior’s Life.
The painting above was created with oil paint on primed paper. It was all about exploring the effects of city lights at night.
1 Red, Yellow & Blue Marker were used above to create a Pointillism inspired optical blending of the sidelines at a football game. I did this in 1985 while attending the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.
The shadow box below was a collage assignment. I chose to depict significant moments in the Savior’s life using magazine images, colored pencils, eggshells, and paint tube lids.
Exploring new materials and techniques can help our oil paintings continue to evolve and transform. Experimentation keeps us open to the quiet whisperings of insight and inspiration that trickle into our thoughts while we work – or perhaps while studying the work of others even in fields seemingly unrelated to our own.
My first full oil landscape attempt was motivated by the small dabs of color that I saw in the work of the impressionists I so admired.
A dozen of Sergei Bongart’s paintings, on view in a room of our school’s art department, electrified my passion for oil painting. The brush strokes were much more pronounced and broad than the French Impressionists’ and the vigorous approach appealed to me more than anything I had yet experienced.
The early ’90s for me were full of plein air painting with a Russian Impressionist influence. I had a lot of fun with vigorous decisive brushstrokes and bright colors.
The painting below was created during a plein air painting excursion with Luke Frazier. We were both attending Utah State University. He was a sculptor at the time who began to dabble in painting. He stopped dabbling and became one of the top wildlife artists in the United States.
Fast bold painting was a lot of fun. But then something began to change – not all at once, but by degrees. First, my work got thicker and thicker – sort of Van Goghish.
Then near the end of the 90s, a desire for emotive realism crept in and took charge of my brush. I continued to use thicker paint, but my brushstrokes and color harmonies evolved towards realism – a little bit at least.
I played back and forth between greater realism and a fanciful approach to color. I was in search of something and kept pushing new directions and ideas.
Looking back, I can clearly see the influence of each of my early experiments and choices guiding my art with a healthy helping of increased knowledge and skill adding richness and dimension. Sometimes I wonder if I get too caught up in the present and forget lessons of the past or become timid from the pressures of life’s demands.
This painting I completed in 2000 of aspen trees titled Twilight Tango was a big spark that took me more firmly toward an increased natural realism in my paintings.
My work has gone through many evolutions – some were more like distortions while others have gracefully contributed to my ongoing quest.
I continue to experiment, just not at the pace I kept the first two decades.
This last Fall, while pondering the start of a fall mountain forest piece, I wondered if I could approach it differently. What could I do that I had not tried before?
I’m not sure what put the thought into my mind, but I decided to load up the top half of the 20×24 panel with straight white paint. I then worked right into that paint with all the vibrant colors of fall and the twisting twining twigs and branches and life of the forest. I think I just felt the need for some texture. Mountain Mists was the result.
The experience was so fun and invigorating I thought the Master Oil Painting community would enjoy it as well which is why we added the video to our Membership library. The entire process from start to finish is there.
What are some of your transformational experiences as an artist? What experiments or happy accidents have given you some ‘ah-hah’ moments?
If you enjoyed this journey please share it with others so they can find it as well.