Thursday, January 31, 2008


I started paddling white water at Letchworth State Park. The Genesee River runs north through the park, over a series of waterfalls, then through a couple miles of class II rapids - at the right water levels maybe even light III's - as it winds through a spectacular gorge. It's a great place to start paddling, both kayak and canoe. I taught canoeing and kayaking classes there with my friends at Pack, Paddle Ski, canoed with my kids, and took my wife on our second paddling date, (that's Darby in the bow; it may have been bit more than she was expecting). We have hiked in the park, snowshoed and skied. But other than a few sketches I've never done any serious painting of the landscape there, despite the fact that I've spent far more time there than the rest of the river combined, (hey, it has the only stretch of whitewater).

So last fall I called my paddling buddies and we had a couple fossil floats, (we're not kids anymore). We paddled and surfed til we were ready to drop, and on the way out of the park, as I looked over the edge into the gorge, I thought, Why haven't I ever painted this? That's when I made my big drawing board.

I had already been thinking maybe I needed to do some work on location again. That maybe I needed more information from my sketches, more than I've been putting down in my quick thumbnail sketches. And somewhere in the last several years, something has shifted in my mind - the way I see, or think about, or think about seeing, (all very different), the landscape. How much of the landscape is observed and remembered, or is in my head and becomes something more than a memory, a remembered landscape. I've had the good fortune to travel to and through some amazing wilderness landscapes, and I am often too overwhelmed by the spectacular beauty of the land to find any painting in it.

So, I headed back to the park with my board and a nail apron full of charcoal. I use to hate being spotted by people and confronted. But that's when I thought rendering was art. That depiciting something just the way it looked was the goal. People would stop for a quick look, it would turn into a critique, and I would quit. I felt like I wasn't - what, delivering what was expected?

But again, things had changed. I grew up? Became .......... more confident? Confident isn't right. Something. More sure of what I was doing and why. Anyway, when people would see me along the gorge and stop and say, Oh, an artist, can I see what you're doing? I'd step back and say, Sure. And they's look and say, Ohhhhh.......... yes. Thank you. And they'd be off and I'd be back to work. Letchworth is a big fall tourist location. I got my picture taken with two busloads of tourists. And they weren't impressed, and I didn't care. I was happily left to my drawing.

The drawings are about 34 x 44 inches. More information than I get in my quick thumbnail sketches- is that good or bad? We'll see. I am juggling a number of paintings right now- we'll see if I can juggle another one. Or two.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Snow Geese

As Darby and I walked with Molly and Finn this morning in the fields behind our home, we heard geese in the sky to the north. Well, they sounded kind of like geese (Canadian), but for a few moments they were hard to find in the sky. Then a shimmer ran along a faint line, and then another, and then we realized we were looking at Snow Geese. (I swiped the photo from a a Div. of Fish and Wildlife website). Hundreds of them, in several flights. As they crossed east to west, a shimmer would flow along the line of the flight as they shifted and wheeled, then they would nearly disappear in the mauve haze of the winter light. We stood and watched them for several minutes, hundreds, or thousands of birds. It was an amazingly beautiful moment.

The last time I got to see my great uncle Howard, he had just come down from his timber with his daughter, son-in-law, and grandson. They had pulled over at an overlook so his grandson could take a picture of the evening sun, and heard a whirring sound. As they waited, listened and watched, a tight flight of birds burst through an opening in the trees. The birds tore past in a compressed flight, the flock building, ebbing and building again, thousands upon thousands, continuing for several minutes. When they told me about it later at the house, Howard was quiet for a minute, and then smiled and said, I've never seen anything like it. This from a man who retired from ranching at 70, then spent the next twenty plus years managing his timber because he knew he would have been bored by retirement. In his youth, he traveled the northwest shearing sheep and pitching in minor league baseball, followed by a lifetime of ranching, then his timber. He had seen a lot of amazing things, and was always aware there was more to see.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Landscape and Memory

Several years ago, after having painted plein aire landscapes for a few years, I received a grant from the Genesee Valley Council on the Arts, to paddle the Genesee River from Pennsylvania to Lake Ontario. I spent seventeen days on the river, and another four hiking and doing relief prints with a naturalist and 4th grade students, at Letchworth State Park. While on the river, I paddled, sketched, fished, camped, read, thought........ and got more and more frustrated. Not with the paddling, fishing, camping and reading. Just the sketching and thinking.

I worked as an illustrator for years, working in several different mediums, in several different styles, never really worrying about too much consistency or what I was saying. I was saying what the client needed said. Or often just being a smart-ass, a genetic predisposition. Illustration is solving a problem for someone else. Give me some input, I give it some thought, define the problem, draw up a solution, deliver it, get paid. Hey, what's not to like?

I can make a problem out of anything, or nothing. I enjoyed parts of the process - brainstorming, working with a variety of people, playing around with different mediums. But, ultimately, it just wasn't satisfying to me. I felt like I was going through the motions.

Art versus illustration- an ongoing debate with many (mostly illustrators, I think). Art is about solving your own problems, or realizing you have one.

So there I am, paddling, fishing, sketching along. I'm having a blast, right? Well, OK, I was paddling and fishing, and I have to admit, I always have fun on the water, especially moving water. But gnawing away at me was this feeling of wasting my time while I was sketching. What was I going to do with the sketches? Paint from them? Do larger versions of them? Would I care anymore about them than I did the sketches themselves? And the whole time I'm sketching, I'm realizing I'm not making any headway down the river, and I'm never going to get to the lake.

The problem I've always had with plein aire painting - when I'm outside, I'm not compelled to paint. I want to go see stuff. Explore. Hike, paddle, fish, stalk, camp. Discipline - that's what I need - stick with the painting. Yeah, and cleanliness is next to Godliness.

What a load of crap. I paint way better in the studio when I'm not distracted by everything else I like to do. And I work too much. I need to be more disciplined about goofing off once in a while. Don't get me wrong- I love to paint, but it's not the only thing I love to do.

But there is another aspect to all of this, the part that is most fundamental to being an artist. It is the chance to get to know yourself, what makes you tick, what are your strengths and weakness, where do you fit in the world. My real intention in paddling the Genesee was not to fill a sketchbook. I was trying to fall in love with the place I live. Western New York, the Finger Lakes, there are many beautiful places here, and I've lived here since high school. There are places to hike, fish, paddle, ride horses. And I've never loved it. And I live here, and need to for now, and I really wanted to love it. So I hoped if I spent a concentrated length of time outside, doing some of the things I love, maybe I'd begin to appreciate the area on a more subtle, personal, intuitive level.

And it didn't work. It is beautiful here, and I find things to paint all the time now, but I don't love where I live. I may never. I am forever a child of the west. But it gave me the chance to figure myself out, on a deeper, maybe even primitive level. What is the process we go through growing up, imprinting on your family, and for some, maybe on a place? Why do those memories, of growing up, remain so strong when I have long periods of time from which I remember so little?

We celebrated my folks fiftieth anniversary last year- a wonderful celebration of a great event. Amidst all the family and friends, my folks played a dvd they had put together of several home movies. Once we watched the first half chronicling the life of my older sister Ann Marie, the other six of us were squeezed in from clips of home life, vacations, and family adventures. And I was stunned to see so many rivers and barns- the bulk of my subject matter. Many of the clips I had no immediate recollection of, but when you see your self running around with all your best friends, in a wonderful place, it's hard to see how that wouldn't set in pretty deeply.

But then why am I the one in the family that is maybe not quite domesticated? Why do I carry landscape in my head - moments, places? Why are we so similar, but so different?

I have ideas about it, but hey, this is a blog, not a therapist's couch. I'll figure out my life, you can have fun figuring out yours.

But it was while paddling the Genesee I realized I was more interested in the memory of landscape, rather than recording it. How much do I need in an image to convey what I remember from a place, from an event, a slice of time? I've just recently started painting the Genesee, some from older sketches, some from more recent.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


If a tree falls in the forest.......... Well, how about if you never get around to posting on your blog. Still basking away in blogging anonymity, it doesn't matter to anybody but me. OK, Mom and Dad, I'll try to be a bit more consistent.

So, here is sketch fairly typical of the way I have been working over the past couple years. I will often include a bunch of color notes, indicating the colors, and the way I think I would paint them- something like, "creamy orange under layers of gray, blue and orange." Notes to jog my memory when I decide I want to do something with the sketch. It is about 4 inches square.

And here is the painting that resulted from the sketch, Along the Mohawk, oil on panel, 9 x 10 inches. It is fairly representative of where I have come to with my landscape painting - somewhere between abstract and representational. I want to continue more in this vein, but I also want to address my building desire to to work ever larger. I've done dozens of larger pieces, and it is in the larger sizes I see the opportunity for greater change and growth, both in the conception of the painting and the handling of the paint itself.

Friday, January 4, 2008

New Year

Resolutions. I try not to make too many, as it so often seems there is just that much more chance of falling short. I have had the same goals, short and long term, for several years now, but resolutions seem different.

I am trying to make a few changes in my work habits. More drawing - a bit every day. It's amazing how quickly you get rusty, and with two dogs and three cats at home, horses surrounding the studio, and things seen walking everyday, there is no shortage of subjects for a quick drawing session. This is Finn, our younger dog, in the middle of her post-walk nap. She's 80 pounds of love, muscle, and boundless energy.

In terms of painting this year, I want to do more large scale work. I love the intimacy of smaller pieces, but the mass of a larger piece has the opportunity for much more impact. To me the real challenge of a larger piece is to paint it in such a way that you have increased the scale without increasing detail. Everything needs to be bigger -paint loads, movements, textures - so that the surface quality carries the viewer, rather than a multitude of details. I am really feeling limited by my van, as a four foot canvas is as large as I can carry. I'll aim for a new ride by the end of the year.

Finishing up a couple large pieces, and experimenting with a piece as a Christmas gift to my wife, Darby, kind of got me off track in December. I am feeling pretty energized by a great holiday break, and I'm prepping several large canvases and a couple dozen panels to start the year.