Week-long study with Kevin Macpherson

Last week I did something I haven't done in a very long time...devote myself to the art mistress from morning to night for an entire week. And it was a week studying with the talented Kevin Macpherson at that! As you may have read from my previous blog posts,  I am a big fan of his paintings and his books. He is truly one of the best teachers I have encountered so far. Not only is he a highly skilled painter, but he has a way of honing in on and distilling essential information that actually penetrates my rock-hard noggin. JYandKMAC2

The workshop took place in a beautiful new space called Chesapeake Fine Art Studio, run by artist Hai-Ou Hou in Stevensville, MD (great location- about 20 mins. away from Annapolis). If you are an artist on the east coast,  it would behoove you to check out her site. Hai-Ou is quite the painter herself, and also appears to be drawing some of the best and brightest painter/instructors in the plein air and traditional/representational painting movements.

I really wish I had time to delve into all I learned during my workshop experience, but life is slamming me pretty hard right now. This week marked a return to the "real world" (insert the sound of  needle scraping across a record here) with kitchen renovation, school activities, and doctor's appointments commanding most of my time and energy.

But my biggest take aways from Kevin's instruction had to do with value and composition. He spoke a lot about light and shadow, and how one can create much stronger paintings by clearly indicating which elements belong in the light family and which belong in the shadow family. (This sounds simple in theory but it isn't always so easy in practice.) He stressed seeing and painting "shapes, not things", with the idea that if we are too wrapped up in painting a "thing" we lose the ability to really see it accurately and how it relates to the rest of the painting as a whole. We spent a good deal of time really learning how to see the true value of things (er, shapes, that is!) He stressed using a color isolator in the field to identify true value and color, determining and laying down your darkest note of color first, followed by the rest of the shadow family, and finally the values in the light family, keying everything up from that very darkest note, so that you really can get a handle on color and value relationships.

In essence, how dark you key your darks will determine how light you key your lights. I use the analogy of playing "Chopsticks" on the piano. You can play low on the scale or high on the scale, but the arrangement of notes and their relationship to each other are the same no matter how high or low you move along the keyboard.

Kevin Macpherson's workshop

His demos didn't disappoint. In addition to demos in the field, mid-week during his opening he did a remarkable demonstration in the studio (from a photo) on a canvas sized at about 20x24" . During that opening he also presented an inspiring and highly entertaining lecture. This lecture, I understand, was very similar to the one he presented at the Plein Air Convention. Not being able to travel as much as I used to, I really appreciated having the opportunity to see this presentation, in a much more intimate setting.

Though we were meant to work largely out of doors, we had our share of rain and wind. When the weather didn't cooperate, it gave us the opportunity to study (in the gorgeous and spacious studio) some of the more pertinent points Kevin was trying to drive home. We spent a good deal of time studying value relationships among the "light family and shadow family". On another occasion we delved into "The Golden Mean" or "Golden Section" (the informal subdivision of space) and he presented a fascinating slide lecture with many, many inspiring examples of  how it has been used by painters throughout history.

Kevin Macpherson's painting demo

Here are a couple of my plein air paintings done during the workshop that actually reached a level of finish:siloshadows_w

plein air landscape paintings by Jennifer E. Young

At the week's end, I left feeling completely exhausted and totally exhilarated at the same time. I didn't leave with many "finished" pieces, but that wasn't my goal at all any how. What I did leave with was a wealth of knowledge and insight, as well as a good deal of creative spark. Whether that spark ignites a fire, is now totally up to me.

Painting water

A reader recently asked me in my comments section about painting water, and as I am in the middle of painting Venice scenes I thought it might be good to "reflect" a bit on it here (pun intended). As we all know, pure water is transparent and has no color. It's power, pictorially speaking, lies in the colors and shapes it reflects. It's always a bit dangerous to apply too many formulas to painting, but some general guidelines are useful (just be sure to verify these with your observing eyes!)

Obviously, if you are painting a still body of water like a pond or lake that reflects the surrounding landscape, the reflected elements are upside down and reversed in the water. Reflected shapes are sometimes foreshortened, and water's movement also distorts the shapes reflected, depending on how much of a breeze or current is at play.

A common error is to paint reflected items tone for tone exactly as they appear in their solid counterparts. But unless they are in deep shadow (which does sometimes happen in the narrow canals of Venice) dark elements usually appear lighter in their reflections, and light tones appear darker. For me, painting the reflections (and especially the dark values) fairly thinly works best, as standing water has a glass-like appearance.

A common error of beginners is to paint everything reflected in horizontal strokes, and in doing so, overwork and over-blend these areas until everything is kind of a muddy mess.

I like to paint the basic value-shapes of the reflections in downward or vertical strokes first to follow the forms above, and then add strokes of movement horizontally. For detail and highlights, it's easy to "overdo" them in reflections, so take a subtle approach to start. Sometimes that is the most effective. You can always add more touches later, but it's harder to take away unless you just scrape down or wipe the whole thing clean!

Moving water like rivers, rapids and ocean waves are another thing altogether. They have their own unique properties, and probably could benefit from their own (future) post!

Some of my favorite reference sources for painting techniques regarding water (and everything else!) are the books by Emile Gruppe. Gruppe was a wonderful impressionist painter and teacher who was a part of the Cape Ann School of artists. He worked in and around Gloucester and Rockport Massachusetts. He wrote a triad of books on painting and they are all invaluable to the landscape painter.

Annapolis Day 2- A fine morning with guidance from Gruppe

Had a few technical difficulties to overcome before I could post again, but I'm picking up where I last left off writing about the Annapolis paint out. Day two of the paint-out started off great, mainly because I had been able to do a little planning the day before. Painting in an unfamiliar place can always be a little overwhelming. It takes a little bit of time to get your bearings and find locations that appeal to you. This task can also be a little more daunting if you are also painting unfamiliar subject matter. (In my case, not living near a harbor or having much boating experience,  that subject matter would be the preponderance of boats.) To tackle the first obstacle, I spent some time on the first day (in between my morning and afternoon paintings) just wandering around scouting out possible painting locations along the many small harbors. One thing to consider is the path the sun will take across the sky throughout the day from sunrise to sunset. Having already done one morning painting the first day, I began to get a feel for which locations would make good morning setups and which would work better for me in the evenings. (I will also sometimes carry a compass with me to accomplish this task.)  As a result, I found a location in Eastport that I knew would be perfect for an early morning sunrise scene. And in contrast to the first morning when I got started late, I was able to arrive early on day 2 and start painting between 7 and 7:30 a.m.

As for the second obstacle.... the first thing I had to do was to recognize that no matter what I am painting, all I really need to do is paint shapes and the play of light on forms. If you can accurately see what is in front of you as abstract shapes and light patterns (and get a good grasp especially on painting the shapes of the negative space between the forms as well,) form naturally happens.  Having said that, the mind plays tricks on the untrained eye--even sometimes on the eye that has had a bit of training. Boats (like trees and the human face) are some of the things that the mind has long tended to see as symbols. They're some of the things that so many of us drew when we were kids --a sort of half-circle topped with two triangles. So one can easily fall into the trap of painting a symbol of a boat (or a tree or a face) instead of painting the actual shape.

While intellectually I know that all of the above is true, for my own peace of mind, I found it also helpful to consult one of my favorite art books of all time by Emile A. Gruppe. Gruppe was a fine New England painter of landscapes, townscapes and most notably to me, marinescapes . He was active in the 30's on up until the 70's and received training at the Art Students League in New York, and from famed American landscape painters Charles Hawthorne and John F. Carlson. Gruppe was also a wonderful teacher in his own right, both through the school that he established, and through his series of books on painting ("Brushwork," "Gruppe on Color" and "Gruppe on Painting; Direct Techniques in Oil" ).   

All three of these books are fabulous. They are also out of print, making the ones that are still available quite pricey and difficult to acquire. I haven't written much about these books before because there is just sooo much I would want to to say. I can't give proper honor to each of them now without making this post even longer than it already is, but suffice it to say that despite the cost and the regardless of sad quality of the painting reproductions within, they are three incredibly worthwhile and inspiring (if not essential) additions to any landscape painter's library.

For my money, Gruppe was a master of brushwork and composition. Living in New England, he was also a frequent painter of harbors and coastal scenes, which made his book, "Gruppe on Painting; Direct Techniques in Oil," a perfect traveling companion on my trip to Annapolis. I'm glad I grabbed it as I was walking out the door, especially since this particular book has a whole section on painting harbor scenes.  This is not a book of formulas, but rather a thoughtful book with a wealth of things to consider. For instance, here is an excerpt on drawing boats:

"...students have  preconceptions about what a boat should look like. They think of boats they drew as children, boats that were shaped like wooden shoes or bananas, curling up at the bow and stern. And that's how they draw them. But probably no shape could be less like that of a real ocean-going dragger; all those concave lines suggest weakness while the character of the dragger is strong and tough......Remember that the gunwhale of the boat is straight as it nears the bow--it doesn't sweep up like a gondola! And the bow goes into the water in a fairly straight line--it doesn't cut under sharply. Use strong lines to suggest a strong subject."

Just that one snippet helped me immensely, and yet there is so much more in this section alone; on cast shadows, masts, rigging, refraction, smaller boats, and docks and wharves. The conversational tone and the passion in Gruppe's writing helped me to internalize his teachings and carry them with me as I addressed the subjects and painted them from life. Here, finally, is the painting that resulted. I may need to touch it up when I return to the studio, but I was pretty happy about it overall:

coastal marine plein air painting annapolis 

Daybreak in Annapolis Oil on Multimedia Artboard, 11x14" SOLD

On this second day of painting, I was happy to meet more of the artist members of the MAPAPA, so I felt a little more connected and a little less lost. In fact, as I was finishing up the above piece, an artist came up to me with a rather dazed and confused look. She said it was her first day at the paint-out, and she'd been driving around for an hour trying to decide what to paint. I had to chuckle (not at her, but with her.) Been there, done that!

Save the date- New PBS art series on "Landscapes through Time"

While trolling through the Slow Travel forums for my upcoming trip to France, I stumbled across this tip on a new upcoming PBS art series on landscape painting hosted by artist David Dunlop.  Here's an excerpt from the PBS website:

"LANDSCAPES THROUGH TIME WITH DAVID DUNLOP -- a lively and entertaining new 13-part PBS series shot in HD -- offers viewers the opportunity to travel with noted painter and lecturer David Dunlop to magical, historic locations in the United States and France as he follows the lives and artistic paths of celebrated artists such as Turner and Monet. Dunlop journeys to the locations these artists visited and learns how they transformed their vision into a familiar painting. "

PBS always does a wonderful job with its art series, so I hope this one broadcasts in my area. It's set to air in June, which will be just on the heels of having returned from my own France landscape painting trip. You can read all about the program  here, but you'll probably have to just check back in at viewing schedule  as they only list schedules 13 days out.

Last chance to see JMW Turner show in D.C.

Turner, Grand Canal VeniceOver the holidays I finally seized the opportunity to head up to the National Gallery in Washington D.C. for the Turner show.  This traveling exhibition is a rare opportunity to see some 140 works by a true master of landscape painting (and, I might add, great-grandfather of abstraction). The show was wonderfully comprehensive, and featured so many of his larger scaled oil paintings as well as his intimate watercolors. It's probably an understatement to say that Turner seemed an interesting guy. His work showed a passionate interest in depicting disasters (caused both by nature and by man) in powerful compositions of dramatic color and light.  In painting after painting, one sees snow storms, shipwrecks, thunder, and fire swirling with emotion. The man must have been exhausted! I am not overly fond of the strong narrative element in many of his paintings, but even so, there is much to see and appreciate in these works. Turner was an artist concerned with social and political injustices both past and present and used narrative elements (both visually and in some of his ridiculously long painting titles) to make his points. He had some statements to make, that's for sure.

Turner started out as an architectural draftsman, and mastered drawing at an early age. This was quite evident in his beautiful paintings of Rome and Venice (pictured above). And while paintings of pure landscape were minimal, there were more sublime pieces as well, where the narrative was limited and light was the subject. Some of my favorites of the larger oils were labeled as "studies" or "unfinished". I loved the way these were so fresh and stripped down to their simplified essence of light and color. He was a precursor to the Impressionists and truly ahead of his time. As explained in NGA exhibition supporting materials, these "incomplete" works were just that, and probably not meant for exhibition, but as preparations for "finished" paintings to present to collectors and the Academy. But we can appreciate them with our modern sensibility as works of art in their own right, as well as for their wonderful documentation of this artist's processes.

While the oils were undeniably impressive and painted with skill and bravura, I personally found greatest delight in his watercolors. These just blew me away. Works ranged from highly finished watercolors with a lot of detail  and drawing, to quick expressive sketches (near abstractions) from his sketchbooks.

If you're anywhere near D.C., you can catch this extraordinary show at the National Gallery's West building through January 6th, 2008 . Check out this cool online exhibition preview at the NGA's website! Next stops for the exhibition are Dallas and New York.

From figures to landscapes (and back again?)

From time to time I receive wonderful messages from students who have chosen my work as a focus for their school projects. Here is a recent message I received. My answer follows: I wanted to ask if you could tell me about yourself and your paintings. I am studying A-levels and I am doing a critical study on you. Could you please let me know how you got into drawing landscapes. I would appreciate it.

Thank you so much for your interest in my artwork! As to your question: In college and for some time thereafter I was developing a body of work that focused on the human figure. These paintings were heavily influenced by a number of sources in art history-- Frida Kahlo, Gustav Klimt, and the early renaissance paintings I had seen in Italy and the Netherlands:

figurative painting by jennifer young One of my favorites from this period "Faith", Oil on Canvas (sold)

So how did I go from that to landscape? Well, in college I held a double major of study in both painting and art history, so I was a lover of art of many different styles and from many different periods in history. I loved the impressionists and the post impressionists but impressionist landscape paintings were not much favored with my professors at the time. Professors at my school were much more attuned to paintings of either a nonobjective nature, or figurative paintings with deep psychological impact. So I developed the figurative paintings as my "serious body of work" and only dabbled in landscapes every now and then.   But eventually I found myself struggling more and more with the figure paintings. They were very large and some of them were filled with a lot of angst. One painting took weeks to complete. Emotionally they were often quite draining and my inspiration was slowing down. When my father died of pancreatic cancer all of the work I had been doing on those  paintings came to a complete halt. I began to question a lot of things, including whether I would ever do another painting. My heart just wasn't in it.   My husband naturally knew of my struggles and, knowing how much I had loved the landscapes of Monet, Sisley and many other impressionist painters, he bought me my very first outdoor easel. He also signed me up for a painting class so I could learn to paint on location outdoors. I loved it from the moment I tried it. I began painting again, and I finally allowed myself to follow my bliss and paint the landscape. After the death of my father I really wanted to do things that were more life affirming, that filled me with joy. I realized life is indeed so very short and I wanted to celebrate it in a way that had meaning for ME, without worrying about whether others found it artistically "important".   Painting the landscape was one of the ways I could honor that desire, and I have been painting them ever since. Nowadays I also enjoy experimenting with other kinds of painting, including abstraction, and sometimes even the human figure again. I believe that an artist has the right to explore it all, if that is her desire.   I hope this helps you with your project!

Art Books

I have begun to compile a list of Art Books that I have enjoyed or gotten a lot out of. I went to art school, but landscape painting was NOT the focus there. So after I started painting landscapes I went about furthering my own education, primarily through art books and experimentation. I also took a workshop here and there as I got more involved, but books have always been an important componenet in my art studio. Follow this link to see my art library. I only just begun, but will be adding more to this as time allows. Tags: art painting landscape painting art books plein air 


There has been much debate over whether artists should varnish their oil painitngs, and I think the word is still out, depending on who you ask.  A varnish is a resin applied to the surface layer of an oil painting. It adds sheen and can protect the painting from dust and pollutants. The varnish can be removed by conservators for cleaning without removing the paint layers underneath. But varnish also has yellowing properties and can turn quite dark over time. It can also crack the paint beneath it if it is applied when the painting isn't completely dry through and through. I have also seen paintings ruined by varnish that was applied too thickly or unevenly, so you have to be careful with it. 

In earlier times, varnish could protect from the dirt particles put out by burning coal, etc. But the Impressionists did not varnish their paintings because they wanted to avoid the yellowing properties perhaps, but mainly because they preferred a matte look to their paintings (if you go into a museum today you may see varnish on the surfaces of many of these paintings, but likely they were not put there by the painters themselves. Interestingly, Monet in particular preferred a very matte look and white, plain frames for his paintings; not the heavy ornate gold ones you see in the museums.)

Today varnish seems to be purely a optional decision, and mainly an aesthetic one. The Gamblin website has some good info on the topic of varnishing here. If an artist likes the look of a varnish, she can apply one, but only after the painting is completely dry. Oil paintings that have any thickness at all generally take about 6 months to dry through and through. If not, serious cracking can occur because the top layer of varnish will dry faster than the layers beneath.

In all honesty many of my paintings don't hang around in my studio for 6 months. What I usually do is to apply a retouch varnish once my paintings are dry to the touch on the surface. A retouch varnish is so lightweight that it becomes part of the top paint layer, so you don't risk the cracking that a heavier varnish can do. A retouch varnish can also even out the surface of the painting, bringing out darker areas that may have "sunken" to a more lustruous appearance. The effect is to provide a lusterous protective sheen to the painting, which I prefer to a super shiny surface.

Tags: art painting landscape painting artist

Thoughts on Cezanne in Provence

This week I took an out of town trip up to Washington D.C. with a friend to catch the Cezanne landscape exhibit. It was the last week that the show was on view and I am SO glad I had a chance to see it! It was a magnificent representation of his work, with galleries that seemed to go on and on. The show was devoted primarily to his landscapes but also included portraits, some still life, and his Bather series. Having seen (and been in awe of) his many still life paintings in previous exhibitions, the landscapes are what held my attention the most. I must say that no photo reproduction I've see does justice to his work. It was exciting to see the transition his paintings made when he began painting outside. His landscapes seemed completley transformed; going from heavy tonalist works to paintings full of light and color. But what was most striking to me was the incredible structure most of his paintings had. Many of his paintings were done from odd and unique perspectives, and his subject matter and compositional choices were not always typical of what the landscape painter might choose. And yet he had a way for line and composition that made the structure of his paintings feel almost sculputural.

Cezanne was interested in the formal elements of painting, and not really concerned with painting beautiful scenes, per se. For instance his paintings of the coast of L'Estaque did not depict an idealized harbor. Instead he chose to include an industrialized view of the smokestacks along the coast. He also did a number of paintings of the red rock quarries, which to me felt especially exploratory, as this subject lent itself very well to exploring his near cubist abstractions.

And yet there were so many paintings in that show that I found to be incredibly beautiful, both in the the choice of the subject and the handling of it. In particular the paintings of the countryside close to his home near Aix were so lovely. In addition to the well-known Mt. Saint Victoire series, there were many paintings of the rocky hillside villages and crumbling old farmhouses. In any event, I got the sense that he was always experimenting, exploring; perhaps sometimes frustrated (?), but never bored.

Cezanne had a light, feathery touch, and many of his oils were handled in a way that to me felt almost like watercolors. He had a masterful knowledge of color, though he used it in a subtle way. His greens were some of the richest I've seen, and within their shadows were hints of rose, blue, violet and lavender.

There was also an entire room devoted to his watercolors and drawings. These were light, sketchy things, but within them I could see the seeds of Modernism and the inspiration for the Cubists still to come.

It was our intention that day to catch the Cezanne show and then head over to the Phillips Collection in Dupont Circle to see the Degas and the Renior show. But we both agreed that we wanted some time to just absorb all of the great Cezannes we had just taken in. It's kind of like eating a meal. If it is a great one, you want time to just sit with the delicious experience before you move on to desert. And if it truly is great, maybe you don't even need desert at all!

To see my own paintings of Provence, click here.

Tags: art painting landscape painting artist plein air Cezanne

Two more reasons to go to DC

The other day I mentioned a Cezanne exhibit nearing its close at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. Now, here are two more wonderful exhibits that appear to overlap this show: Degas, Sickert and Toulouse-Lautrec: London and Paris, 1870–1910. This show focuses on the creative dialogue between the French and British artist and their contemporaries during the turn of the century. According to the Phillips Collection website the show arrived "directly from Tate Britain in London, the exhibition includes over 100 works—many never before on public view." The show closes on May 18th, 2006.

The Renoir Returns: A Celebration of Masterworks at The Phillips Collection April 15–July 30, 2006. "The Renoir" they are referring to is one of my all-time favorite Renoirs, "The Luncheon of the Boating Party". In celebration of its return from an extended loan, the Phillps is putting on a special exhibition from its collection that features this painting but also includes Bonnard, Cézanne, Degas, Gauguin, Gogh, Kandinsky, Matisse, Monet, Picasso and others.

I wonder if I can see them all in one road trip? Or is that overkill? My head just might explode or something.

Oh, and upcoming shows at the Phillips seem equally enthralling to me, including one on Paul Klee this year, the Society Anonyme in '07, and Impressionists by the Sea in '08. (Woo-hoo!)


Cezanne exhibit at the National Gallery, D.C.

Many have likely already known about the fabulous exhibit running through May 7th featuring the masterful paintings of Paul Cezanne. The show is entitled "Cezanne in Provence", and will focus on his paintings reflecting the love of the landscape surrounding his birthplace. I've known about this show for a while but exhibits like this never seem to emerge to the surface of my awareness until they are almost over.

I saw a fabulous Cezanne exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art some years back, and while it did have a number of landscapes, there were a lot of still life and figurative paintings in that show. I am very excited about this most recent exhibit because the focus seems to be on the landscape and local people surrounding the village of Aix. I did not get into Aix on my visits to Provence (though I do hope to do so at some point!) but I have been all around that gorgeous countryside and can certainly understand why Cezanne was so passionate about it.

I missed out on a terrific Alice Neel (one of my favorite modern figurative painters) show up in D.C. recently, so I am extra-determined not to miss the Cezanne show and miss out on another opportunity.