Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Memory Test

In Front of the Bowl, oil, 8x8

I thought it was time again to get out from behind the photographs and work from a still life with my students at my studio. It's always a challenge to have a group work from a still life set up in my small studio, so I try and find creative ways to make it work. And I had already been pondering how to adapt a particular "memory" exercise for the studio and decided this could be a great way to handle a still life class.

If you've ever studied with Marc Hanson or kept up with news on his workshops, you probably know that he often has students do a "memory" exercise in his plein air workshops. I was once one of these "victims" who tackled this challenging, but eye-opening, exercise. In this type of exercise you view your subject in short intervals, and then paint in alternating intervals during which you can't look back at your subject.

I found that this exercise has a couple of beneficial results. First, it trains your eyes and memory to more closely observe the key elements of your subject before diving into your painting. But I think more importantly, you're able to keep your eyes focused on your painting for longer intervals without continually looking back at your subject, which allows you to make artistic decisions that will create a better painting rather than simply copy the subject.

For my still life memory exercise in my classes this month, I set up the still life in a separate room. It was actually my 10-year-old son's game room, which is adjacent to my studio...I had to clear a corner in this room and pay him $5 rent. ;-)

On the first visit to the still life setup, I allowed students to do a very quick sketch of the basic placement of the elements, to help get things started. (The setup consisted of two apples and a copper bowl.)  Next they went back to the studio and did a rough underpainting at their easel, and then continued with several alternating intervals of observing the still life and then painting (without peeking!) back at their easel.

Shown at the top and here below are a few versions in pastel and oil of my practice attempts (before my classes) and demos during class that I talked through in order to explain the process and give some tips on what to observe at each viewing interval.

Beside the Bowl, oil, 8x10

Apples and Copper Bowl, pastel, 8x10
Oddly, I like my very first practice attempt (at top) the best. I suppose the more acclimated I became with the subject matter, the more exact I tried to get with the rendering, and lost the fresh, loose approach I captured in my first try.

The benefits derived from an exercise like this will go a long way for the plein air painter trying to capture a quickly changing subject like a setting sun. Sometimes you only have about 5 - 10 minutes to capture certain lighting conditions in the field, and you may be better off just carefully observing and then painting from memory, rather than trying to paint a moving target. That's how I tackled the painting below, when I knew I wouldn't be able to paint fast enough. I did some minor touch ups back in the studio, but my photo reference wasn't very good and not much help, so even the studio touch ups were from memory and done really only to make a stronger statement of that moment captured in time.

Fading Fast, pastel, 8x10

Friday, June 6, 2014

Three-day Pastel Workshop in Traverse City, MI - July 23-25

Enchanted Evening, pastel, 16x20

I'm excited to be heading back up to a beautiful area of Michigan (Traverse City) next month to teach a three-day pastel workshop! In "The Pastel Landscape Simplified" we'll focus guessed to simplify the gargantuan amounts of detail that overwhelms us when painting the landscape. The initial block-in will especially receive lots of attention. The June issue of the Pastel Journal features an article I wrote on my block-in process if you'd like to get a little preview of how I approach things...

Workshop Details:

Art Center Traverse City
5152 US-31N
Williamsburg, MI 49690
fee: $320
July 23, 24 & 25, 2014; 9 am - 4 pm
Call 231-941-9488 or register online at

Last I checked, there's still room...Hope to see some of you there!