Friday, June 12, 2015

My Latest Plein Air Experience

I returned last weekend from the Mountain Maryland Plein Air Competition. Overall, it was a great week. I say "overall" because the weather was pretty crappy with overcast drizzle that sometimes turned quite blustery. And it was cold. Colder than up here in the arctic circle.

However, the people were first class including the organizers and volunteers of the event as well as my host family who were supreme. Friendly, hospitable, willing to help but most of all: enthused about the art that was being produced throughout the week.

I'm still a newbie to the plein air genre. Barely two years of painting outside and here I am entering competitions. The nerve. I'm not kidding myself, I'm competing against very seasoned artists who have been on the circuit for a long, long time.

I mentioned that I might not be ready for prime time to a board member and she couldn't agree less, stating that I was a very experienced artist and that I was merely re-inventing myself. When I mentioned that my quick draw pieces (paintings produced in a timed two hours, it's a separate, fun competition) were my strongest, she offered "there you go, you're over-thinking." Well, that was a large epiphany of sorts after my intensive year of constant self-study.

Here are the quick draw pieces. The first is a restored train station in the nearby town of Frostburg. I was pleased with the freshness of the brushstrokes.
Frostburg Station, 8"x10", oil on panel
The experienced artists are all painting large, even in the quick draw competitions. I told myself to paint big or go home. Right, all the way up to 14"x11". This piece was in the main quick draw in downtown Cumberland.
Rails, 14"x11", oil on canvas panel
Hard to see here but the grays are subtle and suggest the overcast atmosphere. I think this was my strongest piece. The composition is also decent.

I also wasn't too displeased with this next piece. Painted from the back of my mini-van high above the city in a church parking lot, it has a wispy feel of the foggy, saturated air. I kept the brushstrokes loose and light.
Foggy Cumberland, 11"x14", oil on canvas panel
So here's a little story I'll share with you. Late last Saturday afternoon was of course, the running of the Belmont Stakes. I believed that American Pharoah had the best chance of winning the third leg of the Triple Crown than any of the close contenders of the past twenty-five years. I decided I would NOT miss the race. Here's what I posted on my Facebook timeline:

I ran out to a bar across the street during the middle of the awards ceremony at the Mountain Maryland Plein Air. It was strangers screaming and hugging each other after that phenomenal race. Shows where my heart still wants to be, damn it.

Yup. The next morning as I packed to head home, I became misty and emotional. What? The more I try to distance myself from horse racing, the harder it pulls me back. I know I can never walk away from it. It won't let me go. My peeps won't let me either and that's a very, very exceptional and blessed thing indeed.

Sniff, sniff,

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Plein Air Painting in Farm Country

The Mountain Maryland Plein Air Competition takes place in two weeks. I've been getting out everyday and practicing, studying and observing. I'm nervous, there are some real contenders, but I want this so badly that I have to get good at it. Eventually.

Along with my dogged perseverance and determination, there are sweet perks to this genre. One is being outdoors and becoming very cognizant of surrounding sounds and movement. Rustling woods behind me (always gets my attention), tones of bird calls and the light whisper of a breeze in the grasses. I go out alone - a gift I give myself.
Set up in a cornfield. It has since been plowed under.
For the past two weeks I've painted old abandoned barns in farm country not too far from my home. I try to be respectful and not trespass on anyone's property. At almost every place I set up, the landowners make an inquisitive visit to see what the heck I'm doing and who the heck I am. After feeling assured that my intentions are safe (I hand out business cards), they will spend some time chatting about the history of the farm. This information is priceless...and...these local family farms are rapidly disappearing.

Spook Hollow Road, oil on panel, 8"x10" plein air.
Most of the families lease out the farms and property while they engage in other careers. Above is Spook Hollow Road and I'm told it's so named for a haunted farm that was in the vicinity. Tired farm buildings are to the left of the road (not in my painting). The crumbling house was the birthplace of the owner's father who worked the farm for 89 years. The house was built on an existing foundation dating to the 1700's. The owner told me that when he was a child (he's about my age - 60's) they would plant a personal vegetable garden behind the house and when tilling the soil would unearth relics from the Revolutionary War such as buckshot, coins dated in the 1700's, tools and other ancient artifacts. Can you imagine?
Baker Farm, oil on panel, 8"x10", plein air
The Baker Farm is still very much a working farm but the barns above are no longer in use. The owner explained the endeavors of his relatives who work several large acre tracts in the area. That's the thing - the close-knit ties within generations of families that I find so fascinating. This particular owner works a day job as an engineer. As we spoke, very large and very modern machinery tilled the field across the road.
Dairy Farm, oil on panel, 8"x10", plein air.
I didn't have a chance to meet the owners of the dairy farm. They were too busy tilling a nearby field as trucks and equipment came and went. The buildings were a blend of old and new and the barns were full of holsteins. I felt sorry for the cows, wondering if they ever grazed out in the sunshine. But I respect the lifestyle, it's harsh and demanding and at least there are plenty of birds and bugs everywhere - unlike the vast GMO crops I experienced in southern Arkansas. But that's another story...

Pondering all this, a hawk flew overhead with two crows in angry pursuit. As one crow dive bombed the hawk, the hawk spun a complete 360 to thwart the antagonist. Was this some type of metaphor for this disappearing aspect of American life?

I'm no philosopher,

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Kentucky Derby 2015

Why do I choke up when I hear the first sounds of  "My Old Kentucky Home?" I'm not from Kentucky and lived there a mere few months back in the mid 80's. I like it, it's a great place to visit but I have no desire to put away my suitcase in the bluegrass.

It's this: I recognize the insurmountable effort it takes to get to that illusive race. It's the holy grail. It's the equalizing dream of the rich and poor. The song represents the culmination of years, and I mean years, of repetitive work and a slew of passionate descriptives: hope, disappointment, promise, despair, determination, anticipation, perseverance, anguish, elation, exhaustion - insert your own word. No one puts in a more gargantuan effort than the horses, race trackers and the owners who finance the fantasies. It's a roller coaster of victories and losses. Highs and lows.

If they get to be the rare and "lucky" few, the emotional toll is stupendous. Imagine having to get through derby day, waiting, fretting, stall walking, trying to keep that runaway freight train of nerves and fears in check. I watch them being interviewed and I smile in empathy. Their faces reveal the contradictory feelings of excitement and dread. Even the old pros breath shallow gulps of air to keep their stomachs from flip flopping.

Phew! It's good to be an artist!

So, this year I didn't tear up when the horses stepped onto the track and the first notes of that very southern song began. Not even a bit of traditional mist. Every derby I've ever watched has been accompanied with embarrassing sniffles and disguising coughs. I don't know if this lack of sentiment represented anything significant. It just was.
Weep no more, my lady,

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Crimes Against Creativity

As an artist and a former race tracker and now getting fairly ancient, I have a lot to say and a lot that I'd love to share with the world. But I hesitate for fear of being misconstrued as negative. I don't want to be a downer. So, I've been posting only about travels, accomplishments, finished work, goals and other neutral pursuits. Lately I've been rethinking that rosy persona. Wondering if honesty about some of life's career challenges would be helpful to some of my readers. Hmm...

So let me drop this bomb on you: there are so many dear humans who blithely go through their lives without an original thought in their heads. Ever. There, I said it. Furthermore, these humans are perfectly fine with stealing my ideas and blatantly copying my artwork for their own financial gain. I can't begin to tell you how frustrating and demoralizing this is. After this latest episode, I'm going to get a bit more vocal about the matter and perhaps my experiences will help some of you arm yourselves against these thieves.


All last week I worked on the program cover for the Palamountain Scholarship Benefit. With the recent passing of Anna Palamountain, I wanted this year's artwork to be a poignant yet loving tribute. I think I achieved the feeling I was going for. I'll post the image after the organizers give me the okay.

Passion and heart...something the copycats are devoid of.

I revisited a spot that I had plein air painted last year to see if I could improve. The image on the left is the older piece on paper and the right is new and on panel. I do see progress but I'm still pressuring myself to rush when there is so much to consider and process. While that incessant conversation rolls through my brain I have to remember to apply the same "passion and heart" to landscape that I can so easily translate into my equine paintings. It seems to be about depicting a sense of place, but not just a physical place, and not just technique. Using all of the senses is vital of course but it's also feeling the soul of the environment. Acknowledging a unique identity. Listening to the ghosts who whisper the secrets of timelessness.

Waxing philosophical,

Thursday, April 16, 2015

High Hope Steeplechase 2015

For the second year in a row my artwork will grace the program cover for the High Hope Steeplechase in Lexington, Kentucky at the gorgeous Kentucky Horse Park. I'm honored. Last year an older painting was used, this year I've painted something special for them:
Oil on canvas, 24"x12" (as yet untitled)
These are the silks of Mrs. S.K. Johnston, a prominent owner of jumpers and flat racers. The event takes place the Sunday after the Preakness, this year falling on May 17th. I'll have a booth exhibiting my artwork, soooo, if you're in or around Lexington that weekend, do stop by! Y'all know I love Kentucky and will use any excuse to visit.


Monday, April 06, 2015

First Day of Plein Air Painting!

The weather warmed a bit and I was out!

Set up my easel at the state boat ramp access at Saratoga Lake. After the long, cold, wearisome days of a winter that wouldn't quit, it was a luscious pleasure to stand in the weak sunlight and bask in the balmy 60 degree temps while savoring the aroma of real turps.

It was mostly quiet except for the sound of cracking ice and the Canadian geese who were returning overhead as I applied my year-long study of plein air to a piece of Arches oil paper. It wasn't too bad an effort for the first day out in months:

I'm feeling confident in the knowledge I've acquired from different sources: books, video instruction and help from artist friends. I've been accepted in the Mountain Maryland Plein Air Competition taking place the first week of June.
Everything is still brown with nary a bud to be found. Most of the snow is melting and the lingering ice on the lakes is thinning...loudly. The winter has been tough, especially for an artist who desires to paint outdoors. Thankfully, I had lots of commission work to keep me busy in the studio.

Stall walking,

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Yet Another Blanket Finish

I've completed my fifth "Blanket Finish" greyhound for my excellent client (nine in all). It's becoming repetitive and challenging to invent different designs within the concept. I only have a few colors to work with. Before the smug amongst you state that you could never stoop to do this kind of commercial're probably right. There's stooping, twisting, bending, picking up and laying down, ladder climbing and lots and lots of deep knee bends and squats. My art studio becomes a workout room.

When the hound stands at attention in my living room it sure looks pretty, certain as to why it's been requested over and over. I don't mind this at all. It's part of my role as a self-sustaining artist, all the while spurring creativity within the confines of a predetermined format and idea. I get paid for this and the artwork makes someone very happy. And that, my dears, is priceless.

There's one more to go, but my client has asked me to hang tight. So what to do in the interim? A program cover for an upcoming steeplechase!

Here comes Rusty, again,

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Realizing Intent

There's no use complaining about the weather. Almost the entire country is affected by the extreme cold and up here in the northeast...snow...lots of it. I simply cannot paint outdoors as some artists are able - my hands and right shoulder are beginning to exhibit the signs of a lifetime of repetitive motion. I'm okay with this as I consider this cabin-bound time important for study and practice.

And study I have. My dear artist friend Robert Stebleton suggested books by David Curtis of the U.K. which further led to books by Curtis' teacher, Trevor Chamberlain. I resonate with the simple, common-sense instruction by Chamberlain and will say his teaching and paintings have had a huge influence on the shifts I choose to make in my work. I'm finally experiencing some clarity after considerable floundering.

As Michael nails it: " staring and wandering aimlessly." That perfectly sums up my state of mind for the past year.

Chamberlain suggests: "It's worth having a supply of boards that you have prepared yourself, and which you don't feel are too precious, to experiment and practise on, and for doing quick colour sketches of things that interest you." Fortuitously, I recently received a pile of old masonite panels that will serve his advice quite well.

Here are a couple of the better experiments:

Not quite as loose as I'd like, but my color and light is improving.
 I am pleased with the spontaneous, fluid brushwork of the Geese:
Alas, this week I'm back painting another greyhound and it looks like another will follow. Certainly helps keep the heat on in this winter of extremes. So very grateful!

Introspection and unmerciful examination are the rule of the season.

In long underwear,

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

An Open Letter to Young Artists

Dear Young Artist:

My other half, Michael Bray, has taken on the research intensive job of cataloging my artwork. It's something we've been discussing, something that should have begun years ago and is imperative now that I'm fast approaching social security age. He's jumped in with both feet and is dumping images and whatever information he can dig up into a data base on a daily basis. I want to advise you as a young artist to begin this process right from the start of your artistic career, even if you don't think you're ready.

I didn't and I really wish I had. At least I have help at this late period. Not taking myself seriously and involving myself with the racing industry in the first half of my life, I shrugged it off telling myself I wasn't a serious painter or yet well-known enough. Now that my resume impresses even myself, it's a neglected aspect of my business that's about to bite me in the butt.

When I was a young artist spending most of my time at the track, I did still manage to paint and I did sell. Off and away those pieces went with no record of their existence at all. Don't let this happen to you. Those artworks sold because some of them were okay, not great, but at least should have been documented in some manner. When I evolved into being good enough for gallery representation, I was quite naive and never insisted on the collector information from the gallerist - just grateful to have them exhibit and sell my work. In one way, I understand why they don't want to freely impart this info - there are lots of unethical artists who will undercut a gallery. However, I advise you to stand your ground, insist on it and even walk away if they won't comply. I've sold hundreds of paintings through galleries and although I have images of those artworks, I have no idea where or with whom they ended up. Not good.

Michael has recently entered over 200 artworks that were sitting here on this laptop of three years. There is still an external hard drive and two old computers for him to plod through. Then, boxes of old slides and photos. Here's our typical conversation:

M: "What's the name of this painting?"
S: "Can't remember"
M: "What size was it?"
S: "Medium size (arm illustration)."
M: "I need to document the exact size."
S: "Can't remember."
M: "Do you think it was 18x24?"
S: "Yeah, that sounds about right."
M: "What happened to it, did it sell?"
S: "Uh-huh. Gallery X sold it."
M: "Who bought it?"
S. "They wouldn't tell me."

This is not a conversation for a professional artist to have with her business partner. I'm embarrassed but I'm telling you because I want to impress upon on all of you at the beginning of your fledgling career how important it is to keep decent records. Not just financial bookkeeping but a thorough cataloging of everything you create. In my defense, I've kept very good records for the last 10-15 years and can tell you who bought what, where, when and how much, members of the collector's family, what they do on weekends and what kind of car they drive. Regardless, that leaves several decades basically unrecorded.

Don't let this happen to you. It's a pain but make it a habit. You'll thank me later.

Regrets...I've had a few...

Sunday, February 01, 2015


The theme is "eagles". I wrote in a previous post about artists like myself who fall madly in love with their current subjects. And I did. It was bound to occur, being drawn to the same power and grace possessed of a thoroughbred. How do these two descriptive words find their way into the same sentence? And why am I so easily seduced by power (strength) and grace (beauty)?

Notwithstanding the political and symbolic connotations, these magnificent birds with a seven foot wing span drew me into a milieu I'm very familiar with. They are the thoroughbreds of ornithology.
Unlike the graphic "Blankets" series, realistic images present a different set of challenges when applied to the contours of the of the fiberglass sculpture. Painting on these forms is...a lot of work.
The majority of an eagle's diet is fish. One side of the greyhound depicts the birds fishing while the other side places them in a woodland environment.
 An eagle's nest can weigh over a ton!

Medicine bird,