Kathleen Dunphy Workshop: I’ve painted with chiggers and lived to tell the tale

Kathleen and Vicky sketching before class

This week I am recovering from last weekend’s plein air-excesses at a Kathleen Dunphy workshop. Kathleen paints wonderful landscapes. I’ve admired them for a long time, and like most workshop attendees, I hoped she could transmit (directly into my head, thank you very much) a bit of the magic she uses to weave her paint-on-canvas spells.

But learning to paint isn’t as simple as sticking your head in a pensieve. Plein air skills are gained by—and you knew this already—long hours behind the brush, direct study, and hard hard work.

Plus, plein air painting is not a picnic in the park. The weather was hot. There were chiggers. There was wind. There was the siren-song of wineries that we had to ignore. The standing joke among workshop attendees: If painting is so relaxing, why am I so stressed?

Patty under her creation, the BestBrella. They really work well!

However, it wasn’t all stress. There was lots of learning. Here are 7 valuable lessons that came home with me.

1. Squint It helps you see the values.

2. Apply the paint thinly I never realized this. I am first and foremost a watercolorist; the gloppiness (and messiness) of oil paint has always confounded me. After half an hour in the field, my canvas, clothes, face, hands, and hair are smeared every color of mud. But Kathleen begins a painting by applying a thin layer of paint—it looks like she’s drawing a charcoal sketch—and only builds the paint thickness as she approaches the finish. Woah! Control!

3. Squint Because values!

4. Narrow down the range  Everything—value, chroma, and color—lives much closer together in space than I understood. When painting, it’s better to stay near to the center than migrate to the extremes (kind of like life, huh?). For practice I’m going to spend a lot of time mixing paint in the middle of the octave.

5. Squint That hill on the horizon is not that dark.

6. Oil paint is not watercolor paint  As a watercolorist, I work like a stone mason, carving my darker values from the lights. But oil painters work like potters, adding layers of lighter values on top of darker values.  It was a different way of thinking. My head was addled by trying to think like an oil painter. I had to imagine my painting in reverse, like an old film negative. I needed wine. But didn’t get any.

7. Pay attention to values Squint!

Landscape sketches (draw more, Kathleen said) and Juliana painting

Lupines in the afternoon


It was a rare weekday afternoon that I was able to spend painting at Russian Ridge, just before a late spring storm. Last weekend I realized this little patch of lupine was about ready to pop into full bloom, and if I wanted to paint them in their full glory, I’d have to get out there soon. Wildflowers fade fast.

Such is the life of a plein air painter. Time and flowers wait for no man or woman, and I wanted to capture the feeling I got on this trail that a person could step from the edge of the lupine-purple earth into the glowing sky.


I love these hazy days with lots of high clouds in the sky. We don’t get enough clouds in the Bay Area. And soon we’ll have the eternal sunshine of the spotless California summer, with no cover from the sun for months and months. But for now, we’ve got clouds a-plenty.


Of course, we’ll always have the fog rolling over the ridgelines, even on most summer evenings.

Painting outside: Mindego Hill

RussianRidge500pxMindego Hill #1
Oil on canvas board
© 2013 Margaret Sloan

For the last 3 Saturdays I’ve been at Russian Ridge, painting Mindego Hill. It’s an iconic view from the ridge: Mindego Hill rises over the coast range of mountain ridges rippling all the way to the sea. On a clear evening from the ridge, you can watch the sun set into the Pacific.

A few years ago, this hill was saved for all of us by the Peninsula Open Space Trust (POST) and the Midpeninsula Regional Open Space District (MROSP), organizations that have protected many acres of the Bay Area from the rampant cancer of development that afflicts the Bay. It’s rather miraculous that we have these open spaces where we can all savor the landscape that makes the Bay Area so beautiful. For many of us, getting away from the city streets is a necessity for our health and sanity.

The world is full of coincidence. (If you don’t believe me, check out This American Life’s recent show on coincidence) While I was writing this post, a young man rang to ask me to take a survey about POST and MROSP. I guess they are trying to put together a bond issue to raise some dollars. Would I be willing to pay more taxes to fund the necessary luxury of having open space available to everyone?  I’m not a fan of more taxes, but for this, I’m not sure how I could refuse.

To read about the GoMindego campaign (which was successfull in preserving the hill), as well as some history and facts about the hill, go to this newsletter: http://www.openspacetrust.org/downloads/newsletters/Landscapes-WI07.pdf

Moffett Hangar 1: Still with Skin


Moffett Hanger 1: Still with Skin
Oil on panel
Copyright 2011 Margaret Sloan

This fall I had the good fortune to be invited to a paint-out at Moffett Field. I chose to paint Hangar One, the gigantic house for the USS Macon, an airship so huge that even now, in this age of miracles, that it boggles my mind to imagine how big it was.

Hangar One loomed over my childhood landscape, although only from afar, as we weren’t  a military family, and in those days it was forbidden for non-military to visit the base. But it was a landmark that we always remarked on when coming home from vacations in the Sierra, and my dad, who’d actually done some work in the hangar always exclaimed, “that thing is so big, they’ve got their own weather in there!” It is big; see the little door at the bottom right of the painting? That little door is about 10 feet tall.

These days it’s possible for civilians to visit the base and get up close to the hangar. This painting is on view (along with other paintings and drawings) at the Moffet Field Historic Society Museum as part of an exhibit honoring the 70th Anniversary of Pearl Harbor. The exhibit lasts until January 7th, so there’s still some time to see it if you’re in the Bay Area. It’s a very interesting museum; make sure you leave time to get a tour from one of the docents!

English: USS Macon docked inside Hangar One at...
Image via Wikipedia USS Macon docked inside Hangar One
The USS Macon inside Hangar One at Moffett Fie...
Image via Wikipedia USS Macon docked inside Hangar One

Painting Bob

The month of July was occupied with a portrait class taught by Christian Fagerlund. It was a terrific class (although exhausting). I learned a lot, And I made my first ever oil painting. There it is, at right. I started with a grisaille of blue black and zinc white (I didn’t know about zinc white’s brittleness then. Natural Pigments has a good discussion about this.) I started out with a dead palette of yellow ochre, burnt umber, blue black, and red ochre. After I painted the initial painting, I expanded the palette with alizaron crimson, ultramarine blue, and naples yellow.

I can see a lot wrong with it. And I know there’s a lot wrong with it I can’t see, because I don’t have eyes yet trained for that. But still, I’m pretty happy for my first time painting in oils.

I painted it at home rather than in class, because I didn’t feel confident enough to bring a medium about which I know nothing to class. I needed some time to potter about, fuss and fume, and yes, curse freely when the brush jumped and gave Bob’s eyebrows a Spock-like joie de vivre, or made his mouth a gash of purple red. Which it did. Many times.

I’ve resisted oils for a long time, painting happily in watercolors and pastels. Oils have many drawbacks: There’s the mess, the expense, and the dangerous solvents. But they’ve been courting me all my artistic life, and I think I’ve fallen in love with them. After all this time, I was an easy mark; I lost my watercolor purity with my first time in the buttery charms of oil paint. Now I am no longer an oil painter virgin and I think it’s a pretty good cherry to have lost.