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

Armchair travel


Girl reading by fireplace
We create rooms from our dreams. This is an image from an old post. To see the whole post, click here.

I often dream of plein air-painting trips to exotic lands. Tracing the curve of the Amur River through Mongolia. Filling the pages of a worn watercolor journal with sketches of women in cerulean blue saris or rippling grass-green áo dàis. Painting the song of a skylark as it ripples across blue Irish skies and the howl of a monkey crashing through deep Guatemalan jungles.

Those are my dreams. I would have gladly traveled like that when I was young, a happy vagabond artist sleeping in hostels and riding on trains (and I did, some, but without the artistic skill and drive—or money—of middle age).

But would I do it these days?  I am not so sure, especially when the sun warms my studio, or I curl up in our den with a book. Andrew Loomis’ Creative Illustration would be awfully heavy to carry in a back pack.

But sometimes ultramarine blue and viridian green precipitates onto the paper and glimmers like the ocean. Those are days I long to be on a cargo ship headed to Greece.

This post is in response to a prompt from WordPress University Writing 101: A Room with a View

Open Studios Profile: Denise Natanson-Marcus

Only a few more days until the second weekend of Silicon Valley Open Studios. I hope to see you there. I think you’d enjoy seeing the many artists exhibiting in Los Altos.

Today please meet Denise Natanson-Marcus. Denise paints landscapes: lovely little jewels and great big grand canvases. The first time I saw her work exhibited, I enjoyed the sense of place she brings to her work, and especially her paintings of California, in which she has so well captured the baked dry hills of autumn and the cool shade of the our forests.

Bolinas Lagoon 10" x 20" Oil on canvas © Denise Natanson-Marcus
Bolinas Lagoon
10″ x 20″ oil on canvas
© 2014 Denise Natanson-Marcus

Describe your artistic journey

I have always drawn and painted since childhood.  I minored in art at university, as my parents wanted me to get a science degree. After getting a B.S. in Psychology, I went to Boston University School of Fine Arts and received a classical art education. During this time, I learned to meditate, which has helped me immensely in my life.  My life since has been about painting and meditation. I have taught meditation for many decades and have shown my art in various galleries and shows throughout the years. I have taught art in the schools for 11 years while my kids were in school.  I am currently enjoying a period of delving deeper into my plein air painting.  Is my science degree wasted? No, I also work at Kaiser part-time, as a health educator, teaching meditation and stress management.

Where has art taken you in life?

Art is a form of meditation for me. I paint landscapes, and I love to paint outdoors; it is a way to commune with and look more deeply into nature and love nature more dearly.  Art has taken me to Santa Fe, where I showed my art for sometime; to the East coast, where I studied with the great colorist  Henry Hensche; to many museums around America and Europe; and to painters’ studios and museums in Bali, which has a fantastic art style and history. Whether looking at art or doing art, it brings me into balance and harmony in my life. It’s a way to connect with other cultures in a universal language.

Foothill Park Oil on canvas © Denise Natanson-Marcus
Foothill Park
9″ x 12″ oil on canvas
© 2014 Denise Natanson-Marcus

What do you think about when you begin a painting?

I think about composition first.  What will make the scene before me look dynamic, move the viewers’ eye and draw the viewer in? What do I see before me that is inspiring me to paint this scene and how can I make the viewer see that too?

Tell me about one of your favorite paintings or drawings that you’ve made. Why is it your favorite?

Many times, my favorite is my most recent, but there are a few I will not sell because I’ve managed to paint the light of a sky with such light, color © subtlety that I’m not sure I could do it again.  These are most precious to me.

Arizona Sunset Oil on canvas © Denise Natanson-Marcus
Arizona Sunset
24″ x 30″ oil on canvas
© 2014 Denise Natanson-Marcus

If you could ask one question of an artist you admire, who would it be, and what would you ask?

I would love to see one of the Impressionists, like Monet or Pissarro, paint on location and see for myself how they layer their colors and how they get the light in the shadows and the color relationships. Also, Twatchman, an American Impressionist. I’s like to see how he painted all those subtle whites in the snow, and maintained such a light palette yet had so much color and depth in his scenes.

You can see more of Denise’s work at  http://natanson-art.com

Denise Natanson-Marcus will be exhibiting May 10-11 at 1471 Hollidale Court, Los Altos, CA 94024

At cliff edge with a sketchbook

Bean Hollow
Looking out over Bean Hollow State Beach.

Yesterday while plein air painting on the cliff overlooking Bean Hollow State Beach, I watched legions of families troop down to the pebbly beach. Every so often kids would stop and politely ask if they might look at my painting; My goodness, yes!

A small boy sat at the edge of the cliff next to me, a packet of colored pens and a sketchbook in hand.

“Yes,” he said quietly, “I think this will do nicely.” And he opened his sketchbook, ready to draw.

But those cliffs are slippery; it’s best to be careful on the California coast. Absorbed in the view, the little boy leaned forward, and in a scraping of dust and sand he slid down the cliff to the beach below. (Don’t worry. The cliff face is shallow, the surface smooth from generations of kids zooming down on their bottoms, and the sand and pebbles below make the landing soft and delightfully scrunchy.)

He never dropped his art supplies. He stood, brushed himself off and gazed out to sea. Then he turned and ran up the stairs, around my easel, and, still grasping pens and sketchbook, slid down the cliff again.

Gentle painters and sketchers, take a lesson from this small boy. Even though life might send you sliding down a cliff, never let go of your sketchbook!

Breaking waves
Waves at Bean Hollow.
Breaking waves
Waves at sunset after a beautiful day.

Rapid Painting

Lilly Lake near Estes Park, Colorado
Lilly Lake near Estes Park, Colorado

On a recent trip to Colorado, I painted at Lily Lake near Estes Park.

I’ve been trying to loosen up my watercolor landscapes; normally I make a tight pencil drawing on the paper before I start applying water and pigment. But I’m not liking the results. The image is too tight,  much like a cartoon.

Watercolor landscape painter Jonathan Pitts advises starting out with a 5-minute sketch before launching into a longer painting. In 5 minutes there’s only so much you can do. You have to rely on simple shapes, colors, and brush strokes.

At Lily Lake, I couldn’t quite restrict myself to 5 minutes. I gave myself a 15 minute time limit for an initial sketch on a 3.5″ x 5″ piece of watercolor paper, set the timer, and painted.

LilyLake_15MinutesLily Lake
15 minute study

Next I worked for a couple of hours on a larger piece of paper. It was late afternoon, and the light and sky was changing every few minutes.


Lily Lake
2 hour study

I like the quick study much better. Making quick decisions forces me to work rapidly in bold patterns and simple color. Such “thin-slicing” is not my normal state of affairs; I usually mull things over until they are thoroughly mushed and muddy. I’m searching for clarity in many things. Funny that it should sometime come as a result of flash decisions.

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