Monthly Archives: November 2012

Turning Green Again

Here in the Central Valley of California, we kind of have two seasons, rather than four. Wet and dry, summer and winter. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but our autumn only lasts about a month (if we’re lucky), and spring lasts about two weeks. In between are a short, mild winter, in good years full of gentle rain and fog; and the long, hot (but dry) summer. Where I live, outside of Sacramento, the nights are cool, and that’s what makes our summers tolerable.

First Green of Fall ©2012 Stephanie Benedict.
The grasses beneath the oak trees are greening up after recent rains. In the distance: the fiery red of the alders across the street. The native oaks are less showy.

In summer, all the plants dry out and hunker down. That’s because we only get about 18 inches of rain each year here in the Valley, most of it between November and March. “California’s Gold,” the color of the dried grasses in non-irrigated areas, is the result of annual grasses brought by European settles in the 1700s and 1800s, which out-competed the native perennials that stayed greener longer.

But then each fall*, we get this phenomenon of the hillsides and dales—all the non-irrigated areas—turning green again with the first rains. Acid green, brilliant green, green that hurts your eyes. Green you want to soak up and keep all year.

I went walking to my favorite local park/nature preserve the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and found the grasses are coming up green again. We’ve had two to three inches of rain so far this season, and all those annual grasses are coming to life again. They start under the oak trees and in the swales, then spread across the fields. The photo above shows what it looked like. In the middle of the picture, you can see in the background the brilliant red of alder trees in the landscaped development across the street.

I did a little painting of the same effect last year, called “Fall’s First Green.” Sometimes I feel like a documentary painter! But this is why I paint: to reveal the land around us, specific times and places, to help us remember there’s more to life than the latest tablet computer or Black Friday sale. Today’s walk made me want to do another one. But I’d better hurry: the effect won’t last.

Fall's First Green, by Stephanie Benedict
Fall’s First Green ©2011 Stephanie Benedict. Oil on panel. 4 inches by 6 inches

Is it fall where you are—or is it spring? What’s your favorite season?

*Assuming it rains. Last year we got very little rain or snow in the mountains. Keep your fingers crossed.


Working on a Toned Ground

Here’s a trick I learned from Kathleen Dunphy: I tone my canvas yellow before I paint on it.

Many artists over time have worked on toned grounds. (The “ground” is the surface one paints on.) The white of a bare canvas is just too intimidating or too harsh, so painters tone the canvas with a thin layer of color.

Pine Tree Study by Stephanie Benedict
A plein-air study of two pine trees in snow. The right-hand side shows the yellow-toned ground. I toned this panel with a thin layer of gesso tinted with Hansa yellow medium acrylic paint.

A Modern Approach

The traditional color for toning canvas is raw sienna, which will give the canvas a warm, slightly orange-y color. I’ve tried that, and it’s OK. Others use burnt umber or red or a mixture of colors.

After I began studying with Dunphy in 2008, I explored a number of options: raw sienna, quinacridone burnt orange (which is like raw sienna only brighter), neutral gray, burnt umber. Eventually I came to agree with Kathleen: I like yellow the best. So now I tone all my canvases with a pale wash of cadmium yellow light or Hansa yellow before I paint.

Now, too much yellow can be a distraction at first, and make it hard to judge the relative color and value of the first paints I put onto the canvas. But the payoff is huge: the yellow gives an underlying warmth to the canvas, which complements cool paintings on cloudy days and highlights the warmth of sunny days*.

 The Process

The traditional method is to thin a little bit of oil color into a lot of solvent and wash it onto the canvas either with a brush or a rag. Then you have to let it set up before you start painting.

A more modern way is to use a bit of acrylic paint thinned with water and wash it onto the canvas with a rag. But the representatives at Gamblin Colors (which makes oil paints and mediums) convinced me that perhaps that’s not the best method, so most recently I’ve started adding a touch of yellow acrylic paint to white gesso, and adding a layer of colored gesso. I typically use pre-primed panels or canvas, so my colored layer doesn’t need to be thick or completely covering: I’m not trying to build a whole new ground. And I can make the yellow then very pale. Yes, it takes a bit of planning, but I like the results.

What do you think?

If you’re a collector, can you tell if your paintings have toned grounds? If you’re an artist, do you tone your canvas first?

*I’m not sure this would work for the painter who works in the Henry Hensche, full-spectrum colorist style. In that style, that extra warmth might conflict with the finished painting. But with a more limited palette, it works just fine.

No Need to Whine

I recently got to spend five days with 14 other artists painting in the Sierra Nevada foothills, at the most beautiful time of year, in near-perfect conditions.  The occasion?  Kathleen Dunphy’s advanced painting workshop, called “No Whiners: Serious Art for Serious Artists.”

Kathleen Dunphy sketches and Cynthia Hein observes. Photo by Stephanie Benedict
Cynthia Jackson Hein watches while Kathleen Dunphy (right) prepares thumbnail sketches for a demonstration at her No Whiners 2012 workshop.

Dunphy structures her five-day No Whiners a bit differently than most workshops I’ve attended.  She opens with a discussion of ways to work through the roadblocks and stuck places we all encounter.  Then she challenges her students to focus on their weaknesses. She asks everyone to name the three or four things they want to focus on during the workshop, and turns people loose.

She still gives demonstrations:  after all, her students are visual people, and learn in part by seeing.  And while her students are painting, Dunphy offers some very specific personalized instruction to address the topics each student wanted to focus on, whether it be paint handling or composition or painting moving water. People didn’t even have to paint, if they felt drawing would be more useful to them.

She also made sure we got to paint at locations with different types of painting problems.  We drove one day to Tamarack, California (elevation 6,913 ft.), where was snow on the ground, bright yellow aspen trees, and weather warm enough in the afternoon to paint in t-shirts. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Then again, maybe it does.  Dunphy’s enthusiasm is contagious.  She’s a great role model of a working artist, challenging herself to do different things, never settling.  She offer tips on everything from how to see values (“Squint, often.”), to how to protect yourself from snow blindness while you paint, to how to work with galleries.

Someone asked me what I got out of the workshop, and my answer was this:  Besides the painting itself, and the camaraderie with a great group of artists, I got a great attitude adjustment and a renewed sense of commitment.  Thank you, Kathleen, and my fellow No Whiners!

Have you taken a Kathleen Dunphy workshop?  What did you think?