Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Sierra Pack Trip - Day 3

Ahhh... coffee... It's not Peet's, but any coffee tastes so good at 10,000 ft at sunrise. Bits of coffee grounds in my mouth don't even bother me. 

I woke up early again - but not as early as some who are more disciplined than I - and set up to do this painting;

You'll have imagine this painting without the light on the trees, for that's how it was. The inclined wall behind the trees went up another coupla thousand feet, and the sun was coming over that. I was anticipating the "first light" on the trees and I painted them accordingly. Although I was ready, the sun wasn't coming as quickly as I expected and I was called for breakfast. I wasn't going to miss a hot breakfast so I painted a made-up light and went to eat.

It was way past the "first light" when I returned to the scene of crime and I saw immediately that I got it wrong. I should have painted the trees top lit, with a little bit of rim light. Instead I got the light coming from the wrong direction! Ah well, live and learn. I didn't bother to fix it. Instead, I packed it up and hiked up to Gem Lakes to do my next painting.

I didn't have to hike too far to find this granite slab basking in the morning sun, and in a very quiet corner of the Gem Lakes area. I felt so isolated that I kept looking over my shoulder expecting to see a bear or something. The water's simultaneous reflection and transparency was what intrigued me. I've seen other artists do it with considerable skill and I wanted to try it too. It turned out to be a fun challenge. 

Satisfied, I went looking for my friends who I knew were painting somewhere in the vicinity. I found them on the far side of the Gem Lakes area, doing some fab pieces. Very inspiring. I don't have photos of their work but hopefully, by the time I wrap up my report of the trip, some of them will have posted on their own websites / blogs, and I can post a link to each. It should be an interesting comparison.

My afternoon painting (above) was a bit of a struggle. I didn't plan well, and didn't anticipate the shadow patterns changing on me so dramatically. I should have known better than to paint a near vertical cliff at mid day! When I started, the cliff's face was in the sun, but an hour later it was totally in shadow. As I hadn't quite reached the point of defining the light and shadow patterns sufficiently (in order to go on without relying on the view) I was forced to scrape most of it and start over.

I like the painting I ended up with, although it's not what I wanted to communicate in the first place. Such is the way the cookie crumbles sometimes when painting en plein air.

Afterwards, I packed up, hiked down to base camp, took a shower out of a bag and washed my hair and shaved. Felt good to get the grime off but boy, dousing my face with Deet immediately after shaving was a painful experience!  It was either that, or be eaten alive by mosquitos, which were aplenty this year.

Sipping wine and eating dinner that Gene prepared for us, we talked shop as we watched the light slowly change on the faces of the mountains. There was no moon, and the night was clear, so the stars filled the sky like something exploded. The milky way clearly looked like someone spilled milk across the sky. Awe inspiring.

Sierra Pack Trip - Day 2

So Tuesday was the first day of painting for me. I got up at sunrise, as did everyone else, had two or three cups of cowboy coffee (already brewing on the camp stove by the time I crawled out of my tent - nice!) and got started on my first painting. I knew that I wanted to do the same view as my last year's first sketch.  Not exactly the same, obviously, because it was a different time of the day, and I don't think I set up at the same exact spot either. No matter, I just thought it would be kinda neat to compare the two and see what changed in the way I see and paint.

Here's my thumbnail for the painting. Rather rough and loose. The idea for the composition wasn't complicated so it didn't require too much investigation before I stared.

And below is last year's painting of the same scene. 

Now that I look at it, it doesn't even look like the same spot. The angle was obviously different since I can see trees in the background - and this was more of a closer study of the boulders than this year's sketch, which looked at more of the peninsula. 

With one painting done, it was time for breakfast. I don't usually eat breakfast at home but boy was I hungry. Eggs and bacon really hit the spot~

After breakfast I set up my easel just down the hill from my tent and tried this view;

By now the sun was up and hitting the tree masses from the far side, giving me a nice rim lit tree mass against a still-dark background. The violet in the background is a subjective choice here. It wasn't really that color - I was playing with the idea of structuring my painting around orange, green and purple - orange in front, green in mid distance, and purple in back.  The purple is a little strong but otherwise I'm happy with this experiment.

da tumnail.

Here's the view. More or less.

Michele deBragança doing her morning painting not too far away from my set up.

Next, I turned my easel 90 degrees and painted this view. The shadow pattern on the hill caught my eye. The challenge was balancing abstraction with organization. I expected this to be more abstract since it's all bushy and organic - A few shrubs at the bottom and the trail going up the hill provide some structure, but I struggled with the opposing urges of making my trees solid and simple (more like the previous painting) versus making them completely abstract. The result  looks to me like I couldn't make up my mind. Haha~  

Indecision screams.

Here's my thumbnail. What I see from this is that I deviated from my original plan, which is to treat the darkness of the trees and the shadows on the hill as one unit (more or less). In other words, I got a little too literal in places, (seduced by the thingness of things) and that's where I went wrong.

Here's Timon, doing his pastel thang, not too far away from me.

After lunch, it was time to slow down and recharge. I tried to take a nap but was too excited. Still, I can't sustain the level of focus painting requires for long, so I forced myself to rest for a few hours. Gene, our cook, made a little afternoon snack / pre-dinner appetizer. Look at that apple swan thing! And camenbert?  Fancy eats at 10,500ft, folks~ this is roughin' it. :-)

 The sun is going down to the Western mountains, and the shadows are lengthening. We are in the valley surrounded by high peaks so on the valley floor the sunlight is gone fairly early.  The surrounding mountain tops continue to be illuminated in glorious light for hours afterwards)  I was more interested in painting my immediate surroundings than big views, so I needed to take advantage of the light before it disappeared.  This is Bob's and Paul's tent.

...and the thumb. 

For dinner Gene cooked chicken, but gave us a choice between white wine and tarragon sauce, or ginger orange sauce. Talk about gourmet camp food! Gene's about as rough looking as any cowboy / pirate as any character NC Wyeth painted, and has the voice and the demeanor to go with it. Can you imagine the phrase "you have a choice between white tarragon sauce, or ginger orange sauce" coming out of such a character? The disconnect was pretty funny. And we all enjoyed the meal very much.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Sierra Pack Trip - Day 1

So we got up early and caravanned to Rock Creek Pack Station. We dumped all our stuff onto the loading dock and then enjoyed our coffee and breakfast provided by the pack station.

Because we have to haul up our art supplies as well as camping gear, we can't really do it all on our own two feet. Fortunately, mules can do the job for us!  That doesn't mean we hike up empty handed, no. Mules cost money so we were somewhat careful about how much stuff we brought, and anything over the weight limit, we had to carry on our backs. I opted to carry my palette (among other things) with me because it's fitted with glass, and I didn't want to trust it to the rough handling of the cowboys and their beasts.

Our base camp is at Chickenfoot Lake, which is a relatively easy 3.5 mile hike with only a 500ft in elevation gain. (SO much easier than getting to Ediza!) The trails are well worn, and the scenery is spectacular from the first step. We got there in no time. In fact, it was only 10:30am when we arrived at the base camp location. The mules weren't going to be there for another few hours, so we decided to eat our lunches and hike up to Gem Lakes, a collection of beautiful small lakes just 15 or 20 minutes higher up the mountain. (11, 194ft)

This is Long Lake, one of the three (?) lakes along the hike up to our base camp.

Up at Gem. There's more snow than last year, thanks to a long, wet season.

Since we didn't have all our gear with us, and we wouldn't have them until the mules arrived, a few of us decided to hike further up the mountain. Treasure Lakes were just a few hundred feet higher. I don't know how but we clearly did not follow the easiest path. We ended up scrambling up boulders and had a bit of a time getting up there. But the view from above was well worth the exertion.

That's Ernesto on the rock and Bill to the left.  At this elevation, even a little bit of climb is a workout. And we were all challenged by even the easier climbs, not to mention trail-less boulder hopping that we had to do at times. Except Ernesto, who seem not to notice the thin air or the tricky footing. He went up and down any terrain like a mountain goat and left the rest of us in the dust every time. Ah, to be young...

You don't have to be Edgar Payne to want to paint this stuff. Just amazing views everywhere we looked.

By the time we returned to the base camp, I was thoroughly exhausted and didn't feel like painting anymore. Besides, there were chores to be done, like assembling my tent and filling bottles of water and the sun-shower thing. What extra time I had, I just drew in my sketchbook.

This here drawing is Paul and Bob, sitting around waiting for chow time.

They kept moving around, so I turned around and sketched some stuff that didn't move so much.

So on this day (Monday) I did not paint. Too wiped out from the hike. I did get plenty of ideas and inspiration from the other members who were not too tired to set up and paint near the camp. Come morning, I resolved to do a painting from the same location as my first painting from the year before, to see if much has changed in the way I see, or the way I handle color / paint.

Gene, our cook, made a fabulous dinner of hamburgers, pasta salad, beans and I can't remember what else, but it reaaaally hit the spot.

Cook? yes, we had a cook with us, to do all the food stuff, including clean up. That is one of the things that makes these expeditions so awesome. We just paint, and not worry about cooking or cleaning. As luck would have it, Gene was amazing, and we ate VERY well.

My next post will feature some paintings. I promise.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Sierra Pack Trip

I just returned from a wonderful painting trip from the Eastern Sierras where, along with eight other artists and a photographer, I spent six days painting at 10000+ ft elevation. It was awesome!

As with past such trips, I want to do a day-by-day, blow-by-blow report of the trip. I do have lots of pics to share so I think it best to try and post in manageable chunks.

I'm still kind of exhausted so this post will be just a short one, to set the scene for the next bunch of posts.

This is my third painting trip to the Sierras, and this year's destination is the same as last year's; Chickenfoot Lake and Gem Lakes. We hike in from Rock Creek Pack Station, some 20 minutes South of Mammoth.

But that's tomorrow. The first day is spent just getting there - from where I live, it's about five and a half hours driving. Since I got a speeding ticket last year, I was really careful and drove like a snail. Still, the beautiful scenery down Hwy 395 kept me engaged and it felt like I got down there in no time.

We met up in Mammoth, and as tradition dictates, headed over to the Taproom, a dinky little bar where we drank beer and caught up with each other's recent adventures in art. We arrive here a day before the hike-in to acclimate ourselves to the elevation a little bit. After all, we will be spending the next several days at 10000 - 11000 ft above sea level, and that's not something to take lightly.

Beer flowed and one by one, all the members showed up at the Taproom. (Except Daniel, who would meet us in the morning at the pack station) . We headed over to Slocums Grill for one last civilized sit-down dinner before a week of roughin' it. (If you heard me say it, you'd detect a bit of irony. But more about that later)

Stuffed with excellent food and wine, and excited about the adventure, we returned to the hotel and turned in early.

-to be continued-

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Using Photo References

Coming and Going, 12 x 24 inches, oil on linen

About half of my city paintings are done from photos. The other half are invented from scratch. (Or if you prefer, painted from memory. They mean the same thing to me.) 

For this new painting, Coming and Going, I used a snapshot that I took a few years ago. It really does look like just a mindless snapshot, doesn't it?

As you can plainly see, I did take liberties with color, value structure, and editing. Photo references are just that; references. I use them  for information about specific things, usually the construct of things that I can't easily make up, and perspective of its immediate environment.

I ignored color information for the most part. Usually the colors in photos are too...photographic, which looks nothing like reality so I don't rely on photos for information about color. The yellow-orange of the near trolley is the only thing that that I referenced. Even then, it's just a general hue direction, and not even close to matching the colors literally.

My color structure is made up, obviously. It's based on a blue near-monochromatic tonal structure. I added some warmths in the lit areas, and added a few subtle color notes such as the aforementioned trolley.

The value structure is more or less determined by atmospheric perspective. The closer the object, the darker the darks. The farther we go back, the lighter they become. (and the value range between dark and light narrows) So it's very systematically organized, though it may not look like it at first glance. The expressive brushstrokes and lost edges disguise the fact that it's logically laid out.

Also, I edited heavily. The pedestrian and the cars in the fore, the bus behind the trolley, background detail and cables... I make my editing decisions based on composition and concept. Will this element help me tell the story more clearly? or is it just fluff. If it's a necessary element, is it in the right place? If not, where should it be?  Questions like that help me solve editing problems with logic.

The important thing to remember is that a photo reference is not something to be copied. If you were attracted to a photograph because it was so beautiful, what would be the point in painting it? I'd just as well frame the photo and hang that - much faster :-D

Kidding aside, I think it is important to be conscious of the reason why you are using a photo reference. In the end, I want my paintings to be expressions of my identity, not a painted copy of a photograph. I may need  the help of photo references to do that, yes, but I never want to be a slave to them.

Monday, August 1, 2011


City Noises, 12 x 24 inches, oil on linen

So I continue to explore abstraction, in terms of how I paint and what I paint. 

This painting in particular, has taken an interesting path. It originated as one of the pieces I did during the Sonoma Plein Air event in May. Standing there on the sidewalk in the town plaza, I sketched fairly quickly – the morning light changes rapidly – and this is what I got;

The backlit set up and moving targets were chosen because they allowed me to simplify and abstract what I was seeing. That actually was main concern - I couldn't care less about the local colors or details - that was unimportant to me.

I was pretty happy with the sketch, and later on in the studio, I decided to do a different crop, at a slightly larger size:

All the action was at the street level, so I cut out the sky and the trees. The best part about the top half of the painting were the telephone poles and I hated to get rid of those for I thought they added to the small-town charm. I had to ask myself, "but is this painting about small town charm?  I decided no, I was more interested in the activity that one might witness on a typical early morning. Sure enough, once I cut out the sky and the trees, the scene looked more like Brooklyn (where I used to live) than the sleepy town of Sonoma.

This was worth investigating and pushing further, as I intended this painting to be included in my solo show, which would be very urban in theme.  I liked the painting well enough, but something bothered me about it and I couldn't figure out what it was for a long time. I decided to set it aside and let stew for while.

Weeks later, it hit me. It's too frick'n quaint!  That little truck is just too cute. I don't want cute paintings.

Now that I started to fixate on the unpleasant cuteness of the truck, it started to seem to me like the painting was about the truck, and not about the morning activity / mood. It kinda looks like a spread out of a children's book about life in Brooklyn. Or something. Nothing wrong with that, if I were illustrating such a book, but I'm not. So the truck had to go. As I painted over it and tried different kinds of cars, I realized I could make this feel more urban by adding more visual noise - more cars and people.

I also noticed that the more "defined" the central car and other visual elements, the more narrative the  painting seemed to become. That must mean that the more abstract they were, the less narrative it would become. Well I knew that already (I was an illustrator for 17 years so...) but was delighted to rediscover that notion in this painting. Like magic, the painting became more about the city bustle than the stupid cute truck that couldn't.

Much better.