A four-person exhibition opens December 1 at Santa Ana College, including Deborah Davidson, Joe Forkan, Crystal Yachin Lee, and myself. I’ll be including a few studies and recent studio paintings that haven’t been exhibited.
These are my two pieces for Small Works Great Wonders opening at the National Cowboy Museum in Oklahoma City, on view November 3 - 25, 2018. The opening reception is on Friday, November 9. Both of these frames were designed, carved, and gilded in 22k by me. [View the exhibit]
Death Valley in '49
William Lewis Manly and John Haney Rogers were American pioneers with a small party traveling west to California; the group took a detour and became stranded in a desert surrounded by high mountains. The pair set out for help and walked on foot to Los Angeles. As told by Manly in Death Valley in ‘49, as the two men were preparing to return to rescue their friends, the señorita of the ranch where they had stayed gave them four oranges, one for each child in the starving party. The duo returned and helped the others escape what the party eventually named Death Valley.
After over 80 years, the California Art Club's Annual Gold Medal Exhibition returns to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles in Exposition Park. The Gala Reception is Saturday, June 9 and opens to the public the following day. The exhibition is on view at the museum June 10 - July 1, 2018.
I have two pieces in the exhibition: a large painting of Thousand Palms Preserve seen later in the day, the towering palms bathed in warm ambient light. This native fan palm oasis is situated on the San Andreas fault line near Palm Springs.
The second piece is a smaller painting of old yucca stalks in the San Gabriel Mountains, the colors of the stalks faded from age and sunlight.
'Desert Nocturne' is the latest project for Art at Your Fingertips, designed by Kathy Bauer, that teaches students about the fragility of desert flora and fauna and the wonders of plein air painting after sunset. Using Eric Merrell's paintings of the desert at night as examples, students watch Nocturnes and then mix their own colors to create a night scene of Joshua Tree National Park.
To date, three Southern California school districts - Manhattan Beach, Palos Verdes, and Redondo Beach - have taught this project, reaching and inspiring around 30,000 students. Examples of student work are below.
I hiked with my painting gear about five miles into a corner of the remote California desert to paint the sketch for this piece at night. Animal and plant life are extremely scarce in this particular desert, yet out in the middle of nowhere, a small bunch of California native fan palms, Washingtonia filifera, grows from a hill of dried mud. Palms have shallow root systems and require a good amount of water to survive, so if you find one, you’ll know water is close to the surface.
I use a few small LED lights to paint at night. Nighttime is often thought of as colorless, just dark and black, but in this painting, I used a full palette that includes some strong colors: cadmium red, orange, and yellow, pthalo green and blue, cobalt blue, quinacridone rose – the same full palette used to paint the sunset piece below. It’s hard to get a good photo that shows the color in the nocturne, so I hope you’ll check it out February 10 - March 25 at The Autry.
The poem below was written to accompany the main piece in the show by the same title. This will be my first year participating in the Masters of the American West. I'm thrilled to have been invited to participate, and will be exhibiting the four pieces shown here.
A MOON OF UNUSUAL BRIGHTNESS
by Eric Merrell
In a twilight of yellows and sunset greens
Coursing above, azure wildly careens,
Then subsides into blue; indigo slows, rearranged.
The sharp distance dries, while carmine has aged
Into gray-sifted twilight, condensing half-night;
The desert remains in this watchful half-light.
Dusk dims the hills, dimensionality subsides
Where the bright and declining horizon resides.
Fringed palmate fingers, unfolded and cut
Like a hand of construction paper, abut
Two boundaries, two patterns, of shadow and light
Formed simply, purely, of day fitting night.
A vague muddled smudge, an indistinct glance
Barely detected across murky expanse.
Assuredness step-stumbles in dusky maze;
Familiarity departs, undiscerned in the haze.
Unknowns emerge, the known then takes pause.
Vast diffuse mud hills blur through the gauze.
Staring, shadowy masses ahead disappear,
Then re-form on the margins faded and near.
Nothing seems to exist here, on a small hill
Within a silent land, night-shrouded and still.
Nearby, a small dark cluster is in dimness enfolded,
Bunched together, living, but from quiet molded.
On this side of midnight, in the desert by a seep
Clarity rustles close from a neighboring heap.
Adjusting my stance, from which issues a sound—
Something does exist here on that near mound.
The sand underfoot, compressed and crushed,
Becomes formless night, while entirety lies hushed.
These two paintings will represent me in a group show of artists who have packed, camped, and painted in the Sierra Nevada backcountry for more than a decade. The group, with a few core members and many numerous others joining in, have camped in various backcountry locales; Lake Ediza is a favorite.
The exhibit opens with a reception at Harrington Gallery on January 11 from 7-9 pm.
Harrington Gallery, Firehouse Arts Center, 4444 Railroad Avenue, Pleasanton, CA
January 12 - February 17, 2018
I'm thrilled to be part of the Coors Western Art Exhibit that opens January 3. Part of the National Western Stock Show in Denver, Colorado, the Coors exhibit will be on view January 6 – 21, 2018.
My three main paintings include a still life of agaves, a snow-laden arch in Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah, and the sunny gypsum dunes of White Sands National Monument in New Mexico.
The following three small paintings will be part of the Silent Auction, with a percentage of sales going to benefit the National Western Scholarship Trust.
This will be my second year participating in Small Works Great Wonders at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Showcasing work that is 16" x 20" and smaller, the exhibit will be on view from November 4 – 26, 2017 with an opening reception on November 10.
My two submissions were painted on location in the California and Arizona deserts.
Two paintings that have never been shown before will be exhibited next month at the Riford Library in La Jolla, CA. An Artist's Reception takes place on Sunday, October 15 from 2-4pm at the library, and the exhibit, titled Fresh Paint, will be up through January 19, 2018.
'Through the Chaparral' is a recent painting of sunset in the foothills of southern California mountains, painted on location over 15 days (and documented on social media - see Facebook and Instagram).
'Listen for the Whisper' is a nocturne featuring similar mountain foothills by the light of the moon. This is a studio piece painted from a sketch that was done on location at night.
"Value and composition do the work and color gets the credit." (Anonymous)
The quote about value and composition doing the heavy lifting in a painting is problematic in that it implies that color isn’t terribly significant, that it's main purpose is surface decoration. But think about it: color is of primary importance, for this is the world we live in; ultimately, value is inseparable from color. Of the two, color is most important, since value is a component of color.
For a long time artists have begun their paintings by working first in value. Removing the complexities of color from the early stages of a painting simplified this approach (grisaille in artist terminology) and allowed form to be achieved quickly as the artist worked in gray tones. The artist subsequently added color, either transparently by glazing or opaquely by repainting it directly on top.
Color is secondary and superficial, not integral to this way of working. Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), one of the most visible defenders of the academic approach, had this to say about it:
"Color adds ornament to a painting; but it is nothing but the handmaiden, because all it does is to render more agreeable the true perfections of the art. Rubens and Van Dyck can be pleasing at first sight, but they are deceptive; they are from the poor school of colorists, the school of deception. Never use bright colors, they are anti-historic. It is better to fall into gray than to into bright colors."
Art was forever changed by the insights of Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) and Michel Eugène Chevreul (1786-1889), as seen in work by the French Impressionists as well as the Pointillists, but these insights are not well understood today. One indication of this is the continued belief in 'local color.'
But artists were beginning to think differently. Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), a Romantic and Ingres' top rival in the French Salons, had this riposte in response:
"The enemy of all painting is gray."
(This rivalry about the role and application of color goes back hundreds of years and has its roots in our earliest ideas about color. St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), a French abbot and integral part of the Cistercian order, agreed with a strongly held assertion that color was purely matter, and that it should be avoided because it disguised and masked the holy and pure. Accordingly, St. Bernard's churches contained little or no color, tolerating none of the deceptions that (as St. Bernard believed) color would present to lead the faithful away from religious thought. A contemporary of St. Bernard, Abbot Suger (1081-1151), took the opposite view. He believed that color was light, and since light was immaterial and came from God, color was good. Anticipating Newton's discoveries by a few centuries, Suger's abbey at St. Denis reflected that concept: filled with stained glass, gold, gems, and enamel, all color represented and glorified God.)
The world is not merely black, white, and gray. We live in a world packed full of colors - of tens of millions of colors. Black and white as an art form can be beautiful, as it is in photography and printmaking - but it’s a distillation of reality. Learning to understand value and composition is obviously very necessary for learning how to paint, but the road to color continues way beyond value.
Value, Chroma, Hue, Saturation, Temperature, Intensity: these are all words describing qualities of color; how light or how dark it is, how strong of a red, how blue that green is. We've come up with this terminology to better communicate our ideas about color to one another, because color is a really difficult subject to talk about. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) explains:
If we are asked, what do the words red, blue, black, white mean, we can, of course, immediately point to things which have these colors. But our ability to explain the meaning of these words goes no further.
Color – it’s easy to see, difficult to understand, and much harder still to explain, especially when our understanding of it changes over time. St. Bernard believed that color disguised a more 'true' world. The Greek philosopher and poet Empedocles, whose writings were later a source for Plato and Aristotle, claimed that rays of visual flame left our eyes like a lantern, while simultaneously, objects in the world continually emitted 'effluences.' These effluences existed in different and various sizes; when they corresponded to similar shapes of pores in the eye, we saw color.
But we know now that color is energy: the universe is full of an immense amount of electromagnetic waves bouncing around. Our eyes and ears, in concert with our brain, interpret some of that energy into 'sight' and 'sound.' We can only perceive a very small range of these waves, what we know as visible light. Take away the light, and you aren't left with shades of gray; you have darkness: the absence of light.
A landscape seen under the light of a full moon is not monochromatic, a limited amount of color can still be seen; even the near darkness of a quarter moon is not black and white.
Value is a limited register. Imagine a flat piece of construction paper, a tall skinny rectangle representing the trunk of a tree; the scale would be darkest at the base of the tree, rising through mid-range values until it reached pure white at the top of the trunk. Just a flat gradation from bottom to top. We can create a sense of form using just value, making that 2d trunk curve into a circular 3-dimensional form, so the tree goes from light to dark vertically as well as horizontally, left to right across the trunk. But that's the extent of this imaginary tree of pure value, because with black and white, once you've placed a value, the only adjustment you can make is to go lighter or darker. On the other hand, color can be adjusted and shifted infinitely within the same value, but this takes supreme control.
Color is a many-branched tree. As the branches radiate out from the central trunk, they change colors within the same value range; lower down on the trunk are the deeper colors, while the branches extending from the higher/lighter parts of the trunk are in those higher keys. Color is more robust, full of more possibilities than just value, but that makes sense because again, value is a component of color. Painting with full color, we are able to better represent the myriad minute colors we see everywhere – millions of them.
In the spots above, variety in the color version is fairly distinct albeit subtle - some are a little more yellow, some a little more blue or red. Taken into grayscale, the broad difference between 12 and 13 becomes nearly nonexistent; the subtle qualities between 5, 6, and 7 disappear. #9 is the edge on the persimmon as it turns away from us, seemingly a 'cool' color in the painting; isolated, it loses its power. If you take half of the gray scale version of spot 5 and overlay it on spot 11 (see offset spots above), they're indistinguishable. But color-wise they serve very specific roles in the painting: 5 is maybe a little warmer, part of a rounded form of persimmon, while 11 resides on a flat surface. Color can perform above and beyond what value alone can accomplish - color can convey form, but also quality of light, depth, atmosphere, mood, emotion, season, temperature. Hardly mere ornamentation.
Another common misconception: if a value is 'correct' in a painting, the color can be arbitrary and still be true. The opposite is correct: if a color is right, the value will also be right. Each color spot must relate to every other color. Color is specific. Don't disregard color in favor of value.
Discussions of color tend to become dogmatic and formulaic because we want to it fit into a system of measurement like perspective or anatomy, but color resists that kind of organization. If we limit ourselves to relying primarily on value, we will tend to paint only when value is visibly present. If we accept a full range of color, however, possibilities open up: we can paint in the middle of the day, on overcast days, or in any number of other situations - even at night. The world remains three-dimensional, regardless of the light or time of day.
Provincetown artist Henry Hensche (1899-1992) summed it up this way: “Accuracy in color, it must be noted, is as important as accuracy in drawing.”
The point is this: don't worry about explaining your color. Don't waste your time and money on color theory books; most just regurgitate theories without presenting any new insights. Learn through seeing - paint what you see. Excellence in color is rarely achieved, but despite its degree of difficulty, it isn't a gift bestowed by the gods: it’s achievable to anyone willing to work hard enough to understand it. Let's strive to move beyond the predictable color of weekend hobbyists and the limited formulas of art workshops. Go be excellent.
All of the paintings above have passages in them that might be described as 'orange.' However, the orange in each painting is different from the orange in the others. It can be soft, it can be intense; it can be yellow-orange, it can be orange-red. The English language is insufficient when it comes to color, which is why painting is important and can supersede written and spoken languages: with fluency, we can describe the myriad variations of our color experiences. There isn't much variety for describing 'orange' with words, but paintings can communicate an idea immediately. Space, distance, heat, light, mood, emotion, all at once.
When you look at a grouping of your work, do all of the colors tend to look the same? Do you use the same red for every mixture? Do you use one green for every tree and bush? Can you tell the different times of day in each painting? Do you feel the shallow depth of a few feet of space in a still life, or the great distance of many miles in a landscape? Do you get a sense of different surfaces? If you're not getting enough variety in your color, chances are you need to do three things:
1. Add More Colors to Your Palette. A limited palette is just that.
2. Paint Outside As Much As Possible. Studio light is good for it's consistency, but you won't develop an eye for variety if you don't paint outdoors.
3. Paint Every Kind of Light. Attune your eye to every kind of situation to develop subtlety. Don't just paint morning and sunset; paint midday, paint overcast, paint at night.
These are some of the important topics we cover in my painting workshops. If you are interested in learning more, check out my upcoming sessions in Workshop Listings.
"Has it ever occurred to you that a photograph is the unrealest of things? The camera sees its subject so much faster than the eye can see it - that the result is something that you have never seen." [Paul Jean Martel 1878-1944]
How often have you heard someone praising a painting because it looks just like a photograph? The purpose of painting is not to replicate a photograph. The point here isn't that it's bad to use photo reference - but the secondary work shouldn't look as if you did.
"Untruth is cutting out a piece of nature and copying it." [Pierre Bonnard 1867-1947]
Today, we see most of the world through other people's realities or through our own digital means. We know more about social media than the world immediately in front of us: T.V., billboards, magazines, and ads influence so much of how we see. Because of this, society has come to believe that these images are in fact reality, and objective reality to boot. Nothing could be further from the truth. The images they produce might be more 'rendered,' but they're designed to tell a story. Cameras focus and reduce our visual world.
We can see over 10 million colors in the visual spectrum; digital cameras instantly distill that vast range into a system of RGB (red, green, blue). (Film cameras are a different process altogether, but still a system.) Printed images take this a step further, converting that RGB system into CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black). These systems make images that represent our world to a certain extent, but they reduce our three-dimensional sensory experience into a two-dimensional format based on one instant of one sense.
"A picture is worth a thousand words" goes the phrase, but those words are going to be merely documentary, which is why an article is usually accompanied by a photo and vice versa. You won't understand a story about someone merely from looking at one photo, but a photo gives us info that we wouldn't glean just from reading.
Here's an example of how misleading photos can be: say I show you a photograph of a guy smiling. Then I ask: What can you tell me about the guy in the photo, does he seem like a happy person? You might reply that sure, he looks happy, based on the evidence. What if I then said this was the only time in his entire life that he smiled, this one time for a photo? We don't have any photos of him frowning, but he was a really unhappy fellow. The photo only documented the immediate moment he smiled, but if you were to make a judgement about something other than what's seen in the photo, you have no way of knowing.
Painting also reduces that 3d experience into a 2d format, but because of the slower speed of making a painting the artist has more opportunities to experience, translate, add and subtract. If you think of great art, or your favorite painter, chances are they're not painted 'like a photograph' - but there is still insight and truth to them that makes them invaluable to us. So painting and photography are similar in some ways, but one is no more objective than the other.
The physical way in which we see, coupled with all of our other senses, is our reality. Our personal realities determine our perceptions, relationships, understandings - everything. An image produced by a lens (and often distorted by that same lens) is very different from our own binocular vision. It also makes photography that much more special as an art form; a subjective viewpoint, created by an artist.
Many people would judge portrait painting to be more difficult than landscape painting because of the need to get the features right. Anyone would notice a nose in the wrong place; it would seem to matter much less if a tree is planted five or fifty feet away. However, to an experienced landscape painter, it is immediately obvious if someone is using photo reference for a landscape. The purpose of painting is not to replicate a photograph. A photo contains certain value and color relationships that most artists will copy because they don't understand how natural light works. This is obvious even if a painting isn't highly rendered.
Painting and photography should enjoy the same separation that church and state do. Not walled off completely, but separate things with unique identities.
We're a society that's inundated by digital images. And it's perfectly fine for painting to reference that. However, we all know that world. For myself, I want to make work that shows something mysterious and new about the world, not something that confirms what everyone already knows about it. I want to make work that piques interest when seen online, but when seen in person has even more impact - I want it to carry qualities that are not reproducable in digital formats.
"Speaking, when you have something to say, is like looking. But who looks? If people could see, and see properly, and see whole, they would all be painters. And it's because people have no idea how to look that they hardly ever understand." [Bonnard]
I recently finished this new print which features the famous yucca tree from Joshua Tree National Park in an uncommon composition, focusing on the sand and shadows of the desert floor. Hand-mixed and printed by me, it is available to those who are interested until the edition is gone. Email me for details.
In the hierarchy of genres taught in art history class, desert landscapes would be low on the list. But they positively rule compared to the lowly still life. Fortunately, the lowest-rated form has a new champion in Eric Merrell. The Pasadena artist has a style and intensity that attracts followers for whatever he’s doing, whether it’s painting Joshua Trees at midnight or a potted Euphorbia in his own backyard.
The Coors Western Art Exhibit is an exciting way to start off the new year and I'm psyched about the four pieces I'll be showing. They work well as a group, but individually each has its own mood. If you're in Denver I hope you'll take some time to visit the exhibition - it runs along with the National Western Stock Show from January 7-22, 2017.
Each year I make a limited edition print as a special thank you to collectors of my work and those individuals whom, without their support, I wouldn't be able to do what I love to do: make art. This image is based off of a painting I did on location of an oasis in moonlight in the remote California desert.
Although this edition is closed and no longer available, I had so much fun doing it that I plan to offer a few new prints next year in small editions.
Thanks to everyone who supports the arts, and Happy 2017.
I'm thrilled to have been invited to participate in an exhibition at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. These two new pieces are from Tucson, AZ and the San Gabriel National Monument just north of Los Angeles.
Small Works Great Wonders will be on view November 11 – December 31, 2016.
I'll be exhibiting three paintings at La Casita del Arroyo in Pasadena on October 9, 2016. The Moon Stirred is a nocturne, far up the Upper Arroyo Seco back in the San Gabriel Mountains, the full moon rising over a silhouetted cliff and the flower stalks of Yucca whipplei, the archetypal yucca of The San Gabriels. The Lower Arroyo is seen in both Arroyo Dusk and Arroyo Seco Afternoon. The San Marino Tribune was kind enough to use my nocturne for their article announcing the exhibit.