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Color for Painters: A Guide to Traditions and Practice

A new book on color by Al Gury was just published by Watson-Guptill this last year. Al was one of my most influential teachers when I was studying back in Philadephia; he is currently the chair of the painting department at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts there. Titled "Color for Painters: A Guide to Traditions and Practice," this is a very thorough book that should prove helpful for students and those artists just beginning their voyage into color exploration as well as interesting and thought-provoking for many who have been painting for years. (Here is another book that Al wrote a few years ago, this one on alla prima painting.)

This book covers a great range of topics including the history of color usage in art, how artists organize and conceptualize their color, and a whole lot more. I wouldn't be surprised at all is this became a staple in art classrooms.

There Is No Gray in Nature

An idea I hear tossed around fairly often about color is that while the morning and evening are great times to paint, during the middle of the day color "flattens out" or "dies." I would like to suggest something entirely different: the color does not go gray, it merely changes. The middle of the day has beautiful color just like any other time of the day, though it may be more subtle  than a sunset. Same with an overcast day (see Dan Pinkham's painting below). We can still see the relationships (and hence forms) in nature nonetheless, and since we as humans experience the world in full color (there is no such thing as a gray or neutral in nature's color spectrum, only in your paint tubes and color theory classes) I think it is a greater struggle to attempt to find these subtleties of color. Every plane change is a color change.

The issue I have with using terms like "gray," "brown," "neutral," "washed out," etc. is that it starts to get the brain thinking along those lines. Akin to shooting yourself in the foot before starting a race, you need your brain to make a painting - it makes it even harder to find, say, a quiet violet tone (like the top plane of the wrist in Bongart's painting above) if you're thinking of grays. Also, I think this is perpetuated by color being taught too literally, trying to "match" one's paint colors to that of the landscape or your model (see Delacroix quote below).

Here are a few other ideas about color:

- Every color note that is gray, muddy or chalky is a missed opportunity, and - Every missed opportunity detracts or weakens the overall color of a painting (think of an orchestra or band playing - what if the trumpet or guitar player hit just one sour note!); - When you put the final spots of color onto a piece, it should all come together and create the sensation of light.

The general conception of color seems to imply a high saturation or intensity; i.e., when I say "red," you automatically think of an incredibly bright red, like a sports car. But "red" could also mean a pale violet, made to feel like red by placing it next to a colder color. Look at that warmth in the shadow above in Hensche's still life (and how different it is from the red flower). Painting with color doesn't mean intensity at all - it means painting good relationships. Sorolla used a yellowish-orange to paint that little girl's back - but it relates to all the other colors and reads like sunlight. I think color painting in particular highlights how deficient language can be with describing our experiences. Another note about the images here, check out all the color used to convey "white" - they really aren't white at all, but every color under the sun.

Here are a couple of quotes that may help with the idea too:

“Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.” - Aldo Leopold

“Art begins where nature leaves off.” - Oscar Wilde

“Nature serves the artist as a dictionary only, and ‘Realism’ should be defined as the antithesis of art.” - Eugene Delacroix

Big Sur

The Edge of the Sea_s The Edge of the Sea, Big Sur, 11" x 10", Oil on panel, © Eric Merrell

I recently sneaked away for a week of painting up in Big Sur, the absolutely amazing coastline between Monterey and San Luis Obispo. After a hasty packing and evening departure, I arrived in darkness and heavy fog just before midnight and set up my tent at the Kirk Creek Campground amidst a number of curious raccoons. I met artists Andrew Dickson and Joe Forkan at the campsite there, as they had arrived a few hours earlier and were already settled in. We painted up and down the coast, often just walking down to the water from the campground. I love the atmosphere there; it can go from a sunny afternoon to cloudy in minutes, with heavy fog banks rolling in off the coast. These are a few of the sketches from the trip.

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Windswept, 11" x 10", Oil on panel, © Eric Merrell

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The Sun's Mirror (Big Sur from Kirk Creek), 11" x 10", Oil on panel, © Eric Merrell

Paintings from Joshua Tree

See more paintings and photos from the trip on Facebook. Roaring_Rock_s

The Roar of Time, 14" x 11", Oil on panel, © Eric Merrell

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Joshua Nocturne, 10" x 10", Oil on board, © Eric Merrell

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Near Desert Hot Springs, Afternoon, 10" x 11", Oil on panel, © Eric Merrell

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Fallen Joshua Tree, 10" x 10", Oil on board, © Eric Merrell

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After the Storms, 14" x 14", Oil on panel, © Eric Merrell

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Out Over the Desert, 10" x 10", Oil on board, © Eric Merrell

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Fire Victims, 11" x 14", Oil on canvas mounted on panel, © Eric Merrell

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Hidden Valley, 10" x 8", Oil on canvasboard, © Eric Merrell

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Lack of Shade, Midday, 10" x 11", Oil on panel, © Eric Merrell

Meet Me in Long Beach

No More in a Moment-s No More in a Moment, 24" x 24", Oil on canvas mounted on panel, © Eric Merrell

This painting will be part of a three-week long exhibition and auction, Art Auction 13: Nothing But Blue Skies, at the Long Beach Museum of Art, on view from September 4-19. The exhibition precedes the auction, which takes place on the 20th, proceeds going to benefit the museum. Some of the other artists I admire in the exhibition: John Budicin, F. Scott Hess (one of my teachers at Art Center), Tom Redfield and Michael Situ.

Always glad to support our local museums, and the Long Beach Museum of Art is situated in a great historic building right on the coast.

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Click on the detail above to see a some of the different textures in the piece.

Beware of Fish Scapulas, etc.

salton-sea_s Spaceship Landing, 10" x 10", Oil on board, © Eric Merrell

I recently took a trip out to the Salton Sea to explore and paint with my friends Andrew Dickson and Samantha. Man, what a gorgeous place - but so inhospitable. Not the people, though; we met some very nice folks, including Leonard Knight who built Salvation Mountain. We checked out some of the small "towns" like Bombay Beach and Niland, really more like clusterings of houses and trailers, though Niland does have a Chinese restaurant. Quite a few abandoned places that have seen a lot of weather.

The Salton Sea is a very austere place, with no real amenities around. I wanted to paint something that spoke of the simple beauty and the harsh life that residents of the area endure and become a part of. 

The beaches are mostly made of old coral and fish bones, at least from what I saw there was hardly any sand, and the water doesn't look very inviting. Not the kind of beach you'd want to frolic at on the weekend (though it was a hugely popular destination in the 1950's.) We did hear a rumor that there may be a new attempt to fix up the sea, but the odds seem to be against that type of endeavor...

American Art Collector; Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009)

aac1_s The February issue of American Art Collector has a great story of the Maine trip and upcoming exhibitions, including lots of images. It should be out on newsstands soon if it isn't already. And still plenty of time to book your tickets to Boston!

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Christina's World, 1948, © Andrew Wyeth, tempera on panel, 32" x  48", Museum of Modern Art, NYC

Relatedly, but on a much sadder note, I've just learned that Andrew Wyeth, one of the greatest American artists, just passed away last night or early this morning at the age of 91. You can read about him and his life here and here. The small town our group of artists stayed at up in Maine is where Andrew lived. Paul Schulenburg, one of the guys on the trip with paintings in the upcoming exhibitions (including a painting of Andrew's studio) put it nicely: "Although we didn't get to meet him on our visit, it was nice to know he was around."

"Paintapalooza" at Cape Cod Museum of Art, Addison Art Gallery

the-proximity-of-a-town-monhegan_s The Proximity of a Town, Monhegan, 12 1/2" x 16", Oil on panel, © Eric Merrell

Happy New Year to everyone; a new year filled with Art, Music, Food, Family, and Gingerbread, all the good things in life and not necessarily in that order. We really are living in the best period of history, with lots to be thankful for. The gathering of artists at Port Clyde, Maine in September 2008 (see my previous posts about the trip here and here) will be the focus of two concurrent exhibitions on Cape Cod early this new year. The first, opening at the Cape Cod Museum of Art, will feature a painting from each of the artists and will run from January 17 – March 22, 2009 at the museum. A reception will be held on the evening of February 13.

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Anchored in Good Foundations, Port Clyde, 20" x 24", Oil on panel, © Eric Merrell; Exhibited at the Cape Cod Museum of Art, Dennis, MA.

The second part will be at Addison Art Gallery, with the opening reception on Saturday, February 14 from 5:30 – 7:30 p.m. at the gallery (President’s Day Weekend) and continuing through March 15, 2009. This exhibition will feature many more works from the twelve artists on the Maine trip. See the gallery’s page for the exhibition here, and click on the photos of the artists to see more of their artwork in the exhibition. Book your travel plans now, as there will be a lot of great art to see! Hope to see you there.

You can see a slideshow of the six paintings I will be sending for the exhibitions, online here.

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Eric Merrell and Glenn Dean, Monhegan Island, Maine, September 2008.

The California Art Club's 98th Annual Gold Medal Juried Exhibition

aspirations-of-man Aspirations of Man, 22" x 28", Oil on canvas, © Eric Merrell

You've probably noticed by now that I exhibit with and write quite a bit about the California Art Club. I first encountered the group sometime in spring 2000 when I took a term off from Art Center College of Design where I was enrolled (and later graduated in 2001). Luckily for me, there was a landscape class at ACCD at the time I was there, and I had a great time painting at all sorts of locations with Mike Hernandez (unfortunately, to the best of my knowledge and from a couple of first-hand accounts, there are no landscape classes there currently). I must have taken this class a couple of times as an independent study just to allow me time to work outdoors. Anyhow, I began to get involved and exhibit with the CAC before I left school and soon realized that many of my goals were paralleled by theirs. So, almost nine years later, I'm excited to announce that I've been elected to Artist Member of the California Art Club! Their idea of juried membership levels are loosely based on the National Academy of Design in New York City (fun fact - William Wendt (1865-1946), the 2nd and 4th President of the CAC, was elected as an Associate member of the National Academy [ANA] in 1912, the only member in Los Angeles at the time, but he never reached Full Academician [NA]). I've always thought that one of the best aspects of groups like these is the camaraderie one encounters, the myriad artists, gallery and museum directors, framers, historians, collectors, patrons, art lovers, etc.; it's an incredible network of people.

Along these lines, I've just learned that my painting Aspirations of Man has been accepted into the California Art Club's 98th Annual Gold Medal Juried Exhibition, to be held at the Pasadena Museum of Art April 26-May 17, 2009. (See a history of the Gold Medal Exhibitions.) This piece is from a solo painting trip I took to France from September through December 2002, showing the 14th c. Pont Valentré at Cahors. It was really cold by the time I got to the city (I spent Thanksgiving there, which is somewhat depressing without friends and family, with only a Sandwich Americàin and a bottle of wine instead of a turkey...the "sandwich" consisted of a hamburger and two eggs stuffed inside a pita, topped off and overflowing with french fries(!)). I had bought myself a jacket by this point, since the warmest layer I had brought with me from home was a sweatshirt. Three months is just about the right amount of time to spend working alone, you really get to know yourself and only start to get homesick towards the very end. It was an awesome trip, and I ended up coming home with 60-70 sketches.

I keyed the painting really cold to strive for that crisp air and chilly wind. The type of weather that lets you know snow is coming.

Exhibition of California Landscape Paintings; LAAFA

pinkham-stillness Daniel W. Pinkham, Stillness, 36" x 30", Oil on board, © Daniel W. Pinkham; Exhibited at the George H. Maxwell House, Pasadena

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Peter Adams, Force of Light, 30" x 40", Oil on board, © Peter Adams; Exhibited at the George H. Maxwell House, Pasadena

If you happen to be in Pasadena with a little time to spare, check out the on-going (free) exhibition at the historic George H. Maxwell House, 55 South Grand Avenue, Pasadena, CA 91105 (Or, see a virtual tour of the rooms - my painting is in the "Library Room-The Bar"). Located literally two blocks from the Norton Simon Museum, the exhibition is comprised of about 20-25 paintings, including work by artists Peter AdamsKarl Dempwolf, Sharon Burkett KaiserStephen Mirich, Daniel W. PinkhamScott PriorMian Situ, and myself, to name a few of the artists. (Contact the California Art Club at 626/583-9009 beforehand to arrange access or a tour of the exhibition.)

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Searching for the Light, San Gabriel Mission, 18" x 24", Oil on panel, © Eric Merrell; Exhibited at the George H. Maxwell House, Pasadena

Also, I want to give everyone an early heads-up for the Winter Semester at the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art in Van Nuys, California. The next Landscape Painting Class begins Saturday, January 24, 2009. It runs for eight consecutive Saturdays. The class size is kept small, so students will receive plenty of individual instruction. 

In these classes you will learn how to paint what you see, not what you think you see. Learn how to interpret nature in terms of paint, using light and color to create form. Color relationships, design/composition, simplifying, and the benefits of painting on location will be discussed, as well as how to design and build a painting that carries an emotional impact. Make an investment in your art - gain confidence and knowledge that will inspire all areas of your creativity!

Call the school at 818/708-9232 to register.

The Ever-Changing Landscape

coral-trees-sunset-effect Coral Trees - Sunset Effect, 12" x 16", Oil on panel, © Eric Merrell

coral-trees-june-moonrise Coral Trees - June Moonrise, 12" x 16", Oil on panel, © Eric Merrell

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Coral Trees - Midday Effect, 12" x 16", Oil on panel, © Eric Merrell

coral-trees-in-the-gloaming Coral Trees - In the Gloaming, 12" x 16", Oil on panel, © Eric Merrell

These were mostly painted consecutively, one day after the next, in June 2008. I did this to observe the ways in which the light changed subtly in a consistent environment (avoiding too much seasonal change). The moonrise was first, where I found the composition; as I waited for it to rise, I admired the changing light of the setting sun. There were so many moods, changing completely every 10 minutes or so, and as I liked the arrangement I thought it could provide a great way to study the light at different times of the day. It wasn't so much that the light changed, but the landscape itself changed.