Spring in the Eastern Sierras {Painting with Frank Serrano}

This spring I traveled to the Alabama Hills in the Eastern Sierras for a painting adventure with
master plein air painter Frank Serrano.


{The view of sunrise on Mt. Whitney from my hotel parking lot.}

Frank demonstrated painting the backlit mountains, horses, and hay bales,

focusing on seeing correct values–something I’m eager to learn!

{Frank finishing up his demo.}

Later he added a horse and figure in the studio.

Below is the finished piece which he will use as an idea for a larger painting. It was such a valuable experience to see his process moving from plein air sketch to studio.

 {Frank Serrano’s finished sketch.}

{My first painting of the weekend.}

{Late afternoon light on the Sierras}

 {View from my easel.}

The Alabama Hills are a beautiful, austere place and the weekend was filled with good company and great instruction. Thanks Frank!

Crystal Cove Paintings

Blue Umbrellas

8 x 10

oil on linen


Here are some of my paintings from the John Burton workshop at Crystal Cove.

Such fun and challenging subject matter!

Easy Afternoon

12 x 12

oil on linen


Bridge Reflections

8 x 6

oil on linen


Silent Surf

11 x 14

oil on linen



Things I learned from John Burton {Crystal Cove Workshop}

Workshop participants painting at Reef Point, Crystal Cove State Park.

This week I spent three days painting in the wind and sun with John Burton and several other outdoor painters. We were privileged to attend the first full workshop John has taught in four years and it was a great week–excellent instruction, a friendly and talented group of painters, and a beautiful location.

John’s infectious enthusiasm permeated the group and his mantras are still running through my mind. I can’t wait to work out all I’ve learned in paint on canvas, but for now I’ll just try to record some of what John taught over the course of the week.

“It’s all about relationships!”

John works hard to nail the first few strokes of his lay in:  perfect value (light and dark), perfect drawing (shape), perfect color (or as perfect as he can get). Then he builds the rest of the values, drawing, and color based on relationships: value next to value (is this lighter or darker?), shape next to shape (how does this angle compare to that?), color next to color (is this warmer or cooler?).

In this demo the focal point was the bright yellow house in the distance, so he put that note in early in the lay-in.

He usually starts with the part that is most crucial to what he is communicating in the painting–the underlying abstract shadow structure, the brilliant blue of the distant ocean, or the warm tone of snow in the sunlight compared to the cool tone in shadow. If he can nail that element, he doesn’t have to worry about losing that special part of the painting he’s creating, because every other element is added in relationship to those first most important notes.

“Values, values, values!”

To emphasize the importance of seeing and painting correct values, John encouraged us to paint small studies using the three Portland greys made by Gamblin–light, medium, and dark. He recommends three value studies and five value studies (adding white and black). These studies help to train the eye to see value before seeing color and force the painter to simplify and group similar value shapes, which helps with abstract composition. He often uses these as a warm-up (like stretching before a run) before working on a larger painting.

This beautiful value study was painted by talented fellow workshop attendee, Toni Kellenberg.

“Realist painters have to be masters of abstraction.”

Speaking of the abstract, John is clear about his love of celebrating and communicating the beauty of creation through landscape painting and he really gets excited about the abstract patterns and shapes that underly nature. The artist has to be able to interpret lights and darks, combinations of shapes, and the nuanced variety of colors in a way that satisfies a universal recognition of beauty and harmony. The realist painter is not painting a tree, he or she is painting a darker shape intersecting with a light shape, or a large mass balanced by a small mass.  In order to see these harmonies and patterns without the distractions of recognizable “things,” John often flips his painting over after the initial lay-in to see how the abstract patterns read.

As he neared the end of this demo, John flipped his painting over 
to see how the abstract shapes worked together to create a pleasing composition.

“If everyone else is making one painting a day, you should be making four!”

John exudes a joyful commitment to hard work. He encouraged us all to paint more, pursuing the mastery of the skills of painting and drawing with diligence. I know we all left the workshop with new ideas about how to use our painting time well, and plenty of motivation to find more time to paint. He compares painting to playing the piano–it takes hours of dedicated practice and familiarity with the instrument (always set up your palette the same way!). Great painting is also like great music in its lyricism and passion.

Notice the interplay of the lost and found telephone wires 
and the soft cloud shapes–poetry in paint!

“Never stop learning!”

Even though he is a renowned master painter, John doesn’t settle into always doing things the same way. He eschews formulas. He constantly changes his palette, is always eager to hear ideas from other painters, and doesn’t insist that the way he does things is the only way to do them. He’s recently been experimenting by using sight-size for both drawing and matching color. And he’s taken cadmium yellow lemon and alizarin crimson off his palette for a time in order to force more inventive ways of creating color relationships in his work.

John completed this 30 x 42 demo painting in a little over an hour 
while listening to classical music–his usual accompaniment in the studio.

John invites his students into an exciting journey of discovery and dedication to the craft of painting. I left his workshop inspired and encouraged to keep working hard to improve as a painter. Can’t wait to get back outside and get at it!

(I’ll post pictures of a few of the paintings I created during the workshop soon!)

Matt Smith Workshop {Part II}

On the second day of the Matt Smith workshop, the students painted and Matt gave us input and helped us troubleshoot our work. I painted this one in the morning.

The reference for this first painting was a photo of the southward view from the cliffs near where we stayed in Oregon. Matt encouraged me to use confident, bold brushstrokes and to reestablish my darks. He also recommended I add more vibrant color in the water. I think as I paint more, it is more and more of a struggle not to over-render things. This painting was a reminder that simpler is better.


In the afternoon, Matt got to my easel as I was finishing up this painting of the northward view from our vacation spot in Oregon. He gave me a tip for making water appear to be in motion–make it blurry. He just reached out his finger and smudged the water where it hits the rock. That’ll do it! I was pretty pleased with these two paintings. It was amazing to see how quickly Matt could assess a work in progress and know how to improve it.

It’s going to take me a while to assimilate all I took in over the course of the three days. Right now I feel like I need to loosen up. I’m over-thinking things because I am so conscious of all the ways I want to be improving and growing in my work. I need to remember to take one painting at a time, keep plodding away, and not take myself too seriously. It’s a privilege to have the time and resources to paint–I am grateful whether or not I’m pleased with the finished product.