Wet Paint Blog

“Paint what you love"


Several years ago, I received some very kind and astute advice from a friend, for whom I have deep respect.  I’d become quite fascinated with painting details deep in the complex geology of the Canyon.  My sales were lagging.  The advice I received was when people come to the Canyon, they see sky, horizon…and canyon.  "Put more sky in your paintings", he said.  He was right.  More paintings found homes when I started putting sky back in the picture.  

Sales are nice and certainly confirmation that one’s work has appeal.  However, selling isn’t everything.  Advice that is still ringing in my inner ear came from my very first teacher, Mr. Parsons.  “Don’t paint to sell; paint what you love”, he growled.  Hmmmm…  Well, neither approach needs to exclude the other.  I think I’ll do both!  I’ve been thinking of doing a series and calling it “The Intimate Canyon”.  You’ll still see paintings with sparkling clean morning sky and work come off the easel with the lazy, long, warm light of late afternoon.  However, as you can see in the photo above, there is something intriguing about the finite rhythmic detail of light and shadow, the glow of red light bouncing in the the depths, the rough and smooth textures , all composeing what is Grand Canyon.  Watch for these little gems to emerge in weeks and months to come, and let me know what you think.  

Painting Process


A lot of folks marvel at how a painting could be finished in just two hours.  Well, that’s about all the time one has until the light changes so much that the scene looks very little like as it did when the painting was started.  There is some benefit in painting quickly and that is you learn to boil down the important aspects of a composition; light and shadow, values, what to put in and what to leave out, center of interest, etc.  All that is good exercise and develops the eye for good composition.  

However, I always have a camera with me, whether it’s a point-and-shoot or just my cell phone.  As the light changes, a painter might decide that it’s getting better than when started…or it’s getting worse.  I tend to snap several photos as the time goes on.  Sometimes focusing on the large scene; sometimes zooming in on a detail that intrigues me.  About one of ten plein air paintings are “framable” when finished.  Most of them, I consider a worksheet that might lead to a larger painting once I get back to the studio.  

And, once back in the studio, I clean up my equipment, turn to my reference photos and just sit with them and the plein air piece and listen…listen to hear if they tell me they have the energy and excitement it takes to become a larger piece.  I’ll play a bit with proportions of the photo to see if it looks better as a horizontal, a vertical, or where it might need cropping.  Relying on the freshness of the plein air piece, I’ll often try out the image on a moderately sized canvas such as a 9x12 or 11x14.  Sometimes those work out so well that I’ll consider doing a really big one such as the one you see on my homepage, The Wide Beyond.  That one went from reference photo to 10x12, all the way to 30x36 which now hangs at Kolb Studio!


Robert, we hardly knew ye...


In the fall of 2010, Bob Dalwgowski asked if I’d like to head down to the Verde Valley to paint.  I had no idea that day would lead to eight years of focused painting and fast friendship.  I could barely keep up to him that day as he rambled through the brush, down creek beds, and up embankments.  I learned what real plein air painting was all about that day.  That would be the first of countless plein air adventures I’d share with Bob.  

He encouraged me through my first two rejected applications to Celebration of Art.  “We just need to paint more”, he’d say and off to the Canyon we’d go.  Starting at sunrise and painting until sundown, Bob taught me to really “see" the Canyon.  He taught me the geology, folklore, and amazed me with his own hiking adventures.  Unless I had asked, I would never have known that he did two through hikes, one of the North Rim, one of the South.  Bob probably hiked more miles than the famed Harvey Butchart.  “How many miles, Bob?”, I asked.  “Lost count after 10,000”, he modestly replied. We painted in near-freezing temperatures, wind, heat, and juniper gnat attacks.  We marveled at the fragrant burst of cliff rose blossoms after a rain. After one morning of painting, we realized there’d been a sleeping rattlesnake 10 feet from where each of us had been painting.  We knew it was there when Bob stood on the rock under which it was napping.  You never forget that warning “bzzzzzzzzz”!  

Bob knew the Canyon and it’s geology like the back of his hand, however, his eye was attuned for beauty of small things, too. He’d stop and admire a small cactus in bloom, the irridescent emerald  shell of a beetle, the glint of an arrowhead in the late afternoon sunlight.  

Bob narrowly escaped a flash flood, and survived Viet Nam, but he couldn’t outrun acute myeloid leukemia.  It might have been agent orange he was exposed to in Viet Nam, it might have been Downwinder’s Syndrome, but in the summer of 2016, he remarked about his stamina seeming to ebb a bit and easily bruising and bleeding.  He chalked it up to getting old.  Then came the diagnosis in November of 2016 and a dark winter of chemotherapy.  The Canyon and painting world pled with the Universe for his recovery, and for a time, it seemed to be so.  He was able to do one last River trip, the one I’d planned for painters and photographers.  And he painted and painted and painted.

Dignity.  Bob had such dignity.  He never complained even when I knew he was uncomfortable.  On that River trip, a number of us would discretely tote his gear and help set up his campsite.  Bob knew when to fight and when to step back.  We spent one last summer of 2017 painting and preparing for the 9th Annual Celebration of Art.  We never spoke of the likelihood that the cancer would return.  It did.  A blood test in October confirmed it was so.  And Bob kept painting.  When Hospice was called in, Bob spent his final days listening to his wife, Charlie, read to him stories of Grand Canyon.  Bob passed on to the next life on June 17th.  I’m pretty sure he’s rambling over the back country trails in the Canyon. 

Bob would often say, “It is what it is”, a recognition and acceptance of those things that could not be changed.  His most important advice to me was, “You know the Canyon; now paint it!”.  One of Bob’s last paintings was the one he did for this year's 10th Annual Celebration of Art, "River of Stars”.  It’s a nocturne of the Milky Way reflecting on the Colorado River and his beloved Deer Creek Falls on the right margin.  I’m pretty sure he’s camped out above the falls at the Patio a lovely oasis lined with cottonwood trees and broad flat slabs of sandstone.  His painting will be on display at Celebration in September.  If you’re there, stop and see if you can spot Bob’s reflection in that River of Stars.

What’s in a Name?


"The Wide Beyond”

People often ask, what’s the hardest part of painting?  Half jokingly, I’ll say, “Finding a title”.  On rare occasion, a title will come to me while I’m painting.  I’d better write it down immediately because in a few moments, the title will float out of my mind and off into the ethers of my studio, never to be retrieved.  

What is the painting about?  What was the feeling of the location?  Were there birds singing? Were there clouds gathering? Sometimes those questions will help lead to a title.  I know of one painter who will gather a group of friends, open several bottles of wine, and hold everyone hostage until a good title comes about.  

Sometimes book or song titles are fitting.  Bill Cramer titled his beautiful painting of the Confluence, “Let it Be”,  when it was under threat of development. 

I credit friend and collector, Donna Winarski, for coming up with the title for this piece.  The Winarski family stopped in for a visit several months ago and toured my studio.  Donna remarked about this painting.  I sighed and said I simply couldn’t come up with a fitting title.  Donna immediately responded, “The Wide Beyond!”.  Sometimes the most spontaneous reactions are the best.  That title was just right.  

The Wide Beyond will be available at the 10th Annual Celebration of Art September 15th

Untangling a Mess


Paintingbuddy Bob and I headed down to Sedona to paint.  It was sunny in Flagstaff, but as we drove south through Oak Creek Canyon, high, thin clouds edged in.  Soon we had a “wax paper sky”; no direct light and very little shadow.  We debated where to paint.  Looking eastward, the sky seemed a bit more blue, so we headed southeast toward Red Tank Draw and Wet Beaver Creek.  We settled on a spot along the Creek that gave a nice composition…sort of.  This would be a challenge.  All the foliage, a tanglement of branches, rocks and roots all over the banks. And all that moving water!  The scene would need to be distilled down to simple shapes.  The creek provided a nice flattened “S” curve and the red rock shelf was a nice lead in.  When I squinted down, I could summarize the foliage into areas of dark and light.  A painter is never finished learning and you don’t get any better if you avoid a challenge.  AND it doesn’t have to be perfect; it just has to “be”.  With that little pep talk, I started in.  Bob was already halfway into his painting when I felt mine finally start to shape up.  At the end of two hours, I had a little 9”x12” I rather liked.


Riparian Respite   9” x 12”    Oil

Meet my Framer


John has several vices


Let me introduce you to John Wisniewski and his business in Camp Verde, Classic Picture Frame.  I met John way back in 2005 when I lived in Cottonwood.  Several painting-friends highly recommended John and since our first meeting, I’ve never gone anywhere else for frames.  John’s service is immediate; if he doesn’t have framing material in stock, he’ll order it and have a frame ready for me within a week or less.  He made the frame he’s holding that very morning. 

John’s good judgement has been invaluable many times.  I’m a Pisces and when presented with many choices, I have a difficult time making decisions. When I bring a painting in, John will go to his wall of samples, and start selecting possibilities.  Sometimes he tries out a sample I’d never have considered and it’s just the perfect match; and we have a good laugh when it’s not.  

If you’ve purchased one of my paintings, chances are it’s wearing a frame made by John!

Meet my photographer


Ken evaluates


Ken and Pele

I’d like to introduce you to several important people in my life.  First in this short series is Ken, my photographer.  I’ve been seeing Ken ever since 2005 when I lived in Cottonwood.  I needed someone to photograph my paintings and make prints.  A painter friend of mine, Cody DeLong, recommended Kenny to me.  Kenny doesn’t try to impress me with his camera and computer prowess; he knows I have limited understanding and limited time.  He uses top of the line equipment and is meticulous in color adjusting and fine-tuning images for reproduction.  I’m often asked why I travel all the way to Cottonwood to have my paintings photographed and I say, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.  I like Kenny’s precision, his fine sense of humor, and excellent results.  And any man who exclaims over my fine histogram is OK with me!

A look inside


My work station


This is where I spend 90% of my time in the studio.  My easel is just to the left of the paper towel holder.  About five years ago, I realized I needed a much more efficient and versatile work station, so I ordered this cool thing.  The wooden lid lifts up and flips forward from the slot and covers everything up at the end of a painting session.  My favorite part of the day is opening it, sliding it back and revealing the awaiting piles of paint with their delicious oily fragrance.  On the side are two palette knives I use for mixing paint and often for applying paint to the canvas.  The blue and white tube is Gamblin’s solvent free gel, a medium that can be mixed with paint to change the texture.  Other items are a cake of brush soap in the round beige container, a glass scraper, and a cup for medium.  The brushes I use for painting lie on the side in the tray and the ones I currently use for a painting rest in the solvent can.  Inside the doors is a storage area where I keep additional solvent and medium.  At the end of the day, I’ll clean off all the paint in the middle of the glass palette, using the glass scraper, then wiping it down the a paper towel and a little bit of solvent.  I cover the paint with a thin newspaper bag which prevents it from getting a dried skin on top.  



Oak Creek


Painting buddy, Bob, and I traveled down to the Verde Valley to do a little practicing before the Sedona Plein Air Festival.  Since several events will be held at wineries, we thought we’d visit Page Springs Cellars and take a look around.  We bumped into owner and vintner, Eric Glomski who advised us to check out a location creekside.  We did and stayed there painting the rest of the afternoon.  With our painting gear loaded on our backs, we found our way down a path to ledges along the creek.  I have to say, this was one of the most idyllic painting locations in which I’ve ever been.  Great blue herons plying the water for a meal, butterflies nectaring fall flowers along the bank, and the beautiful back light on the trees just made the whole scene heavenly.  I don’t often paint trees and water, so this was a challenge.  I drew my initial plan in my sketchbook, translated that to my 8”x10” canvas and got started.  Putting in the darks first, I was able to get a nice contrast where the sun hit the margins of the trees.  Now all I need to do is put in a fish leaping out of the water and a hungry heron nearby!


Dawn@DawnSutherlandFineArt.com  © Dawn Sutherland  2017