“October Tree” Improvisation

“October Tree” Improvisation

I have been asked about videos of my drawings in progress. Here’s a quick one (1:15) of me improvising with pen and ink on paper for #Inktober 2017. (Music by the artist.)

Inner Vision: “Emerging”

Inner Vision: “Emerging”


“Emerging” – Inner Vision – Acrylic on Canvas – 13×17.9″/33×45.5 cm

“Emerging” – Acrylic on Canvas – 13×17.9″/33×45.5 cm

The path to this sacred place is long and difficult.
Many times have I come to stand on this shore
waiting, hoping for a glimpse.
Each time, I have had to leave before the darkness falls.
Time and again, I have returned.
You knew I would.
Once more the arduous journey is taken.
Patience, persistence, openness, constancy, trust.
You emerge.
I see you.

The Making of a Self-Evolving Landscape

The Making of a Self-Evolving Landscape

I recently painted “Echoes of the Ancients,” using a technique that I have not tried on a landscape before. I call it the “self-evolving” process, since it’s essentially improvised directly on the final surface. In the case of a self-evolving portrait, I know only that the final image will be “a face.” I just scribble on the paper until the face shows up, and then I try to fill in the details as they appear.

In this most recent painting, I knew it was going to be “a rocky place with ruins.” That’s all I knew. Oh, yeah, and this time I was going to do it big and in full color.

I put a blank 24×18″ canvas on the easel and just started painting wet, broad brushstrokes of cobalt, ultramarine, dioxazine purple and raw umber in various proportions. On the right hand side, I also used some cyan. I used water to wipe out certain bits, and tissues to create texture or pull off some paint. Here’s what it looked like at the end of the first session:


I don’t know which inspired which, but as I was painting the upper right hand clouds, we got a serious thunderstorm!

By the way, the work-in-progress photos were taken with a handheld point-and-shoot camera and not color corrected, so they’re not A-1 accurate.

In any case, at this point, I wasn’t sure exactly how the land masses worked together. There seemed to be an opportunity for a cave, perhaps, and I made that zigzagging path to lead to it. It felt like a decent start.

In the next session, I developed some of the ideas that seemed to be suggesting themselves. It looked like this at the end of Session Two:


Those three guys in the middle-right were supposed to be made of stone, but there was no way to make that obvious. To me, they looked like giant dwarves coming around the corner: not what I had in mind. I did what I could to make sense of the lower left quadrant, but it didn’t seem to work. Ugh.

I had to take some serious risks now, so I did: I got out the white gesso and blanked out a bunch of stuff! I used some more of it to push the right side mountains further into the distance and to suggest a waterfall on the far right. When the gesso was dry, I used the same original underpainting colors to get rid of the old “cave,” and build up some more solid rocky areas.

Then I started  bringing out as much detail as I could, using my smallest brushes to paint over the dark areas with titanium white. I also punched up the light coming out of the lower entrance. I found some other places where I seemed to see faces, so I refined those, using ultramarine, purple and raw umber for shadows. I also liked the idea that some water might emerge from that canyon area on the left, so I added that. Here’s what the painting looked like at the end of Session Three:


I decided I didn’t like the details on the end of the railings. They didn’t match the level of erosion in the rest of the image (and they looked like little “Godzillas,” so they had to go). They went.

I wanted the faces in the lower right to seem to grow out of (or be hidden in) the rocks, so I added cracks, shadows and highlights, accordingly. Adding a bit more atmosphere to the mountains, and taking out some other extraneous details started to bring the full image together. By the end of Session Four, the painting had become this:


Session Five was all about refinements in the foreground and definition in the middle and back areas. It was pretty much the last major session for the painting. Once that was done, I just had to add a couple of figures checking out the place. In the end, this is what it turned out to be.


“Echoes of the Ancients” – Acrylic on canvas/linen – 24×18″/60.5.45cm

The Western Pass

The Western Pass

WesternPass_AC_605x450“The Western Pass” – Acrylic on canvas/linen – 18×24″/60.5x45cm

Oral history suggests that this was once a well-traveled road, but centuries of avalanches and landslides have reshaped the landscape. Few of the old markers remain. At one point, we lost the trail completely and had to backtrack almost a full day to pick it up again. Snow is beginning to fall in the higher elevations, so we quicken our pace, continuing after sunset if we can see at all.

Tonight we can go no further. The storm that has threatened all day has arrived. We settle in under an outcrop that provides at least a little shelter from the wind and sleet.

Dawn arrives with a welcome stillness. We shoulder our packs and continue. Once again we lose the trail. Once again we see it resume further ahead. We follow it, cutting switchbacks wherever possible.

Shadows recede from the mountain tops, reluctantly allowing the rays of the rising sun to finally warm our backs. The pinnacle that used to stand here now lies in pieces a long way down the slope. Whatever cataclysm sent that gendarme into the abyss took the road with it. We work our way up the exposed rocks, avoiding the choss and loose dirt as we search for proper hand and footholds. Breathless, we clear the corner and look across the divide.

Only now do we see the ruined gate.

It’s taller than I expected, probably four times my height. It’s also surprisingly intact. One of the arches has fallen and any details have long since worn away, but how this thing still stands at all, I can hardly imagine.

The legends say the gate leads not to the valley but to a world beyond. We’re here to find out if the legends were true. One way or the other, it leads to places you and I have never been. On the other hand, every step we’ve taken since we embarked on this journey has led us somewhere we have never been before.

That’s why we’re here. And so, we continue.

Inner Vision: “Rediscovery”

Inner Vision: “Rediscovery”


“Rediscovery” – Acrylic on canvas/linen, 25.6×19.7″/65x50cm

“Rediscovery” – Acrylic on canvas/linen

Your great-grandfather had told of how our ancestors had wandered the great southern mountains whose summits gleamed with snow even in the summer. Unlike most people, you and I did not laugh at the old man.

The night before he died, he gave you his favorite book. He called it history. Everyone else called it hogwash.

In the weeks that followed the old man’s passing, we studied the book assiduously. Every page spoke of amazing people, their journeys, their sorrows and joys. Some of the tales we recognized from your great-grandfather’s telling.

In the very center of the book, we found the map he had hidden between the pages. The parchment was yellowed and frayed, but the markings were readable in good light. They showed our village, the southern road out of town, and six or seven routes through the mountains. Beyond that, it was a bit sketchy.

No one had ventured into the southern mountains for as long as anyone could remember. The reasons given were unconvincing to us. Too barren, they said, trackless and treacherous. There was no food or game and the water was probably poisoned. We knew all the answers.

By dawn the next day, we were long gone. We had told no one; what would be the point? A week later, we sent my father’s faithful horse back home and continued onward, following the long-disused track that led beyond the foothills.

It was our turn.


These imaginary scenes (my “inner visions”) are getting clearer. I’m refining the process as I go. Further down, you can see the original rough sketch and get all the geeky details about how this painting came together.


I put an 18×24″ sheet of white paper up on the board and drew whatever came into my head. Once I’d captured a basic idea that I liked, I laid another sheet over the first to trace and refine the drawing. I spent quite a bit of time on the refinements, but when I was done, I decided I preferred the original unrefined sketch (below).


Then I did some heavy shading with a soft pencil on the backside of the original sketch, following the lines of the drawing. After taping the sketch to the canvas, I drew over it with a pen, pressing the graphite on the back onto the canvas, kind of like using carbon paper. The pen’s colored ink helps me see which lines I haven’t traced yet. The end result is a thin outline of the main shapes on the canvas. I used a harder pencil directly on the canvas for the final outlines. I kept it loose and sketchy as much as possible.

Mixing Dioxazine Purple, Cobalt Blue, and Raw Umber in first more blue-weighted proportions and then more umber and purple-weighted proportions, I very roughly painted in the basic shapes from back to front. The result was rather heavy and dark, but I expected that since acrylic always dries darker. The important thing was that I had some subtle color variations, the proper cold/warm ratio from the background to the foreground, and some nice textures.

I wanted to “knock back” the stuff in the distance, so I lightly dipped a bristly old brush into some white primer and started scumbling a thin, semi-opaque layer over the far distance area. Whoa! With the very first strokes, I put down WAY more than I intended, but…I LIKED IT! I’ve always liked the look of new snow on bare rock with new snow, and this looked like that, so I went for it, scumbling as fast and loosely as I could. Improvised snowfields and avalanche chutes materialized as I painted.

Once I had the basic values and atmosphere set, I went over everything with Titanium White. In fact, for the entire second session, I painted with nothing but white. I had all kinds of fun playing off the textures, refining the snowfields, defining cliffs, crags and boulders, and adding mist and swirling snow. In the last session, I finished the snow and then improvised the design of the two apparent “openings” on the left and right. Again, I used only white to bring out the shapes.

Once that was done, some of the foreground rocks still needed some stronger definition, so made a watery mix of my original underpainting colors and fixed a few edges. Finally, I added the two figures (you saw those, did you?), letting them dry completely before adding more white to put them in proper context. I also added a bit of white to the darker rocks that had dried too dark again.

So there you have all the technical details for this painting. Thanks for reading! If you have questions, let me know in the comments. I’ll answer as many as I can!

The Portal

The Portal

Ruined_Portal_1_Duotone_297x210_Web“Ruined Portal” – 297x210mm
Graphite and white charcoal on colored paper

The approach was long and difficult. Once we got to the rope-up point, we decided to take a rest day before starting the climb. We were prepared, but that didn’t make it any easier. Some of the pitches were 5.11-5.12, so it was pretty much at the limit of my skills. I could hardly imagine how the ancients ever made it up here without decent climbing gear.

It was even harder to imagine how they had crafted the stairs we found once we reached the saddle that led to the ridge. The entire spine was set with stone steps, some of which probably weighed a thousand pounds, fitted together perfectly without mortar. The traverse of that exposed, jagged spine turned out to be the easiest part of the climb. The steps ended unexpectedly. A notch 100 feet deep and 40 feet wide separated us from the main peak. We could rappel down and climb up the other side easily enough, but, again, we wondered how the ancients had managed it.

From here, though, we could see our objective clearly for the first time: a circular shape carved into the mountain.

“There’s the ruined portal we’ve been looking for,” I said.

James sat down and stared at it across the little chasm. “Sure looks like a portal, doesn’t it,” he said. “Strange design.”

“The stories say it’s reached by a bridge,” I said. “Guess that’s crumbled away by now.”

“Maybe,” said James; “but I bet if it was built by the same guys who laid these steps, it would still be standing.”

“We can make it,” I said, eyeing a possible route. “It’s just a scramble, really.”

“You hear that hum?” asked James.

“Yeah, when did that start?” I could feel it in my chest.

“It’s getting louder,” said James.

Definitely louder. The stones all around us seemed to be vibrating. Within a few seconds, we had to shout to hear each other.

“Sit tight!” hollered James. “No safer anywhere else!”

We hunkered down on hands and knees. The hum grew more intense every second. At first, it was a single low note. Then a second note joined it, a fifth above. Then a third note began, an octave above the first: the perfect power chord.

The rocks beneath us started to move! We scuttled further away from the notch, but we had nowhere to go.

As the chord grew stronger, the first three notes were joined by a series of complex harmonics, changing the tone and adding a richness unlike anything I had ever heard before. Everything in my body was vibrating with the same frequencies.

“Look!” yelled James.

The stones were arranging themselves on both sides of the notch, reaching across thin air toward the center. The sound seemed to be creating some sort of structure.

“The bridge!” I shouted.

By the time I’d said that, the two sides had connected. The sound did not diminish; it only became clearer.

James yelled something. I couldn’t hear him. He tied his harness to one end of the rope. Then he measured off 40 feet and looped that part a few times around the most secure looking spiky bit nearby. He handed the other end to me. I quickly got on belay. Then he started walking. He was crossing the bridge! I would have been crawling. James fairly ran it. In seconds, he was on the other side.

He secured a belay on his side and motioned to me to come over. I checked my knot twice and unwound the belay anchor on this side. It would be a 45′ fall if the bridge collapsed.

I didn’t crawl like I thought I would. Before I could change my mind, I was with James on the other side.

The humming shifted and the bridge disassembled itself, each stone going back to its original position. Now there was just a notch again. Everything stopped

“Maybe the portal isn’t ruined after all,” I said.

“Let’s find out,” said James.