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#30×30 Day One : On Blocks Laid By Giants

June 1, 2021

Hello everyone! Welcome to Day One of the 2021 watercolor marathon!

As we begin this month long project I think it worth thinking a bit about a *structure* for your project.

Every year I try to establish a set of ‘rules’.

An approach I will try to follow for as long as I can stick with it. Almost inevitably I do deviate – especially near the end when I get tired. But still – having an over-arching goal – besides just ‘paint every day’ is very helpful.

When we first started doing #30×30, it was easy for me. I was already used to doing daily painting on location. Urban Sketching was my first love, and travel is a great motivation to make art. You’re seeing new things, exploring a place, finding the views. It’s also the way I learned to paint. The university of trial-by-error and painting-against-the-clock – the sun waits for no man! You learn a lot in a very short time by painting on location.

In year two I experimented with imaginary compositions – inventing abstract landscapes, This was a big reversal for me, and an important step to becoming a studio painter. It was really a dry run for what I would do for the next two years learning to paint in oils. It was also a bit eye opening, because I quite accidently discovered I held some very strong opinions about landscape painting, and a very clear vision for the project appeared instantaneously, without any effort on my part. It was all there, I simply had to make the time to put it down on paper.

In year three – it was 2020, and #30×30 coincided with the beginning of the COVID lockdown here in Montreal. I had become quite used to being in the studio, so the quarantine actually gave me permission to just stay inside, painting from photographs. Looking back, it seems my goal was to take on the most difficult watercolor problems I could find. Mostly things I’d failed at painting when I tried them in real life. It was a good distraction from the early quarantine. But to be honest, it became more difficult to make work that was purely ‘technical’. I feel I learned a great deal about Direct Painting that year – but it was also the most frustration I’ve given myself in quite a while.

That sort of thing is far too stressful for 2021. I’m just not up to that right now.

This year, I need something where the paintings are a relief from the terrible news around the world. Not a challenge to whip myself with, but rather – a painting holiday.

So, this is my plan for 2021. Returning to places I’ve been on holiday! I’m going to be (mentally) re-visiting some of my favorite paintings (done in oils), and doing a new (improved?) version in watercolor.

With this exercise, I hope to discover some things about what I love in the two different media.

Why I might do something in one, that I would do differently in the other. And what underlying things that remain the same, even while the painting process is complexly different – things like composition, concept, and narrative.

Possibly – we’ll find these two artforms aren’t as different as you might think.

So! This (above) is my 24×24″ impasto oil painting On Blocks Made By Giants, I’m Big as the Sky, Small as a Beetle.

Here’s is a side by side comparison. Watercolor vs. Oil.

Of course, it’s not exactly the same view. I’ve mislaid the original photo. And, I’m not patient enough to duplicate the painting exactly – more like, let’s do another one that has the same spirit.

What I loved about this place was the contrast between massive blocks of stone where we stood, and the wide empty chaparral flowing out to the distant mesa.

I see I dramatically exaggerated the horizon in the oil painting – turning it into a distant mountain. That’s the Canadian in me. There are no mountains like that in New Mexico. Not that I saw anyway.

Here’s a couple more comparisons. These are not to scale, but they show the same kind of painting problem, and how I’ve handled it in the two media.

For interest sake, here’s the reference photo compared to the watercolor.

This is like a game of spot the difference :)

What’s changed? There’s color choices of course. The painting is cooler over all. The photo was close to sunset, and I may well have processed it in the past to be more golden. With this watercolor, one of my big concerns was the huge shadow in the foreground. I made it pinkish, instead of grey. I think it suggests some kind of bounced light – and it relieves what might have been a huge dead spot right in the middle of the frame.

This composition by the way is a crop from a larger photo. So that odd situation, with 1/4 of the frame being this cube of rock – that’s the way I want it. Not an accident :) I don’t know what you guys think about this choice – but, given an opportunity, I’ll often choose to make something that balances via asymmetry.

What else – – lowering the main midground group of rocks for compositional reasons, and adding an imaginary pinnacle in the distance – to give your eyes something to leap to – kind of a stepping stone on the way to the far horizon.

Can you see the dotted line from the very tip of the cliff, to the distant pillar, and the glint of light on the mesa? Follow the breadcrumbs to the horizon!

These are the kind of sneaky depth cues that can make a painting draw you in to its imaginary space.

Oh, wait – I did find the other photo reference! Another game of spot the difference!

Interesting to look back to 2019 and see myself making the same kind of changes. Small but important adjustments in major lines of direction within the composition, and some ‘artistic invention’ to create a visual target on the horizon.


That’s my first watercolor of the season, and the journey towards making it.

I’m already working on the next one!

I hope you had a great day, and made yourself something fun and inspirational – and – I hope you’ll be posting it to the Facebook group so we can chat :)

Take care and see you tomorrow.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. C Joy 34 permalink
    June 1, 2021 3:51 PM

    hi MarcI am an artist who is disabled and I can rarely leave my house and painting en situ would be almost impossible. Plus I don’t drive and it’s hard to talk someone into driving me and then just hanging out while i drew.  I took your Craftsy class and did go  to a mall and drew people there once or twice. My question is “what advice would you give to someone who is so limited physically in regard to finding topics and scenery to paint?”  Are there any good magazines you would recommend with good resource photos?  Is there something bad about stealing the photogrpher’s vision in magazine pics? If I was into fantasy artwork it might be easier but I am not strongly motivated in that direction.Good luck to you in the 30×30.Cynthia Vogel

    • June 1, 2021 8:12 PM

      Hey Joy! Thanks for getting in touch.
      I just answered with a very nice reply, and then somehow messed up and lost it! So here’s a second try.

      Ok, so, some resources I can think of are – the iOS app SKTCHY – where people donate their own image for us to draw. Or /r DrawMe on which is the same idea in a message group style. Then – there are life drawing clubs on instagram – one I’ve drawn with is @unspeakeable.e7. You send them a paypal and they send you back a link to a zoom meeting. This does of course require a computer with a web-cam, or at least an ipad with all that built in.

      For Urban Sketching – a lot of people use the Street View in Google Maps! It’s surprising the nice views you can find. I quickly googled and found a list – ’17 stunning places to visit with google maps’ – so I’m sure there is a lot of that out there.

      Also – some sketchers have been recommending, which is pretty much what it sounds like. You get a view out of someone’s window. I have not tried it myself, but was just zooming with someone who does a lot of it.

      As for ‘stealing’ from photographers :) :) I personally think it’s totally fine! Most of us are not selling the paintings we make. So if it’s just for you, all that matters is are you having fun doing it. But even if you want to sell work – most countries copyright law says artistic interpretations are not violations. A painting is not considered a commercial use. Which, if you’ve tried to sell your artwork is absolutely true. Hah! (no seriously – a one of a kind is not commercial – not like printing shirts or mugs with a photo on them). Now – some galleries or art clubs have rules against using photos, but I feel like that is just them ‘covering their butts’ – or some kind of art snobbery. If it’s considered artistic to stand in front of a field and paint, then I can see no reason not to paint from a photo of that field. And – if I can’t get to all the places in the world I want to paint – I don’t choose to allow myself to be limited! I will just paint from those photos of Iceland or the Alps and enjoy my paintings :)

      Best of luck and please keep making art from any source you can find!

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