Painting a Blue Sky After Tropical Storm

Painting a Blue Sky After Tropical Storm

The Art of Daniel Ambrose

Hauntingly Beautiful Paintings

For the past month I’ve been on the west side of Florida. I came here to study the shoreline and sunsets on the Gulf. I’ve got a solo show in January of major oil paintings and wanted to create a body of work from a specific coastal place.

To know a thing I need to live with it for a time.

So I settle in and start looking at stuff. No hurry, no pressure to paint right away. Just observe the daily comings and goings of clouds and birds and bunnies in the grass, and compare color relationships. Every place has its own tone, and color palette.

Last weekend a tropical storm blew through the island.

Pristine Blue, oil color sketch of Venice beach, Florida, by Daniel Ambrose

Pristine Blue, oil color sketch.

While having coffee on the patio the next morning, I noticed the blueness of the sky. A rich, pristine blue. As if the storm had purged all the dirt from the air, and a divine hand had polished the atmosphere.

Dang! I need to paint this!

I hightailed it to the beach with my oil paints and sketchbook.

It was early morning still and the sky was already beginning to warm near the horizon. It was beginning to pale. I rapidly rubbed color on the paper, spreading blue around. Give the sky the largest space, just let that blue pour down.

Pristine blue.

Simply painting light in quick color notes.

The two sketches below represent ways of handling light in different mediums.

Path to the sea, quick pen and ink sketch of palmettos and sea oats by Daniel Ambrose

Path to the sea, quick pen and ink sketch

I was itching to try a new drawing pen, so I returned to a scene that I had already painted. I concentrated on the darker masses and indicated the sunlit areas with a few gestural marks of my pen. It’s just a quick 10 minute sketch and nothing like his incredible pen and ink study in the photo below by Albrecht Durer.

Praying Hands by Albrecht Durer

Praying Hands by Albrecht Durer

Though I am in awe of masterful pen and ink drawings like these Praying Hands by Albrecht Durer, I find that I still prefer the feel of pencil on paper for drawing tones.

Willet, pencil sketch by Daniel Ambrose

Willet, pencil sketch

So I followed the dune path in my pen drawing to the beach and found this bird at the edge of the sea. Brilliant sunlight on the water presented the bird as a dark form. This type of back lighting is called “contre-jour,” French for “against daylight.” I made a quick sketch with my favorite pencil.

Tomorrow I head back to the east coast and then on to Maine to join my friends. I’ve got a sketchbook full of studies, and a head full of ideas. I’ve already begun a 30 x 60 oil and will show it to you soon.

Until then, have a safe and joyful summer. Try to find a few moments to spend by the water. Any water.

It will do you good.

I’ll leave you with this song from my southern youth. Blue Sky, by the Allman Brothers.

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Waiting Out a Storm, Oil Sketch as Evening Falls

Waiting Out a Storm, Oil Sketch as Evening Falls

The Art of Daniel Ambrose

Hauntingly Beautiful Paintings
After the rain, oil sketch of Venice, Fl beach and clouds by Daniel Ambrose

After the storm as evening falls, oil sketch from the journals of Daniel Ambrose

Sitting in a cafe, cup of black coffee in hand, hardcover sketchbook open on a thick wood table, I wait out a tropical storm. Reviewing recent drawings of the local beach, and making notes from a book I’m currently reading by Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Mindful Living.

Lightning and wind have been lashing the area all morning. Churning up white waves on a typically placid sea. Through the cafe’s blurry windows, gray and ghostlike objects emerge then melt away.

The Lumineers Cleopatra drifts over the rainstorm—”. . . I was late, late for this, late for that. . . and when I die. . . I’ll be on time.”

Diamond Sutra from the British Library

Diamond Sutra from the British Library

In Thich Nhat Hanh’s book he mentions the Diamond Sutra. Over 1,000 years old, it is the world’s oldest dated printed book and resides in the British Museum. I order a translated copy from Amazon via my phone. Order a thousand year old text in seconds on a tiny electronic device with more computing power than NASA used to put Neil Armstrong on the moon. In a few moments this ancient text is delivered to my Kindle. With a few clicks ignorance is abolished.

While some good things remain.

At a counter running lengthwise along the cafe windows, a young couple eat breakfast. They get ready to leave. He takes off his camouflage coat and places it over her shoulders. She stands and slips her arms through its sleeves. He pulls the hood up over her head and cinches it snug. She turns and smiles at him.

Lord Huron sings, “I had all and then most of you, some and now none of you. . .”

The couple walk through the door into the rain and disappear in the mist.

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. . . ”

Almost 13 million dollars were spent this year restoring sand to storm ravaged beaches around here. There is talk of desirable sand supplies being depleted. Communities are running out of sand and money. Last year, federal legislators passed the Water Resources Development Act that allows funds to study if it’s feasible to bring sand in from foreign shores like the Bahamas.

I wonder how the Bahamians would feel about it.

Billions of pounds of garbage are accumulating in vast rafts in the ocean, billions of tiny particles of plastic are gathering on our shores. Plastic that was not there when I played on the beach as a child.

Electronic devices that become gateways to enlightenment did not exist when I was a child. Become gateways to needless distraction or knowledge. Gateways to awareness.

The communities restore beach sand to protect property values and tourism revenues. The sand is covering up ancient shark’s teeth sun seekers like to collect. I wonder if plastic particles will outnumber sharks teeth in the near future. Million year old shark teeth versus half a century old plastic.

What will writers and other artists of the future say about our time?

The rain is slacking, the sky is breaking apart and I am going to paint the beach after this storm.

Or is the storm just beginning to gather?

I close my sketchbook, push back my chair and get up to leave.

Lord Huron trails me out the door. . .

“I am not the only traveler. . . .”

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Painting the Sound of a Seaside Morning

Painting the Sound of a Seaside Morning

The Art of Daniel Ambrose

Hauntingly Beautiful Paintings
Oil sketch recording seaside morning color sensations, Venice Beach, Fl.

Color notes. Oil sketch recording seaside color sensations.

Seaside Morning

The sun is gleaming on the the water. Far out on the horizon, a rolling thunderstorm grumbles over the Gulf. Nearer to shore, cumulus clouds drift in a silent, lazy train.

I am surrounded by textures, immersed in patterns, forms repeat in various incarnations. Floating, curving and ever shifting forms. The moist air of clouds. Springy sea oats. Their lean lines curve and bow, and paint lacy patterns of blue gray on the warm, pale gray sand.

Ageless sand, coarse and fine and formed from innumerable shell and fossil fragments. Solid earth planted beneath a gaseous sky. Shells from the sea, water from outer space, and sun, always the sun, the color of light, the color of life.

Sparse, short grasses blanket the beach in patches. Slight mounds of warm green, dry domes of terse texture contrast with the upright dignity of swaying sea oats. If they were a language, the short grass would be the sturdy, slang, everyday words, while the sea oats would sing songs of poetry. Vivid yellow dune flowers embellish the melody like the high clear notes of a flute. All is a symphony of sound, shape and color.

Rambling morning glories weave themselves under the sea oats, competing for attention. Rambling and reaching their sienna tendrils out to lay claim to new territory. Bright, yellow-green oblong leaves show off tubular purple flowers. A morning dove wanders among the morning glory. Its feathered body casts a long blue shadow in the slanted sunlight. With a squeak and a flutter it flies away. Seacoast sounds.

Whispering sounds, the lapping of gentle waves, crickets in the grasses, birds sing in tune with the melody of this seaside morning.

The sun is getting hotter. The tide is rising. A breeze begins to stir from the sea.

I may go for a swim.

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This Beautiful Planet

This Beautiful Planet

The Art of Daniel Ambrose

Hauntingly Beautiful Paintings
unfinished oil sketch of Venice Beach, Florida. This beautiful planet. Page from Daniel Ambrose sketchbook

Unfinished sketch. This beautiful planet. Venice Beach, Fl. Daniel Ambrose journal.

“Excuse me sir. . . excuse me sir. . . Sir, sir, excuse me. . . sir were you sitting here when the maintenance people came and took my stuff?”

I was kind of hoping he wouldn’t be here today.

The sound of thunder rolled me out of bed early this morning. I decide to go to the same spot on the beach that I painted yesterday. Maybe do a color study of the morning glory.

The clouds are massive, packed and bunched up high in the sky. Thunder booms and a dark curtain of rain brushes along the horizon. I whip out my paint box to capture its color.

A lone tree down the distant shore catches my eye. A dark note. I had not noticed it yesterday. An Australian pine? This is what I was taught to call them as a child, until someone told me they are also called Casuarina. I don’t know. I don’t even know what color it is in this moist light. I see that it’s dark, a gray violet and a bit warmer on the —

“How could they have a conscience!”

The voice behind me interrupts my color thinking.

Angrier now— “You gotta be kiddin’ me!”

Oh please! Can’t you see I’m trying to order the universe over here!?

“What, you can’t even go to the bathroom, and they take your stuff. I found it over by the trash can.”

He’s just getting warmed up. Still, I take out my pencil to make notes before I forget.

“I was only gone for an hour.”

Dang it! It’s pointless to concentrate. I casually start packing while glancing around for my shortest escape route.

“You’re destroying the only house for light years around — yeah— you watch —I could be dead and gone, but you watch. I’ll be there and I’ll tell God, so look what they did and God will say, yeah — just shut up Michael and sit down.”

I ease by him. I would love to stay and talk with you, but I have to get to work.

“Well, you have a blessed day, sir.”

You too.

“That hat is got some age to it.”

Yeah— I smile. Kinda like me.

“Have a blessed day sir.”

I’ll see ya.

“God bless you.”

You as well. Mercifully, I see the white roof of my van through the sea oats.

Standing now, tanned and tattooed, cigarette stabbing the air, his voice trails me through the dunes.

“I worked. I had three kids. I don’t like being around people. This beautiful planet is gonna burn up, you just . . ”

I load my paint gear into the van.

This beautiful planet.

Yeah — this beautiful planet — In those three words, he and I have found common ground.

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Coyotes on the Beach

Coyotes on the Beach

The Art of Daniel Ambrose

Hauntingly Beautiful Paintings

Daniel Ambrose artist sketchbook. Venice, Fl. beach

I wake to the sound of rain. It lightly patters on the back porch roof while I boil water for my french press coffee. I pour it in my travel mug and wait for the coffee to seep. Four minutes. As I press the plunger down the rain stops. I head for the beach.

Thunder threatens from the south, more rain is coming. But I’ll wait and see what draws my eye. I’m good here, content with my coffee and sketchbook. Negative ions charge the moist air. A bolt of white lightning strikes the sea. The water a curious shade of milky green. It bleeds into a blue gray sky. Or is it a bit redder towards the east? Yes. And now I see the same tint in the water. A soft patch of sea oats to the left frames my field of view. It draws my eye down to a clump of morning glory in front of me, creating a composition of the whole

A painting is beginning to form.

I open my sketch book and feel my way around the scene with my pencil. Searching for shapes, lines, patterns. Searching for movement, something for my pencil to take hold.

Heavy cloud cover diffuses the morning light, bringing colors and tones closer together. Shapes of color flow into one another, making elements recede in space. It’s the morning glory. The darkest note—this emerald pyramid thrusts up to the sky, as if saying, rain, thank you for this rain. A magenta flower perches at the peak, like royalty. I follow it up, up to the sky, a cloud rolls in, echoing the form, the movement of this morning glory.

This is it, what I have been waiting for. I open my little wood paint box, and quickly begin to sketch the colors with my oil paints. Color notes, I call them. Simple memory triggers should I decide to pursue this idea in a tempera painting someday.

The rolling cloud and sky are very close in value, so color is the way to separate, to distinguish each shape. I want this cloud to be quiet, a thing to notice later. A painting is like entering a new room filled with wonders. The eye naturally goes to the brightest and biggest thing, and then seeking relief, will wander to the quieter places. A painting should take the eye and mind on a wondrous journey.

Now, three people enter the scene. A turtle patrol. They walk to a loggerhead turtle nest. The sand around it is disturbed. One of them kneels down and digs in the sand. He finds broken eggs. Coyotes. The woman tells me coyotes dig up the nests. It used to be raccoons, but now it’s coyotes.

Coyotes, here on a tropic beach?

I think of the coyotes I heard one cold night, yipping and howling on a ridge in the western North Carolina mountains. I stood outside on a stone wall I built, under a twin white oak, my breath condensing in the chill air. Listening in the icy darkness . . . yipping and howling. Was that night really almost a decade ago?

And now here we are on this tropic beach.

Me. . . painting a morning glory, and damn coyotes digging up turtle eggs.

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The Art of Egg Tempera Painting: Preparing Panels

The Art of Egg Tempera Painting: Preparing Panels

The Art of Daniel Ambrose

Hauntingly Beautiful Paintings

Part 1 of a series titled The Art of Egg Tempera Painting summarizing the process that I use to prepare materials for painting in egg tempera. For the first post in this series, read the Introduction.

powdered hide glue for chalk gesso the art of egg tempera painting

Hide glue for chalk gesso.

The Art of Egg Tempera Painting

The humble egg has proven itself to be an enduring painting medium throughout art history. Egg was used as a paint binder by the ancient Egyptians and Greeks thousands of years ago. During the European Renaissance, the art of egg tempera painting flourished before gradually declining as oil found it’s way into painters studios.

Adding various oils instead of egg to pigments increased their drying time, and facilitated new painting methods. The advent of oil painting allowed artists to work on larger, lighter weight canvases. The invention of tubed oil paints in the 1800’s enabled painters to work outdoors, helping to ignite the plein air Impressionist movement.

As painters explored this new oil medium, the practice of painting in egg tempera waned. Over the succeeding centuries, egg tempera resurfaced a couple of times; in Britain in the 1800’s and America in the early part of the 20th century, when professor Daniel Thompson introduced it in his course at Yale.

The enduring, inherent jewel-like beauty of an egg tempera painting is unparalleled. Their satin surface shimmers with subtle hues of color, and their ability to reflect light, like a stained glass window, imbues them with an organic presence, emitting an inner glow. Egg tempera paintings retain their colors for centuries. It’s this lasting value combined with sublime effects of light, that has challenged and delighted me over the decades.

However, egg tempera is a demanding medium and proper steps must be taken to ensure its longevity. The first step in this journey of light, is preparing the panels.

Panels

The nature of egg tempera paint requires that it be applied on a rigid support, unlike other painting mediums which can be painted on a flexible surface such as canvas or paper. Small egg tempera paintings can also be painted on 8 ply, acid free museum board made from cotton.

Incidentally, premium paper is made from plants; cotton, or flax which produces fine linen paper used in stationery. Cheaper paper is made from the pulp wood of pine trees. In the early part of the 20th century, this cheap paper was used to print magazines featuring pot boiler detective and science fiction stories. These became known as pulp fiction. Many of the scrawny pine trees lining the interstates here in the southeastern United States are pulp trees. In Georgia, you know you are nearing Brunswick when you get a distinctive whiff of the paper mill.

To begin a painting in egg tempera, historically, an artist would have a carpenter make a wooden panel from oak or poplar wood. The carpenter glued narrow boards together to make the desired panel width. Sometimes linen was glued to the surface. Over time, atmospheric changes would cause the wood to contract and expand creating small cracks in the painting.

In 1924 William Mason invented a stable hardboard wood product available in large sheets. It was named Masonite and artists soon adapted it. The generic name for hardboard became known as masonite. In mid-century hardboard was “tempered” (dipped in linseed oil) which caused adhesive problems for artists. “Untempered” hardboard, though increasingly hard to find, is still available on the market, and is the material I currently use as panels for my paintings.

I make several panels at the same time and begin by cutting the hardboard to the desired sizes, then sand and clean them with denatured alcohol. The panels need to be sealed before they are prepped for painting. This sealant is called a “size.”

Sizing Panels

heating hide glue for chalk gessoTraditional glue “size” is prepared by soaking gelatin glue granules in water overnight. Next, it is slowly warmed in a double boiler to a temperature of about 110-130 degrees Fahrenheit. The formula is a 1:1 ratio of about 2 cups water to 2 tablespoons glue granules.

I slowly add the granules to a bowl placed on a saucepan of water, stirring until it is warmed to the desired temperature and dissolved.

Next, I remove it from the burner, let it set for a while to cool then leave it in the refrigerator overnight.

The next day the congealed glue is heated the same way as the day before until it melts.

Glue size in pan before heating

Preparing to heat the glue size.

The warm glue is immediately brushed on the hardboard panels, and allowed to dry overnight. While the panels are drying, I begin the next step which is making the gesso.

Panels coated with glue size for painting in egg tempera.

Panels coated with glue size.

In the next art of egg tempera painting article, I’ll describe the gesso making process, and what artists typically think of as gesso is not true gesso.

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