Seeing Color in the Desert – International Artist Magazine

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My article Seeing Color in the Desert (originally posted on CaliforniaDesertArt.com) has been reprinted in the August/September 2014 issue of International Artist magazine. It originally started with notes from my sketchbook about what I was observing while out painting, and what to do about certain problems that color posed or provided a solution to.

Upcoming Workshops

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Painting a nocturne

I’ve just put new painting workshops on the calendar, so they’re now open to registration. These workshops have limited space available, and are filled on a first come first served basis. For more info and to register, visit ericmerrell.com/workshops.html

FALL 2014 WORKSHOPS

IN THE MOONLIGHT: NOCTURNE PAINTING WORKSHOP
Pasadena, CA
October 4-5, 2014, $275

PAINTING PERCEPTIONS: FINDING BEAUTIFUL COLOR IN THE LANDSCAPE
Pasadena, CA
October 17-19, 2014, $450

SPRING 2015 WORKSHOPS

4th ANNUAL ANZA-BORREGO PAINTING WORKSHOP
Borrego Springs, CA
March 13-15, 2015, $450

4th ANNUAL JOSHUA TREE PAINTING WORKSHOP
Joshua Tree, CA
April 10-12, 2015, $450

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Students painting in the high desert in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.


Eric Merrell has taught art for over a decade with institutions such as the Los Angeles Academy of Figurative Art (LAAFA), the CSU Summer Arts Program, Pasadena Unified School District (PUSD), Crested Butte (CO) Center for the Arts, and others.

Crested Butte Plein Air Invitational

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I’m making frames and double-checking all of my tubes of paint, getting geared up to head out to Colorado next month for the Crested Butte Plein Air Invitational in Crested Butte, Colorado. I’ll be painting on location in Colorado for about two weeks prior to the exhibition opening, which will be July 11-13. If you plan to be in the area please stop by and say hi!

I’ll also be teaching a 1-day painting workshop on July 3 in conjunction with the Crested Butte Center for the Arts – check it out!

On Seeing Color in the Desert

By Eric Merrell

(Originally published on CaliforniaDesertArt.com)

I really began to develop some of the color ideas during my Joshua Tree residency in 2009. In the desert in summer, especially in JT, there are strong shadows early in the morning and late in the afternoon, but for 5-6 hours when the sun is overhead there is hardly a shadow for miles.

Caravan of the Moon

After struggling with it for awhile, I realized that when the shadows disappeared I lost artistically the ability to use value contrast (lights and darks) in a painting, but I still had color contrast. During the middle of the day (as in moonlight), we can still perceive distance, the masses and forms of boulders and trees, and the world continues to exist in three dimensions without the help of shadows (value), so I began to see that color was the way to try to convey that sense of light. One begins to mix all sorts of interesting colors to try and solve the problem. Painting is really problem solving.

These color ideas apply to any situation and any location. But the particular brightness of the desert, where everything exists in such a high-key situation – sand, mountains, sky, brush – it provides a wonderful problem for exploring the richness of color. Just as a white tablecloth reflects the ‘truest’ colors of outdoor light (when we look at something ‘white’, we are seeing the full spectrum of visible light), the desert reflects a great deal of light back to our eyes, back into shadows.

Students in my workshops often comment to me that they see color afterwards that they didn’t see before the workshop. When we study our visual world and what we see in terms of color and paint it is like exercising a muscle: the more often you use it, the stronger it becomes. In the scheme of art history, it also makes sense that our use of color continues to become more and more sophisticated.

Eric Merrell teaching a class. Photo by Ramona Rosales.

Color is a way we interpret our perceptions – truthfully, painting is another language, and not at all related to photography (which is itself another genuine art form). I think it is a language that almost everyone in the world understands, with its ability to bridge cultural barriers, because we all live in a color-filled, three-dimensional world, but most people are not very fluent in it (for many reasons).

In her fascinating book Color, Victoria Finlay remarks that the section of wavelengths that we can see, visible light, includes about ten million variations of color. So the more colors I have on my palette, the more variations I can mix, and the more subtle my vision can become. As well as being descriptive, I can also use those colors to provide an emotional element.

Finlay’s book is about the history and cultures surrounding actual paint pigments. The part I like most, though, is the idea that objects don’t have a static ‘color’ – they’re constantly changing throughout the different light of the day and over time. An orange carrot in the dark isn’t orange.

Molten Universe (View of the Salton Sea)

As Finlay writes: “The best way I’ve found of understanding this is to think not so much of something ‘being’ a color but of it ‘doing’ a color. The atoms in a ripe tomato are busy shivering – or dancing or singing; the metaphors can be as joyful as the colors they describe – in such a way that when white light falls on them they absorb most of the blue and yellow light and they reject the red – meaning paradoxically that the ‘red’ tomato is actually one that contains every wavelength except red. A week before, those atoms would have been doing a slightly different dance – absorbing the red light and rejecting the rest, to give the appearance of a green tomato instead.”

I’ve been compiling some thoughts as a way for me to better understand color myself, because it’s so multi-faceted. Cezanne was spot-on with his observation that “Painting from nature is not copying the object, it is realizing one’s sensations.” Here are a few notes:

  • Painting involves all the senses, not just sight. Sound plays a big role: One of my favorite parts of painting in the desert is crunching through the sand to my location. Also, when painting at night where our visual perceptions are reduced, audio increases and even small noises are very noticeable, like a lizard scooting by.
  • There is no such thing as “local color.”
  • Society today is so heavily bombarded by photography, film and other mechanical forms of art that we accept it as unbiased truth and don’t look any further or deeper (an individual camera lens doesn’t ‘see’ the same way our eyes do, in stereo, and a photograph can be incredibly biased. Painting in many forms has become a sub-category of photography, aimed at technical prowess, not in its own realm.
  • ‘Color’ is a man-made invention, as is the concept of value. These terms are helpful to us in understanding what we’re seeing, but it becomes very hard to get away from names (i.e., a tree is brown and green, the sky is blue, rocks are gray) – what color is a ‘green’ tree in moonlight?
  • Artists rely too heavily on science to ‘explain’ what they’re seeing instead of developing an eye for color. Art shouldn’t need an explanation. It’s interesting to know, but the scientific reason for why mountains appear bluer as they recede into the distance isn’t necessary to artists. The relationships between the colors however is very important – because, in other words, artists shouldn’t be painting a solely objective scientific vision of the world but should include their own subjective vision with all of the variables that entails.
  • Have confidence in your opinion.
  • We don’t have many historically-based examples of artists using rich color because stronger pigments weren’t available until fairly recently, so artists like Rembrandt had to rely much more on value. Aside from the recent history of Impressionism, when stronger color is used it tends to move away from perceived light in the natural world towards Expressionism or Fauvism, where color is ‘liberated’ from its role (i.e. when AndréDerain paints a bridge, he might paint it bright Cadmium Yellow.) If Rembrandt were alive today, I’m pretty sure he would take advantage of as many contemporary colors as he could, but his earthy palette was a result of the time he lived in.
  • When someone looks at a painting with color, they tend to single out one spot of color – especially if they can name it, say a blue shadow – and look for that individual color in the landscape. Color doesn’t exist in a vacuum like that – that spot of blue is very purposefully placed next to whatever colors surround it, just like in the landscape.

Merrell Looks at Color in his Own Paintings

A couple of these paintings are very dependent on color contrasts – The Heat Lingers at Dusk was done after sunset.

The Heat Lingers at Dusk

The rocky hill is silhouetted strongly against the sky in terms of value, but the greens of the Joshua Trees were visible in front of that and help create more atmosphere. There is space and depth between the Joshua Trees nearest us and the further hill. We can see the color shifts, but we really can’t see any defining features of the spiky Joshua Trees. Also, the hill is still 3-dimensional, so I needed subtle color shifts to convey the idea that the hill recedes away from us as we look up towards its peaks, angling in space.

The Face in the Sand was a challenge – I could see SO many colors shifts in the shadow, but in the painting those colors have to exist in the shadow realm for it to work.

The Face in the Sand

It’s counter-intuitive to think that yellow can be a shadow, and ‘dark,’ because we think of yellow as a light ‘warm’ color. All that matters are getting the relationships correct. I try to ask myself what the light is doing, and find some of the color solutions that way. If the yellows were to get too light in value, they would begin to read as part of the sunlit sand on the ground.

Snow Creek Canyon

Snow Creek Canyon was done on a somewhat overcast morning, but this also needed to show a shift as we visually climb the mountain. The warmer salmony colors towards the base shift towards violets and greens as it gains elevation, shifting and turning away from us.

Shadow of Where a River Once Was, a nocturne, also relies heavily on color contrast. The first impact is value-based with the brightly lit boulders in the foreground alongside a dark shadow, but then our eyes wander up and back into the canyon.

Shadow of Where a River Once Was

It gets softer and softer, but our eyes can still perceive these little shifts, and value is unable to help us in that arena where it becomes incredibly soft. I’m trying to convey this softness by shifting and playing the colors off of each other while staying in the same value. The sky here is made up of bluish- and reddish-violets, violet-greens, and colors that go beyond naming, but are all relative to the other colors of the painting. Many people including artists think I’m a little nuts for painting in the dark, but if you stand in the moonlight for awhile, your eyes will adjust and you’ll see all sorts of things.

The other pieces have some value contrast in them, but I’ll often use those areas as anchors in a painting to explore other color contrasts. The central Joshua Tree in Echoes and Silence is grounded by its shadow, but I wanted to use that to get to the hill behind it, the bright orange-ochre with shifts towards red and violet, against the sky. It really looked like that, and could have been done without the tree, but that value contrast kept it from getting too abstract in this instance.

Echoes and Silence

Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language. –Aldo Leopold

I like this quote by Aldo Leopold, which to me is encouraging us to dig deeper artistically. Sunsets, flowers, late afternoon sunlight are all beautiful subjects for painting, but there’s more. Artists have more tools today than artists working 50 or 100 years ago. I think we can go beyond what our artistic forefathers did, in terms of color, composition, and impact. We need to expand our color beyond the predictable and into those areas “as yet uncaptured by language.”

 Eric Merrell is a Signature Artist Member of the California Art Club, and a historian for the club. For more on his work see: http://www.ericmerrell.com

Parched Air

 

On Location in Utah

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Back Row, L-R: Colin Page (ME), Paul Schulenburg (MA), Glenn Dean (CA), Jeremy Lipking (CA), Eric Merrell (CA), Logan Hagege (CA), Ignat Ignatov (CA), Marc Hanson (CO); Front Row, L-R: Peter Kalill (MA), Jerome Greene (MA), Ernesto Nemesio (CA), James Coe (NY), Frank Gardner (MEX).

I joined our motley collection of artists this year for our informal annual painting trip, this time to paint in Utah. Hailing from the East coast, West coast and Mexico, we all stayed together at a lodge and traveled to many of the parks nearby, including Canyonlands National Park, Arches National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park, Monument Valley, and even an Anasazi ruin. (Previous trips have included Maine, Cape Cod, and Mexico.) It was a great week of camaraderie, painting, and catching up while talking shop; also, lots of practical jokes and fun.

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Eric Merrell painting in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

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Frank Gardner painting in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

Many of the locations are spread out around eastern Utah and required a 1.5 – 2 hour drive, but we got early starts to the day and saw a lot of that part of the state. Or, if we got late starts, at least we painted until dark!

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Marc Hanson painting on the edge in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

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(L-R): Ernesto Nemesio, James Coe, Paul Schulenburg, Jerome Greene, Logan Hagege, Pete Kalill, Marc Hanson.

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Eric Merrell, Marc Hanson, and James Coe painting in Canyonlands.

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Jerome Greene, James Coe, Marc Hanson, and Eric Merrell painting from an Anasazi ruin, Utah.

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Monument Valley (L-R): Eric Merrell, James Coe, Pete Kalill, Ernesto Nemesio, Colin Page, Jerome Greene, Marc Hanson, Ignat Ignatov, Frank Gardner, and Paul Schulenburg.

By the end of the trip the lodge was packed with paintings, probably 15-20 per person, along with tons of photos and sketches. Many of the guys from the East coast had never been to places like this, and I’m always intrigued to see what people paint in new places. Lots of great compositions and new ideas came out of the trip, and everyone went home inspired.

We had fantastic weather all week until the last two days: first we had a full day of wind, including some 40+ mph gusts up on the bluffs of Canyonlands (some people nearly lost their easels off of the 1,400′ cliff), and then snow on the last day. To start the early morning 11-hr drive back home, I had to dig my truck out of a few inches of ice and snow, and, south of Monument Valley drove through a blowing snowstorm; but by the time we reached the Mojave Desert back in California it was nice and warm.

Painting setup in Blanding, Utah 2013_s

On the last full day we got a good covering of snow to work with.

Painting Nocturnes

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Moonwashed Desert, 21″ x 24″, Oil on canvas mounted on panel, © Eric Merrell

I’ll be teaching a workshop next weekend, Oct. 12-13, 2013, focusing on painting nocturnes. If you’re interested in signing up for this unique experience, you can find more info here.

Ever since I began painting at night it’s been a deep interest for me. It’s not something that a lot of artists have attempted, and can be endlessly rewarding. Painting a moon rising over the horizon is great, but standing outdoors in the light of the full moon is magical, and it’s not just black and white: the value range is reduced, but there is much more color than most would think. Try it sometime: just stand in the moonlight, and look at the color of say, the sidewalk versus the grass. Look at the trees and the sky. I’ll bet you will start to see subtle differences that manifest themselves in color.

Nocturnes provide great situations to work with mood and quiet emotion, and the softness of shapes is infinitely fascinating: while individual shapes are distinguishable, it’s hard to say where one thing stops and another begins. Therein lies the challenge of painting what you see, not what you know.

Painting at night is very similar to painting during the day as far as the approach to painting it and the materials required, with one crucial exception – a light. You need a source that provides enough balanced light to see what you’re doing without being so bright that you can’t see the landscape you’re painting. I’ve come up with a solution that allows me to get very subtle color on location and is not a big surprise when I bring it indoors to a normally lighted room. Lighting and color will be discussed along with other issues one encounters at night in greater detail during the workshop.

Sign up here.

The Artist As Critic: Art That Inspires

An Interview with Eric Merrell Discussing His Salton Sea Haze and
Gustav Klimt’s (1862-1918) Attersee, 1909
by Stephanie Campbell (Summer 2013 issue, CAC Newsletter)

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Eric Merrell, Salton Sea Haze, Oil on canvas mounted on panel, 30″ x 30″
American Legacy Fine Arts, Pasadena

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Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), Attersee, 1901, Oil on canvas, 31.57″ x 31.57″
Leopold Museum, Vienna

Eric Merrell was recently interviewed by Stephanie Campbell for the Artist As Critic series featured in the California Art Club Newsletter (previously featured artists include John Asaro, Amy Sidrane, and Tony Peters, among others). Here is the article:

STEPHANIE CAMPBELL: When did you first learn of Gustav Klimt, and how did he and his work impact you?

ERIC MERRELL: It was in my early college years, while I was at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia that I first learned about Gustav Klimt. I was initially introduced to his figurative work, which is what he is best known for, but a few years later I cam across a book that was specifically dedicated to Klimt’s landscapes. Immediately, I was intrigued by his use of color and shapes, and found his landscape compositions innovative and fresh.

SC: Can you tell us a bit about Klimt’s era?

EM: Klimt was classically and conservatively trained at the Vienna School of Arts and Crafts where he focused on architectural painting. His career began as part of an intimate group of painters with his brother, Ernst, known as the “Company of Artists.” The group provided him with important public projects including interior ceiling murals in large buidings on the historic Ringstrasse in Vienna. One of his most successful series was the “Allegories and Emblems.” Some years later he became one of the founding members of the Vienna Secession movement. The secessionists were a group of many different kinds of artists who were trying to find a bigger and newer voice, but not necessarily with the purpose to get rid of the tradition. They were just trying to find their own place in the art world.

SC: How do you classify yourself as an artist?

EM: That’s hard to say. I feel an affinity with the California Impressionists and also with some of the Romantics, but I don’t know if it’s completely accurate to place myself in those categories. The title “Romance of the West” that American Legacy Fine Arts gave to my summer 2011 exhibition was very apt. Romance in the classic sense is missing from the contemporary art world, and I think that is a big part of what my work is about. The ideal American West, pulling oneself up by your bootstraps and making something out of an opportunity, is something that I feel is lacking today.

SC: What ultimate effect would you like to have on society as an artist?

EM: I want to show that there is still something new that can be said with painting. I want to paint subjects they may have otherwise not thought of as being paintable. I find myself avoiding “traditional” perspectives of landscapes and digging a little deeper. For example, some of my latest interests have been painting right at dusk and during the middle of the day, periods which many artists refer to as “flat light” as there are no shadows to use for contrast. Of course, the world doesn’t change from 3-dimensional in the morning to 2-dimensional at noon and back again in the afternoon – these situations are all paintable, they just need to be approached differently. I have also found that nocturnes provide a lot of room to explore artistically. In these types of situations I find I can solve some of these problems by playing with abstractions, shapes, and color. By doing so, I hope to show people how to see things from a different perspective. I truly enjoy taking a very traditional scene and making it my own, as Klimt did.

SC: How would you compare your style to that of Klimt’s?

EM: Our color sensibilities are different, as is with every artist, because color becomes a very personal thing. Our training is also very different; he was trained under the much more classic academy and atelier style, whereas my education was (initially) based more on commercial illustration. Despite these differences I feel a kinship with Klimt. I can relate to the way that he saw the world. He didn’t just do landscape for landscape’s sake, he was doing something more unique with it.

SC: How do you think your painting Salton Sea Haze and Klimt’s Attersee are similar and how are they different?

EM: Though our color sensibilities are different, our palettes are similar in this case where our use of colors are in the same family, such as the silvery violets and the cooler sea greens. I wasn’t familiar with Klimt’s painting, Attersee, until after my wife Ramona, went to Austria and saw it in the Leopold Museum. She emailed me a picture of it, because she thought the similarity (including the square format) was uncanny to my Salton Sea Haze. Despite how similar the tones are, the paintings are climatically different: Attersee depicts the cool damp European climate while Salton Sea Haze shows the dry heat of the southern California desert.

SC: What do you find particularly interesting about the Salton Sea, and what do you think Klimt saw in Lake Attersee?

EM: I’ve become more interested in temperature and color contrasts, beyond value contrasts, and because the desert lends itself to those qualities I often paint there. In particular though the grand scale of the Salton Sea and the fact that not a lot of artists have explored it as an appealing subject matter, gives it a pioneer aspect. It also has a bad stigma to it (drug trafficking, dead fish, and abandoned trailer parks) but I want to show the beauty that is there that people don’t think about. The feminine aspect of depicting a body of water is what first comes to mind with Klimt as inspiration for Attersee, as his work often featured women. There is also the challenge of painting a body of water, Unfortunately most of what we are taught about Klimt relates to his figures, historically his landscapes and the inspiration behind them have received little attention.

SC: How would you compare Klimt’s landscapes to his figurative work?

EM: They all have a mosaic quality. A 2006 LACMA exhibit of Klimt’s work had a few figures and a few landscapes. The exhibition allowed people to see that although the subject matter is different in the paintings, there is a lot of crossover between the two areas. His landscapes may have been more of a breath of fresh air to him, because most of his figures were commissioned works, which meant dealing with individuals and committees, while his landscapes would have been painted by personal choice.

SC: What in particular attracts you to Klimt’s Attersee?

EM: There is something about this painting that always seems to retain a certain freshness; it’s one of those paintings that you can keep looking at and it never gets old. It has a contemplative quality that can put you into a meditative state.

SC: Do you think that you and Klimt were trying to achieve the same visual effect?

EM: I feel like he was honoring traditions, while still using his own voice and creating something different. I hope that is something I am also achieving. I’m in this funny position contemporarily where I feel as though I’m more modern than a traditionalist, but I’m too traditional for the modernists. Somehow, I like that.

SC: How directly do you think Klimt’s style has influenced you?

EM: I don’t think his style has influenced me so much, but it’s rather the way he sees things in simple shapes and design. Our textures and brushwork are different, but the way he views the world and translates that onto his canvas has had a big impact on the way I see the world.

SC: How do you feel Klimt has influenced other contemporary artists?

EM: Klimt was so unique in his own way that it is hard for people to be directly influenced by his work without having their work inadvertently look like his. Indirectly, I think that he has influenced contemporary artists such as myself in a way that inspires us to follow our own voice.