Painting with Tom Hoffmann, again: 3 of 3

Day 3, Bernal Heights. We’re back in the city, and the challenges today aren’t just with distance and depth, they’re vertical too: the streets in this neighborhood seem to rise straight into the sky.

We start the day understanding how a study can help problem-solve a complex subject. Knowing you will be writing notes all over a piece means you make a true study, and don’t attempt a painting.

Here’s the piece based on the study above. Both done on-location.

More from this fascinating neighborhood. Steeper Streets. One going up, the other, down. Attempt #1.

Yes, a bit of a mess, but I do like one little bit. Maybe I’ll crop this and throw the rest of it out. I love drawing and painting cars. I think it’s because I understand so little about them, they’re just shapes and shadows to me. Best of all I like that dark, dark shadow that sits under them. And the bright pops of color on the brake lights.

Here’s attempt #2, which I think I’m calling unfinished. It feels like it needs some more work on it, though I don’t know what…


Here are my posts from Day 1 and Day 2 of the workshop.

And this is the link to the upcoming workshops page on Tom Hoffmann’s site.

Don’t think you can make it to a workshop? Well, there’s always this fantastic book, which I am rereading right now.

Posted in california, Close to home, Paintings, san franciso | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Painting with Tom Hoffmann, again: 2 of 3

The Marin Headlands were a challenge to paint: at once both simple in shape yet so atmospheric… and then, there was the wind!

I painted #1 and #2 in parallel.


Attempt #3 (below) was painted because I wasn’t so happy with the cliff faces in the two above. I wanted them to read more vertical, more distinct in feel from the green tops.


I promised myself I’d attempt to work in atleast one person into a piece, so I did one more very quick little study on hot press paper. Note to self: If you’re trying to work wet-in-wet, stick with cold press paper, hot press paper dries out way quicker.

Here’s my post about Day 1 of the workshop.
Tom’s website is here.

Day 3, coming up soon!


Posted in california, Paintings, san franciso | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Painting with Tom Hoffmann, again: 1 of 3

I started to write a post about my experience over the weekend at Tom Hoffmann’s workshop in San Francisco. And then, I searched for my post from last year’s workshop and amazingly, I had almost the same things to say. Here is a link to that post.

But I’ll repeat this bit: A workshop with Tom is an amazing experience and you will learn a lot. Tom is a most generous teacher, especially in how much he shares of his process and his thinking through a piece. If you love watercolors, if you wish you painted fearlessly and in a way that really showcases the medium, then check out where Tom teaches and register for first workshop you can go to.
TomHoffman_2017_photo1The waterfront at Mission Bay was a great place to start. What you see lends itself to what will become a mantra for the next few days: Seeing Big Shapes. We started out with a scene that’s relatively easy to paint. Only relatively, because seeing big shapes and working wet-in-wet are always challenges.

I did this first piece on a quarter sheet as a study, but I liked it better than the half sheet painting that followed it.



And if I was thinking “hmm, I can do this” that morning, then the afternoon was another story. A much more complex subject, a lovely tree in the background, and boats in the foreground and things got much more challenging. I did what I often do: one piece followed by a second one.


Sometimes, you look at a scene, and painting it is like putting together a puzzle. And when you try solving it, a whole other set of puzzles (which is a nice way of saying problems, perhaps?) show up in your painting, and then you try to solve those in a second piece, and then more puzzles turn up…

Posted in Close to home, Paintings, san franciso | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Monument Valley: Spring 2017 Roadtrip

Monument Valley was our last stop before heading to Vegas and flying home. It always feels like just when I start to figure things out, just when I feel like I might hit my painting stride, the trip is over: do you feel like that when you travel and sketch? After 4 days among the dizzying rock formations, I am starting to see big shapes, scratching at the surface of understanding the color, the light and all the textures I see…

It was a relatively easy day, so we pulled over and stopped for short breaks a few times as we drove towards Monument Valley.

This was my first sketch of the day, somewhere outside the town Bluff, Utah.

A few of these panoramic sketches are done on a 6×12 Fluid Cold Finish paper block. I carried this in addition to my usual Stillman & Birn sketchbooks (an Alpha and a Beta) because it seemed like the right proportion for painting these vast scenes. And because I always carry more paper than I need to when I travel!

This next one is a strange rock formation outside a town named for it: Mexican Hat. My kids asked what the town would be called after that top rock falls off .

As you drive towards Monument Valley from the north, you start seeing these classic silhouettes of the rocks against the sky. And yes, you’ve seen some version of this in every Western movie. But it’s still worth pulling over and painting.

Most of these next quick sketches are over very short stops on 17 Mile Drive through the park. I had my paints and book out of the bag. If the car stopped, (mostly to take a photo or two) I did a quick sketch.

This is one of the famous mitten formations. Is it East Butte? West Butte? I can’t be sure.


One last piece, made outside the park.

I could paint that red rock for days and not tire of it.

And that’s it from my spring road trip. Here is the rest of it:

  1. Starting at the end in Las Vegas
  2. Zion National Park
  3. Inside Antelope Canyon
  4. The quiet beauty of Mesa Verde
  5. And this last one, Monument Valley.

Thanks for coming along on the ride!


Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Mesa Verde: Spring 2017 Roadtrip

After Antelope Canyon, Mesa Verde is such a change of pace. A quieter place that you need to see at a much slower pace. Just the view from the Visitor’s Center at the bottom of the drive (it’s a winding 45 minute drive up from the bottom to the top of the mesa) is spectacular. You see the snowcapped La Sal Range that sits on the border of Utah and Colorado right out the big picture windows.

These two sketches are from the top of the Mesa, looking across at a dwelling called Spruce Tree House.


We arrived too late to get on a tour to view the inside of the dwellings, so we were back the next morning to tour Balcony House. No watercolors this time, we had steep ladders to climb and tiny tunnels to crawl through, so all  I have from the tour is two little colored pencil and ink drawings from inside the dwellings.

And yes, that’s our guide in the sketch above, standing between a kiva and he edge of a precipice.

These cave dwellings were built between 1190s, when the Pueblo Indians moved off the mesa tops to the cliffs to live, and the 1300s when they finally left, probably because a long drought made it almost impossible to farm on the mesa tops.

Other posts from this road trip so far:

  1. Starting at the end in Las Vegas
  2. Zion National Park
  3. Inside Antelope Canyon

And one last post soon: The Giants of Monument Valley

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend: Spring 2017 Roadtrip

Lower Antelope Canyon can only be visited with a Navajo guide, you can’t walk through it alone. And we were on a one-hour tour, with 20 other people. That means no stopping, you just walk through this narrow slot canyon for an hour. So I tried not to get too ambitious and just had paper and a couple of pencils in my hand as we walked across what looked like parched, brown, and rocky land.

And then we descended steeply into the slot canyon and everything changed. The lines on the striated rock got more dramatic and twisty and the colors got super-saturated.I tried to capture it all n quick sketches as we walked. It was clear my pencil-setup was not going to work.

When our guide paused briefly to point out a formation that looked like a lion’s head, I pulled out a pen, hoping the line would add the drama I needed to my sketches.

But it just wasn’t enough. So I dragged out my tiny pocket palette, brush and water, and juggled them all as we kept walking through these crazy spaces, trying to capture the unbelievable colors and formations around me.


Antelope Canyon is amazing. Yes, I’d seen photographs of it, but I’d always assumed they looked like they did because they involved a fair amount of post-production magic… not so, the place is truly magical, and the colors are unreal.
I drew page after page, throwing color and line at the page in an attempt to capture the swirling canyon. All the while, I walked the narrow, twisting spaces, trailing the group, trying not to hit my head on an overhang…Maybe all my sketches looked the same and I could have stopped at one, but I didn’t know that, I sketched because it was the only way for me to really see and process the place. To sketch something is to look at it closely, to see every nook and cranny, and register texture and surface. It is like touching every inch of that rock, feeling the graininess and bumps and color, all with your eyes.



And then as suddenly as we descended, we were out of the canyon, back above ground. And it seemed unbelievable that just below this everyday place was that magical one.

Antelope Canyon lies within the Navajo Nation. Just as you cannot help notice how startlingly spectacular the landscape is, there is no way to ignore the poverty and lack of infrastructure here. The former, I knew I’d see. The latter, I was ignorant about, and it truly startled me. I’m looking for a good book about (or set in) the Navajo Nation, one that might shed some light on the people, their history and their current lives. If you know of one you can recommend, leave me a comment.

One last quick stop after Antelope Canyon: Horseshoe Bend, an oxbow lake. I remember this diagram so clearly from my 8th grade geography book (image courtesy of BBC Bitesize Geography) but Ive never seen an oxbow lake before.

Horseshoe Bend didn’t disappoint, it was a textbook oxbow lake, and pretty dramatic when viewed from the edge of the deep canyon it cut.


Other posts from this road trip so far:

  1. Starting at the end in Las Vegas
  2. Zion National Park

Coming up next: The much-quieter magic of Mesa Verde

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Zion National Park: Spring 2017 Roadtrip

My hands down favorite National Park in Utah (and there are so many amazing ones) is Zion. It doesn’t have singular recognizable features like Arches and Bryce do, but it is just so beautiful. I think the Virgin River running through is what makes it different from the other South Utah parks. This makes the terrain somehow friendlier and all the green in the park really sets off the spectacular red rock.

You cant drive around Zion, you must take the shuttle. And the line for the shuttle can get long… Luckily, however long your line is, you can always see The Watchman from it.

Yet another sketch, from another shuttle stop. If I’m sketching by myself, I agonize about what to sketch and what angle to sketch it from. When I’m traveling with my family, I sketch whenever and wherever we get a break, however short it is.

At the mouth of the Narrows (which I would love to hike down one day, just not in the spring when flash floods are most common), this father and son stacked rocks in the river.

Upper Emerald Pool. An unfinished sketch. It was getting dark and we needed to head back down. I’ve sketched this pool (and some of this park) about 4 1/2 years ago… it’s interesting to see how my sketches looked then.

The red rock at Zion is so hard to paint. The color changes dramatically with the changing light, and the rock has just so many interesting features I want to convey. There are color shifts in every new layer of the rock. There are deep horizontal and vertical lines. There are blind arches and pockmarked rocks; dark wet patches where the water seeps through; and there’s sand where the wind erodes the rock and turns it back to sand… How in the world do you capture all of that?

Posted in Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments