Gurney Journey | category: Catskill Mountains


Gurney Journey

This daily weblog by Dinotopia creator James Gurney is for illustrators, plein-air painters, sketchers, comic artists, animators, art students, and writers. You'll find practical studio tips, insights into the making of the Dinotopia books, and first-hand reports from art schools and museums.

Hudson River Fellowship

A juried group of landscape painters with an unusual mission will be working in the Catskill Mountains this summer for the third year in a row. If you want to join them, you've got a little over a month to apply.

The group, called the Hudson River Fellowship, is dedicated to the principle of close and prolonged observation of nature, patterned after the practices of pre-impressionist painters like Asher B. Durand and Frederic Church.

Hudson River FellowshipArtist Tom Kegler of Buffalo, New York completed this forest floor study last summer, when I paid a visit to the school.

The artists selected to attend the fellowship will enjoy a month-long residency with full-tuition scholarship for all members and free housing. There’s a spirit of comraderie at the periodic exhibits of work in progress and at the group suppers.

The teachers include founder Jacob Collins of the Grand Central Academy, Edward Minoff, Travis Schlaht, and Nicholas Hiltner.

The curriculum includes lectures by guest speakers and a series of assignments, beginning with field studies in pencil, tonal renderings, and plein air observations. These studies aren’t done merely as an end in themselves.

The ultimate goal is to use these preliminaries to develop a large composition, what Bierstadt used to call a “Great Picture,” back in the studio after the fellowship is over.

Acceptance into the program requires a portfolio review and an application. The deadline for applying for this summer’s fellowship is May 1, 2009.
Thomas Kegler (artist of the study above), link.
Home page of the Hudson River Fellowship, link.
Previous GJ Post, link.

The Hudson River School for Landscape

A group of over 30 landscape painters has been working for almost a month in Hunter, New York, in the heart of the Catskill Mountains. They’re participating in the second annual Hudson River School for Landscape, founded by Jacob Collins, who is also renowned for his atelier called Grand Central Academy of Art in New York City.

The Hudson River School for LandscapeTravis Schlaht produced this painting of the Stream at Kaaterskill Falls during last year’s five-week session.

The lodging and tuition are provided for free of charge thanks to a generous fellowship from the Catskill Mountain Foundation. Over a hundred people applied for the positions, and Jacob told me it was very difficult to make the selection. The participants are young and talented, and they hail from as far as Spain, Germany and Australia. “It’s a little intimidating, honestly,” Jacob told me, and I agree.

The Hudson River School for LandscapeI joined the group for a day of painting (Jacob Collins at left and me at right), and I probably brought bad luck because a torrential downpour opened up as soon as we got going.

The Hudson River School for LandscapeScott Balfe switched to a sombrero and Army-issue poncho to head off the downpour.

The Hudson River School for LandscapeHere's my 11x14 painting of Scott (sans sombrero) alongside Schoharie Creek, with Jacob’s dog Finney wading in the shallows.

Once a week or so, the group gathers with their work-in-progress. I joined them last Wednesday for a supper, and I gave a slide show about the working methods of the early plein-airists.

The Hudson River School for LandscapeThe artwork that the group exhibited included sensitively-observed close views of stream rocks and mossy trees in muted colors and controlled brushwork, though there were also some rapidly-painted sunsets.

The curriculum is modeled on the methods of Asher Durand, Frederic Church, Sanford Gifford and other pre-Impressionist painters, achieving a high level of finish in pencil and oil, mostly with multiple sittings. When they get home, the artists will develop a larger composition based on the studies. Use of photography for reference is discouraged.

I believe that this group will have a significant and lasting effect on the future of American—and perhaps international—landscape painting.

My own painting of “Artists along the Schoharie Creek,” along with two other plein-air studies, are currently being exhibited and offered for sale at Windham Fine Arts Gallery in Windham, New York.

Hudson River School for Landscape home page, link.
Exhibition of last year’s class, link.
Three Gurney plein air paintings at Windham Fine Arts, link.
Jacob Collins home page, link.
Previous GJ post on painting with J. Collins, link.

The Disaster at Kaaterskill Creek

Blog reader J. Fullmer asked about the disaster I referred to a while ago on the posts called From Endor to Chelsea and White Umbrellas. To recap, my artist friend Chris Evans and my wife and I were up in the Catskills doing some plein air painting.

We staggered down the rocky banks of Kaaterskill Clove in search of a waterfall called Fawn’s Leap, a favorite motif of the early Hudson River School Painters. I found a good vista from the middle of the stream, where a flat rock the size of a kitchen table provided just enough space to set up my tripod, pochade box, and white umbrella.

The Disaster at Kaaterskill Creek
As I worked, the water surged around me from several days of heavy rain. The painting was finished in time for lunch. I left everything set up and hopped across the boulders to join Chris and Jeanette for a sandwich and coffee.

Suddenly there came a blast of cold wind down the clove. I heard a shout: “It’s going over!”

I looked up to see the umbrella fill like a sail and carry the whole rig—tripod, brushes, palette, and painting— into the rapids. Thinking quickly, Jeanette grabbed the umbrella, which had broken free and was floating upside down, circling like a leaf in one of the side eddies. I stood astraddle two boulders to rescue a couple of the brushes as they drifted by. The rest of them had entered the main current and disappeared into the next set of rapids.

The Disaster at Kaaterskill Creek
Chris fished out the tripod and intercepted the painting as it floated downstream. It was cruising half-submerged with the wet oil palette stuck against the backside of it. Amazingly, the painting suffered only minor damage from the water, and only a few thumb prints and scrapes where it had bounced against some boulders.

The only moral to this story is to take down the umbrella when you break for lunch!

Reverse Atmospheric Perspective

We’re all familiar with the principle that warm colors advance and cool colors recede.

Reverse Atmospheric PerspectiveThis picture of West Point from a few miles away is a good example of the way the warm colors tend to drop out in the distance, and the darks become progressively lighter and cooler.

Reverse Atmospheric Perspective
But in wonderful, rare instances, the rule is reversed, and the whole scene gets warmer as it goes back. This happens when moist vapors or dust clouds hover in the air near sunrise or sunset. You have to be looking directly toward the sun to see it. The color of bright or white objects, like the sun itself, becomes increasingly orange-colored as it recedes, because the blue wavelengths are subtracted out of it. I took this photo recently in the Catskills--no filters or Photoshop whatsoever. The effect lasted only a short time.

Reverse Atmospheric Perspective
This painting, called “Light on the Water,” from Journey to Chandara, explores this strange phenomenon. The foreground is actually cooler than the distance. The light of the setting sun spills out into the surrounding atmosphere, warming the outlines of the towers in the distance. The vertical bar of reflected light in the water melts the silhouettes of the boaters and swimmers nearby.

Reverse Atmospheric Perspective
In my clipping file I have a folder of photos with a variety of atmospheric color progressions. Some of these might have been manipulated by filters or image processing. When I'm painting, I also refer to my own plein air studies, and if you're interested I can show you some more of those in future.

The Hudson River School masters Sanford Gifford and Frederic Church loved to work with the effect that I call "reverse atmospheric perspective." I believe they were influenced less by the sort of technical analysis of light that we're familiar with than by the vision of writers like Goethe and Emerson who expressed the poetic idea of light as a “consuming celestial fire” having the power, as Emerson put it, “to burn until it shall dissolve all things into the waves and surges of an ocean of light.”

Dibble's Quarry

Dibble's Quarry
I find inspiration for future Dinotopia books in the most unlikely places.

The bluestone quarries above Platte Clove were once the source for the slate sidewalks of New York City in the Nineteenth century. Huge piles of broken stones and rubble remain along sections of the mountain trails. Over the decades, nameless people have fashioned strange structures from the stones, kind of a “wiki-vernacular-architecture.”

Along the Pecoy Notch Trail, about a mile away from the nearest road, is Dibble’s Quarry, the most extensive of its type. It commands a fine view of the valley of the Platte Clove, a good spot to munch granola bars and speak in elvish.

There are many stone slab chairs, notably the “Druid’s Throne,” with several Mini-me side thrones nearby. Rattlesnakes commonly sun themselves on these rocks, so you have to look carefully into the cracks and sit down gingerly. What if there were a whole village like this in Dinotopia?

Curious Spectators

Curious Spectators
I set up to paint on a bridge over Schoharie Creek, and a father and his two sons came along to watch. The boys were each holding a slice of bread and they tore off little pieces to feed the fish. They wanted to know why I hadn’t included the fish in the painting. The father wanted to know how I made my living as an artist. The delicious aroma of frying latkes drifted over to us from the nearby Orthodox Jewish community. Then the boys ran home, their father warning them to watch out for cars.

Into the Woods

Into the WoodsI left the little red cabin for a day of painting in the Catskill wilderness. All the plein air gear fits into a black backpack so I can take it on the trail. The “Barbie-go” wheels on the pack might take away a few style points among hard-core trekkers, but they make the rig handy in airports.

Into the Woods
Here I am in the woods “up a stump” and starting to paint. I use (and recommend) the Open Box M pochade box ( The paint palette and adjustable panel holder mounts onto a camera tripod (Velbon CX 444). The advantage over the traditional French easel is that you can turn, tilt, raise, and lower your work very easily. I added a side panel with graduated holes for holding brushes and Nalgene palette cups containing Gamsol solvent and Liquin alkyd medium. On the mixing palette is disposable white freezer paper.

Into the WoodsHere’s the finished painting, Trail to the Beaver Dam, which I did in two consecutive three-hour sessions. It’s very tiny, only 6 by 12 inches. I was attracted to the glimpse of distance through the trees on the right, and the profound darkness on the trail ahead on the left. The illumination in the foreground comes from the trees that were cut down.

For more information about plein air work, have a look at the Web site

Jimmy Morton

Jimmy MortonOn Monday morning we stopped by to visit Jimmy Morton, who lives alone in a little house near the headwaters of Schoharie Creek. He has spent all his 94 years within five miles of Platte Clove.

As I sketched his portrait in his kitchen, he told me about the horses that used to haul the bluestone down from the mountain, and how he used to walk to school in 30-below weather.

When he was younger he brought his pet crow Jip on his milk delivery route. “Jip was the nicest pet I ever had,” he said. “He’d sit up in a tree and then—‘caw, caw’—he’d come down and set on my shoulder. But he’d steal things from people around here—watches and keys and whatnot—and stick them all in a hollow tree. I had to climb the tree and fetch them all back to their owners.”

One time he was coming down from Roundtop Mountain through the deep forest when he heard a strange sound coming from above. “I looked up and I’ll be darned if there wasn’t a cowbell up in the tree ringing. The only thing I could figure, a raccoon hauled it up there and was ringin’ it when he seen me go by.”

The Platte Clove Community

The Platte Clove CommunityOn Sunday some friends from the Platte Clove Community came by for a visit. They live just up the road in a converted summer camp at the base of Roundtop Mountain. Formerly known as the Hutterian Brethren or the Bruderhof, the Platte Clove Community is a faith-based group of about two hundred people who work, play, and sing in harmony. Even though they’ve chosen to do without a lot of modern technology, they have the largest hot-water solar collector in the Northeast.
The Platte Clove Community
Two of their kids posed making funny faces for a scene in the new Dinotopia book Journey to Chandara. I had just received an advance bound copy from the publisher, so I brought it along to show them. Here they are holding the book and this time not making faces.

We had a potluck picnic supper on the porch, with sweet corn, potato salad, and grilled burgers made from beef they raised.
The Platte Clove CommunityLater we made s’mores, ate watermelon, and sang songs around the campfire.

Boring Old Cabin

Boring Old Cabin
“This is going to be BORING,” declared Franklin as we started up the Platte Clove Road. “Stuck in this old cabin with nothing to do.”

As if in answer, the sky darkened as we reached the top of the clove and pulled the car into the space beside the cabin. The minute after we went inside a thunderstorm commenced its performance. Kuky clung to the wires of his cage in terror. The downpour sent muddy rivers pouring down the stone steps.

We are now living up in the clouds where the thunder is manufactured. Each new clap sounds like a huge plate of metal suspended a foot above your head being hit by a baseball bat.

Later, as Jeanette and I settled down to our books and Franklin to his DVDs, the mice commenced a ballet performance, scampering out from spaces in the wall. And then the moths found their way through the windows and circled around the single light bulb. I flailed at them to no effect.

When I went to use the wastebasket a scampering sound told me that a mouse had fallen in and was trapped inside. I carried him across the old kingpost bridge, a few hundred yards away on the other side of the stream and let him go. Time will tell if he finds his way back.
Hudson River FellowshipThe Hudson River School for LandscapeThe Disaster at Kaaterskill CreekReverse Atmospheric PerspectiveDibble's QuarryCurious SpectatorsInto the WoodsJimmy MortonThe Platte Clove CommunityBoring Old Cabin

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