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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.

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Ten Tips for Dealing with the Moving Sun

Ten Tips for Dealing with the Moving Sun
Painting on the north rim of the Grand Canyon
Blog reader Carla Gladstone asks about how outdoor painters cope with changing light:

"Although I am not an artist, reading your blog makes me curious about how artists work. The time required to create a plein-air painting appears to be long enough (particularly near dawn and sunset) that the direction and perhaps intensity of the light will change."

Good question, Carla. This is a big issue for anyone who spends more than a half hour or so on a painting. You're right: light changes especially fast near sunrise or sunset, and sometimes an effect lasts only a few minutes. Here are my ten tips for dealing with the moving sun.

Ten Tips for Dealing with the Moving Sun

1. Know where the sun is headed. 
In the northern hemisphere the sun moves from east to west, swinging through the southern hemisphere. If you're not sure which direction is south, remember that at noon, the sun is to the south. Orient yourself facing south, and point one hand where the sun is now and the other hand toward the western horizon. That's the direction the sun is headed. For every hour, it moves about the distance of the width of your hand held at arm's length. So project its position ahead in the number of hours you plan to be painting. There are probably apps for this, but you don't need apps.

2. Map the shadows early.
Here's one strategy. After you finish the preliminary drawing, take note of the boundaries of the shadows, either in pencil or paint. In watercolor you can paint the boundaries of the shadows early in the painting process. 

3. OR Paint area by area.
Another strategy is to let the light change and paint each area as you see it. This will result in a painting with various light directions, but at least you're painting what you see at each stage. This strategy works well for a scene with separate elements that are likely to move, such as cars in a parking lot or Holstein cows in a pasture. 

Ten Tips for Dealing with the Moving Sun
Momentary effect at the end of the day, from my video Gouache in the Wild

4. Set up for a sunset effect.
Some of the best light effects near sunset last only minutes. To capture those, your painting has to be all set up before the light effect comes. The problem is that you don't know exactly what the effect will be. So you have to be prepared. If you're working in opaques—oil, casein, or gouache, paint the scene as if it were in shadow—darker and cooler than it appears. When the late afternoon light hits the central feature of your scene, you'll be ready to capture it. After the effect passes, you have to train your memory.

Forest scene, 6 x 12 inches. Two-day motif. Light changes very fast in a forest.
5. Come back the next day.
If you have the luxury of painting in the same area for a few days, start a series of "two-day motifs". The idea is to work on several paintings for a series of days, painting each one during the best light for that scene. You don't have to finish in one session, just move to another motif and come back tomorrow to continue the first one. It's really satisfying to return to the same spot when the light is perfect after you've got a good start.

6. Watch out for building fronts in raking light.
If the sun direction is near to being tangent to the plane of a building that you're looking at, it's going to change very fast, either throwing it more into light or more into shadow and changing everything. All you can do is anticipate what it's going to do, and plan your painting strategy to suit.

7. Enjoy overcast days.
With sunlight diffused across the entire dome of the cloudy sky, the light will be amazingly stable throughout the session, sometimes for three or more hours. In overcast light, the color, hardness, and direction don't change too much. Get the weather forecast and if you know you've got a long period of overcast light, you can commit to a longer painting.

8. Paint a series as the light changes.
If you're interested in fleeting light effects, you can streamline your approach to paint extremely fast, doing each painting in a 15 minute window. Doing this means mixing the colors you'll need on your palette in advance. Draw the scene with the brush, mass the darks quickly and if keep a different brush for each main color. Most artists paint slowly because they waste time mixing the color for each brushstroke and then wiping the brush down to clean it for a new mixture.


9. Do the perspective drawing when the light sucks.
Setting up your easel can take a half hour or more. Then, the preliminary drawing can take an hour, and it's worth spending that time to get it right. By then the good light may have taken wing, and you'll be tasting the bitter fruit of despair. It doesn't matter so much what the light is doing when you're working on these foundational steps. Try to pick a motif where the light is getting better, not worse. That takes knowledge and experience.

10. Scout for the next day.
When you're in an area that you plan to paint the next day, be aware which subjects look best at which times of day. Make a thumbnail sketch during the peak lighting effect so you know what to expect. Then come back the next day early enough so that you can set up the painting. When the good light hits, you're ready for it, and you can capture it.

Do you have more tips? Or tragic tales of changing light? Please share them in the comments.

Weed Challenge Winners

I congratulate everyone who entered the "Weed Painting Challenge." You braved heat, mosquitoes, midges, dead rats, and (potentially) alligators. Some of you painted outside for the first time or experimented with new media. Some just stepped out in the back yard, and others returned to the location many times.

Weed Challenge Winners
It was hard to choose, but the Grand Prize Winner is Nic Human. 

I was impressed by the attention he gave to the shapes of the petals, the orchestration of overlapping detail, the suggestion of depth through scale and value control, and the variety of greens.

He says: "This weed is called, Tithonia diversifolia, and it is more commonly known as the Mexican sunflower. I painted this in Pinetown, South Africa. It has become rampant in that area over the last couple of years. The big bright beautiful flowers are almost deceptive, because of the invasive nature of this weed."







Weed Challenge Winners
"The painting media I used for this study were pen, travel watercolour and gouache onto cold pressed watercolour paper."
Weed Challenge Winners
First among the five Finalists is Glenn Workshops who not only did a nice painting, but also returned to the site to do a whole series of studies.

He says, "My submission is of yellow hawkweeds (Hieracium caespitosum), a beautiful but invasive plant in British Columbia. It is painted in gouache on 5.5" x 7.5" Fabriano Artistico 140lb cold press paper. The drawing was sealed with an acrylic gloss gel medium which enables the gouache to be worked more like oils. The gouache can be easily "wiped" using water with a brush or cloth. One benefit of working this way is that an area (or the whole surface) can be scrubbed away to reveal the original drawing when repainting is required."

Weed Challenge Winners
"Keeping with the inspiration of James' challenges I thought it would be interesting to limit myself to sketching in a single location and study only weeds and their habitat for the duration of this challenge. A near-by vacant lot, overgrown with weeds, became my studio. It's amazing at how much there is to observe within a single field. Colours that appear and disappear over the course of a day, shapes and groupings that move and morph, the behaviour patterns of various plants, plus the insects and wasps tending to the plants. Below are some of the studies done during this month."

Weed Challenge Winners
"This one has really helped me to get out more and push myself in different areas; a true challenge. Thanks James."

Weed Challenge Winners
The next finalist is Greg Preslicka, who did a great job of value control in the large masses of foliage, setting up perfectly for the light pinks of the flowers.

"Crown Vetch (Coronilla varia), Casein, 7"x10"

Weed Challenge Winners

"These are in full bloom here in Minnesota. They add nice color to most ditches. Found out after I painted this that it is considered an invasive species. It was introduced to the state for erosion control in construction areas. Now it is a little out of control. Kind of pretty though."

Weed Challenge Winners

Ian Bosworth is our next winner with a lyrical study of an overgrown patch of weeds. "Hi, this is a spot at the side of my local reservoir. I noticed it when I was having a run around it." 

Weed Challenge Winners

"There was a gap in the canopy of the trees that was letting the light flood in to this spot which was rather nice. First time I have used the umbrella as the Cornish drizzle started to set in I still got soaked through though."

Weed Challenge Winners

Next finalist is Karl Wennergren, with a sweeping Swedish landscape.

"I chose to paint this field of Bunias orientalis. I set out to paint in the forest originally but right before I entered the tree line I turned around. What first attracted me was how the path disappeared into the field with a nice curve and I thought it would be fun challenge to try and simplify the weeds while keeping a strong shape design. Before I started painting I had to get rid of a huge dead rat that was lying exactly where I decided to set up and was attracting a ton of flies."

Weed Challenge Winners
"Oil on canvas, colors: Ultramarine blue, Burnt umber, Alizarin permanent, Cadmium red, Cadmium yellow and Titanium white."


Weed Challenge Winners
And finally, Pascal Miller found some weeds clinging to the side of a building in France. "Gouache & watercolor pencils 5.8'' x 8.3"

"I was in Valenciennes in the north of France, and spotted what used to be an old print shop. Burned down and abandoned for several years, it had a magnificent weed of some sort sprouting from the side of the building. I couldn't identify the species of  plant." 

Weed Challenge Winners

"I started with a pencil drawing, used 3 tube colors plus white to try out a limited gamut approach, and then added a little texture with the water color pencils at the end."

Thanks to everyone for taking part. Winners, please send me your mailing address by email or Facebook mail so that I can send you your "Department of Art" patch. Nic, also please let me know which download you would like.
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Weed Painting Challenge
Visit the Facebook Event Page (and click on "See All Posts") to see all the entrants.

Plein Air Invitational



This Sunday I'll be part of a Plein-Air Invitational at the New York Botanical Garden. (Link to YouTube).


There will be more than 20 invited out-of-door painters, including Paul BachemGarin BakerEleinne BasaZufar BikbovShari BlaukopfMike BuddenArmand CabreraHiu Lai ChongDenise DumontLisa EgeliMary Anna GoetzElissa GoreFrank GuidaJames Gurney, Jeanette Gurney, Stapleton KearnsJanice KirshChris MagadiniBrad MarshallLisa MitchellRicky MujicaSusan WeintraubStewart White, and Lois Woolley.

We'll be painting in several locations around the Gardens. Although this isn't a workshop, and it's not an open call for other painters that aren't on the list to bring their easels, it's a good chance to quietly observe various setups and ways of working.

You can also see a couple of the paintings that I've done while in residence there if you visit the gift shop.

If you're a beginning artist or you have kids who want to draw and paint, there is a special garden area to learn to work from nature, with free materials and guidance from an instructor.


All this is to support and celebrate the exhibition in the NYBG's Art Gallery of American Impressionism by artists such as Maria Oakey Dewing, Matilda Browne, Childe Hassam, William Merritt Chase, and John Singer Sargent, and a garden interpretation by Francisca Coelho, NYBG's V.P. for Glasshouses and Exhibitions.
NYBG "Impressionism in the Garden"

Facebook Live meets a manual typewriter

Yesterday Jeanette and I decide to try out an experiment.


It's the day before graduation at Bard College. Students are roaming around campus with their parents. We place the typewriter on a table in the student center, and I arrange the sketch easel.

We hope the typewriter will lure someone to pose for an impromptu portrait. First Cullan, and then his mom, try it out.

We set up the iPad to webcast the action via Facebook Live. The first session has audio issues due to problems with our old iPad (sorry). We switch over to an Android cellphone, and then it works fine. Here's the 16 minute webcast. (Link to video).


I start sketching Jeanette, but abandon the start and turn the page when Kathleen sits down. I lay down a few lines in watercolor pencils, then launch off with brush and watercolor to place the main shapes. With progressively smaller brushes, I place the smaller details.

Kathleen, watercolor and gouache 
Thanks to everyone who joined the webcast and left a comment. Let me know in the comments what you'd like to see on a future webcast. Thanks to Kathleen, Cullan, and Joe for lending a hand and being such good sports.
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My next video tutorial "Portraits in the Wild" comes out June 13. It's full of moments like this.

"Gouache in the Wild" HD MP4 Download at Gumroad

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Dancing and Painting in the Gardens


The opening of "Impressionism: American Gardens on Canvas" was a big success yesterday at the New York Botanical Gardens. Members of the Michael Arenella Dreamland Orchestra played Jazz Age favorites and demonstrated some hot dance licks in vintage costumes. (Link to YouTube video)

We spent about an hour studying the exhibition of American Impressionism curated by Dr. Linda S. Ferber, including inspiring pieces by Sargent, Chase, Twachtman, Hassam, and Dewing.
Garden Walk by James Gurney, oil on canvas mounted to board, 12 x 16 in.
You can see the original on display in the gift shop.
I painted a view toward the Conservatory. The walkers strolling along a peony border were based on five models who were kind enough to pose for me.


One of my models was Michael W. Haar. He practices the old-school art of barbering, and he's one of a bunch of people in New York City who wear vintage clothes and live a retro lifestyle 365 days a year.

That square white panel above me is a new windproof diffuser design that I've been perfecting, and I'll share how to build it on a future video.


As I painted, I had fun meeting the many members and guests of the Gardens who passed through.

The exhibition, Impressionism: American Gardens on Canvas, which brings together the two living traditions of flower gardening and outdoor painting, will be up through September 11. They encourage artists, beginning and experienced, to come and make art. If you forget your art supplies, they'll even provide some for you.

Church in the Rain

I just finished writing an article for International Artist magazine which will be out in a few weeks. The subject is painting when you're stuck somewhere. In this case I was in Millbridge, Maine during a camping trip, waiting for the rain to stop. 

Church in the Rain

I had my painting gear but no umbrella. The only public place with cover was the porch in front of the post office. 

The view looked across to the Congregational church beyond some utility poles and outbuildings. I liked the way the church was white against the white of the sky, with a few birds perched up high on the steeple.

While Waiting for Tires

My car is in the shop for new tires. It's too cold to paint outside, so I set up by the coffee machine. The car goes up on the lift. An impact wrench rattles. I've got about an hour.

Van Kleeck's Tire, Gouache, 5 x 8 inches, 1 hour
The view looks back into the office. Beyond the counter there's a desk with a computer. Beyond that, a passageway with a filing cabinet leading farther back into another office. Someone is working on a computer back there. 


This video shows a few stages of the process. (Sweater vest by Jeanette) (Link to the video on YouTube).

I set up a warm foreground and a cool background, going quite dark in the transition between them. The cool note of the computer screen in the near office was an exception to the warm foreground, like a dot on a taijitu.


I invent the color statement to add depth and mood. The actual scene is more evenly lit with uniformly colored fluorescent lights.
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If you've been thinking of getting into Guerilla Gouache, there's no time like the present. Here's all you need to get started:
Pentalic watercolor sketchbook
Holbein gouache set
Richeson travel brush set
Take me along with you: Gouache in the Wild
And join the GurneyJourney on InstagramPinterest, FacebookTwitter, and YouTube

Plein-Air Painting is Illegal in St. Augustine

Painting outdoors in the downtown areas of Saint Augustine, Florida is a criminal offense and can result in a six month jail term and a fine of up to $500.00. The law regards plein-air painting as a form of performing, which is banned. Similar bans have been enacted in Winter Park, FL and Barcelona, Spain.

Plein-Air Painting is Illegal in St. Augustine

I asked Roger Bansemer, an outdoor painter who lives in Saint Augustine, for his views on this law. Roger and his wife Sarah host a nationwide show "Painting and Travel with Roger and Sarah Bansemer" on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service).

Plein-Air Painting is Illegal in St. Augustine
Gurney: What brought about the ban?
Bansemer: Shop owners complained because artists were taking up space in front of their businesses, but the bigger problem was that artists felt they had the "right" to set up shop on the street or park and commercially sell their paintings. So the artists in many respects were to blame for what has happened. When artists were allowed to sell their paintings, others felt they had the right to do the same so people began selling sun glasses and so on. It became a problem especially to those shop owners who pay high rents to have space usurped in front of their stores. Painting in public is one thing, but setting up a dozen paintings for sale around your feet is something else and the city has the right to limit that type of activity.

Gurney: What are the repercussions of this law?
Bansemer: I get lots and lots of emails from people all over the country asking if this ban of artists is really true and I have to answer that it is. To be fair, the ban is only in certain parts of the historic district and there are many other places to paint. But even that can be an issue because street performers can fit into that category with painters so the city has simply banned everyone who might be considered an artist. Unfortunately, St. Augustine is getting tons of bad press because the issue hasn't been resolved. 

JG: Is there another way that your city government could deal with those problems?
RB: The solution is "One artist, one painting." People love to watch artists at work and it enhances the experience of tourists that come to town.

JG: What advice would you give to artists who want to paint in popular or crowded tourist areas?
RB: Don't make your plein-air painting experience into a selling venue. You'll ruin it for everyone. Position yourself where you won't block shop owners' window displays or entrances where tourists gather to watch you. Be professional, which includes being tidy even down to what you wear. Don't make your plein-air painting a personal showcase of you or your work.

JG: Do you have a message for merchants or town governments who have similar concerns?
RB: Tourists love to watch artists at work. Businesses should realize that an artist quietly working at one painting at his/her easel will attract business and add to the artistic flavor of the community. Here in St. Augustine at the town square, you can get up on the pavilion and give a speech but can't quietly paint that same pavilion. It doesn't make sense.
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YouTube trailer for Roger's program: "Painting and Travel" on PBS
Article: St. Augustine Has Outlawed Art, And You Should Know About It
Article: When Outdoor Painting is Illegal
Facebook Group: Illegal Paintings of Park Avenue

Street Painting Safety Gear

Street Painting Safety Gear
Street painting in Hudson, New York.
Painting a street view sometimes means standing in the street. The advantage of the street position is that the view isn't blocked by parked cars. But it's good to follow basic safety precautions. I like to use a traffic cone and a safety triangle (links take you to Amazon).

The safety triangle sits on a weighted base. The reflective triangle pieces fold down. I cut the "Department of Art" stencil to customize the traffic cone. You can also wear a reflective safety vest or even reflective suspenders over your clothes to allow cars to see you.

Edit: Joe Kulka made this sign after reading the post. Thanks, Joe!
Street Painting Safety Gear
Ten Tips for Dealing with the Moving SunWeed Challenge WinnersPlein Air InvitationalFacebook Live meets a manual typewriterDancing and Painting in the GardensChurch in the RainWhile Waiting for TiresPlein-Air Painting is Illegal in St. AugustineStreet Painting Safety GearPainting Tip: Start Big, End Small

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