Monday, December 29, 2008

More "Vast Spaces"

As I may have mentioned at least (?!?) once, one of the things that makes the Southwest so attractive to me is all that space. Gazing into the night sky is awe-inspiring, yet with the naked eye, one really can't judge how far out there it all goes.

But in the deserts, the distances may not be infinite, but the views are somehow more manageable to us human beans. On a clear day, one can see many, many miles/kilometers until the earth fades into the sky.

I've attached a picture I took on a trip to Canyonlands National Park in 2007. The rock at the top is Mesa Arch, and the view through this "window" is amazing. Even in the relatively flat noon-ish lighting, this scene is spectacular -- and not because I'm some fantastic photographer. The landscape is what it is.

Some day I'll paint this and feature it here and on my Website (which, of course, is It'll be yet another example of "The Vast Spaces of the Southwest."

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sonora -- More About Her

As I mentioned in a previous post, Sonora is a female Harris' hawk who "performs" at the Living Desert in Palm Desert, CA. Her routine spotlights a little of her hunting prowess.

In the top photo, she's emerging from an opening behind some rocks. She flies to the top of a saguaro skeleton (you can see her on top of this structure in the 12 December 2008 post), from where she looks towards the top of a nearby hill where an employee has placed a mouse (previously frozen, now thawed). Sonora then flies to the hilltop, eats the mouse, then "divebombs" back into the amphitheater (middle picture) where she lands on the rocks and enters the opening from whence she came (third pic), returning to the ethereal world where raptors dwell.

It's an amazing little show. All the critters do what they do in nature, but they do it in a way so we can see it happen. I've been able to collect a number of pictures of critters I will want to paint (and have already painted) in a much shorter period of time than if I had been in the field.

The Harris' hawks (including Hudson, a male who flies back and forth over the audience's heads) seem to fascinate me the most. I LOVE those little guys!

Friday, December 26, 2008

Christmas Lights

Si-i-g-g-h-h-h ... the day after Christmas. For me, the party is over, even though we'll leave our decorations up until January 1st. If we were REALLY traditional, we'd put the decorations up Christmas Eve and leave them up until 6 January, the Feast of the Epiphany, which commemorates when the three wise guys were the first gentiles to acknowledge the baby Jesus as our King. As you may know, the Christmas season runs from Christmas Day to Epiphany, twelve days long -- the "twelve days" of Christmas we sing about (with a partridge in a pear tree and all that).

So--no doing art the last couple of days. I made the turkey on the 24th (makes it SO-O-O much less stressful on the 25th!), visited families on the 25th and afterwards went to a town with a neighborhood that always goes all out with their Christmas displays.

Except this year, we had driving winds and rain, so although the storm was over by the time we got there, some decorations were knocked over and most weren't even turned on. But a few homes were lit up. I inserted a photo (sorry it's blurred -- no tripod!) showing half of the display from one of the houses.

I hope YOU had a great Christmas -- with lights or not!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Bunny Prints

The snow is mostly gone now. But I couldn't resist showing another photo of footprints in the snow. A bunny's footprints.

Can't you just imagine the little critter hippity-hopping along in the snow, looking for some tasty goodies to eat? And looking totally cute doing it?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Winter Solstice

Winter solstice (or summer, or the vernal/autumnal equinoxes) would probably be ordinary, run-of-the-mill days for me. I don't have pagan beliefs, so other than the fact that today is Sunday, I did go to church. But I didn't take part in any of the local solstice celebrations that occurred in the area.

However, as a photographer (or at least, a photographer whose "instant sketchpad" is the camera and its resulting products), winter solstice is special in a number of ways:
  1. Dawn is later in the morning -- I don't have to wake up so darned early if I want to be "out there" at sunrise for a shoot;

  2. Here in the northern hemisphere, the sun is as low in the sky as it's going to get, reducing the time wasted waiting for the sun NOT to be overhead with its boring lighting;

  3. The sun is as far south as it's going to get for the year.

This last point was important for creating the painting I've shown in this post. This view, south of Palm Desert, CA, has become one of my favorite scenes. If you were standing there seeing the landscape before you, you would be facing northeast.

During the other times of the year, the sun is further to the left (north), resulting in a backlit scene which can be dramatic, but in this case, I preferred sunlight to come from the side. That only happens in the morning in winter, and winter solstice is the best day of the year to find that lighting at this site.

The problem? It's winter. No flowers. But he-e-e-y-y ... I'm an artist! I can fix that!

So -- the lighting in the painting is from when the sun is furthest south -- on winter solstice. (I should know -- I was there a few years ago). The flowers, of course, are from spring. I've combined elements from two different times of the year in this painting. Plus, I added the bighorn sheep ram, which actually do live in this area.

This scene has been popular with the Palm Springs - Palm Desert crowd, especially with folks who visit from somewhere else in the country. In a sense, my paintings of this place show everything that is good about the desert: the flowers, the red-bloomed ocotillo, the overlapping hills that extend a great distance, and an example of the endangered peninsular bighorn sheep. And I was able to combine the best of two different seasons, including the magic lighting of winter solstice.

Wanna celebrate solstice, anyone?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Some Experiments in Life

Tomorrow night begins Hanukkah. We're not Jewish, so we don't celebrate it ourselves. But we know a number of people who do.

One of them is my graduate advisor from college. I earned (earned?? WORKED MY A*S OFF is more like it!!) a masters degree in microbiology at Cal Poly, Pomona, CA in the mid-1980's. By the time I finished, I realized it wasn't all just about science. The experience changed me as a person as well.

I came from a family where making mistakes was not a good thing, especially when it came to my father and second-oldest brother (I'm the youngest of three), MORE so when the mistake/accident cost us money that we didn't really have. Growing up in an environment like that turns you into an extremely cautious person, sometimes paralyzed with fear at trying something new because ... heavens ... YOU MIGHT FAIL! And if you failed, you didn't hear the end of it. Of course, the gloom-and-doom sayers in the family always knew you WOULD fail because that's just how it is. Don't even bother reaching for the stars, because they're out of reach, anyway. Always and forever.

My advisor, "Dr. J," has a different attitude towards life and towards science. Life is more exciting when you learn new stuff. If you do an experiment and it turns out exactly as you expected, what have you really learned? On the other hand, if an experiment has unexpected results or if it simply doesn't work: NOW you've learned something, even if it involves nothing more than tweaking a procedure or making adjustments so you can move forward. Sometimes experiments can help you realize a particular study isn't worth doing -- but you wouldn't learn that if you hadn't tried it first.

I've found that when you learn through mistakes and failures, the lessons tend to stay with you. There's something about doing things the hard way, or even failing miserably at something, that makes permanent changes in you that can last a lifetime. Hopefully, those changes are positive (although for people who believe failure is negative, failing can make that person even more cynical and bitter).

In my case, accepting this attitude was a necessary step before I could even dream of launching a career in art. If one goes into an art career (or any other profession) with an expectation that it will fail, it will. Changing that expectation MUST be done. I've already endured mistakes, and I certainly have times when I feel pretty discouraged, especially during this economy when sales appear to be as far away as those stars we reach for. Thankfully, "Dr. J" and grad school did much to alter my expectations of myself. Since then, I've learned to avoid discussing chance-taking with the gloom-and-doom sayers.

I hope I can continue and, eventually, prosper, in art. But if it doesn't work out, at least I will have known that I tried. Whatever regrets I might have, THAT won't be one of them. It's been a learning process, and from what I hear from other artists, it will always be a learning process.

So, "Dr. J," Happy Hanukkah, and thanks for turning me into a scientist as well as giving me the attitude to pursue my dreams.

"Sail forth - steer for the deep waters only, Reckless O soul, exploring, I with thee and thou with me, For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go, And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all." -- Walt Whitman

Thursday, December 18, 2008

ANOTHER Future Painting

At least the storm has moved on, I've been taking lots of pictures, and I could see some paintings coming out of this.

(But I STILL think snow belongs in Colorado where we lived in the '90's, NOT in southern California!)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

More Snow

Good grief!!! We knew it snows in the Mojave desert. But we moved from Colorado, in part, to get away from THIS much snow!
It started snowing in the early morning hours, it's snowed all day, and it won't stop until early tomorrow morning.

At least snow IS pretty. It's just a pain if you have to go out in it. I was outside today, knocking snow off of tree and bush branches before the weight of the snow could break them.

The picture on the right shows a Joshua tree with its north-facing side totally coated with snow. (Compare with the photo from Monday, 15 December). The lumpy snow on the ground is covering a forest of cholla cactus. The second picture is of a couple of house sparrows who don't seem to be bothered by the weather around them.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Confused arrows trying to point the way???

Dinosaur footprints???

Mysterious symbols left by ancient extraterrestrials???

Abstract art???

Nah. These are just tracks left by some Gambels quail in the snow.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Desert Snow

It's been snowing here this morning, and continues to do so as I write. Snow in the desert is actually not that unusual. What would be unusual is if the snow sticks around for more than a day.

We get it all in the Mojave -- a little snow in the winter, and blazing heat in the summer.

I wonder if we'll have desert snow for Christmas??

Friday, December 12, 2008


I visited the Living Desert again today, specifically for the purpose of getting photos of some of the critters in their "Wildlife Wonders" program. In case you've forgotten, the Living Desert is a combination desert botanical garden and zoo specializing in desert animals. "Wildlife Wonders" is a showcase where desert critters perform things they do in nature, only they perform them where we can see them.

The accompanying picture shows Sonora, a female Harris' hawk, silhouetted against the sky. Her "job" is to fly to an observation point (in this case, the skeleton of a saguaro cactus), then fly to the peak of a nearby hill to get and eat a tasty morsel (a thawed frozen mouse). Afterwards, she divebombs back into the amphitheater and exits through an opening in a fence. The divebomb can be hard to catch on a camera, since she can easily be traveling 80mph (129km/h). I have caught her in her dive, but so far, the resulting pictures aren't worth showing, 'tho' they may still be useful for paintings.

At this time, this is the best picture I have of Sonora who, I expect, will appear in a painting sooner or later. As a painter, I have the advantage of being able to refer to other pictures to fill in the silhouette with some color and details.

This silhouette would strike fear into the little hearts and minds of any mouse that saw it.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Yet ANOTHER Small Painting

Probably the last in a series of small (8" x 8"/20cm x 20cm) -- the last for a while, anyway.

This piece shows a beavertail cactus in bloom among some rocks in Joshua Tree National Park. I guess that's why I titled it "Beavertail on the Rocks"!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Why Not Impressionism?

You've seen my paintings (online, anyway, if not in real life), so by now, you know I work in a fairly traditional/academic way with just a hint of surrealism to add a little mystery. Three-dimensional brushmarks are minimal, if they exist at all.

And one characteristic that you can't see online (or in any reproduction): I paint in transparent glazes. The paintings have a stained-glass quality, an Old Masters-style "inner glow" that, frankly, adds a lot of time to the painting process. After all, when you paint a layer and let it dry, then paint another layer and let it dry, and again and again and again ... it's a little like making the same painting mulitple times, but on the same canvas or panel. There are many times when I feel if I did abstract work or even Impressionism where globs of color are applied quickly, often while working on site in the great outdoors (my paintings must be done in the studio), life might be much simpler. In fact, my sales might even increase: Impressionism is a more popular style in the USA than the academic style I prefer.

So why not Impressionism? Well, I don't really have anything against that look. I've seen some attractive pieces that were done that way.

However, an impressionistic piece draws attention to itself as a painting. By working as I do, I can do subtle things in paintings that wouldn't seem believable if the painting was much looser; in fact, some of those things might seem like mistakes. Plus, honestly, I really like the look of the Old Masters, including works created in the 19th century. I love the "inner glow" of a Rembrandt portrait or other artwork, which--in many examples--elevates an otherwise ho-hum painting to a higher level because of the sheer beauty of glazes and other techniques that tend to go with them.

At some point, I'd like to discuss some of the techniques of the Masters and how I incorporate some of those methods into my own work.

The attached image is Madonna and Child with Book by Rafael (who did some fabulous glazing on this piece!) The original painting is in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, CA. The Museum Bookstore sells prints of it, but they don't do justice to the painting.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Small Desert Painting

Another in my series of small (8" x 8"/20cm x 20cm) paintings of the desert!

(BTW, don't forget -- my Website is Since the small paintings are already at the Christopher Morgan Gallery, please contact him directly if you're interested in acquiring a small -- or a large! --painting).

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Religion and Politics

Religion and politics -- these are topics of conversation that are best avoided at parties. At least, that's the traditional wisdom for anyone who doesn't want to get caught up in pointless, nonproductive arguments.

I belong to four online forums for artists. Three of those have moderators who insist on keeping the topics related to art. The fourth is mostly that way, but it also features a sort of "let's chat about whatever" where one can start or participate in any subject that's on one's mind.

Prior to the November elections, some of the threads dealt with politics, led mostly by a few people who felt quite passionately about then-candidate Barrack Obama. The problem was: some of us, myself included, felt the pro-Obama folks weren't looking at Obama's claims with any degree of skepticism at all. If we asked for the Obama-ites to offer explanations or evidence that supported those claims, we were treated in an insulting manner and -- needless to say -- were not given explanations or evidence. The forum moderator, in fact, threatened one of the Obama-ites with banishment from the forum if she didn't restrain herself, so this person avoided outright flaming -- but the comments were still insulting.

Now -- I have a Masters degree in microbiology. I did research in college and in several jobs afterwards. A procedure exists for looking at evidence, asking questions and looking for the holes, and trying to find the answers to questions to whatever extent that is possible. The political "discussion" on the forum would not cut it in circles that are used to dealing with evidence -- certainly not science; I'm sure lawyers would have had a field day with it as well.

Mind you -- none of this has anything to do with where I or others stood regarding Obama or McCain. This was strictly about the lack of critical thinking on the part of adults who, I'm sure, are convinced they "won" the discussion.

And the result of all this? Many forum members have not appeared on the forum since the election -- not, I'm convinced -- because Obama won the election, but because we have hard feelings about the way the Obama-ites conducted themselves. The worst of the insulters is still there; in fact, after the election, she brought up the California Proposition 8 "anti-gay marriage" initiative -- but this time, nobody took her bait. A few of us, in fact, sent each other private messages, and we agree this person has a compulsive need (seriously bordering on mental illness) to be the center of attention and to win regardless of her methodology. I and one other forum member have worked with or around mentally ill people before, and what we were seeing was disturbing. Unfortunately, the pro-Obama extremist got away with it, and I don't know if I or the others will return to that forum.

We didn't discuss religion (although it has come up before in this forum), but we did get into politics. I guess we allowed ourselves to get sucked into an unreasonable situation with unreasonable people. And I fear we all lost continued opportunities for building an online community of other professional artists.

Religion and politics -- these are topics of conversation that are best avoided at parties. And online forums.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008


I was in Palm Desert today running a number of errands (I always run myself into the ground when I'm there!) and visited the Living Desert again, as I often do when I'm in Palm Desert. My favorite thing to see is the "Wildlife Wonders" show where the critters do what they normally do, only they do it on cue.

My absolute favorite critter is a Harris' hawk named Hudson who flies back and forth over peoples' heads, often close enough to smack people upside the heads with his wings -- but I love it! However, Hudson had the day off, and the other Harris' hawk (Sonora, a female) is on sick leave right now.

But the Living Desert also has other raptors, although the close encounters with them are not as close as the encounters with Hudson.

One of these critters is Sundance, a female redtail hawk. I've painted redtail hawks in landscapes before, but I was always limited to just a few photos I've been able to take over the years of redtails. So the more pictures I can get of Sundance (along with Hudson), the better equipped I'll be for making more paintings with hawks in them.

Also, Harris' hawks are more or less limited to southern Arizona scenes, while redtails are more widely distributed throughout the US. That increases the options for hawk-"infested" landscapes besides the Sonoran desert.

Whenever I see a hawk catch prey, I always feel a little sorry for the prey. Yet, hawks are beautiful animals and efficient predators, they have an important job to do and I'm always thrilled to see them in flight.

Monday, December 1, 2008


For the benefit of anyone who hasn't spent much time in the West, the name of this plant is pronounced "yuck-a." (Some people tend to call it "you-ka").

I've shown another one of my recently-completed small paintings (10" x 8"/25cm x 20cm). Rising in the background is Mt. San Jacinto. The San Jacinto Mountains are a large part of why the land off to the left (including this spot) is desert while the area to the right is influenced by coastal weather patterns. The mountains form a "rain shadow" because their elevation is high enough to block most of the moisture-laden clouds that come from the ocean.

A scene like this is classic Palm Springs, CA. Spring flowers (the yellow-flowering shrubs are called brittlebush -- Encelia farinosa), yuccas in bloom and Mt. San Jacinto which lies immediately west of Palm Springs. If we get enough rain this winter, the desert will look like this next March and April.

Including that yucca!