The Beauty of Ruins

"Koknese Castle Ruins" by Juljis Feders, 1904.

“Koknese Castle Ruins” by Juljis Feders, 1904.

I returned to Latvia a second time this year and was entranced by the glorious castle ruins there yet again.This time, I had a chance to visit the Latvian National Museum of Art and was delightfully surprised to find that Latvian artists from the past had also painted the same exact ruins that I have become enamored with.

Wall piece from the Latvian National Museum of Art. Artist unknown.

Wall piece from the Latvian National Museum of Art. Artist unknown.

Here are the ruins of Koknese castle again in a much moodier, darker composition. Two very different takes on the same location!

"Timebound" by Colin Nitta, 2015.

“Timebound” by Colin Nitta, 2015.

My painting inspired by Koknese, “Timebound” is from a different vantage point, though certain elements can be recognized such as the central wall piece that juts up between the left and right wall ruins. It’s interesting to note that when the Latvian artists painted Koknese, they were working at a time when the landscape was totally different. At that time, Koknese was on a hill overlooking the surrounding landscape. My version of Koknese has water right up to the castle’s edge with no change in elevation (just ignore the big alien planet and the ship in mine, for now). Why the difference?

The answer is the occupation of Latvia by the Soviet Union from 1940-1989. During that time, hydroelectric stations in this area were built to supply power to nearby cities and in the process, they dammed up rivers. This caused the water level to rise greatly, so that the Koknese we know today has water right up to its edge, whereas in 1904 when Juljis Feders painted it, the water was much further down below. Painting from his vantage point made a lot more sense at the time; Koknese looks truly fantastic up there on it’s hill. That kind of composition is catnip for artists.

These differences make a huge impact on the castle’s relation to the surrounding landscape. I can only imagine what Koknese must have been like in the year 1200 when it was not a ruin but a real fortress on a high hill overlooking the surrounding territory. It must have been truly awesome back then! There is a great deal of myth and wonder surrounding these old ruins. So much narrative power lies in a pile of old moss covered stones. A year ago, I thought I might be tired of castles and ruins by now, but I can see that I’ve only just begun to explore these enchanting places in my work.

"Cesis West Tower".

“Cesis West Tower”.

"Dobele Spire"

“Dobele Spire”

2015 Review

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All the paintings I made in 2015!

Sometimes, there are so many exciting developments between one blog post and the next that I have a hard time writing them all down. With 2016 comes an exciting start to many new ventures, but it’s worthwhile to review what 2015 had to offer. Here’s a breakdown!

  • I traveled to Eastern and Central Europe for the first time in June-August, and gathered an incredible amount of inspiration from the wealth of cultures there. I visited many museums, and also painted on location.
  • I exhibited work at Spectrum Fantastic Art Live 4 in Kansas City, MO in May, as well as Illuxcon 8 in Allentown, PA in October. Work was well received and I got great critical feedback from peers, and also sold a painting to a private collector.
  • I also showed work at two pop-up shows, one at the Latvian Song Festival in San Jose and another at the Latvian Center in Los Angeles. The second show saw a successful sale with a collector as well.
  • In September, I began attending a weekly figure painting session with fellow Bay Area figurative painters – a wonderful opportunity to learn through observation.
  • In December I traveled to the Mojave Desert and Death Valley, camping out and painting beautiful desert landscapes.
  • And just to cap it all off, a piece that I recently submitted to the art annual “Infected By Art” was accepted into the next volume!
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Painting on location at Cesis Castle, Latvia with fellow artist Amuna Laima.

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My booth at Spectrum Fantastic Art Live 4!

My booth at Illuxcon 8!

My booth at Illuxcon 8!

My pop-up show at the Los Angeles Latvian Center.

The pop-up show at the Los Angeles Latvian Center.

"Mickey and Stripes", figure study painted from observation.

“Mickey and Stripes”, figure study painted from observation.

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Painting on location in the Golden Canyon Trail, Death Valley, CA.

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Painting on location in the Mojave Desert.

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“Witness” – a painting that I submitted to Infected By Art in late December… and was later accepted in early January!

As I am writing this post, I am a slightly surprised by how much there was to cover from 2015. A lot can certainly transpire in a year! There are so many things that I am looking forward to in 2016 that it’s hard to wrap my head around it. Stay tuned for more posts and exciting new happenings coming soon 🙂

Painting Abroad – Part 3

"Ancient Elm", 14 inches by 11 inches, oils on canvas.

“Ancient Elm”, 14 inches by 11 inches, oils on canvas.

You never know where a good painting will happen. During my six weeks in Europe, I was looking for inspiration in all the epic cultural monuments: magnificent old castles, beautiful cathedrals, the classic boulevards that dominate so many of these old world cities. It turns out that I was actually the happiest with a painting that I made of a relatively simple subject I could find just about anywhere: an old tree.

I was staying in Vidzeme Region near Riga, Latvia at a friend’s residence, and after taking a tour around the town (basically a small village on the outskirts of a huge forest, of which there are hundreds in Latvia), I saw this large tree that bordered on a nearby stream. It was the sort of tree I would have been drawn to like a magnet as a child – wide enough to hide behind, with a large exposed trunk that invites one to climb aboard.

Apparently, in Latvia, if a tree is old enough and has enough imposing stature, it is actually granted protected status from logging by designation as an “ancient tree”. This intrigued me. That a country with so many trees would take special care that a few of them that are particularly grandiose be protected shows that they have sort of institutionalized nostalgia for these beautiful giants.

I remember paying very close attention to the relative value of the trunk, and waiting to paint the dappled light on the ground cover until the sun moved out of the clouds. I think this really helped capture a special sense of atmosphere.

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I also painted at the house we were staying at. Here is my depiction of the roses and a homemade greenhouse in the backyard. Many Latvian homes in this area had greenhouses and gardens, built by their owners for growing vegetables and other foodstuffs.

I could go on and on about the many experiences during my stay in Europe… but that might take a while. If you’d like to see more, check out a Tumblr blog that my girlfriend and I curated during our travels. It includes many images and descriptions of our adventures. Needless to say, I am chock full of inspiration for a long time to come! Stay tuned as I take many of these memories and translate them into the most vivid medium of all: oil and paint on canvas (that’s my opinion, anyhow!). Thanks for stopping by!

Painting Abroad – Part 2

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“Street Lamp, Krakow”, 11 by 14 inches, oils on canvas.

 

Plein air painting in cities is a challenge. European cities full of tourists are no exception! During my travels, I was often staying in city centers where the most culture was present, and consequently, the most people. While sightseeing, I would keep an eye out for passageways with alcoves where I could prop up my easel without too much trouble and not have to worry about being in the way of a horse drawn carriage full of Asian tourists.

Another challenge is that cities are full of an incredible amount of detail pretty much everywhere  you look. Most interesting churches and old public buildings that make for compelling subjects are covered in an incredible amount of baroque and art nouveau filigree. It’s beautiful, but how am I supposed to capture that in a painting in just 2.5 hours?

The above scene was painted near the old town in Krakow, Poland. Krakow was the old capital before it moved to present day Warsaw, so the city is full of royal history from the days when the Polish royal family used to reside there. Below is a photo I took of Wawel Castle, where the king and queen liked to hang out back in those days. Check out those rotundas! Wow.

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Wawel Castle, Krakow, Poland

 

Speaking of Warsaw, I also traveled there and visited a friend of mine from my college days, Alek Morawski. It was great to see him again and see what he’s been up to. If you’re a fan of cartoons, hip-hop, and psychedelia (I mean, who isn’t??) then you’re probably a fan of Alek. – check out his website here!

Sharing a beer with the legendary Alek Morawski.

Sharing some Polish ale with the legendary Alek Morawski

While visiting, I stayed with Alek in his apartment which also was situated right on the edge of the Old Town district in Warsaw. It was yet again another part of town that was typically covered in streams of tourists. I happened to find this great spot right near the old city wall that in medieval times was the outer fortification of the city to defend it against invaders.

"Bulwark," 11 by 14 inches, oils on canvas.

“Bulwark,” 11 by 14 inches, oils on canvas.

While I was painting, several people came by to ask me about it in Polish. Needless to say, I couldn’t offer much. One lady said something to me, and then proceeded to dump a bucket of food scraps about five feet away from where I was painting. I think she said, “Sorry! Have to get rid of this. Right here.”

What a beautiful country. I can’t wait to return!

Painting Abroad – Part 1

This is my first blog post while painting and traveling in another country! I’ve spent the last four and a half weeks sightseeing and painting in Latvia and Poland, Prague (Czech Republic), Salzburg (Austria), Venice (Italy), Croatia, and Budapest (Hungary). It’s been a hell of a trip so far and is far too much to talk about in just one post. I’ve seen incredible paintings from European painters that I didn’t even know existed and visited some gorgeous old castles, ruins and palaces. To be honest, right now I’m having some difficulty processing all that I’m seeing. The wealth of visual culture here is staggering. This series of posts is just a notation on my experiences. 

Koknese Castle in Latvia was at the top of list of landmarks to visit long before I arrived. I found this particular ruin in an online database of castles in Latvia and knew that I had to see this place. Although it hasn’t been maintained over the years and doesn’t have the grandeur of other structures, decomposing appearance makes it mythical somehow. Archaeologists don’t know much about the place other than that it was strategically situated at the fork of two rivers in front of a settlement for defensive purposes. I’ve found that castles in Europe tend to fall in particular category, depending on how they’ve been cared for over the years. Here’s how I would define it:

  1. The castle hasn’t been used for a few hundred years and has fallen into complete ruin. Anything wooden has deteriorated and there are no floors or windows.
  2. The castle has had moderate maintenance over the years, or has been rescued from ruin for the purpose of sightseeing. Walls and floors are intact. Rooms have been remade into exhibits. Tapestries have been replicated and hung from the walls.
  3. The castle is still being actively used. Sometimes, this means it is still a government office, in other situations it has become a restaurant or other attraction. Modern lighting and plumbing have all been installed.

I’ve found castles that are all along this spectrum. Koknese was definitely a prime example of Category 1.

Photo by Gunta Klavina

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Cesis Castle was what I call an example of Category 2. Cesis is one of the oldest towns in Latvia and has a very detailed history. The castle was besieged many times, and was captured by Russian czar Ivan the Terrible in 1577. As was often the case with desirable fortresses, it was taken back a few months later (of course). It’s captured the imagination ever since and has been kept up over the years as a prime sightseeing destination.

As a matter of fact, it was still being worked on while I was painting this very picture. If you look carefully at the picture above, you may see a small dark silhouette at the top of the tower. This is actually a construction worker assembling the new roof. The old roof was made of wood, but it was suffering from weathering and damage. A local tour guide actually informed us that we were the first artists to ever depict Cesis Castle with it’s newly built roof!

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Fellow painter Amuna Laima studying the same tower from our vantage point of Cesis.

We went on to tour many more castles and had the chance to paint a few of those, as well as other landscapes unique to this part of the world. More to come soon!

Weekly Observations

"Bridge." Painted somewhere between East Oakland and Alameda.

“Bridge.” Painted somewhere between East Oakland and Alameda.


"Winter's Lane," painted on location in the town of Briones.

“Winter’s Lane,” painted on location in the town of Briones.


A pen and ink study from a live model. 25 minutes.

A pen and ink study from a live model. 25 minutes.


My easel on location at Lake Anza in Tilden Park, Berkeley. This one was a struggle.

My easel on location at Lake Anza in Tilden Park, Berkeley. This one was a struggle.

I’ve recently begun to do more observations from life as my commissions have lightened up recently. It’s hard to keep up but when I have the opportunity to learn from nature there is no better teacher to be had! I am trying to push myself to use new colors and experiment with risky compositions. At the moment, I am participating in both a weekly plein air session as well as a figure drawing group. If I can keep both these in my schedule, I believe it will do my technical skills a world of good.

Some pieces come out, and others simply don’t. The last study is on location at a lake in a park in Berkeley. I wanted to experiment with super saturated blue shadows. As is often the case with high key colors, they got out of control. The end result is unbalanced and I found that when I finished, my favorite section was actually the top left where I simply painted what I saw with little attempt to edit reality. Oh well- you never know what will happen until you give it a try!

Landscapes of 2014

"Meadowlands," 11 inches by 14 inches on canvas.

“Meadowlands,” 14 inches by 11 inches on canvas.

Although I haven’t had much time recently for outdoor painting and the weather has been just plain nasty, 2014 was a good year for plein air. I had my first ever show featuring my landscape work at the Latvian Center in San Francisco and I’m happy to say that it was received well. A recent illustration project has kept me in the studio for the past month, so I hope to get in few landscape pieces over the Christmas break the moment there’s a break in the rainy weather. Here are some of my favorite plein air studies from 2014:

"Two Sentinels," 14 inches by 11 inches on canvas.

“Two Sentinels,” 14 inches by 11 inches on canvas.

"Hunting Grounds," 11 inches by 14 inches on canvas.

“Hunting Grounds,” 14 inches by 11 inches on canvas.

"Firewater," 11 inches by 7 inches on canvas.

“Firewater,” 11 inches by 7 inches on canvas.

"Lake Anza," 15 inches by 12 inches on canvas.

“Lake Anza,” 15 inches by 12 inches on canvas.

An on location sketch of the banks of the Colorado River as seen inside the Grand Canyon, AZ.

An on location sketch of the banks of the Colorado River as seen inside the Grand Canyon, AZ.

Painting at Green River, Utah.

Painting at Green River, Utah.

While I wasn't able to bring plein air supplies on a trip to the Grand Canyon last April, I did do plenty of sketching.

While I wasn’t able to bring plein air supplies on a trip to the Grand Canyon last April, I did do plenty of sketching.

Painting on location in the Emigrant Wilderness, CA.

Painting on location in the Emigrant Wilderness, CA.

"Fall Colors," a group show from September featuring the work of eight local Bay Area artists... including your's truly!

“Fall Colors,” a group show from September featuring the work of eight local Bay Area artists… including your’s truly!

Looking back on it, 2014 was full of highs and lows. As usual I learned a ton and made many, many mistakes. I am beginning to feel that plein air painting will always be the most challenging thing that I do as an artist. Nature seems to be infinitely more complex than any illustration assignment I’ve ever handled. What could be a better way to continue honing my skills? Until next year, Nature.

Painting in the Wild

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I’ve recently started taking my plein air equipment with me on backpacking trips to paint in more secluded settings. I grew up camping all the time, so for me this is really the perfect combination: nature and art all rolled into one! I’ve learned a few things along the way… such as, don’t forget your paper towels! Or let them get wet! When you’re over 10 miles away from the nearest road in the wilderness and there aren’t any Walmarts around, it can be tough when you have nothing to wipe your brushes on other than your shirt. The painting opportunities are well worth lugging all that equipment though. Absolutely no distractions other than the occasional eagle call, and no nosy tourists asking what you’re up to (not counting the occasional curious squirrel).

The gear adds about 8 extra pounds of weight total and some extra bulkiness, but it's not unbearable!

The gear adds about 8 extra pounds of weight total and some extra bulkiness, but it’s not unbearable!

"Two Sentinels," 14 inches by 11 inches on canvas.

“Two Sentinels,” 14 inches by 11 inches on canvas.

One thing that can be tough to come by is time. I haven’t yet arranged a trip just for painting- so far, I’ve brought it along on more relaxed ventures when other folks in my party are fishing or relaxing and I can steal a couple hours during mid-day to get in a painting. I would like to organize a backpacking trip just for painting eventually, but for now the limited timeframes I’ve been working in seem to make me paint with more urgency and vigor. I had about 2.5 hours with “Two Sentinels,” painted on location in the Emigrant Wilderness near Sonora Pass in California. The Sierra Nevada mountains always present a wealth of detail in the thousands of pine trees and craggy granite slopes crisscrossed with striated rock formations. Finding an area to focus my energy on became a big challenge, so with this one I aimed to capture the sheer cliffs in the distance, “watched” by the two pine trees in front. I’m not sure if its a huge success but I think it was worth the attempt.

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I also recently painted on a rafting trip to the Green River in Utah. This trip was another learning process in how to deal with another one of nature’s unpredictable elements: water! I had the misfortune of losing my tripod on the very first day of the trip while goofing around with a kayak. I fell out of the boat and the tripod fell into the water with me and was instantly submerged in murky, deep brown water. You’re welcome, Green River. That is why I am sitting on the sand in the picture above with my pochade box propped up by rocks. I also soaked all my paper towels too.

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“Firewater,” 11 inches by 7 inches on canvas.

“Firewater” is definitely one of my more successful plein air paintings. This one was small, painted on a canvas panel that I cut in half beforehand to save on time. I had just enough time to get in the entire picture while the rest of the rafting crew was out on a brief hike. That sense of urgency forced me to focus in on one small slice of the canyon and only focus on relevant details. If I had more time, I am almost certain that I would have ruined the painting. I don’t think I even got up off the sand to step back and analyze it, I was painting that fast. I remember the sky was covered in shifting clouds that intermittently covered the canyon walls in shadow, acting like a ticking clock counting down the time that I had to capture that elusive moment of good light. Just after I finished “Firewater,” we experience intermittent rain and gray weather for the next two days, nixing any further opportunities for good pictures. Nature is a harsh mistress!

Fall Colors Group Exhibition

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“Sea Breez,” 19″ by 9.25″, oils on canvas.

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“Hunting Grounds,” 11″ by 14″, oils on canvas.

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“Breakers,” 9.25″ by 13.5″, oils on canvas.

I am excited to announce that I will have some recent work exhibited in an upcoming show! It is titled, “Fall Colors.” Opening night is September 6, at the Latvian Hall, 425 Hoffman Ave., San Francisco, 94114.  It is a cultural event that will bring in the new season with a bang! This is a major fundraising event for next years Latvian Song Festival in San Jose.

The show will feature eight local artists, four of whom are of Latvian descent. The other artists are: Amuna Laima, Aleksandrs Karpovs, John Upmanis, Sandija Linde, Dan Bunn, Lauren Szabo, Kristen Brown, and Ginger Fierstein. Food and drinks will be available as well as live music, a raffle featuring original artwork and gift bags, as well as activities for kids and families. The art will be on display until November 16.

A suggested $10.00 donation is appreciated and will help fund expenses for the show. A commission fee on all artwork sold in addition to all raffle funds will directly benefit the Latvian Song Festival that takes place next summer in San Jose. More information and updates are available at the show’s facebook event. Please come and celebrate art, culture and the changing seasons!

 

A Return to Landscape

“Briones Park”


“Traylor Ranch”

Recently, I’ve had more opportunities to paint landscapes from observation. With longer summer days and warm weather, plein air painting is a much easier to coordinate during this time of the year and I’ve been soaking up the inspiration as much as possible.

“Traylor Ranch,” was painted on location in my beautiful hometown of Penryn, California. I’m particularly happy with “Traylor Ranch.” I’m tempted to call it a breakthrough, but am still a little too close to tell.

One of the things I’ve discovered about plein air painting is that it is largely about making mistakes and learning from them. Every painting represents a new set of challenges, and it seems to be about every third or fourth painting that I manage to meet those challenges and walk away with something I’m truly happy with. The first three paintings represent stepping stones for me. There are certain elements in them that I’m satisfied with and others that I know could be improved. “Traylor Ranch,” seems to be one in which the problems I gave myself were largely solved, and in a shorter amount of time than the others. I think I may have painted it in less than two hours. When a plein air painting takes longer than two hours, I know I’m usually doing something wrong!

Another reason I’ve been painting a lot of work outdoors is to prepare for an upcoming show this September in San Francisco. There aren’t many details I can release at this time, but stay tuned and I’ll have more announcements to come!