Taking Stock

2013 is almost out the door and I thought it would be fun to show a visual retrospective of my creative output over the past 12 months. A friend and former teacher of mine, Chris Koehler inspired me to take this year end tally- he does a very similar wrap up, although I confess that I do not keep as careful track as him in counting everything I make. Some paintings I have never photographed, and some are still under NDA contracts- but this is the bulk.

All the paintings that I made in the studio working from photo reference.

Every painting made in the studio working from photo reference.

The studio images have a lot more chiaroscuro and deep darks. I also tend towards warmer colors when I’m compositing images out of photo reference and my own imagination.

Not every picture is a smashing success. It’s really quite sobering to look through these and think about what I want to do better. There is still so much to learn. But, I can be proud of the fact that I painted from life as much as I did. Gotta keep that up! Working in plein air techniques or from a live model seems to be a shot in the arm for reinforcing realism.

The famous Japanese painter Hokusai was famous for saying at the end of his career that he still had much to learn. Luckily, I’ve got a little more time and I’m truly looking forward to the never ending path that is the art process. Here we go 2014! May you be as inspiring and challenging as 2013- hopefully, more so!

Changing Tack

"Sea Breez", painted on location in China Camp Village, San Rafael CA.

“Sea Breez”, painted on location in China Camp Village, San Rafael CA.

"View from Mt. Diablo"

“View from Mt. Diablo”

I believe my plein air studies have taken a new turn recently. It’s been a bit of a wild turn- which is why I used the term “tack.” I’ve recently discovered that if I don’t hold my paintings too near and dear to me while I’m out on location, and simply try to get down what I see on the canvas directly then the painting is usually better for it.

It all started with the first picture you see here, “Sea Breez.” This picture was painted on a day that turned violently windy on the San Rafael coastline. Before the wind started, I had the boat drawn in very solid and clear, and was just about to lay down some careful areas of color. Just then, a massive gale turned on from the bay and I was forced to paint the canvas very close up- the instant I attempted to step back and get some perspective on what I was doing, the wind threatened to toss my entire easel over. I ended up resorting to primarily painting with a palette knife, very dirty and textural. That was the only tool I could use so close to the canvas without a long handle getting in the way.

I took the painting home and realized I really liked it, despite the challenges and adverse conditions I was facing. I was literally forced to lay in thick paint without thinking about the consequences and as a result, it has a lot more action and energy than some of my more carefully executed plein air studies.

In between “Sea Breez” and “View from Mt. Diablo,” I actually painted a few other plein air pictures but wasn’t too happy with them- they were a return to my more calculated methods. “View” (sorry for the glare, will get a better pic soon) is a recent one that I am more pleased with- I used thicker paint and more energy and I think that helped.

Along with the new perspective on the process, I also have some new gear! My lovely painting partner Amuna Laima gave me a pochade box for my birthday. It’s incredibly light- only 3 lbs! Any plein air painter will tell you that lugging a 10 lb french easel around gets old real quick. The pochade hinge also allows for me to place my painting and palette in the same light, a great improvement. Looking forward to more plein air adventures in the wild, windy world we live in!


A Blue Experiment


Finished piece, shot on location.

Finished, color-corrected painting, "View from Coyote Hills."

Finished, color-corrected painting, “View from Coyote Hills.”

I recently made a plein air discovery while painting on location in Coyote Hills Regional Park, near the city of Fremont. One of the hardest tricks to pull off while painting a landscape in one sitting is keeping edges and colors clean. As I essentially paint “alla prima,” the painting must be finished in a single session, in usually less than 3 hours. This means every layer of paint is very wet… and maintaining clean, crisp edges is a difficulty, especially when dealing with slippery oils that tend to bleed into each other.

In order to come at this problem from another angle, I decided to start off painting “View from Coyote Hills,” on a canvas that had a blue background instead of the standard white. A clean blue color is the most frequent necessity when painting outdoors, especially if the scene includes sky or water. This particular viewpoint from the top of a hill included both. As evidenced in the first photo, the canvas was basically a sky blue when I started. This allowed me to maintain some super crisp edges on the levees criss-crossing the bay, as well as the foreground elements of the hilltop and the salt forms.

I think I’ll try this again sometime. I have a feeling it could be the perfect thing for nailing a complicated tree with many tiny branches, or to paint telephone wires over a city street.

Goin’ Rogue



Amort Creek

“Amort Creek”

I had the wonderful opportunity to escape Oakland this past week for a dirtbike / plein air adventure at  a secluded cabin in Rogue River, OR. It was great to get out of the city and breathe in some fresh mountain air! I feel like the paintings that resulted were looser and more relaxed than usual due to the change in environment.. I found myself needing to be more creative with my compositions, as the forest literally presents a wall of detail in every direction.

The cabin itself was located on a 70 acre plot of land that has been my friend’s family for over 100 years and was a profitable gold mining stake up until recent times. In between painting sessions, we explored the surrounding hills, ripped around on dirtbikes, panned for gold (no luck, but maybe next time!) and engaged in various recreational redneck activities. In other words, it was a ton of fun!

Tyr and an Oak Tree

Portrait of the war god Tyr, painted by Colin Nitta


Bickford Oak

Bickford Oak


I have recently completed another painting in my Norse portrait series, titled “Tyr.” This passage from Snorri Sturluson’s “Prose Edda” describes him eloquently:

Yet remains that one of the Æsir who is called Týr: he is most daring, and best in stoutness of heart, and he has much authority over victory in battle; it is good for men of valor to invoke him. It is a proverb, that he is Týr-valiant, who surpasses other men and does not waver. He is wise, so that it is also said, that he that is wisest is Týr-prudent. This is one token of his daring: when the Æsir enticed Fenris-Wolf to take upon him the fetter Gleipnir, the wolf did not believe them, that they would loose him, until they laid Týr’s hand into his mouth as a pledge. But when the Æsir would not loose him, then he bit off the hand at the place now called ‘the wolf’s joint;’ and Týr is one-handed, and is not called a reconciler of men.

With each portrait in this series I am attempting to tell a story in a single frame, and it is Tyr’s bitterness and anger at losing a hand to Fenrir that I attempted to capture in this picture. There is something so essentially Norse about Tyr’s story- other interpretations of the same tale describe the other gods laughing at his foolishness and misfortune while he clutches a bloody stump where his hand used to be. For Snorri’s audience, this was the stuff of comedy!

Also, last week I had the chance to visit my home town of Penryn, CA and do a little plein air painting with Amuna Laima. I painted an oak tree around mid morning on a grassy hillock called Bickford Ranch where I’ve painted oak trees before. The last time I was there (a slightly different tree, but in the same area) was mid December, on a drizzly winter day. Now that I’ve been doing plein air studies for some time now, I get the chance to compare pictures of the same locations at different times of the year. Hopefully, I’ll do another study at Bickford in the fall and will be able to further compare the color changes of the seasons there.


Coyote Point

Coyote Point

Lafayette Reservoir

Lafayette Reservoir

Sausalito Harbor

Sausalito Harbor

Well… I’ve been busy, as always. There are a ton of projects going on that I can’t disclose currently, so I thought I’d share some of my favorite landscape images I’ve painted recently on trips around the Bay Area with my plein air partner in crime, Amuna Laima. Looking at these images, I feel that my style seems to be getting looser and faster when working out in the elements. “Coyote Point,” was literally painted in a race against time, as the tide was lapping at my feet and threatening to carry my French easel out to the bay while I was placing my last strokes. Looking at these, I actually think “Sausalito Harbor” is my favorite. I remember it was just boiling hot that day and I wanted to finish the painting so I could find some shade. The loose strokes that evolved from that feeling are something I’m quite happy with.

Speaking of “elements,” I’d like to share a very awesome show of landscapes by my old teacher and mentor Robert Hunt at Arte Verissima Gallery on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. The show, titled “Elements,” was recently featured in an article by Fine Art Connoisseur. Robert’s work makes me humble, to put it lightly. I largely started plein air painting due to his influence and inspiring work. If you are in the Bay Area, please take an afternoon to come by and check it out- the gallery is open from 12-5pm on Saturdays and Sundays.



Spectrum Recap

Colin Nitta and Laura Ramie's booth at Spectrum Fantastic Art Live 2.

Our booth at Spectrum Fantastic Art Live 2!

Spectrum Live was incredible! It was an extremely art packed weekend, filled with artists lectures, demos, and more meet and greets than I can easily summarize. The sci fi/fantasy art community is such a nurturing place to be and I am so happy to be a part of it when an event like this rolls around. My booth partner Laura Ramie and I had a great flow of visitors every single day and it was super rewarding to find that so many strangers were able to connect with my art and show interest and appreciation. I sold a gaggle of prints and gave away nearly two stacks of postcards!

Enormous thanks go to Cathy and Arnie Fenner for putting on the show and making it a smash hit, again! I already can’t wait for next year- I’m sure it will be even more epic than this one. Speaking of epic, what made this year even more extreme than last year’s Spectrum is that I actually drove this time to Kansas City MO and back, all the way from Oakland CA. Over 4,000 miles! The journey was just as much fun as the destination. Here are some highlights from the trip:

Sunrise on the road shortly after the crossing the border from Nevada to Utah.

Sunrise on the road shortly after the crossing the border from Nevada to Utah.

A bare willow tree at night at one of our campsites.

A bare willow tree at night at one of our campsites.

A diving board rock in the San Rafael Swell, Utah.

A diving board rock in the San Rafael Swell, Utah.

A grain silo in Kansas that looked positively apocalyptic.

A grain silo in Kansas that looked positively apocalyptic.

Plein air painting in what has to be one of America's most breathtaking national parks: Bryce Canyon, Utah.

Plein air painting in what has to be one of America’s most breathtaking national parks: Bryce Canyon, Utah. Photo credit goes to James Smart.

Bryce Canyon, painted on location.

Bryce Canyon, painted on location.

A portrait painted from life during Michael Hussar's painting workshop.

A portrait painted from life during Michael Hussar’s painting workshop.

The whole gang on our last morning prior to leaving Bryce canyon to head home. Left to right: Colin Nitta, Amuna Laima, Lauren Szabo, Laura Ramie.

The whole gang on our last morning prior to leaving Bryce canyon to head home. Left to right: Colin Nitta, Amuna Laima, Lauren Szabo, Laura Ramie.


Plein air, interrupted

Recently, James Gurney (the illustrator behind Dinotopia and the blogger of the extremely popular blog Gurney Journey) posted an article about “Plein Air Disasters”. I recently had a plein air disaster of my own- and if you live in the Bay Area, you’ll know what I mean when I say it was an “Oakland” style disaster.
My painting partner Amuna Laima and I went to Joaquin Miller park in the Oakland hills to do some plein air painting. We found a lovely little hillock above a trail in the park and I had just started the painting you see above. I was just into the “drawing” phase of the picture and hadn’t yet gotten into the color part.
I was just about to break out some thicker paint when we heard a series of loud gunshots that were very close by and people screaming. Somebody said “give me your bike,” and “give me your money.” I would have thought it was just an ordinary mugging, but the shots kept going and people kept screaming. I immediately called 9-11 and reported the incident to the police. I spent the next hour on the line with the 9-11 correspondent and reported the action as we heard it. The gunshots continued for roughly 45 minutes- all the while, Amuna and I were laying low in the grass and hoping no stray bullets would come in our direction.
Eventually, a police helicopter arrived on the scene and started circling our position on the hillock. An officer in the chopper spoke to us via megaphone ad told us to go down the hill to where some officers were waiting to question us.
We told them everything that happened. At one point, there were roughly ten cop cars and about as many policemen in the front entrance to the park.

It was a scary experience, to say the least. I am just so grateful that we weren’t hurt and that everything turned out to be OK. Thank God for the police. Oakland police get a lot of flak, but I feel that they deserve their credit for responding to the situation immediately and urgently. Ultimately, a failed plein air piece is nothing. Life is fragile… and we need to cherish it.





I didn’t actually think that I would make it this far. Since early January of this year, my painting partner Amuna Laima and I decided to make an attempt at going on plein air excursions weekly. We at first stuck to Wednesdays, which then quickly shifted to Thursdays and finally we seemed to settle on Sundays. Since starting this venture, we’ve actually managed to stick to the regimen, and it looks like our first break in the pattern will end up being this week… but I suppose an exception for Easter Sunday will have to be made.

Nevertheless, I’m proud! It’s quite difficult to force yourself to paint from life according to a schedule with the cornucopia of distractions modern life has to offer us. My studio is quickly filling up with these little studies, which typically are about 8.5″ by 11″ up to around 11″ by 14″. These three are my favorite of the latest batch. I am experimenting with my palette knife more and more, and its started to sneak into my studio work too. I only have one knife right now, but would really like to get my hands on a couple more in some different sizes. I certainly hope to get back into the groove after Easter. I’m considering this little break in the schedule to be like a “bye” week that they hold in sports: a little time to relax and stretch, and then it’s game on!

Hel and High Water

hel portrait

Study for “HEL”

san bruno mountains painting

“TOWER,” painted on location in the San Bruno Mountains.

san andreas lake painting

“SAN ANDREAS LAKE,” painted on location.

san andreas lake painting

I am keeping busy as ever and have started a new “mini-series” in the studio. The drawing above is a study of the Norse goddess named Hel- according to the writings of Snorri Sturluson, she is represented as both a gatekeeper to the underworld and the location itself. She is going to part of larger series of portraits about this particular pantheon that I have plans to incorporate into a grander scheme. More on that coming soon!

I’m also keeping up the plein air thing, so far. I am really enjoying the duality of these two modes of working- it keeps my hand moving in different ways and keeps my painting fresh and inspired. The plein air work forces me to work quickly, while light conditions are still consistent. This energy lingers with me when I work from photographs in the studio. My painting partner, Amuna Laima took the above photo when we had just set up to paint San Andreas Lake. We laid the easels on the ground, to keep a low profile and avoid attracting unwanted attention. Sneaky!