The View from Here

Parks en Plein Air
June 24, 2009, 11:10 am
Filed under: Art News

Painting outdoors is a relatively new thing for me. While I have painted a handful of watercolors on various trips, I had never attempted an acrylic or oil painting outdoors, on location, until recent years.  

Cinnamon Bay, Virgin Islands  10x 12 watercolor  1994

Cinnamon Bay, Virgin Islands 10x 12 watercolor 1994

Back in 2003, I was awarded a scholarship to the Susan K. Black Foundation’s art workshop in Dubois, Wyoming. I bought a French easel for the occasion, as we were supposed to do a lot of painting outdoors. It is a somewhat awkward contraption with a box and drawer on folding legs, with a tilt-up adjustable easel.

My French Easel in Sycamore Valley

My French Easel in Sycamore Valley

 As other French easel caretakers know, they are prone to coming apart, losing hardware and splitting seams, especially at inopportune moments.  It is a bit awkward to carry for long distances, but I am going to fit mine to a backpack frame for use in the U.P. this summer, when I will be Artist In Residence at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.  In Wyoming I once had to weigh the thing down with rocks so that it didn’t sail away in the stiff breeze.(Some suppliers actually sell rock slings that hang underneath and provide stability). Despite the difficulties with equipment, and more often the environment, there is something addictive about painting outdoors. Sitting by a beautiful wilderness lake for hours, a gentle breeze keeping you comfortable, wildlife passing by, and gazing intensely into nature’s beauty is a great way to spend an afternoon, and then you have that nice painting to carry home.  When you actually sell the work that results, it is a fabulous way to make a living.  Of course, reality isn’t always so wonderful.   There are always the duds you can bring home… those paintings that seemed like a great idea when you started, and fizzled gradually as you worked. Then there’s the bugs that like to do their best to distract you.  Mosquitos buzzing in your ear, gnats in your eyes, etc.  I once tried painting under a mosquito veil in the Amazon, but the visibility through the netting is problematic.  Bugs even get in your paint. Ants in your paints, and in your pants is a reality in the rain forest where ants seem to be the dominant life form. But like any outdoor pursuit, you put up with a few discomforts for the greater good.


Double Cabin Creek, Wyoming 8x10 acrylic on panel

Double Cabin Creek, Wyoming 8x10 acrylic on panel. Be sure to keep looking over your shoulder for Grizzlies!


 Being a studio painter most of my life, I was used to using mostly photo references. Painting from life is an entirely different experience, especially outdoors. I am forced to work quickly, which is usually a good thing. I have a tendency to bog down in detail, and lose sight of the overall image.  When working in a quickly changing scene (the sun moves all the time!), you don’t have time for extensive detail. So, I rough everything in, add detail in representative areas, and then back in the studio I finish it out. Sometimes. Occasionally, I find that I don’t need or want to add anything when I get back home.  Many plein air painters adopt an impressionistic style, and some of my compatriots have chastised me for being too detailed. “Loosen up, John!”  they say.  I tell them they need more discipline.


Looking Into Mexico  9 x 12 acrylic on panel

Looking Into Mexico 9 x 12 acrylic on panel




Currently, I’m engaged in a project to paint en plein air, Hamilton County Parks.  In the links to the left, you’ll see “Parks Plein Air, which is a chronicle of each of the paintings I’ve done so far for this project.  I started last February and add new ones as I finish them, and will continue until October 18,  when I’ll have a show of the results at Sharon Woods Center, in Sharonville, Ohio.  I still have a lot of parks to visit. I should have a pretty comprehensive list by the time I’m done, although I’m skipping the golf courses and boat docks and sticking to natural vistas.  Here are a few examples of what I’ve done so far:


Winton Woods Backwater  11 x 14, acrylic

Winton Woods Backwater, April 11 x 14, acrylic



West Entrance, Miami-Whitewater Forest, February  9x12 acrylic

West Entrance, Miami-Whitewater Forest, February 9x12 acrylic





"West Entrance, Miami-Whitewater Forest, June" 9 x 12 acrylic on panel

"West Entrance, Miami-Whitewater Forest, June" 9 x 12 acrylic on panel


Watching the Night
June 14, 2009, 10:23 am
Filed under: Astronomy

I guess I’ve always been a night owl.  When I was about 10, I used to stay awake until I thought everyone was asleep, and then get up to sneak around the house.  In later years, out camping or caving with my buddies, I’d enjoy late night star gazing, meteor watching, or searching for herps.

The night Sky

The night Sky

Nowadays, I often head out to the backyard to enjoy the night. For a long time, I’d just go listen to the insect choruses, enjoying the peace and gazing at the stars, waiting for the occasional meteor.  Then, I discovered a telescope on eBay that looked interesting, and cheap.  I was sorely tempted. How much more interesting would the night sky be with a telescope? I took the plunge, and received my 6″ (diameter) Chinese-made Newtonian reflector. (Reflectors use a parabolic mirror instead of a lens to bend the light and magnify the image)

I have worked in natural history museums much of my life, surrounded by planetariums, observatories, and astronomy clubs. I was never attracted much to astronomy clubs, which seemed to be populated by techno-geeks. I was always much more interested in the social life offered by my field-biology compatriots. They seemed like more down-to-earth people, and I was never much of a gadget guy. Even so, I read astronomy books and science fiction, followed the space program, and even got to meet 2 of the Apollo 11 astronauts and handle moon rocks.  I also produced exhibits on astronomy during my career as a museum curator.

So it isn’t really too surprising that I ended up with a telescope. Now I just needed to figure out how to use the thing. The first thing that I discovered was that it made a great excuse for spending much of the night outside.  After learning how to point it, I also re-discovered lots of astronomical objects that I learned about many years ago.  The Orion Nebula is one of the most impressive distant objects a beginner can see.  It is a relatively bright nebula where one can actually see some structure with a small telescope. Most deep sky objects such as nebulas and galaxies appear as faint gray smudges through a small telescope, if you can even spot them through the heavy light pollution in a city backyard.  Many are so dim that they disappear if you stare directly at them. You have to look slightly off to the side, as your peripheral vision is more light sensitive. Of course, the moon moon_10.08_closeris a very satisfying object to explore as a beginner. It is more likely to temporarily blind your night vision rather than challenge your ability to see faint things.  Even with a small scope, you can spend hours exploring mountain ranges and craters. Saturn and Jupiter are also easy to spot as a beginner.  It was soon apparent to me, even as a non-gadget guy, that my cheap Chinese Newt wasn’t going to continue to satisfy.  It was very poor, optically speaking. Still, it was enough to convince me that I should spend more money on a real telescope, and I graduated to a 6″ Meade refractor. Refractors are the “classic” telescope design, basically a tube with lenses at both ends. You look through one end, the light comes in the other. It was a great leap in sharpness for me, and I was amazed at how much more I could see. After I realized what  difference a real telescope could make, I got “aperture fever.”  The bigger the diameter of the telescope and lens, the more light it can take in, giving you a brighter and sharper view.  You can make out fainter, more distant objects such as galaxies hundreds of millions of light years away.  I went from the 6″ refractor to an 8″ Schmidt-Cassegrain design (a modified reflector), and most recently to a 9.25″.   When I win the lottery, maybe I’ll move up to the 14 or 16 inch.

The 6" refractor

The 6" (150mm) refractor

Being a visual artist and a photographer, it was inevitable that I would want to start imaging through the telescope. When I see cool stuff I want to take pictures or make a painting.  I first just tried holding my digital camera up to the eyepiece, and was amazed that I could actually get a serviceable image of the moon (it’s bright enough for a fast shutter speed). Then I got a mount that basically clamped the camera to the eyepiece, which enabled me to take longer exposures. I quickly found that there were some pretty extreme limits to what I could do with my set-up. The beautiful images of galaxies, nebulas and star clusters I’d seen in astronomy mags were very long term time exposures, requiring expensive tracking and guiding equipment (to compensate for the earth’s rotation), and specialized astro-cameras that take multiple frames and combine them into a sharp image. Getting a sharp image of a planet is like trying to photograph a penny on the bottom of a deep swimming pool. The earth’s atmosphere is constantly in motion, blurring what we see in space the same way the water blurs our view of a penny in a pool, except that we’re on the bottom of the pool looking up.

I tried a few photos with my primitive camera set-up. Now I use a T-ring to couple the camera to the scope like a giant telephoto lens. It is still basically a single shot approach the way it was done before digital cameras, unlike the multiple image, sort and stack approach of the more serious astro-cameras. It’s ok for photos of the moon and relatively bright deep space objects, like Orion.  My telescope mount does track objects, but because it is a fork mount rather than an equatorial, it can only do limited time exposures before the image suffers from field rotation.

The Orion Nebula, taken with 9.25" Scmidt-Cassegrain and a Nikon D80

The Orion Nebula, taken with 9.25" Scmidt-Cassegrain and a Nikon D80. The light from Orion, traveling at 186,000 miles a second, has taken 1,500 years to reach my telescope. That's a looooong trip.

There are still some images I want to try, and I’d like to improve my technique.  However, astrophotography is an extremely technical pursuit.  Although it’s rewarding, it isn’t the same simple pleasure as just quietly sitting and observing.  Sitting still for many minutes at a time makes you invisible to lots of night critters. I’ve had raccoons try to climb up into my lap, I suppose to have their turn at the eyepiece.

I  marvel at the vastness of space and time.   It takes light (the fastest thing in the universe) a hundred thousand years just to cross our own galaxy.  While looking at the Andromeda Galaxy (our nearest galactic neighbor), I know that the light entering my eye now left there at about the time that primitive ape-men were roaming the plains of Africa, 2.5 million years ago.  How far is that? You do the math: light travels at 186,000 miles per second, X 60 seconds, X 60 minutes, X 24 hours, X 365, X 2,500,000= a lot of F’n miles. When looking at even more distant galaxies, I may be seeing light that originated when dinosaurs were still roaming the earth. A hundred million light years becomes an incomprehensibly vast distance, and that is only the local neighborhood in the greater observable universe, which extends out 13.7 billion light years.  When looking up at the Milky Way and the Andromeda Galaxy (it is visible to the naked eye on a dark night), I have two feelings: one is the realization of the incredible vastness of space, and the second is a feeling of isolation.  Sometimes I feel stranded on this piece of rock, the rest of the universe out of reach permanently. Even though this world is more than I can explore in my lifetime,  the fact that I am prohibited from visiting others feels like a prison sentence. Even while just looking out at the universe, we are prevented from seeing it as it is at this moment, and can only see images from the distant past.

Sci-Fi notwithstanding, humans are unlikely to ever venture beyond our own solar system.  The fastest object ever created by humans, the Voyager probe launched in the 70’s, is traveling at about 40,000 mph (nearly 20 times the speed of a high-powered rifle bullet). Even at this speed,it would take Voyager 70,000 years to reach the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, which is “just” 4.5 light years away.  Traveling like a hyper-bullet for 30 years, it has only recently reached the edge of our own solar system.

Here’s Monty  Python’s take on the vastness of space:

The Moon, taken with a 6" refractor

The Moon, taken with a 6" refractor

The Apennine Mtns and Erastothenes

The Apennine Mtns and Erastothenes

Computer art: my imagined view of Saturn from its moon, Titan.

Computer art: my imagined view of Saturn from its largest moon, Titan. Made with Bryce 3D software

Finding Ivory-Bills
June 4, 2009, 3:24 pm
Filed under: Adventures, Birds

I wasn’t surprised at our lack of success at Bruce Creek last March, as it is more like the typical experience of Ivory-Bill hunters. Had I seen a second one in my second attempt, everyone, including me, would wonder about my sanity as well as my veracity.  This is one of the rarest birds in North America. Why would we expect it to be easy to find?  Also, I hear that there has not been much activity noticed in the area since last spring (’08). No double knocks have recorded recently, no “kent” calls, and no sightings.  It would seem the birds have moved elsewhere or hunkered down in their nest cavities.   We talked to a local guy who has lived in the area for 60+ years. He has seen the bird numerous times, and thought we were spending way too much time in river swamps. He says that most of his sightings were in upland hardwoods.  We talked to another younger man who was fishing at the Bruce Creek landing, and he also said he has seen more IBWO’s in the upland valleys. They both identified the correct woodpecker picture .

Skeptics point to the lack of any credible photographs as a sign that we’re on a wild goose chase.  On my last visit to Bruce Creek, I decided to make a “serious” attempt to photograph a Pileated Woodpecker, which were abundant and obvious in the area.  It was close to impossible to get a clear view of one from a distance, and those that came close were visible for only a second or two, hardly enough time to get off a shot with the camera. Had I been better prepared last year, I might have been able to snap a photo, but focus would have been very difficult, as the bird was coming at me.  Auto focus just does not work in such a situation, with a background of branches and leaves.  Chances are I would have missed or botched the shot. Of course, just tooling around in a kayak with a camera is not a truly serious attempt to get a photo. Geoff Hill and group have improved their camera traps with seismic triggers and higher resolution. They have captured Pileated Woodpeckers, so it only seems a matter of time before they get an Ivory-Bill. Other photographers have set up with extreme camouflage and professional equipment, but so far have just picked the wrong spots to wait.

I’m confident that someone will turn up something concrete in the near future. There are a lot of determined amateurs out there, so some one is bound to get lucky and stumble on a IBWO, as I did, but get the photo too.

Searching for Ivorybills