Sandstone Peak – near Malibu – Karen Winters Plein Air painting

“Sandstone Peak”
12 x 16 oil on canvas

Here’s the result of last Saturday’s paintout, with a very nice group of painters who specialize in the Santa Monica Mountains area. This location is at Circle X Ranch, high in the mountains above Malibu, actually a little closer to Ventura, just north of “County Line.” We arrived around 9 am – a problematic time for plein air painting as the face of the mountain was completely front lit. We’re talking full frontal eastern sunlight, which pretty much wiped out any chance of getting strong shadows. I knew this was going to be difficult, but we didn’t drive over an hour to paint some trees and bushes in the shade, so I figured I’d give it a go anyway.

When I got home from the paintout I discovered that I had to alter some of the colors to make the hillside recede, and to punch the foreground wildflowers to make them come forward. I could have done it on the spot but by the time I finished (around noon) the light had changed enough that there wasn’t much point in painting more. A reference photo allowed me to put on the finishing touches at home.

I was talking with pastellist Bruce Trentham while we took a break, and it turned out that we had both seen the same Ansel Adams PBS documentary which aired within the past week. One of Adams’ principles was to create a photograph not exactly as it WAS but how it made him feel. In other words he didn’t just photograph the scene he photographed his personal experience. That experience might have been a feeling of awe, rapture, serenity or other strong emotion. Sometimes he would use special filters to darken the sky unnaturally, the better to express what he was feeling. That, I believe, is one of the differences between fine art photography and just taking “a picture.” And it is the difference between merely copying a scene, either en plein air or in studio … and expressing a personal reaction. And that is why we paint more flowers than were really there (or that close), or we change colors, or soften and sharpen edges and so much more. Did I faithfully copy every nook and cranny of the rocks? Of course not! I got the general shape and enough crevices to say rocks, but more really isn’t necessary nor even advisable.

After the paintout we drove up and down the coast, stopping at several pocket beaches which were swarming with people. Little did we know that it was a hot day in the valleys and everyone had headed for the beach.

Here’s the work in progress shot. To answer a question I received a week ago (sorry, it’s been crazy busy) I use a Yarka easel and an easelmate which is like a wooden box with two “wings” that unfold to hold brushes, paper towels, etc. I have sheet of 12 x 16 glass (mounted to foamcore) which slides into the easelmate when I paint out. Under the painting in progress you can see a small sketchbook in which I did a composition before blocking in my color.


  1. Lydia
    April 14, 2008

    Karen, I enjoyed looking at your recent work. they are just beautiful.

  2. Nancy
    April 14, 2008

    Another beauty. And in addition to your skills, your sheer productivity is awe-inspiring. Wow.

  3. Julie Meese
    April 16, 2008

    This is lovely, it looks so warm, peacful and quiet there. The sort of painting I like to loose myself in.

  4. Ann
    April 16, 2008

    This is lovely. I enjoyed reading about your process as well, thanks for sharing.

  5. Jo Castillo
    May 4, 2008

    Hi Karen, this is so nice. Reminds me of New Mexico, really. And makes me homesick for the high desert. Sounds like you had a good time. (Sorry I’m so late in commenting .. may catch up in July in New Mexico, ha.) Thanks for sharing your hard work.

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