Landscape and creating distance

I watched a video on YouTube showing how to paint a landscape using a pallet knife. I hadn’t used a pallet knife and I also liked his results at making the far distance seem much further back than the foreground, and I also liked his treatment of the water in the foreground. So I have it a go.

One criticism I got later for this painting is that the greens look like they are from a tube. A year later, I can see now what she saw, so I think my perception is getting better, especially as I am not confident in my ability to distinguish colors, partly because I am a bit color blind and as I am learning, I have been lazy in observing the nuances of color. The browns of the trees to the right and the little island in the front left foreground caused me some problems. But there it is.


The second painting here is from a photograph of the border between Thailand and Laos. I tried to put my new skills to the greens and the water. I wanted the water to have ripples and to be somewhat choppy. I also used browns and yellows some for the first time. Expanding the pallet a small bit at a time, makes it easier for me to learn more, rather than taking on too much. I was very pleased with the feeling and shapes of the clouds, and the distance the fading blues make, but now I see it only as an exercise. 9

Experiments in Painting

Some experiments—that weren’t the best

After the success of a early morning mist painting of a Polish church steeple, I tried a painting of a foggy morning over the river that runs through Krakow. When finished, it looked more like a grey scale flat image. I need some other techniques before this can look the way I want.


The next image shows an attempt to capture the energy and movement of the Sky Train in Bangkok. I loved the lines and the geometry of the site and wondered if I could capture the feel of the place with acrylics. I didn’t. I like the idea of laying out everything carefully, but when it came down to the image it felt static and grey. I did however love the results of the buildings in the background. I like how faint they appear, a suggestion that they are there. Still, I need some other approach, which I might figure out someway.


This last painting is of a cool doorway in Bangkok’s Chinatown. This whole area of the city evokes an old feel, exotic, with narrow alleyways hiding tiny shops. I tried it with a pallet knife and loved the texture it created, carrying through the rough character of the buildings and the age of the place. The perspective got off though as the building looks like it is growing wider at the top. Still, I love the colors and the texture, so I’ll come back to the method again for this kind of painting.


Tackling Water

My brother is an amazing photographer and fortunately for us, he posts frequently on Facebook. One of his photographs of the Ohio River really struck me: there was great depth in the image of the far bank with such great blues rippling in the brightness of the Sun which reflected directly off the water. He had a foreground area of rocks and trees. I wanted to compliment him by painting his photograph, but I had never painted water.

So I headed over to YouTube to find a lesson on painting waves. I found what I was looking for in MuralJoe, who offers a starting video of painting waves in acrylic. He was really helpful.

I had to alter the approach because my water was river water and the light shown directly onto it. My goal also was to capture the movement of the river in a static format. Could I give a sense of the clean brightness of the river rippling along and lapping the shoreline?

Here are the results:

5I was delighted at my first attempt at water, even though I clearly have a ways to go. In the photo the right foreground was almost entirely black, so I needed some shapes to add texture and establish the near area to the viewer, so I added more forms to the rocks and color to the trees, which were just silhouettes. I struggled with the white paint and making it reflect the light as I wanted, but for a first attempt, I have to be satisfied. He has the painting now, hanging near the Ohio River.

Experimenting with black and white: Learning to Paint


To avoid the problems I expected with my colorblindness, I thought I’d try painting with only black and white and explore how the brush can create different textures and how the lighter colors effect the darker areas.

I combed Youtube for some advice and suggestions on how to paint and found an artist who approached abstract art in a fascinating way. [Tatiana Iliina: Abstract Cityscape Painting] She wanted to paint a cityscape in black and white using a palate knife. I hadn’t tried a palate knife, but the speed and energy of the painting looked delightful to try, and the results she got were amazing. So I gave it a try. Here are my results.

What I ended up with was different than what she had. I didn’t like how the middle section looked, and I wanted to have more light areas. I gave more attention to the water effect by adding white and using the palate knife to create contrasting lines to the building shapes. 3

While on a trip to Poland with students, I got up early to explore the city in the early morning light. In one park, the Sun had risen behind a steeple making dramatic light with the fog: deep blacks and shadowy shapes.

I captured the moment in photographs and now, attempted to capture the mood in paint. Because it was morning and fog created a haze, there was little color for me to worry about, so I thought black and white would suit the painting well. 4

One problem I ran into was that the image ended up very flat because there was so much black in the bottom of the photo, so I added in more grey outlining the forms of the buildings and creating more distinct windows. In the end I love the mood created by the translucent light around the bell tower, but the tree doesn’t have the shape I wanted because the brush strokes were too thick to thin. I wanted more even strokes. Later I’ll work on how to achieve what I wanted.

Taking the plunge: Beginning to Paint

I finally took the plunge–I’ve started painting. Years ago I loved the art class I took in ninth grade (a mere 33 years ago! Sheesh), and since then I’ve been drawing, ink, pencil and charcoal. I never started painting because the art form seemed too esoteric or high for the simple and untrained talents I had in rendering. Painting was for the art students who apprenticed in large rooms with mysterious tools, stained clothes, old jars of smelly liquids. Which medium is the best for a beginner? What are the advantages of oil over acrylic? Watercolor over tempura? And what is the world is gauche?

A few years ago, I moved from keeping a hand-written journal to a drawn journal to capture the experiences of traveling in Nepal, Guam and Thailand. Then a chance gift gave me the push I needed.

A couple from Wales was moving from our neighborhood in Saudi Arabia to Oman, and we took their couch off their hands for a cool 100 in cash. While moving it, I saw his own painting, stacked in the to-be-shipped-pile. The oil painting was a bit rough, Arabic in theme: tall white buildings chaotically reached into the sky. He said, “I only paint when I’m drunk.” Made sense. After asking me if I painted (I said no, but I wanted to), he offered me all his art supplies. For free.

So now I was committed. I said I wanted to, and I had piles of acrylic and oil paints. I went for some board canvases and read up on the difference between oil and acrylic, and I chose acrylic because it was easier to clean up.

I wanted first to know how paint acted on the canvas. What happened when it was applied to the canvas and brushed about? What happened when two colors are added to each other on the canvas?

Here is the result. I liked the effect of the white thinning in and under the blue creating a falling motion. My wife thought it looked like a waterfall in abstract. So I’ve kept it. It is where I started, and the intimidation of painting started to fade into a excitement for the challenge: how could I manipulate the medium to create a new effect? 1

Here is my second attempt. In this case I painted the scene from another painting. I liked the distance of the horizon and the dominance of the tree. Now I was adding greens and browns and a bit of yellow to the palate. In the original, the tree was colored with flowers, but when I tried the flowers the tree looked polkadotted. It was hideous. So I grabbed a brush and worked the white into the green producing a very pleasing effect of lighter green to darker green with all the blending happening on the canvas. The lines from the brush left a sense of movement of the tree. I was also surprised that the paint strokes could create depth. The water and grasses moved toward the horizon. 2

I made the mistake of waiting until the tree was done to figure out how to make the clouds look like clouds. The clouds were okay looking, but they hover around the tree—none are behind it.

I was pleasantly surprised at how the white can draw the eye to an area of the canvas and realized that I have to be purposeful about where I leave bright areas on the canvas.

Saudi Living: FAQ

We are back for another round of FAQs on our lives in Saudi Arabia. My wife, Robin, and I have enjoyed turning over your questions during the morning commute. Naturally, I know that looking at a phone is dangerous while I am driving, so I’m proud to tell you that I didn’t use my phone. I grabbed paper and pen to take notes instead. Safety first!

FAQ: If the music is too loud in a restaurant, is it okay if I tell the waitress to turn it down, or is that culturally insensitive?


I know you can’t hear that there is no music in this photograph, so you’ll have to take my word for it. On a side note, I find the serving portions on the smallish side in this country.

This really would be impossible. You can’t tell the waitress anything at all—mostly because there are no women waitresses in restaurants in the country. All the waitresses are men. Still, you would not ask one of them to turn down the music, not because it would be offensive, but because the restaurants do not play any music at all. I am happy to tell you then, that the music in restaurants here will never be too loud—and, now that I think about it, you will never have to shout over the noise to be heard. It’s quite a nice difference.

FAQ: Is it true that billboards of George Clooney disappear over night? And I mean the whole billboard.

It does happen. Just. like. this. Our route to school this year had just such a billboard mounted atop a huge metal column. George was there every morning to greet us on our way, always smiling that winning smile. He held in his hand a hot cup of expresso, the kind of expresso that only a man with his suave and debonair manner would drink. My wife decided that everyday she would greet him with a “Good Morning, George.” I eventually got into the whole celebrity thing too. Then, one day, boom! He was gone. Right along with the whole billboard, the support beams and the massive steel column too. No one can explain it. So, yes, it happens. Expect it. (Sorry for the lack of a photo. But, in my defense, it did disappear.)


This is the chair that taunted me–I swear I could hear it sniggering.

FAQ: If I am ever stuck in IKEA 10 feet away from the chair I just purchased and not be able to get the chair because it is in an employee only area with no employee to get the chair because it is prayer time, how long will I have to wait?

Great question—we’ve had this one a few times already. Answer: about 30 minutes. When prayer times start, employees get to have a break in case they want to go to the nearby mosque to pray. Not all do, but they are given the chance. If your chair has come from the storage area and is just about to cross that magical barrier between where employees are permitted and you aren’t, and the call to prayer starts, that chair will sit there in your view for the next 30 minutes. Instead of getting upset about it, I suggest sitting down and be patient. You can’t really do anything about it anyway. You could even pass the time doing something—I don’t know what, maybe, praying?

FAQ: Should I bring back bacon from Bahrain after a day trip because bacon is not available in Saudi Arabia?

Clearly, no. Bacon is not good for your health. Not only can it clog your arteries and raise your blood pressure, it can increase your border crossing time considerably, especially if the customs officials take an interest in the “sliced meat” package. A friend of mine was delayed in crossing the border because of this exact situation. On the flip side, he did get to meet many of the border crossing officials. They got to chat for a long time about “sliced meat” and other topics, I suppose. (Obviously, I can’t add a photo of bacon, can I? 😉 )

Keep those questions coming! We are happy to answer any that we can.

Saudi Living: FAQs

Finally we have gotten enough questions from people to write a full blown blog entry for Frequently Asked Questions about living in Saudi Arabia. If your question isn’t answered here, keep asking. Someone somewhere is bound to know the answer—or willing to make up one to satisfy you.

IMG_2359FAQ: If I am driving from Saudi Arabia to the United Arab Emirates, and I stop at the McDonalds just before the border crossing, how long should I expect to wait for my food?

We have been asked this question so many times. You will wait for at least 30 minutes. Those three Filipino guys are working their hardest in that wasteland near the border, and when everyone, hungry from their journey past nothing but the occasional camel market or burned out vehicle, stops in for some burgers, shakes and fries, it can get a little backed up. Just be patient—and make sure that another person does not accidentally take your food—this will add to your wait time even more.

FAQ: Will I have to go to a communications company multiple times to get a phone up and running?

Yes! Those people at the company love so much interacting with their customers and showing that they’re not “just a company” that they will say just about anything to get you to come back. Why, we went to the store several times in a row with them smiling and saying things like, “The computers are down, come back tomorrow when they will be up and running again, inshallah,” and “The whole system’s down. Come back tomorrow, when it will be up and running again, inshallah.” They were waving and smiling, so we got to smiling and waving too. They just loved to see up stopping by. We got to be frequent guests, until the phones were up and running. Now they just send us messages all the time—“New opportunity!” “New offer!” They are just trying to get us to come by again. Nice people.

FAQ: Should I prepare myself for the hot weather by spending some time in a large oven or hang out in a foundry?

We have known some who found this the best preparation for Saudi’s weather in August. We didn’t though—our home area in the States is short on foundries and ovens large enough to walk around in. We opted for the more convenient preparation of breathing deeply the hot air coming off a car engine running at high rpms during a hot Floridian summer. That said, we have acquaintances who came with no preparation at all. Last time I saw them, they were alive, but really sweaty.

FAQ: Is it true that cars in Saudi will not go when the light turns green unless someone honks his horn?


IMG_2330Yes, it’s true! Cars here are apparently fitted with special mechanisms that prevent them from beginning to accelerate unless someone honks their horn. If that light finally turns green and no one honks, we will all just sit there while the intersection remains empty. Fortunately, there are plenty of people who are on the job. No sooner does that light turn green than people lay on the horns. It really gets people going.

Watch for the next installment of FAQs–we have received so many. If you have a question about life here, leave it in the comments below.