Lessons from Claire Giordano’s Adventure Art Academy

Claire Giordano is one of my favorite online teachers (you may remember I featured her in an Palette Profile awhile back). In her Adventure Art Academy, she shares inspiring and beautiful videos of her own adventures hiking across the USA and painting on location. As a field artist, she is accustomed to working quickly in changing conditions, lessons that I take to heart even when I’m working in my warm and comfortable room, because I have limited time and attention span, and working quickly is the most fun for me. Along with hiking tips, which I find vicariously interesting but purely academic for my lifestyle, Claire shares valuable shortcuts for quickly taking in a scene, simplifying, and sketching a beautiful representation in a short period of time. 

Here are some of my favorite specific things I’ve learned from Claire.

B+ and fun is better than A+ and boring

Sunrise from Crystal Mountain, from a tutorial by Claire Giordano. December 25, 2021.

This was in, I believe, a lesson about gradients. Claire demonstrates how easy and fun it can be to make a quick and dirty gradient. It’s not going to be perfect. In order to make a perfect gradient, you need to build up painstaking layers. But is it worth it? It’s okay if the answer is no; you can decide not to do something “the right way” simply because it’s more trouble than it’s worth. It’s okay not to aim for perfection.

As an outdoor painter, Claire pragmatically limits her techniques to those that are practical in the field, going for the “bang for your buck” techniques that look great without a huge investment of time. Even though I mostly don’t paint outdoors, I found this strategy resonated with me; I enjoy painting with quick field techniques more than I enjoy carefully building layers. Claire helped me to feel that this is both acceptable and valuable. 

And hey – on those rare occasions when I do paint in the field, I really appreciate not having to learn a whole new way to work!

Draw a box

Sky experiments inspired by “Urban Sketching Handbook: Working with Color” by Shari Blaukopf, using a Claire Giordano-inspired draw a box method (by tracing my Folio Palette).

One of the first things Claire does is to draw a box on her paper in which to frame her sketch. I don’t know why, but I find a box immediately more manageable than a blank paper, even if the box is almost as large as the page.

(A highly practical subtip I also learned from Claire: trace around your palette for a quick rectangle template! The Art Toolkit Pocket Palette makes a great size for a thumbnail – it’s what I use for the gradient box on my Color Spotlights – and the Folio Palette makes a good quick sketch, and is almost the same size as my A5 travel sketchbook paper. It’s easier for me to trace than to use rulers.)

Test your color mixes on paper

Colors of Evangeline Beach. October 20, 2022.

It’s hard to know how your mixed colors will look in the palette, so it’s handy to test them on real paper (not just the mixing area of your palette) before adding them to your painting. It helps to have scrap paper handy, or even to just paint them along the edge of the paper you’re working on, outside the frame. It felt weird to me to do this at first (using your painting as scrap paper??) but I learned to embrace it after realizing that I love to look at it when other artists do this. To me, the range of swatches that represent the local color of a place is as wonderful as the finished painting! In fact, if I don’t have the time or inclination to paint, just a series of swatches is a fun exercise that’s mindful and observational in a similar way.

Follow your interest

Slickrock & Desert Shadows, a tutorial from Claire Giordano’s Adventure Art Academy. Claire pointed out this tree’s shadow as the subject she found most fascinating in the scene. November 15, 2022.

What interests you? What draws your eye? What part of a landscape do you love, or find exciting, or just want to keep looking at? What makes you want to paint a certain scene? It’s hard to overstate how magical it can be to follow on those tiny threads of curiosity. In Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert calls it the key to unlocking inspiration.

Claire starts every lesson by examining the world around her to decide which part of the landscape to paint. She introduced me to a mindful practice of sort of unfocusing your eyes and looking around to find something that draws you. She will also use her fingers to make a box, a little frame around the area she wants to paint. 

I like to do this even when I’m not painting. Just to notice stuff. 

Simplify, simplify

Monochrome Mount Rainier, from Claire Giordano’s Adventure Art Academy. December 10, 2021.

Real world scenes are full of busy detail, but it’s often better to paint less, rather than try to include everything. Since you’ve followed your interest, you know one thing at least to definitely include, and you can simplify or ignore the rest. Limiting your subject to one can help draw attention to it.

You can always paint another scene if there’s more than one thing that interests you. When paintings are quick, you can do a lot of them.

Blooms are beautiful

Sunrise from an Adventure Art Academy video by Claire Giordano. The side blooms were a mistake, but oh well! I think it looks kind of like a foreground Joshua tree. October 10, 2022.

Starting out, I had no control over blooms (whatever you want to call them: cauliflowers, hard edges, etc). Usually they represented mistakes, so I tried to avoid making them. Claire was the first artist who I saw who used them intentionally, so much so that I began to evaluate paints in part on “how beautifully they bloom”!

Work in a single layer by skipping to non-adjacent areas

Crater Lake, from Claire Giordano’s Adventure Art Academy, May 21, 2022. My largest painting to date (a quarter sheet), but I did it in one layer by drawing the ridgeline first, then filling in the sky just to there, and same in reverse for the reflection.

The way I initially learned to paint, say, layered mountains is to paint the entire paper with sky, let it dry, then paint the most distant layer, let it dry, then paint the next closest mountain, let it dry, and so on. This looks great, but it isn’t a practical technique in the field. One quick and dirty method Claire employs a lot is working in a single layer moving from one section of the painting to another while the first section dries. For example, she might sketch where she wants her mountains and her ground to go, then paint the sky, skip over the mountains down to the ground while the sky is drying, then move back to the top of the mountains and work down.

Another common tactic is the work on multiple scenes at once. She might paint a long skinny panorama at the top of the page, then another inset box showing a detail or another view. 

Keep mountains crisp at the peak, then blend toward the bottom

How to Paint Mountains. Notes I took during a Claire Giordano live tutorial, January 2022.

When you paint mountains, the focal point is often the peak(s). It’s worth investing the time to do crisp wet-on-dry shadows in the peaks, keeping them in focus, but doing the entire mountain with that level of detail is not only time-consuming, it’s overwhelming for the viewer. Keep the focus on the focal point by sort of blending and softening as you work down the mountain. 

This can be generalized to a reinforced lesson about giving your painting one important subject – the One Thing that made you want to paint it. Keep that in focus; draw attention to it with increased detail, higher level of contrast, and/or brighter color; and the rest can be hand-waved.

Keep skies big, loose, fast, and easy

Blue sky from Maria Coryell-Martin’s Cloudscapes class. June 13, 2022.

Skies are my favorite subject but that doesn’t mean I need to spend a lot of time on them. In fact, it’s often better not to. A sky that’s confidently slapped down in moments with a large brush often looks best. (This is where those fast gradients come in.) 

Blue skies look more purple at the top, and more green toward the horizon. A good mix for blue skies is Cobalt Blue plus Phthalo Blue, which can look a bit more natural than either color alone.

Sunset skies grade from blue, to yellow, to orange/red. Sunsets move quickly, so when painting a sunset from reality, be prepared for anything! For sunset clouds edged in red/orange, put down the bright orange first, then drop in the gray/purple mix on top. 

Share your joy!

One of my favorite things about Claire is how enthusiastic she is; her videos show her exclaiming with wonder about the natural beauty she is seeing and painting. “Wow!” she cries from offscreen as the video takes in the panorama of a mountaintop or a forest.

It is that sense of joy and wonder that I always want to take into my painting, even when I’m painting things much more commonplace. There is always a reason for wonder.

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