Friday, December 30, 2016

My upcoming book on oil painting and nature will have many paintings that were edited out of my 2010 book, A State of Change. These have not been seen before.

Kiskadee flycatcher in Western sycamore. Oil on canvas.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

My paleoart images of the White River Badlands fossil beds reconstructions of sabertooth cats, three-toed horses, and titanotheres has just been published in the beautiful book The White River Badlands: Geology and Paleontology, by Rachel Benton, Dennis Terry Jr., Emmett Evanoff, and H. Gregory McDonald, Indaian University Press (Bloomington & Indianapolis) 2015.  I just received a copy in the mail, and it is a richly designed book full of the latest research on the 30-35 million-year-old fossil beds of South Dakota. See my earlier post on 6/5/16 about how I painted these mural images for the museum.

Oil Painting Book Cover

I am experimenting with book covers for my upcoming guide to oil painting (see earlier posts), and here is one idea. It is a large oil on panel painting of a rare melanistic mountain lion, with a deep black color, in a desert canyon. I first heard reports of a black mountain lion by a friend who saw one near Tilden Regional Park in back of the Oakland-Berkeley hills, Contra Costa County, CA. Black mountain lions are apparently somewhat more common in South America.

Rare Black Mountain Lion, 28 x 36 inches, Oil on panel, 1997.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Oil Painting Classes Coming Soon!

Field sketching, oil painting in nature, landscapes, en plain air, these are all ways of doing art that I have enjoyed for decades. I have been planning to teach art for a long time and am finally organizing to do just this in 2017. Locations will be announced later, but will likely include such beautiful places as Mono Lake, Death Valley National Park, Mojave National Preserve, Joshua Tree National Park, Lake Tahoe, and other areas. I may be traveling to certain cities as well to teach field courses, including the Bay Area and Las Vegas.

I will be offering online courses as well to compliment these field courses. So stay tuned to this blog for future details.

My new book project is a how-to instructional guide to oil painting landscapes and natural history subjects. I have always been fascinated with traditional methods, and this book will delve deeply into the secrets of the many landscape traditions from centuries ago to modern times, plus a scientific understanding of materials.

Field Sketching, drawing, perspective, color theory, composition and more will be discussed. We will cover ways to paint outside in nature quickly, and work on larger full-sized paintings in the studio. Plenty of illustrations will make this an easy-to-use guide.

Here is my preliminary outline for the book, which will accompany the course:

Oil Painting Nature
How to Paint Landscapes From Classical Secrets to California Impressionists and Beyond
By Laura Cunningham

The Landscape
History – From Ancient Rome to California Sunlight
Landscape Painting Terms
The Digital Age
Get Outside! Nature Study – drawing, sketching, anatomy
Style, Expression
Theme, Story, Meaning
Drawing Materials
Palettes and Easels
Grounds and Supports
Media – Paints and Binders
The Joys of Oil Paint
Alla Prima
En Plein Air
In the Studio
Use of Photography
Framing and Packing
Curation and Conservation

Underpainting techniques.
We'll also explore the natural history of our local landscape, do some birding, plant identification, and discuss the ecological history of the regions we are in.

If you are interested and want to be on my future mailing list send me a message and I will keep you informed:

Thank you!


Quick oil sketches outside to study the light.

Layering oil paints from underpainting to final layers and glazes.

My paint box.

Sunday, June 5, 2016


Paleoart is a fascinating field, one of my favorites, where imagination is used in heavy doses along with scientific accuracy to try to reconstruct scenes of past life and landscapes. I enjoy the challenge of researching the fossil record, paleontological studies, and comparing them to living ecosystems and wildlife in order to bring ancient scenes to life, whether a century in the past or a hundred million years ago.

I painted this mural in oil on canvas years ago for Badlands National Park, working with park staff who provided me with detailed material to work from. It was a fun project. I favor working in oil paint to achieve a glow and luster of color that is still hard to match in digital media, such as Photoshop-created art. My background as a Paleontology Major at the University of California, Berkeley, helped inform how I researched the project, and my graduate work in scientific illustration at the University of California at Santa Cruz gave me many methods to choose from in working on the image. As for my oil painting technique, I am self-taught.

The scene shows a giant 14-foot long titanothere (Brontops) mother with young calf, and a herd of small oreodonts (Merycoidodon) nearby. The exhibit illustrates a river marsh habitat in a subtropical forest with patches of savanna during the Upper Eocene Epoch (Chadron Formation), about 37 million years ago. Early grasslands were just beginning to expand in this wooded world, and most herbivores were still of the low-crowned dentition, leaf-browsing type.

To get an idea of the plant communities of the time, I looked at fossil floras of the Clarno Formation and John Day Formation, comparing them to my library of notes and photographs from my travels in such places as Costa Rica (with its dry tropical forests, savannas, and palm habitats), and all over North America (such as Florida, Great Plains states, and Southwestern woodlands).

I am always amazed when I look at the finished painting and compare how much times have changed in this same spot over the millions of years, the area now being a cold-winter temperate grassland habitat historically filled with herds of grazing bison.

Here are a few of my notes to illustrate how I research a painting and reconstruct a paleontological scene.

Sketches of the fossil fauna of the Eocene-Oligocene of North America, with relative sizes.

A very rough sketch to begin to flesh out an idea of how the landscape will appear and positions of faunal elements.

My list of fossil flora and pollen from the same time period and region, to be able to pick vegetation elements.

Rough sketch of titanothere group.

Notes on geological time, formations, and ages.

Notes on the oreodonts in the scene--extinct, small, pig-like browsing herbivores.

Finer sketch of the titanothere group, finalizing the position and behavior of the extinct animals.

Reconstructed life studies of the oreodonts.

Preliminary sketch of the scene, naming tree types, other plants, and rough positions of animals.

Final detailed sketch. This will be transferred to the large canvas as an underdrawing for the oil painting.

I make small clay models of each animal in the scene, and position a lamp in the direction that the sun would be in the painting, in order to see how shadows fall over the animal's body in three-dimensions, as well as the cast shadow on the ground. Then I make a quick note-sketch of this. Here, shadows on an oreodont.

This was a fairly large and detailed mural, about 2.5 x 5 feet long on canvas, which would be shipped to the park and the image increased in size for the exhibit. It took me more than a month to complete the project.

Final mural, oil on canvas.

Detail, Merycoidodon herd.

Detail, titanothere cow and calf.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Art and Conservation

Grizzly mother and cubs feeding on coho salmon, Marin County CA in the past. Oil on cotton rag paper.

A lot has happened since I first published A State of Change: Forgotten Landscapes of California (Heyday) in 2010. The book came out in paperback as a second edition recently, and I wrote and illustrated a children's book, The Bay Area Through Time (Heyday 2015).

I have some other book manuscripts I'm working on, including a guide to oil painting from Classical methods, through California Impressionists, to today's practice of plein air and studio painting landscapes. Also a book on the Ice Age of California, full of mammoths, sabertooth cats, and giant condors.

Since 2009 I have been working with friends and colleagues on desert conservation issues in California and Nevada, and just this past month we incorporated into a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization: Basin & Range Watch. I am happy we can take the next step towards protecting the vast Mojave Desert landscapes that I first visited in 1986. We will be seeking to host workshops, educational talks, and other events on conservation and natural history in the future.

I am also planning on a series of art workshops and classes during the coming year, to be held in various places and cities, where I will teach my methods of field sketching and oil painting landscapes, wildlife and nature. After spending years writing comment letters to agencies, becoming ever more involved in the environmental public review process, and still seeing desert ecosystems get bulldozed, I think education and participation in the outdoors is one of the most important activities we can do to help preserve the planet.

So join me soon and stay tuned for a calendar of events!


Field sketch of pronghorn antelope

Cratering sidewinder, oil on cotton rag paper.