Thursday, February 23, 2017

Oil Painting Classes in Shoshone, California, with the Wildflower Bloom

Desert gold during the Death Valley superbloom last winter in 2016. 

Beginners welcome! If you have never lifted a paintbrush in your life, this class will help you get a start with the wonderful world of oil painting. This workshop is designed for anyone who wants to try painting and learn how to start depicting landscapes and natural history subjects, both indoors and out in the field in the beautiful Mojave Desert.

If you have oil painting experience and want to learn more about traditional techniques I will show you what I have researched about landscape painting methods from history, through the Renaissance to the French Academy, and Impressionism.

Flat-tailed horned lizard, oil on cotton rag paper. Copyright Laura Cunningham.

The wildflowers should be amazing by mid March--the region has received a lot of rain, and I will take you out to the nearby desert to explore the diversity of plants and wildflowers. We will also do some birdwatching and observations of lizards (and perhaps even a desert tortoise). Death Valley National Park is right next door.

Supplies will be provided! You can bring your own drawing and painting material, sketchbooks, and plein air equipment if you want. But no lists will be needed, just bring your curiosity and I will show you the materials to dive deeply into oil painting. (Bring your binoculars and camera too.)

Students will learn about materials to prepare surfaces for archival oil painting, drawing and sketching, and the diversity of grounds, brushes, pigments, and painting media. We will discuss shadow and light, underpainting and overpainting, and the difference between layering in oils (the real key to oils that you cannot get with any other medium), and quick paintings done in one sitting (alla prima) to capture the effects of daylight outdoors. Simple and easy to understand exercises will get you started. I will give presentations on history and methods as well.

The main class will be from 9 AM – 4 PM Saturday March 18, 2017 (includes demonstrations with materials, presentations on oil painting, and plein air sessions). We will have lunch and dinner at the Crowbar Inn, which has vegetarian items. The Wildflower Field Trip will be on Sunday morning, March 19, 2017.

Our itinerary: Saturday March 18

  • 9 AM - meet at the Flower Building in Shoshone, introduction.
  • Slide presentation on the history of landscape painting, introducing some of the materials and techniques we will use.
  • Hands on course about oil painting materials, drawing materials, supports, and media.
  • Intro to oil paint and media: each students will experiment with a small support, brushes, and paint with different media (linseed oil, solvents, damar varnish, etc.) to learn about the different working properties of oil paint.
  • Then we will go outside to sketch, look at wildflowers, make natural history observations in the desert, and observe the sunlight and color of shadows. There are some beautiful nature trails next to town and the Amargosa River that harbor birds such as phainopeplas and verdins, as well as possible breeding Least Bell's vireos!
  • Noon - LUNCH
  • 1 PM - Exercise in layering and blocking in an underpainting with various techniques and colors, using different traditional methods.
  • Talk on topics such as preparatory drawing, shading, composition, light and shadow, and use of photography. Part of my library of various art books will be passed around to review the work of traditional landscape masters.
  • We will then go outside to practice painting a landscape using techniques learned.
  • 4PM - finish, free time, dinner.

Sunday March 19

  • 9 AM - wildflower tour, sketching, talking about how to see and light and colors and translate your observations into oil paint.  Identify and enjoy the wildflowers  I will scout the region beforehand to find the best blooming hotspots.
  • Noon - end of workshop. You are free to go visit Death Valley National Park nearby and I can give you ideas for places to go to.

How to register for this workshop: download the registration form (pdf) and mail a check to Laura Cunningham Art, PO Box 70, Beatty NV 89003, or pay when you arrive.

Or send me an email at and ask to sign up. You can sign the registration form at the workshop.

Hotel accommodations and camping are available in the town of Shoshone There is a store, gas station and cafĂ© in town. Meals and accommodations not included.

Limited to 20 people.

Imperial woodpeckers on a ponderosa pine in the San Jacinto Mountains above the Salton Basin, California Desert, long ago before European contact. Oil on cotton rag paper mounted on panel. Copyright Laura Cunningham. 

Bring your sketchbooks and supplies for some field sketching, and I will also provide sketching materials.

We will also learn how to do plein air oil paintings outdoors.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Oil Painting Classes Coming This Spring to the Desert

I'm organizing a weekend oil painting workshop for late March or April in the town of Shoshone Village CA next to Death Valley National Park. You will be able to come for a day or spend the night for both days. I'll be providing supplies and you can also bring your own for sketching, drawing, and painting. 

This course will be great for absolute beginners who have never lifted a paintbrush, since I will show you all the materials and starting techniques. If you are a seasoned oil painter, you may learn some advanced methods used by traditional landscape oil painters through the centuries that I have extensively researched.

A small oil sketch I did in under an hour in Death Valley, en plein air.

My photo of sunset light and shadow in a canyon of the Nopah Range. In this class we will learn how to paint shadows that glow.

Pineapple cactus (Sclerocactus johnsonii) with red spines, near Shoshone CA.

The wildflowers are already beginning to bloom in the southern tip of Death Valley National Park. There should be good blooms and we will take a few short field trips to see them. Sand verbena.

January rains storm and flash flooding in Silurian Valley. This should create wildflower displays in spring.

Eagle Mountain from the Nopah Range, near Shoshone CA--our base camp for exploring the desert.

There are motel accommodations available and camping, as well as a cafe. A community center will be our classroom for some presentations I will give about materials and landscape painting techniques. There will be good wildflowers displays nearby from all the rains, and we will take some short field trips to see the scenery. Natural history observation, birding, and botanizing will be encouraged! More details and dates later.

Detail of an oil painting I did in the studio based on field notes and sketches, of pronghorn antelope in the Mojave Desert,  long ago.

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.