Aaron Schuerr approaches painting like a sportsman. He lives full-time in Livingston, Montana, located in southwestern Montana, on the Yellowstone River. He travels around the world finding the most inspiring locations to paint. An avid climber and hiker, he finds himself in some challenging locations with some inspiring views.
In June, 2023 Aaron returns to the Monterey Peninsula to lead another exciting painting workshop. We spoke to Aaron to find out more about his work. Below is the entire interview so you can find out more about him.
Rich Brimer, Director, CVA
Aaron. I want to start off with the fact that you flow pretty easily between pastel and oil painting. When I look at your thumbnails online, sometimes it’s really hard for me to tell the difference. How do you decide what medium you’re going to use—whether it’s in the field or in your studio—oil or pastel?
It’s a good question. I don’t have a great answer for it. Sometimes it’s a huge thing. I feel like working in one medium or the other or both mediums. Each medium, at least for me, has strengths and weaknesses. Pastel is a medium that, in some ways, I can control a little bit more in terms of the draftsmanship of it. And the purity of color is unmatched. It’s just the medium is really incredible because you’re working with nearly pure pigment.
Pure color sticks.
Yes. The limitations are especially in plein air. The limitations are that I bring out my best guess as to what palette I’m going to need for pastel. And so there are times when I’ll get frustrated. I’ll feel like I’m hitting a roadblock with, say, the color that I see on the scene and the color I have in my palette, and that’s where I just end up having to get inventive. And I think the lesson here is that color is relative. So if I don’t have the right color, I make a color commitment, and I find something in there that makes some sense, color-wise. And then I key the rest of the color off of that. So it might not exactly match what’s in the landscape, but as long as it has a kind of color unity.
About Oil Painting
The way that I approach the landscape with oil, I guess I’m a little bit more true to color with oil, just trying to figure out match color. Sometimes oil is really nice because there’s a direct simplicity in the actual material. I’m not sitting there staring at 200 colors. I have a set palette, and I can mix the color down. So if you’ve got, like, say, subtle grays, you can just easily shift that color a little bit. You can have a gray and say, “oh, that’s a little bit too warm.” I need to cool it down. And you just touch a little bit of a cooler color into the mix and maybe shift it towards blue or shift it towards red or if it’s a neutral. So, I like that directness, and I like the plasticity of oil. Being able to get somebody to it, working with thin to thick is so satisfying. So I don’t know, as far as deciding, sometimes I will look at a landscape and think, you know what? I feel like I can do that better in, say, pastel.
Switching between oil and pastel
This autumn—We had an incredible color season in Montana this year, and I did most of the work, most of my fieldwork in pastel because I wanted to push color, and it’s a great medium to do it. When I’m up in the mountains, I tend to prefer working in oil because you have one. I like oil for all those big mountain shapes and boulders. They’ve already got the chiseled edges and a lot of variations on grace when you’re up in an alpine landscape. So for something like that, I feel like oil, it’s a little more muscular as a medium, so I like to switch to that. But sometimes it’s arbitrary. Sometimes it’s almost like a flip of a coin, or it also will happen sometimes where I’m on a roll with one medium and the other medium is just not working as well at the moment. At this last year’s Laguna Beach Invitational, I had been, like, in a rut for a while with plein air work with pastel. I just had been getting frustrated with it, and then somehow it clicked again at Laguna. And so this year, I did more pastel work than oil.
The previous year, I was crashing and burning on a number of the pastels. And so the year before, I think I only framed up one pastel. This year, I think I framed up four or five. Sometimes it’s just yeah, like, the one medium is just it’s making sense at the moment until I go with it. So it’s a little bit like I kind of go where the muse tells me to go.
Some students who have been painting in oil their whole art career might want to try pastels. So what suggestions would you have for an oil painter that wants to try pastels for the first time in your class?
If they want to try pastel for the first time, I would definitely do a little one-on-one consultation with them before the workshop as far as figuring out materials, because I wouldn’t want them to run out and buy a huge amount of materials and then find out, “oh, this is not really for me.” So there are a couple of options. We can do it where you’re working with charcoal and a little bit of color.
I do offer a pastel set that is a good starter set. It is made by Jack Richeson and Company. So there’s the option of getting that set and getting a little bit of paper, and I would be pretty specific as far as the paper that they would use. So the materials in pastel are really important in some ways, even more so than oil. With oil, you can do some decent studies on a canvas board, like, if it’s just for doing field studies, that kind of stuff because you don’t have to get the finest canvas, and even though it’s nice. But with pastels, the paper that you use is going to make a massive difference. So basically, if someone is interested in trying out pastel and they’re an oil painter, I’m totally game to help them out, and I would basically walk them through some basic stuff before the workshop. We do a little bit of one on one time.
Here’s the link from your materials list for Judson’s outfitters. Is that the set you’re talking about?
Yeah, that’s the set of 80. No one set is going to be perfect. Like the way that with pastels—and any pastelists who have been doing it for a while—it’s like you get a lot of open stock pastels and slowly figure out your palette. There’s a little bit of trial and error, so it’s a decent starter set. What I did to put that set together is I did a whole bunch of little studies of different kinds of landscapes, and one of the kinds of landscapes I did was seascapes in there. So it’s not going to be necessarily a perfect seascape, but it would be good enough.
Yeah, your set has quite a range of blues, light blues, and blue-grays for ocean scenes.
Yeah. It’d be enough to get through the workshop, and this might feel a little frustrating, but it still would be helpful. Is that part of the workshop would be figuring out, like, “Okay, these are the colors that I have. Here are some of the holes.” If they want to continue with pastel, part of the way I would help someone is, here are some of the colors that we might want to fill in. Like, when you get home, you might want to order some open-stock pastels, and here are some colors to look at. Yeah. Part of the workshop would be the puzzle of running into those limitations and then saying, okay, I want to keep doing this. These are some other options to fill in more pastels. Got you. Pastel is a medium that “more is more is more.” There is a good lesson in working with a limited palette in pastel. But, if you really want to keep going with it, just get as many pastels as you can afford.
So you live in the mountains of Montana, and you do a lot of those local scenes, but you’ve been painting the coast quite a bit, too. What are your favorite places around Carmel?
Oh, Carmel. You know, the last time, obviously, Garrapata is incredible. Yes. And it’s just iconic. Last year I finally got some real-time at Point Lobos. Also just it’s so fun to go to a place where I’d walk around, and see spots where I’ve seen the paintings before. It’s a famous landscape. You know, you’re walking down, you’re like, oh, my goodness, it’s a Guy Rose painting right there. Yeah, I’ve seen the painting. And then to see the actual place and recognize it is pretty wild. And then the other place at Point Lobos that I thought was really quite wonderful was at Cypress Grove. But I also thought Pacific Grove was really good for a group because it was more sheltered.
Do you have anything else you want to add?
Just that my focus and teaching is on developing, and really simplifying the approach to painting—keeping it direct and simple. It’s not about coming home with finished frameable paintings. It’s very much about teaching “process.” So my goal is that they come home with an approach and they go home with tools that they can apply to their own practice. I think that’s far more exciting and more useful. But for some people, it involves a little shift in thinking because I’m asking you to approach the landscape maybe in a way that you might not be used to. So what I mostly ask from students is just a willingness to try some different things and have a sense of humor about it because ultimately we’re having some fun together. So it’s not about being precious with the painting. It’s about—quoting Neil Gaiman—“make glorious mistakes.”
“Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.” –Neil Gaiman
That’s—to me—what it’s about. And it’s just a lot more fun than trying to prove yourself with some nuanced finished painting. Yeah. I want to give people tools and expand their tools. It’s good to have a great big toolbox.
Get more info and sign up for Aaron’s upcoming workshop
Fresh and Direct Coastal Painting
Instructor: Aaron Schuerr
Medium: Pastel or Oil
Dates: June 9–11, 2023 (Fri-Sun)
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