Painting out in the open air is:
- Exciting – Intimidating
- Relaxing – Frustrating
- Instructional – Confusing
- Exhilarating – Petrifying
Yup – all these contradictory elements! To these psychological and intellectual contradictions, add the fact that it can be an extremely equipment-intensive activity. Then, often there are times when plein air painting is simply, logistically impossible to pursue due to time or health constraints, etc. For today, I would like to address the idea that we can find a spectrum of possibilities for plein air painting that can work beautifully, even for those who aren’t intrepid hard-core plein air painters!
For numerous reasons I myself find it difficult to paint on location often enough, resulting in the lion’s share of my paintings being studio paintings painted from photos taken on trips, hikes and the like. So when I have the luxury of painting “en plein air”, either by the fact that I’m actually conducting a plein air workshop, or for my own painting and recreation time, it’s such a glorious treat. Following, are two examples of my plein air adventures, from both ends of the scale, from a logistically challenging to a much more manageable set-up and painting method.
My favorite subject matter is water flowing over rocks, and if I’m extremely lucky, to find flowers growing on the bank or overhanging the water. Water, rocks and flowers together – wow – that combination makes me an extremely happy painter! Once, many years ago, I manipulated the latter.
Anniversary Bouquet was painted some 17 years ago and early in my plein air experience. I had an entire day to myself while on vacation to roam the creak and play – ambitious and naïve perhaps, but play, I did! Wanting to paint all three of my favorite things together I placed a bouquet of flowers right in the creek in several different areas to get an effect that pleased me and finally settled here, plonked my easel with large canvas in the creek, myself on a rock, and began to paint. I set up a second day to resume – maybe even a third – I can’t remember exactly now – and added some finishing touches later back in the studio using my reference photos.
In contrast to the above-described adventure which was a wonderful experience – and also a lot of hard work just getting my easel, paints, etc. set up in a running river! – my next example is quite simplified. And I love this method for those occasions when setting up an easel is out of the question, or when I need to keep my equipment light and minimal but still want to be able to finish the piece as an oil painting.
Oil over Watercolor on archival canvas board coated with DS Watercolor Ground to accept multiple mediums I finished this in the studio with oil but I could have continued with watercolor or acrylic. Options!
For Crescent Moon Ranch, I began by doing the block-in that would normally be done with oil paint and lean medium with watercolor instead on an archival canvas panel previously coated with an acrylic watercolor ground. The watercolor ground is important to this method because it allows for good adherence of the watercolor rather than the watercolor sitting on the surface of an untreated canvas. The oil paint finishing of the piece was done in the studio. The watercolor step for this particular painting was done as a workshop demo for which I had set up my easel and all associated paraphernalia. However, I often use the same method (for those times when I can’t set up an easel), sitting on a rock in the middle of the creek, holding the small canvas in one hand and balancing the small watercolor set on the rock next to me. This allows for some precarious positioning to get the scene I want to paint!
Me, sitting on a log this time, sketching on an archival canvas board – it would be pretty difficult to do a plein air painting with full accoutrements here!
Now that I have you sitting by the creek, taking in the beauty that surrounds you, immersed in the music of the burbling water, cocooned in your own little world, here are some steps to take that I think you will find helpful:
1) It must first be said that getting caught up in the beauty is necessary for enthusiasm, desire and energy to paint your scene, but that it can also be detrimental when we are so blown away with the splendor all around us that it becomes difficult to focus on a composition that’s such a small area compared to the whole of what we see. There’s a lot of scenery from which to choose a compositional square or rectangle. The solution is, in my view, 3-fold.
a. Poke around the area, satisfy your curiosity about what’s available and see what you are most drawn to. Take lots of photos in order to archive the scenery you don’t have time to paint at the moment, reminding yourself that later you’ll have time for the other painting possibilities exploding in your imagination.
b. At some point you have to settle down and select your scene. Use a view-finder to isolate a composition. I usually use my camera as my view-finder. Commit to that spot and set up your equipment, be it minimal or maximal “stuff”.
c. Settle in – get comfortable. Consciously relax mind and body. Tension and excitement may work for some but what I know about myself is that I have a hard time concentrating until I’m able to settle in both physically and mentally.
2) Now we’re ready to paint!
a. Squinting in order to eliminate detail, identify and simplify the largest, most important shapes in your composition.
b. Though I’m not much of a “sketcher”, I realize the value of preliminary studies and there are several different ones I use from time to time. Here’s an easy one! Point with your finger, pencil or brush at your composition and “draw” in the air a contour line around those most important compositional shapes.
c. In a sketch pad, repeat the shapes and hand movement that you “drew” in the air. Now do the same on your canvas to establish your composition, then proceed with whatever painting methods you prefer. You could try my simplified approach described above or more traditional oil painting techniques, my preference when I have more time to work and an easel set up with all the usual supplies.
Plein air purists might not find some of my methods to their taste and that’s OK. I feel that the Plein Air Experience should be joyful rather than intimidating and that it’s for all of us, regardless of whether we have the ability to backpack out to a remote site or just enough time, physical ability or other wherewithal to sit for a while in our own backyard. In fact, in my North Light book Discover Oil Painting (released in 2016 and currently on the NL Best Sellers List), Chapter 6 (pages 96-100) has a plein air section, for which the painting demo was done in my own yard. If painting in the yard isn’t as exciting an experience as you’d like, it still can be a great place to get in some practice with methods and equipment ahead of embarking on your larger, fantastic adventure!