Friday, June 22, 2012

The BIG Plein Air Post

The Menunketsuck River, 8x10 acrylic

After almost ten years of plein air painting I came home a few weekends ago and said to my daughter, I think I finally know how to paint plein air ! Somehow this year I feel that everything I have learned about plein air painting over the years is jiving and the process is smooth and fun.

Bushy Hill Wig Wam, 8x10, acrylic

How did this happen......I don't really know but I can make an educated guess. When I began to paint outdoors, I gave up working in the studio completely and for 4 or 5 years I worked exclusively outdoors, first in pastel then in oil. Then I began doing small daily paintings in the studio in the winter, and in the nice weather daily paintings outside, usually in my garden. That's a lot of canvas covered over the months and years. 

Oyster River Marsh, 9x12, acrylic

Then a big change occurred I began working in the studio again. I worked from plein air studies, imagination and photos. Interestingly, careful work from photos sharpened a lot of skills for me. That may seem counter intuitive, conventional wisdom says that working from life with the subject right in front of you is the most beneficial. But I found that a really good photo and the ability to zoom in using the computer to really see details and structure, gridding the photo and gridding the canvas to help with drawing accuracy, and proportion really taught me a lot about looking and getting something down with more accuracy than I could manage in the field.

 Hammock River Tidal Marsh, 8x10, acrylic

In 2009 I did a lot of small 6x8 plein air paintings, working more methodically and carefully. In 2010, I didn't do all that much plein air painting, but rather spent a lot of time sketching outdoors, making small loose studies in pen and watercolor. Very enjoyable, and it gave me a chance to quietly and thoughtfully observe nature and make sketch notations without the pressure of completing a painting.

Changing Weather, 8x10, acrylic

In 2011 I went on a plein air painting trip to Maine and suddenly found myself immersed in the plein air painting mindset once again. The paintings from Maine were for the most part really successful. Several have sold and a few have gotten into regional shows. I think that the excitement and stimulation of a new environment was very inspiring to me.  I came home from that trip with a stack of small paintings, a few sketches, a lot of memories of places I took a good hard look at with the specific intention of really being able to recall the place, it's colors, features and lighting and hundreds of really good photos.

Along the River, 8x10, acrylic

Another long winter of studio painting ensued using all the reference materials I brought home from Maine. The studio paintings taught me to look really closely at something, to include more detail, to paint with more accuracy and less generalization. 

View of Foskott Island, 6x8, acrylic

I share this because so often artists hear that there is nothing to be gained from working from photos. Yet, I found tremendous benefit from doing so, it actually helped make me a better plein air painter. I think that perhaps it is like drawing from sculptural casts, as they did in the old art academies in the 19th century. The body doesn't move, you can take a really long time to look and study, go very slowly with your drawing to gain accuracy. Then when you have a live model you are really prepared, familiar with anatomy, proportions, the way light falls over the human form and then are able to get a really good drawing from life. 

Feeding Time, 9x12, acrylic

Now I can't bring a landscape vista into my studio! I know some artists who bring in rocks and branches, and even use broccoli as stand ins for trees to practice painting landscape elements from life, and that is clever but hardly compares to a real landscape. And so a photo, with all of it's limitations, still enables me to have a landscape frozen in time so I might study it closely through the act of painting it. 

Griswold Garden, 6x12, acrylic

Thus I feel I am better prepared to paint the landscape from life with greater understanding and accuracy. 
So that has been my experience. Perhaps it is unusual, or perhaps not. The fact that I feel a greater sense of competence when painting outside has sparked a renewed passion for plein air painting and that is a very positive thing! 

Guilford Harbor, Sunset, acrylic

In just a few weeks I leave for Maine and I am very excited to paint from morning 'till night amidst powerful seas and ancient rocky coast line. Hopefully, with greater confidence and sharpened skills I will be up to the challenge!


Terri L. West said...

I really admire the amount of work you have done in the way you have done it...perhaps you have achieved what only an artist can do for themselves...become an expert by putting in the time and spreading out the various experiences and work of painting and then sharing the reflections ...its a recipe for success!

Susan Roux said...

Hi. What a great post! Your success is well due. You've taken time to learn and observe more accurately. That's huge! Not a surprise your work shows the effort put in. Nothing compares to hard work and focusing of a few aspects on painting.

Where in Maine will you be? In two weeks, I'll be on Monhegan. I live in Poland Spring.