I have been able to paint en plein aire more this summer than in previous summers. It could be the weather or simply the fact that once I started this season, I found myself wanting to go whenever possible. As the Shrine Mont Art and Soul Conference approaches here are a few tips that I find useful.
Make sure your chair, if you sit while painting, is comfortable for a two-to-three hour sitting. Bring a hat, sunscreen and bug spray, but also consider an umbrella. Many times I have started out in the shade only to find that the sun has moved, and not only changed my shadows, but taken away my shade. Having your work in direct sunlight is less than ideal.
Take along drinking water and a snack. Bring your camera. You can use it as your viewfinder but also to record your scene for later in the studio. This is especially useful for those who are new to plein aire. While purists would frown on this, it is great tool for both the beginner and the seasoned artist. It will show you how successful you can be.
It sounds simple, but many people are uncomfortable painting in public and they let it affect their approach. Most people who stop by to look are interested in painting themselves and tend to be positive. Be savvy, have a few business cards handy.
Make Every Minute Count
Keep in mind this is not a studio painting. Instead of taking weeks to complete, most artists think of field studies as taking two-to-three hours. Some do return the next day but usually paint a different viewpoint or scene. I like to spend 15 minutes on my thumbnail sketch; 15-20 minutes on my under drawing/painting; 10-15 minutes on color and the rest of the time painting for a two-to-three hour outing. I must be in the right frame of mind when I put paint to paper so jumping ahead without thinking won’t work for me. A plein aire outing is successful when I have seen nature unfolding before me.
Remember the Thumbnail Sketch
The best way to save time is to make time for your thumbnails. They are your blueprints for success. The more you do them, the easier they become. They are where you decide composition, intent, and approach. The worst thing you can do is to paint like a camera. You are not a camera; there is a reason why you chose the scene in front of you.
Find a Composition
Part of the enjoyment of painting en plein aire is exploring the area for things that interest you. It can be a small detail of a landscape or something that takes in more of the surrounding environment. After a while you get a feeling for what you enjoy looking at. Once you’ve settled on something, use your viewfinder or your camera and consider your possibilities. Translate these, using simplified large forms to your thumbnails. As in any good painting, balance your work.
Decide on the Intent
Within your composition identify the center of interest. The center of interest does not have to be an object although it can; it can be the way the light falls or reflects or the way two things interact; or the contrast between two forms—but it needs to be defined. The center of interest does not have to be in the center of the page. The center of interest is what you, as an artist want to talk about.
Generally speaking, oil works from back to front, dark to light and the general to the specific; watercolor from front to back; light to dark and general to the specific but you also want to think about how you are going to tackle each area and what kind of paint application will best support your intent—which will trump the back to front, front to back approach. For example, you may decide that a wet-in-wet approach is best for the background but you want to use drybrush or line work for the foreground. You may decide with oil, that broken color might work best for the distant mountains but a tighter more detailed application is needed for the center of interest. What ever your direction, the thumbnail is the time to think about these things, not after you’ve already put paint on the canvas or paper.
Give Yourself Direction
Once you have thought through your thumbnail sketch, mark off the center and transfer the composition to your support. If you are using oil, use ultramarine; if you are using watercolor, an HB pencil will do. Limit yourself to fifteen minutes and spend the most time on your center of interest. Keep it simple, but give yourself a framework to work in.
Mix It Up
Always mix up more color than you think you will need. And always mix up at least five to six values. On the green side, mix yellow, blue and gray greens to cover the wide color range of green in the summer. Mix your “black” not from the tube but from a cool and warm color so that you can adjust the temperature to the shadow color.
Now let the scene in front of you unfold. By concentrating on your intent, on what you find worthy to paint, you will not be overwhelmed by what you see. Let things become clearer, let the light change and enjoy.