Growth Mindset in Plein Air Painting

October 27, 2014 in Landscape, Plein Air by joanvienot

Plein air oil painting of mist rising from Beaver Lake at Oak Mountain State ParkBecause there are so many variables in n plein air painting, each painting presents a unique set of challenges, even if I am painting the same place at the same time of day. Adding a complication, I myself am different, and I am part of the process. “Wherever you go, there you are.” So I make no attempt to repaint the same scene in exactly the same way.

I read a blog about a concept called “growth mindset”. Apparently “researchers have known for some time that the brain is like a muscle; that the more you use it, the more it grows. They’ve found that neural connections form and deepen most when we make mistakes doing difficult tasks rather than repeatedly having success with easy ones.” (Salman Khan)

The point was that we learn and grow during the struggles.  I certainly know this to be true within the patterns and rhythms of my life, and recently I have been coming to this conclusion about my approach to my art. Perhaps it is the stage of of growth as an artist, or perhaps it will always be this way, that I have to learn anew how to paint, during each painting.  Of course, I become better at my craft, but each painting presents new compositional challenges, new color challenges, and often, new lighting or atmospheric challenges, not to mention of course, new imagery in new scenery. Usually, I paint something I have never painted before.  During the process of the painting I must learn how to paint whatever it is that I am painting. I try to capture the light.

Last Saturday, my challenge was to paint the mist rising off the surface of a lake at sun-up. Many many years ago I remember creating a passable mist by scumbling white gauche on a watercolor painting, but I had no idea how to paint mist in oils. I ended up using a light gray mixture of paint where I wanted the mist, and feathering it as best as I could without mixing much into the colors above and below. This seems like a technique I should practice, since I probably will want to create this sort of atmosphere from time to time. Above right is my 5×7 plein air effort.

Below are paintings from the last two weeks — two from my best friend’s balcony looking out over Camp Creek Lake, and the other a painting of one of the gigantic live oaks at Eden Gardens State Park.

Oil painting of the marsh and trees of Camp Creek Lake, with short cypress turning orange in the fall Oil painting of the marsh and trees at the edge of Camp Creek Lake, with purple shadows Oil painting of large live oak and light/shadow patterns on the grass underneath, at Eden Gardens State Park

 

Commissions Under Pressure – Plein Air at Events

October 18, 2014 in Landscape, Plein Air by joanvienot

Oil Painting of Couple Dancing Outdoors by Bridge, Impressionist Style

May, 2014

Those who follow my blog know that I contract to paint plein air at wedding receptions at Grayt Grounds of Monet Monet where my plein air paintings are shown.  I blogged about it in May, “Commissioned Works en Plein Air.” So you might think it would become old hat, painting the same setting.  But the colors are different, the sounds change, the plants change, the people are different, and most of all, the light changes, so the challenges are always there, and I must always grow as a result. If the scene feels too familiar, all I need to do is move my easel a little, or turn my head, for a new point of view. I am not so fast as to actually paint the couple on site — instead I paint the surroundings in the hour before the event, and then I take photos and sketch a gesture of their entrance or first dance or whatever scene they choose, and then I may block in the general silhouette of the couple. I complete the painting in the studio. The biggest challenge, in commissioned work, of course is pleasing the client, and that includes working with color choices that compliment or repeat the design colors of the event, and sometimes it includes altering my painting style to lean towards a particular style the client likes.

Oil painting of the bridge and garden at Grayt Grounds of Monet Monet, plein air preparation for painting a wedding couple's first dance

Plan A, with afternoon light

My most recent contract was a month ago, in September.  I had gotten the time wrong, thinking the newly wedded couple would be making their entrance around 5:30 instead of 7:30, so I was painting the entire back scene with late afternoon light in preparation for adding the couple when they made their entrance. I had planned to catch the couple coming across the bridge over the coy pond, placing them slightly right of center, against the spray of the green bamboo like plant that grows behind the bridge.

When the couple made their entrance at 7:30, my entire painting was wrong — the garden was now illuminated by string lights instead of afternoon sunlight. Plan B:  Start a second painting!!!  I was only minimally prepared for a nocturne, but I needed to get my painter’s sense of the location, the sounds, the vibrancy of the lights, the energy of the party. By painter’s sense, I mean that visceral impression of myself being a participant in the scene and not just an observer. I needed to be able to recall all of it, not just relying on photo references, which convey only a small part of what I try to project. I set up my little lights, one on my palette and one on my painting, and knocked out a study of the light-wrapped trees and the dance patio to help me do the job right when I got back to the studio.

2014-0920 Grayt Grounds Nocturne Study

Plan B, nocturne study

The challenges of painting a nocturne successfully include first of all, believable colors. My palette from the afternoon painting was not the colors I would have chosen if I had planned a nocturne, but I was under the gun to capture the light-wrapped trees and the energy of the gardens so I used my afternoon palette.  I don’t judge the resulting study — it has so much background energy, it looks like the place is on fire — it was perfect for reminding me of some of the feeling I needed to capture, even though I needed to figure out how to paint the light-wrapped trees better.

A little about composition… When I teach, I suggest that my students stick to the safer “rule of thirds” for the focal point, which means putting the focus of the painting on one of the intersections of the horizontal and vertical tri-sections of the painting. By putting the couple smack in the middle of the painting, I was challenged to direct the viewer’s eye. I didn’t want the eye to go straight to the center and just stay there.  I wanted the eye to circle the painting, returning again and again to center, to help the viewer look at the painting for a longer period of time. That required more attention to the crowd than I was visualizing at the actual event, and especially more attention to the figures at the outside edges, who are intended to help the eye circle, and by their body position also help redirect the attention back to center. The scene is dramatized by the blue and red spotlights that were on the couple during their First Dance.

By writing this, I am reminded how many decisions go into making a painting. When painting plein air, those decisions are made on the fly; they are more considered in the studio. To arrange for me to paint plein air at your event, contact Cheri Peebles at Grayt Grounds: http://graytgrounds.com/contact/.

Oil painting of couple dancing outdoors at Grayt Grounds in wedding reception - final piece

 

Finding the Light in Plein Air Painting

October 1, 2014 in Landscape, Plein Air by joanvienot

Oil painting of th early fall colors reflected in Beaver Lake, Oak Mountain State Park, Alabama

When I go outside to paint, I am looking for the light and I am anticipating where it will be in 2 hours when I will be finishing the painting. I say I am looking for it, but truthfully, it catches my eye.  The more I paint, the more the light catches my eye.  The drive home from Birmingham, Alabama, yesterday was heaven, the light was so brilliant.  It was a crisp, clear fall day, with long shadows and the clarity of lower humidity. Autumn colors were just beginning to show. It’s interesting that the drive up to Birmingham was so much less remarkable, simply because it was a gray day, a 3 on my scale of days worth painting.  But yesterday was a 10!  Part of the visual ecstasy was due to having been painting in the morning.  Anytime I paint plein air, my awareness and my enjoyment of all things visual increases exponentially.

The morning broke gently in Oak Mountain State Park, slight pinks in the mist over the Beaver Lake, glowing through the filter of the screen roof of my tent. There had been almost no chance of rain, so I had slept there without a rainfly.  I left my cozy lightweight sleeping bag and walked down to the water’s edge, but my morning meditation was cut short by the realization that the trees were going to be sparkling bright in a few minutes, and the lake would provide glassy reflections. I went back to the campsite and set up to paint. My campmate, Leslie, took her oil pastels some 100 yards away to a picnic table, and I was left to watch the light evolve.

I had to resist the temptation to paint the myriad detail. My intention was to capture the color of the trees on the far side of the lake, and the reflections. I could not indulge in the amazing purples in the foreground tree leaves, or the oranges in the dewy grass — they had to remain muted in order to stay true to what had caught my eye in the beginning. That is the discipline required when plein air painting, because “eye-candy” is everywhere.

Oil pastel painting of early fall colors on the mountain behind Beaver lake at Oak Mountain State Park, by Leslie Kolovich

Leslie Kolovich, Beaver Lake, Study in Oil Pastels

I’ve been helping my friend Leslie Kolovich with technique and media exploration and lately she has been plein air painting.  I have been thrilled with her progress every step of the way.  I didn’t consider her piece finished finished yesterday — we needed to pack up and get back home for her family obligations, but I was very happy with where her piece was going.  We talked about her continuing to layer color and continuing developing the darks, and how to add reflection in the lake water.  I was blown away later last night when she texted me, declaring her painting “Horrible” and “Embarrassingly bad”. I think this is a perfect example of a point that many artists get to, at a certain stage of each work, when they wonder what on earth ever made them think they could be an artist.  At that point, you either quit the piece, or you continue trudging through the process. It’s not a happy time. I remember reading that it took Leonardo daVinci 4 years to paint the Mona Lisa.  The problem is that we are so impatient, we expect instant success.  And Leslie has had instant success on many of her works.  She has amazing talent. But there always is that period of time in creating art when the work looks completely wrong and unsalvageable. It’s the point when you have “Broken the egg in order to make the omelet”. I think that’s what Leslie was seeing last night. But at the same time, I am not a fan of working on a piece that is making me miserable.  So I told her she had a decision to make.  She could continue to work on it, she could scrub the board clean and re-use it, or she could set the painting aside and let it be for a while. I hope she doesn’t kill me for posting her work here.

Oil painting of the deer moss and lichen on a birdhouse in the treesA couple weeks ago I was late getting to my weekly plein air group outing, and nothing immediately appealed to me, knowing I would only have about an hour or so to paint before it would be time to meet and critique, so I went back home and wandered my yard for inspiration. I returned to a birdhouse that had caught my eye a few weeks before, the deer moss and lichen on the roof providing such a great contrast of texture to the aging wood. I am deciding whether I should add a bird back in the bushes, to give it more story.