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.