The light changes so much over the short course of a painting that a plein air painter can easily “lose the light” unless he or she has made a preliminary value sketch or shot a reference photograph. That certainly was the case on Christmas Day as I was painting a small camellia tree at Eden Gardens State Park, a short distance from my home in Point Washington, FL. I had set up my easel thinking the sun was going to move differently than it did. About halfway into my painting, I realized I was losing my light, so much so that the tree was becoming completely shadowed by the massive live oak behind me. I was challenged in the same way last week, painting the shops on the lake at Baytowne in Sandestin, Florida. Angular shadows move rapidly on structures as the sun slides around to the other side. In both cases, I had failed to make a values sketch or take a photo, in favor of jumping right into the painting. When will I learn, that delaying the gratification of painting for just a few minutes, by making that preliminary values sketch, makes painting so much easier!! My paintings were successful, but I struggled more than I otherwise would have. Below are the two oil paintings.
Although I earned a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Fine Art with a certificate to teach, and did teach for 3 years, I actually produced art for only about 6 more years after moving to Florida and becoming consumed by owning and operating a pool service business. Thirty years have come and gone, and now I am reversing the process, practicing more art while allowing my business to run more and more on its own steam. I still depend on my business to pay the bills, while I continue to re-develop my skills as an artist. A few weeks ago I felt the energy shift, tipping the balance from entrepreneur to artist, and I found myself much more highly attuned to my art and my efforts to support the arts. It literally felt like a teeter-totter under my feet had begun to tip to the other side. The column of images to the right shows the number of sales this past week, which greatly reinforces my perception that things have changed.
I continue to paint plein air with the Emerald Coast Plein Air Painters, and also I am excited to be practicing figure drawing again (“life drawing”), thanks to the organization of the program by fellow local artist Melanie Cissone and the generosity of Allison Wickey who is letting us use the space at her A.Wickey Studio-Gallery for our twice-a-month drawing sessions. I’m a little rusty but find it just as exhilarating as ever — the pace is 100 mph, trying to capture the essence of the pose before the time is up! Below is my final effort in last week’s session.
It was bitter cold at our plein air session this week. We painted at Red Bay Grocery, in Red Bay, Florida. The grocery is a favorite for locals, stocked with the bare minimum plus local honey and such. A third of the space is the dining area, and another third is the kitchen, where home-cooked specials are served every day. I had toned my canvas a buff color, and when it was time for critique, I hadn’t painted the sky. The group almost convinced me to leave the sky the buff background color, but after i got back to my studio, it just wasn’t how I had pictured it, so I quickly dashed in the light blue sky, and heightened a few contrasts to help it “read”. I seldom do much of anything with my plein air paintings when I get back to the studio, firstly preferring the pure plein air experience, and secondly, never quite remembering exactly what it looked like that would be different from how I painted it. Below is my painting of the Red Bay Grocery, and beside it, my friend, fellow painter Ed Nickerson‘s painting of me in my baggy falling-down snow britches.
Our painters group has members from a wide geographic area. Last week I drove for an hour to meet up with the group. Sometimes I stay home and paint, but it’s good to get out and see things that are new, and it’s always good to meet up with the other painters. It feels like family. We painted at Lincoln Park, in Valparaiso, FL. The light and shadows were outstanding, everywhere you looked. But they changed rapidly through the course of the painting — you had to choose a light patterns nd just stick with it. That underscores the importance of making a value sketch first, to help me remind myself what attracted me to a scene in the first place. Below is my piece.
Reduced prices on select paintings, at least 50% less than listed price. Click on any of the images below to see a larger version. Message the artist for purchase information or for a studio visit. Most of these oil paintings are on 8 x 10 canvas panels. Colors of actual paintings may vary slightly. All are reduced to $125 or less. Many were painted “en plein air”, on site. Sale ends 12/31/14.
Looking back at some of my plein air sketches, I see how the outdoor light sometimes is so strong it completely washes away the color from a scene. This week I played with one of my studies from a plein air painting workshop taught by Laurel Daniel last April, adding more contrast to the values and more intensity to the colors. The result is a painting that I look at for longer, that entertains me, whereas the first study merely presented the basic idea, easily dismissed. Since my plein air painting is a thin slice of my life, I will be considering this. Experiences which may seem colorless, with very little impact at the time actually actually could be full of significance and ripe for interpretation. But maybe I think too much, ha!
Every painting begins, of course, with the proverbial blank canvas. The elements of composition present a new challenge, every time: line, shape, size, position, color, texture, density. Today I opted to paint at Deer Lake State Park, and my challenge was to capture the intense morning colors of autumn in the dunes fronting the Gulf of Mexico. My best friend and I walked over the long boardwalk to the beach where I left her to her writing. I return to a midpoint on the boardwalk and started setting up only to discover I had left my regular palette and paints in the studio! So back to the parking lot, to get my trusty back-up, my Guerrilla-box, a minimalist plein air kit that goes with me everywhere for that plein air painting that just can’t wait, which holds the 5 colors I consider the minimum – alizarin crimson, cadmium yellow pale, cadmium yellow deep, thalo blue, and ultramarine blue, and white of course. I’m counting the walks to the beach and back, and to the parking lot and back, as my exercise for the day! I’ve attached a few photographs to show what the dunes really look like, though the off-and-on cloudiness did not do it justice. The view that I chose was very busy, with goldenrod sprinkling bright yellows through the reds of the grasses. Below is my end result, and under that, a few photos of Deer Lake State Park, on Scenic 30A in Walton County, Florida.
Last weekend I went to Birmingham, Alabama, and tent-camped at Oak Mountain State Park, with two friends. Our intention was to enjoy a weekend of mindfulness and simplicity in preparation for seeing the Dalai Lama at two events on that Sunday. When camping, every task is a bit of a chore, and each chore is less than familiar, so mindfulness is a requirement. We packed our groceries, tents, and art supplies, and off we went. The first night was predicted to be only 45°, so I had packed my quilted overalls and was quite toasty, wool socks inside my trusty Crocs. One of my friends and I went to the lake for our meditation, and we watched the sun come up through the mist rising from the warm water into the chilly air. That’s when my friend Leslie Kolovich said, “Joan, go get your paints!” So I dashed off my impression of the mist before breakfast. I posted my 6 x 8 piece last week, and here it is again, below. I just wanted to share the photograph above, taken by fellow adventurer Pat Cummins, to show what it’s like, painting plein air in 45° weather. I am seated at a picnic table, using my Guerrilla box instead of an easel.
Because 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.
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.
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.
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/.
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.
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.
A 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.
15 mph winds brought in low humidity resulting in crystal clear views for the weekly Emerald Coast Plein Air Painters session yesterday. Wind and painting are an unpredictable combination. I’ve seen it happen, a painter’s masterpiece suddenly face down in the sand, a gust taking the easel right over. My painting companion, Leslie, set up on the lee side of sheltering informational sign. I was more concerned about the sun, looking for shade for my canvas and my palette. I found good shade, but it was in the open wind. I remembered what could happen when I saw the front leg of my easel start coming off the ground, but I couldn’t find anything to tie down my easel. I ended up using the long, wide strip of velcro that secures my palette box closed, fastening my easel onto the leg of the sign I was standing next to.
The colors were beautiful in the early fall sunlight, the grasses taking on pink and lavender hues. The Choctawhatchee Bay was a deep emerald with the incoming tide. The scene was largely light in value, the bay providing middle-value contrast, and punctuated by a few dark darks at the base of the foliage. The wind was perfect for the kite-sailors practicing their aerial magic over the bay.