With today’s technology, we are taking photos every day, and some of them are really good. But why isn’t that enough for the plein air painter? Why not just paint from the photograph? I’ll try to answer that.
First of all, even the best cameras don’t pick up the values and colors exactly right. That’s why every good photographer is an artist, both with their composition of the scene and with their use of photo-editing software afterwards. But certainly we can do many of the things in the studio that we do en plein air, can’t we? Like re-composing, and leaving certain things out, or moving a tree a smidge to the left in order to provide contrast behind the focal area? Well yes, except that we are working with changing light, so we also have to make a lot of decisions on the spot, and try to mix colors right the first time.
But here’s a big difference. Imagine yourself driving down the highway, seeing some pretty scenery, and stopping to take a picture. Years later, or even days later, maybe even hours later, you are looking back at your photos, and you wonder what it was that made you snap that photo, what it was that caught your eye, why it was significant, why it impressed you enough to stop the car.
Last week I completed a painting of the early morning light on part of the hogback [rock formation running along the front range of the Colorado Rockies] at Devil’s Backbone Open Space at Loveland, Colorado, a Larimer County Natural Resources Park. I blogged about painting en plein air there 6 weeks ago, “A Quick Trip to Colorado, Paints in Hand“.
I am a believer in painting only what you experience. There is the occasional commissioned painting of someone’s scene from their own photo, or their dog or child, but I feel more strongly about the scene if I actually was there and I think that I make a better painting when I have a memory or feelings about the scene.
This certainly was true with Devil’s Backbone First Light. I blogged about looking one whole morning for the part of the hogback formation that I had remembered from my childhood, and about going the next day to Loveland to another part of the hogback with my sister and brother-in-law to hike, and then hiking it myself with my paints the following day while the sun was coming up, painting all morning, and hiking the trails again that afternoon with both sisters and their husbands and a couple of the grandkids. I was filled with powerful memories of the scene, made more significant by spending time with family there, and I had my 3 plein air studies, and my iPhotos. Only my memory held the actual lighting I wanted to portray — the photos were much less colorful than I remembered or than my plein air paintings indicated, but they provided better value comparisons and better perspective. My plein air works provided truer color, and the time spent painting en plein air imprinted certain details on my memory. If I had merely photographed the rocks, and not painted en plein air, I would not have remembered the yellow-green of the lichen and the pinks and lavenders of the sagebrush, and the tufts of grass growing between the rocks on top of the hogback.
I was thrilled to realize just how much the process had helped to make the painting. Below is Devil’s Backbone First Light, followed by the three studies I painted en plein air.
I am participating in Mary Gilkerson’s Art+Work+Living Five-Day Challenge, which is to paint a painting in 20-30 minutes every day for five days. The purpose is to develop a daily painting practice, using a knife or #6 brush or larger. I plan to add an to add a painting to this blog every day for 5 days.
And Day 5, January 22, 2018: Apple, 6×6 oils on hardboard. I painted this while looking at the Apple. This concludes the Five-Day Challenge, so now the question is, will I continue this daily painting practice? I intend to, at least puttering in the studio whether not I produce anything worth looking at. In the process of doing this, I also have straightened out a glitch in my Instagram account so that now it will post both to Instagram and to Facebook at the same time. It was something about how I had created the account, that it just would not post no matter how hard I tried. I ended up having to dissociate the accounts, delete them from my phone, and re-upload them, and then change the IG account to a business account, and then re-associate the accounts. Now I am learning all about hashtags.
I grow faster as an artist if I occasionally try something new, with a technique, a medium, or a subject I don’t normally use. Last week I posted a work in soft pastels. I’ve painted a couple more since then, for more exposure to the medium. Pastels are an excitingly different medium than the oil paints I normally use.
A month ago, I enjoyed oil painting using only black, white, and gray, to meet the requirements of a call for art by my local arts alliance. I painted en plein air, on a 12″ x 36″ stretched canvas, at Salinas Park near Port St. Joe, Florida, on the road to Cape San Blas. The marsh there is one of my favorite scenes. When I was a mentor for the Forgotten Coast en Plein Air in 2016, as a Florida’s Finest Ambassador, I taught 3 sessions at Salinas Park, but there is a difference between painting as a demonstration, and painting for the sheer pleasure of it. I loved doing this painting using only black, white, and gray. The only times I have painted with this palette of neutrals is in classes, either as a teacher or as a student. I really ought to do it more often, making a completed painting out of a value study, such a beneficial exercise! Unfortunately, the painting was not accepted into my local arts alliance’s exhibit — so I can’t wait to see the art that was accepted! To see a larger view of this painting, CLICK HERE.
The pastel works I completed last week are below. I specifically worked on creating the illusion of distance in all of these paintings, by softening distant edges, reducing detail,and reducing distant intensity and heightening the values. Pastels are pure pigment, and it is a challenge to reduce the intensity when you only have a couple hundred colors. Painters who work regularly in pastels have probably a hundred shades and tints of each color, perhaps a thousand colors in their box. As an oil painter, I am accustomed to mixing my colors. So it was a lot of fun allowing the brilliance of the pure pigment to show.
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I have been in Apalachicola, Florida, for two weeks, immersed in plein air painting.The first 10 days were the Forgotten Coast en Plein Air, where some 25+ artists are invited to paint, demonstrate, and share their talents and stories, with hopes of generating sales of works produced throughout the event. The second 4 days were a convention of sorts called Plein Air South, with demo’s by multiple artists painting in the same general location at the same time, panel discussions, lunch-and-learn sessions, lectures, and paint-along sessions, from early morning to late evening, a marathon of learning, painting, and networking, generally refilling the well, creatively-speaking. One of the demonstrations I attended was given by Marsha Savage, who painted with soft pastels en plein air. Oil paint is my usual medium, but I like to explore other media for a change of pace. A month prior I had signed up for a local plein air pastels workshop which was scheduled two days after my return from Plein Air South, and although I was exhausted, I happily attended, freshly inspired in particular by the freshness of Marsha Savage’s pastel painting. The instructor of the local workshop was Fred Myers, who used to teach art at the University of Northern Colorado, where I received my art degree in the late 70’s. Fred was my favorite art professor, teaching figure drawing and painting. After his demonstration at this workshop, I made several thumbnail sketches of scenes, to study and figure out the darks and the lights, and I found my mind also wandering back to Marsha’s demo as I sketched. Then I tackled my subject, a gnarly, aged magnolia tree, covered with the buds of the blossoms that would surely be decorating it in the coming weeks. While the painting I produced is probably typical of the paintings I do, no doubt my work was influenced by having watched both Fred and Marsha work.
I think that every exposure to plein air painters and plein air painting brings me closer to the level of awareness that I strive for personally and in my paintings, which in this case was the mood of the tree scene. I had the overwhelming feeling that it was a good tree to sit underneath to think, perhaps even sharing its wisdom as well as its shade. It satisfied my compulsion, my need to paint, at least for that day.
When I take an art workshop, it provides a wonderful break from the full-time management of my pool service business and an opportunity to fully immerse myself in my art. I counted this week as a 6-day vacation, first participating in the two-day Destin Festival of the Arts (Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation) on Saturday and Sunday, then attending a Bill Farnsworth workshop through the Apalachicola School of Art Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, and finally, painting with Mary Erickson on Thursday.
The Emerald Coast Plein Air Painters had a booth in the Destin Festival of the Arts, with 6 painters representing the group. I enjoyed interacting with the festival-goers, talking to the other artists in our booth, and plein air painting one morning. A lot of work goes into a festival booth. Marian Pacsuta and her husband erected the tent, so it was fully assembled with ProPanels and wind-weights already in place by the time the rest of us arrived to hang our art on the curtain hooks Marian provided. She had a small table set up, covered to the ground with black spandex cloth. I had made some flyers explaining our group, and some group business cards the day before, so those were on the table along with artists’ business cards and a clipboard for folks to sign who wanted to receive the weekly notifications of our painting locations. To make sure the booth was manned at all times, I had scheduled the 6 participating artists and two additional artists helping, in two- and three-person shifts throughout the festival. At the end of the second day, we all converged to pick up our art and take down the tent, a feat accomplished in a mere 20 minutes. Many of us painted en plein air during the festival. I arrived early on the second day and had an uninterrupted block of time to paint my scene en plein air before festival goers came, and then I was able to add in a few people.
At 5:00 the next morning I jumped in the car to drive the two-hour trip to Apalachicola for the Bill Farnsworth workshop. Bill is one of the featured “plein air ambassadors” of the Forgotten Coast En Plein Air event in Apalachicola. I had seen and admired his work, so when the Apalachicola School of Art advertised his workshop, it was an easy decision to sign up. The workshop was billed as Field to Studio, but the 20 mph winds and rains of the remnants of Mexico’s Hurricane Patricia were emptying out on the Gulf Coast, so we just painted in the studio using photo references that Bill had brought. His demos seemed to build from silhouetted shapes to high contrast to color, first completing much of the detail of his focal area before progressing to the less emphasized parts of the composition. The first day I painted the trailered oyster boat on the left, from a photo that Bill brought, and the second day I painted his photo of a blue truck at a seafood business.
At the risk of losing my momentum here, a little rant about artistic ethics: It’s not right to pass off a painting of someone else’s image as your own. Photography is an art in itself. If someone else shot the photo, they made the compositional decisions, and probably did some post-processing. I encourage everyone to always make sure you disclose that you used someone else’s photo reference, and give him or her credit. I know there are an abundance of images available on the internet, and some artists, even recognized artists and instructors, merely download an image from the internet and then paint it. Some artists even copy other artist’s paintings, and call them their own! I’ve coordinated exhibits where artists signed a statement of ownership when their work is clearly a copy of someone else’s work! Explaining rejections of art due to ethics is difficult when people do not have the same values. Don’t get me wrong, there is a world of benefit in copying someone’s painting, especially a Master. I never learned so much as in one semester in college when I made it my assignment to copy drawings by recognized Masters, from daVinci and Michelangelo to Degas. But it’s wrong to call it your own art, without crediting the artist or photographer. I’ve even had friends download my photos from Facebook and then re-upload them without giving me credit, instead of using the convenient “share” button that Facebook provides. OK, enough about that. So I do sell my workshop paintings that used someone else’s photo, to recover the cost of the workshop, but I always disclose it and would not enter them in an exhibit or competition.
Finally, on the last day of Bill’s workshop, the sun came out and the winds died down and the birds sang! We had opportunity to paint en plein air in the morning and again in the afternoon after Bill’s demo. I tried hard to remember Bill’s focus on relative temperatures of color, as well as relative values. I painted an old but still living tree, and I painted the St. George Island lighthouse and museum.
The day after Bill’s workshop, I took a bonus day away from work, since my staff had handled everything well in my absence, my only concern being when my office manager used the words “creative accounting” to explain how she resolved a cash-flow situation, oh dear.
We found Mary at sunrise Thursday morning, and watched her deftly capture the pink and orange light on the clouds and the dunes. I decided to paint on some 4×6 miniature linen panels that I had bought by mistake, intending to buy a different size, and only 5, not 50! I painted 3 studies of the wildflowers in the changing light over the course of the day.
After noticing my tendency to dull my colors when painting in the bright light outside, I decided to paint with brighter colors, sometimes straight out of the tube. The duller colors were exact when I was outdoors, but indoor lighting is never as bright as the sunlight, so I found my paintings looked dull when I brought them indoors. This effort to paint my paintings so that the colors look realistic when indoors, challenges me, because the more intense color seems a little garish while I am painting. I have to battle my instinct to tone it down.
Painting the potted plants in the pavilion at the head of the Turkey Creek boardwalk in Niceville, FL, last week, I was thrilled to find my subject half in the sun and half in the shade. Colors change radically when the sunlight hits them, being more true to what we think of as local color, in the shade. And the reds! Seldom do I get to use strong red! What fun!
This week Wednesday was overcast. The light was strong, but the colors were muted. The Emerald Coast Plein Air Painters were painting at Nick’s Seafood Restaurant in Basin Bayou, west of Freeport, FL. I remembered all the fancy little chickens running around in Trey’s yard next door, and I hoped to paint them. Alas, they were gone, and the only critters to show up were three scrawny young turkeys, two white and one brown. So I decided to paint the play of light around the boats, and the geometry of the chicken coop. Halfway into the painting, Trey came out and I asked him about the chickens, and he said there were about a hundred in the coop. I heard them start cheeping, as a little boy spread food for them. Trey threw some corn between me and the coop and a few adult chickens came out to eat. So I got to paint chickens after all!
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Last year I took my first workshop in plein air painting. I had been painting weekly with the local plein air group for about 14 months when I took that first workshop with Morgan Samuel Price. But I found each day of this year’s workshop even more challenging than last year. According to Morgan, that is the painter’s life. She says that a plein air painter just keeps finding more and more challenges. The more experienced they get, the harder the challenges they find for themselves. Sigh, I thought this was supposed to get easier!
What an amazing group of artists in this year’s workshop! Lynn Wilson, Carol Drost Lopez, Becky Anderson, Charlotte Hope, Nancy Smith Crombie, Patricia Irish Richter, Brenda Anderson, Sherry WetheringtonA, Mary Wain-Ellison, Glenda Coleman, Karen Snider, David M. Jones, and I: thirteen of us. One of the best parts about the workshop was the critique session held each day at the end of the day. We would line up our efforts, even if it was just a few brushstrokes, and Morgan would discuss each and every painting, directing her comments to that artist but for the benefit of us all. This was addition to her amazing morning teaching and demo sessions, and our afternoon practicing painting en plein air, all making for a superb workshop for beginner and advanced painter alike. Blessed with infinite patience and superb focus, Morgan is able to work despite the constant distractions of the excited artists milling and buzzing around her, cameras clicking next to her ear. Below are a few shots of her working. You can click on any of the images to see a larger view.
I had confidence to be away from my pool service business. I had worked long hours the weekend before the workshop, to clear my desk, plus I have a fantastic crew in the field and a wonderful office staff. On Wednesday my staff decided to show me what was happening there in the office, with a series of photos that even Tamra’s store helpers (her two dogs) had a part in. Here’s the worst one, Tamra Thomas, Margaret Bush, and Brenda Osborne. Clearly they do not have enough work to do.
The city and area around Apalachicola is such a scenic place, with the historic buildings, working waterfront with shrimp boats galore, oystermen, grottos and lagoons — it is heaven for painters. The home of Forgotten Coast en Plein Air, you often can find an artist or photographer at work.
Below are some of my works from the workshop with Morgan Samuel Price. Daily critiques were at a set time. Work had to be halted then if we wanted to hear what Morgan had to say about our progress. Click the photo for a larger image.
On the last day I was captivated by a thistle in bloom, so after I finished my landscape, I captured the pink of the flower by using a tint of color I had not ever used before, quinacridone magenta, which turned out to be perfect for painting thistles and I believe also should make painting azaleas easy. I am finding I generally prefer to mix my colors instead of using specialty pre-mixed tubes, but in this case I was very pleased with the chroma.
I shot the photo below using my iPhone.
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See the next post for the weekly paintings done just before and after this workshop.
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.
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.