Taking the “en plein air” plunge

I’ve done it. I’ve taken to painting outdoors, with all its pitfalls and rewards. So I thought I’d share my experience as it evolves.

Painting “en plien air” (or “in the open air”) has a long history, most notably being the method preferred by the impressionists. It has its challenges and its rewards. This summer I have taken the “plien air” plunge and decided to give this method of painting a run. Early results are not so good, but I’m determined to stick with it and see where it takes me.

A little history. Prior to the mid-19th century it was difficult to paint out of doors with all the equipment necessary, but the introduction of paint in tubes and the box easel (portable) made it much easier to carry paint and equipment with you outside to paint on-site. This dovetailed nicely with the rise of impressionists like Monet, Pissaro and Renoir who believed in capturing real-life and “painting the light” outdoors. I won’t bore you with more history other than to say painting “en pleinĀ air” became very important to impressionist painting and changed how the world looked at art.

For me, the attraction of painting outdoors is that you truly can not capture a scene with a camera or memory, or the light and the colors, as well as when you are standing there at your easel looking at your subject. Being outdoors by itself is great, most of the time. And there is something romantic about painting a picture all in one session right there on the spot. Its not necessary to complete a painting in one session, Monet famously would take several canvases with him and paint on each for only a few minutes at the same time of day, returning each day so as to capture that exact light and time of day. But it is common practice for many to paint in a single session. And there are plenty of very accomplished and successful artists who will only paint this way, outdoors, rain, shine, summer or winter.

So I have painted this way now a total of 5 times. The results of which are 5 paintings that are not worth displaying. But I’ll share this last effort and what I have been learning for a couple of reasons. One, its worth showing and talking about the challenges as a learning tool. Two, it will be good to gauge my progress as I paint outdoors more and more. And three, since I will be participating in two “plein air” festivals in the coming weeks, and taking a weekend workshop in August which will be mostly outdoor painting, its good to think about the experience so far and plan for what I need to improve on.

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The Lion and the Lioness

My most recent painting is a complete departure from my usual landscapes. Titled “The Lion and the Lioness” it is a portrait, well two portraits really, of my step-daughter Liza who is returning today from a 5 week trip to Namibia Africa (and her lion friend). Four of those weeks she spent working at an amazing animal rescue and rehabilitation center, where she fed and cared for lions, cheetahs, merkats, baboons, monkeys, warthogs, and a very long list of other animals big and small.

I wanted to give this amazing person something to always have of this amazing experience she had (not that she could ever forget.) So I thought why not pair these two magnificent beasts, the king of the jungle and queen of the mall :-), and do a portrait of the two of them, their beautiful manes mingling and representing the joining of two cultures, two creatures, two souls. Africa stole her heart but we are glad to have her home.


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The Value of Workshops

Last Saturday I attended a 4 hour workshop by artistĀ Aline Ordman a really wonderful landscape painter (website here) and we were instructed to bring something to paint (photos mostly, since we were confined indoors due to weather). So I took my most recent painting, Waitsfield Farm, because I was not fully satisfied with how it turned out. My hope was to re-paint the same landscape with what I hoped to learn and see if it came out better/

Aline gave a 1-hour demo in which she painted a quick landscape and provided commentary on what she was doing and why. Here is the painting she completed (in oils) in just 1 hour

Painting Demo by Aline Ordman
Painting Demo by Aline Ordman

Here is what I learned from her, before I get to my own efforts:

Follow the 4 “S”s. Squint, Simplify, Stand Back, Stop.

  • Squint to see your value shapes and big color areas.
  • Simplify your subject to only what is necessary.
  • Stand back, often. Keep stepping back to look at your work in progress. You need that moment to see it in new light and take a breather.
  • Stop. Know when you are done! Don’t keep tinkering. (I wrote a blog post about this some time ago).

Her approach to putting paint on the canvas is: 1-stroke, reload. 1-stroke, reload. Repeat. This way she keeps her colors clean, wiping her brush not necessarily after every stroke but very often.

Use a BIG brush and put down BIG swaths of color. She teaches that if you want to loosen up and get more freedom in your brush strokes, you need to use your biggest brushes. Start with big swaths of color, no need for a lot of color variation as you start, that can be added later, but get that canvas covered using a big brush so you can’t be tempted to get picky with detail. Continue reading “The Value of Workshops”

What I’ve Been Painting (an update)

I haven’t posted in a little while and thought I would update on what I’ve been painting. I have been trying to paint every day now even if for just a little while. I know I need to paint a lot to get better. So I’ve been painting small while in the past I often paint large. And, I have some new painting friends that like to paint en plien air so I did my first outdoor paintings last week. I hope to do much more now that the weather is warmer.

So here are a couple of paintings, the ones I am more pleased with, done recently. There is an opportunity to hang some smaller paintings in a library next month so I am hoping to get one or two in there. Do you have an opinion on which of these is best?

Mills River Barn

This is a barn at the entrance to the Mills River Park in Jericho Vermont. I took photos of it last year, and finally got around to giving it a go. I like the shape and color vibrancy of the red barn and green foliage.

Clump of Birch Trees

Most of you know I like birch trees. This time I wanted to paint a clump of birches, in spring, with a bright spring green backdrop. The daffodils in the foreground around the trees is inspired by my back garden which has these daffodils in front of a couple of beautiful birches. Continue reading “What I’ve Been Painting (an update)”

“Sap Run” Painting Now on YouTube

My most recent painting is now on youtube in a time-lapse video, with commentary, so you can see the process of how I painted it. Click to go to youtube video.

It includes my commentary on decisions I made along the way. So check it out along with some other painting videos I have on my youtube channel.

Video taping and then editing that video is a time-consuming process, and I need to work on better camera placement and lighting. Hopefully I will get better as I go, but if you like the video hit the like button on youtube, and subscribe to my channel and that will encourage me to do more!