Painting en plein air
There is a preconceived notion that painting en plein air is all about creating a finished painting on location in about an hour. In a perfect world, yes. However all the factors of light that are constantly changing, your set-up and its distractions, people who come by to talk, the wind, and many other issues all work together to determine, or at least influence, much of your plein air experience. So I'm offering approaches to all of this with the purpose in mind of getting the maximum resources at hand at the moment so that you can focus on what is most important --usually color that a camera cannot see. In other words, the plein air experience is more like collecting the puzzle pieces on location to create the puzzle, whether done there or in the studio. That takes a load of anxiety off, makes the experience more enjoyable, and reminds the artist that there is no set way of doing it, and frees the artist to create more freely.
The following notes are from my own personal experience plein air experience and from my own teaching of the process.
I list the following as legitimate activities associated with the plein air experience:
1. Just looking at the world in front of you, and noticing as much as you can.
2. Making thumbnail and small drawings and/or written notes about what you see.
3. Making drawings specifically reducing what you see to about four values in specific shapes.
4. Taking photos of your subject at specific times of the day, recording the photo number and the time of day.
5. Comparing your drawings/paintings with photos taken during the same time period.
6. Making a sketch or an underpainting from a photo taken at a particular time of day at which you plan to return another day at the same time to paint. I have found this quite rewarding. The photos are important to record details and specific shapes found in the subject. To use these for an underpainting, or just a detailed value study, over which the finished painting is to be done is an extraordinary step in the process of painting what you see. Yes, it may be done over a period even of several plein air sessions.
7. Making a color study on site only with the intention of getting the colors right, regardless of the drawing, its proportions, edges, etc.
8. Making a painting on site, from start to finish in one session.
9. Painting a subject on site throughout an entire day, changing it as the lighting changes.
10. Drawing or painting from memory of a plein air experience
Any combination of the above constitutes, in my mind, the plein air experience.
More on Drawing
An endless mantra on the subject of painting applies just as endlessly in regard to plein air: You cannot paint well without also drawing. In painting the drawing accompanies the thinking and planning process, essentially recording your thoughts and approaches.
Another important reason for drawing is to set the composition early. What I’m finding is that a good composition often has little to do with the subject matter, but is rather simply a good arrangement of light and dark shapes within the space of the page or canvas. One simple tool to have is a cardboard frame with a hole in the middle about 1.5 x 2”. With this frame you can quickly outline about 6 or 8 rectangles on a drawing page to draw what are called thumbnail sketches. More on this later. As a technique, I have found that a cell phone camera works very well as a tool for practicing the seeing of good composition; it effectively squints for you, although not as much as actually squinting at your subject with your eyes.
Now you turn on your cell phone camera, and pan around you, looking for interesting shapes of light and dark, regardless of the objects or things that make those shapes. I encourage folks to squint their eyes when they look about; it removes the details, and you see better what I'm trying to help you to see to record on the thumbnail sketches. I'm actually astonished at how little this technique is employed!
One of the main ideas in this drawing exercise is to learn how to "see" what makes a pleasing composition--that arrangement of lights and darks. Squinting at what's in front of you helps to establish composition. The other main point is to see and practice drawing shapes in relation to the frame of your image. That is, to use the frame as a guide for the placement of light and dark shapes.
The next step is to use either the frame card or your cell phone to capture images with this idea of composition consciously in mind. [A side note: Notice that when you look through your gallery of images on your cell phone, the ones with the best composition stand out from the rest, because the details are absent, and you are seeing those shapes of light and dark.] Now upon finding interesting compositions, snap a photo of it, and then sketch the photo paying most attention to seeing and drawing the main lights and darks. When drawing the thumbnail, I recommend using a soft lead so that the black and white shapes can be put in quickly and boldly. The thumbnail sketch at this size ought to take only about a minute to draw--just largest shapes, no detail. I have seen some folks draw it up in 3 tones--white, medium gray, and black--which is fine, but be wary of drawing detail. Squint.
Simplifying shapes and focal points
As you draw or paint, look for intriguing shapes. Especially in landscapes, you may often find that you can simplify tree masses, hills and mountains into one or two shapes. When you squint, you will see how much the details disappear, and this will help to determine whether to add any detail or not to a shape.
There ought to be one main focal point, where the light does “something magical”, and what the whole painting is about. There may often seem to be many of these, creating a pattern or movement. Still try to find one, and at this one focal point you will have the most contrast, either from values, colors or edges.
A few words on color and value
It cannot be overemphasized the importance and value of value and gray scale. Color in Nature is generally subtle, and thinking in terms of gray is extremely helpful when mixing color in the field. The color of trees, their bark, the ground, their reflections in water, and especially objects in the distance, are of lower chroma than one often imagines, hence the value, pardon the pun, can be seen in mixing a black (and grays from it) early on, if not the first thing. One could say that the greens and yellows and reds of nature are typically somewhere on the gray side of their respective hues. This is why preliminary sketching or underpainting is often best in gray scale, to establish the relative values first, until the subtle colors are seen and mixed.
Sometimes "timing is everything"; but it doesn't have to be.
Here is a 1-hour color study of a waterfall I came across in Winthrop, WA one morning. It was about 8 am, and the sun was to my right, just making its way up on a clear morning, and not quite past the trees. So this waterfall was completely in shadow; that is, no direct sunlight was anywhere near this view yet. Too, I knew that the camera would not be able to capture the colors I saw here, as subtle and subdued as they were, so this exercise was strictly in order to see and capture the correct colors. Furthermore, with limited time, my edges were not of concern, nor were the strong light-to-shadow transitions that really bring a painting to life. Toward the end of this painting, the sun was just rising above the trees, and I was starting to see what areas would first be lit by the sun (which, in my mind, would have made a better painting). The area of water at the lower left and the bush just above the large rock were to be the first, but I could not stay. I took a photo of the falls just before I left the scene, possibly for another painting with better light in the composition.
The challenges of plein air painting can bring one to a level of frustration at which too much confusion is felt as to what is the next thing to do. The best thing I can suggest at this point is to take in a deep breath and relax, as though it's really not a big deal if the world does not see another painting; now gaze at the subject in front of you, feel as much as you can of the unknown source of your next breath, and from that place trust that what comes to you is the appropriate next thing to do (even if it's done poorly).