With the cold and the crazy weather that could blow a storm in any minute, I knew there wasn’t time to finish a gallery-worthy painting. So, why did I pull out my easel and paints?
Let’s talk about that for a moment.
Why we Paint Outdoors
With the dizzying speed of change and technology today we may feel we need to apply that same accelerator to our painting methods.
That’s not a good idea – at least not usually!
Some plein air paintings can be finished on location – taking only a matter of hours, while others require us to return to the same spot for several days. Finishing, however, is not a requirement or necessarily the best practice for outdoor painting.
Most professional artists don’t even sell their plein air work. We go out solely to observe the nuances of nature and learn how to ‘see’ accurately. We understand the particular weaknesses of photography for sharing the drama and feeling of being outdoors. So, we use our studies to inform our studio work.
Yes, I have sold paintings that were completed in one session on location – but that was never the goal.
Luke Frazier (a phenomenal wildlife artist) and I painted together out in Logan Canyon when we were both in the BFA program at Utah State in the late 80’s. We traveled up the canyon and painted beside an inviting mountain river because it was fun!
It just happened that my painting came together for me that day, and with a couple minor tweaks in my studio a collector snatched it up. (The painting was also done on a 20×24 inch canvas which gave the dramatic colors more room to show off).
Impressionism is “characterized by a concern with depicting the visual impression of the moment, especially in terms of the shifting effect of light and color.” (1) Well, the light that day was definitely shifting, and quickly!
When we keep our focus on recording our impressions and the thrill of our experience, as well as documenting the essentials like the harmony of colors and value relationships, we will generally not have time to record every detail and texture and nuance that we might want in a studio piece. That’s okay – we just need the essentials.
We can use our memory, digital images, and our imagination for everything else.
Putting that Idea into Practice – 5 Steps to Blue Ridge Mountain Study
Now it’s time to share the 5 steps in my process that helped me come home with a 9×12 study that I completed in less than 2 hours. Every time I look at it I feel the cold and the wind and the thrill of looking out at that amazingly beautiful scene.
With the limited time, the first thing I wanted to do was get my values working correctly right from the start. So, I focused on squinting and judging one value relative to another.
This was important because values are one of the major weak points in photography compared to our eyes and brains. In photography, we might get the sky value close or the value of the deep shadows, but not usually both unless we are skilled with bracketing or HDR processing. Even then, the camera doesn’t capture the feeling we had standing there with all the sounds, smells and sensations that influence our paintings.
This study was all about establishing correct values, colors and color temperature relationships, and my ‘impression’ at that moment. Everything I would need for a larger studio painting.
I also wanted to capture the essence of the rolling hills and tapestry of beautiful textures within an engaging composition.
The shapes and sizes of the clouds were mesmerizing – and the wind was moving them swiftly through the sky. Since they were changing so quickly I decided to add them early on. They were also the brightest shapes and helped me gauge the relative value of the mountains.
The quickly dry-brushed lavender strokes in the lower half of the painting were designed to capture the feeling of movement in the banks of trees that separated the fields and farms.
Notice the bluish lavenders in the distant mountains. The light changed shortly after establishing my initial values. In the video you will hear me debate with myself whether to stick with what I saw at first or change things up.
I decided I liked the blue-tinged atmosphere that settled over the mountains. With a Rosemary Masters Long Flat brush size 8 I mixed up a large pile of lavender paint. The strokes were gently laid over the top of the darker colors with the brush parallel to the painting. That allowed me to take advantage of the full length of the bristles and leave behind both opaque and broken textured color.
I knew those lighter lavender hues would look fantastic once they were placed on top of the darker values. Had I put those in before the darker shapes were painted they would not have had such a subtle and powerful impact.
Greens can be tough – if we think of them as simply green. Fortunately, there are millions of different greens. Warm orange tinted greens, cooler blue-greens in a crop of newly rising corn leaves – they cover the spectrum. I concentrated on the color temperature of each green field to ensure that my painting captured the inspiring variety nature had provided.
Against all those dark hills and trees, the fields can also look brighter at first glance then they actually are. That’s where squinting is essential to get the relative value, rather than the perceived value.
For the closer dark hill, I added some Cad Red, Alizarin Crimson, a touch of Quinacridone Red and Transparent Oxide Red, and Ultramarine Blue to my lighter lavender paint.
The darker hill was also right underneath the more distant mountain I placed near the center of my painting. As artists we can compose our paintings any way we want. So, I moved the lower hill over a bit for a better composition.
Remember, we aren’t there to document every hill and detail in exact proportion and position. We can pick and choose elements – grabbing things that are representative of others like them. Then when we compose a larger studio painting we can add as many of those pieces as our painting will hold if we so desire.
A Rosemary Egbert held lightly between a couple fingers works wonderfully for the smaller finishing details using the thin front edge of the bristles, as well as for larger shapes with a quick turn of the brush.
I like to drag my brush sideways while holding it vertically to break up the stroke and pull some of the surrounding colors along with it. That helps me avoid too-carefully-rendered details that would stiffen up the painterly brushwork and energy in the painting.
Adding a few refining details brings clarity to some of my shapes and helps jog my memory later in the studio about the fun way individual trees contrasted with the brighter fields.
Some of the spots of red were there, and some were made up to add some zing to the greens. I had to be very careful to make them feel like barns and buildings without getting carried away with ruler straight lines and details. It’s about the essence, not perfection.
The final touches were the shadows under the clouds that helped define the way they travelled back over the mountains.
Once my frozen fingers could barely hold a brush I decided to call it good.
This study, done in gusting winds and frigid temperatures, is one of my favorite paintings. Sometimes we need challenging circumstances to urge out the best in us.
It was two hours (after 3 days of searching) well spent!
If you missed part 1, you can read about my search for the perfect location in last week’s blog post here:
Tell us about your favorite plein air adventures in the comments below.