Do you rework or finish plein air paintings in your studio?
There are strong opinions among artists about plein air painting. Some believe paintings should be started and completed right on location and don’t think outdoor paintings should ever be touched up in the studio.
I’m not one of them.
Early Plein Air Painting
My first attempt at painting outdoors was in 1983 with watercolors in Alaska. Painting outdoors has been part of my process ever since.
The first few years of my professional career were almost entirely plein air or from memory. Not because I thought there was something sacrosanct about it. I simply loved painting outdoors. I still do. Painting plein air is both a challenge and a thrill.
In 1999 I was part of a plein air show in Tucson, Arizona. I completed four or five paintings. Each was done entirely on location and later sold without any studio modifications. (I’ve done very few shows during my career because most require Sunday attendance – and as you know I don’t work on Sunday. The Tucson show ended on a Saturday)
The Petticoat Palm Tree and lily pond painting above is the only painting I have a good photo of because I neglected to archive Most of my plein air work. I would let them dry and get ‘em to a gallery.
The photo you see above came because the owner passed away and the children who inherited it couldn’t find the signature. They called me last year. Once we figured out that I had forgotten to sign it, they shipped it to me to sign. That’s how I finally got a photo of it.
I completed it in 2-3 hours on location. While I was very happy with the painting, much of it had to be done from memory.
Why from memory if I painted it on the spot? Good question. Let me explain.
During those 3 hours, the sun shifted dramatically. That required me to capture the shadow and light pattern right away and not change it even though the shadows constantly changed around me.
To put the finishing touches of light and color into the painting meant I had to look at the light areas more than an hour after I started. By that time the sun had moved and so had the light and shadow pattern.
That meant that I had to ‘guess’ or remember what the exact shape and color might have been by comparing them with similar areas that were then in the light.
That’s not a terrible way to work. The problem comes when I want to see and paint the subtle shifts of value and color temperature.
If I wanted to capture the whole scene exactly as it was I would need to have a perfect memory or go back to that spot at the exact same time with the same weather conditions and paint for 10-15 minutes day after day until it was done. That’s rarely possible.
That’s why I began the shift to more and more studio painting – or at least fine-tuning in the studio.
Sergei Bongart, Russian Impressionism and Bravura Plein Air
I fell in love with and was trained in the Sergei Bongart bravura brushwork and color style. At the school where I studied art, they had a room with about 15-20 of his originals.
One of my regular routines was to sit in that room on the 1st floor and study – try to break down how he painted. Then I would run back up to the 3rd floor and practice brushstrokes and color to mimic his.
My painting professor Arlo Coles had been good friends and painting buddies with Sergei. He adopted much of Sergei’s methods.
I was always mesmerized watching Arlo’s demos. He made it look so easy. We became friends as well and would go out painting on location together.
That Sergei/Arlo duo influenced the way I painted for almost a decade. Many of my painting techniques and the way I approach the canvas are still influenced by them.
What I found though was that I eventually felt compelled to spend time in the studio pondering, analyzing and tweaking my work more and more.
Richard Schmid and Plein Air
In the late 80’s I saw Richard Schmid’s work for the first time. It was a painting of Nancy in a white dress holding flowers in her lap – the cover of one of the art magazines.
New ideas began to percolate in my mind. His subtle strokes of color and softened edges made the paintings sparkle and come alive.
I wasn’t aware at the time that he painted almost everything from life. I wish I had known – it might have kept me painting outdoors every day the rest of my career, instead of periodic trips.
Sunset Park was painted in the studio from memory. We were at the park playing frisbee golf when the sun started setting. We all stopped and watched quietly as it glowed through the fall leaves.
Shortly after that, I painted what I remembered of the colors and light filtering through the park. I pushed the contrast of color harmonies as well just for fun.
I’m not sure what my painting would have been like had I been painting on location. I do know I would have loved to have had a quick color study to guide my choices though.
My goal now is to get back to painting outside at least half the time.
Because when I started consciously trying to add subtle tonal and color shifts in my work my paintings went through a couple month period of feeling stiff and lifeless. I would get a hit here and there, but it felt like such a struggle.
I found myself taking lots of photos.
Then I would discover that the only thing useful in the photos was detail. So, I started adding more and more details. Then my paintings became trite and overworked.
When I painted outdoors I could finish a 30×40 in a day. When I shifted to the studio those 30×40 inch paintings were taking a week or longer. That got me in the trap of thinking I didn’t have time to travel and paint on location except for a few trips a year.
Here are two paintings done about the same time period. They are the same size and both painted on ½ inch Baltic birch plywood. One was entirely plein air and the other was from a photo in the studio. Just by looking at them I don’t think you’ll have too much trouble figuring out which is which.
The river painting took about an hour. The studio painting took several hours because I kept messing with it trying to get it to ‘feel’ right.
That’s what happens when we experiment and/or get derailed. Experimentation in art is fantastic – throwing the baby out with the bathwater is not. I became distracted by detail and lost my way for a time.
When I saw the realism in Richard’s work, I didn’t recognize that it was created with skillfully placed lost edges, impeccable values and sparks of pure color – the things he learned by painting from life.
His paintings looked so real I thought it must be the details. That’s also the trap of studying small images in magazines. The internet was in its infancy and my frequent study materials were art magazines – especially the ads.
Plein Air and Studio Painting Today
I saw the dahlias above on my way to church. I went back that same week and asked the owner if I could study them and get photos. I did not paint them from life though. I wish I had.
What I did do was paint them mostly from memory, using photos only to inform me about the way dahlias are put together.
Photos are helpful for seeing the shapes of leaves or how many petals grow on a flower. Photos are pretty terrible at telling me the color of highlights or the temperature of shadows though.
I have always studied nature relentlessly and an important lesson I’ve discovered is that photography does not help me progress as an artist and a painter.
Yes, I take a lot of photos and will often have a dozen images on my monitors when I work. But I keep them at a distance (12 feet from my easel) and diverge from them significantly when it comes to value and color.
Painting in the studio has allowed me to develop greater realism because I’m not in a hurry to capture the fleeting effects. I am able to take more time to think about each painting and what was and was not working.
Painting primarily in the studio also caused me to lose some of the fresh spontaneous life that my plein air work generates.
It has taken me a long time to work through many of the challenges that come from both studio and plein air painting. I continue to explore how to mix the best of both worlds, and sometimes my paintings still fall flat. That, I think, is simply par for the course as artists.
I’m convinced that both studio and plein air painting is necessary to keep pushing our abilities higher.
Plein Air Reworking in the Studio
For the most part, the paintings I do on location today serve as studies or as the beginning of a painting that I later rework in the studio.
Wintersill Drive (above) was painted start to finish on location and sold when it was juried into the Salon International Art Competition at the Greenhouse Gallery. That is a rarity for me today.
Most of my plein air work needs at least a bit of tweaking when I get it back to the studio.
For the East Coast Experience Plein Air course I finished White River Crossing (below) over the course of two afternoons on location and one afternoon in the studio.
Learn more about our Plein Air Course here: www.masteroilpainting.com/east-coast-plein-air/
Looking back, I am able to recognize things that could have been adjusted to strengthen the painting – like the trees on the right. Even though there is variety in the colors, each tree is similar in shape and brushwork – too much repetition and sameness.
At the same time, I’m still thrilled with how the painting turned out. I believe that I captured the spirit of the river – it feels like it has life to it.
No painting is perfect. That’s why we might want to get them out of the studio quickly so we don’t fuss them to death. Or at least put them away for a week or more and then look at them with a fresh eye.
Stoney Creek Farm above was painted on location a few years ago. It was about 100 degrees and very sunny. The paints were sliding down my slightly tilted palette. The hot sun made me want to hurry things along so I didn’t melt along with my paints.
Once I was back in my studio there was a lot about it that I liked, but something wasn’t quite working.
I decided the bridge and barn were competing with one another. I also wasn’t a fan of the trees – they seemed to crowd the barn, and the painting felt overly green.
So, last week I began tweaking it.
Once I removed the bridge it was better, but then the barn seemed lonely, so I added more buildings (which I completely conjured up from my imagination). I thought of them simply as shapes to help lead the viewer to the barn.
Once the red-roofed bridge was gone, the barn seemed too grey. Adding dry-brushed red helped pull it away from the background.
I also needed a stronger light and shadow pattern, so I cast the left side mostly into shadow.
I may have gone overboard a bit with the texture and variety, but I like the feeling in the painting much more now.
Painting from life, even if it’s from a window or still life, helps us gain an understanding of the atmosphere and nuance that exist around us. Photos lose too much of that.
Painting in the studio from our memory and imagination allows us to think more deeply. The trap to avoid is letting all that extra time convince us to add more and more details until we lose the life force we felt on location.
I don’t think there’s a perfect formula of plein air vs studio. If you know one, please feel free to share it!
That challenge is part of the joy that comes from painting though. What an incredible thing that we get to spend our lives figuring it out and pursuing an ideal that seems to keep itself just out of reach.
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