Here’s my plein air painting.
Reflections on my experience of painting outdoors
Painting outdoors I felt immersed in the landscape and my response to it comes through, the more so because I was having to paint quickly and intuitively. I felt a physical connection – not only through my eyes, but also via my ears, skin, sense of smell. I could hear bees and birdsong, fell the heat of the sun on my neck, smell the pine forest. By contrast painting in the studio from photographs can be a sterile experience.
I was quite lucky – the weather was pleasant, I was near enough to pop back home for a cuppa, and I knew there would be no onlookers. Carrying kit wasn’t an issue, so I had table and chair, easel, etc. So this was plein air painting Lite! It still had difficulties compared to working in the studio, the main one being how quickly the acrylic paint dried on palette, brush and canvas. This, and the need to finish in one session, in a shortish window before the light altered too much, meant I was forced to work quickly and to adapt my painting method. My painting is sketchy and loose as a result, the pigments un-muddied, so the pressure worked well for me and the painting looks fresh.
What I’ve learned from painting outdoors
I’ve learned from my research on landscape paintings that the artist doesn’t have to seek out extraordinary views to make a great painting, and this exercise confirmed that. My subject isn’t particularly dramatic or picturesque, and I still managed to make an enjoyable painting from it.
Natural light changes quickly, dramatically altering any scene, particulaly at either end of the day, so there’s a small window of time in which to put down a statement. Weather and other conditions outside may discourage anything other than a brief stay. But that’s not a bad thing; I’ve found that my quick, intuitive paintings are more true to the subject and how I see and feel about it. There’s no time for overworking, so they stay fresh, and a bit of awkwardness can add character to the outcome.Thorough preparation for the painting session makes a big difference; identify the exact location, study the subject and decide on all the salient points beforehand. I had a copy of the exercise brief with me which served as a check list of advice to remember while painting. The preparation of the canvas with a base coat in a complementary colour to my painting gave me a head start, and using a limited palette thereafter made painting outdoors easier.
I’ve learned that I like to paint with that physical connection to the landscape that comes from being there. If I paint plein air further from base regularly in the future I would consider buying a pochade easel, and I would always take weather conditions into account in deciding which painting media to use.
What I did
Choosing my subject
Many of the landscapes in the paintings I looked at would probably seem to most people fairly uninspiring in real life. In adding their own interpretation, in tone, colour, form and line, artists can make engaging, challenging, beautiful, and sometimes astonishing images.
So why go far from home to find my subject? I have a garden with trees for interest and focus, and far off backgrounds for depth of field, and if I try to open my mind to interpret the subject expressively, I could perhaps make an interesting painting. The advantages of staying in my garden being I wouldn’t have to lug my equipment far and there’d be no onlookers to intimidate me.
So I set myself up at the bottom of the garden and did some quick drawings of fruit trees from various viewpoints. I took photos and I made notes by my sketches about the time, weather and direction of light; colours, tones; thoughts on how I would approach painting this composition outside; the focal point; linear and aerial perspective; how I divided up the composition between background, middle ground and foreground.
The first is wide format and takes in several rows of trees, allowing the perspective lines of the rows to create the illusion of depth. The sketch isn’t too effective in showing the rows but I know they’re there!
It was hard to see a focal point in this composition, so I decided to zoom in a bit and change viewpoint. I took some photos of alternatives.
The A6 sketches were done on fine liner coloured pens and a water brush.
Other artists’ landscapes
Looking closely at Constable’s oil sketches, I can see he used a wide range of techniques to get different effects. He used impasto, glazes, dry brush work, dabs and dots of colour and of pure white, colour showing through subsequent layers of other colours. The overall effect is of painting done quickly.
I also looked at Bonnard’s landscapes, some of which I collected on Pinterest here. His colours are magnificent. Not for him toned down, low key effects; but although he used the full range of pure colour, optically some mix on the canvas, meaning the effect is believable and not overpowering.
Starting the painting
I started my painting by selecting a wide canvas, 50×25 cm, and as a sudden inspiration in the studio, inspired by Bonnard’s use of colour in landscape painting, I poured the remains of the liquid acrylic paint used in my decalcomania experiments, and with a rag covered the whole canvas with the bright vermillion / magenta mix. This would be complementary to my green subject, and I intended to leave a fair bit exposed or showing through subsequent layers.
Looking again at the scene and my sketches, I decided to combine elements from two sketches to make a wide format painting. With a biggish brush and a pale neutral colour I drew the main lines of the composition, taking care the rows of trees were lined up roughly to one vanishing point. The light wasn’t noticeably different from before. My key features would be the walnut tree and citrus grove at the bottom of the slope on the right of the composition, and so on that side I was going to use my highest contrasts and leave much of the red base coat exposed to bring it forward. The drama is there in the dark glossy foliage of the orange trees, and the red earth contrasted with bright, fresh ground cover.
In addition to white I laid out emerald green, process yellow, yellow ochre, cad red, process blue and burnt umber.
I’ve looked at many Van Gogh landscapes, and noticed how he often has a sky that is a sort of pale peachy colour. The eye reads this as a sunny sky, even though it’s not blue – I think due to the warm golden glow. I aimed for this effect, and was quite pleased with my version. The pink undercoat shows through, and with dabs of pale emerald and pure white adde my sky seemed to have life and, I hoped, would echo the colours used in other parts of the painting. Distant hills developed gradually; finally with touches of the sky colour reflected in and blurring the hill line, they receded far away enough for me.
I worked on quickly, using, as I’d seen in Constable’s sketches, a wide range of brush-work techniques, reminding myself frequently to use a broad brush and not to focus just on one area of the canvas. The forest developed as a unified mix of different greens. The blue-grey trees in the middle distance are olives; I felt rather rash using vivid blue for the shade side, but like Bonnard’s bright colours, it tones down in the optical mix.
In the final outcome I’ve left lots of bare areas, the pink base coat showing through and setting up echoes from one area of the picture to others, helping to unify the painting. I worked sketchily, at breakneck speed with no time to correct or alter before the paint dried. My main feeling as I worked was panic, although I became more at ease with the process as time went on. The sun burned and the hot air dried the paint before I could use it. I used retarder, and a spray bottle of water which helped marginally. In the end I got used to using lots more retarder than I would in the chilly studio, and accepted no blending was really possible.