Monday, April 30, 2012

Plein air, idea 3

No picture again tonight. I am on a primitive borrowed computer and it won't agree to do that. Tonight's idea is to make haste, slowly.  One way to do that is to keep the paint transparent until you are as far into the painting as possible. That is.....stay out of your white.As long as you are working transparently you can shove your "start" around all you want. The instant you add white to the painting it is locked down. It is far harder to make an alteration. Building up too much paint early in the process makes things harder. It is easier to manipulate thinner paint layers.

When we are laying in a picture on a white canvas we are generally delineating the darks and leaving the white of the canvas behind for the lights in the earliest stages of the drawing. Mostly you start out by placing your shadows, they are what is usually darkest before you in nature. Keeping these shadows transparent often looks better than having them opaque. Your may load  lights with white, but it is usually good to keep your shadows thinly painted if you can.

Another way to more gradually "find" your painting on the canvas is to keep your picture "soft" in that transparent color. . Until you really know what is happening all over the canvas it is best to keep the painting fuzzy, like an underexposed  photo.  Opaque paint is far more likely to give you hard edges  Also, if you go too hard on your edges before you are really sure of your drawing, you will respect those lines out of relationship to their real accuracy. If you keep things fuzzy for a while you will be more likely to willingly correct a shape that is off. Both this and the transparent paint suggestion are alike. They are ways of withholding too much commitment earlier in the painting process. It is best to add commitment later rather than too soon. This will help you avoid careful finishing one part of a painting  and then discovering that passage is in the wrong place ever so slightly. If the passage is just ghosted in you will happily move it. If you have worked it up already you will be tempted to leave it wrong.


An orderly and careful approach to a layin will save time correcting problems later. It is easier to not make the mistakes in the first place tan to correct two or three interlocking mistakes in a half finished painting later.

Plein air idea 2

Sorry, I an writing this with a connection that  is too weak  to put up a picture. Imagine if you would, a picture here. The picture is of half a dozen or so tiny sketches done with a thick pencil line  using a chiseled   edged carpenters pencil with a soft lead. Each of these drawings is about the size of a playing card and are all drawn on a ringbound sketchbook of good quality paper.

Thumbnail drawings are the highest form of previsualization. They are little practice paintings of the subject before the artist in the field. Each of the thumbnails has a different "take" on the subject. It either stresses one element of the scene over the others, or it is a simplification of the masses  presented in a large attractive design.
Often the last two are more resolved versions of one of the previous entry's that seemed promising.

There are several advantages to doing this.

  • you will have a better large design because things done small often look good "blown up" in scale. They often look simpler, which is almost always good..
  • You will have examined different "takes" on the arrangement.One thumbnail might emphasize one part  of the landscape,a different thumbnail, a different aspect. Looking across a farm scene, one thumbnail might make the painting about the barn and the copse of trees around it, and the other might subordinate the farm buildings to the larger valley scene in which they are set.
  • You will hopefully have encountered the hidden gremlins waiting to be a problem in the painting later on. Instead of being ambushed you may have said "this is a great view, but it has a big problem! What am I going to do about that? "
  • Here is the big one though. It is often easy to show up on a location and paint the  "regular" arrangement of the subject, or perhaps just that inflicted on you by an awkward or overly symmetrical  static set of shapes before you in nature. Your first thumbnail was probably that arrangement, the one that would show what was present before the artist. One of the later thumbnails  progressed from that to a more creative arrangement or simply AN ARRANGEMENT .It's not the first picture you would have shown up and made. It is more like what you would have made the third or fourth time you painted the location.
I look at doing thumbnails as a chore, I do them sometimes. I went through a long period where I did them for every painting, I don't do them often now. I probably would be better off if I did, lots of really great landscape painters did thumbnails, but I can also show you a lot of fine painters who didn't. I have made a whole lot of paintings. I would recommend that you thumbnail things for a year or two and decide whether it is something you want to do. You will learn a whole lot about arranging your paintings by doing this.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Plein air, idea 1

   Carl Peters, Crossing the Bridge
The blog is morphing into more of a magazine. It used to be an encyclopedia, but I feel like I have laid out the basic information I set out to record. I seem to be writing "articles" rather than entries now. I am getting very close to a thousand posts. The whole thing has been stream of consciousness anyway, and stumbles along with no particular system or order. It is all very homemade. Do you think this blog would look better with more commas? Some day it will all get edited and put out on Betamax.

I intend to do a series of brief posts each limited to an idea to keep in mind when painting outside. Tonight's idea is previsualization.

When you start a painting outside, the greatest predictor of success is previsualization.
  That is, if you have a clear picture of what the painting is going to look like finished, when you start, you are most likely to "win" that day. Usually the best paintings are those where you proceed directly to your result. The painting will look fresher and less labored that way. Also, time is often short on location, and time spent reworking or struggling with a passage is subtracted from your end result.
 It is seldom enough to set up your easel and say "that looks good, I will paint that". Almost no view is perfect, and even if it were, to make art and not just transcription it is desirable to have a "treatment" in mind. At the very least you need to have an idea of how you are going to deal with the gremlins that pop up when a picture gets rolling.  Look at the scene and ask yourself "what out there is going to bite me?" Try to think of solutions to the problems before you even touch the canvas. If you can envision what the finished picture looks like, really close your eyes and see it, you may spot those gremlins and also the opportunities for design, color and handling before you.

I have been painting outside for almost forty years, almost all of my pictures are "professional", adequately observed and rendered. But some are lots better than others, the weaker ones are simply "matter of fact", that is, they look like the place, alright, but they are not interesting, much less poetic. So for me previsualization is usually "what am I going to do to this thing to make it look cool?"


That would make a great neck tattoo wouldn't it?
A Carl Peters from Alterman galleries
So don't just dive in and start painting, a little up front contemplation may save you a lot of worry later. Close your eyes and imagine what the painting will look like finished. Try to imagine every part of it and every passage as it will be in your finished work. This is a developed skill. Most people think more in words than pictures, and you will probably imagine yourself having a much clearer idea of the finished picture than you actually do. Happens to me all the time.

Sometimes I will imagine a clock face on the surface of the canvas and then go around the hours and ask myself "what goes here? what goes there?

The highest form of previsualization is a thumbnail sketch, more about those tomorrow.

Friday, April 27, 2012

What is plein air?

An antique tool for pleining air

I will be participating in Paint The Town, an event in Cranford, New Jersey, the 5th through the 10th of June. The organizers asked me if I would write a short description of plein air painting for them.

Plein air painting is landscape painting done on location, that is, outside. People today are accustomed to seeing painters with their easels out painting, but in the long history of art it  is a relatively new phenomenon. Until the mid 1600's, landscape was merely a background for figures. As landscape gradually became more popular, painters made reference sketches out doors, usually in pencil or chalk, but a few actually took their palettes outside and made colored sketches. These works were studies, or rehearsals for paintings that were later made in the artist's studios. They were never intended to be finished works of art and were rarely exhibited. But the artists enjoyed showing them to each other and would sometimes exchange them as gifts.

In the nineteenth century, as landscape subjects grew ever more popular, artists relied more and more on carefully observed studies done on location. In the eighteen seventies a group of French painters led by Claude Monet began to make  paintings outdoors that were the finished work themselves. The  recent availability of paint in tubes rather than ground in the artist's own studios provided a new portability to the artist's equipment. Colors unavailable before could actually match the appearance of nature in sunlight. This group's name, the "impressionists" was first  used as an insult, and was taken from the title of a Monet painting "impression, sunrise". The impressionists' discoveries produced radical bright colors and purple shadows and revolutionized landscape painting. The old brown gravy that served as the air in paintings a generation before disappeared, replaced by a  sparkling and colorful freshness. The new painting was valued for its spontaneity and visible brushstrokes, the handwriting of inspiration.

Impressionism swept the art world and an international movement  began. Artists spent summers painting together in art colonies scattered throughout the world. As modernism became the dominant art philosophy after World War I, more and more painters returned to the studio and plein air painting gradually became a rarity. In recent years, however, there has been an explosive revival and  thousands of easels are set up before nature every day, plein air painting is again an important part of our culture.


 Monet's impression sunrise

 Because of the popularity of paint outs and plein air competitions, organizations have set rules for what is and what isn't plein air painting. These rules specify how much of a painting must be done strictly outside, whether the work must be done in a single session, or sometimes, in a fixed amount of time. Because of the nature of these events, they had little choice, as the occasional artist would try to cheat the system by bringing paintings made at home from photographs to exhibit as plein air paintings.Within the context of organizations devoted to plein air and particularly in competitions intended to be "fair" those rules were necessary and appropriate.

When I am in an event that is billed as "plein air" I accept the rules of the event's sponsors because that is the condition of participation. I don't, in fact, usually refer to myself as a plein air painter, but as a landscape painter. I think that outside of those venues though, a painter should do whatever it takes to get the best possible image on the canvas, be that repeated sessions before the motif, or additional work in the studio after the fact (something I do a lot myself).

I am planning a couple of summer workshops here in New Hampshire at the Inn on Sunset Hill. I will announce course descriptions and their dates and as soon as I get the details worked out.