Plein Air Painting

Plein Air: Ames Pond

"Ames Pond" 12x16" Oils on treated watercolor board Sold

"Ames Pond" 12x16" Oils on treated watercolor board

Often, travel for us means pretty heavy sightseeing, maybe a flight. This makes painting outdoors difficult because it's hard to travel with painting equipment (and paintings), particularly if the travel itinerary goes through multiple stops.

So this summer when we spent a week out in Maine to celebrate our 15th wedding anniversary, it was with the explicit purpose of just relaxing. Stay in one place, rent a car, go here and there casually. That meant bringing painting materials, which I kept in the trunk so I could stop when I felt like it.

Mid-week or so we were driving around Bear Island, where we saw no bears. We took an offshoot road after spending a little time in Stonington and ended up along this pond. We stopped to have a look. It was incredibly foggy, lily-strewn, and quiet. So I pulled out my gear and got to work while Monica wandered around, taking photographs of birds, lilies, and dragonflies.

I used watercolor board more extensively in the early 2000s, and have a small stock of it left, much of it coated with rabbitskin glue, which I also don't use these days, to prep the surface for oils. There are better modern alternatives available now. The board itself is great to paint on, but is thicker than masonite, so it increases storage needs (it's only slightly thicker, but multiply by 20 or 30 paintings and it starts to add up). While much less flexible than the illustration board it replaced in my usage, it still is not strong enough to withstand baking without curling, which masonite does do. Of course, since this piece would not need to be baked, it was a good support to use.

My palette was pretty limited, and I substituted Alkyd White entirely for Oil White, thus causing the entire painting to dry to the touch overnight. My blue was Ultramarine, also a very fast drier, so the shadow areas were also dry the next morning.

One expects weather and lighting to change, but a cloudy day, while lacking in the brilliant color and shadow of a sunset painting, can have a nice quiet feel and has the advantage of usually providing hours of relatively stable light. Fog is a different story. It was early afternoon and the fog hadn't cleared yet, but it didn't take very long to blow away. It began to settle again and then left for good.

It was around long enough to establish things, and the cloudy weather that remained the rest of the day allowed me to continue working on the nearer areas without much change.

Maine at that time of year had tons of mosquitoes and deer flies that accosted me during the trip, so even though it was slightly warmer than I would've liked, I covered up as much as possible, but still had a couple of bites on my hand by the time I was done.

Except I wasn't quite done. I decided I'd check the weather and if it was going to be foggy or cloudy the next day, I'd come back out and give it a little more work, something I never really do with outdoor painting. Sometimes I do a little more in the studio based on photographs. But it was vacation so I had the time and it was enjoyable enough being out there, despite the bugs. The second session was shorter, just shoring up some things here and there really, with fresh eyes.

I always wish I could make more time for painting en plein air, but unless I was going to try to market these works through galleries or whatever, it's hard to justify taking time off for it if there is paying work to be done instead.

Plein air: Cloister Park, Winter

Winter in Summer, well almost. I attempted to go out for a day of plein air painting back in February. While living in England, I had hoped for some snow that would stick so I could paint outdoors in the snow. It never did, but I got out to paint anyway, only to discover that the freezing temperatures and bad surface conditions foiled my attempts. I retreated, tail between legs, and finished the painting in the studio.

You'd think I'd have learned a thing or two about painting outdoors in the winter. I am, if anything, stubborn when it comes to things I want to do. Maybe the more appropriate description is dumb as a rock. The jury is still out (which just means I don't want to admit to the latter).

In any case, it was by all accounts a long and unseasonably cold winter in NYC this year. Long periods of snow, which did stick, and which piled up. So, I thought I'd go out and paint at the nearby Cloister Park. There's a very nice European medieval building there (really, it's actually Manhattan). However, the light during the time of day I was out was pretty flat, so there was no good angle really. So as I trekked around, I came upon this bend in the path. My wife says I sometimes pick odd things to paint when I do landscapes. What she means is this scene isn't the point of Cloister Park--there are 3 scenic highlights within the park that are meant to attract attention, and I suppose most folks would go for the easy bet and paint those. But the light raking through a stand of winter-naked trees off-frame to the right, on a ridge above the path, was interesting. So I set up and started painting.

If I was smart, I would've brought gloves. Perhaps the jury is in after all. The strong winds pushed the total chill to about 20F. About every 15 minutes I had to stop and warm up my fingertips. I got nowhere fast, and after barely blocking in the composition, my brain caught up with reality and I packed it in. I hadn't brought my camera (verdict: guilty) because I intended to simply paint outdoors. So I walked home, grabbed it, and headed back out to take a few shots. Then I finally went home.

"Cloister Park, Winter",  12x16" Oils on Canvas

"Cloister Park, Winter", 12x16" Oils on Canvas

Over the next few days, I started in on it again when I had some time. As with the England landscape, I figured I'd make it a tighter finished piece, perhaps not as tight as my illustration, but something in-between, which would allow me to play a little more. Work caught up with me and I had to put it away, with not even a full day of work left on it. And so it waited for a few months. The cold weather finally broke, we got our late spring, and just as the humidity is rising and the temperature climbing, I was able to pull it out to finish it up, cognizant that it would be difficult to get in the mood to paint snow as summer sweltered on.

Happy Spring Equinox!

Yes, I know it's the Winter Solstice, but don't you really want it to be Spring right about now? Well, allow me to fulfill your wish for a moment.

I've posted plein-air paintings here from time to time. But it has been a long time, and that is simply because I haven't gotten out to do much the past 2 years. In fact, I haven't really done any, period. I did go out last Spring, though. It was cherry blossom viewing time, and we headed out for a picnic in Central Park. I brought my paints, my wife brought the sandwiches.

Sheep's Meadow was packed. As I sat down, I thought to myself, "No way, too many people." I thought about trekking out to a quieter forested part of the park, with buildings peeking up behind. But I figured that's precisely the sort of thing I shouldn't do--run away from something. 3 or so hours is usually a tough squeeze for any scene, much less when there is an ocean of people around you, constantly moving and changing. Whatever, I figured I didn't need to finish. So I sat down to paint.

You'll notice I'm sitting in the shade. Last thing I needed was to have a shifting bright light over the canvas, and to get all hot and uncomfortable.

Naturally, I didn't finish before the light got irreconcilably different from when I started. I snapped photos and subsequently left the painting sitting around for a few months...neglected...sad.... Mainly, I needed to paint more little teeny people. I pulled it out once and got back to work for a bit but didn't manage to finish it until recently, just in time for the first major snow of the year. It was a challenge to maintain the loose handling of painting outdoors while at home, when I'm tempted to tighten up with all the time and controlled lighting available.

And with this, I leave you for the balance of 2009. You have more fun and interesting things to do between now and Jan.1--so go do those things. Eat lots, give lots of hugs, and be safe. See you in 2010!

9x12" Oils on canvas

9x12" Oils on canvas

Plein-air: Watauga Woods

Sometimes, after a long week or a few long weeks of work, there is nothing I want to do less on a day off than paint. This is understandable, right? I can neither eat pizza every meal of every day nor play videogames every waking hour either—every good thing has its limit. On days off, I stay far away from my pencils and paints.

With the cold approaching, there were going to be few opportunities left to do any plein-air work in comfort. So on one day off a few weeks ago, I bit the bullet and hauled my rig outside to paint again. Due to one part laziness and one part convenience, I only had to haul it about 15 feet outside as there was a nice little pond/fountain out back that I’d been wanting to paint. This made the decision to paint much easier to bear—packing it up and scouting out locations was just not going to happen.

It turned out to be a very pleasant early afternoon and I quite enjoyed working on this piece for about two hours. I even had a nice cup of warm coffee and held a cat under one arm as I worked for part of the time. Best of all, when I was done I could tear down and be back on my couch within about half hour. All in all I got to enjoy most of my day off, and still get a little painting done without feeling the pressure of a deadline forcing me to tread on ‘til the wee hours.

12x16" Oils on canvas

12x16" Oils on canvas