I have always enjoyed plein air (on location) painting even when I was not very good at it. I can remember time after time when I would enjoy the experience of being outside but be too embarrassed by the quality of my work even to show it to people. Gradually I started doing it more and more frequently and as my painting skills in general progressed my plein air experiences also progressed. A big step was when I started to take time before I started painting to just sit, look at the subject and do some planning. My pre-planning came to be about 3 things. Composition, value and why did I want to paint this particular subject, what spoke to me.
Like so many things in life it wasn’t just the effort I put into plein air painting that made things go better. It was more about the fact that as I worked more and in a more focused way on my painting in general I was able to bring more to the plein air experience.
I have gone out the past 2 Sundays and I’ve been very happy with the results. I’m starting to ‘get it’. I find now that my pre-planning goes so much more efficiently and effectively. I find a subject that speaks to me and then I am able to come up with an effective composition that best suits the subject. Finally I continue to look at the subject until I can visualize a value pattern that will help tell the story that I want to tell.
This first of these 2 recent paintings was a view from 37th St looking over the Weaselhead. It was a snowy day with lots of snow in the air so there was a sharp drop off as objects receded into the background. I wanted the sense of mystery that that type of light creates. I also wanted an image that I could use for a birthday card for my wife. What was particularly liberating for me was to use purer colours to represent the darks. Normally I would use a dark value of a gray. I find the darker blue stroke in the foreground works as a dark value but is also much more colourful than I have become used to. Also the stronger values that the main 3 trees needed is handled more colourfully.
This second painting looking over the eastern edge of Discovery Ridge is also more colourful than my norm. In this one because I had a pretty good idea what I was going for value-wise I was much freer in my brushwork.
These final 2 paintings are recent plein air studies that also were very much the result of being ‘in the zone’. In each case by studying the subject and not painting until something spoke to me and I had a clear idea of where I wanted to go. As a result I was able to paint very quickly and the finished painting has some of that spirit in it.
So to summarize where my plein air journey is at the moment I’m finding that the best way for me to work is to simply look at the subject until I discover what is it about this subject that really speaks to me. Then I keep looking until I can visualize how to arrange the elements to create an effective composition and finally I visualize how I want to arrange the value patterns to create the effect I want. Then when I start painting I feel a tremendous sense of freedom to just play with the paint because I have a good understanding of what I want to do in each section of the painting. The final gift I’m discovering recently is that when I want mid and darker values I don’t need to always fall back to a dark gray but I can use purer colours that intrinsically are the desired value.
The bottom line is, however, that it just continues to be more and more fun to paint on location. In fact for my style I notice a certain staleness starts to creep in when I work too much in the studio from photographs. I need the inspiration of being in front of the live subject to really let go.