Value Studies, Thumbnails and Plein Air Painting

I received a comment the other day from Richard in Texas asking me to explain a little bit about my plein air process and value studies.  Since this is something that I have fairly strong feelings about, I’m happy to do it.

I thought I would use the example of a recent painting that I’ve worked on (and continue to work on).  It’s a scene of one of Calgary’s iconic stores “My Favorite Ice Cream Shoppe”.

The first thing I should mention is that I have about 5 formats that I use 90% of the time for my paintings: 18 X 24, 30 X 24, 30 X 12, 20 X 30 and square,  so I have made little cardboard templates in these various formats.  So when I work plein air I start by tracing whichever template seems the best choice and then sketch in that format.  This first image is just a sample of 3 of these templates.  The largest is about 3″ long.

Unless I’m just collecting information where I just want to record some details I think it’s important to decide on the format that I want to use very early in the painting process.

Now on to the actual painting.

The first image is the  scene from the angle that I was viewing it.

The first aspect of plein air painting is that as some artists have mentioned, ‘usually nature is wrong’.  By this they mean that nature often does not have the elements arranged in the best composition.  I think that is the case here.  I really liked the awnings, the colourful wall and the tall sign but having the sign so separate from the building didn’t work for me.  Also I had a conflict because I kind of fell in love with the colourful wall yet I couldn’t really have it featured and also feature people at the front.  So I did a thumbnail sketch on site and changed the elements around to get a better composition.  Unfortunately I didn’t have my paints or even a sketch book with me so I did this initial thumbnail in a little notebook I did have.

This was my first attempt to put the elements together.  I’m coming to believe more and more that in plein air painting you look at the scene as just a collection of shapes and you take those shapes and use them to create a composition.  (I used to look for the perfect composition which is frustrating or worse I just painted what was there as it was.)

Next I took this thumbnail and did a larger value study.

This is the same format but quite a bit larger.  I really liked this composition and I thought it would be a very nice painting.

This is the first painting I did.  It’s fairly close to the value study except that the trees are probably too dark.  Since I’ve already posted this painting I just need to comment that it received a lot of reaction, approximately 50-50 good and bad.

In any case it wasn’t the painting that I felt it could be.  I still think there is a really good painting to be had from this scene so  . . .

next I went back to my little thumbnails to work on it some more.

I also played with the format.

And that is where I’m at right now.  I am in the process of doing an 18 X 24 painting but I still find that I’m tweaking the composition.  I think the most relevant comment has been to make the painting about what it’s about and that is probably the people in front of the building so I think I’ll follow that direction.  I think the second last thumbnail comes closest to this idea.  I’ll post that painting when it’s done.

I hope this gives you some idea of how I see the plein air process, at this point in my art journey.

2 thoughts on “Value Studies, Thumbnails and Plein Air Painting

  1. Richard M Haemmerle

    Thanks, Rex, I really appreciate the time you donate in posting your thoughts and insights. For some reason, I did not get the impression you were doing thumbnails on site, but just went straight to painting. I still would love to see a series of demos that progressed from the first thought of doing a painting thru the finished project. Almost every demo goes straight to the final painting process. Thanks again. Richard

    1. Rex Beanland Post author

      Richard: You’re welcome. I often do thumbnails on site and sometimes I just start painting. In this example I didn’t have paints with me which probably was a good thing. I would like to a video on this entire process and may at some point but that is a much more complicated process. I’ll keep you informed. Rex


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