If you’re like me, you’ve been cooped up all winter painting inside your home or studio. Now that summer has arrived, it’s prime weather for Plein Air painting but you still may be wondering how to make a smooth transition from the comfort of the studio to painting on site. For even the most experienced painters, the inherent challenges of Plein Air painting makes the idea a bit daunting. Another great blog post here will help you with making preparations. But, for now, forget those thoughts because I’d like to make some recommendations which will help you ease into and even enjoy the experience.
Most mornings, I start my day with a 15-minute video program called a.m. yoga. In it, the instructor describes that after a night of sleep, the body is rested but stiff from inactivity. To awaken the body/mind, he takes me through a series of gentle poses designed to allow me to meet my day with openness, peace, and serenity. A similar set of exercises can help you transition from studio to outdoor painting.
Like my yoga program, you can ease into Plein Air painting with Plein Air drawing. That’s right, I’m asking you to leave your French easel and paints at home and just bring a sketchpad, pencils, and erasure to a favorite outdoor spot. Sit in a comfortable folding chair and quietly contemplate the scene but remain alert and observant. Now, make some notes about the time of day, weather conditions, and colors. Really try to notice what is happening with the light effects and color contrasts. Is reflective light bouncing off the grass and coloring the shaded trunk of a tree? What happens to the color of objects in the distance? If you’d like to eventually paint the place, make a few compositional sketches and take some photographs. Not to paint from, but to further understand the scene. This exercise helps to hone your powers of observation and better understand the various light effects on outdoor objects.
Paint in your back yard
Henry Hensche Color Study
Untitled , oil on canvas, 24″ x 20″ c. 1960′s
Collection of Emile Henault
With your sharpened powers of observations, take your easel and paints out into your back yard or a local park and set up a colorful but simple still life. Here, I want you to think in terms of color studies, not finished paintings. Keep your painting surface small and your brushes large. Using burnt sienna, draw in the shapes with your brush, separating the light and shadow masses. Observe the colors of the planes in the light and the planes in the shade. Describe each mass with its’ associated color. Relate each color note to another in the setup. Make sure all color notes are different. Keep the studies short (two to three hours at most) because the light direction will change quickly. Paint the same scene in the morning and late evening light keys and compare the studies with one another. You can learn more about the practice of color study from the Henry Hensche Foundation website and follow the Henry Hensche facebook group page for some great insights and inspiration.
Planning is the key
Now that you are ready to tackle outdoor landscape painting, planning is key. Enlist a friend and make a date. Keep your eye on the weather and try to pick a day that will afford you full sun and clear skies. Deciding on a painting location has been made easier with new facebook and pinterest pages. Here, you will find local locations in Massachusetts that have been pre-scouted and approved of by other Plein Air painters.
Arrive early and set up prior to the time of day you would like to paint. To keep your frustration factor low, your subject should be simple just like your back yard color studies. Bring along several panels and change them out if the weather changes dramatically.
Continue to think in terms of colors, color contrasts, and masses — not details. Key all the colors and color values off of the color value of the sky. To see what I mean, click on the video clip of Marc Dalessio below.
If you are still having difficulty, do more back yard color studies. With continued practice, your landscape color studies will become full-fledged Plein Air paintings. Plus, you can use the best little gems to work up larger studio pieces.