Urban Plein Air – Keep it Simple

March 26, 2012

View from the South Balcony, Salmagundi Club, 47 5th Avenue, NYC - acrylic, 8x10 in.

If you are going to paint in the city, whether it’s NY, Boston, Philadelphia or even London or Paris, you need to be organized, plan ahead and take a minimal amount of supplies. I am fortunate that the Salmagundi Club, the oldest arts club in the US, allows me to paint on their balcony–giving me access to water, bathrooms and when the dining room is open, coffee and snacks! However, on days that I have painted in the parks or other areas of the city, I have to plan my route and research the place I will be painting ahead of time to ensure that I will be able to work comfortably and for the most part, undisturbed.

What Makes an Ideal Location

Well, besides having a view of something you really want to paint, simple things like shelter, access to a bathroom and close proximity to public transportation. By shelter, I mean a place where you can paint with your back to something like a wall or tree, so that you don’t have an audience of onlookers lingering while you work. I teach and do lots of demos, having people watch when I’m doing a demo is fine, but when I’m painting, that’s my time and I don’t want to be disturbed. If people have to approach you head on, they are less likely to stand there and expect to chat. I also use the direct approach, if I see someone coming who looks like they are interested in what I am doing, I smile at them say hello and wish them a good day. I will give them a glimpse of what I am doing and then excuse  myself to get back to it before the light changes, most people will move on.  I also keep a stack of business cards with me and direct them to the galleries I work with to see more of my paintings if they are located near where I am painting.

What Makes an Ideal Kit

For me, the simpler the better. I am used to working with a very limited palette, so I try to limit the number of colors I take with me regardless of medium. For oils or acrylics I try to limit it to about 6 or 7 tubes of paint, I can actually get by with 4 if I have to (3 primaries and a tube of white).  I select the colors based on the type of landscape I will be painting. For example, if I am going to be painting in a city park, I’ll take 2 yellows and 2 blues so I can get a nice range and variety of greens. If I’m in an area with a lot of brick buildings, I’ll take 2 reds and 2 yellows so I can make interesting terra cotta type colors. For example, the palette I used on the painting above was: Prussian blue, ultramarine, alizarin, cadmium red, cad yellow medium, cad yellow light and titanium white. I selected it ahead of time because I know the area and knew which colors I would need for some of the main elements–the green awnings, the greys of the stonework and the pinks of the flowering trees.

What About an Easel?

If I am sketching in pastel, I usually don’t bother with an easel. I just use an old canvas board (with one of my oil or acrylic demos on one side) and tape my paper to the back. This works well if you really want to travel light. If I am actually using paint (oil  or acrylic), then I like to have an easel. I have used both French easels and aluminum types. The French easels are nice and stable but way too heavy to carry around the city. Aluminum is ok, but a little shaky on uneven ground or if it is windy. I just ordered a new plein air system from Coulter, I will write a review of it after it arrives and I’ve had time to try it out.

Meanwhile, take advantage of the spring weather and get outside to paint whenever you can. Don’t be shy, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Hopefully the tips above will make it a little less stressful.



Get Outside and Paint!

March 19, 2012

Plein air pastel, Clinton, NJ - 12x8 in.

It’s finally gotten nice outside! While the warm weather lasts, get outside and paint every chance you get. Painting outdoors is challenging and one of the best ways to build your observation skills. It also forces you to work quickly (the light is constantly changing) and to rely on values. If you block in your values at the beginning, you’re home free. Stay with what you block in and use the scene in front of you as a color reference. Remember to use a variety of warms and cools in both your shadow and light areas. Rely on the values, especially the darks, to create depth and dimension, and to carve out form. A city or townscape such as this is perfect for practicing perspective and it automatically draws the viewer in to your composition.

So, get your plein air kit together, it does not need to be complex. I did this with a handful of pastels, a board to draw on (I just used an old canvas panel), and some PastelMat paper. Find a place that interests you and just do it! 🙂

Don’t be in such a hurry…

March 12, 2012

7th Avenue, NYC (across from Penn Station) - acrylic on canvas, 12x12 in.

The title of this post does not refer to how quickly you paint, many artists (myself included) are not slow painters. I do my best work when I use quick, confident brush strokes and a limited number of colors. The application of the paint itself is not a drawn-out, labor-intensive process. It’s energetic and fun, but that’s because by the time I am doing a real painting (as opposed to a study), I’ve already done 2 or 3 studies of the subject in preparation for the final. In other words, I’ve done the homework and studied the subject before taking the test. Does this cut into my ability to be spontaneous? NO! It gives me the confidence and familiarity with the subject (and I use this term loosely since I approach all subjects in a similar manner from the start) so that I can be expressive when painting the piece on canvas.

In addition to doing studies in pastel or charcoal before starting a piece on canvas, I also carefully select a palette that suits whatever “mission” I have in creating a particular piece. Which reds, blues and yellows will work best in this particular painting? What are the colors present in the subject and which ones in my box will get the job done most efficiently? Do I need to introduce secondaries from the tube for a bolder look, or do I want to go in the opposite direction and stay with an extremely limited palette? Do I even want to use color at all?

I do the same thing when deciding what medium to use? Will acrylics or oils be better suited? Do I want a more graphic and contemporary feeling, or a softer more impressionistic look? We all have a range when it comes to style, but our work should look consistent when multiple pieces are displayed together. Keeping a consistent color palette, subject or theme is good idea in general, and key to a successful exhibit of multiple works.

If you are frustrated with your paintings more often than not, I would highly recommend taking the time before hand to do studies, plan your color palette, choose your subject and medium. Do this in an unhurried, relaxed manner. Think logically, not emotionally, and explore all the possibilities. Your studies are the time you take before hand to learn about the painting you are going to paint, so in a way, you are learning about something that does not yet exist. Explore all possibilities and don’t be afraid to fail, if you try something and it doesn’t work, take a different approach. Stay off the negative track and don’t start second guessing your skill, that is unproductive and won’t give you any answers. The answers are found in practice and planning, take the time to work out the idea in sketches, studies, color and compositional planning. Choose your medium carefully and have a clear understanding of what you want your painting to say. You’ll enjoy the process of putting the paint on the canvas, and can paint quickly and confidently, if you’ve done your homework first!

First Auction was a Buyers’ Market, What Will the Second Bring?

March 5, 2012

"Work Horse" oil, 8x10 in. - available in the March 11 Salmagundi Auction

The first of the Salmagundi Auctions, held last Friday, was definitely a buyer’s market! Many excellent works went for the minimum bid, and many others did not sell at all. Why? Well I’m sure the economy had something to do with it, also, having watched the process online (this year they have a live audio visual feed, which is really great!), it was obvious that attendance was down.

As an artist, it is always a risk to put your work in a fundraiser auction. I only participate in the Salmagundi Auctions and in the Blank Canvas Event at the Visual Arts Center of New Jersey. I choose these venues because they are highly curated, and therefore I can be assured that my work is hanging next to other works of professional quality. I also firmly believe in the mission of both of these venues and want to support them in whatever way I can.

So, from a collector’s perspective, these events can be an opportunity to acquire a favorite artist’s work at a below market price. For new collectors, or collectors who find themselves on a budget these days, it’s the perfect way to acquire pieces that might otherwise be out of range. If you are thinking about bidding, don’t hesitate! Offer an amount that you feel comfortable paying if you win, don’t over stretch your budget, but don’t not bid because you think you won’t win. As noted, professional artists don’t take these auctions lightly and don’t offer their work at below retail value very often. Not bidding is like not signing up for a workshop because you are not sure it will run, if everyone takes that attitude, it won’t, just as the painting won’t sell and it turns out to be everyone’s loss.

My painting, “Work Horse”, is offered in the second auction which takes place on Sunday, March 11 at 2 p.m., click here to bid online, or join in the fun live at the Club. They have a fabulous Sunday brunch before hand, visit their web site at www.salmagundi.org or call 212-255-7740 for more information.