Keep it Simple

September 27, 2012

Willow – plein air pastel, 8×10 in.

A subject does not have to contain minute detail in order to get the message across. Landscapes, trees in particular, can be very complex subjects. I find simplifying them down to their basic shapes the best way to retain their grace and gesture.

This willow tree caught my eye because of its elegant posture and graceful sweep of branches over the pond where I was painting. I blocked it in focusing on the gesture and form of the overall tree, not the tiny little feathery parts of the branches. I consider leaves surface texture, which is secondary to form, therefore, if I capture the form first, I can add an implication of surface texture at the end. Too much surface texture can actually overtake the ability to see the form, so be careful not to get too wrapped up in the details!


Seize the Day!

September 18, 2012

My little spot in Bryant Park today, I painted there this morning and made the most of this beautiful almost fall day!

A close up of my pencil sketch and painting (acrylic on board).

What a fabulous day to be outside in NYC! I had the day off from classes today, I could have stayed home and cleaned the house, or cleaned my studio, or finished the last large Naples beach painting…instead, I took the opportunity to go into the city to paint!

Just so no one thinks I was being totally self-centered and irresponsible, I did need to get a plein air painting done of the city for the upcoming Salmagundi Plein Air Exhibition later this year, so that’s what I did. I had a specific objective in mind–Bryant Park and the area around the NYPL. I got in around 9 a.m. and walked from Penn up 7th to 42nd St. (I had another little secret side mission, but that’s a secret). From there, I headed east on 42nd to Bryant Park. Before choosing a spot, I walked around the park and New York Public Library’s entrance on 5th Avenue–I really want to paint those lions one day, but the light was not on them, that will be an afternoon adventure for another day.

Anyhow, I was a little disappointed because the fountain in the park was not running, and the light today was a bit harsh. However, I did find a nice tree lined path with some bistro tables along its sides, a perfect spot to set up. One thing I learned about myself today is that I absolutely cannot stand to carry a lot of equipment. I have my plein air kit pared down pretty well, but it needs to be reduced by half for painting in the city! I did not use my easel or tripod, so those could have stayed behind. Less is definitely more when it comes to plein air in the city. Also, I am finding I enjoy sketching more than painting on location–while I need paintings for exhibition, I seem to really be in a sketching mode these days–pencil, charcoal, pastel, watercolor crayons–anything that is extremely fast and portable works best for me.

I spent about 2 hours on the painting above, I did the pencil sketch first which took about 10 minutes, maybe 15. I set the sketchbook up on the table so I could refer to it while blocking in my painting, that helped to remind me how I simplified some of those tree shadows and shapes. This was a very challenging piece–so much going on all over the place. I concentrated on the shadows on the path, the little stone urn with the plant on the right and the sweep of the trees. You have to know what your painting is about in order to make it work and hold together!

Looking at the piece now that I am home, I may do some MINOR things like add a bit more paint in a few places, hit my dark values one more time as well as the highlights. I prefer to keep my plein air pieces true to the moment, so I will do any adjustments purely from memory and my pencil sketch as opposed to photos. The point of today was not necessarily to create a fabulous painting, but to enjoy being outdoors in a wonderful setting and to get that feeling to come across in the painting–if I did that, then my mission was accomplished! 🙂


Fall is a Great Time of Year for Plein Air!

September 10, 2012

Mill Street, Califon, plein air oil on panel, 6×6 in.

Demo in oil from this morning’s Plein Air Basics class, the subject was working with greens and was done at Briant Park in Summit, NJ

Fall is my favorite season for painting outdoors! Even though the leaves have not begun to change color, the air is crisp and you can tell the light has changed ever so subtly as the sun gets lower in the sky.

This semester, I am teaching a 5-week plein air basics course at the Visual Arts Center of NJ in Summit. Today was our first class and we could not have asked for better weather. The focus today was on working with the color green in the landscape. As people who have taken my classes know, I do not use greens out of the tube. I mix them with a variety of blues and yellows. My typical palette will consist of 2 blues, 2 yellows, 2 reds and titanium white. Sometimes I add an earth color such as burnt umber or sienna, but for outdoor painting, I try to keep my bag as light as possible.

I always work on a toned panel or canvas, but it is especially important to do this outdoors, as the glare of a pure white canvas (or palette) can be tough on the eyes and distort our perception of color. I begin by blocking in my under painting with a dark neutral or a mixture of 2 of the darkest colors on my palette, in this case, alizarin and Prussian blue. I sketch in my composition and block in values from dark to light. Next I am ready to go to color.

In this instance, I went to the greens since they are the darkest and most predominant color. I mixed several of them: cooler, more muted shades for the shadows and distant trees, and brighter warmer shades for the highlights and foreground. The key to working with greens is to get a lot of variation in the shades of green, include warm greens, cool greens, some that have a more olive tone and others that are more of a spring green. Also, it is important to get some red and terra cotta accents to complement the greens and keep the painting from getting monochromatic.

To imply a sense of depth and space, I made sure to make the grass in the foreground really bright in contrast to the deep shadows of the tree along the shoreline. I didn’t over do it on the reflections on the water as I needed to have a calm area with lots of shadows to play up the distance between the distant shore and the foreground. Just a few ripples on the surface (and that snowy egret who seems to make an appearance every time I bring my students to this spot).

Painting plein air is a great way to improve your observation skills in terms of perspective, proportion, values and color. It is one of the best ways to loosen up and learn how to block in big shapes and ignore detail. This is particularly important if you have a tendency to get overwhelmed by detail early on–you can always add as much detail as you want at the end, but at the start you have to get the forms and the values correct, otherwise all the detail in the world will not make an incorrect drawing turn into a great painting!