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!