Block it In Fast!

October 16, 2012

Underpainting in Prussian Blue & Alizarin mixture, blocking in the composition and values goes a long way, especially in plein air painting!

This is a little demo I did for my plein air students this morning. It was an overcast day with skies that looked like they could open up any minute, so I knew we had a limited amount of time to get our paintings done. I always begin with an underpainting–whether working indoors or out–I feel it is the structure that holds everything together. Get your drawing, composition and values right early on, and the rest is easy. This is particularly true with plein air, when you are dealing with things such as changing light and changing weather conditions. You have to get the structure in fast and accurately, otherwise you will constantly be trying to “keep up” with the changing environment.

Artists who are new to plein air sometimes believe that you have to keep changing your painting as the light and atmosphere changes. That is not the case–the key is to capture the light at a given moment by blocking in the values early on, you don’t move the shadows on your painting because the light has moved–you leave them where you blocked them in and use the values as your key to tell you how dark or how light they should be based on what they looked like when you blocked in the underpainting. The actual surroundings tell you what color the elements in your painting are, but the underpainting is why tells you how dark or how light they are. Values are what give paintings depth, dimension and atmosphere–they have to be correct otherwise your painting will look flat. A painting with correct values accurately places the relationships of the darkest darks through the middle values all the way down to the brightest highlights. If you have this worked out in the beginning, you can relax and take your time with the rest of the painting. I’ve often finished pieces off site with no reference other than my initial block in. It’s relatively easy if you have a good drawing, a good composition and accurately mapped in values!

Below is the finished painting. I did this in about 45 minutes, maybe a little less. The underpainting itself took about 15 minutes. If you work quickly and block in large areas, focusing on big shapes and ignoring detail, you can grab the elements that matter early on and imply details later in the final stages of your painting. Working this way produces a more cohesive result, and a fresher, more spontaneous look–and that is what plein air painting is all about!


Main Street, Oldwick, NJ – oil on panel, 8×10 in.


The Portability of the Pencil

October 8, 2012

Sketching on location in NYC

Recently, I began sketching in pencil after being strictly a charcoal artist for just about my entire career. Why? While I love the ability to block in large areas at a time with charcoal, I don’t love getting really dirty before attending receptions or dropping off paintings at galleries and exhibits. I need to make the most of my time when I am in the city, by combining  exhibit business with sketching days, I get a lot more accomplished.

But getting used to the “pointiness” of the pencil was definitely a challenge–pencil is so linear. I am used to using the side of the charcoal to block in an entire area of dark and middle values, with pencil, I also use the side a lot more than the edge. I am also going to get myself a chisel point (carpenter’s) pencil, which will definitely help in defining those large areas of shadow more efficiently.

I currently am using a set of Staedtler Mars drawing pencils–a range of hard and soft, but I have to admit I primarily use the soft ones because I like to get my darks established from the beginning. I do use the full range when I am working on larger drawings, but if I just have my little Moleskine sketchbook (pictured above), then I can usually get away with 3 pencils (an HB, 4B and 7B) to create a sketch with a good range of values.

Sketching on site, regardless of the medium you use, is such a valuable exercise. Even if you are primarily a studio painter, you observe so much more on location rather than relying completely on reference photos. So grab a pencil and get out there, it’s fun and will really improve your observation skills!