Plein Air Made Simple!

November 7, 2011
High Bridge

View from High Bridge Train Station Steps, plein air pastel, 9x12 in.

Plein air sketching does not have to be a complex process. There are many plein air artists who opt for all the gear: field easel or pochade box, full set of oil paints and mediums (or whatever medium they prefer), umbrellas, and other gadgets supposedly required for the plein air experience.

I find that simpler is better! Pastel is my medium of choice for plein air sketching, followed by acrylics. When I sketch plein air in pastel, all I bring with me are about 15-20 hard and soft pastels in a range of colors/values that I can combine to effectively depict light and shadow. I pre-cut my paper (usually PastelMat, Wallis or LaCarte) down to either 9×12 in. or 6×9 in. size, I don’t work larger than 9×12 for plein air. I tape the paper to the back of an old canvas panel, throw all of the above in my car and am ready to go.

While in my studio I always work standing, when I’m sketching in the field (usually in town) I will often sit in a cafe or on a bench. I start out by blocking in my values with a hard pastel (NuPastel #353 is perfect for this). Then I work from dark to light mapping in colors and combining layers to create a harmonious balance of variation in light and shadow.

Because I love perspective, I typically look for town settings that have a strong, one-point perspective view to create a composition that draws the viewer into the painting. Telephone poles, wires, street lamps, trees and other vertical elements are perfect for this purpose. Morning light and late afternoon sun are my favorite times to sketch outdoors.

So if you haven’t tried plein air because you think you have to invest in a whole “kit”, think again. It’s not as complicated as it appears!


Just 4 Colors

October 23, 2011

Pumpkins & Silver, 9x12 oil on canvas

This painting was done with just 4 colors: ultramarine, cadmium red light, cadmium yellow medium and titanium white. I painted it alla prima as a demo for my painting students in about 45 minutes. The painting process does not need to be complex in order to be successful. In fact, I find it better to keep it as simple as I can when it comes to the number of colors on the palette, particularly if I am painting plein air or doing a live demo.

I began with a mixture of ultramarine and cad red light, plus a tiny bit of cad yellow medium to make a dark neutral. This was used for the underpainting. For my darkest darks, I used the ultramarine and cad red light leaning more heavily toward the ultramarine. Next I pulled a bit of white into the mixture and added some of the cad yellow to neutralize it a bit for the greys on the metal tea pot. For the pumpkins, I used a mix of the red and yellow leaning toward the yellow, while the table cloth is the same mix but leaning toward the red. The white pumpkin and bright highlights are made up of titanium white and a bit of cad yellow medium. It’s amazing how many colors you can create from a limited palette. It’s a great exercise for getting to know the colors you have in your paintbox!

See the “W”?

October 20, 2011

City Hall, Philadelphia, acrylic 8x10 in.

I always look for a geometric or other form of recognizable shape in the overall shadows of a composition. For example, when I look at the reference source for this (you can do it when painting plein air as well), I see the letter “W” formed by all the dark shadows on the buildings on the sides and in the foreground. The little island median cuts into the bottom just enough to make the shape a “W” as opposed to a “U”. I also see a “T” formed by the sky and main building.

Looking for these shapes when planning your composition will help you to place them on the canvas as well as to create a strong design. The interlocking “T” and “W” above provide a strong structure. Once these basic forms are placed, they also provide landmarks so that elements of the composition and perspective can be seen more easily and therefore placed correctly.

Palette Knife

October 17, 2011

GWB Eastbound, acrylic on canvas, 48x36 in.

It has been awhile since I have posted, this has been an incredibly busy fall with both my exhibit and teaching schedules. I am currently working on several large paintings of NYC bridges. The first that I have completed is above, an acrylic painting of the GWB using a great deal of palette knife work and other alternative means of applying paint to canvas.

I began this piece with a light red ochre background, on top of which I created my under painting in Prussian blue acrylic. I used a 4″ sponge brush to block in the underpainting. The bridge cables were created by using the sponge on its side and soaking with water so that it created vertical drips. The cars and truck are just broad horizontal strokes (cars and trucks are really just boxes on wheels). I always focus on the gesture of the composition in the underpainting, this creates the strong sense of perspective drawing you in towards the tower of the bridge.

On top of the underpainting, I mapped in the sky in color with a palette knife using Chroma Atelier Interactive acrylics and their Impasto Gel medium, which creates a very buttery texture to the acrylics, not quite oil like, but close.

I chose to let parts of the underpainting show through on this and purposely kep some areas very abstract. To make this work, I started with a structured drawing in the underpainting, and then decided how much or how little in each area I wanted to retain. In some places, there is a lot of detail in color, in others, there is just the ghost of the image loosely mapped in via the wash drawing of the underpainting.

I find working this way allows me to get the right amount of energy and spontaneity that is so important to making a painting come to life.

Simple One Point Perspective Sketch

October 1, 2011

Iron Truss Bridge, pastel study, 6x9 in.

This is a simple but dramatic, one point perspective sketch done as a demo for my pastel students.

Whenever I have a piece that has one point perspective, I typically start out at the vanishing point and work my way outwards. Your lines in a one point perspective drawing can only go in 3 directions: vertical, horizontal or back to the vanishing point. If you are above the horizon line, your lines leading back to it will angle downward, if you are below it, they will angle upward. Forget memorizing this, just put it into practice a few times and it will become second nature. By putting it into practice, I mean sketching from life as often as you can and learning to see the perspective naturally. I can’t emphasize the importance of this enough. Once you understand and automatically see it, you can work from any source: photos, your on site sketches or as I typically do, a combination of the two. Remember, photos often distort perspective, you can include, eliminate or exaggerate as much of that distortion as you choose, as long as you understand the basic principles outlined above.

Abstracting an Image

September 19, 2011

Pastel study of construction site (WTC Memorial tower), acrylic and pastel on PastelMat, 9x12 in.

When I paint a subject, it can be any subject, I don’t focus on “what” I am painting. I don’t give objects names, instead I view darks and lights purely as shapes, focusing on form and value to get my drawing mapped in. Doing so allows me to abstract the imagery and yet still come up with a drawing that describes the subject, accurately yet in a simplified, geometric manner.

In this case, I began with a wash of cobalt blue acrylic on white PastelMat. On top of this, I mapped in my darkest values with NuPastel #353 (dark brown-purple). I did this while the paper was slightly damp, which resulted in some great bleeds. Next, I began adding in the local colors of the elements in the composition. This piece has dramatic lighting, with very dark shadows and very bright lights, so there was not a lot to do in terms of middle values.  Additionally, the blue background helped a lot for establishing a middle toned base, on top of which I applied similar tones in soft pastel.

I plan to do a large painting of this landscape in oil or possibly acrylic. Working out the idea for it in pastel is very helpful, and this sketch will be used far more than any reference photos I have once that process begins.

Register now for Fall classes at Visual Arts Center of NJ!

August 17, 2011

Collage with acrylic and pastel on corrugated cardboard, 12x12 in.

Now is the time to sign up for Fall classes at the Visual Arts Center of NJ. I’ll be offering 6 courses in drawing and painting, including my newest “Wet & Wild: An Alternative Approach to Water Media”. If you are looking to experiment with water color, acrylic, drawing inks, marker and pastel in a NON-TRADITIONAL manner, this is the class for you. It will be held on Tuesday afternoons from 3:30 to 6 pm and runs for 10 weeks beginning Sept. 13.

I am also offering my Drawing and Painting courses in oil, acrylic and pastel the same as last semester. For details, visit the Visual Arts Center of NJ web site at and go to the “Create” section.