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.

Painting in Black & White

September 24, 2011

Brownstone Shadows, Philadelphia, oil on panel, 8x10 in.

There is something very unique about painting in black and white with oil paints. I don’t miss working with color, I could easily work in black and white more often, however, there does not seem to be as much demand for works created in monochrome. I find it appealing the same way that black and white photographs seem to reveal more about the subject than those taken in color.

When working exclusively with values, your composition in its purest form really becomes apparent. You only have darks and lights with which to create balance and interest.  Working this way also forces your eye to really analyze the subtleties of the subject. The fewer value changes you have in your range, the more graphic your image will appear, the more you have, the more realistic, so you have a lot of options depending on the style in which you choose to paint.

I like to have a range of about 4 or 5 values. Sometimes, I think of my black and white images as layers in a silk screen, which creates a more graphic feel. I also don’t do a lot of blending, which also helps to reinforce the graphic qualities of my black and white work. Other artists, create soft, realistic blends–neither way is better than the other, they just produce completely different outcomes.

Experimenting with black and white techniques is a great way to improve your drawing skills and your ability to see values. For me, values are the underlying structure in every successful painting, without them, there is no depth.

This particular piece was created with Gamblin’s Torrit Gray, Ivory Black and Titanium white. For information about their 2011 Torrit Gray painting competition, visit


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.