Suzie Baker is a prolific plein air painter. She just returned with a stack of paintings from Maui, Hawaii, after participating in the week-long Maui Plein Air Invitational. While she was away, the Art Renewal Center announced the winners of its 13th International Salon. Baker’s name can be found among the Finalists in the Plein Air and Figurative Categories. It’s quite an accomplishment, and shows her versatility. You can see how she created her winning figurative painting, “To Every Purpose”, in the video below. And, just now I learned she won another ribbon in Maui. So, what else is new?
I asked Suzie, when painting on location, if she tries to capture the color of the motif as she sees it Her answer is interesting. “Yes and no. Artists would never describe my work as photographic or hyper-realism, but I’ve been told at times by non-artists that my work looks like a photograph. In pondering this “compliment,” it occurred to me that what they are actually saying is that my painting conveys the spirit of the view in a way that communicates truth, the way a photo communicates truth. High praise indeed! I guess in painting and politics, you can leave out a lot of information and color. it any number of ways, and still seem to be telling the truth.”
I’m pleased to share more of what Baker has to say concerning plein air painting in Part 2 of our interview. (Click on images to enlarge)
Plein Air Painting
There are many differing opinions as to what qualifies as a plein air painting: in your mind, what qualifies? I think the definition matters most in plein air competitions where painting in the open air from life is the stated, or at the very least, implied expectation. They stamp blank canvases for a reason after-all! “En Plein Air Texas” specifically stipulates in their rules that no photography may be used in the production of competition paintings. An artist might however touch-up or minimally fix a troubling passage in a painting, away from the scene. I have no problem with that, but I do take issue with an artist who substantially paints their canvases in the comfort of their host home. If I’m out freezing, or sweating, or up at the crack of dawn, they should be too!!!!
It appears that you are primarily a plein air painter; how much studio painting do you do, and does your process differ? I may be better known for my plein air work, but I also paint in my studio on a regular basis and in life groups when I can. I paint what I am interested in, still-life, figurative, landscape, I like it all. I’m happy to follow a few muses simultaneously and see where they lead me. As far as my process goes, I generally paint with a loose alla prima technique, but it is always evolving as I experiment with new approaches. When working on figurative pieces in the studio, I work with a hired model. I begin working from life but often finish from a computer screen. Let me add that photography know how, particularly understanding white balance and how to make basic digital image adjustments, is an essential fund of knowledge for this dual resource approach. It’s important to know how the camera lies, and even more important to paint from life enough so that you recognizes those lies when you see them.
“To Every Purpose” – 40″ x 20″ – Oil (Time Lapse Video)
When you paint en plein air, what do you hope to accomplish? I’ve got two answers for this question, depending on the circumstances. While painting at a plein air event/competition, first and foremost, I want to paint a worthy painting, a painting that I would be glad for a collector to purchase and hang on their wall, a painting that requires no qualifier of, “It was painted in 2-3 hours.” The long term merit of a painting will not be judged by how quickly and in what circumstances it was created; all that matters, in the end, will be its merits as a piece of artwork. Its distinction as a “plein air piece” may be just an historical footnote. Plein air painting, with its challenges and potential limitations, should not be an excuse for substandard artwork, rather, it is incumbent upon the artist to create quality paintings within those limitations. I’ll expand on some of the strategies I use to combat these limitations in some of the other questions. Secondly, if I am on a painting or hiking trip with friends, or out scouting, my goals will be to collect information, experiment, and practice. In those situations, my panels are usually small, 9×12 or less, and might end up going into a frame or just serving as a color study for something larger.
“Plein air painting, with its challenges and potential limitations, should not be an excuse for substandard artwork; rather, it is incumbent upon the artist to create quality paintings within those limitations.”
Many of your landscapes involve very transitory lighting/moods; how do you capture that en plein air? The light at dawn and dusk is particularly appealing but exceptionally transitory. I would typically choose a smaller canvas in this circumstance, but there is a trend in plein air competitions to paint larger. I face these challenges in a few ways. I paint small oil sketches while scouting to get the idea, composition and colors sorted. I use an app called “Lumos” to see where the sun will rise and set…to take out some of the guesswork. I tone the surface ahead of time in a way that will support my idea for the finished piece. I arrive early to block-in the major shapes of the painting so that when the moment arises, I can quickly paint the most fleeting light effects, and finally, I often return to the same location with the same canvas for multiple passes.
Do you premix your color before beginning a painting? I don’t customarily premix, though I will squeeze out convenience colors, like greens and Gamblin’s radiant colors, when plein air painting. These colors help speed up the process, as long as I’m careful to keep my work harmonized. I am also careful to mix big piles of the colors that dominate a composition. I’ll use these “mother pools” of color to harmonize a painting, by bending the hue, saturation and value; that saves time of mixing each color individually. After my first painting, I will scrape up a pile of palette grey and place it to the side of my palette, often ending up with a variety of warm and cool grays as the week wears on. These grays serve nicely to desaturate and harmonize the colors.
Please explain your painting process. Let me answer this in terms of my plein air work, since that has been what we’ve talked about most here. I’ve found the following habits to be just as important to my finished paintings as the actual brush to canvas steps. Here goes: If it is my first year at an event, I try to arrive early and scout out the area. The first year is always the most intimidating, and scouting allows me to come up with a loose plan of where and when to paint; I say loose plan, because I allow myself to diverge from any charted course if inspiration presents itself. If I am returning to an event, I will review my photos from previous years and think about what I might like to revisit or check out anew. While scouting, I often do quick field sketches in oil or in my sketchbook, making note of the time of day and thinking through compositions. These habits, along with getting enough rest, eating well, and generally taking good care of myself, help lower stress and make me a happier painter! Before getting on location, I prep my backpack and squeeze out/freshen up my paint so that I’m ready to hit the ground running. The painting itself starts with a toned canvas and block-in of major shapes. My common painting method, whether en plein air or in the studio, is to work big shape to small shape, general to specific, big brush to small brush, dark to light, thin to thick.
NEXT WEEK: In conclusion, Baker discusses color and marketing.
John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE
His work may be found in the following fine galleries: