Three questions about plein air painting – Part 1

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In this two-part series, twelve elite artists respond to three important questions facing every plein air painter.

In order to create a quality painting outdoors in front of the subject, an artist is required to be at their very best. Just about everything involved conspires against success.

Deluged with an overwhelming amount of information, the plein air painter must decide what is important, what captivates them concerning the subject…and how best to communicate that on canvas. One must also deal with rapidly changing light, weather, wind, insects, suitable places to set up, lack of privacy, unexpected interruptions, equipment, supplies…and all the technical stuff: drawing, composition, values, color, and paint application…all this within two hours or less, in most cases. It’s a lot to deal with and many aspiring artists just can’t handle it. That’s not the case with the 12 artists featured in this blog series. They are masters of this very difficult dance. They embrace these challenges with great results.

Colorado artist, Marc Hanson, recently took it to the extreme. In February, one of the coldest and snowiest in recent times, Marc challenged himself to paint four paintings outside, every day of the month. In the end, after experiencing near zero temperatures and 50 mph winds, he recorded for the month 112, 8”x 10” paintings. The guy is a brute.

According to Becky Joy, she believes in tenacity and hard work”, but she’s looking forward to three months of unstructured time this summer while traveling, teaching, and painting in Europe. While there, she’ll participate as an invited artist at Art in the Open in Ireland.

Kaye Franklin, Rusty Jones, and Jill Carver are all well-known and highly accomplished.  Kaye Franklin was recently elected Master Signature Member of American Women Artists, and also won the “Best Floral Award” in the Oct/Nov PleinAir magazine competition, which qualifies her as a finalist for the $15000 grand prize…awarded at the PleinAir Convention in Monterey, CA this April. Rusty Jones will be profiled in the Mar/Apr edition of the magazine, and Jill Carver has been selected to juror the increasingly important Plein Air Southwest Salon 2014, opening April 5th at Southwest Gallery in Dallas.

John Cook is extraordinarily grateful for God’s gift to him…”Colossal” is the way he expresses his thanks. “What an amazing life to be able to express myself with color and light…and nothing beats God’s natural light.”

It’s with great pleasure I bring you the first six of twelve interviewees.

Jill Carver

Jill Carver

John Cook

John Cook

Kaye Franklin

Kaye Franklin

Marc Hanson

Marc Hanson

Becky Joy

Becky Joy

Rusty Jones

Rusty Jones

If there is one piece of advice you would offer a beginning plein air painter, what would it be?

Carver:  I would say enjoy the journey! Do not get hung up on the idea that plein air painting is about producing finished pieces in the field – it’s great when it happens, but it should not be the only goal. Painting plein air is about being a student of nature; it’s about looking, learning to see, finding ideas, developing a dialogue with the land and recording your personal emotional response. It’s an old cliché, but the true joy in what we do really is about the process not the product. I would encourage people to go out there with a questioning, humble mind and a reverent attitude. It’s all about being alive in the moment – of achieving some kind of transcendence or spiritual communion. You create something very personal in a moment in time. It’s as pure as it gets. Enjoy that journey of seeking – do not judge yourself on whether you have created something finished or not. I see too much frustration in students when they have not achieved something frame-able – it can be so frustrating, but it also misses the point.

Cook:  If you are new to plein air painting, welcome to a world of hurt and a world of glory! My initial attempts were frustrating to say the least.  Because of a lack of confidence, my first few months or even years of outings produced only mediocre results. I began to realize that my expectations played a major part in determining the level of success I could achieve. I remember as I chose a scene, set up my easel, and started sketching with my brush, I had a gnawing feeling as I told myself “this will not be a piece for framing… It’s just going to be another so-so attempt.” I practically knew for sure it would not be good enough even to frame. Eventually I had to mentally prepare myself to be confident enough to allow myself to know “this will work…I will make something good of this piece”. So my advice in a nutshell: get your confidence! Make certain of your skills. Drawing is preeminent. The rest will follow.

John Cook - "Forgotten" - 11"x 14" 0il

John Cook – “Forgotten” – 11″x 14″ 0il

Franklin:  My greatest advice to a beginning plein-air painter would be to get the best equipment you can afford, something lightweight and easy to set up. Plein-air painting is difficult enough without having to fight with your equipment. Also, when painting plein-air, choose only a small area from the entire panoramic view and focus on the scene you think will work best for you.

Hanson:  Aside from researching the process of taking paints outside and painting it, and having all of the necessary gear and additional needed supplies… GET COMFORTABLE with your gear! Take it outside, even just to the backyard, and go through a few dry runs with it all to see what isn’t essential, and what you might be missing that is essential, and how it all works together.  When you are outside in the elements, with limited painting time, all of the distractions that it offers in the way of weather, wild critters of all shapes and sizes, and human interaction, being comfortable with your painting supplies is critical to having an enjoyable outside painting experience. 

Marc Hanson - 2-12-1 "55th St. Rise" - 8"x 10" - Pastel

Marc Hanson – 2-12-1 “55th St. Rise” – 8″x 10″ – Pastel

Joy:  Since beginning plein air artists are often overwhelmed with a multitude of items in the scene and time is limited, I often tell them to start with just the block-in. A successful block-in may be the most important part of their painting. Once they become comfortable with the block-in and can lay it down quick enough, then it is easier to move on to more details. Hopefully, the beginning artist will also limit the details in there painting by this time.

Jones:  Paint something every day and paint from life as often as possible.


What approach do you take in order to capture the essence of a scene within the short time you have when working en plein air?

Carver:  First, I try to have a dialogue with myself about why a particular scene or moment made me stop in my tracks – I try to be very specific about ‘motif’ – by that I mean the IDEA behind the painting (that can be an object, or a light effect, or a color dialogue that is happening).  I zero in on that and try not to get distracted by everything else there is! I say to my students to try and think of themselves as a poet, not a journalist. The tough choices are all about what you choose to leave out, what you decide is irrelevant to your motif. It’s hard, because there might be a whole load of exciting stuff happening, but you have to be specific about your mission! I work small – often 10 x 12 and smaller and I just endeavor to get some real information there.

After identifying the value range, my darkest darks and my lightest lights (and yes, I do talk to myself when doing this), I block in my main shapes initially large and quite abstract. I block them in using the color I perceive as being ‘the average of the whole’ for any given shape.  My approach is really like putting a jigsaw puzzle together or laying colored tiles next to one another.  I never work for more than 2 hours on a scene… but if I feel I missed something… I will simply go back the next day and try again… I really enjoy doing various separate studies of the one place – it encourages a dialogue between you and the subject matter; and it then becomes a meditative and a responsive act.

Cook:  Choose a scene that is reasonable to accomplish in the time frame. Look for the main patterns in values. Edit the unnecessary details in the concept of your mind. Paint the scene first with a “brain Poloroid ” (5 seconds) Be accurate as possible with early brushwork. This once again calls for confidence. Then be bold! There will always be a need for corrections to be made, so don’t be fearful of making a mistake. I am always aware I can scrub the piece early. I have won two quick draws by scrubbing the first attempt and starting completely over (once by choosing an entirely different scene from the same vantage point). Detail does not guarantee a winner. Grab a successful mood and you are three quarters home!

Franklin:  The approach I take when plein-air painting is to simplify. I look for the large light and dark shapes with a strong focal area.  I try to capture just an impression of the scene with notes of color and without much detail.

Kaye Franklin - "Winter on the San Juan" - 12"x 12" - Oil

Kaye Franklin – “Winter on the San Juan” – 12″x 12″ – Oil

Hanson:  Before I begin to paint, I make decisions about what my painting is going to be about.  I form a concept in my mind that will guide me along as I paint.  I may go as far as seeing the painting in its completed state; that saves me time making those decisions in the middle of the painting process.  Or, I may see a small portion of a fast moving subject that I want to grab, know exactly what to do with that part of the painting, and let that determine how the rest of the painting evolves, quickly; that  doesn’t mean that the concept is set in concrete, I’m always open to something in the subject changing, and taking me in a different direction (a different conceptual idea).  But starting without a path in mind is like wandering around on a day’s journey when you only have a couple of hours at the most due to changing light, or less, to get where you’re going.  I prefer to weight the odds of a successful outcome in my favor by ‘seeing’ my painting before I even begin.

Joy:  I always try to keep in mind what drew me to the scene in the first place and to answer these questions: What did I feel? What word can I use to describe the mood of the scene? How can I convey that feeling in the painting? What is essential and what can be eliminated to get that across to the viewer?

Jones:  1) Find the darkest dark in the scene then mix that color and value. Place it in the exact spot and exact shape in the painting. 2) I find the largest shape that is occupying the most space and mix a large pool of that shape’s color because all other shapes and colors will have to relate to it and this sets me up for a harmonious painting. 3) Paint in the shadow pattern in each ground…foreground, middle ground and distant ground. 4) Block in the main shapes in flat patterns. When done with this step I know to either continue the painting or wipe it off. 5) If I continue after the block-in I go to my center of interest and paint it to completion. 6) Once the center of interest is painted I finish off the painting by dividing the larger shapes into smaller ones, manipulate the edges of objects to force the viewer’s attention toward the center of interest. 7) I step back and view the painting to see where my eye goes and if anything takes me away from the center of interest I change it. HINT: I always paint the sky in last. This keeps me from painting it too dark then having to paint a dark landscape to match.

Rusty Jones - "Coastal Glare" - 18"x 24" - Oil

Rusty Jones – “Coastal Glare” – 18″x 24″ – Oil


How are your plein air works used to create larger studio paintings?

Carver:   They are an absolutely  crucial part of the overall process for me. They contain the most accurate valuable information available to me even if they are unfinished and quite raw. When I paint outdoors and think that a scene has potential for a studio piece, I also write thoughts and ideas down, or anecdotes about color notes that I felt I might not have quite captured in the study, and I take numerous photos letting the camera expose both in sunlit areas and then in shadow planes… but the painted studies, even if they consist of just a few color notes, are the most valuable of all. They get me back to that place.

The studio, for me, is where I resolve and refine the idea – so it is NOT necessarily about size – indeed I often do 8 x 10’s in the studio – but it is about pushing the painting to that place where the idea has been fully explored and resolved. For me painting is not about replicating a scene; I hope to push a painting to where it becomes a very personal statement – some speak of it as ‘the elevation from a painting to a piece of art’. I think that line that we hope to cross, has a lot to do with transferring our personal emotion into paint. That’s what I strive for – it does not always work out – but I am constantly pushing to ‘say something’.

I do a lot of preparation work but I try not to over-rehearse the piece. Indeed from experience I know that for me just using the studio to ‘scale up’ from a successful field study rarely results in exciting results.  I think that is because there is nothing more to be discovered on an intellectual level – it just feels to me at least, that I am just reiterating something already said. So there has to be something left to explore. There has to be risk and excitement.

In actually planning out a piece I also do numerous sketches using sharpie pens or charcoal to experiment with various ‘notan’ designs. I will also sometimes do a value plan, or I might come up with a color plan but use gouche or watercolor instead of oil. So I try to hold back a lot of the excitement in reserve. But this discipline of taking time to explore and to prepare than allows me to enter into the larger canvas with gusto, energy and be fairly confident about its direction – which in turn hopefully maintains some of that energy and dynamic freshness that plein air studies have.

Finally, I also use the studio to experiment and learn. Because I did not attend art college as such, I am catching up on a lot of the technical theory; so to make life in the studio exciting for myself I often set myself a task – such as in the attached image, ‘Spring Waters’. I set myself the task of seeing if I could paint the whole thing in just three values. I literally drew lines on my palette to make sure I did not stray from my three-value rule. Within each value I could however mix up numerous hue and temperature shifts. It was incredibly empowering, and I think in this instance it gave a scene that could otherwise have been very busy and broken up, a sense of cohesiveness.

Jill Carver - "Spring Waters" - 24"x 48" - Oil

Jill Carver – “Spring Waters” – 24″x 48″ – Oil

Cook:  I don’t. I can’t remember doing it once. In my personal experiences, the beauty of plein air paintings can only be deteriorated by attempting to capture the freshness on a larger, studio canvas. If you truly capture the “magic” in a small painting, savor it and keep it in your personal collection. Observing the freshness often helps in future attempts down the road when doing plein air or studio pieces

Franklin:  When painting a studio painting from a plain-air work, I try to keep it simple like the original. I only use my plein-air works as a guide, mainly for color and value notes. Working with the larger areas on the canvas, there will be more detail and a stronger center of interest.

Hanson:  Many times I’m outside painting a finished piece with all the i’s dotted, and the T’s crossed…painting from life…not a study in other words, but a painting that is intended to be a finished statement.  At other times, I’m out making studies. The truth is outside.  I see the plein air studies as my way of building a mental catalog of what Mother Nature has to offer us in the way of color, design, texture, drama, mood, emotion, joy, beauty and all of the other adjectives we attach to her. Those may end up becoming a starting point for a larger studio painting, but not a painting that I will copy per se.  I’ve done very few plein air studies that have larger studio twins hanging on a wall.  I have a lot of larger studio paintings on walls that have small plein air studies as their genesis.  But they’re only cousins.

Joy:  I like to paint large and often use my plein air paintings as reference.  I have a difficult time getting the same feel in the large painting as I have in the original small painting when I “copy” the plein air. I find that I’m more successful composing a new painting in a larger format and using the plein air as reference for color and values, rather than composition.  When I use the plein air I will usually put it away after a while, or I become too literal in rendering what I see.

Becky Joy - "Grand Canyon Glow" 48"x 48" - Oil

Becky Joy – “Grand Canyon Glow” 48″x 48″ – Oil

Jones:  I use my plein air field studies as the main color guide for the studio piece. When doing the study, all of the major color and value decisions are made so I trust the decisions I make in the field more than any photo reference I may have shot to support the field study. I place the filed study on an easel next to the studio easel so I can constantly refer back to it. Painting a studio piece from a successful field study is like going back in time because I usually remember everything that went into creating the field study. By that I remember what  I had for breakfast that day, the friends I was painting with, the weather, the long hike into a location and the feeling of pulling off a successful painting. The better I feel about a plein air study the more likely the studio piece will be successful as well.

A big thank you to each of you for providing such valuable help to my readers.

Next week we continue the interview with: Fran Ellisor, Richard Prather, Kathyrn Stats, Kevin Macpherson, Nancy Boren, and Ted Clemens…more very interesting and helpful information.

John Pototschnik is an Art Renewal Center Associate Living Master
To view his art and bio, please click HERE


 Scheduled Workshops for 2014

 22-24 May  –  Dahlonega, GA

20-22 June  –  Lowell, MI

18-20 September  –  Jackson, MS

1-3 October  –  Portland, ME

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