“Landscape painting is a timeless expression of human experience; man has contemplated the earth, sky, and trees throughout history. The challenge of painting outdoors, en plein air, allows close observation of nature’s light and colors, yet requires speed and memory to capture fleeting conditions. Nature displays endless moods; each day, hour or minute presents something new.” (Kevin Macpherson: “Fill Your Oil Paintings with Light & Color”)
Bruce Crane (1857-1937) an American Tonalist taught that the purpose of studying and sketching out of doors is to fill the memory with facts. “It should therefore be exact and conscientious. In the studio, the artist should use this knowledge freely.”
I’m pleased this week to continue this two-part series featuring four more great artists. Each of the artists featured in this two-part series are well known and highly respected. For those relatively new to plein air painting, you’re going to benefit from their response to two important questions, plus, you’ll learn what is their biggest challenge when it comes to painting outdoors.
Let’s meet this week’s talented artists. All the works shown were done in plein air. (Click images to enlarge)
“As a visual artist, my journey is the pursuit of the consummate visual experiences: always ever elusive and shrouded in the shadows of authenticity and derivative.”
“I believe authentic creativity, in all forms, is an intimately human endeavor, a way to relate spiritually with one another, a way to feel, and I am grateful for the opportunity to visually express my voice.”
“Being curious and creative are the best gifts I have been blessed with. I hope others see that in what I paint.”
“Know your worth and use your worth to Glorify God!”
And now for the questions:
What one piece of advice would you offer a beginning plein air painter?
Gyurcsak: Paint simple scenes… meaning one main subject or theme; less is more! Multiple points of focus or multiple light sources can become very confusing to a student painter. Looking too broadly and not having a defined focal area in the painting is like writing a story with no plot.
Larsen: Don’t get intimidated or overwhelmed by the landscape. Just go out with the attitude that no one will see this but you. It is a step in your art journey and a way to learn. This will give you the freedom to just paint.
Lordier: Draw/sketch as much as you possibly can. With that said, when starting to paint from life, do not paint things, a “tree” or a “house” or “car”. Try to avoid naming the things you are painting, instead think in terms of mass and value. Work hard to simplify the elements of your idea into three to five shapes and assign a value for each shape. Once shapes and values are established do not chase the light/shadows. Keep your effort to less than two hours. Shorter time if possible! My favorite quote on simplifying: “Try to find out how boldly you can make your statement. You can get all the subtlety and beauty you want in the edge of the mass.” – Harvey Dunn
Roberts: “One piece?” That’s hard to narrow down John! Solid blocks of time, behind the easel and painting from life, that’s when personal growth happens. My own experience of growth was when I could spend two weeks solid painting all day including sunsets! The sunsets were very instructive in that I had to anticipate and paint really fast. Premixed colors helped.
What should painters look for when selecting a subject?
Gyurcsak: A strong value design… one that has obvious light and dark patterns….one that is pleasing and engaging in its design. When you squint your eyes you should look for a strong pattern of lights and darks, preferably a leaning of predominance of either more light or more dark patterns. If the scene can be distilled into large poster like shapes, you know your block-in will be successful! If you start to lose control of your value design, reduce the details and return back to larger shapes.
Larsen: Look for subjects that have strong compositional elements. Keep it as simple as possible. Don’t feel you have to include everything you see. A strong painting of a tree can be more powerful than a painting of a forest!
Lordier: The world is full of stimulating material to paint! Know that one can find something to explore visually anywhere. Take time to look past the obvious, and walk around before setting up your easel. Once you find something that speaks to you, ask yourself why; is it color, texture, the light on the subject? Then make a note of the reason in your sketch book, on the canvas or even on the easel to remind yourself of the reason while you paint. Think about designing your painting around that idea. I encourage beginning painters to look for a simple light and dark pattern, this will help the artist to understand the importance of values, especially if they have trouble separating color from value.
Roberts: Beyond finding a subject that compels you to paint, look for interesting light and dark shapes and the patterns that they create. Ideally, for me, it’s the confluence of a favorite subject and dynamic design.
What’s been the most difficult part of plein air painting for you, and how did you overcome it?
Gyurcsak: Early on… I remember being overwhelmed by the amount of information to include in a painting; as I matured I slowly began to reduce and simplify my value design. Now, I’ve reduced the amount of value changes to only 3 or 4. This single decision has increased my level of skill to a higher level of proficiency. Many students struggle with keeping the value structure together but it is imperative that it is maintained. Many times it is fractured by merging too many light and dark transitions together, this in turn makes the entire painting too moderate, too mundane, leaving the painting with no real punch.
Larsen: Learning to see the underlying abstract elements of a scene (large shapes, dark and lights) and continuing to build on that. Trying to make a work of art, a painting, and not just copying what is in front of me or trying to match local color to the scene. Overcoming that took a lot of study and practice. There really is a lot to be said about practice, practice. There are no shortcuts.
Lordier: My expectations! Two of the most difficult parts of plein air painting was overcoming the need to have a finished product, and the fear of failure. Completing a painting on site was a by-product of the plein air events I participated in early in my career. Once I realized my purpose for painting in the field was for gathering information, building my memory bank of visual experiences, and recording that information in paint, I was able to let go of expectations, which kill the process in my opinion, and truly study deeper the elements before me. Fear of failure was probably the most difficult thing to overcome. I still have yet to completely overcome that fear, but once I realized there is ALWAYS another canvas to put up on the easel and start over again, the weight of expectation lifted tremendously. Trust me, standing before the easel is still a struggle whether in the studio or in the field, forever elation and frustration at the same time. I hope that roller-coaster ride never goes away. If it does, then it is time to put the brush down. My advice- draw, work hard to simplify, set your expectations aside, and be willing to explore.
Roberts: Foregrounds were particularly hard and required a lot of concentration to make them work with the given painting. To overcome my struggling with it I realized I would first have to make it work with the rest of the painting and not rely on the given foreground in front of me and/or simplification of the object(s). I realized that picking up my easel and moving 10 feet one direction or another completely changed the foreground to better work with the rest of the painting! Good luck!!
To see more work of these four wonderful artists, click their names below.
A huge thank you to each of the artist’s that participated in this blog series. If you missed Part One with Jane Hunt, Joe Paquet, Peggi Kroll Roberts, and Dawn Whitelaw…you may access it HERE.
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I am honored once again to be part of PleinAir Live…a global virtual experience. This amazing event will be held April 15-17. The theme for my presentation is “Keep it Simple” (How to simplify your artistic life). I will be offering beginners advice that will help them simplify and organize their artistic life, giving them the best chance for rapid growth and success. Finally, I will conclude with an oil painting demonstration using a very limited palette…all part of “keeping it simple”.
I would be deeply grateful if you would use this link to sign up. Full disclosure, I do receive a small royalty for those that use this link. Thank You.