Tag Archives: Central California

Plein Air painting – why do it?

There has been a strong move back to painting on location in the last couple of years. Many painters do almost nothing else, so 90 percent of their work is done outside. Why would anybody want to subject themselves repeatedly to painting in the heat, cold, wind, surrounded by flies, passers-by with lots of questions and get sun stroke? Why not just take pictures and paint in the comfort of the studio?

The answer is obvious, but also more complex than it seems. Cameras record a place but don’t do it very accurately. Values are usually off but also the subtle color relationships within the subject matter are not captured well. Our senses are just so much more keen than a mechanical or digital ‘thing’.
Unless we do a completely value based painting, it’s important to pick up on all the subtle color nuances that the camera can’t see.It’s up to the artist to interpret them in their own way, put their own spin on it and turn it into art.
It’s a very different experience to be on location as oppose to just go by a picture of it. I think painting outside will ultimately improve an artists studio work as well.

Having said all that, I personally think painting outside should only be one part of what an artist does. The studio work is at least equally important! In the studio, working from a plein air sketch is invaluable. You can attempt a bigger painting and while working, the memory of the place will come flooding in and go into the studio piece as well. Ideally, that’s what should happen.

I am trying to divide my painting time into 30% outside and 70% inside. For me, a perfect balance

When painting outside, one of the worst distractions are people who linger to watch and ask me lots of questions, constantly reiterating that they ‘do not intent to disturb me’. Luckily, most people are great. I have no problem with someone watching me, just don’t strike up a lengthy conversation. I am here to paint!
We had a new one the other day. Unprecedented. While painting in a small park near the ocean at Morro Bay, some guy came up and asked us if we knew why the restrooms are locked. My painting buddy looked at him and actually answered that he doesn’t know. I pretended I am deeply involved in painting but had to really hold myself back and not say something rude!
It never ceases to amaze me what questions you get! We couldn’t believe it, but it also made for comic relieve once he had sauntered off.

Figurative work and portraits

Portraits are mostly done in oil and pastel. Watercolor not so much.
Historically, watercolor has been the sketch medium. It wasn’t until the British watercolor movement in the 1800’s that you would see artists paint a watercolor and consider it a piece of art in it’s own right.
We do have an appreciation for watercolor today, but the status quo really hasn’t changed that much. Oil rules the world of art and it probably will never change. Especially in Portrait painting. Oil paintings fetch a lot more money, there are no size limitations, it is easier to control and possibilities in texture are not as limited. So why bother with watercolor?

The things I personally like about it are the qualities that makes artists move to oils: you can’t control it 100%, it’s hard to fix mistakes and you can’t layer. Yes, you can glaze but that’s different.
When a watercolor comes out nice, it is luminous (oil paints are not) and spontaneous. It feels natural, unforced.
That’s why it is so important to paint it all quickly and decisively with as little brushwork as possible. It then retains that character. As soon as we start layering up too thickly, mixing too many similar washes and even pressing too hard with the brush, it all goes away. All of a sudden, it’s looks dull and tired. How did that happen? We’ve all been there many times!
It takes a sensitive brush stroke and a keen eye to know where the turning point is. Sometimes, about half way through the painting you can feel the doubts creeping in. To me that’s my personal alarm bell that tells me to back off! The Gods of watercolor are sending me a friendly warning…they say, ‘a bit more of this kind of thing and this one will go into the garbage can, so be careful, you!’

Painting Portraits is something I have done a lot in the 90’s. It was supplemental income when I worked as an illustrator for a design agency. Back then I was not proficient in watercolor, but gouache was my medium. It is watermedia but I used it like oil paints. The challenge now is to find a way to do it in watercolor and with atmospheric effects. Maybe even include gouache or acrylic. There are certain things you just can’t do with transparent watercolor. I am excited! I will still paint my usual subject matter, but you will see more figurative work as well.