Tag Archives: how to paint loose and atmospheric

Small on-site sketches…or….little paintings!

I know that Jeremy Lipking and Scott Christensen teach the importance of making small on-site sketches whenever possible. I even heard that in Scott’s plein air workshops, students only get 45 minutes to finish a painting on each location visited! When some of the best painters have great advice, it certainly is a good idea to consider it!

The advantages are obvious and multi-fold:

  • It may be less intimidating to start a small sketch than a bigger painting.
  • Despite the relatively small size (only 5″x6″ or so), the painting process is the same. You still  need to work out values, color, drawing and edge just like in a bigger piece!
  • You’re going home with 3–6 paintings instead of just one (that you may or may not like).
  • Last but not least, you have multiple on-site sketches from which you can do a bigger studio piece from!

Oh, and here’s another one: often there isn’t enough time to finish before the light changes too much, but it’s almost always possible to finish a 5″x6″ piece. These sketches should really take no longer than 30–45 minutes each, no matter what medium you’re painting in.

I don’t even bother with an underpainting when doing these in oils. Since I am a watercolor guy, I just jot down a few lines with pencil and paint ‘alla prima’ (direct painting). The basic principle for Alla Prima painting is to observe, mix and put down the right amount of paint in the right place with the right value. If possible with little or no adjusting, changing etc.

Easier said than done! Practice, practice, practice!

A Most Songful Stream!

The first picture was the reference photo used to paint ‘A Most Songful Stream’. The location is one of the most visited places in Yosemite National Park, so painting en plein air was out of the question at this spot. Too many people and to make matters worse, this view is from a busy bridge. I thought it would be interesting to see how it was edited and simplified to become more manageable and paint-able!

Notice how the (point-and-shoot) camera always overexposes whites. The water certainly has some whites especially where it cascades down, but it wasn’t nearly as bleached out as in the picture.

I have added mist from the main falls which are located behind the dark trees on the right. I have also added a few bigger boulders as a foreground. The trees on the left side were given less attention as they don’t add much to the painting. I simplified the rocks so as not to over-model them and lastly, I added some dappled lights in the darker sections.

By painting sections this seemingly complicated scene can be painted effectively. Still, it is not an easy painting. I always look for the light and dark patterns and exaggerate them, that way I maintain a clear light path and order in my paintings. With flowing water, I try to pick up on its energy and make use of that as well.

This painting will be part of the first Annual Waterworks Exhibition at Laguna Plein Air Painters Association, May 1 to June 5. Please visit if you’re in the area! Click for more information.

Click to see this as an animation and more of my work on Instagram.

Now that winter’s over, it’s time for all-day plein air! My students have asked what equipment I use, so here it is for you: I use Daniel Smith pigments and Arches watercolor blocks. I paint with DaVinci Casaneo brushes using a Holbein Metal Palette 500. My portable/travel set-up includes the Sienna Plein Air Artist Pochade Box Easel, size Medium and the Sienna Tripod Easel. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask.

Same scene – different media – different times of the day

As you can see, I am experimenting with my art a bit right now. The fact is, I am always experimenting. I try to never get complacent, to fall into a rut and do the same thing over and over. Before you know it, as an artist, you are known to paint certain things in a certain way.
You become a ‘one trick pony’.

I avoid that at all cost. I don’t want to be put into such a drawer. I think it is important to never be static and to always change, to evolve, to move on. Artistically speaking, I mean. (Although you could make that argument for life in general as well, but that’s another blogpost… LOL)

On our last plein air outing near Bishop’s Peak, I felt I messed up my painting. At least, I didn’t like how it came out. Being there at the wrong time with the wrong light, I didn’t feel inspired but since my friends all painted I felt compelled to paint as well.

It took another trip to get better references and I feel good about the two I posted here. Both of them are not done plein air. To be honest, I had problems painting this mountain. After a few plein air attempts I figured I needed to move this into the studio to understand what it was I didn’t ‘get’. In the end, I think it was a combination of wrong light and lack of vision. I just didn’t really know how I wanted to see this painted.

The appearance of this peak changes dramatically during the course of the day, so it’s very easy to get lost. Despite all my years of painting outside, I made the cardinal mistake to follow the light. Not so much in the foreground but the light on the peak itself and promptly messed up the painting.

Repainting it in the studio made me realize what had happened. The sunrise piece is done in water-soluble oils. I used to paint lots of oils in the ’80s and ’90s and lately I have been getting back into it more. I apologize for the bad pictures, you can find a better version of the first one here. I need to learn how to take good pictures of oil paintings!

My new Sienna set-up

I used this custom-made easel for years and years but it started to fall apart, so it was time to get something new! I wanted a set-up that I can use for both watercolor and oil painting.

There are many choices out there, most of them prohibitively expensive and with someone’s name attached to it. I don’t like that so much, that’s why I went for this simple and reasonably priced Sienna Plein Air Artist Pochade Box Easel, size Medium. It is quite easy to set up. More importantly, it holds painting sizes up to 14″ x 18″, which is as big as I would ever paint outside. The angle is adjustable and I can still use my sunshade. (Another big plus for me!)

While you can use any tripod, I ended up buying the coordinating Sienna Tripod Easel as well. If you have a good tripod already, you don’t need to. I tried my old one for a while but the whole thing was just too wobbly. A stable and light tripod is, unfortunately, quiet expensive but it is money well spent: the easel has to be rigid enough for drawing and withstand some wind.

I also like that my Holbein Metal Palette 500 fits exactly into the box opening! I definitely lucked out there… It comes with a tray to store a water container or painting medium and brushes. I don’t like having to hold a palette in my hands while painting, so this is one of its best features.

A note about the weight: The Pochade was advertised as 3.5 lbs, but I weighed it and it is definitely more than 4 lbs. I can’t say I like that, but it’s still acceptable as that weight includes the tempered glass. So no complaints here. I bought the medium, which is really a small size. Overall, I good product that I would recommend to a painting friend.

Design in painting

A painting starts in our heads. An idea or something we see that ignites our inspiration. Then the design part follows, which means placing shapes and objects in a way that makes sense. We need to consider how to divide the space, how the patterns and lines relate, what to leave in and what to leave out.
The editing process can be quite difficult since nature usually supplies too much information.
For me, the best way is to ask myself whether the object supports what I want to show or not. If I am not sure, I usually leave it out.

Developing a focal point is certainly important but we wary of rules of any kind: there are plenty of ‘don’t do this, do that’ rules out there that were, over the course of painting history, often ignored by successful painters. In fact, the rule breakers were often times trail blazers for something new. Andrew Wyeth’s work (again!) comes to mind. I remember one painting where he put the subject (the girl he painted) on the bottom edge of the painting and cropping her half off. Yet, his painting worked just fine.

Following painting rules too closely can inhibit one’s creativity. Am I saying there are no rules? Not really. When we look at a painting we certainly know whether the design works or not. It’s easy to see when it doesn’t work. However, sometimes paintings don’t have large simple patterns, strong and connecting lines or the lightest and darkest values right where the focal point is. Yet they look amazing!

The only right place to put a focal point is where ‘you’ like to see it, not where a teacher told you because some lines intersect. Again, that may work but if you find another solution I would recommend going with that. It’s your painting, not theirs..

Having ‘a path through the painting’ is another tricky thing that may or may not work. There’s absolutely no guarantee that a person looking at the work will see it the way you see it.
I think educating ourselves about design is important. We need to know what has been done and what works. It’s a good idea to analyze paintings you really like and try to figure out ‘why’ you like them.
Once you know you can add those aspects to your own painting!

Composition: a path through the painting

 

We’ve all heard of the rule of thirds, but there is also another good way to create a focal point:

A path through the painting. That refers to the way line work creates a dynamic path that leads the eye around the painting. I often use it as it makes for a very interesting composition. When out in nature we have to look for these things. I think they are almost more important that the subject itself! A good painter can create a great painting out of the most drab and boring subject, i.e. a junk yard or an intersection with nothing much there but ugly buildings, just by making use of this!

That brings me to another point: it’s easy to get lost in the subject and neglect the composition. In this instance, dry docked boats with men working on them is great subject matter in itself. However, if we just show a boat on stilts and nothing else that can be a bit underwhelming to look at. After all, we just have our pathetic, two dimensional piece of paper or canvas to capture it all! So I tried to create a path to make it more interesting. I also created big areas with, what I call abstract painting. The entire hillside behind the boat and the entire foreground has an abstract quality to it. I always say, in representational painting, 80% of every painting is non-representational!

Finally, ‘pardon the dust’, so to speak: my website is currently down because it gets a much needed revamp. Hopefully it won’t take too long. Stay tuned!!

 

Vermont in October

I was really looking forward to this one and Vermont did not disappoint! Everything was wonderful: the location, the Landgrove Inn, the people and the weather! Only one rainy day out of four glorious days of sunshine and cool, crisp temperatures.

Staying at the Landgrove Inn was great. It is truly a place to get away from everything. Tucked between two mountains in southern Vermont, you won’t find a better place to recharge your batteries from your day to day hectic life! Everything was taken care of: breakfast, lunch and dinner! All we had to do was show up. Tom even catered our lunch when we were painting in a nearby town. How does it sound to just paint for a whole week with nothing else to worry about?? The Landgrove Inn is the place to do it, second to none! Thanks so much, Maureen and Tom!

Painting en plein air is the greatest teacher ever! One of the biggest issues students have is editing the scene in front of us, last week was no exception. That goes both for shapes and objects as well as color. Just as a scene is overloaded with lots of information, it is also overloaded with lots of color. Especially in Vermont in the fall! Both must be simplified.

In my workshops, I teach a way to look at a scene with the eyes of a painter! While we try to capture what’s in front of us, we must not get tempted to put in everything we see. First of all, it can’t be done anyways. Second, it won’t even look appealing. Third, why paint it at all? Why not just take a photograph and leave it at that?

I teach painting. I don’t care about watercolor. Painting is painting and in order to do it successfully, we must learn how to see right. Before adding anything to a scene I always ask myself whether it adds positively to the picture. Will it support the message of the painting? Will it add to the design and composition? Or is it just another repetition of what’s already there?

The thing to understand is the light and dark pattern first and foremost. What colors you end up using is completely secondary. If the pattern and design is good, the painting will be good!