Sunday, August 12, 2012

Be Prepared!... The Cardinal Rule For Success En Plein Air

Success and enjoyment in plein air painting depends upon many variables. Some like choice of painting locations... temperature and choice of materials  can be planned  for in advance. Others such as weather are fleeting and totally unpredictable at the very  best of times and must be accommodated on the spur of the moment. The cardinal "rule" (of thumb)... in my box carefully adheres to the ol' Boy Scout Motto: Be Prepared!

In earlier days I used to drive around with a painting friend for hours... often either "settling" for a second rate  site as the painting light began to fade... or worse still... we would return on occasion with absolutely nothing to show for the exercise... except futility and a sense of being beaten. This needless undoing came as a result of our own stupidity... allowing ourselves to be caught up in finding... "the perfect composition."

I have long left those days of dejection behind and I really owe my present success in most always obtaining at least one good sketch per foray to to a prior set plan and decision to commit to one site or specific small area  interest... rather than just conducting a driving tour. This also includes setting a specific time for arrival at the site to prepare mentally and physically for the intended painting activity for the day.

 I usually scout the area (if it is nearby) the day before... looking for prime material and landscapes which trigger a positive feel.In so doing... I not only know in advance what is available at the site... but as well it affords me the opportunity to plan for the sizes and numbers of panels or canvases that I might use. That's a time saver and reduces carrying needless supplies and equipment... less to forget!  HA HA!! Done that... more than a few times!

I have been teaching a small class each Tuesday during the month of July and that will continue throughout August as well. I purposely kept it small and open-ended in the registration part... allowing members to participate as they wanted to or could... given often busy summer plans that include visitors and family events. That has worked very well for everyone. The small size of the classes permits more one-on-one time with each participant and a stronger opportunity to develop a very strong relationship with the individual and the group.

Having to prepare thinking about the needs and individual mediums and strengths of each of the learners is a daunting task... one that I have ALWAYS taken personally ... even during my elementary school teaching career. Every student matters! - Plain and simple! So site locations... predicated weather conditions... proximity to necessary "comfort" needs (for the ladies especially) and painting needs particular to each participant had to be well considered beforehand.

In selecting a possible a potential subject for my class... I have to take into consideration the participant "variables" as well.- variation in medium... variation in both studio and plein air experience... variation in painting process and knowledge... and most of all... variation in confidence. All of these variable  factors will add into'...  or take away from the success and the enjoyment for each of my class members. That must be considered in my advance preparations.

"Fred Guild's Retreat, Little Hebrides Island" - plein air oil on canvas 16x20 inches

Looking Twice... and a second view to be considered!

For our fifth outing together... I decided to take them to the "Fred's Island Retreat" site... on Little Hebrides Island five kilometres east of Rockport. They had admired my earlier 16x20 inch canvas in the Gallery and wanted to give the subject a try. I knew that the location was very close to the shoulder of the very busy Thousand Island Parkway... but that  there was plenty of shade and numerous location possibilities close together for our group of three on this occasion.

I knew that if they merely tried to replicate the format of my earlier canvas that both would find themselves overly challenged by the complexity of the entire subject... as I was. So I suggested that perhaps we might investigate the possibility of using only a smaller section of my original composition and the actual site to create an entirely new composition. Using my digital camera, I cropped out the area that I thought had a real strong composition... based upon simpler perspective, detail and masses. I showed them this cropped version on my 3 inch digital screen... the equivalent of the trusty rectangular mat board view finder that I used when I first went outdoors painting.

Both liked the suggestion and new view... so while they were setting up (both like to sit while painting)... I set up my regular fashion... standing... with easel off to one side so that they could watch a quick lay in "demo"... using burnt sienna oil washes to establish the basic forms and structure (as shown in the upper jpeg). When I reached the conclusion of this first step... I stopped painting and made myself available to encourage and suggest... as each needed until they too reached the lay in stage in watercolour and acrylics. My "wash" entry approach closely resembled their own individual  approach using water media... putting all of us basically on the same page as far as initial technique went.

Stage 1. Tonal start... just the basic masses and important lines

Stage 2. Basic coloured masses and placement of bridge structure

The next stage was to demonstrate the laying in of darker green masses to replace the burnt sienna toned areas with those features. I moved all over the canvas simultaneously to create full coverage in temporary thin coloured  passages of all areas ... water... land and sky masses. No attempt was made to bring any one area into a state of of finish at this point, but rather to serve as a transition platform/foundation from the tonal lay in into colour. This strategy, I hoped  would  approximate the necessary process of  laying in of washes to build water media pieces by means of gradually layering of transparent colour.

 Halfway into the painting ... light's on the move... Halfway out of the shade!

Both participating artists easily reached this same stage quickly and confidently working , for the most part on their own. I continued work on my own demo painting so that they could watch as they liked and use what interested them to define areas  and adjust the myriad of green values using heavier darks and lighter lights on their own works. I then had them stop to watch as I worked up the water areas... first in the distant passages and then the foreground water which was continually changing. I dropped vertical shafts of loosely painted dark green reflections from the trees on the island first and then proceeded to adding the horizontals into the darker areas of vertical shadows. This emphasizes the influence by the sky and the wind effects on the water. I strongly emphasized that one must make a decision about these and then lay them in .... once! Otherwise, the values become greyed down and lose their vitality and freshness.

At this point, both people were at a point where they (and I) were tiring. It is without any doubt a challenge to paint en plein air in the summer because of the overwhelming presence of green everywhere in the landscape. It forcefully underscored the wisdom of our original decision to limit our day's focus to a smaller area of the larger picture laid out in front of us. The full scene contained too much information and detail for someone with limited experience to attempt.... and a lean window of time to accomplish that task. The light had changed  rapiudly and dramatically on the island part... as I had predicted, but I had taken a photo of the lighting on the island that we wished to include. I would jpeg this photo to each to serve as a reference for each... when they did their (studio) homework on their pieces before the next class.

Note my further cropped version in the painting... AND... that white sail! What a gift!

I ended the class by placing the bridge roughly onto my own canvas and by quickly adding some cat tail details in the immediate foreground to illustrate the work that I might play with back in my own studio at a later date. I would again emphasize the need to control the urge to try and include too much detail... for the sake of detail in the foreground because doing so would reduce the overall harmony and structure of the subject as a whole.

Stage 3. Final result of the plein air class. Still a few strokes to be added... but not ... too many!

The obvious success and joy experienced by all of us on this lovely summer plein air outing can be directly be attributed primarily to PREPARATION - both physically and mentally prior to the actual foray. When the number of variables are reduced beforehand... those that must be faced can be met with much less worry and frustration. Painting en plein air should  always be as  rewarding an experience... as is possible and not made into a punishing test of endurance. As is the case in swimming in deep and unknown waters... Never venture too far from shore and when in doubt... or if necessary... wear your "life jacket." Be prepared for the unexpected... and where possible... paint with good friends. They make the day and shared experience much more enjoyable!

Secondly... success often arrives in the form of surprises... like the cropped view plus a "happen stance" arrival on the scene... as the sail offered us. These come out of the intended looking beyond what is in front of one... beyond the "big picture"... to a hunch... or impulse! Follow your heart!... Paint what you feel!... Paint whatever serves your passion! That's the real goal for anyone who paints!

Teaching a painting class is a daunting task akin to exhibiting publicly for the first time. There is risk... but weighed with the opportunity to grow as an active learner given a teaching role... the benefits and opportunities for personal growth and development are worth the risk!

Happy Summer and Good Painting ... to ALL!!!

Final canvas version: "Bridging Summer"- oil on 20x24 inch canvas


  1. What a gorgeous painting you've created, Bruce. I love the original painting of this spot too. Why? Because oh boy...could I ever love living in that big house on the little island! Your students are so lucky to have you. I'm kind of curious how the watercolorist was able to lay down tonal values and still get good color over the top of that? I sense a learning nugget in there for myself! LOL Looks like you had a gorgeous day for this outing too.

  2. Hi there Sherry!... Thank you for the compliments... and for your visit!

    Yes ... I well understand your being attracted to ... yet another house surrounded by solitude!HA HA!!

    The technique in water colour is the same as in oil in this post. Both begin with transparent washes of colour... building gradually wash on top of wash as is the usual in water colour. I simply adapted by start and middle using that technique as well. "Thick over thin"... applies to both mediums!

    It was a gorgeous day indeed... and a wonderful sharing and further building of friendship amongst the group and I.

    Life's good!

    Good Painting and Happy Painting to you Sherry!
    Warmest regards,