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Nov 17, 2016

Finding the Courage to Paint 'en Plein Air'...

Yes, that is who you think it is...and wouldn't you love to see that painting? 
“I’m not funny. What I am is brave.” – Lucille Ball

Hey All:

Here is an email I received a few days ago from a follower on Facebook. And, after responding, I decided to post my reply here because perhaps it will encourage others to try painting outdoors as well.

Hello Thomas: 
I am 68 and have never had an art class.  But I’ve sold watercolors for $2,000.  I’m very interested in plein air now so I can get out of the house and meet people. Could you please take a quick look at my work and tell me whether you think I can convert to plein air?  I have the equipment. 
Thank you SO MUCH!


Hello Jean:

All it takes to become an outdoor painter is some gumption and the willingness to bring your gear outside – and yes, a little courage. I looked at your work online and you seem handy enough with your chosen medium to give it a go, so heck, why not?

Here are a few thing to consider as you begin...

1. Since the sun is in constant motion, start off by choosing simple subject matter that does not involved too much going on in the immediate foreground. Crop the bottom of your painting somewhere out in the distant or middle ground so you won't get caught up in the minutiae at your feet. Avoid the temptation to tilt your head downwards as you paint and limit yourself to composing with what you can see while holding your head level.

2. This next tip is important: Start by painting large simple shapes and leave out the smaller ones, unless you are intentionally trying to create an area of focus. If you are, place your larger shapes along the periphery of your painting and work into the smaller ones around your point of interest. This is a classical way to compose, regardless of genre. subject, or media. But doing this will require some conscious effort and a continual awareness as you work. Avoid the temptation to jump into detail because if the underlying larger shapes are not correct all that detail will inhibit you from fixing them. And speaking of detail, before you start putting it in, step back and look at your painting as a whole. You may not need much.

3. In general, when you are painting outdoors, if it is a sunny day with few clouds in the sky, the temperature of the sun will warm up the local colors of your subject – this means the light parts of trees, mountains, cacti, roads, houses, barns and your precocious small grandchildren playing on the beach will appear warmer to you than they would if it were an overcast day. And correspondingly, the shadows on all those things will not just be a darker version of the local color, they will be both darker and cooler in comparison. (So hypothetically, a shadow cast onto a red barn will appear to shift towards the purple, and a shadow on green grass will appear to shift towards a blue-green, and so on. This ‘cooling effect’ is called a temperature change and it can be easier to see in nature's more neutral colored objects such as rocks, earth, and snow.) This warm/cool temperature contrast is a visual effect that occurs both inside your eye (via the effect of simultaneous contrast in hue), and outside the eye because the ambient light in the sky is reflecting into the shadows and biasing the darker local color towards the cool. Inevitably, you will encounter exceptions to this cooling effect, and when you do just paint them you see it. But for the most part, on a sunny day, begin with warm lights and cool darks and you will catch on. This warm/cool, light/dark temperature alignment is essential to creating a convincing atmospheric plein air painting*. This discovery is perhaps the greatest gift the French Impressionists gave to the world of art after they moved their easels outdoors.

4. As a rule, for now, work small and no longer than two hours at a time. Any longer and the starting light and shadow pattern will have changed too much for you to continue using it as a reference. This is true for the warm/cool temperature relationships as well. The sun will keep moving along so you should too, as in, to another painting. So seriously, work small and as quickly as possible within a two hour limit and accept that you won’t be as accurate as you are when you work indoors under artificial light. This is fine because your outdoor work will begin informing your indoor work, and vice versa. At this point, don’t worry too much about ‘finishing' or resolving your plein air work. At least not yet. If you do find yourself struggling with a painting just put it aside and start something new. You will learn more from one hundred starts than you will from one hundred finishes. Trust me on that axiom, okay? I didn't make it up.

There is more. Of course, there is always more... But the best classroom is located on the other side of your studio door. So pack up the gear and walk on through because right now you are burning daylight.


*Of course, when you begin painting outdoors on overcast days you will quick learn all those sunny temperature relationships you worked so hard to master are now inverted. Instead of warm lights/cool darks, you'll see cool lights/warm darks. Nature is fickle that way. Just as you start to competent she confuses you in a new way...

4 reader comments:

Judy P. said...

First of all, thanks for the cool shot of Lucy painting! I've been pushing myself to go out en plein air this year, and find your observations to be spot on; it's been tough but I am finally getting an eye for the translations needed, happy to be making headway. Always enjoy your writing, and I have shared this on FB too.

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

You are welcome, Judy. And thanks for sharing it on FB...


Sally said...

Thank you! Very helpful. I've only painted en plein air 3 times and found it really frustrating but your tips give me ideas and gumption to keep trying.

Thomas Jefferson Kitts said...

You are welcome, Sally.

And remember, the next time you go out there, it is not a race – unless it is with the sun or tide.

Go at your own speed and accept that you are being taught by the best teacher of all: nature.