Timpanogos Storytelling Festival at Thanksgiving Point. This image was painted on location and chosen to represent the festival the following year. It appeared on signage, billboards, and all printed material. Prints may still be available.
In the next week I'll be boarding a plane to France, living in a castle, and teaching a week-long painting workshop in the great outdoors
What to expect
A plein air painting workshop varies greatly from the classroom experience. Yes, you’ll see demonstrations in real-time. And you will follow along, and create your own painting. But that’s where the similarities end.
Some of the challenges of working en plein air include shifting/changing light, weather issues (wind/rain/cold/heat), time constraints, and the potential overwhelm of being surrounded by sweeping vistas, intricate cityscapes, etc. All of this, however, is far outweighed by the wonder and sheer joy of being immersed in beauty as you paint outdoors.
One of the reasons artists have chosen to paint outdoors on location for centuries is this idea of capturing the experience.
Have you ever taken a photo of a magnificent spot, only to realize that the result was nothing like what you saw in person, and in fact was downright disappointing?
The reason is this: The camera flattens the image, shrinks that majestic background that was so inspiring, expands the middle ground, and distorts the foreground…adding 3-point perspective which makes all the tallest buildings tilt toward the center. This is precisely the opposite of what your eyes do, which is focus on what your brain finds most exciting, and put the rest in perspective. It turns out the lenses we were born with are WAY better than any lens you can buy for your camera…even the expensive ones. I prefer to rely on my sketch and plein air work, and use photos only for color reference when I can.
While there are no specific rules governing plein air painting, and there are as many approaches as there are artists, here is what I do on location and what I'll be encouraging my participants to do as well. (Those who have been participating in my Plein Air Fridays excursions already have an idea of what to expect.)
First of all, throw perfectionism out. You may or may not produce a good painting en plein air, but the whole point is the experience. And that experience will show up in your finished painting. You are capturing what it feels like to be in that place, hear the birds calling and the breeze on your face, feel the ground under your feet, lending support. You will never forget a place you have painted. You will remember it with crystalline clarity. After painting there, the place will be engraved on your soul.
I like to call it “mindfulness on steroids,” and that’s exactly what it is…an intense focus and concentration, an active form of meditation where you are exercising your powers of perception and observation and imitating the expanse of creation before you on your sheet of paper.
I usually start by walking around the area, pointing out some potential subjects. I’ll give a brief introduction…what I hope to capture on-site at this location, and why I’m approaching it the way that I am. Then I’ll select a spot for my painting, and start sketching.
It’s crucial to simplify. You’ll be painting on a small, 2-dimensional surface. But your subject is a 3-dimensional panoramic vista with an overwhelming amount of detail. So we have to whittle it down. initially you might want to zoom in on one interesting spot of the landscape rather than the entire village and its outskirts…for example, stone steps surrounded by wildflowers.
A value study in a sketchbook is an ideal next step. Narrow down your subject to fit in the proportions of your sketchbook page. Find the basic shapes. Simplify it down to just three values. That provides the structure of your composition. I will demonstrate at least one value study on location.
Now sketch that out on your watercolor paper. Just block it in, with those same basic shapes and values. I usually start with my focal point, or center of interest, so I place that tower or tree or whatever it is I’m most interested in exactly where I want it on the page, and then build the rest of the drawing/composition around it. Add a few more items for structure and emphasis, almost like placeholders, checking angles and relationships of objects. This initial drawing is more like a quick, hand-drawn map. You want it accurate enough, but not overly detailed. Just a rough indication of what you want to include in your finished painting.
At this point I’ll encourage everyone to start their drawings, and when my drawing is complete, I’ll let you know that I’m ready to apply my first wash. You can choose to gather around and watch, or if you’re on a roll, just keep going. It’s completely up to you. It may be helpful for you to at least take a look at my finished drawing for reference. It’s also good to watch the layering process at least once. You may be surprised at how wet and sloppy my initial wash is — which helps a lot with that whole perfectionism thing. It is almost impossible to ruin that all-important first wash (unless you don’t use enough water), and it is the first step toward unifying the whole painting…and eliminating the fear factor (staring at an imposing white sheet of paper).
While my wash is drying I’ll come around and take a look at each student’s sketchbook study and/or construction drawing and offer any suggestions. Bear in mind that the time available is limited by the number of participants. Most of the time you will be working independently. Don’t be offended if you see me set a timer as I approach you. This is just to guarantee that everyone receives a comparable amount of my time and attention (which, like I stressed before, is highly limited). I may only have a minute or so to spend with each person...a few encouraging words, answer a quick question, or give a pointer or two. Then I’ll head back to my easel to complete the next step. (Again, you may choose to gather and watch, or keep working on your own.)
This process repeats, but as artists become more absorbed in their own paintings, the amount of interaction decreases, as does the size and wetness of the washes. I will be working to finish my painting like all the rest of the participants. So the time evolves into a period of quiet focus. I am always available to answer questions at my easel. And I narrate what I’m doing as best I can. But there is not a lot of time for individual tutoring. The primary value you get from plein air painting with an instructor is a curated location, an introduction and live demonstration, and occasional feedback and encouragement. Keeping this focus in mind will help you get the most out of your plein air experience.
Note: We don’t always finish our paintings on location. Everyone draws and paints at a different pace. And it is not a race. That’s why I recommend 300# blocks for this scenario. Even if you have something left to add, you can remove a sheet to continue working, and have a fresh sheet ready to take to the next location.
I hope you can join me on an upcoming plein air adventure!
Remember: Revel in the Experience, Throw Out Perfectionism, and Simplify.
But most of all: Enjoy!
American Fork Run-off, completed on location, summer of 2020 near the Alpine Loop.
"Green Cathedral," (St. Dunstan-in-the-East, London), original ink drawing and watercolor painting, 9 x 12.
Isaiah 42:9-10 Behold, the former things are come to pass, and new things do I declare: before they spring forth I tell you of them.
Sing unto the Lord a new song, and his praise from the end of the earth...
Psalm 51:10 Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me.
2 Corinthians 5:17 Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.
Romans 9:6 "...We should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter."
Ezekiel 36:26 A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart... and I will give you an heart of flesh.
Romans 6:4 even so we also should walk in newness of life.
I chose this for the last image of advent as we prepare to move into the new year. St. Dunstan is an old church, mentioned in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, as a tower looking down hauntingly at Scrooge. And yet, St. Dunstan is something completely new now -- after having been partially destroyed by bombs during the blitz of World War II, its empty shell has now become a beautiful and inviting garden, with vines and leaves growing up and through the remains of the structure, lovingly tended. There are benches for those who choose to sit and reflect. It has progressed from an ominous, looming structure to a shell of its former self, to a symbol of serenity and peace. May we all undergo a similar transformation in our own lives. The painting is a vignette, fading out around the edges to allude to a continuation, an ongoing progression, eternity.
I love that Christ came as an infant -- a helpless newborn -- to symbolize that His mission (and one of his greatest gifts to the world) was to create an opportunity for newness for all of us, an opportunity to become new creatures, with clean hearts and spirits renewed, serving in new ways, and ultimately walking a new life. Let's all carry that beautiful sense of newness with us into the coming year.
"Jordan and Harrison, Asleep," 12 x 16 original watercolor. Not For Sale.
And she brought forth her firstborn son,
and wrapped him in swaddling clothes,
and laid him in a manger;
because there was no room for them in the inn.
But Mary kept all these things,
and pondered them in her heart.
Luke 2:7, 19
One December we had a baby girl, and I was blown away by just how peaceful her presence was in our home, and how sweet it was to have a baby at Christmas, and how everything trivial and unimportant fell by the wayside as we focused on one thing: our newborn babe.
That baby girl is now a mother, and I loved this peaceful moment we caught of her napping with her firstborn son, Harrison--that same serenity I remembered from when she was a baby. I painted this for her birthday last December.
How can I refocus my life so that The Newborn Babe is the center of all my attention, and everything else drops off my radar as I bask in His serenity?
"While Shepherds Watched," 15 x 24 original watercolor
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field,
keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them,
and the glory of the Lord shone round about them:
and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not:
for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy,
which shall be to all people.
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another,
Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph,
and the babe lying in a manger.
And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.
I am amazed at the shepherds. I love that this joyous announcement came first to caregivers---those who were humbly watching over their charges in the middle of the night. It reminds me of young mothers, up feeding and caring for babies through the night. It also reminds me of teachers -- underpaid and often under appreciated, who work long hours in service to others. I love that heaven smiled upon these lowly servants. I love seeing their their humanity (they were sore afraid) and that they were reassured by an angel. Again, this makes me think of the many human angels who have reassured me in times of trouble and stress. Finally, I love their courage. I love that they show us that witnessing and sharing joy is active, not passive. They decide to act now, they run to see, and they tell everyone they can reach about the joy they have seen and felt.
"Comfort, Speak Tenderly," (Grandma Winters with me asleep), 6 x 9 original watercolor.
Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
I cannot think of the word "comfort" without thinking of my long-departed grandmother, who was the very essence of comfort and tenderness...and also somehow embodied all things Christmas, including all the love and tenderness wrapped up in the birth of the Christ child. I love this New International Version of Isaiah specifically because it says, "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem"...and to us. If God cherishes us the way my grandma did, then I cannot think of a better place to yearn for, a better voice to listen for.
I have seen so many tender mercies and loving kindnesses from the Lord this year alone, it's impossible for me to doubt his love for me, and his loving guidance in every detail of our lives. I am in awe of his ability to comfort and care for us...even from afar.
"Peace in the Nation's Capital:" Washington D.C. Temple, 15 x 11 original watercolor.
And they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into puruninghooks:
Nation shall not lift up against nations,
neither shall they learn war any more.
O house of Jacob, come ye and let us walk
in the light of the Lord.
When I first visited this temple the peace permeated the walls and made the beautiful grounds feel hallowed and serene. I love that it's located so near our nation's capital city, and yearn for such peace to come over our citizens as well. Party shall not lift up against party, neither shall they contend any more. That would be my Christmas wish. Cooperation and unity, bringing peace in their wake. The light of Christ has the potential to make that wish a reality rather than a dream. How can we be sure we're walking in the light of his love?
"Light in the Wilderness" (Red Willows, Oakley), 22 x 30
In him was life;
and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness;
and the darkness comprehended it not.
It was during one of the darkest times in my life that this scene spoke to me, and offered hope. I love the way the light travels over the distant mountains, just grazing the treetops, and is reflected in the river below. Next to the darkness, the willow branches grow a deep red, a symbol of the Savior—both his sacrifice, and the robe he'll wear when he returns.
"Cherub and Lute," 10 x 12 original watercolor, after Fiorentino. Cover of What Think Ye of Christmas?.
Forget not to show love unto strangers:
for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.
C.S. Lewis has a famous quote where he posits that if we could see who our fellow humans truly are, and the divine potential they hold, we might be tempted to worship them. How can I see other humans through divine eyes, see the angels in their souls? What stranger can I reach out to today?
"Abundance," 12 x 16 original watercolor, from the waterfall series, July 2021.
And the Lord shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought...and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters fail not.
I have probably painted a hundred things that could work for "a watered garden," but this one is my favorite because it also shows "the spring...whose waters fail not," and the rich imagery of abundance at play in our lives, including the growth--even on stone--that results.
Sometimes when I pause to really see, I am stunned at what a watered garden my own life is, how everything has been touched by God and represents his endless goodness and extraordinary love for me. I stand all amazed.
"The Way," 12 x 16 original watercolor from the Desert Metaphors series.
The voice...that crieth in the wilderness,
Prepare ye the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
I love this straight and narrow trail in the outskirts of southern Utah. I love the way that it points and the promise it holds if we follow it: Safety, an enlarged perspective, and peace.
Preparation is such an important part of advent. Just as John was called to prepare the way for Christ's ministry, each of us can and must prepare our hearts to receive him today. Sometimes the littlest things, the smallest of changes, can make the biggest difference. What will I do differently today to prepare?
I am an artist and art instructor working in water media. Just knowing I can watch colors run together makes it worth getting out of bed every morning! Helping students capture the same excitement is equally rewarding.