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.
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.