Reflections on My Third Year of Plein Air Painting
My third season of painting outside with the Loudoun Sketch Club has just ended. This has been a particularly rainy year, and many of our outings were hindered by the weather. Despite the rain however, I still learned quite a bit about painting outdoors that I would like to share with you.
Bring All the Gear
The most important thing I learned this year is to always bring everything. I know, this is contrary to what I said last year (read it here), but bear with me a moment and I will explain. The club had a scheduled outing to 868 Estate Vineyard in Hillsboro, VA. I had been to that vineyard before, and i knew it was going to be a beautiful place to paint. On the morning of the paint out, it was drizzly and chilly outside. I was heartbroken, but decided to go anyway. Because of the wet weather, I planned to stay a short time and brought only my camera and sketchbook, This turned out to be a huge mistake. The filtered light and fog on the vineyards was magical and there was a covered pavilion perfect for staying dry while painting. Determined to make the best of it, I settled myself under the pavilion and photographed and sketched the beautiful trees on the property, taking detailed notes about color. Once I returned home, I made some quick mini paintings while the colors were still fresh in my mind. A few weeks later, when I began a larger painting of the trees, I used these sketches and mini paintings as reference alongside my photograph. All’s well that ends well, but from now on, I will always bring my plein air gear, even if I think I will only stay a short while, because you never know what you will find when you get there.
Make Decisions Before Painting
In September, I took a plein air workshop with Glen Kessler of Compass Atelier. The class was held at the beautiful Brookside Gardens in Rockville, MD. On that day, the sun kept appearing and then disappearing behind clouds. The instructor suggested I paint two panels side by side, working on one when it was sunny, and the other when it was cloudy. It was an interesting study of light, color and value changes for me. My most important take away from this class was to spend the first 15 minutes mixing color. By doing this first, you are forced to really look at the scene and decide what you are going to say about it before the brush ever touches the canvas. Being decisive is a key to outdoor painting, because you have to paint quickly before your light changes.
At Fleetwood Farm Vineyard in Ashburn, VA, I learned that it is important to paint fast, and focus on the important parts first, because your light may change before you finish. I had begun my day painting the lovely sun drenched garden in front of the tasting room, but I spent so much time trying to get the color of the building correct, I didn’t have time to finish the flowers before the light changed. Since I had planned the flowers to be the focal point of my painting, spending so much time on the building color was a distraction and not the best use of my time. I decided to finish that painting at home and headed to a different part of the vineyard to paint some hydrangeas for the remainder of our time the last hour of the paint out.
Sometimes, you meet some interesting folks who will distract you while painting outside. On this occasion, it was an art loving praying mantis. She (I learned from a biologist friend that the large ones are females) flew onto my easel and sat there for almost an hour. These insects have always fascinated me, and I was so distracted by taking photos of her, my time for painting ran out and I had to complete my hydrangea painting at home, as well as my painting of the tasting room.
A New Way of Working to Try
A pair of outings to the town of Bluemont, VA in October gave me ideas on a new way to approach plein air work next year. I could not decide where I wanted to set up because there were so many beautiful places to paint. Instead of paining on the first day, I decided to spend the whole time wandering around the town, sketching and taking photographs in preparation for painting outdoors the following week. Once I got home, I looked through all my images, and one photograph stood out. I had taken it with my phone as I was headed back to my car. It was an offhand photo I hadn’t thought much of until I looked at it again, and immediately, my decision about what to paint was clear to me. The following week, I arrived and set up right at that spot. The lovely purple asters blooming wildly in front of the butter colored walls of the general store enchanted me. I think that knowing what I was going to paint and being able to think about it ahead of time made my painting that day more successful. I plan to work this way as often as possible next year.
The more I paint outdoors, the more I want to paint outdoors. It is becoming a bit of an obsession of mine, but now the air is getting colder, and its still raining all the time, so I will have to work in the studio until spring. I will be working from my photographs of a recent vacation to Arizona and painting lots and lots of flowers, as well as experimenting with oil paints. When painting outdoors, I am often frustrated by my acrylic paints drying up before I am finished, so I may start painting outdoors with oils this coming spring. There is a kind of magic that happens when you paint outdoors, and it is definitely worth jumping the hurdles of hauling your gear, bugs in your paint, and bad weather. I hope you give it a try sometime, if you have never done it before, If you are a seasoned plein air painter, if you have any favorite tips or supplies you would like to share with me, I’d love to hear about it!