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Five Plein Air Painting Tips for the Beginning Plein Air Painter

The act of plein air painting is an acquired taste.

Many artists see plein air painters at their easels in the open air, capturing the light and essence of a beautiful, natural scene before them and think, “I will do that some day!”

Little do they know that painting in the open air has its own specific challenges that make it much different from attacking a canvas in the relative comfort and the steady, even lighting of their studio.  Still, plein air painting can be very rewarding for the creative soul and is well worth the effort to develop some proficiency in it as an art.  Following are five “tips” for the beginning plein air painting admirer that just may help them become a plein air aficionado.

1.)  Start small.

It is far easier to manage a small canvas and a small kit when a beginner, rather than diving in to tackle large canvasses or elaborate outdoor easels. When beginning, you are testing the waters and it makes sense to keep it simple to find if plein air is the right avenue for you. Expensive kits and brushes are not necessary to start.   An inexpensive half box french easel and 6×8 in. canvas panels or hard boards and a cheap set of hog bristle, long-handled brushes are a good beginning.

2.) Use artist grade paints.

Student grade paints will cause more frustration than learning as a beginner.  They have difficult consistency and do not mix or thin well as artist grade paints do. There are some very good quality artist grade oil paints, such as Gamblin and Rembrandt that are reasonably priced.

3.) Use a limited palette.

A split-primary palette is a good palette for the plein air painter (even for the seasoned veteran). A split primary consists of a  both a warm and cool, single pigment choice for the three primary colors–Red, Yellow and Blue.  Add a black, yellow ochre, and transparent red oxide and you have a very good start with only 9 colors and of course titanium white. Later on, you may wish to expand your palette with some specialty or convenience colors.  Learn what the symbols and numbers mean on the paint tubes.  There is much to learn about pigment properties such as transparency, light fastness, and mixing qualities.

4.)  Composition is half the battle.

A poorly composed painting, no matter how adroitly painted, will read as a failure.  Read up or web search for terms such as “rule of thirds,” “the golden section,” “avoiding tangents,” “focal points,” “lost and hard edges” among others.  It’s always good to have a “center of interest” in your composition but that certainly doesn’t mean it should be plopped dead center in your canvas, which is generally the wrong thing to do.  Avoid placing elements along the side of the frame or bisected by the outer perimeter of your composition.  And finally, remember…rules are meant to be broken but break them consciously and for good reason, rather than by accident.

5.)  Consider water mixable.

As a beginner, you have the opportunity to forego the hazards and hassles of working with oils and solvents with your paints.   There are some excellent water mixable oil paints that will allow you to make professional quality paintings that cannot be distinguished from those made with the traditional oil and solvent media.  Cobra and Holbein are two brands with good reviews for water mixable.  They also offer water mixable mediums and impasto gels.  As a beginner it may make sense to commit to learning and working from the beginning, with the water mixable products, rather than delve into the world of mineral spirits and turpentine.

These are just a few sound pieces of advice for the beginner who is enchanted by the sight of a painter standing at an easel in the open air of a natural scene.  That’s where it begins…with the will to do, to be, to create outdoors at an easel–making the first steps to acquire your “kit,” then actually taking it to an inspiring place and taking the leap.  There is a great deal to learn, but it is “so worth” every minute you will spend painting “en plein air!”

 

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Old Mission (Padre) Dam Painting Demonstration

Old Padre Dam

a photo essay

I and two other artists will be doing live demonstrations of plein air painting techniques–free to the public.  The demos will take place at the annual San Diego River Foundation “River Days,” celebration this Saturday, May 14th in the Mission Gorge Regional Park at Old Padre Dam. The demos happen 8:00am to 11:00am. Here are some “clickable” photos I took on a showery May morning to urge you to come out and see the beautiful setting of the park and learn a bit about how to create scenic art in the open air.

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San Diego Plein air at San Elijo Lagoon

San Elijo Morning ~ San Diego plein air painting with studio finish by Ronald Lee Oliver

San Diego has some great places for a plein air painter to set up their easel and create fantastic landscape art.  One of my personal favorite places to paint en plein air (a French term that is universally used to describe the process of painting at an easel in the open air to capture a sense of light and place) is at the San Elijo Lagoon Interpretive Center.  There is a very well maintained trail and boardwalk that puts the painter in a beautiful setting with a minimal amount of hiking effort.

Here’s a video I took, early on the spectacular April morning of this plein air outing.  You can see my easel, parked and ready to go–the 20×16 inch canvas, primed with a purple-grey undertone.

It really is such a wonderful place to paint, the problem is in selecting a composition from the many choices presented.  An interesting sinuous pattern created by the meandering estuary caught my eye and I decided to park my easel to find a composition that included it.

Ronald Lee Oliver plein air easel

I focused on a particular part of the view that I thought would make for a pleasing result…

Selecting a Composition

Of course, I did’t paint exactly what is in the framing box above, because while it is a pretty view, it is a photograph and not a painting. As an artist painter, I have license to arrange and to subdue or emphasize elements to fit my impressionistic depiction as I choose to frame it on the canvas.  It is this personal expression of omission or embellishment that makes painting an impressionist art, and not a craft.  Another artist, standing next to me, would bring their own interpretation to the very same view and create an image entirely their own.  Successfully finding this balance between representation and impression is the great joy and challenge of painting in the open air.

Here is how the painting looked when I decided to stop, take it home, ponder it for a few days and finish in studio.

San Elijo Morning ~work in progress

…and here is the painting after several days of rumination and the finish in the studio.

San Elijo Morning ~ 20×16 in. oil on canvas by Ronald Lee Oliver

San Elijo Morning 20x16 in. plein air by Ronald Lee Oliver
San Elijo Morning ~ 20×16 in. plein air by Ronald Lee Oliver

 

 

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An Ode to the NSA

Nicer, Safer America

An ode to the surveillance State.

by

Ronald Lee Oliver

Nodes, nodes, cookies and nodes!
Filtered and foldered in pigeonholed rows.

Your data is clustered and therefore it shows,
your mindset is furtive and not one of those
We can safely pass over
without thrusting our nose
in the nooks and the crannies up under your hose!

Bend over and spread ’em–we’ll take a quick look
to ensure you’re compliant and go by our book.

Relax! Don’t tense up!
It’s for your own good.

 We just want to make sure we’re all safe…

Understood?

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Plein Air at Point Loma

It was a beautiful, early Fall morning for plein air painting in San Diego at the coast.  The area known as Sunset Cliffs Natural Park has many places for recreation, among which is plein air painting.  There is no limit to the choice of subjects found there.  If you come to San Diego to paint, I definitely recommend this as a good place.

Here’s a pic of my painting kit on site.  That’s a 16×20 on the easel. I like that size for plein air because it allows lots of freedom for brush movement, though it is a large space to fill in one session.

The "block in" stage after about a half hour of painting...
The “block in” stage after about a half hour of painting…

…and here’s a short video I made after I finished…you can see the light has changed as compared to my composition on the canvas.

…and of course, here’s the finished piece…

Pappy Point at Sunset Cliffs