In the quiet, early morning at the river bed beside the still waters that remain after a long California drought, I park my easel in the sand bar at water’s edge. An egret with feathers as blindingly white as a snow drift in alpine sunlight, wades and forages with patience and resolve, searching for morning victuals. Suddenly it stops and peers down a long and lethal beak at some creature that stirs, just below the surface. For perhaps a minute, the bird is motionless, stoic and rapt in solitude as the ripples slowly recede and the surface of the water returns to glassy calm. The egret, unperturbed, with flapping wings, jumps and flies. I hear the air rushing through the feathers as it beats past and glides down the riverbed, beyond the dam, disappearing into the lush shade of the forest canopy.
One of the challenges of plein air painting is working within a limited budget of time. The interplay of a moving sun and fleeting clouds make swift work integral to capturing the scene. A changing scene may force the painter to work from memory, which is not as accurate as direct observation. And after all, really, who has the stamina (or is it the lunacy?) to paint for hours out in the elements? Thank goodness, most of my plein air painting sessions finish in under two hours, before I can become dehydrated and sunburnt. I completed this 11×14 inch plein air painting of San Elijo Lagoon in about an hour and a half. Having a pre-toned (a neutral gray) substrate helped the work to go quickly because there was no “white space” to cover and the toned background filled in the gaps in the superseding paint layers.
My goal in painting in plein air is not to make a photo-realistic depiction of the scene but rather to suggest something truthful, with expression but that also looks good when framed and hung on a wall. Plein air painting provides the added benefit of being stretched by new challenges but also keeping the “chops” tuned for studio work.
The San Elijo lagoon and nature center is one of the great places in San Diego to visit at twilight. Either early in the morning or in the evening before sunset, hiking the well maintained trails and boardwalk there is a peaceful and fascinating experience. You will see the play of the wind on the surface of the tidal waters and the fronds of the grasses in the marsh. Reflections of light, dance, shimmer and change with each breath of wind. The silence is ocassionally broken by the cry of foraging birds or the sudden splash of fish jumping out of the water.
San Elijo Evening 11×14 oil on panel
by San Diego Plein Air Painter, Ronald Lee Oliver
San Diego has a past that is inextricably linked with the Spanish colonization and works of the Catholic Missionaries that established the first outposts of Western Civilization on the American continent. In Santee, California, about five miles from Lakeside, CA where I live, is the site of the first water collection system created by the Spanish Missionaries. Known as “Padre Dam,” it is now a ruin that is part of the Mission Trails Regional Park system. This dam provided water for agriculture which supported the established Mission de Alcala, about three miles to the West, where the missionaries and the indigenous people interfaced.
The dam, with its water and pools makes a picturesque subject and provides some green relief in this long period of drought we’ve had in Southern California. Even in the hottest part of this dry year, there is still a trickle of water that flows here in the San Diego River–a river that originates in the Laguna Mountains that rise to just over 6000 feet, some 25 miles to the East.
This plein air painting was finished early in the morning while the air was still cool and the shadows were long. The temperatures rose above 100 degrees fahrenheit later in the day and it was good to finish this 11 x 14 inch panel before it became truly miserable.
I painted quickly to capture the colors and light of the moment, as well as a sense of place.
I’m quite happy with the result.
Keys Creek Lavender Farms is a great place to plein air paint in North San Diego County. It is a difficult subject however because the landscape there is hilly and chaotic with lots of visual clutter, such as outbuildings and sheds. My first attempts at this painting were “wipeouts,” where I actually destroyed what I had painted in the background by wiping it off with a paper towel dipped in solvent. Eventually I decided to invent my own background (because I can do that, you know?) and paint something to suit the beautiful lavender which sloped down the hill in front of me in real life.
I chose the sea. Hope you like it.
The above painting, “After the Rains,” was completed and signed in the field on Saturday, the 9th of May 2015. I painted this as my part of a plein air painting demo, where I was involved as part of a team of plein air painters from the San Diego Plein Air Painters Meetup Group. We were helping to commemorate the San Diego River Days Festival, which takes place each year, raising money and awareness about conserving the River and its wetlands .
This painting demonstrates a few principles of an effective plein air painting:
- simplicity of design
- balanced composition
- colors and values true to the subject
- atmospheric perspective
- suggested (and not rendered) imagery
- confident brush strokes
…the latter being that elusive quality that teases the viewers mind by allowing them to “fill in the blanks” and resolve the story of the image with their own narrative. There’s nothing more satisfying for the mind than solving a puzzle, so I’m a big proponent of “allowing the paint to be paint” and the brush strokes to suggest form rather than dictate it. This allows the mind to engage and play with the imagery and have a satisfying experience that provides new discoveries with each viewing.
Here’s a few pics of me at the easel, talking “plein air” during my demo.
The painting, finished and signed in the field