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Working Swiftly in Plein Air Painting ~ San Elijo Lagoon

An evening plein air painting at San Elijo Lagoon
An evening plein air painting at San Elijo Lagoon 11×14 in. oil on panel

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

image

by San Diego Plein Air Painter, Ronald Lee Oliver

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After the Rains ~ Plein air Painting at the San Diego River

After the Rains ~ Plein air by Ronald Lee Oliver

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
  • mystery

…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.

Talking about pre-painting considerations.
Talking about pre-painting considerations.
Pointing out the Perspective of Clouds
Pointing out the Perspective of Clouds

The painting, finished and signed in the field

The painting, finished and signed in the field

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Artist’s Advice: On the Inner Critic

There is a phenomenon known as “the artist’s curse”–a state of perception in an artist of their own work as inferior and somehow lacking.   It is a virus of self-doubt instilled by the ever-present voice of the inner critic who notes with a jaundiced and magnifying eye only the flaws, imperfections and shortcomings in the execution of a piece of work.  The inner critic measures the latest attempt against past successes, other artists master works, or impossibly high aspirations.  It can lead an artist to destroy perfectly wonderful pieces of their labor in a pique of self loathing and doubt.  I think it must be something like the pathological state of postpartum depression in a mother who has delivered a child.

To combat this disease I believe it’s always best, as an artist, when completing a fresh work to pause, wait a while and put the voice of the inner critic on “mute.”  To let a painting “rest” for a time.  To avoid the temptation of tweaking and making “little fixes” here and there.  To avoid the nagging thought that, “if only I do this…or that…to this painting, it will be better.”  The state of final “finish” is arbitrary and elusive for each work and it is in this hyper-critical state of emotional attachment as we near the culmination of a painting that we can succumb to excessively analytical and even pathologically delusional perceptions of our own work.  It is the time when we most risk the fault of “over working” our piece.  Many a fine painting is ruined in the finish–most often by acting upon the infected perception of the inner critic.  Ironically, it is this sycophantic voice that prods us to “fix” which leads us to ruin and thereby causes us to hate and even destroy the works that somehow do not live up to our expectation.

It’s better to put the brush down and leave a canvas in a semi-finished state that conveys some truth, than to fastidiously pick at little details until the spontaneity, mystery and truth have been thoroughly abused.  By allowing the mind time to rest and detach from the passion of the moment–by muting the inner critic, we may return to comprehend with fresh, unprejudiced eyes, the beauty we’ve been fortunate enough to transmit and share with the world.

We may come to love our work as others do.

 

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Plein air painting with the New, Homemade Easel

I plein air painted at Ramona Grasslands with the new portable palette I recently crafted in my workshop. It was the “maiden voyage” for the palette, which I based on the Jim Coulter palette system–a clamshell design with an adjustable mast to hold various sizes of panels or canvas. If you’re not DIY inclined, you can see (and buy) Jim’s version of this plein air painting system, here…

www.artboxandpanel.com

…or another version based on similar concepts is the “Daytripper” easel system by Joshua Been, which you can find here…

joshuabeen.com

I chose to make my own, larger than any available from Jim because I like lots of space to mix and lay out my tools of the trade. It worked out well and even though a large palette, it was not difficult to hike in the half mile with everything I needed to paint.

Chromatic single pigments and earth colors.
Chromatic single pigments and earth colors.

The colors seen on the palette, laid on a piece of grey masking tape for friction (to keep them from sliding around) and ease of cleanup, from left to right, are:

cremnitz white
unbleached titanium
Primary magenta — R
cadmium red light — O
Primary yellow — Y
phthalo green-yellow — G
Primary cyan –B
ultramarine deep — I
dioxizine purple –V
yellow ochre
transparent red oxide
Payne’s grey
Mars black

…I also used a bit of “asphaltum.”

The panel was toned in advance with transparent orange.

Following are some photos of the easel, “in the wild,” where I bravely set my tripod over the opening to a den of vicious and possibly rabid squirrels.  You can see the bucket I use to carry all the necessities, too.  Those long, black nylon bags hold the tripod and my umbrella kit (which I didn’t need but brought along just in case). They both have shoulder slings, as does the palette box,which make all three quite easy to portage to the painting site.

RLO portable palette at Ramona Grasslands.
RLO portable palette at Ramona Grasslands.

I chose to paint a view of the largest oak tree in the grasslands. You can get an idea of the massive size of this old oak, compared to the heavy-duty, park picnic table nearby.  You can also see here the beginning phase of the painting where I’m establishing the shape of the tree.

Beginning block in of plein air subject.
Beginning block in of plein air subject.

…and finally, in this next photo you can see where I chose to stop painting.  I was having a difficult time resolving this one.  As I say to myself, “you can’t win them all,” and this one was giving me fits so I decided to pack it in and call it a day.  I’ll take time to let it rest and then return to it in the studio to see if I can make better sense of it.  I didn’t scrape it off entirely, which I would do if it was a total failure, so I think there is still a painting here, waiting to be finished, signed and framed.

Sometimes it's best to stop and reflect...
Sometimes it’s best to stop and reflect…

Here’s a skewed (to avoid glare) iPhone pic of the painting…

A WIP plein air painting by Ronald Lee Oliver
An example of a stopping point in a plein air painting work in progress.

Here’s an update after some studio work on this painting…

The old oak after some studio touches.
The old oak after some studio touches.

 

 

 

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“Mele Kalikimaka” Hawaiian #Pleinair Painting Trip

Mele Kalikimaka 2014

Mele Kalikimaka is the thing to say
On a bright Hawaiian Christmas Day
That’s the island greeting that we send to you
From the land where palm trees sway…

I guess after all I was not so naughty this year that I wasn’t able to make a Christmastime excursion with my beautiful wife, Jackie, to the Hawaiian Island of Maui.

This wasn’t a “painting only” trip, so I only made time for two 11 x 14 in. panels but they were both lots of fun to paint.  Even though the Trade Winds were fierce during one of the painting sessions, I managed to finish with no mishaps.

Though probably not the wisest thing to do, I diverged from my usual painting methods on this air travel trip and was winging it (no pun intended) with a color palette and paints I had never used before. To lighten the load and simplify things for flying, I chose to go with a five color palette and used water mixable oil paints for the first time.

It was really surprising how well it all worked out!

The colors I brought along were:

Cobra© Water mixable oils

  • Primary Cyan
  • Primary Magenta
  • Primary Yellow

Sennelier©

  • Mars Black  (a warm and fast drying black without the bluish cast of Ivory Black)

Rembrandt©

  • Payne’s Grey (I find it indispensable)

Gamblin©

  • Flake White Replacement (non-toxic and creamy consistency)

Each morning of painting, I pre-mixed a very vibrant chromatic palette from the three water mixable “primaries” which produced some very convincing greens, oranges, and fuchsias, as well as deeper purples.  I was careful not to “overmix” the paint piles, leaving striations of broken color in the mixes.  A sealable “Guerilla Painter” 9 x 12 in. palette tray kept the paint fresh and protected inside my pochade while exploring for a suitable view to paint.

This color palette worked very well and much to my relief, there was no problem mixing the “oil” paints with the water miscible paints.  The Cobra paints especially were surprisingly “creamy” in consistency and were very easy to mix and move about on the panel. While painting, when I felt I needed a little more “flow,” I used a mixture of my standard recipe medium, transported in an eye dropper bottle that consisted of equal parts stand oil, turpentine, and dammar varnish.  I brought no solvents because they must not be flown over (TSA will confiscate)  and it is an extra trip to the hardware store to get some when you arrive and then there’s nowhere to conscientiously dispose of it when you leave.

Another interesting thing about creating these two paintings is that I used one single brush the entire time!  I brought my brush wallet but became so engrossed in the painting process and not wanting to waste any time in capturing the light that I worked only with a single, quarter-inch “bright” hog bristle brush. I held a paper towel sheet in my left hand and wiped the brush clean between different colored passages.  I was able to make a surprising variety of marks with the stiff but springy little bristle bright. The only other implements I used to apply or mark the paint were my finger and in some few instances I removed paint with a cotton swab, which are essentials that I always pack when I paint en plein air.

All said and done, I had a great time in Hawaii and having the opportunity to paint made the trip just that much more special.

I’d like to say to any reader who chanced here and happened to read this far…

Here we know that Christmas
Will be green and bright
The sun to shine by day
And all the stars at night
Mele Kalikimaka is Hawaii’s way
To say Merry Christmas to you!