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.
I focused on a particular part of the view that I thought would make for a pleasing result…
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.
…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
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 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.
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.
Gray, gloomy days are a real challenge for the plein air painter. Capturing the light is what plein air painting is all about and when that light is not cheerful, colorful or dramatic, it can be difficult to find inspiration. This plein air painting was painted at the mouth of the San Diego River, early on an overcast, gray May morning. Luckily, there were some dramatic moments where transient shafts of light momentarily peeked through the thick, cloud layer, illuminating the vegetation and meandering course of the river. These hints of color and bright reflections provided the impetus to capture that tonal difference and bring this image to life. I knew this day would be gray, so I decided in advance to “embrace the gray” and make the best of a challenging situation. It helped that I had previously toned my panel with a neutral gray that would support the composition. That’s the nature of plein air–one has to adapt and make the best of the view and the weather in a given place. Here’s the result of my effort that morning…