San Diego has some great places for the plein air painter to park their easel and capture the beauty of nature with brush and paint.
One of the best places in the county is the nature reserve at San Elijo Lagoon, between Solana Beach and Encinitas. The lagoon and tidal estuaries meander East to West from the inlet at the coast. The tidal flow extends inland for almost two miles, flowing under the I5 Freeway before eventually ebbing to a stop in Rancho Santa Fe. I painted at a place along the Rios Avenue Trail, which is on the Southwest side of the Lagoon, on a peaceful, foggy, October morning. I can recommend the many locations at the lagoon as a places one could return to again and again and find something new to paint, each time.
Here are some photos and video I took to share with you. You’ll also see my completed painting at the bottom of this post.
Birds and jumping fish break the stillness now and again…
Here’s a short video that gives a 360 view.
Here is the painting after about an hour and a half of painting, when I decided to take it home. I made a few small touches and corrections back in the studio.
…and here is the finished piece, “Rios Trail at San Elijo”
Four of my San Diego plein air paintings are showing at the Solana Beach Library in Encinitas. The art will be on site June 11th through August 3rd, 2016. There is a reception open to all on Saturday, July 16th at 2:00 to 4:00pm.
All four paintings are plein air works, in 16×20 inch landscape format. Each is identically framed in solid wood with dark, espresso color, red distressed undertones and a gold liner. They look very elegant in these frames! Click on an image in the slideshow below to learn more about that painting and to see larger images.
Plein air painters have many different surfaces to choose from on which to create their art.
There is duck canvas, linen, canvas panels, linen panels, birch board and many other choices for the outdoor artist. I’ve tried many of these and have come to my own conclusion and method that works best for my process. That’s why I like to use gessoed and oil primed hardboard panels for painting plein air. Some of the benefits of using panels instead of canvas is, they’re portable–you can carry many in a panel holder when travelling–they won’t tear or dent, and they never have the issue of sunlight coming through the back like you can get when you use canvas outdoors.
I made a video that shows how I prepare inexpensive hardboard panels with gesso and oil primer. They make a great surface to paint on. You might want to try using the methods I’m goint to share to see if you like painting on them as much as I do. Here’s the video if you’re interested:
The working artist has to wear many hats, one of which is the “Framers Hat.” The following framing tips show how I treat my paintings to ensure they look professionally done and will serve my clients and galleries well.
If you plan to sell paintings yourself through an online presence without the intermediary of a gallery or other representation, to keep costs down you should know some things about framing. If you do work with galleries, they will appreciate that your works arrive ready to hang with a professional look, both front and back.
Some tools that will come in handy are:
A Tape Measure.
Cordless Drill Driver
I use stainless steel hardware that will never rust. You don’t want your reputation tarnished by rusty parts a few years down the road. Usually I paint en plein air on hardboard panels as seen in the photo. Panels are portable, easy to mount and will not tear like a canvas could. It’s also easy to sign, date and add any other info to the back of the painting with a permanent “Sharpie” type marker.
Here’s a closer look at the information I put on my panels…
I like to add:
The Date and Place I Painted the Painting.
A Copyright Symbol and Year.
What I Used to Conserve the Painting.
In this case I used Dammar Varnish, so I’ve written that down in the lower right on the back of the panel. This will help future owners and conservators when it comes time to clean and re-seal the painting. They will know what solvents and cleaners are necessary to do their work and will appreciate that I’ve helped them out with this message.
You can see the screws I use are stainless steel, self tapping #6×3/8″. I prefer using these short screws because some frames have very thin face material and longer screws can actually penetrate through the front and ruin a costly frame. That’s not good! The 3/8 length is strong enough to hold most any painting up to about 18×24 inches. Beyond that, you may want to ensure your frames are more substantial and can take the longer screws without any issues. I don’t think the 3/8″ screws are adequate to hold larger, heavier frames. You can also see the “offset clip” I’ve used to hold the panel tightly in the frame opening. These clips come in different offset depths and it’s good to have an assortment because frames have differing rabbet depths and sometimes you may use a thicker panel or canvas so it’s good to be prepared.
I like the single-eye, D-Ring style, stainless steel hangers. These too are strong enough to hold small to medium-sized paintings but if you frame larger works, it would be good to get the heavy-duty hangers with two screw holes, so you can be assured they will hold the extra weight.
You can see the tips of the self-tapping screws in this photo. No need to pre-drill pilot holes when using these–saves lots of time. Just put the screw on the magnetic tip of your drill driver and place it where you want, then pull the trigger…in it goes!
I think it’s best to use vinyl-coated framers wire for the hanging wire. It protects your fingers (and your clients) as well as makes the installation easier. If you’ve ever had your finger pricked or had a strand of framing wire go under your fingernail, you’ll know why I recommend this 🙂
I use a slip-knot loop to attach the wire to the D-Rings at both ends. Leave about 4 or 5 inches of extra wire at each end in addition to the length needed to span the width from the D-Rings at each side.
Tighten up the slip-knot, then wrap the extra wire around the main length about a 10 or 12 times…
then cinch it down tight and cut off the excess, leaving a nice presentation with no fly-away ends. The D-Rings should be placed as near to the edge of the frame as possible without showing. This ensures that the painting hangs close to the wall.
I also like to add a business card with my web URL on it glued to the back. I use simple white glue for this because it will hold up well and dries clear.
The finished wire should be good and taught without much slack. Here you can see that with the D-Rings about 6 inches from the top of the frame, the wire flexes up when hanging by less than two inches, leaving about 4 inches of room for the hanger to be hidden from the top of the painting. This also makes sure that the top of the frame does not drift away from the wall.
That’s it! It’s not too difficult to Do It Yourself and make sure your art will hang correctly and with a professional appearance. Your clients and galleries will appreciate your art all the much more when it’s framed and ready to hang with professional, quality materials and techniques.
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.
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
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.
…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.
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.
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.
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
colors and values true to the subject
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.
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…
I’ve done a few paintings in the last weeks that I’ve yet to post on this blog, so here they are. These were painted on site around San Diego County, mostly with the San Diego Plein Air Painters group , of which I’m a member. I’m also a member of the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association — LAPAPA, as well as the Southern California Plein Air Painters Association –SOCALPAPA and the San Diego Museum of Art Artist’s Guild — SDMAAG.
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…
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.
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:
Primary magenta — R
cadmium red light — O
Primary yellow — Y
phthalo green-yellow — G
Primary cyan –B
ultramarine deep — I
dioxizine purple –V
transparent red oxide
…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.
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.
…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.
Here’s a skewed (to avoid glare) iPhone pic of the painting…
Here’s an update after some studio work on this painting…
I was surprised and pleased when an agent from Dick Blick informed me they wanted to feature an image of my painting, “The Watering Hole” in their Winter 2015 print and multimedia flyer.
Of course I agreed and also put in a plug for their “Masterstroke” brushes, which really are good quality sable brushes for the price. I think it’s a fair deal–I get the benefit of some free (relatively) publicity and they get to feature a wonderful work of art to promote the sales of their brushes.
Above is an image of the ad as it ran in the flyer, along with the “Plug” from yours, truly. 🙂
If you’d like to see a time lapse video of me painting “The Watering Hole,” you can click on the play button below, which will play the video directly from my YouTube channel.
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!
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!
I painted en plein air recently in a place that has always intrigued me with it’s dramatic architecture, interesting shadows and reflections and of course the famous red trolleys–that is, at the San Diego Metropolitan Transit system’s Santa Fe Depot at One America Plaza in downtown San Diego. Here’s a pic of the architecture which previously won an “Orchid Award” in the annual San Diego Architectural Foundation review of San Diego developments and construction projects which either effuse the elegance of an orchid…or the stink of an onion.
I arrived early…before 8:00am and set up my easel in the traffic island at the center of the intersection at Broadway and Kettner. It was a great place from which to paint and provided the perfect vantage of the trolleys coming and going. Painting the trolley itself was done in fits and spurts as one trolley would leave but another would arrive in minutes and for the most part, with a few exceptions, was identical. Here’s a pic of my easel, with two trolleys in the station in the background…
It was interesting to paint with the traffic rolling by and when the traffic would stop, folks would gawk out the car windows, inquisitively at the patently unusual sight of a crazed plein air painter in the middle of traffic, wearing a big, Guatemalan palm leaf, cowboy hat, pacing to and fro, wielding a long, paint laden brush like a picador, stabbing at a canvas as if it were a snorting bull trying to gore him. Many pedestrians walking by gave the big, “thumbs up” and commented that I was making a beautiful painting, which is always encouraging. Here’s the result of the morning’s effort–a 16 x 16 inch oil on stretched canvas, titled “Rolling Through.” Whether it is an “orchid” or an “onion” or the bull won is in the proverbial eye of the beholder…
I got out early with my plein air kit and drove…no particular destination in mind but felt the water pulling me to the West. It had been a few weeks since I’ve painted the environs of our Southern California coast and it is always a source of excellent subjects for rendering with a brush and paint.
I found myself heading up the Point Loma Peninsula via Rosecrans Boulevard. Once inside the Navy Base and Federal Reserve lands up there I was amazed, as always, at the sense of height and distance from that perspective. Downtown San Diego and Coronado are seeming miniature villages, miles away and below as you drive through the hallowed grounds of the National Cemetery. It is a somber, yet peaceful and beautiful place. I recommend that any visitor make the drive, but definitely stop and get out of your vehicle. It is worth the effort to take some time to feel the fresh sea breezes, hear the peaceful quiet and take a few moments to reflect on the fallen soldiers and military who rest in peace there.
While most of the rest of the country was in the grip of a deep blast of Arctic sub-zero temperatures, my backyard here in Wintergardens, Lakeside–a borough of San Diego County, in California, USA, was sunny, bright and a balmy 70 degrees Fahrenheit. To protect myself from the Winter sun, I put on my wide-brimmed cowboy hat, walked out the back door with my easel and paint supplies in tow, intending to paint a nice composition, featuring the Meyer lemons that are now fully ripe on the little tree along the Western fence between ours’ and the neighbor’s lot. I already had the antique, gilded gesso frame, which is very ornate and figured a botanical theme would not stylistically clash with it. I’m happy with the result. I hope you like it.