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.