A year and a half ago, Mario Vukelic invited me to lead a painting holiday workshop with Pastel Workshops Croatia. And early this September, it happened! I had an amazing group of six students who were dedicated in their pursuit of pastel painting knowledge. There were times of concentrated silence and times of uncontrolled laughter – all of which filled my heart. And as an instructor, there’s nothing like hearing ‘Aha!’ exclamations!
Happily, although the weather was sometimes iffy, we had a spacious studio in which to work. The weather prevented us from going on the Istrian tour (boo hoo) but on the bright side, it gave the students more learning time from me in the studio and I was happy to share more!
The Hotel Villa Gloria is small and beautiful, rooms are comfy and clean, staff are incredibly friendly and accommodating, food is plentiful and delicious, and there’s a gorgeous pool for swimming or just contemplating life with book and cocktail in hand at the end of a hard painting day. Perfect!
A couple days ago I was on Salt Spring Island visiting my parents and one of the things I really wanted to do while there was to work en plein air. It’s been awhile since I’ve painted on location and as I’m preparing for my workshop in Croatia, this was on the to-do list. It was a perfect day for painting and although I went through the angst of I-can’t-remember-how-to-paint during the process, I was quite happy with the result. Of course the outcome wasn’t as important as the doing of it but still, it’s nice to have some success. This post reveals my thoughts on tweaking my plein air painting back in the studio as well as the progress of the painting on location.
Bright and bold were the words that came to mind when I first saw the work of UK artist Richard Suckling. His work dazzles with colour and light. I featured his work last March and since then have been awed every time he posts a new piece.
In October, I noticed he’d started to post pieces done en plein air in Spain. They startled me with their immediacy and had a quality of fearlessness. And so I invited Richard to contribute a blog about these pieces. Little did I know that they were indeed daring as painting on location was out of this studio painter’s comfort zone!
Yayyyyyyy, summer’s here in all its glory. That means it’s time to get pastelling outdoors!! For me, it takes some revving up to do when I’m out of the habit. While Cam was away, I made it a goal to start the ball rolling. I took myself out for breakfast (hmmmm…reward first?) then found a neighbouring park where I set up to paint the sunny view of sea and sailboats.
So let’s take a look at what happened when I went painting en plein air.
There’s so much in a garden to paint – long views and closeups, flowers and garden accoutrements, seasonal changes or a single season, a garden corner or an entire garden – all make for great subject matter!
I’m in Ontario to teach at the ICAN Pastel Conference in Aurora during the week. Happily the plan is to spend both weekends with my sister and her family. Last weekend at her place, I found some quiet time to pastel en plein air. It’s been awhile since I’ve painted on location – Mexico in February was the last time – so this was such a pleasure. Hot weather standing in the shade painting. What could be nicer?
We’re back from our two-week vacation in La Manzanilla, Mexico where we danced up a storm during the first week in a tango intensive workshop and then relaxed a bit in the second which is when I managed to get some pastelling time in. This pastel is a view from the verandah of Martin’s Restaurant. At first I was a bit overwhelmed by the scene until I spoke the mantra, simplify, simplify, simplify! It’s always good when you remember that you don’t have to put everything in – only include what you want to say something about. Let’s have a look at the view and the thumbnail sketch I did of it.
I think many of us artists have this problem – knowing when a painting is finished. Sometimes, without our realizing it, a painting is finished back a few steps. I know my tendency is to want to pick away, making the tiniest of tweaks. Often this can eradicate the spontaneity that was there especially when it comes to work done en plein air. We bring the piece back into the studio, study it, and then see the ‘flaws’ which we need to ‘correct’. Often these so called flaws are what bring the painting to vibrant life and ‘correcting’ them brings along a slow death. Unless we stop in time. And when is that time?
This summer on Salt Spring Island, I was fortunate to paint en plein air a few times with my Mum and Dad. I keep saying it but really, there’s nothing like painting on location for a rewarding experience, both in life and in technical and skills learning. So what did I learn this time?
Before I go on, let me tell you what attracted me to this scene. I have passed this place by car so many times and thought, I’d like to paint that! Why? Well first off, I’m a sucker for paths and roads that take us somewhere (obvious or hidden). I also love the light patterns made by trees over such paths. And I love yellow houses! This scene had all these elements in spades.
I’m home from my wonderful trip to Ontario where Cam and I visited various family members. Kicking myself for not taking more photos! However, I did have time to do one pastel en plein air 🙂 It’s one that I did of a beautiful view of Big Rideau Lake from Cam’s Mum’s porch. The weather was changeable, rotating from heavy cloud and grey skies to blue sky with white clouds. Ahhhh the unpredictable delights of painting on location!
The Plein Air Progress
Here’s the view through the screen. (Yes, I was cheating a bit sitting inside a screened porch but I still consider it a plein air piece!)
The view I painted. Lots of blues and greens!
1. The Thumbnail. I was especially attracted to the darkly encircled view of the brightly lit trees in the middle ground.
2. The charcoal drawing on Wallis paper
3. The first layers on – light, middle and dark values. You can see that I’m ‘reading’ the middle ground trees and the water as the same value.
4. Adding more pastel. You can see the water and middle ground trees emerging as different shapes now.
5. The above in black and white. You can see that I need to darken the left side quite a bit to evoke the same feeling captured in the thumbnail!
6. Beginning to define the shapes of trees and negative space of the lake
7. Almost there. Greens added to the foreground trees. The gray clouds disappeared and were replaced by white ones and I could even see blue sky so that went in too. The various tree trunks of the middle ground trees were finally added.
8. Let’s have a look at the pastel as it stands in black and white. A much closer feeling of looking at the light from the darkness. Just a few more tweaks..
9. Gail Sibley, ‘View From Sherwoods,’ pastel on Wallis paper, 9 x 12 in. Small tweaks made and I called it quits. CAD$575 unframed
10. Here are the Sennelier pastels I used. The sticks to the left of the charcoal were tried but hardly used. I introduced another green into the small starter set I use. I just couldn’t resist that dark olive green. Hmmmm, I’ll need to remember to replace that blue that’s in three small pieces – that’s all I have left of that particular colour!
I was so happy to have done any work en plein air while away. It would have been nice to have done more but since the main reason for our trip was family visiting, I put all my focus and energy into doing just that! And I’m ever so glad as I had an amazing time first with my sister and her partner, then with Cam’s family (I have now met them all!), and finally with my cousin Alex and her partner. All very special times.
Look forward to hearing from you. Please leave a comment and tell me what you think of my newest plein air work.
One of the most common questions I receive about plein air painting is, “How do you decide what to paint when there is so much to choose from?” My answer? Using a viewfinder can help enormously! The landscape can be so overwhelming and using a viewfinder will help you isolate the part that appeals to you the most.
I recently made a video about using a viewfinder. Have a look at it below.
When using a viewfinder, you will need to close one eye otherwise you’ll see crazy double vision! If you can’t close one eye, then squinting will help but it’s definitely not as useful or satisfying as the one-eyed look.
Using a viewfinder to help you design your thumbnails
The viewfinder I show in the video is one called ViewCatcher. It’s the one I use myself. You can try out all sorts of formats with this viewfinder – just remember to use the same proportions on your paper. For example if you decide on a square opening, make sure your paper is square. If the format of your paper is pretty much decided, for example you have a piece of 9 x 12 in Wallis paper mounted on foamcore, then create a 9 x 12 in window in your viewfinder. The ability to change from one format to another is one of the main reasons I like ViewCatcher!
Create your own viewfinder
You can of course create your own viewfinder by cutting out a rectangular hole in cardboard. If you regularly work on a 9 x 12 in paper which is a 3:4 ratio, then go ahead and cut out a hole measuring 3 x 4 in or if smaller, then 1.5 x 2 in – anything that retains that 3:4 ratio. If you always work square, then cut out a square opening.
Make sure you leave enough cardboard around the hole (like that shown below) to block out the rest of the view. That way you can concentrate on what’s happening in the opening as you move it slowly over your subject. A large surround also helps the viewfinder retain its shape while traveling in your art bag.
Having said all that, I think that the ability to switch easily between formats in the Viewcatcher makes it worth the money. Also, it won’t get bent in your art bag like a piece of cardboard might.
Here’s a viewfinder made from matboard that I’ve had for ages. Note the heavy weight of board means it has kept its shape but you can also see the corners are a bit battered.
Using a viewfinder to crop a landscape
Let’s have a look at what I mean by using a viewfinder to help you compose your painting. I’ll take an uncropped photo and then crop it in various ways to show you what can happen.
Uncropped photo taken on a trip to France
First let’s try out two square crops:
Square crop of original photo. You can see there is more attention on the water in the canal
This is the second square crop where you can see the focus is on the background and sky
Next let’s look at the same areas but in a vertical rectangular crop:
Vertical crop focusing on the water in the canal. The bridge is now a prominent feature.
Vertical crop with attention on the background hills and sky
Now let’s try horizontal crops:
This horizontal crop tells the whole story of what’s there without the distraction of the background.
In this horizontal crop, there is a tension between the waterwheel and the bridge – both fight for attention.
Although I’m cropping a photo, I’m sure you can imagine how this would work on location. Which crop of those above is your favourite? What other ways would you crop the original?
Remember that using a viewfinder will help you not only with choosing what to paint in a landscape. It can help with any subject be it figure, still life, portrait, urban view. Anything!!
Using a viewfinder to help with your drawing
Not only does a viewfinder help you compose your painting, it also helps with the creation of your drawing. Find where lines intersect the edges of the viewfinder and note their position related to the whole ie. a third from the bottom, a quarter from the top. You can also relate the angle a line makes as it moves across the space to the vertical and horizontal lines of the viewfinder itself, for example the line and angle of the rose’s stem.
Here’s the image of the rose with the marks I mention in the video.
The marks made are the ones you can transpose to your paper. This will help you with your drawing of the subject.
Using a viewfinder to help with values
The other thing the ViewCatcher has going for it that I didn’t mention in the video are the two small holes. The colour of the ViewCatcher is 50% grey on the value scale of 1-10. This makes it ever so easy to check the value of a colour against the grey. Look at a spot through one of the holes – is what you are looking at darker or lighter than the grey of the ViewCatcher?
You can then move the ViewCatcher hole over your painting and check how the value there relates to the value of the viewfinder itself. You can also check how accurately you have captured the value of the colour you saw ‘out there’.
Check the image below – look at the top hole and see how light the background is especially when you compare it with the other hole that shows the colour of my hair.
ViewCatcher showing the holes used for value checking
Using a viewfinder to help with colour
These small holes in ViewCatcher can also help you determine the saturation of a colour – how much colour do you see compared to the grey of the viewfinder – is it greyer or more saturated with colour than you think? And what about temperature? Is it warmer or cooler than you think? Run the viewfinder over different areas to compare them one to the other. This is hugely helpful when you are unsure of colour saturation or temperature.
Viewfinder as gift
The other thing is, a viewfinder is a wonderful gift to give to non-artists as it will help them ‘see’ the world in a way they don’t now. I love hearing the ahhs and oohs as they move a viewfinder over whatever is in front of them.
This blog has turned out to be a review of the ViewCatcher as I like it so much!! You can pick one up in many art stores or order it from Amazon here: Viewcatcher from Amazon.com
I’d love to hear if you use a viewfinder. How helpful is one to your work? Do you use a handmade viewfinder or something like the ViewCatcher? Do you use one all the time or rarely? Let me know by posting a comment on the blog.