Finally the temperatures are warming up! Add that to the fact that I’m heading to the Metchosin International Summer School of the Arts (MISSA) to teach a plein painting workshop next week, and you have me outside painting. Yesterday, even though I’d planned to paint by the sea, it was sooooo windy that I thought, NOT a good idea. So instead, I chose backyard plein air painting.
It’s easy to forget what a painting treasure trove we have in the backyard. Cam and I have a tiny yard on two sides of our house yet there are pockets of light and dark, groupings of colourful flowers, and many textured greens. Here too I’m protected from much of the wind blowing through. So I set up for backyard plein air painting rather than venturing far afield.
Cam and I had both commented on the delicious beauty of a surprise stalk of hollyhocks. As I contemplated backyard plein air painting, I thought of them. So I had a look to see if they’d fit the painting bill. And yes! there was a lovely pattern of light and shade very easily divided into three values. Since I only had an hour and thought it wise not to complicate things too much, the hollyhocks were a wonderful subject.
Let me take you through the painting progression.
Here’s a photo of the hollyhocks and my easel set up in the backyard.
First, of course, I did a thumbnail:
Then I drew up the subject on UART 400 paper with vine charcoal:
Next, I chose underpainting colours for my three values. The leaves are the lightest and although bright green, they also reflect the blue of the sky so I chose blue. For the middle value, the background, I could sense some warmth in the grey behind so I chose a middle-value ochre colour. And finally, for the darks (which is seen both in the flowers and some of the leaves), I chose a red-violet.
Notice that I added a light leaf in the lower left (not seen in my thumbnail). I decided to add it and see how I felt about it in terms of the composition. At this stage I can easily get rid of it if it doesn’t work.
I then started adding another layer, this time, looking to the local colour and the colours I could see. You can see I’m still working with big shapes.
I began to observe and shape the hollyhock flowers by both painting the petals themselves and also cutting the petal shapes out by defining the space around them (the negative shapes).
Then it was time to shape the leaves more carefully. As I did while working on the flowers, I painted both the subject (the leaves) and the space around them (the negative shapes).
Now I needed to work more into the background. I had been painting the negative shapes around the flowers and leaves and now it was time to integrate all of those parts into a whole. I also added more colours including the pink colour from the flowers and the lighter blue used as the original light value colour.
I worked a bit more on the piece (can you see how I changed one of the background leaves for instance?) but I was losing energy. AND I needed to stop and get going to my dance class!
This morning I had another look at the painting but this time with a mat around it. Using a mat helps to show the piece more clearly as it’s cut off from its surroundings. I could see a few things I wanted to change or enhance.
The angle and shape of the front leaf was bugging me so I adjusted that. I also clarified a few of the flowers (the delineation of light and dark patterns for instance). I added some highlights and also adjusted the background a bit more. And then I left it alone.
A plein air painting is an impression of how you’re reacting to the place you’re painting. When you tweak a plein air painting back in the studio, be careful you don’t lose the spontaneity of your reaction in the moment. The tendency is to want to smooth out all the bumps, to perfect all the things that are out of place. But doing so can dampen the energy of the work done on site. So be tentative in your fixings.
And let’s have a look at it in black and white to see how the value structure is holding up:
And here are the pastels I used. Mostly Unison pastels but I think that bright pink in the middle is a Mount Vision pastel! The first three pastels in a vertical line to the left are the first three colours applied.
Backyard plein air painting gives you the opportunity to paint outside in a safe place, away from onlookers and with a bathroom close at hand! It also affords you the chance to easily come back to the painting the next day if you run out of painting time (eg all the shadow patterns have changed!).
What do you think of backyard plein air painting? If you’ve been thinking you’d like to try plein air painting but are anxious about it, this is a great way to start. You can do a full view or zoom in on one plant like I’ve done. You can even go in closer and do a study of one flower. Remember, you don’t have to work large. Better to work small and then move on to another piece.
If you’re a seasoned outdoor painter, have you ever set up in your backyard to paint? What was it like?
I’d LOVE to hear from you so please leave a comment below. Tell me what you think of the idea of backyard plein air painting!
Until next time,