Thank You for Introducing Me to Plein Air Painting

Smith Chapel

Earlier in my painting life, I would drive out to a house or barn, at a client’s request, draw some images from the best angles to my way of thinking, and come home to draw on a canvas and paint a scene. Customers seemed pleased with my efforts. They wanted a “copy” of their home place. And I delivered.

Yesterday as I visited a lifelong friend I pointed out a landscape painting I had done years before of her husband’s home place complete with barns and cornfield. I was critiquing it as I sat and visited. Of course no one else would see it as I do. I hope!
I can’t imagine using that method now. The clients wanted all the windows and door locks and now I may not even see a doorknob if it’s in the shadow area. My current paintings are the impression the forms make on my brain and less about the architect’s plan.
I recall doing fair compositions of sometimes quite boring subjects. I have to admit there’s not so much excitement in those paintings as I feel in the ones I do today. They are more like documentaries.

I feel free to paint what inspires me and if someone asks for a particular subject I feel I capture it with much more “life” after having painted many canvases outside. Many of my plein air studies are kept for a while and then either recycled or tossed out. (Don’t allow your children to drag them out of the trash as mine do.) Unfinished paintings are like unfinished chores. If bad paintings are unredeemable I brush some Gamblin Ground over the painting and have a fresh canvas.

Sorolla and Sargeant painted with such flair. I’m not sure I totally understand their methods even as I study their works, including their sketches, colors, and set ups. Many critics agree that their interpretations of light on sails, water, and figures have reached a zenith. I think I must have gotten off track when doing laborious drawings for watercolors. Struggle is not a strong enough word to describe the process of my attempts at capturing light with watercolor. Other artists are successful. As a student attending a watercolor workshop in Atlanta I was introduced to Quinacradone Gold which helped somewhat. But I was never pleased with the final paintings. I like the speed I’m able to paint with alkyds, pastels, and oils.

While taking some plein air classes in oils in Giverny, France I “saw the light”.The long daylight hours there in the late summer are incredible. After that time I’ve hardly been able to think of anything else. I study light as I travel down the highway, or walk my dog, or sit in church. Yesterday as I was reading my birthday present “Joaquin Sorolla” I tried to learn how he was able to make the light glow.

The first thing that may help is to simplify the palette. I prefer two yellows, two reds, two blues, and maybe green and always white. Then push intense colors using broken color to set them off. That is what I see when viewing Sorolla’s wonderful work “Peppers” which I discovered for the first time this week. I could hardly look at it for any length of time. It is difficult to describe my feelings of awe. I’ve had this sense of wonder when viewing a painting in a museum. I was blown away by Van Gogh’s brushwork and color when I viewed his café scenes in the Netherlands but seldom have I experienced such amazement from a small color plate in a book. The way Sorolla controlled the light coming across the little girl’s shoulder is magic. I’ll keep searching for ways to paint like that.

Thank you, L Diane Johnson, for introducing me to values. Recognizing values in color is not always easy. I’m working on this daily.I’ve met many wonderful artists at Paint Outs and introduced some of my friends and students to plein air painting. This week a wonderful friend and sister artist paid me a compliment while we were out painting. No, she didn’t say, wow that’s a great painting but she did say “thank you for introducing me to plein air”. I was moved with her sincere gratitude. We feel it is a gift when we are able to get out and paint landmarks around us. We are both blessed to have the freedom to discover our surroundings.

I compare plein air to golfing, fishing, sailing; all those wonderful things people do. It’s an excuse-REASON to get outside. I’ve been getting up at dawn and heading out to capture that early morning light that one of Elin Pendleton’s DVD describes in cool yellows and ultramarine blue/alizarin violets. I’ve got two pillboxes with the cool and warm colors. While using the Sun Eden Easel that I purchased for working in pastels, I was reminded of an exercise that Maggie Price taught us in her Pastel Workshop. The under-painting was done in yellow and blue. All the light areas were done in yellow and the darks were painted in blue. It was great fun. Try it! This under-painting is great for keeping the artist focused on the areas of light and shadow when painting the local colors.

It’s my desire by writing this article to introduce others to paint the light and try new things. Wonderful abstracts may be found in the contrast of the light and shadow. Look at the objects as shapes and not as objects. I tried doing just that in this painting. It was done before 9 am on Thursday June 24, 2009. It is similar to exercising. When you get a painting in the first two hours of the day, the whole day seems to go better. I’m glad I was introduced to plein air. I have my doubts about ever painting from any of those photos stuck on the bottom shelf in my studio waiting for the day I’m unable to stand at the easel in the great outdoors. Someday maybe I’ll have to paint from them but not this morning.

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-- Sandra Babb is a Plein Air painter, writer, and an art gallery owner living in Georgia.

An archive of Sandra's articles is located here.
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