Swiss Plein Air Workshop

Here are a few photos from my week of teaching plein air landscape painting in the valley around Les Plans in Switzerland. I was working for the Alpine Atelier based in Gryon.

Above Les Plans Swiss Plein Air Workshop

They are very unrepresentative photos as we only had a few hours of sun all week. Most of the time it was low clouds and snow. Nevertheless, the students managed to squeeze out a lot of great work.

Les Plans Swiss Plein Air Workshop

It’s often the case that sparse subject matter produces better work while painting en plein air. In my experience, having too many wonderful views to choose from can be more paralyzing to the painter than struggling with difficult or meager subject matter.

Plein Air Switzerland Swiss Plein Air Workshop

Update: Here are a couple more off my phone.

Plein Air Swiss Plein Air Workshop

Plein Air Fog Swiss Plein Air Workshop

I also shot a video of the 40 minute demo I gave on the first day of the course. You can view it below or on my youtube channel:

Painting into, and out of, an Effect

korcula sunset Painting into, and out of, an Effect

Sunset on Korcula. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

I’ve been painting the fleeting light of Southern Croatia for the last couple of weeks and thinking a lot about painting into, and out of, effects.

Landscape paintings usually depict one moment or effect of light. When painting outside, light effects change the whole time the artist is working. Part of the responsibility of the artist is to decide which of the various positions of the sun and shadows will be in the final image. Furthermore, when it’s the painter’s first time somewhere, it can be difficult to visualize perfectly what will happen with the light over the course of a multi-hour plein air painting session.

For the last few years, the light effect that has most interested me is the high sun at midday. My subjects are also often north-facing, and thus back-lit. It’s usually an easy route to take for plein air painting. The number of hues is greatly reduced and the values and shapes become more important. Though it would seem the opposite, I find it easier to get an effect of sunlight or heat, than working with the sun behind me. Most of my favorite historic plein air works are back-lit (it’s hard to think of a good Corot, for example, that isn’t). Also, the light changes very slowly in the midday hours. I’ve worked for up to six hours straight on a midday painting where the shadows and overall effect didn’t change a great deal.

When I first started painting outdoors, however, I really loved the late evening light. Charles Cecil taught me much of what I know about landscape painting, and his own favorite subject is the orange light of the Tuscan evenings, or ‘Golden Hour’. The problem with late light is that the effect lasts only a few minutes. In order to paint a sunset or sunrise painting, you either have to work for only 15 minutes a day, or paint into the effect. Painting into the effect simply means as the afternoon light turns to the golden evening light, the effect will become more and more what you’re after. (Presuming, of course, that the evening light is the desired effect. If the afternoon light is your subject then you’re painting out of the effect).

The trick to painting into an effect is to work on the drawing until the desired effect is present, and then change the colors and shadow shapes at the end. For painting out of the effect the opposite is true. You start with color notes and the shadow shapes, and then polish the drawing as everything changes.

In the sketch of Korcula at sunset above, you can see the blue around the palm tree from when I did all the drawing with the afternoon light. I then changed the whole color scheme when the sun set. I’ll later polish things up in the studio when the paint dries.

Understanding the mechanics of changing light and how to deal with it is an important part of plein air painting.

Only Idiots Learn from Their Mistakes

‘Only idiots learn from their mistakes, I learn from the mistakes of others’

- Otto Von Bismarck

Often while correcting students, they inform me that they would rather make their own mistakes, as a sort of learning tool. Since I’ve usually already made that exact mistake myself, I always reply with that quote.

I know sketching a small landscape painting in oils isn’t the same thing as baiting France into unifying Germany for you.  And part of the beauty of oil painting is the ability to change things at a later date.

But the truth is, plein air painting requires you to think about a lot of things studio-painters don’t have to deal with: “Am I blocking traffic?” “How many tourists am I going to have to talk to standing here?”, “Could I freeze to death in this cold?”… etc, and it is very easy to get distracted and make simple compositional errors that one normally wouldn’t make.

Here are a few of the recent snowscapes from Limburg with before and after images, showing my initial mistake, as well as the later-in-studio correction.

The Unfortunate Tangent:

Unfortunate tangents are when a line describing one element in space is tangent with a line describing an element in a completely different location. In the case below, the snow on the hedge on the left  is in front of the windmill yet it lines up precisely with the line of the hill on the right, which is behind the windmill. In the studio I raised the hedge a little to remove the tangent.

 

windmill Only Idiots Learn from Their Mistakes

The Unfortunate Tangent.

Symmetry:

In the case below, the trees in the original sketch were positioned at the same distance from each side of the panel, which is generally considered poor composition. In the studio I moved the left tree slightly to the right and added one behind it, to not have them look so symmetrical. (To be honest, I’m still not convinced about the trees as they’re a bit busy for such a small panel and might take them out entirely).

Also, the path through the snow was parallel to the base of the panel, so I raised it a bit on the left.

saintjohns1 Only Idiots Learn from Their Mistakes

Symmetry.

Parallel Lines:

Lastly, in the painting below, I put in too many parallel lines (also considered poor composition) to describe the plowed fields below the snow. In the studio later I removed a few, and tried to make them more randomly placed.

windmill2 Only Idiots Learn from Their Mistakes

Parallel Lines.

Summer Plans

grenning Summer Plans

I’m off for New York for my solo show at the Grenning Gallery which opens on August 6th. You can download a copy of the catalog here.

I also have recent paintings at  Carteret Contemporary Art and Vision Gallery in North Carolina.

While in the US, I’ll be teaching a four day plain air workshop at the Hamptons Studio of Fine Art in Sag Harbor, NY from July 25th to the 29th.

Umbrian Plein Air Workshop

Trevi Umbrian Plein Air Workshop

View of Trevi from the Bed and Breakfast.

I’ve posted the dates and location for the first of two plein air workshops I hope to do this June. The area around the town of Trevi in Southern Umbria really amazed me for it’s picturesqueness when I was in Spoleto a few years back. I’ve been back a couple of times since then to scout the place out and I feel it has incredible potential for a plein air painting location.

The town is also quite beautiful and without much traffic, if the group is interested in cityscapes.

Trevi2 Umbrian Plein Air Workshop

Picture taken in the center of Trevi this September.

For more information, head over to the courses page.

Sight-size in Landscape Painting

sightsize Sight size in Landscape Painting

Using the sight-size technique for landscape painting.

There is a lot going on right now in my life and haven’t been posting much. This is just a quick post to help better explain to my weekend landscape students the principle behind using the sight-size method for plein air sketching. In the photo above you can see how the camera was held in a position where the subject is the exact same size in nature as the painting on the panel. When using sight-size in the studio, the painter moves back to view the subject and the painting together from a distance. In the case of sketching the large view of a landscape onto a small panel with the sight-size method, the trick is to make sure your head is always in the right position where the subject ‘fits’ onto the panel. I personally believe many painters do this instinctively without realizing it.

The sight-size method is incredibly useful for landscape painting as it allows the painter to focus on the colors, values and edges, and the shapes almost seem to take care of themselves. For atelier-trained painters especially, who have spent years painting with the sight-size method already, it seems a waste not to continue using it outdoors.

badia Sight size in Landscape Painting

Painting at the Badia a Passignano.

Above is a panoramic photo of Wendy, Takuma and I painting at the Badia a Passignano this weekend.