Here are some of the recent larger plein air paintings from our hill above Florence. I did a couple timelapse videos of the progress this time.
Dawn over Florence #2. Oil on linen, 90 x 120 cm.
Olive Trees in May. 90 x 120 cm, oil on linen.
I’m working on a stable and portable system for working on larger paintings on site. I’ve just finished the first iteration and I’ll be taking it back to the US to try it out next week. These were mostly done with my older Italian steel field easel set-up, which also works really well.
The next two images are of the same painting. The first (below) was painting in the afternoon, but then I decided to glaze everything orange to capture the evening light effect.
Old Olive Tree, early version with afternoon light. 70 x 90 cm, oil on linen.
Old Olive Tree, final version with evening light. 70 x 90 cm, oil on linen.
Fruit Trees in Bloom. 60 x 80 cm, oil on linen.
Garden at Villa Schneiderf. 90 x 100 cm, oil on linen.
After my recent anti-technology rant, here’s a post on smartphone apps for landscape painters.
These apps wont make anyone’s paintings better but they can facilitate putting oneself in a position where the focus is on the subject. The only surefire way to improve your painting with a smartphone is to use it as a black mirror.
I’ve switched recently to Android, so the links are to the Google store. I’m sure there are equivalents for iOS.
Il Meteo Weather App
Il Meteo’s hour by hour prediction is usually very accurate.
Knowing what the weather will do is obviously incredibly useful. I wrote before about Il Meteo, the Italian meteorological website I use to predict weather for plein air painting. They also have an app. It’s the one I always check first as it’s accurate most of the time. It’s pretty general though, and for more specific information I use MeteoEarth ($10/year) which has cool little animations which show you wind direction, cloud cover, and precipitation for the coming days.
Meteo Earth’s animated cloud cover display.
It also shows wind speed and temperature but I prefer Windy for wind prediction, and after 25 years in Europe I still haven’t figured out what the numbers in celsius mean (I know 0 and 40). The third app I use for weather is Clear Outside, which forgoes the fancy maps and animations and just gives numerical values for everything. I find its prediction for cloud cover especially useful as it is normally accurate, and because it splits them into high, medium, and low clouds. It also gives the dew point, which can be useful for predicting how wet I’ll get when trudging to my spot in the early morning.
Windy wind-prediction app.
Clear Outside’s numerical weather forecast.
More Clear Outside, showing the dew point and humidity.
I usually check all three apps and follow the majority opinion.
For people in other parts of the world, RainToday (it only shows up in the UK app stores) seemed to work well for simple, short-term rain prediction in the UK, and NOAA and MyRadar get good reviews from painters in the US.
Sun Seeker’s sun-prediction augmented reality view.
There are a bunch of these for landscape photographers. My favorite is Sun Seeker as it does an augmented reality view where it uses your camera to overlay the sun’s path through your view. It also gives the positions at other times of the year, which can be useful if you have a particular subject that you want in a particular light. The other one I check occasionally is Exsate Golden Hour, but really just to check the sunset and sunrise times. It gives the time for the ‘golden hour’, but I think it’s different for painters than photographers as I consider my golden hour to last much longer than the app does. It also predicts stuff like ‘expressive skies’ based on whether it’s going to be partly cloudy at sunset. For calculating sunrise and sunset The Photographer’s Ephemeris can also calculate mountains that will shorten the day at either end, but it’s a confusing app and I don’t use it. I mention it because landscape photographers seem to love it. They have a desktop version you can try for free.
Kompass topographical maps
I find topographical maps to be very useful in scouting for landscapes. I can often calculate a good view by studying the lay of the land before I even start driving to the location. And they are especially well-suited to scouting in Italy as I can often predict the picturesqueness of a view based on the layout of the buildings (older buildings are rarely on a grid, and are usually much better for landscape painting). My favorite paper maps of Tuscany are made by an Austrian company called Kompass and some of my favorite painting spots were found using their maps, so I was quite happy to see they now have an app. It’s not as nice as having a paper map, but it’s certainly more convenient. Their library isn’t very extensive, but they do central Tuscany quite well (the only building they don’t have is the one I live in now). When I couldn’t find Kompass maps for an area, I would often use the Italian state’s (IGM) maps which are available via other apps like MyTrails and BackCountry Navigator.
MyTrails using the Istituto Geografico Militare maps.
Istituto Geografico Militare map on BackCountry Navigator
The other map app I’ve played around with is Komoot, which has navigation instructions for hiking and mountain biking, and does a good job of knowing actual trails in the areas around Florence where I’ve tried it.
Komoot’s trail navigator.
Gaia GPS gets very high praise from hikers but, as it doesn’t show the buildings here in Italy, I prefer the other apps.
Lastly, Peakfinder and Peaklens can show you the names of mountains in your view, which can be useful for titling work.
Screenshot of Peakfinder pointed over the rather uninteresting Arno valley.
Peaklens’ augmented reality view (more or less the same view as Peakfinder above).
I bought a Jot Pro stylus and tried a few drawing programs. I can see how it would be useful for thumbnails and for artists who feel more comfortable with digital media, but I still prefer a pencil and paper. I tried Autodesk’s Sketchbook, PaperOne, and Bamboo Paper. I think PaperOne was my favorite of the three as it felt the most like an actual pencil. Their lay-out leaves much to be desired though as the tools take up too much of the screen space. Autodesk felt the most polished of the three.
Here are images of some of my recent smaller plein air work from around where I’m living in the hills of Tuscany, just outside of Florence. The small village is called Vicchio di Rimaggio.
I’ve been slacking on the blog so there is quite a bit to post. I also have a lot on the burner at the moment as late May is always such a fun time of the year for painting outside.
The Old Road. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.
Urn, Late Morning. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.
Irises, Villa Schneiderf. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.
Terracotta Statue. 30 x 20 cm, oil on panel.
Garden Study #1. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.
Garden Study #2. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.
Garden Study #3. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.
Wisteria and Scooters. 30 x 20 cm, oil on panel.
I’ve been painting a lot of olive trees.
Olive Trees, Midmorning. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.
Edge of a Cut Field. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.
Olive Trees over Florence. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.
Olive Grove Sketch. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.
Some of these were color studies for larger pieces which I’ll post soon. Not all of my smaller studies get enlarged, but I find it useful to see how the view will look in paint before I launch into a big canvas. It also helps me to visualize scenes in paint, which is so useful for completing more finished work on a bigger scale.
Olive Trees, Late Afternoon (color study). 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.
Sunset, Vicchio di Rimaggio. 30 x 20 cm, oil on panel.
Concert in San Lorenzo a Vicchio di Rimaggio. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.
Colclough Walled Gardens #1. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.
I’ve been moving around a lot and haven’t been posting much, so here are paintings from the last three months. The first few are from the AITO plein air painting festival in Wexford, Ireland. It’s always a great to be back in Wexford and they always find us great spots to paint. I focused on gardens this trip, as subjects to enlarge in the future.
There are inspiring natural effects which take place in weather which is not really suited to plein air painting. I wrote earlier in the year about painting in snow, rain is another such condition. For cityscapes and roads especially, painting while it is raining can offer reflections in the wet pavement which make for some wonderful designs and unusual compositions.
After the Rain, Broad Street, Charleston. 12 x 8 in., oil on linen.
The Fin-de-Siècle Museum in the Rain. 30 x 20 cm, oil on panel.
There are, however, difficulties with using oil paint in heavy or persistent rain. First, when the painting surface is covered with a sheet of water it can be difficult to get the colors to stick. Then poorly mulled paints can bleed with the water. Next, heavier drops of water can hit the delicate paint layers, leaving small craters in the color or washing away the paint altogether. And finally, with enough perseverance, one discovers that the the old adage ‘oil and water don’t mix’ is only partly true: Oil paint will eventually mix with the water to form a thick emulsion which can be difficult to control.
The obvious solution to this is to keep water off the surface, either by painting somewhere with shelter or to carrying one’s shelter to the spot. A top-hinged trunk door can work very well for painters with one on their car (thanks Roy), as shown in this photo of my set-up under the trunk of a car on the Hardangerfjord:
Using a trunk door as a portable painting shelter in Norway.
Recently I built a small, lightweight rain-bonnet which attaches to my easel above the panel. As I wanted something that would fit in my backpack the set-up is quite small. It works fine in normal vertical rain, but isn’t all that successful with the horizontal and upward-directed rain that you get in places like Ireland. Once I’ve tweaked it to better functionality I’ll try to get them out to the public.
Rain bonnet for plein air painting in rain.
Another option is an umbrella. I have an Easyl umbrella from Artwork Essentials, which is made from opaque cloth and designed for blocking sunlight, not rain. The problem with an opaque or dark umbrella in the rain is that it blocks what little light is filtering down from above. This can be especially problematic when painting in cities or forests where much of the ambient light is already blocked from the sides. A better solution would be a white umbrella like the ones made by Best Brella. While I have no personal experience with their products, I’ve seen painters with other clip-on white umbrellas and they let in adequate light for keying values properly.
Dark umbrellas block too much light in overcast conditions.
A serious problem with painting in heavy rain is that it can absolutely ruin materials. For brushes, the thickness of the emulsion and water sinking into the wood handle can expand the metal ferrule which, in turn, causes hairs to come out and destroys the form of the head. When working outside in dry weather I can get away with washing my brushes once a week if I use them everyday. When painting in heavy rain I find I need to get the paint and water out of the brush at the end of every day, and even then some don’t make it.
I haven’t had problems with wet panels warping, but I have seen water soak the linen and cause it to shrink. This can lead to bending of the stretcher bars as seen in Leo Mancini-Hresko‘s photo below. The solution would be heavier stretcher bars with a crossbar, and/or restretching the canvas after the painting is finished.
Warped stretcher bars due to the linen shrinking while drying.
As for rain clothes, there are better sites to peruse for gear. I’m personally a fan of Gore-Tex Paclite as it’s cheaper than, and doesn’t breath as well as, the fancier alpinist/backpacker stuff. I find that clothes that don’t breath well are better for us stationary landscape painters, yet some venting is better so it doesn’t feel suffocating or clammy. I have an old Patagonia Paclite jacket that I’ve used for a number of years if I know it’s going to rain. I wash it and reapply Grangers waterproofing once or twice a year. As I mentioned in the post on winter clothes, alpinist and climbing jackets are stitched together in a way to minimize the pull on your sleeves when you lift your arm. This works better for painters than normal jackets as we also keep our arms up much of the time. A dark and/or blue jacket is also a good idea for painting en plein air as it wont reflect a strong color back onto the canvas if the sun comes out.
I’ve experimented recently with a lightweight Helium II from Outdoor Research and one of the new Derzimax jackets from Bergans of Norway. Neither was particularly impressive, the Helium packs small and weighs little, but it wets out quickly and feels clammy. The Derzimax jacket keeps me dry, breaths well (which can feel cold when stationary), dries quickly, but weighs four times as much as the Helium, and twice as much as my Patagonia.
Painting in freezing rain can be a problem as one needs all the warmth of insulating layers, with a waterproof shell on top. In the past I found the only way to do this was with the aforementioned layers or a very heavy parka, both of which are constricting and heavy, and annoying to paint in. This year I picked up a lightweight Crux eVent down jacket from Up and Under in Cardiff (great UK gear store), which should be both warm and waterproof for painting in winter rain. I let you know how it works out. eVent is suppose to have problems if it gets dirt or grease on it, and I assume the same would go for oil paint, but it was the only lightweight, articulated-shouldered, one-jacket solution I could find.
Painting in the rain on Curracloe Beach in Ireland.
For rain pants I use a Berghaus Paclite shell that can be found pretty inexpensively on Amazon.co.uk.
Bathtub test: Meindls (bottom) didn’t let water in after hours, La Sportivas (top) leaked like sieves.
It took me forever to find actual waterproof shoes that were light enough to travel with. While I love the grippy soles of La Sportiva approach shoes and trailrunners (red Frixion soles), their Gore-Tex iterations are a trainwreck . When wearing them my socks will get wet after crossing a lawn covered with dew. I’ve had good luck with Meindl boots so I’ve been using their X-SO 30 shoes with Gore-Tex Surround and, combined with waterproof gaiters, they keep my feet dry for hours in the rain. The downside to Meindl is they can be hard to find, expensive, and they look like they were designed by a 1980s glam rock group. On the plus side they’re still made in Germany and last for years.
Custom cuben fiber backpack for painting equipment.
For keeping my gear dry, I had a Cuben Fiber (now Dyneema Composites Fabric) backpack made by an artisan in Florence. My main interest at the time was actually to keep medium and turpentine from getting out of the backpack, should something leak. But the Cuben Fiber is completely waterproof, so my paintings and brushes are protected once they get back into the bag. I was a bit concerned about how Cuben Fiber would react with the medium and especially with the turpentine, but it’s worked great so far. I’ve used it daily for six months with turpentine and medium on the inside and outside of the bag there are no ill effects. It wipes off easily too.
If anyone has other thoughts or suggestions, I’d love to hear them in the comments.