Plein Air Painting in Rain

Plein air landscape painting in heavy persistent rain in Plyos, Russia.

Painting in the rain in Plyos, Russia.

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.

Plein air landscape painting of Broad Street in Charleston SC.

After the Rain, Broad Street, Charleston. 12 x 8 in., oil on linen.

Plein air painting of the Fin-de-Siècle Museum in Brussels.

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 the trunk door of a car as a plein air painting shelter.

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.

Plastic cover for landscape painting in the rain.

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.

Photo of a plein air painting umbrella blocking too much light.

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.

Photo of a warped canvas due to shrinking linen from painting in the rain.

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.

Plein air painting in the rain on Curracloe Beach, Wexford.

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.

Testing the waterproofness of Meindl and La Sportiva shoes and boots.

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.

Photo of a custom-made cuben fiber backpack for plein air painting.

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.

Winter Gear for Plein Air Painting Part II

Winter clothes for plein air landscape painting.

My 2016 winter kit.

“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only unsuitable clothing.”

― A. Wainwright

Last year I wrote about the problems I was having painting outside in the Austrian Alps in February due to inadequate winter gear. This post is about some of the solutions I found after researching and purchasing kit this year. The listed price on some of this stuff is pretty high but buying in spring and summer, using sites like Steep and Cheap or Ebay, and finding an online store that I’m pretty sure had listed the wrong prices (they’ve since fixed them) allowed me to pick up most items for a fraction of the normal cost. And some items are just well worth the money.

My goal getting this kit was to be able to work outside all year without feeling any discomfort, despite the fact that I get cold really easily. I’m really happy with my current setup. It also breaths well so I can trudge around in the snow looking for my view without getting too hot. Furthermore, merino and down both regulate temperature rather than just insulating so I find I don’t have to change in and out of layers as the sun and/or wind comes and goes.

  • The Belay Jacket. A belay jacket is used by alpinists when they have to stop and wait around while climbing mountains. The advantages for plein air painters are threefold. First, the design of the sleeves is to allow for unrestricted movement while climbing (called articulated sleeves). This means that when painting you wont fight your sleeve. The second plus is that they are incredibly lightweight as they are usually stuffed into a stuff-sack and carried up the mountain. They use high-loft down or modern synthetic insulation (you can read about down and synthetic down jackets here) and this, combined with the articulated sleeves, means you really can’t feel the jacket at all when you’re holding your arm up. A normal winter jacket or parka will often have a noticeable pull. The real-world result is that I haven’t had my usual sore shoulder for a few days when I switched to a jacket this year. It’s not that big of a deal, but it is something to consider for anyone looking to pick up a dedicated winter plein air coat. The third thing about belay jackets is that they are very warm so you don’t need many layers to stay warm (though most decent winter jackets do fine here). I picked up a Jottnar Fjorm from a newish company based in England and I’m very happy with it. It’s warm, light, and the sleeves allow for unrestricted movement. It comes in blue or black, which work better for plein air painting in the sun as a brightly colored jacket can reflect its color back onto the painting and make it difficult to gage hues. Mountain Hardware, Rab, Arcteryx, Patagonia, and other mountaineering-gear companies all make belay jackets or parkas. For cottage companies, PHD (England), and Feathered Friends, Montbell (Japan), and Nunatak in the US are also making belay and expedition jackets and parkas. There are both down and synthetic versions. I went with down for the weight to warmth ratio. The synthetic ones will keep you warm even if they get wet, which seems to me to be more of an issue if your life depends on it high up on a mountain. For people in really cold and wet winter climates, Crux in England makes two models of lightweight down jacket with a waterproof eVent shell.
  • Mid-layer Sweaters. I’m not a fan of fleece, so I bought a couple of ‘technical’ merino sweaters of different fabric weights that I switch depending on the temperature. They’re not stiff like some of the heavy sweaters I wore in the past to make up for my jackets never being warm enough. My favorite is a Bergans of Norway merino wool sweater that was reasonably priced and has a half-zipper to regulate the temperature better. It also comes with thumb-holes in case I ever need to do whatever it is you need thumb-holes for.
  • Merino Base Layers. I had a hard time finding expedition weight pure merino base layers in stores in continental Europe. They really love their plastic over here. As I mentioned last time, synthetic base layers are more designed for very active use, where wicking away sweat is important. For standing still the best thing I’ve found is a heavy weight merino base layer. This year I’m using 260 weight (gsm) leggings from Icebreaker and a 340 weight Deep Winter Base Layer top from Rapha, an English cycling gear company. The Rapha base layer is pricey but if you consider it’s also a balaclava and neck gaiter, as well as being a very high-quality piece of kit, it’s pretty reasonable. I’m very happy with mine. It’s one of the only things I paid full retail price for and I feel it was well worth it. Minus33 makes heavier duty baselayers (400 gsm), but we can’t get their stuff over here. Woolpro is a cottage company making merino gear in the US. Some companies (Kora and Jottnar being two) have started making base layers out of yak wool, which is supposed to be warmer than merino for the same weight.
Image showing the size difference between Harkila Inuit pac-boots and normal insulated winter boots.

Size difference between Harkila Inuit pac boots and normal winter boots.

  • Pac Boots. I’ve always gotten by with cheap hiking boots with hand warmers stuffed in the toes. Other painters use normal insulated winter boots with their car mats or a piece of foam under their feet as most of the cold comes from touching the freezing ground. I wanted something that I could work outside for hours in without carrying extra gear so I picked up a pair of real pac boots based on Stapleton Kearns‘ recommendation of The Cabelas Trans-Alaskan III Pac Boots. Since we don’t have Cabelas in Europe I bought the similar-looking Harkila Inuits for the around the same price. They’re comically large boots, and online images don’t really show how big they are. You can’t drive while wearing them, so for scouting with a car one still needs a smaller winter boot to use the pedals safely. Like all pac boots, they’re actually two boots in one as there is an inner wool insert that your foot goes into, then that goes into the larger boot. They also have two insoles below the insert and my feet are kept about 4 inches (10 cm) off the ground. Despite the large size, the boots are actually very light and manageable for walking as the insoles are foam and the sole of the boot appears to be hollow, perhaps to insulate better. The important part is that I can stand for hours on snow and ice in complete comfort.
  • Primaloft/Coreloft pants. A number of companies make insulated pants, again mainly for belaying mountaineers. The difference between these and insulated ski pants is that they lack the Goretex or other durable waterproofing. Since I don’t expect any serious crashes while plein air painting I figured I could skip the heavy-duty shell and just get the insulation. I bought a pair of Arcteryx’s Atom pants made from their proprietary Coreloft insulation and it really feels like some sort of futuristic fabric. When you move the pants feel slightly cool on your legs so you don’t get warm, but when you stand still they really insulate well. They don’t swish when you walk like ski-pants and they look pretty discrete for working in them in the city. They were also significantly cheaper in Europe than the US for some reason.
  • Flannel-lined pants. I bought a couple of pairs of flannel-lined pants and can’t believe I’ve suffered through European winters for 25 years without them. Besides being incredibly warm, they’re so comfy. It’s like wearing pajamas all day. I live in these now. I have a pair of Pranas and Craghoppers, the Pranas are much nicer as the lining is pure cotton and doesn’t cling to your legs. The Craghoppers are warmer as the synthetic material use doesn’t breathe as well. The Pranas cost twice as much. That said, for painting outside in the snow, I prefer the Coreloft pants as the side zipper makes it easier to switch from car-friendly shoes to pac boots.
  • Primaloft hats. The hood on the Jottnar jacket is very warm but I prefer wearing a hat so I can keep my peripheral vision. Outdoor Research, Montane, and Millet all make radar-style hats out of Primaloft (probably other companies too). I have the Millet one and insulates well, is water-resistant, and still breaths. I also think I look very French in it, which is always a good thing when painting outside.
  • Gloves for the non-painting hand. Update for 2017: I’ve switched to bicycling gloves for the non-painting hand. Garneau, Pearl Izumi, Castelli, Rapha, ect… all make gloves for bicycling in winter and I find that they have better dexterity and grip than ski or alpinist gloves.

    Down Hibbard Mitten for plein air painting in extreme cold.

    Custom-made down Hibbard mitten from Luke’s Ultralight.

  • Custom-made Down Hibbard Mitten. In the past I’ve used a wool scarf sewn into a thumbless-mitten-shape to keep my painting hand warm. The design is called a Hibbard mitten after Aldro Hibbard who painted a lot outside in the New England winters. This year I got one made by Luke’s Ultralight, an ultralight-focused custom clothing company based in Ohio. It works great. It’s very warm and weighs only half an ounce (15g) so you barely feel it on your hand. I should mention that with any Hibbard mitten I don’t wear it the whole time. I prefer to keep my hand exposed to handle the brush better, when it gets cold I put the mitten on until it warms up enough to take it off again.
  • Darn Tough Socks. For comfort, fit and warmth, these are really better than any other brand I’ve found. They come with a lifetime guarantee too.

More on Color Calibration for Photographing Paintings

ICC Color Camera Calibration for photographing artwork.

The CoCa interface.

A quick post on calibrating color for photographing paintings. I wrote a longer post in 2014 on photographing paintings with a DLSR using a Colorchecker Passport, Adobe DNG profiles and Adobe Lightroom. That system has worked well for me for the last couple of years, but recently I wanted to use Phase One’s Capture One Pro as I find it to be superior to Lightroom for my needs. The problem I previously had with Capture One was that it doesn’t use the DNG profiles that the Colorchecker Passport software creates.

The only solutions I had found for making ICC profiles were very expensive. The oft-recommended PictoColor InCamera is a ten-year-old plug-in that sells for $200. You then have to find a copy of Photoshop 5.0 to use it with as it’s still 32-bit. There are a couple of other solutions that cost even more.

Enter CoCa, the freeware ICC Color Camera Calibrator. The software works with a number of physical color reference cards. One inexpensive one that I picked up ($30 plus shipping) is the IT 8.7 Calibration Target from Wolf Faust at coloraid.de. It’s the C1 order number on his website (it says it’s for cameras, not scanners) and the package comes with the printed target as well as a CD with the reference files.

The IT 8.7 target from Coloraid.de.

The IT 8.7 target from Coloraid.de.

The CoCa webpage has instructions for the software but to sum it up briefly: You first photograph the calibration target under your lighting set-up, then crop it and save it as a TIFF file in your camera’s software. Next, select the image in CoCa, then select the target type and the reference file from the Coloraid CD (R131007.txt). Finally, save the ICC profile in the proper folder so your software can use it (for Capture One it is explained here). You can then apply it to your paintings in whatever software you’re using. For Capture One it gets applied via the Base Characteristics box under the Color tab.

CoCa should work with the Colorchecker Passport too, though I haven’t tried it.

For those using OSX, you can run CoCa through Wine though the process is somewhat complex and requires that you’re either handy with command line interface of Terminal or, like me, reasonably good at following instructions and copying and pasting.

A few people I’ve discussed color calibration with have balked about the high prices for calibration gear. In my opinion, this works out to be a good solution for a bit of time and $35 ($40 in the US).

Below are a couple of images of a painting of mine for comparison:

Photographing artwork with Coca and a coloraid.de IT 8.7 calibration target.

CoCa with a Coloraid IT 8.7 target and Capture One Pro.

Image of a plein air landscape photographed with a Colorchecker passport calibration card.

Colorchecker Passport with Adobe DNG and Lightroom.

Ultralight Plein Air Painting

Ultralight plein air landscape painting gear discussion.

♫ The hills are alive… ♫

Trudging through the snow in the Alps this February, I decided that my plein air equipment was annoyingly heavy and I resolved to lighten it. One major problem outdoor landscape painters have with regard to equipment is that we need it to be wonderfully light while we’re trekking around looking for views, and then we need it to be heavy and stable when we start painting.

I believe that some of this is also just a question of getting used to painting with a different set-up. When I first started landscape painting I used the heavy steel easels made by Fome in Italy. When I tried their aluminum version I found it to be annoyingly unstable. Now I use that same aluminum easel everyday without issues. In my quest for lighter gear I recently tried repurposing a plastic box from a hardware store and had the same experience. The first few times I found it moved too much and seemed unstable, but after sticking with it for a few weeks it works fine for me now.

Having equipment blow over in the wind is a bigger problem, but for most breezes the weight of the backpack is enough to stabilize everything. For heavier winds I think the best solution is to have some way of attaching a weight to the set-up when one arrives at the painting site, and finding said weight there. In nature this usually means finding a big rock and in cities it can mean buying a bottle of water.

This is my current set-up (lighterpack.com link).

Ultralight plein air landscape painting materials.

My ultralight plein air painting equipment.

  1. Black mirror
  2. Plastic pochade box with attached palette cups
  3. Kunst & Papier softcover sketchbook
  4. Home-made wet panel carrier
  5. Night lights for nocturnes
  6. Brushes and brush-holder
  7. Ferrino Zephyr 22 + 3 backpack
  8. Fome aluminum tripod easel
  9. Medium, turpentine, palette knife
  10. Zecchi gesso-primed panel
  11. Backup tubes of paint (just white, the three blues, and ochre)

It clocks in at around 11 lbs, or 5 kg, with the easel.

Ultralight plein air painting kit

Everything packed up.

My focus here is really on having a painting set-up that works for me, the weight is completely secondary. For example, I won’t give up the ridiculous number of brushes I need to paint with. My Kunst & Papier sketchbook is also quite large, but I find drawing compositional ideas in a small Moleskine-sized sketchbook to be restrictive. (Kunst & Papier has much better drawing paper too).

I only carry titanium white, Roman ochre, cerulean, cobalt and ultramarine blue paint tubes with me. The fact is that the cadmiums last forever on the palette. They don’t dry out, and the tinting strength of Williamsburg is such that I use very little over the course of a day. I find there is almost never a reason to have back-up tubes in the bag. (Another solution is just to take half-empty tubes of everything).

I’m currently using Zecchi’s gesso-prepared wood panels in Europe, but I’ll switch to New Traditions’ C12 Claessens-on-gatorfoam when I’m in the US this summer. With the Zecchi boards I use those orange ‘Pony’ clamps to hold the lid of my pochade box and the top of the panel. With New Traditions, the clamps are too strong and will crush the gatorfoam so I switch to lightweight (plastic) photographer’s clips. The New Traditions’ boards are quite expensive, but I know people who are making their own version with their preferred primed-linen attached to gatorboard, dibond, or wood via sheets of Beva 371 thick film (glue) using a low-temprature iron. Linen mounted on gatorfoam is wonderfully lightweight and can be especially useful for avoiding overweight fees on airplanes.

Obviously, the night lights aren’t necessary unless I’m painting nocturnes.

There are a lot of cottage industry companies these days making ultralight backpacks (here is a good list). The problem with many of the ultralight packs is that they’re often huge for what is essentially a day trip for most plein air painters. They’re also usually minimalist with regard to add-ons and pockets in order to reduce weight. I find the bells and whistles to be really useful on a backpack. I also need a gazillion pockets to sort everything. Furthermore, having everything waterproofed is useful as medium leakage is a standard occupational hazard for landscape painters and it’s good to be able to protect the other items in the pack from such an event.

At the moment I’m using a Ferrino Zephyr 22 + 3. It’s not an ultralight pack as there is a frame that pushes the body of the bag away from one’s back which seems relatively heavy. (Frankly, the frame doesn’t seem that well thought out as it pushes too far into the main section so it doesn’t leave a great deal of space inside). I bought it after trying on a dozen or so backpacks in various stores as it was very comfortable and the pockets were the right size for my equipment. It’s been holding up well, but I plan on having one custom made after the summer. I’d like to organize the storage to fit my materials exactly, and in a way where I can quickly access the items I regularly need while working.

Ultralight plein air landscape painting easel and backpack.

My current set-up in the field.

Many pochade box companies advertise a 30 second set-up time. That seems like a lifetime in plein air painting. My set-up is up and running in closer to 10 seconds.

That said, I’d like to try a carbon fiber camera tripod set up. While the Fome aluminum easels are lighter than most good carbon fiber camera tripods, I’m curious to see if I can get more stability out of carbon fiber. I wrote to Manfrotto/Gitzo and asked them if they could make some attachment parts for plein air painters, but they said they only design their equipment for photographers. (What ingrates. A landscape painter invented photography for them, and this is the thanks we get.) I considered writing to Fome too, but after they started putting rubber in the lids of their turpentine cups I have very low expectations of their design team.

There are some great American pochade box makers these days, but based on the weight of the boxes they’re making they all seem to have sherpas carrying their equipment around. I’m also more interested in the cigar-box-with-separate-mast system that I currently use. The pochade box model doesn’t work for sight-size, unless you’re ok with having your nose in your palette.

So, after not being able to find a strong, stable, and lightweight attachment system for a cigar box and tripod, I’m currently experimenting with making my own carbon fiber equipment at home. I’ll post the results in a few days.

Painting Upside Down

Painting upside down to see rhythms and values better.

Currently on the easel.

Previously I wrote about using a mirror to correctly see shapes while working from life. This is a short post on the usefulness of painting with with your work upside down when inventing subject matter in the studio.

I’m currently in the process of enlarging some small plein air sketches from my Austrian trip into polished studio pieces. Much of the work requires, to some extent, inventing my subject. I find that flipping the painting upside down and observing the work free from the recognition of the objects helps me to quickly see some types of errors. Proportions and edges, especially, are two things that become easily noticable. In the gif below, the ‘before’ image shows how I originally painted the Hohensalzburg fortress above Salzburg as it appears in my sketch. Flipping the work upside down I immediately saw how the ‘steps’ were all exactly the same, so I shortened the bottom one, and raised the top one, to remove the repetitiveness.

Keeping variety in one’s edges is also important in painting. Surfaces that turn away from the viewer generally need a softer edge, elements where we want a focus are often given a sharper edge. Variety along the same edge can add interest to a work. As with repetition in shapes, turning the painting upside down makes it immediately obvious where the problems are with regards to the edges in the work.

Gif of changes in a studio landscape painting.

It’s always been interesting to me how much of learning to paint is trying to rewire the way our brains see the world. In part this is because human beings evolved to see in an environment very different from the one we live in now. One of these adaptations is that our brain looks for patterns constantly, and my own observation is that seemingly unimportant areas in our vision, when painted, are forced into repetition that doesn’t exist in nature. For example, my students will paint every tree in a line of cypresses in Italy as being exactly the same: Tree, tree, tree, tree. The same goes for the shapes of a distant mountain. The line intervals are often drawn as being exactly the same, even if the direction of the line changes. In both cases, careful observation (or me pointing it out) shows that the cypresses are very different from each other, or that the segments of the line describing the outline of a mountain are very different, one from another.

From reading scientific theories about why this is, it appears that our brain filters out the ‘unimportant’ stuff by not focusing on the subtle differences in similar objects. This was in order to focus on things like predators, which would have been much more important for most of our evolution. This filtering out takes the form of generalizing individuality in aspects of the visual world. Part of learning to paint a landscape is learning to recognize this and focus on capturing exactly that variety in nature that our brain tries to ignore.

Another good example is the way students being taught cast drawing have to be told over and over to not look into the shadows. Once upon a time, looking into shadows was probably a very good idea for survival. In naturalistic painting, however, looking into shadows and painting the subtle differences usually results in an exaggeration of those differences when seen in relation to the whole image. It distracts the viewer’s eye (perhaps because their focus on what is in the shadow is compounded by the painter’s focus on what is in the shadow) and breaks up the sense of atmosphere of the work. ‘Less is more’ is the usual guideline when looking for detail in the shadow passages of a painting.

Turning one’s painting upside down forces the brain to see the subject as a series of abstract shapes. Without the immediate recognition of the objects, it becomes easier to see some of the basic pictorial rules being broken in our work.

Lastly, in the studio where I trained as a portraitist in Florence it was standard practice to keep the work in progress upside down on the walls so our eyes wouldn’t get used to them. The idea was that if we saw the paintings all day while we weren’t working on them, the images would some how be imprinted in our minds, and it would be harder to see the mistakes later while the work was next to the model. Today I still keep my work in progress upside down while not being worked on for this reason.