I was teaching a workshop with Oak Hollow Studios in Carthage, North Carolina this week. The class went well, and the weather cooperated, thankfully. Spring workshops can always be a bit risky.
Here are a few of the paintings I did during my free time:
Canoe, Backlit. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen.
Canoe Backlit #2. 11 x 14 in., oil on linen.
It was very, very green. March and April are months I often skip working outside as the bright greens of Spring can be a bit much. Small vignettes can work well though. And sometimes it’s just fun to really hit those acid greens.
Sycamore and Lupine, Toro State Park. 11 x 14 in, oil on linen.
Here are some recent paintings from the Central Coast of California. I’ve been painting regularly in the area since I first started plein air landscape painting in the early 1990s while studying art at UCSC. I say this every year but it’s always great to come back.
It’s the tail end of an El Niño year, which sometimes results in spectacular wildflower blooms, but unfortunately there wasn’t much of a show this Spring. So we painted a lot on the beaches.
Watercoloring, Marina Dunes State Beach. 8 x 12 in, oil on linen.
Carmel Beach. 8 x 12 in, oil on linen.
Patio. 8 x 12 in, oil on linen.
I spent a week down in Big Sur doing a large commissioned landscape as well.
The Temple, Big Sur. 35 x 43 in, oil on linen.
It was difficult doing a painting that large on site as the wind really picks up around midday. You can see the working situation on the last day in the short time lapse video below:
I was wearing really grippy approach shoes which helped a lot. It was about a ten foot drop off the rock where I was painting and it can be difficult to concentrate on painting and not slipping. I’ve switched to approach shoes in general for landscape painting as I find I’m often working or scouting in spots where slipping is a real risk. Here I was wearing La Sportiva TX2s which are a great minimalist/onebag/ultralight shoe with a very sticky grip.
Here are a couple of smaller pieces from the same spot.
The Temple, Big Sur, Evening Light. 8 x 12 in, oil on linen.
The Temple, Big Sur, Midday Light. 11 x 14 in, oil on linen.
Here is a short, two minute, time lapse video of a large studio landscape I painted over the last couple of weeks. After buying a ton of winter gear for plein air snowscapes we’ve had a really warm, snow-free winter, and I’ve had colds and flu for two months and been stuck inside the whole time. On the bright side, I did manage to get a lot of studio work finished.
This painting was enlarged from a plein air sketch I originally did on Diaz Beach at the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa two years ago. I also did a number of drawings to design the composition and I had photographs that I used for information in the areas which my sketch didn’t cover. Even though I had thought out the composition that I wanted with drawings, as you can see in the video I often make changes after I get started as it is easier to see what works and what doesn’t on the large canvas.
I’ve added some annotations in the video to explain some of my decisions while working and I explain some compositional rules. I feel it’s important to reiterate that, while I believe it’s important to understand rules in painting, often the paintings that we remember -the ones that really stay with us for a long time- are precisely the ones which break those rules.
That said, the compositional error of having major elements all the same size is something I do feel hurts a lot of paintings, some of mine included. It is something artists should be aware of.
Diaz Beach, the Cape of Good Hope. 120 x 150 cm, oil on linen.
Here are a few plein air landscape paintings from the last couple of autumns and winters. I often paint small plein air sketches that don’t end up being part of a large enough group to merit a blog post, so I figured I’d put them all in this one. Most are from around Zagreb, but a few are from recent trips to Bordeaux and London.
Mirogoj. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.
Nativity Play, Zagreb. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.
Some of these are unfinished, including the two below where I was driven away by the pouring rain in Bordeaux.
Horses on the Monument aux Girondins. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.
Porte Saint-Éloy, Bordeaux. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.
Bordeaux Sunset. 17 x 30 cm, oil on panel.
White Garden, The Rookery, Streatham. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.
Battersea Park Pagoda. 30 x 20 cm, oil on panel.
Billboard in the Rain, Zagreb. 30 x 20 cm, oil on panel.
“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.
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.
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.