Plein Air Painting in Cape Town, South Africa

Plein air landscape painting of Diaz Beach at the Cape of Good Hope.

Cliffs at the Cape of Good Hope. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

I was in Cape Town, South Africa for a week last month, escaping the long European winter. It’s a beautiful part of the world. The foliage, colors, and climate are all very similar to Central California.

Here are a few of the sketches:

Plein air painting from DeMorgenzon Vineyards

The View from DeMorgenzon, Stellenbosch. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Landscape paintings of vineyards near Stellenbosch, Cape Town

Vineyards near Stellenbosch. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting from the Kirstenbosch Gardens, Cape Town.

Banana Trees in the Kirstenbosch Gardens. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air landscape painting of Lion's Head, Cape Town.

Lion’s Head from Victoria Road. 22 x 33 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air landscape painting of Sea Point, Cape Town.

Above Sea Point. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of the beach in Hout Bay.

Afternoon in Hout Bay. 25 x 35 cm, oil on linen.

The wine and food are terrific and their currency is way down too so it was a very reasonably priced stay. I would highly recommend the place for anyone looking to paint in the Southern Hemisphere in February. I hope to go back soon.

Plein air painting of sunset in Stellenbosch.

Sunset, Stellenbosch. 18 x 28 cm, oil on panel.

Nymphs in Arcadia

Since my current larger projects are taking a while I thought I would rehash some older work. This is part of a series of paintings I did in 2008 of the small Piaggio Apini or ‘worker bees’ (as opposed to the Vespas or ‘wasps’ made by the same company). They were used by the artisans and tradesmen in Florence until they were banned recently by the new mayor.

Piaggio Ape in Florence

Ape, Via del Campuccio (?). 25 x 35 cm, oil on linen.

Oil painting of graffiti in Florence, Italy

Amore Ti Amo. 20 x 30 cm, oil on linen.

Since they move pretty quickly and I couldn’t always stand in the road with my easel, some were done from photographs. This was the only time I ever tried working solely from photography and I decided it wasn’t for me. I spent too much time training my eyes to work from life.

Dipinto di un Ape Piaggio a Firenze

Apino, Via Maffia (#2). 40 x 30 cm, oil on linen.

Ironically the ones I painted from life often look more photographic than the ones painted from photos. I think it’s because one has so much more information available when working on site.

Dipinto di un Ape Piaggio

Nymph in Arcadia. 40 x 30 cm, oil on linen.

The title of the post comes from a show I had in 2008 in a local cafe showing these little sketches. They say selling art in Florence is like selling ice in Antarctica, but these proved surprisingly popular.

Dipinto del trippaio di Sant'ambrogio

I’Trippaio di Sant’Ambrogio. 20 x 30 cm, oil on linen.

Plein air sketch of a Piaggio Ape in the Tuscan countryside.

June Rent. 25 x 40 cm, oil on linen.

Plein air painting of Via Toscanella, Florence.

Via Toscanella. 25 x 40 cm, oil on linen.

Oil painting of a delivery truck in Florence.

Via Maggio. 30 x 40 cm, oil on linen.

Plein air painting of a Piaggio Ape near San Gimigniano

Apino, San Gimigniano. 20 x 30 cm, oil on linen.

Plein air painting of Via Maffia, Flrorence

Via Maffia (#1). 30 x 20 cm, oil on linen. 

Oil painting of the Vivaio Torrigiani delivery truck.

Vivaio Torrigiani. 20 x 25 cm, oil on linen.

Photographing Paintings with a DSLR

When I wrote about photographing paintings last time, I discussed hiring professionals and the equipment they use. In the years since that post, digital camera technology has developed a great deal and in a direction which works well for photographing paintings.

What an artist needs in a photograph of their work are the correct colors, values, and chroma of the piece, with a distortion-free lens, in a very high resolution which can show the detail in the brushwork, as well as the varying sharpness and softness of the edges. For years the best way to do this was with a medium format camera with a digital back. The price for this equipment could run easily into tens of thousands of dollars. The major recent change in consumer digital photography is that the camera companies have engaged in what technology writers derogatorily refer to as the ‘megapixel war’. This race for better sensors with higher pixel counts has pushed the capabilities of DSLR sensors into the range of the low-end digital backs, potentially saving the DIY painter a ton of money.

Obviously hiring a professional photographer will achieve better results. They will have better equipment and the experience to know how to use it. They are also incredibly expensive (in Italy I paid €100 per photo, or about €1000 for an hour’s work). You can buy a whole set up for the price, and since photographing paintings is really a one-trick pony, getting it good enough isn’t that difficult.

To photograph artwork well one needs the following equipment: A tripod, proper lighting covered by polarized film, a color calibration system and gray card, a decent DSLR body which can be tethered to a computer, a computer with tethering software, a good macro (micro) lens with a circular polarizing filter, and software to edit and archive the work.

First place the painting on an easel with two bright, full-spectrum, lighting sources at 45 degree angles to the artwork, put the camera on a tripod so the lens is parallel to the surface of the painting, as shown below. Lights, painting and camera should be at the same height. There should be no other light sources, and anything white that can cause a glare on the painting should be covered.  (Professional studio photographers recommend not using the camera’s auto white balance, so I first set my white balance in the camera to 5400K (which is similar to the color temperature of the light given off by my bulbs). I then made a preset in the camera, photographed a group of paintings over and over, and tweaked the color settings until my light balance looked correct when the image first comes out of the camera) .

How to set up to photograph artwork.

My set-up for photographing paintings.

Put your calibration card in front of the painting, photograph it, then run it through the included software (if needed convert RAW to DNG with Adobe’s free DNG converter). The software finds the color squares, measures them and makes a preset for your camera. Save the preset. Remove the calibration card and put a gray card next to the painting.

Image of the screen for an X-Rite ColorChecker Passport

X-Rite ColorChecker Passport software screen.

Photograph the painting by first putting the camera in mirror-up mode (or set the remote connection to use mirror-up mode). Set ISO to the lowest number, usually 100, and operational mode should be aperture priority or manual (program mode will work too if you can change the aperture setting). Set image type to RAW. Set the lens to manual focus mode. Turn the polarizer on the lens until the glare on the painting is gone.

Next turn on live-view monitoring in the tethering software on your computer, put the tethered image in full-screen mode, zoom in to the maximum and manually focus the shot by hand. If your tethering software can take the photo in mirror-up mode, shoot from the computer screen, otherwise use a shutter-release cable or remote. Do not use the shutter-release button on the camera as it can move slightly and blur the shot. Experiment with various f-stops to find the sharpest for your lens, normally with a macro lens the middle range from f/4 to f/11 will be best.

Import the photo into your editing software and apply the calibration preset (click the eyedropper on the grey card if the white balance is off). Make any other corrections, i.e. rotation, crop, lens profile adjustment, etc… I then tag the paintings with the year, location and subject, so I can find them easily later. I’ve also made export presets for all the possible uses I’ll have for the photos. It makes preparing images trivial.

Tina Under the Olive Tree close up.

Some tips for larger paintings: If you don’t have polarizing sheets, the lights can be at angles greater than 45 degrees to reduce glare. If there are problems with getting an even light across a large painting, find an area with even lighting and take multiple photographs, moving the painting on a flat plane at the same distance from the camera until you have photographs of sections of the whole painting. Then use stitching software such as Adobe Photoshop,  PTGui or the free Microsoft ICE to put the individual images together. This method can also be used to get ultra-high resolution images of larger paintings while using a low-megapixel camera. With a bit of work you can capture an amount of detail which would give medium format cameras a run for their money. Subtle HDR is another idea if the value range is too great for the camera.

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Williamsburg in Florence

Williamsburg Paint Image

Williamsburg makes some of the best tube paints (in my opinion). And finally, after years of my badgering, Zecchi in Florence is selling some of Williamsburg’s better colors.

Their cadmium colors are as good as anything I ever ground myself. Their cadmium red light, for example, is the best warm vermilion substitute I’ve found. It reminds me of the older, real vermilion pigments I learned to grind paint with. Their other cadmiums (red medium, yellow light and medium, and orange) are all staples on my palette. They have beautiful hues and, because of their great tinting strength, one tube will last a long time. Cheaper paints usually have a lot of filler in them, so you go through the tubes much quicker as changing a color will require much more paint.

Their cerulean is beautiful -not Old Holland beautiful, but half the price. Their cobalt blue is also good, though it seems hard to botch a cobalt blue, I’ve never used a bad one.

Not all of their colors are great. For ochres I prefer Old Holland’s golden ochre or Zecchi’s own Roman ocher.  I also find the Williamsburg ultramarine totally unusable, Old Holland’s ultramarine dark is much, much better.

Williamsburg’s ivory black is the closest to hand-ground that I have found, though it is still a touch lighter. They sell a flake white too, but hand-ground lead white is really essential to good studio painting.

In 2010 Williamsburg was bought by Golden, the acrylic paint company, hopefully nothing will change.

November Posts in December

Plein air painting of Varese, Italy.

Varese. 30 x 20 cm, oil on panel.

The blog hasn’t been updated in a bit. My apologies. I’m working on larger pieces for gallery commitments and commissions which take a long time. I also have a couple of in-depth blog posts in the works which require a lot of study, expenditure and filming on my part.

That said, I was in Varese, Italy last month to sell my Defender (I’m landscape painting from a 2-wheel drive Kia now), and did a few small sketches which are posted here.

Plein air painting of Sacro Monte, Varese.

Sacro Monte. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of the bell tower of San Vittore, Varese.

Varese #2. 35 x 25 cm, oil on panel.

There were also a couple of interviews with me posted online: One here on The Artist’s Road, and another on painting near Volpaia, Italy posted here on Outdoor Painter.  Outdoor painter also wrote briefly about my post on Adro Hibbard’s ‘Hibbard Mitten’ with some more photographs of the artist working. For anyone interested in plein air painting in the snow you can read about it here.

The blog format also changed on its own due to a software update on my host. I’ll try to fix the header to look more elegant when I have a minute.

Plein Air Painting in the Tuileries Gardens, Paris

Plein air landscape painting of Pont Alexandre III in the rain in Paris

Pont Alexander III in the Rain. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

I was in Paris for the week painting landscapes. Here are a few of the plein air paintings from around town. Landscape (or cityscape) painting in a big city like Paris is a lot of work. Traveling around takes forever, there are so many people, and there is so much subject matter to chose from. I restricted myself to the Tuileries Gardens as it was near the metro line which I needed to take to get home. I figured if I started walking and looking for views I would never stop.

Edward Seago’s plein air work is a continual inspiration to me, and many of his Parisian paintings were of the Tuileries Gardens.

Plein air landscape painting of the gates to the Jardin des Tuileries in Paris

The Gates to the Tuileries Gardens. 18 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Landscape painting of a statue in the Tuileries Gardens, Paris

Empty Chairs. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Autumn in the Jardin des Tuileries

Autumn in the Tuileries. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of two friends talking in the Tuileries Gardens, Paris.

The Afternoon Chat. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.

The d’Orsay at Dusk. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

I lived in Paris for eight months in the late 90’s and really loved my time there. I rented a tiny room on a houseboat outside the city and got a free studio space in an artist’s squat in Belleville (you can see my semi-communal space in a film someone made here, I’m briefly on screen at the 43 min, 20 second mark). I would draw from the sculptures in the Louvre everyday on my way to the studio by using a museum pass and the back escalator to get around the lines. It is always a pleasure going back.

Below is a quick sketch of a friend’s baby.

Oil painting of a toddler

Ahlem Sketch. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

More Green Noise

Oil painting of a birch grove in Plyos, Russia.

Birch Grove. 60 x 80 cm, oil on canvas.

Here are a few more paintings from my two weeks in Plyos, Russia. The weather has been really uncooperative, with rain and/or wind pretty much everyday.

Green Noise is the name of the cultural exchange event here in Plyos. This year is eight ‘Italian’ plein air painters working together with eight Russian artists. The exhibition of our work opened yesterday and will be on display until mid-October.

Oil painting of a rainy day in Plyos.

Rain, Plyos. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

We went out as a group to paint nocturnes in the rain on a few occasions.

Nocturne of the bridge in Plyos, Russia

The Bridge in Plyos, Nocturne. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Evening, Plyos. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Evening, Plyos. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

plein air landscape painting of autumn trees in Plyos, Russia

Autumn Trees. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Below is the updated version of the trinket seller, I needed to change the value on her shawl.

oil painting of a trinket seller in Plyos, Russia.

Trinket Seller. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

We had a lot of fun in the evenings, drinking vodka with the Russian artists and discussing painting and painters. There are a lot of great artists working today in Russia and I’ll post some links to their work in the future.

In the meantime, here is a short video of us painting in the common room one evening:

Oil painting of an accordion player in Russia.

Accordion Player. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Plyos, Russia

Here, quickly, are some of the paintings from my first week here in Plyos, Russia.

Landscape painting of a street in Plyos, Russia

Street in Plyos. 60 x 80 cm, oil on canvas.

I’m here as part of a cultural exchange, organized by the Landscape Museum in town, between Italy and Russia (I snuck in by living in Italy for 20 years). Past years have included Cyprus and France, and next year will be an exchange with Dutch landscape painters.

Plein air sketch of the The Church of the Resurrection in Plyos.

The Church of the Resurrection (sketch). 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air oil painting of theChurch of the Resurrection in the Rain, Plyos.

Church of the Resurrection in the Rain. 50 x 60 cm, oil on canvas.

Plyos is the small town on the Volga where Isaac Levitan lived and painted and it’s become something of a Russian Giverny for realist painters working today.

Plein air sketch of a grove of birch trees in Plyos, Russia.

Birch Grove. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

As Isaac Levitan is a favorite landscape painter of mine, it’s wonderful for me to come here and see where he worked.

Oil painting of a Trinket Seller in Plyos.

Trinket Seller. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Oil painting of the roofs in the village of Plyos

Above Plyos, 40 x 60 cm, oil on canvas.

Oil painting of the little wooden church above Plyos, Russia.

The Church above Plyos. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

This is just the work from the first week. I’ll post again when we’re finished. The weather has been terrible, and promises to be terrible the whole trip.

Edit: Below is a photograph of my working situation for the “Church of the Resurrection in the Rain”.

Plein air painting in the rain in Plyos, Russia.

The joys of plein air painting.

Enough about Me (Part II)

Let’s talk about some other living artists for a change. There is a lot of great painting being done at the moment, and I often feel that my colleagues and students in Europe aren’t aware of many of the great contemporary painters working in America, and vice-versa.

This post is mainly about the contemporary artists who have most influenced my own work. Before the internet and social media it was often hard to see work by contemporary naturalistic painters, but I was very lucky to stumble across shows from time to time.

I studied and taught on and off for ten years with Charles Cecil, so the technical side of my painting was most influenced by his training with R. H. Ives Gammell, as well as Cecil’s own research into historic painting methods. I later taught at the FAA for Daniel Graves, and they are producing both great work and great painters.

Joseph McGurl is probably the living landscape painter who most strongly influence my own landscape work. I saw a show of his at the Hammer Gallery in NYC when I was first starting out, and up until then I wasn’t aware that this level excellence in landscape painting was still possible.

Of the plein air painters working today, Joe Paquet is the one who’s work I like the most. We painted together this August in Ireland and in our discussions in the evenings I feel we have very similar ideas about the state of landscape painting today, as well as the direction in which we would like to see it heading. T. Allen Lawson is another painter who’s work I really admire.

The other landscape painters working in America today who I always looked at are Clyde Aspevig, Donald JurneyKevin MacphersonMatt Smith, and Skip Whitcomb. For anyone on Facebook, some of them are in an association called the Plein Air Painters of America, and they have regular updates on these as well as lots of other great artists. You can follow (or ‘like’) them here.

Stapleton Kearns has far and away the best painting blog on the internet.

Over on this side of the Atlantic, the painter who probably influence my work plein air landscapes was Julian Barrow, who passed away this week. I also saw a show of his in New York and was amazed by the variety of his work. In that exhibition I never saw a remotely similar light-effect, subject, or composition twice. The man never shied away from any subject, no matter how complicated or unusual, and it really showed me the vast range one could achieve with plein air painting.

The big realist painters over here who were on my radar from early on would be Odd Nerdrum and Antonio Lopez Garcia.  Though American ex-pat and, until recently, neighbor of mine Richard Maury‘s work always appealed to me much more.

Trevor Chamberlain and David Curtis are two great contemporary English plein air painters whose work I’ve always enjoyed.

Last time I did this, there was a valid complaint that I didn’t include any women. There are a lot of great female artists working today, but I only discovered them recently, or they didn’t paint landscapes. A very incomplete list would be Elena ArcangeliJuliette AristidesDaniela AstoneKim Casebeer, Kamille CorryKathleen Dunphy, Louise FenneRose Frantzen, Jill HooperSarah Lamb, Kate Lehman, Jennifer McChristian, Hazel Morgan, Lori Putnam, Roos (pronounced ‘Rose’) Schuring, and Alexandra Tyng. A good resource for researching others is the Women Painting Women Blog.

There are lots of other great painters out there who I look at regularly. These are just the ones who I came across early enough for them to influence my own work. If anyone has any others to recommend, please leave them in the comments.