Recent Tuscan Plein Air Paintings

Plein air landscape painting of Sinalunga (Siena).

Sinalunga from the Valley Below. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

These plein air paintings are actually from a few weeks back, but I never got around to posting them. I was working in the area around Montisi (east of Siena), and looking for views that would work as larger compositions for studio paintings to be done over the winter.

As I’ve discussed before on this blog, the Holy Grail of landscape painting is a view where the foreground, middle-ground, and background compose well and I spend a great deal of time every year driving and walking in search of such a view. An obvious question would be ‘why not just invent it from parts of views taken elsewhere?’ The answer for me is that, in part, my training makes it difficult. I was trained with the more ‘Impressionist’ methodology of sight-size, which requires the subject to be in front of the artist (as opposed to a ‘construction’ based painting system). In part though, it’s also a component of my philosophy on painting of taking a more humble and reverent approach to viewing the natural world. Furthermore, there is a historic precedence as seen in the work of a great number of plein air painters, and Henry Fuseli said it best: “Selection is the invention of the landscape painter”.

It means a lot of driving though.

Plein air landscape painting of Castelmuzio.

Castelmuzio #1. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air landscape painting of Castelmuzio.

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

Plein air landscape painting of Castelmuzio.

Castelmuzio #3. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

I’ll often do a number of paintings of the same view when I do finally find one that will work on a larger canvas. This is in addition to a number of pencil sketches to figure out the balance and composition of the final piece.

One of my favorite ‘tricks’ to finding good views in central Italy is to look for the cemetery. They tend to be placed just the right distance from the town, usually with a very good view on the town, and they have parking and shade to work under.

Plein air landscape painting of Scrofiano, Tuscany.

Scrofiano. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of a sunset in Tuscany.

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

Overall I was quite happy with this short excursion and I think I can make at least three larger studio pieces from a few days worth of scouting.

September in Salzburg and Hallein

Plein air painting of a honey seller in Hallein, Austria.

Honey Seller in the Market, Hallein. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

A few plein air paintings from earlier in the month in Salzburg and Hallein. These are part of a continuing series of paintings I’m doing in the area for an exhibition in Hallein. The show was supposed to be coming up fast, but I’ve pushed it back a year to next October, so I can try to get four seasons worth of work into it.

Plein air painting of Schöndorferplatz in Hallein, Austria.

Schöndorferplatz, Hallein. 30 x 20 cm, oil on panel.

I really enjoy painting in the valley west of Hallein as well, (even though it’s Germany and I’m supposed to be working on an Austrian show).

Plein air painting of a church in Oberau, Germany.

Church in Oberau (Germany). 30 x 20 cm, oil on panel.

I painted a lot in Salzburg again. I tend to focus on smaller areas as walking a lot to scout can take up too much time for these short trips. In this case I was in the Mirabell Gardens for a couple of days.

Plein air painting of trees in the Mirabell Gardens, Salzburg, Austria.

Mirabell Gardens #1. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of the Mirabell Gardens in Salzburg, Austria.

Mirabell Gardens #2. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of statues in the Mirabell Gardens, Salzburg, Austria.

Statues in the Mirabell Gardens. 30 x 20 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of a street musician in Salzburg, Austria.

Street Musician, Salzburg. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

This last one is unfinished as I didn’t calculate the shadow of the bell tower blocking out my light for an hour. It was my last morning there so I didn’t get a chance to go back this trip.

Unfinished painting of carriages in Salzburg, Austria.

Carriages in Salzburg (unfinished). 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Cape Cod Paintings

Plein air painting of an umbrella on Marconi Beach, Cape Cod.

Red Umbrella, Marconi Beach. 11 x 14 in., oil on linen.

These are some of the small plein air paintings from last week on Cape Cod, in Massachusetts. We stayed with the excellent landscape painter Joseph McGurl and his wife, and he showed us the good spots for landscape painting.

Plein air painting of a lifeguard station on Marconi Beach, Cape Cod.

Lifeguard Station, Marconi Beach. 14 x 11 in., oil on linen.

Plein air painting of a Cranberry Bog.

Cranberry Bog. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen.

Landscape painting of a cranberry bog.

Side of a Cranberry Bog. 11 x 14 in., oil on linen.

Painting of Quissett Harbor, Cape Cod.

Quissett Harbor. 11 x 14 in., oil on linen.

Plein air landscape painting of Fisherman's Beach, Quissett Harbor.

Fisherman’s Beach, Quissett Harbor. 11 x 14 in., oil on linen.

Some of these paintings will be going to Collins Gallery in Orleans, MA.

Painting of Surf Drive Beach in Falmouth, Cape Cod.

Surf Drive Beach in Falmouth. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen.

Plein air painting of a painter at sunset.

Painting at Sunset. 12 x 8 in., oil on linen.

For the last stop of our two month trip to America, I taught a couple of three day plein air workshops in Boston for Leo Mancini-Hresko’s Waltham Studios. Boston is gorgeous. Probably the most beautiful large city in the US. I had been there 25 years ago for a couple of days, but didn’t remember it being so picturesque.

I didn’t have time to paint any cityscapes, unfortunately, but here are the unfinished demonstration pieces from the plein air classes. I painted the same view twice as it worked technically for the points I was making during the demo.

Plein air painting of the Boston Gondola dock on the Charles River.

Boston Gondola Dock. 11 x 14 in., oil on linen.

Plein air painting of a Charles River Gondola in Boston, MA.

Charles River Gondola. 11 x 14 in., oil on linen.

Nova Scotia

Painting of the Picton Castle in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.

The Picton Castle. 20 x 30 cm, oil on linen.

Here are the paintings from the last week in Nova Scotia, Canada. We rented a place just outside of Mahone Bay and painted up and down the coast from Blue Rocks to Chester.

Plein air painting of a street in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia.

Street in Lunenburg. 25 x 35 cm, oil on linen.

Plein air painting of Lunenburg Harbor, Nova Scotia.

Lunenburg Harbor. 20 x 30 cm, oil on linen.

Lunenburg was a particular favorite. There was a wide selection of views in a small area, the weather was great (the food too) and the people were very friendly.

Plein air landscape painting of the point at Blue Rocks, Nova Scotia.

The Point at Blue Rocks. 20 x 30 cm, oil on linen.

Plein air landscape painting of Blue Rocks, Nova Scotia, Canada.

Blue Rocks. 25 x 35 cm, oil on linen.

Because of the microclimates in the area, we often had sun all day in the town of Mahone Bay, when other parts of the coast had the fog.

Plein air painting of the churches in Mahone Bay.

Fog Lifting, Mahone Bay (#1). 20 x 30 cm, oil on linen.

Plein air landscape painting of fog lifting in Mahone Bay.

Fog Lifting, Mahone Bay (#2). 20 x 30 cm, oil on linen.

Plein air painting of boats in Chester Harbor, Nova Scotia.

Boats in Chester Harbor. 20 c 30 cm, oil on linen.

Plein air painting of a dock in Chester, Nova Scotia.

Dock in Chester. 20 x 30 cm, oil on linen.

Plein air painting of dinghies at sunset in Lunenburg.

Boats at Sunset, Lunenburg. 20 x 30 cm, oil on linen.

Maine Paintings

Below are some of my paintings from the last week in mid-coast Maine.

Plein air painting of Broad Cove, Maine.

Osier Dr, Broad Cove, Maine. 11 x 14 in.

Painting of fishermen in Friendship, Maine.

Fishing, Friendship. 12 x 8 in.

Plein air painting of a boatyard in Round Pond, Maine.

Boatyard, Round Pond. 11 x 14 in.

Plein air painting of Round Pond, Maine.

Parking Lot, Round Pond. 8 x 12 in.

Plein air painting of a road in Friendship, Maine.

Road to the Town Landing, Friendship.

Plein air painting of a sailboat in Rockport, Maine.

Sailboat, Rockport. 12 x 8 in.

Plein air painting from outside of Waldoboro, Maine.

Grey Day on the 32. 8 x 12 in.

It was my first time painting in Maine and I have to say it’s one of the best places I’ve ever painted. The weather has been great, sunny but cool most of the time, the people are incredibly friendly and knowledgable about plein air painting, and there is a great wealth of stunningly picturesque places to work.

Plein air painting of a dock in Friendship, Maine.

Dock in Friendship. 8 x 12 in.

Plein air painting of Friendship, Maine.

Friendship, Maine. 11 x 14 in.

I have an opening tonight at Haynes Gallery in Thomaston, Maine. It’s actually a few group shows. My ‘group’ consists of Karen Blackwood, T. J. CunninghamBen Fenske, Greg Howitch, Leo Mancini-Hresko, Joseph McGurl and myself.

Joseph McGurl was a big influence on my work when I was first starting out as a landscape painter (and still is), so it’s great to be showing with him.

Plein air landscape painting of Haynes Gallery in Maine.

Haynes Gallery, Thomaston. 8 x 12 in.

I’ll also be giving a painting demonstration at 3:30 pm, if you happen to be in the area.

Plein air painting of a street in Thomaston, Maine.

Afternoon Shadows, Thomaston. 8 x 12 in.

California Central Coast Plein Air Paintings

Below are some paintings from the Central Coast of California over the last ten days. I was based in Carmel Valley, but moved down the coast quite a bit.

Plein air painting of Green Valley, Cambria.

Green Valley, Cambria. 32 x 40 in.

Plein air landscape painting of Big Sur, California.

Big Sur. 32 x 40 in., oil on linen.

These first two paintings were quite large so I tied the canvases to the ubiquitous barbed wire fences to keep them steady in the high winds. I picked up a lightweight rope-and-plastic-carabiner combo from Nite Ize at a local camping store and the system worked perfectly.

Plein air landscape painting set up in Big Sur, California.

My set-up in Big Sur.

Plein air painting of a model standing in rye grass.

Rye Grass. 40 x 32 in., oil on linen.

One great thing about painting in the Monterey area is that there is a handful of world-class plein air artists who live there to paint with. On the above painting I worked with John Burton, and the sketch below is of Mark Farina, who we painted with one morning south of Carmel.

Plein air painting of an artist working in Carmel.

Mark Farina painting at Monastery Beach, Carmel. 8 x 12 in.

Plein air painting of the hills near Hearst Castle.

Hearst Castle Hills. 11 x 14 in., oil on linen.

Plein air painting of San Carpoforo beach.

San Carpoforo Beach. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen.

Plein air painting of Notley's Landing, Big Sur, California.

Cows at Notleys Landing. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen.

I’ve always felt I became a landscape painter because of growing up surrounded by the beauty of California, so it’s great to get back there and paint when I can.

Plein air painting of a patio in Carmel Valley, California.

My Folk’s Patio. 8 x 12 in., oil on linen.

Update: We stopped and painted for a bit in Lake Tahoe on our way out of California. Here are a couple images:

Plein air oil painting of the Tahoe Princess on Lake Tahoe.

Tahoe Princess. 8 x 12 in.

Plein air painting of a street in South Lake Tahoe, California.

Street in South Lake Tahoe. 8 x 12 in.

Carbon Fiber Painting Gear

In my quest for a lighter and more portable plein air set-up I’m currently experimenting with a carbon fiber photography tripod and paint box.

Sirui tripod for plein air landscape painting.

My current camera tripod set-up.

The camera tripod I settled on is a Sirui T-025X with their C-10X ball head. It was originally recommended to me by plein air painter Paul Rafferty who has used one to great success for a year now. Sirui is a Chinese company who, apparently, used to make photo equipment for Gitzo (the very expensive Italian company) and are now making tripods with their own brand name. The tripod folds up to be tiny and weighs only 1.54 lb (0.7 kg) -slightly less than the Fome aluminum easel I’ve been using for a while. (For anyone thinking of getting the Sirui, you can find one on Amazon and support my site).

The tiny Sirui T-025x all folded up.

Sirui T-025x. Banana for scale.

To use sight-size one’s panel or canvas should ideally be at eye-level. This puts the surface quite high off the ground where stability becomes an issue. On the other hand, after years of working on canvas, I don’t really mind a little give while I’m applying paint. Even with my extremely light backpack hanging off the supplied carabiner, this set-up becomes stable enough for me to paint comfortably.

Sirui tripod for a painting easel.

The mast bolted to the Sirui quick-release plate.

I also don’t like the pochade-box-on-camera-tripod system that most plein air painters use. With sight-size it means the paints are right under my nose. The solution for me is to use a mast to get the panel high enough, and attach the paint box to the bottom. For the mast of this set-up I picked up a pre-made carbon fiber slat, drilled a hole with a 1/4″ drill-bit, and bolted it to the quick-release plate of the Sirui. The Sirui quick-release plate has screw threads out, so one can switch to a longer bolt without permanently affecting the tripod. One could drill a hole in the aluminum or steel mast of the Fome easels and get an even stiffer design. I settled on a shorter mast to be able to pack it in a suitcase easily. With the taller camera tripod it is still big enough for my 11″ x 14″ (25 x 35 cm) panels in a vertical position, even if I have the easel set up downhill.

Carbon fiber painting box for plein air landscape painting.

Carbon fiber ‘cigar box’ palette.

I’d love to be able to triumphantly declare that the carbon fiber painting box was a great success and is the future of plein air painting equipment. Unfortunately, after an annoying amount of time and money spent, I have to admit that a $5 dollar Ebay cigar-box works just as well. Leo Mancini-Hresko has written a good blog post on making one. The carbon fiber isn’t any lighter or sturdier, and it lacks the charm to boot.

Carbon fiber cigar box style palette.

Carbon fiber painting box.

July in New York City

Plein air landscape painting of the Jeff Koons Sculpture at the World Trade Center.

Koons Sculpture at the World Trade Center. 8 x 12 in, oil on panel.

Here are few plein air paintings from the last week in New York. I was staying in Tribeca and painted a bit in the neighborhood.

Plein air painting of Church Street in Tribeca.

Church Street. 12 x 8 inches, oil on panel.

It was pretty quiet downtown for the July 4th weekend, and the city had a wonderfully empty feel to it. I also went up to 5th Avenue on the morning of the 4th to paint the flags on Rockefeller Center.

Plein air painting of the flags on Fifth Avenue.

Flags on Fifth Avenue. 8 x 12 inches, oil on panel.

And we painted a bit in Central Park.

New Yorkers have an undeserved reputation for being rude to tourists, but I find it one of my favorite places to paint. The locals always seem so appreciative and respectful of plein air painters.

Painting of a bubble-blower in Central Park.

Bubble Blower, Central Park. 11 x 14 inches, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of a Saxophonist in Central Park.

Saxophonist, Central Park. 12 x 8 inches, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.

The Bethesda Fountain. 12 x 8 inches, oil on panel.

Swiss Plein Air Demo

Here are a couple of images and a short video from the plein air landscape painting course I did in the little village of Les Plans above Bex in Switzerland.

I was teaching solo and didn’t get a ton of my own work done. That said, it’s a great little spot for painting as there is a ton of diverse subject matter in such a short distance from the hotel where we stay.

Plein air painting of cows in a field in Switzerland.

Cows by a Barn, Switzerland. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air landscape painting of a house above Les Plans, Switzerland.

Above Les Plans. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

We’ll perhaps to do another course next summer as well. And we discussed an ‘extreme plein air’ course in the winter, with snowboards, where the students have to sign a gazillion waivers protecting us from responsibility when they die. Stay tuned for more information.

I tried to film a painting demo but was drowned out by the cowbells, here is the first fifteen minutes where I discuss selecting a view and setting up:

Below is a video of a band that played at our hotel called Le Sirop D’la Rue. I thought I would throw in a plug for them as the music was great:

On the way home to Zagreb we stopped in the small Italian town of Chioggia, on the southern end of the Venetian lagoon. Edgar Payne did some beautiful paintings there in the 1920s and I had always wanted to see it. The orange sails are mostly gone (we saw a couple), but it’s an amazingly picturesque little town for painters. It has three canals, like Venice, but two are ‘working’ canals, full of fishing boats and the whole place has a terrific amount of varying subject matter in a very small area. There are cars in the town too, so you can park in front of your hotel.

Plein air painting of a cafe in Chioggia, Italy.

Cafe in Chioggia. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

Plein air painting of fishing boats in Chioggia, Italy.

Fishing Boats, Chioggia. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

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 ( 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.