Plein Air Alpine Sketches

Plein air landscape painting in the Alps can be some of the most rewarding art creation anywhere. When the weather is good, the majesty of the mountains is just stunning. The Swiss have also done a good job of keeping their (rather unfortunate) modern architecture concentrated in pockets, usually in the valleys.

Below are my plein air landscape sketches from a week of teaching a workshop with the Alpine Atelier in Gryon, Switzerland.

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Above Les Plans. 30 x 40 cm, oil on panel.

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Logs Along a Road, Bex. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

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Dents du Midi Above the Clouds (from Gryon). 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

We had pretty bad weather. The previous sketch is from when we drove up to Gryon to get over the low clouds which sat in our valley for much of the week.

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Buvette de La Ferme, Les Plans. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

We stayed above Bex in the picturesque little village of Les Plans. Above is the farm where we ate everyday on the course.

Swiss Path Plein Air Alpine Sketches

Path in the Woods. 35 x 25 cm, oil on panel.

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Chalet in Les Plans. 25 x 35 cm, oil on panel.

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New Chalets, Gryon. 30 x 40 cm, oil on panel.

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Cows in the Snow, Les Plans. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

The Alpine landscapes are a real joy to paint when the sun comes out.

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Utility Poles above Les Plans. 28 x 40 cm, oil on panel.

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Muveran Sketch. 20 x 25 cm, oil on panel.

Unfortunately, the sketch below shows what our valley looked like much of the course. As I mentioned in the last post, difficult conditions can often be more conducive to good painting. Overall I’m pretty happy with the work both I and my students produced over the week.

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Road in the Snow, Les Plans. 30 x 40 cm, oil on panel.

(This was my second plein air painting trip to this area of Switzerland. You can see my ‘barn series’ from Gstaad and Saanen in 2009 here).

My car broke down in the little Italian town of Soave on my way home. It also happens to be where they make my favorite white wine. Here is a quick sketch from the rainy morning after.

soave Plein Air Alpine Sketches

Old Walls in Soave. 30 x 40 cm, oil on panel.

Swiss Plein Air Workshop

Here are a few photos from my week of teaching plein air landscape painting in the valley around Les Plans in Switzerland. I was working for the Alpine Atelier based in Gryon.

Above Les Plans Swiss Plein Air Workshop

They are very unrepresentative photos as we only had a few hours of sun all week. Most of the time it was low clouds and snow. Nevertheless, the students managed to squeeze out a lot of great work.

Les Plans Swiss Plein Air Workshop

It’s often the case that sparse subject matter produces better work while painting en plein air. In my experience, having too many wonderful views to choose from can be more paralyzing to the painter than struggling with difficult or meager subject matter.

Plein Air Switzerland Swiss Plein Air Workshop

Update: Here are a couple more off my phone.

Plein Air Swiss Plein Air Workshop

Plein Air Fog Swiss Plein Air Workshop

I also shot a video of the 40 minute demo I gave on the first day of the course. You can view it below or on my youtube channel:

Painting from a Moving Car

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Driving down through Switzerland the other day, we were stuck in traffic for hours in one of the prettier part of the Alps. These are a couple of quick sketches I did from the passenger seat using my cigar box palette.

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Alpine Sketch #1. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

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Alpine Sketch #2. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.

I wanted to mention briefly that my cigar box has a lot of modifications for better functionality, in case anyone wants to try to make their own.

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The cigar box palette.

In 1997 I lived in Paris and had a studio in an occupied ex-high school (Pole Pi or something or other was the name. The police took it back after I left and it is now an architectural university). There was a lot of old furniture still laying around the place and I made a large palette out of the back of an old cabinet. That palette is now the base of my cigar box, complete with the old thumb-hole which is now used to hold brushes when I’m taking a break.

I enjoyed that period of my artistic life and like having the memory around.

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My old palette at the base.

Normally, cigar box lids are held to the box with paper. I replaced mine with real hinges.

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My carpentry skills in all their glory.

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The hinges in turn allow a small gap for the metal easel board-holders to slide through and hold the palette. I use a clip to keep the wind from blowing the lid shut.

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Hooking a cigar box to a metal tripod easel.

Cigar boxes and prochade boxes are brilliant for the quick set-up times. Often you’ll see a fleeting effect (or a fleeting view, if you’re in stop-and-go traffic), and the speed of setting up and starting to paint becomes important.

Snowscape Painting in Saanen and Gstaad

easel Snowscape Painting in Saanen and Gstaad

The Joys of plein air painting.

Having grown up in the tropics and then in Southern California, I have always been fascinated by snow. Here in Tuscany winters are also rather gray, so every year I try to get some plein air painting done in the snow. Luckily I’m just a short drive away from some of the most picturesque Alpine scenes in the world.

This week I was offered the use of a Chalet in the small village of Saanen, just outside of Gstaad in Switzerland in exchange for one of the sketches and I jumped at the chance. Gstaad itself isn’t very paintable, but the neighboring villages, Saanen, Gsteig, Lauenen, and Rougemont are all very beautiful.

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The village of Saanen.

An old friend, Calyxte Campe, happened to be painting there at the same time (and had already done extensive scouting, conveniently for me), so the two of us painted together for the week.

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Calyxte and I above Rougemont.

Painting plein air in the snow can actually be quite comfortable. On the days when it was really cold I tried the ‘Hibbard Mitten’ (thanks Darren!), which is basically a large knit sock on your painting hand which you poke your brush into. This way you can hold the brush with your bare hand inside the sock. It takes some getting used to holding the brush so far back on the handle, but you have much better control than trying to paint with a glove. I also used those little hand-warmer packets under my toes in my shoes.

Here are a few of the sketches.

lauenen Snowscape Painting in Saanen and Gstaad

Barn at Lauenen. 25 x 35 cm, oil on board.

rougemont Snowscape Painting in Saanen and Gstaad

Farm above Rougemont. 25 x 35 cm, oil on board.

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Barn at Rougemont. 20 x 30 cm, oil on panel.


Alba and I were in Zermatt for a wedding this weekend. I had forgotten how beautiful Switzerland can be in the summers. We had great weather and I managed to bat out a couple of sketches in between the festivities.

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I enlarged one of the sketches in the studio:

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Edelweiss Huts, Zermatt. 70 x 100 cm, oil on linen, 2008

We also passed over the Simplon pass twice on our trip where Sargent painted in the summer of 1911 (?). Its still a very beautiful stretch of road. Most of the traffic into Switzerland goes through the tunnels now and not over the passes, so it has this wonderful abandoned feel to it. Every few miles the scenery changes dramatically as well so you have a huge choice of subjects to paint from. Next time…