Congratulations to Joshua Cunningham (b. 1974) of St Paul, Minnesota. Cunningham’s painting “Abandoned to Sunset” won the in Best Plein Air Work of the June 2020 Plein Air Salon. In this guest blog post, he takes us behind the scenes of his painting, including his techniques.

On “Abandoned to Sunset”


I created “Abandoned to Sunset” as part of my body of work for the Red Wing Plein Air Festival. This year’s event was a socially distant mix of click and mortar. If not for the commitment and creativity of Emily Foos, the director of Red Wing Arts, the event wouldn’t have happened. One of the differences this year was that she gave the artists two and a half weeks to paint. That extra time opened the door and engaged my imagination for larger work.

While scouting the rolling fields and rugged valleys of the Driftless Region around the upper Mississippi river town, I came across the farm that would become the subject of “Abandoned to Sunset.” I couldn’t stop picturing how the evening light may unfold across the farm. I took in the logistics of the place; the parking was secure, the painting spot was safe, it was only about an hour away from home, and the forecast looked pretty consistent for the next several days. Together, these factors made it a great candidate for a 24″ x36″ landscape painting.

Over the following four evenings, my appreciation for the unique qualities of each day grew. As plein air painters, we all know this. However, standing in the same place, at the same time of day, and taking in everything enriched my understanding of how interconnected and dependent everything is. A passing cloud one evening would change the tones of the shadows or limit the vital rays of the setting sun, so I held fast to the magic of the first evening and called back to the origins of my growing excitement as the setting sun cast the white buildings in a pinky-orange glow. As I worked, I watched the variety of greens in the shadows stretch across the pasture, climb up the hill and give way to the vibrant warm greens at the end of the day.

My Art Techniques, Colors, and Supplies

The first session requires a focus on composing the scene, drawing out the primary forms, and studying the light effect by massing the shadow patterns in a thin Paynes grey made up of Ivory black, cobalt blue, and Lead white. By the end of the first day, I had an underpainting. This painting would be more about the glow of sunset on the buildings, than about their current state of repair. Every choice about the value, temperature, hue, thickness of paint would be subject to how it helped express that five to ten-minute window of light.

  • Canvas: Claessens C15 Linen mounted to a ½” Gatorboard Panel by Lakeside Studios
  • Oil paint: Williamsburg Oils My palette hasn’t changed much from my time studying the Prismatic Palette with Joe Paquet.
    Flake White, Cadmium Yellow Lemon, Cadmium Yellow Light, Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Yellow Deep, Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Red Light, Cadmium Red, Alizarin Crimson or Permanent Crimson, Manganese Blue Nova (Hue) (Holbein) or Manganese blue from Old Holland, Cobalt Blue, French Ultramarine Blue, Ivory Black, (Gablin) Phthalo Green
  • Brushes: Bristle and Synthetic Grey Matters by Richeson
    Masters Choice Extra-long flats by Rosemary
  • Easel: Full French Easel by Mabef with a few light bungees
  • Medium: Gamblin Safflower Oil 25% (ish) and Gamsol 75% (ish)

My set up wasn’t too far from a quiet road, so anyone going by could easily see my painting with the subject simultaneously. Many people stopped and visited briefly from their “socially distanced” car window. Because I was there for several evenings in a row, some locals made checking on the painting’s progress part of their evening. One family would do a nightly cruise on their ATV before bedtime because the kids “wanted to see the painter man.” There was a lovely couple who owned a goat farm up the road that I had painted years ago. It was a wonderful reminder of how art can bring strangers together.

I was touched to learn that my painting not only reached those who I met on those nights, but also to a family that was deeply rooted to the farm itself. In my promotion of the Red Wing Plein Air Festival, I posted my progress on my social media accounts, and when I shared that the painting was awarded “Best Plein Air Only,” the grandchildren of the original owners discovered that I had painted what I came to learn was a seminal place in their lives. I decided to share this about their letter as a point of encouragement to my fellow painters.

A painting of a barn may not directly address the prominent crises currently facing our nation and globe, but when we do what we are meant to do, at this moment, our action can inspire and touch the lives of others. When people see something of their life expressed as beautifully as we can, they see themselves anew with value where before, there was just the day-to-day.

Usually we can’t possibly expect to know who our work will touch or who will be comforted by our endeavor. However, in the case of this particular painting, I was lucky enough to be reminded why our work is so important, and while it might not add specific commentary on the state of our world, it equips us and our audience with the sense of hope, sense of time, and sense of self to address these issues in our lives.

On Entering the Plein Air Salon

I was inspired to enter “Abandoned to Sunset” because I felt the painting held a mood while expressing the particulars of how the evening light fell across that farm. I find that the scenes that capture that for me, might be able to do that for others. When I learned how much it had touched the family that grew up visiting that farm, I knew it had done what I had set out to do and it would be a strong candidate for consideration.

My advice to other who might be considering entering their work, is to seek out the subject that engages and motivates them to be on location. From there, the resulting paintings are sure to have the qualities that a judge is looking to find.

Additional Landscape Paintings

Oil landscape paintings
Joshua Cunningham, “Linens and Lilacs,” 30”x40”, oil on linen, Studio from Plein Air Study, Collection the Artist, Minnesota State Fair Fine Exhibition, 2018, Door County Plein Air 2020
Oil landscape paintings
Joshua Cunningham, “Spring on the Rush,” 9″x12″, oil on linen, plein air, Groveland Gallery
Oil landscape paintings
Joshua Cunningham, “Humid Hues,” 8″x10″, oil on linen, plein air, Collection the artist, Door County Plein Air 2020
Oil landscape paintings
Joshua Cunningham, “Winneswissa Falls,” 9″x12″, oil on linen, Plein air, James Krom Natural Images Gallery
Oil landscape paintings
Joshua Cunningham, “So Begins the Green,” 14″x18″, oil on canvas, Plein air, Collection the artist, Into Nature: International Juried Plein Air Exhibition, White Bear Center for the Arts
Oil landscape paintings
Joshua Cunningham, “Winter Along the Trimbelle,” 30″x40″, oil on linen, Plein air, Collection the artist, Minnesota State FAir Fine Art Exhibition 2020

To learn more about Joshua Cunningham and these paintings, please visit

ART COMPETITION CALL FOR ENTRIES: Did you know? The Plein Air Salon accepts both plein air and studio works! Categories include best Acrylic, Oil, Pastel, Watercolor/Gouache, Floral, Landscape, Nocturne/Sunrise/Sunset, Figure/Portrait, Outdoor Still Life, Water, Animals/Birds, Western, Plein Air only, Buildings, and Vehicles. The next deadline to submit art is coming soon. You could win up to $15,000!

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