By Curt Walters (curtwalters.com)
Painting large canvases out of doors is not for the faint of heart, as it requires a great deal of bravery and tenacity to get started. However, once you get going it is so very rewarding. Like any discipline or technique, painting en plein air is easier when done with regularity. There is a discipline needed for working large that comes through sheer practice.
My recent years have been dominated by large studio paintings. Most all the preparation for those paintings started by working on smaller canvases done on site. However, during the previous 30 years of my working life, I did a great number of large canvases outdoors, on site. There is a feeling and an emotion that can only be achieved by working directly from observable life, meaning on a large canvas en plein air.
I first started doing large canvases outdoors for the utter pleasure of being alone in nature with my subject. And, I think, perhaps it was also to satisfy a bit of my artistic ego. What I discovered was that it drastically improved my studio painting, as my techniques began to cross over, and even merge some.
Breaking Plein Air “Rules”
I quite disagree with the current plein air notion of a two-hour window of time while working on small canvases only. I find this limitation ridiculous. I also don’t agree with the practice of a limited palette. I believe rules such as these do not serve the artist well. There should be no set rules for working from life, en plein air, except to be true to yourself, your feelings, and your subject.
Plein Air Easel and Palette Tips
First, the equipment has to be capable of standing up to the weather and the weight of a large palette. For anything larger than 30 inches, I use a Gloucester tripod easel. And I find it is much easier to work with a stretched canvas, which I’ve backed with cardboard, and then attached a cross brace to. The cross brace also gives me a tie-down point for the Gloucester easel. And, by using the cross brace I give myself more height if I am using a standard Julian French easel.
One can use any type of palette. I use a palette made of Plexiglass that measures 18 x 22 inches. The Plexiglass palette is hinged on both sides, and opens to provide an ample work space. I love using this size because I am not all that good at limiting my palette.
I am very fond of convenience colors. I do not use burnt umber or raw umber, due to its rapid drying time, if the completion time required is going to exceed more than one day. I like to use a mixture of turpentine and poppy seed oil to wash my canvas prior to starting, and as a medium for the fast-drying paints.
I find it is helpful to have painted some smaller canvases on site, prior to starting my large work, especially with a subject like the Grand Canyon. I want to have a good idea of the light patterns that are occurring. Every day is different, so one must watch out for changing weather, because it is important have consistent conditions throughout the completion of the painting.
Setting Up to Paint Outdoors
I like to set up and paint in one location all day long, doing three smaller works throughout the day (usually morning, midday, and sunset) leaving me to work on the large canvas throughout the afternoon. Frequently the largest of canvases require several visits, usually with a return over the course of two or three days. My first day is primarily spent drawing, and I like to draw my painting in with a long handled brush. I often spend as much time on the drawing portion of the painting as I do finishing the painting. The drawing is the most important part of the painting.
On any return trips, during a second or third day for example, I always try to stick to the same color mixtures from the first day. I normally will paint for about four hours in the afternoon, and I always try to retain the shadow pattern from the middle of those four hours. On occasion I will use a hand mirror to look at the subject while I am looking at the canvas in reverse, so I can see them both at the same time.
I prefer to paint my largest canvases close to home (or, at least where I have access to studio space) so that I can look them over, and/or work on them in the evening.
I’ve been asked, “Is there a downside to painting large canvases?” The only downside I can think of is the occasional misfortunes that come with wind, weather, attempted transportation of a canvas while wet, and other accidental mishaps. Even still, it is absolutely worth the effort and the time.
Others also often ask me if I have a favorite color; the answer is no. My “favorite” color is the one that fits the atmosphere of the day perfectly, which, when working as a plein air artist, I must always be attentive to.