PleinAir iSalon winner - Carl Bretzke
Carl Bretzke, “December Sunset Near Farmer’s Market,” oil on linen, 11 x 14 in.

Bretzke’s “December Sunset Near Farmer’s Market” (above) was the Grand Prize Winner in the 5th PleinAir Salon Art Competition (now accepting entries for the current competition).

By Carl Bretzke (

I painted “December Sunset Near Farmer’s Market” in Minneapolis in 2015. Luckily the weather was better than usual with temperatures hovering just above the freezing mark. (Yes, that’s better.)

It’s not always easy for me to define exactly what inspires me when choosing a subject for a painting. All I know is that every now and then I stumble upon something that visually excites me and gives me a pleasant sense of urgency to paint it before something changes.

Previously, while scouting for painting locations, I had pointed out to at least two other painters that this particular street scene appealed to me, and I thought it would make a good painting. I thought the shapes were interesting and there was a nice progression of values from foreground to background, which would give the painting depth. They weren’t interested. I painted it anyway and in 2016 it was awarded the Grand Prize in the PleinAir Salon.

This was a good lesson for me . . . trust your instincts and if something fits your eye, don’t be afraid to give it a try. (Like this? Click here to share it on Facebook!)

As usual, the best urban views always seem to be from the middle of the road. Luckily, this particular stretch of road was one-way, nearly abandoned (in winter) and there was diagonal parking on one side. I therefore stood behind the rear bumper of my parked car, putting myself safely near the middle of the road.

This painting was accomplished in two sessions outdoors roughly two-three hours each day. On day one, I started mid-afternoon with a fairly warm, hazy blue sky. On day two I started slightly later in the afternoon and was fortunate to have the sky turn a warm yellow orange, which was fairly easy to transition into since most of my shapes were already in place from day one.

How I approached this landscape painting:

1. I dressed warmly. I often wear a hooded down jacket even when I paint in California, so you can imagine my outfit for winter painting in Minnesota. I wear a warm, ugly sock on my painting hand and poke a hole through the end to slide my brush handle through.

2. I start with a limited drawing (using paint) to place compositional elements and establish proper proportions.

3. In a backlight situation such as this, I often do an underpainting of all shadows with a mixture of cobalt blue, black, white, and a slightly warm violet mixture, paying close attention to tonal shifts from foreground to background. Background shadows are typically cooler and lighter. I then add color back into the underpainted shadows as needed.

4. Next I paint the sky, followed by the remaining light planes.

5. On day two I started by improving my drawing, paying attention to perspective, proportion, and edges. I also repainted my sky, which by then had turned a warmer yellow-orange. I don’t usually change my light effect the second day unless it’s a clear improvement over what I originally had such as in this case.

6. I then readjusted color throughout, adding warm and cool notes as appropriate, and paying attention to reflected light. This included looking for bits of sky color on flat planes and reflective surfaces.

7. My final step is to look for small exceptions of light such as bright glare and dark foreground accents.

Finally, I must admit that even though I might prefer the endless amount of color information and forced editing afforded by painting winter snow scenes from life, I also do plenty of winter landscapes from the comfort of my studio. I enjoy doing both.

Additional oil paintings:

Carl Bretzke, “Nordic Musicians,” oil on linen, 16 x 20 in.
Carl Bretzke, “December Morning,” oil on linen, 24 x 36 in.
Carl Bretzke, “Loppet Festival (Minneapolis),” oil on linen, 11 x 14 in.

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