Do you remember how I mentioned a few weeks ago that I’ve been “eaten” by the plein air bug? Well, since my attendance at the Plein Air Convention & Expo in San Diego and with some sage advice from a good friend, I decided to give this plein air thing a try. How did it turn out?
Can any of you remember the first time you ever painted? What about that first plein air experience? What if they were both the same? That was the case for me last weekend at Tettegouche State Park along the North Shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota. With the help of my good friend and PACE17 faculty member Dan Mondloch, along with the incredible demonstrations I witnessed in San Diego (more on this soon), I took the plunge during my most recent backpacking trip to the North Shore. “What better way to start,” I thought, “than at one of the most beautiful places in my home state?”
Full disclosure, I do have an artistic background and some formal training, but my focus has been on three-dimensional work through pottery. Perhaps surprisingly, I have never tried painting before. In school, I focused my efforts on drawing, ceramics, and sculpture, but never painting. I think it was an intimidating process to me — the color, composition, atmosphere, depth, etc. In contrast, however, I’ve always felt that I had a good understanding of painting considering that I research, teach, write, and talk about it for a living. I’m hoping that the following brief account of my experience and how I approached plein air painting as a first-timer might be of some use for our readers, from the beginner to the experienced.
My setup was inexpensive and minimal. I had a small notebook of 8 x 8-inch 140 lb. cold-press watercolor paper, a $5 set of brushes, a $3 watercolor set of just value tones, and a larger $5 watercolor set of about 22 colors. I also made myself a small viewfinder set to the dimensions of my notebook, divided into a grid. No easel, no chair, just raw materials to give painting a try with little investment. Oh, and a little plastic cup for water.
As I teach my students in Art Appreciation, color has three dominant properties: its name (hue), the amount of light or shade (value), and amount of pure color (saturation or intensity). One could also add temperature as well, either warm or cool. “Start with just the values,” Dan advised. “Behind every good painting is a good value pattern or study.” This was how I first approached my painting — devoid of color, just focusing on the changes in value. The topic of starting with value sketches was a popular one at the PACE17 demos, and almost every artist attested to its effectiveness, but added that one doesn’t necessarily need to execute one every time. I felt very strongly that gaining a good understanding of value was vital before I even tried adding color.
I found that painting in just value tones to be rather difficult — it must be right. The addition of color, even if the value is off, can help the eye distinguish between objects in space. With a value study, one doesn’t have that luxury; it is simply the intensity of light as it falls on objects in space.
The second thing that really stuck out in my mind and was extremely helpful was John Burton’s demonstration at PACE17, in which he executed quick, 15-minute gouache paintings. The overarching message was finding simplicity through shape. “Find the shapes,” he would say. (I’m paraphrasing here). “Start with the larger, simpler shapes before meddling in detail.” I found the process of squinting/blurring my vision to be helpful in locating both contrast in value and larger shapes in my composition. I tended to start focusing too much on detail right away. I kept telling myself to “simplify, simplify, simplify.” It was a lot of fun training myself to see the world in a different way, trying to flatten and streamline everything I saw while also appreciating the scene in all its complexity and intricacies.
After completing a decent value sketch, I felt a good understanding of my scene and was then eager to repaint it using color. Surprisingly, I found the addition of color to be relatively easy after the difficulty of value painting. Color is very important and tricky, to be sure, but it seemed a little more forgiving. I chose and mixed a color that I liked and made sure its value matched the value study — that was it!
In conclusion, I was quite surprised and happy with my first-time results. With a very structured, basic approach and some (really) good tips from the professionals, painting seems less intimidating and more possible than ever before — it’s quite exciting! I find myself constantly seeing the world in a new way, noticing the shapes, value, and wondering, “How would I paint that object?” I was also struck by the connection I felt with Crystal Bay Beach and Shovel Point (the two places I painted at Tettegouche). The process of painting slowed my observation and thinking. It’s incredible how much you miss in passing.
My first plein air experience also gave me insight, albeit brief, into what makes all of you tick. I kind of “get it” now, but just a little. It was exhilarating and fun, and I can’t wait to do it again, and again. Thank you!
I would love to hear your thoughts about my experience and if this description was helpful (or entertaining) in any way.