Having been an avid outdoorsman for most of his life, Ohio artist Robin Roberts easily made the transition from studio design work to plein air painting.
Shortly after becoming a plein air painter, Robin Roberts was juried into the 2010 Plein Air Easton festival, one of the top events in the country. “I had only recently been introduced to plein air painting competitions and decided to apply,” the artist explains. “I’m a competitive person by nature, having been a baseball player in high school and college, so the idea of joining a painting competition appealed to me. I attended the Easton event without knowing what I was in for, in terms of the daily pace and the gathering of top artists from around the country, but fortunately I was assigned to share a two-bedroom cottage with Ned Mueller, a veteran of plein air events, who was kind enough to guide me through the week’s activities.”
Roberts recalls, “That week in Easton was like a workshop taught by a group of nationally known artists. I was able to work alongside rock stars of the plein air world like Greg LaRock, Jill Carver, Ken DeWaard, Shelby Keefe, and Ned. It was a great experience, but I knew from day one I was way out of my league. I was grateful for the opportunity to dive into the deep end of outdoor painting and quickly learn to tread water, so to speak, but I knew I had to get better before I applied to other events.”
Roberts took a couple of years oﬀ from national competitions, concentrating more on paint-outs organized by the Ohio Plein Air Society. “I was still running a graphic design studio, so I had limited time for painting, plus I wanted to be a lot more certain about how I would approach competitive events before I applied to bigger festivals,” he says. “I participated in an event at Callaway Gardens in Georgia and became friends with John P. Lasater IV. I liked his approach and character so much that I took a workshop with him when he came to Ohio.”
Roberts observes, “I doubt that many artists know how they will handle the pace and competitiveness of a plein air painting event until they enter a few and measure the pros and cons. I really enjoy the people I meet and reconnect with at events. I appreciate the camaraderie among the artists, and I like a full week of painting ending with an exhibition and sale of the work created. Entering a few competitions each year is manageable, as it allows me to pursue my passion to paint while continuing to serve my graphic design clients well. Recently, I’ve enjoyed participating in the Finger Lakes Plein Air Festival and Paint Dexter in Michigan.”
He adds, “I had to learn to think of ‘competition’ in very personal terms and not as a sporting event in which success is measured in points or timing. I understood that I should just focus on trying to do my best, to learn something, to enjoy the company of other artists, and to avoid thinking about awards and sales until the painting days were past and the exhibit was being organized.”
Plein Air Painting: Art On Location
“I used to drive around for hours looking for the perfect composition to paint, but I quickly learned to focus on the ﬁrst thing that caught my attention — light, atmosphere, architecture — and use what I saw to make a good composition,” says Roberts. “Now I am less inclined to be tied to what I observe and feel free to move things around. Those changes in my approach have released me to paint anywhere there is a good prospect for a successful painting. I have certain favorite subjects, like water, but I’m not bound to paint familiar scenes.”
Just as he does when beginning a graphic design project, Roberts makes thumbnail sketches of potential painting subjects, most often using three markers (light, middle, and dark values) to make 4 x 6-inch notan drawings or compositional sketches. His intention is to capture the composition and pattern of light and shadow to keep himself from chasing that pattern as he spends several hours developing a painting.
“I attach the sketch to my easel so I can refer to it constantly,” Roberts says. “Then I start every painting the same way, by coating a panel with a mid-tone gray (often shifted toward the complement of the local color) and drawing the composition with a dark color. Next I block in the darks and wipe out the lights so I can quickly establish a basic composition of shapes and values. Only when I’m satisﬁed with that value sketch do I add color. Sometimes the sketch is close enough to a complete statement about the subject, the atmosphere, and the light that I am tempted to call it a ﬁnished painting — but I never give in to that temptation.
“As I build up color over the value sketch, I often ﬁnish paintings with oil colors loaded on a palette knife. I am inclined to render too many tight details, and a palette knife keeps me from overworking a painting. I can also use the knife to scrape the surface to create transparent, textured patterns, or I can scribe lines into the wet paint.”
When Roberts ﬁrst began painting outdoors, he used watercolors, but later switched to oils. Even now, depending on the subject, the time available, and his mood, he may go back to watercolor. “Some subjects are better painted with one medium or another,” the artist says. “Then again, I might switch because I’m in a funk and just want to shake things up by changing mediums. By ‘funk’ I mean that I’m falling into a rut or my paintings just aren’t working well. Going back and forth helps me right the ship, so to speak. I usually take both mediums when I do a competition or paint-out.”
Plein Air Equipment & Supplies
Roberts uses an EasyL or a Day Tripper easel supported by a tripod, and he lays out his paints on a Proliﬁc Painter palette. “All my supplies ﬁt into a backpack made for carrying softball equipment,” he says. “It also holds some hunting gear, which I take along so I can hunt and paint during deer season in Ohio. I might hunt in the morning before the sun rises and then switch to plein air painting.
“The backpack also holds oil colors that I can mix together to establish a full array of colors. Those include titanium white, yellow ochre (Gamblin), cadmium yellow lemon, cadmium orange, ultramarine deep (Rembrandt), cerulean blue, viridian, alizarin crimson, permanent red medium (Rembrandt), burnt sienna, cold gray (Rembrandt), Torrit gray (Gamblin), and dioxide purple.”
Roberts indicates that when necessary, he can trim down that selection of oil colors to titanium white, cadmium yellow lemon, permanent red medium, ultramarine deep, Naples yellow deep (instead of yellow ochre), and cold gray.
Roberts sometimes mixes his oils with Liquin to speed up the drying time, but avoids spreading Liquin on his palette because he likes to scrape together all the leftover oils to make a gray that can be used again. His panels are made by Centurion or RayMar (medium cotton canvas).
ROBIN ROBERTS attended Ashland University (OH) on a baseball scholarship and majored
in fine art and visual communication. For many years he served as the creative director at Rubbermaid, then in 2001 he opened his own graphic design studio, Red Red Design. By chance, he spoke with an acquaintance at church who was a member of the Ohio Plein Air Society (OPAS) and joined her at a paint-out. He became an OPAS member, and now serves as the organization’s president. “I really enjoy getting out of the studio in all seasons,” the artist says. “When I am inside, I can get pulled into graphic design work and not paint. In that respect, plein air is my escape from the studio and my opportunity to capture the beauty of God’s creation.”