Six years ago, Debra Latham didn’t even know landscape painting en plein air was “a thing.” Today, she paints the vast majority of her work outdoors. “A group of close friends introduced me to it,” she says. “I still teach figure painting classes, and paint still life in the studio, but now that I’m hooked on plein air, I do 70 to 80 percent of my work that way.”
DEVELOPING A PERSONAL STYLE
“I’ve painted hyperrealism in the past, and still do for commissions, because that’s what a lot of people tend to expect,” says Latham, “but I prefer work with a more painterly look.” Finding that quality came hand-in-hand with her embrace of plein air. “Painting on location forced me to get shapes and colors down quickly and more accurately, while at the same time letting go of the tightness in my work. Finding the ability to loosen up was the key to developing the impressionistic look I was after, but it was a lot harder to do than people might think.”
Latham describes her work as “impressionistic realism with a loose and expressive style.” She says, “I like for one spot in my painting, the focal point, to have a lot more detail than the rest of the piece. By keeping the edges softer in other areas, I can achieve an impressionistic look, and still retain that touch of realism.”
Although Latham does most of her plein air landscape painting at her family farm in the Texas Hill Country, she has painted all over the country, counting the mountains of Colorado and ocean views in California and Florida as particular favorites. “I like going to different places, where I can take in new scenery and have new experiences,” she says. “Before I painted en plein air and started paying closer attention to the landscape, I never realized how widely colors vary from place to place. When I’m traveling, I almost need to pack a different palette for any new place I go.”
Most often, the artist likes to paint in the early morning and evening hours, when the contrasts are magnified. “In general, I like painting the subtle value shifts in a mountain scene,” she says. “At sunset, though, stark contrasts occur when the light hits the mountain, and that’s good, too.”
Water provides another favorite subject. “I especially love capturing all the colors in a wave. To get them all, you practically have to develop a photographic memory so you remember everything that you saw before it crashes.”
LANDSCAPE PAINTING: PLEIN AIR PROCESS
Latham visits the farm every weekend and takes her plein air kit on every trip. “When I go out, I never spend more than three hours on a painting,” she says. “By that time, the light has changed anyway, and it’s time to pick up and go.” To maximize her time, she’s developed a habit of making thumbnail sketches before beginning any painting.
“I used to think they were such a waste of time, but one day a friend convinced me to make some,” she continues. “In about five or 10 minutes, I had worked out all the compositional issues of the painting in my sketchbook. I saw how much time they actually saved me. I started to keep a small sketchbook that I use expressly for this purpose, and I’ve noticed a huge improvement in my plein air paintings since.”
Most of the time, Latham finishes her paintings on-site. “Occasionally, I might use a plein air piece to create a larger work in the studio or find one little stroke that I’m not satisfied with and I’ll fix that, but most of the time I’m happy with what I’ve got in the field,” she says. “Besides, if I’m at an event, there’s often not time for fine-tuning later anyway, or rules of the event may actually prohibit it.”
PARTICIPATING IN PLEIN AIR EVENTS
Latham began taking part in plein air painting events about three years ago, marking another transition in her work and career of landscape painting. She says, “I saw my friend Suzie Baker going to all these events, and I said, ‘Hey, sign me up; I want to do that.’”
“I love the excuse to travel, to experience new terrains and atmospheres, and I love meeting artists from all over, and learning from them. Watching the other artists work and talking to them is like taking a mini-workshop; I always come home with lots of pointers and new techniques — even tips on how to pack for my next event.”
Last year, she had to pull back on the events she attended because she had both her knees replaced. “Now that my knees are back in shape, I feel 20 years younger and I’m ready to get back at it,” she says. “I’d much rather go out with a group of artists to paint; it makes it so much more fun. Working in the studio day in and day out can get lonely.”
Not only do these events offer the artist camaraderie and a chance to learn new tricks of the trade, now that the two galleries that previously represented her work have closed, they provide the main sales vehicle for her paintings, as well.
So, how does she achieve all these things when she’s not participating in an event? She goes online, of course. She sells paintings and commissions through her website, and she’s recently set up a private group called In the Studio on Facebook, where she can exchange ideas and talk about art with other artists and enthusiasts (no cat pictures or politics, thank you very much). She’s also developing plans for weekly online courses, another way to stay connected and do what she loves.
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