Plein air oil painting how-to - Lynn Dunbar -
Lynn Dunbar, House That Birds Love 2016, oil, 9 x 12 in. Collection of Ben Nay Plein air

To help market her artwork, Lynn Dunbar summarized her approach to plein air and studio painting and emphasized her response to the spirit, vitality, and beauty of her home state.

After watching an Art Marketing Boot Camp program, Kentucky artist Lynn Dunbar decided to identify a theme or tagline that would summarize her approach to plein air painting. The idea was that a label would make it easier for collectors to gain a general understanding of her work. She decided on “Capturing the Spirit of Kentucky” because she really does enjoy painting her home state. While that one label could never completely encompass all her creative activities, she felt it would help to effectively distinguish her work.

Painting a Plein Air Landscape

“After deciding on a location that interests me and is revealed by a distant pattern of sunlight and shadow, I set up my easel and organize my supplies,” she explains.

“I first do a quick, loose compositional sketch of the big shapes within the scene using thin mixtures of either red (for land) or green (for water), and I wipe out the lighter values with a paper towel so I can get an immediate impression of what the composition will look like. If I don’t like it at all, I wipe the panel clean and start over. More often than not, I adjust the shapes by wiping off or adding paint.”

The standard palette of colors that Dunbar employs includes titanium white, ultramarine blue, cadmium yellow medium or light, naphthol red, medium gray, phthalocyanine rose, viridian, earth red or transparent red oxide, and sometimes Indian yellow.

Once she is satisfied with her compositional plan, Dunbar identifies three to five important shapes and premixes oil colors that match the overall color of those shapes. Those pools of oil colors will serve as the foundations of her paint application. “I mix up pools of three or four foundational colors, including one for sky and one for land,” says the artist. “I then block in areas and use the reservoir of colors to mix new colors by adding to each of those pools. I can make a pool of color lighter, darker, warmer, or cooler depending on what is needed to refine the big shapes already painted. I start by establishing the dark shapes, then the light shapes, and I work back and forth from there into the middle value range. I used to lay in the full value range of values and then leave the painting alone, but now I finish by adding dark accents in the foreground that make the entire painting pop.”

Dunbar often adds Liquin alkyd medium to her oil colors to speed up the drying time. Her brushes include flats, an angled Rosemary brush, some Princeton watercolor brushes for details, and a few inexpensive hog bristle brushes for making big, broad strokes across a panel. She normally paints on Centurion deluxe oil-primed linen or Gessobord Museum Series panels. “I love the Gessobord panels,” she says, “but the surface is so slick I usually have to start a painting one day, let the surface dry or get tacky overnight, and then return to the same location the next day.”

Dunbar goes on, “While most of my plein air pieces are standard 9 x 12 and 11 x 14-inch sizes, I really like to paint 5 x 7-inch pieces to quickly capture the composition and color pattern. That’s a convenient size for painting locations near my house or cabin, and they are usually of common, everyday scenes that people take for granted. Even though I am working on a small scale, I get really involved in blocking in the main shapes with a 1-inch or 3/4-inch flat brush and refining those basic shapes.”

Oil Painting Demonstration: Irises

Step 1: Blocking in the composition
Step 1

Step 1:
Lynn Dunbar draws the outlines of the major shapes in the scene to establish the scale and placement of those shapes.

Step 2: Apply thin wash to underpainting
Step 2

Step 2:
The artist then applies thin washes of a red to serve as a contrasting underpainting of the building’s shadows and the vegetation.

Oil Painting Demo: Irises by Lynn Dunbar
Step 3

Step 3:
Continuing with thicker oil colors, Dunbar blocks in other areas of the canvas while reserving the lightest, sunlit shapes.

Step 4: The final plein air painting
Step 4, The completed painting: “Irises,” 2017, oil, 7 x 5 in., private collection, plein air

Step 4:
Dunbar finishes the plein air painting by adding tints of yellow and brown to the sunlit side of the building and scratching in the fence with the edge of a palette knife.

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