– Bob Bahr reporting, Editor PleinAir Today –
Simon Bland is painting outdoors a lot these days. But it’s not primarily for finished pieces. In that way, he is surely following in some big footsteps.
Lead Image: “Showers,” by Simon Bland, 2016, oil on linen panel, 8 x 10 in.
Going back at least to Leonardo, artists have been using plein air work as studies to inform studio paintings. Whether it’s through oil sketches, full-color studies, or graphite drawings, field work has informed much of the work of past masters. Bland is a portrait painter, but he recognizes the value of working outdoors.
“After finishing a big portrait commission over the winter, I started a couple of larger landscape paintings in the studio,” explains Bland. “As part of that I did a few sketches beforehand to work out some ideas. This year I plan to do some larger works than I usually do, so I thought it was time for me to make a concerted effort to develop more ideas and sketches to help me do that.”
The result was what Bland dubbed a marathon of painting — mostly outdoors, many starts, a fair amount of scrape-offs. “I’m going to stick with my original plan and use the very best work as the basis for larger paintings,” says the artist. “There are a few that could be sold in their own right. The other paintings will hang around in the studio until I decide I don’t need them anymore. The remaining 50 percent are already scraped off.”
Bland reports that his working method was to go out on location and create many notan sketches with black marker on cards. One of them invariably intrigued him and promised a strong composition. That was the view and the composition that he pursued on the spot in oil paints.
He initially planned to paint two or three oil sketches a day, but he soon settled down to one a day. “I’m too self-critical to keep something I don’t like (if they didn’t pass muster, I would scrape off the panels), and after doing it for a week, I was just too tired,” says Bland. “Despite that, I am still keeping up an increased volume of work. The most notable benefit of doing that is that I’m getting paint on the panel much more quickly. I’ve also become less hesitant to move the paint around with a painting knife, and that’s given my work a slightly more loose and painterly look. In the end I discovered a better approach to landscape painting, more creativity, and a catalog of ideas.”
Bland, who now lives in the Seattle area, first got his feet wet in plein air painting in Northern Virginia, where he lived and connected with the Loudon Sketch Club. “They are a great bunch of people, and they really helped me to find my feet,” says the artist. “It was a handicap when I first started painting outside. Like many artists who first venture outside, I would approach all my landscapes in a very subject-matter-driven way. It took a long time to get free of that.”
It wasn’t a one-way street. In fact, Bland thinks his portrait painting and his plein air work complemented each other and made him better in both areas. “My experience in portrait painting helped immensely in a couple of ways: first, in understanding the importance of things like working out ideas and designs before starting to paint; and, secondly, in managing expectations — when you are used to spending many days working on a painting, you tend to be more realistic about what you can do in a couple of hours. On the flip side, plein air painting has had a big impact on my portraits. I’m no longer able to paint from a reference photograph without trying to change it to better show reality as I see it. Since my plein air designs have become more driven by the arrangement of masses, I’ve also become much more interested in composing the masses in my studio paintings.”