Joseph McGurl looks through a large viewfinder attached to the right side of his easel as he paints a tree hanging over Great Peconic Bay on Long Island, NY.

Joseph McGurl wants to capture the human and spiritual dimensions of the landscape with his plein air and studio paintings. He explains how he does that in the cover story of the November 2013 issue of PleinAir magazine, as well as in a January 2014 article on a group painting event on Long Island, New York.

Massachusetts artist Joseph McGurl uses a wide range of materials and techniques to, as he says, “infuse paintings with a higher sense of reality.” That heightened realism recently earned him the PleinAir Magazine Award in the Art Renewal Center‘s International 2012-2013 ARC Salon competition. It also brought him an invitation to join four other artists for a week of outdoor painting on a private estate on Long Island. That recent event will be described in the January 2014 issue of PleinAir.

“Plein Air, West Wind,” by Joseph McGurl, 2013, oil on panel, 9 x 12 in. Private collection

McGurl’s quest to understand and paint this “human reality” has led him to explore a range of painting materials and techniques. “I prefer to go back to familiar locations and continue studying what is there and record my response to it,” he says. “I am interested in the kinds of scenes that get me thinking about issues extending beyond the identity of a house, tree, street, or seashore. I’ll do small plein air sketches at those locations and take those back to my studio to rekindle the thoughts and feelings I had at the spot. The outdoor paintings become my biggest source of information for painting in the studio, even if the larger work ends up looking completely different. They give me specific information, but more importantly, they help me understand nature and the landscape on a physical, spiritual, and emotional level. I get an endorphin high when I’m in the landscape.”

McGurl painting on a boat dock on Long Island

Over the years, McGurl has used a number of different techniques for preparing the surfaces of the boards he takes with him on location, as well as the mediums he uses during stages of the painting process to modify the consistency and drying time of oil colors. “I’ll try most anything that is sound and approved by people who study artists’ materials,” he explains. “I may seal a piece of plywood with a transparent medium so the grain and tone of the wood influences the initial stages of the painting process, or I will add acrylic modeling paste to the gesso to build up a heavy texture in random patterns or according to the topography of the landscape. Then I might also apply an overall tone to the gessoed panel or do a monochromatic underpainting. It all depends on the subject and the methods I am using during a period of time.

“I’ve tried a number of ways of speeding up the drying time and suggesting detail with a brush or palette knife, including the addition of sun-thickened linseed oil or Liquin alkyd medium to my oil colors. Lately, I have been using Winsor & Newton underpainting white for about 80 percent of the color mixing when I am outdoors because it sets up quickly on a dry panel and doesn’t get slick or soupy. It’s quite stiff and takes some getting used to, but it allows me to keep adding paint without having trouble with an oily surface that won’t accept more paint. I use a regular titanium white for the final stages of the painting process.”

“Plein Air, Light Drizzle,” by Joseph McGurl, 2013, oil on panel, 9 x 12 in. Private collection

McGurl frequently uses a palette knife to apply oil colors because he finds that thick, textured paint can add both random and controlled patterns to the picture. “A lot of amateur artists paint orderly geometric shapes, but nature is about random shapes and patterns and balancing order with chaos,” the artist says. “Using a palette knife that can’t be controlled as well as a brush actually helps add a sense of reality to a painting. Moreover, it allows an artist to add textures by turning the knife to carve into the paint, smooth out sections, apply several colors, blur or sharpen edges, or scrape away paint. The key is to use enough paint to be able to push it around with the knife. Most students don’t use enough paint.”

“Field Study, Sunlit Pines,” by Joseph McGurl, 2005, oil, 12 x 9 in. Private collection This painting is reproduced on the cover of the November 2013 issue of PleinAir.

While painting on Long Island with Nancy Tankersley, Dawn Whitelaw, Erik Koeppel, and Lauren Sansaricq, McGurl used the techniques described above to capture the fall foliage and the views of water surrounding the property. He was particularly interested in painting sunsets over Great Peconic Bay as well as the light at dusk just after the sun set. Read about that special project in the January 2014 issue of PleinAir.


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