Nothing can replace the plein air painting experience or the truth in the plein air studies one creates outdoors. California artist John Burton discusses how he grows bigger studio pieces from these nuggets of verisimilitude.

“Blue Fin Cove,” by John Burton, oil, 24 x 16 in.

“A landscape painting does not feel the same as being there, but it evokes a poetic — even lyrical — memory of the emotion felt witnessing it,” he says. “That is part of the reason I believe painting on location is so important. Painting only from photos is like writing a novel about Venice and only doing your research on the Internet. You may be able to write an interesting book about it, but there will be an element of truthfulness lacking because it is all secondhand.”

“Cypress Cove,” by John Burton, oil, 15 x 30 in.

Burton says two things are critical in retaining the freshness of the plein air study when executing a larger studio work based upon it: understanding and preparation.

“Mesa Verde Awakens,” by John Burton, oil, 16 x 18 in.

“By understanding I mean doing my homework,” says Burton. “I paint the scene on location and return there many times, when possible. That said, I could study the ocean for a lifetime and still have more to learn. When I first moved to the Monterey Coast I painted 100 paintings on location before I started my first studio painting. There was and is so much to learn — ocean, rivers, tides, seasons, and the many interesting varieties of trees. The location painting is essential. Otherwise, when painting in the studio, the artist is only giving his or her opinion of the photograph — not of the location.”

“Pinnacles Cove,” by John Burton, oil, 12 x 16 in.

“Point Lobos Blue,” by John Burton, oil, 24 x 30 in. 

The artist continues, “By preparation I mean many studies on location and in the studio. I start every morning at my studio with a painting 11″ x 14″ or smaller of a new scene for about an hour. This serves as a warmup for the day of painting, and after time it gives me a library of ideas to use for future paintings. To me this is like stretching out or doing calisthenics. I wouldn’t go exercise or play a sport without stretching, so I can’t expect to wake up and just start painting at a peak level without warming up. The more I understand my subject and am prepared through studies, the more confidently I can lay the paint on to the canvas, which in the end creates a fresh, unlabored finish. I continuously go outside taking notes and creating short essays in paint, constantly learning and studying. Then I come back to my studio and create many rough drafts through small color studies or pencil compositional sketches to decide how I will tell my story. When I am feeling confident with the direction I am going, I make an attempt at writing my novel. I work on a large canvas, trying to work as freely as possible while relying heavily on my earlier attempts.”

John Burton will be a faculty member at the 2014 Plein Air Convention & Expo; book your ticket to study with him today.


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