Detail of the painting "Magic moments,” by Geeta Pattanaik

When this artist was asked to paint en plein air at a wedding ceremony, she stepped up to the challenge. No pressure — right?

By Geeta Pattanaik

When my friend Kelly Harnett contacted me to come and paint during her wedding ceremony in Riverside, California, I was up for the challenge. She and John Eshleman were going to have a mid-October wedding. I knew it would be a challenge to have something worth keeping, of an unrepeatable moment, done in a certain amount of time, and to be packed up to disappear before the tables were set for the reception, as I was occupying a prime spot.

I gave it some thought and decided to follow my usual procedure in the studio, in the field, or in my class — to plan but then be flexible. The bride-to-be and I scouted out the setting of the wedding, but the main arbor was still being built by John, and the chairs were not in place. The arbor represented the “Raincross,” which is the symbol of the city of Riverside, so I sort of knew the shape of it.

The wedding was going to be held in front of a huge tree, with a golf course and some hills behind it. This location was quite high, and the golf course was located a few hundred feet below, so it would appear lower and in the distance as compared to the wedding spot. The hills would be even further back. I wanted to be there at a similar time as the wedding to know the lighting, so I could plan the painting with the values placed to have the bride and groom in the correct spot. I also picked the location where I would sit, with a good vantage point, but out of the way of everyone. I had a clear view of the arbor, in front of which the wedding would take place. For the sake of scale, I took a few photos of Kelly where she would be standing during the ceremony.

Photo of the scene on the wedding day

I could visualize my painting already, except for the arbor, which I had not seen, and gave Kelly an idea of how I wanted it to turn out. She wanted a bright, lively painting. I wanted each of their mothers to be in the reference photo, to have the newlyweds be facing me. She loved the idea of the moms being in the painting. Even though I do a lot of watercolors, I thought this painting would look nice in oils, so she agreed to that. She was so easy to work with, but I kept her informed at every stage, so there would be no surprises. We also agreed on a price for the painting.

After taking photos of the location, I printed up a screenshot of two to three photos joined together correctly to give me a wider view, but with a fair amount of detail and then made it into a black-and-white photo, for the values.

In preparation for the wedding, I gessoed a 20 x 16-inch canvas panel three times over, for a smoother finish. I also premixed some greens for the trees and the grass, but left it at that to keep the feeling fresh for doing the actual painting. The night before the wedding, Kelly sent me a photo of the arbor and chair setup for me to be mentally prepared for the scene. She also sent me photos of the two moms, so I would know who to look out for.

The wedding was to start at 3 p.m., so I had arranged with the wedding planner and Kelly, that I would arrive at about 1 p.m., to set up my gear, and have my painting blocked in and proceed as far as I could go, without including people in their seats. I had my black-and-white photo attached to my easel to remind me of my plan.

After setting up, I did a preliminary pen drawing with my Tom Bow pen from what I saw, putting it together with what I had imagined the painting would look like. I kept this close at hand too. I decided on a portrait format, as that would highlight the beautiful tree and the decorations, and have some people in the painting, but not too many.

Tow Bow marker sketch
Sketch with Tom Bow ink pen of the placement of items in the scene

Many of the guests chatted with me, and took pictures and were so amazed that there would be someone painting at the wedding. John later told Kelly that he thought I lived in the house, and had just come out to paint, as she had kept it as a surprise for him. I must have looked totally at home, with all my gear and in tune with the guests and the surroundings.

While painting, I was also taking a few photos to remind me of the setting. I started by doing a quick sketch on the canvas board, with burnt umber paint, thinned with Winsor and Newton’s Sansodor, only noting the areas of the tree, the arbor, the main light and shadows in the foreground and a few strokes for the location of the chairs. I used the same paint to note which would be my dark areas, like the tree trunks and branches and the darks facing the guests, where the ground dropped down a few hundred feet to the golf club but was covered by greenery.

I reserved the area where people would be seated. I started painting the tree, which was at the top of my painting downward, using a variety of greens I had premixed, after seeing the scene. I had included the hills and the golf club in the background, so I did some of that too, as I came forward in the scene and downward, also painting the sky just above the hills. Suddenly the foreground lit up with beautiful light and shadows, so I chose the colors from my mixed greens and completed that.

Once the guests started to gather and take their seats, I drew in some chairs and a few people on each side, making sure that it was not too symmetric. The only place still untouched was the place in front of the arbor. When the wedding started, I quickly sketched in the officiant, bride and groom as I saw them but I could not get them in as I had planned, facing me, so I just went with the flow.

Painting a wedding en plein air -
Photo of Geeta painting en plein air at the wedding. Photo courtesy of Karen Ayers

I painted in figures, noting especially the color of the groom’s suit, the sheer nature of the wedding dress, and the bride’s veil and headdress. I also painted in a few guests in their chairs and the skin tones of the three main figures. I left it at that, packed up and left.

I completed the details of the clothes of the guests in my studio, and some of the sky holes, peeking through the trees. I also painted in the decorations, the flowers, the lightbulbs and other details, which I knew would add some sparkle to the scene.

Painting a wedding en plein air -
Completed painting. Geeta Pattanaik, “Magic moments,” oil, 20 x 16 in. Collection of John and Kelly Eshleman

The whole experience taught me to be prepared, to plan, but to enjoy the process and be ready to adapt to suit what happens. Finally, I think I captured the feel that both Kelly and I had envisioned, a sunny, airy afternoon, with dappled light from the huge trees around with a hint of the guests present. She wanted some brightness and cheer, which I gave with the pops of color on the clothes of the guests, and the foreground light and shade. Kelly, John, and I were all happy with the finished painting.

Kelly Eshleman, officiant Steve Maio and John Eshleman

About the Author: Geeta Pattanaik has always been interested in painting but was a librarian before she retired to paint full time from 2006 onwards. She is a Signature member of the National Watercolor Society and a member of several watercolor societies. She lives with her husband in Riverside, California. A few of Geeta’s paintings can be viewed at

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