George Strickland knows what he’s going to talk about at the Plein Air Convention & Expo, coming up next month in Arizona: The importance of starting off on the right foot.
“I’m definitely going to talk about how to get a painting off the ground so that it’s going in the right direction in the very beginning,” says Strickland. “That helps you have an enjoyable process rather than one that is undisciplined, where you are constantly in the mode of trying to fix things. It’s a process that is either comfortable or uncomfortable the whole way.”
So how does one start off well? Strickland recommends a thumbnail sketch. And for him, not having a notebook handy is no excuse. “I’ll do a thumbnail on the canvas itself with thinned-down paint — in the corner of the canvas —use it as a guide for bigger drawing on the whole canvas, then obliterate it when it’s done its job. But doing sketches allows you to determine where your focal points are, where most of the contrast and the highlights will be, how the eye will travel through the painting. By doing thumbnails, I determine what I’m going to do and how it’s going to be cropped. It establishes my general direction for the painting. Then I emulate the big shapes that are in my tiny thumbnail on the canvas.”
Strickland says he also utilizes a viewfinder and a camera to figure out his composition. He discovers the orientation and overall format for a piece, zooming in and out of the scene. The Tucson artist says he may be slightly biased toward the viewfinder over the camera because he finds it easy to use a brush handle or something similar to gauge angles in the scene by holding it up to the viewfinder’s opening. He can then mimic the correct angle on his canvas. “They both can be useful, but somehow the viewfinder ingrains the image in my mind better than the photograph does,” says Strickland. “But it’s possible they could be equally helpful. Oftentimes I will use both. It is easier to find angles on a viewfinder.”

“Pounding Surf,” by George Strickland, oil, 12 x 16 in.

The veteran painter says that painters who are just starting out should stick to the veracity of the scene, rather than move elements around. After thousands of starts, that kind of experimentation comes easier. “Get the truth of things,” he says. “Gain the knowledge of what things look like and what looks right and what looks unreal. As you gain skills, you can move things around, subordinate or exaggerate. Where you are in your development determines how freely you can change things from the actual view. My problems when I paint will be different from somebody just starting out. I have worked out where everything’s going to be, what I want to emphasize. I have worked that out in my head, and my experience tells me which way to go with that. If you don’t have that background of experience, it is best to paint what you see. Squint to learn to simplify masses together of similar shapes and values. The simplicity of it is always where we all need to go in a painting. Experience helps you to do that without even thinking about it.”
As a local, does Strickland have any advice for people new to the Sonoran desert? “You need to look down when you walk,” he says. “Go slowly so you are not stepping on a cactus or things that will bite you. Be careful when you back up to see your painting at a distance! Be aware of your surroundings.”
Strickland is a featured instructor at the Plein Air Convention & Expo (PACE), a five-day gathering of more than 800 plein air painters in a resort, featuring artists at the top of the field offering demos, lectures, and instruction. This year’s event will be held April 15-19 at El Conquistador Resort in Tucson. To see the faculty that is lined up for this year’s PACE, and to get more information, go here.


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