If you’ve ever felt nervous when settling into a plein air event, you’ll appreciate this story of how “Corner at the Plaza” came to be.
By Terry Miura
“Corner at the Plaza” was the first painting I did during last year’s Sonoma Plein Air Festival. After checking in for the event and saying hello to fellow painters, it was time to get to work.
When I participate in plein air events like this, I try not to drive around too much on the first day. I feel like I have stage fright and I just have to get something on my canvas as quickly as possible. If I get in my car and start driving in search of the perfect view, I grow more and more anxious and pretty soon, I’m cursing “there’s nothing to paint!” After all these years and countless plein air events under my belt, the first painting still makes me uncomfortably nervous. Knowing that there are so many great painters in the event probably doing amazing things while I’m dealing with my nerves doesn’t help, either.
So my M.O. for getting over the jitters is to just plop down my easel wherever I am, and start painting whatever is there. In this instance, the subject was the corner building at the Sonoma Plaza. I didn’t expect to do a “keeper” – rather, I just wanted to get myself warmed up and get into gear, so to speak. It just had to be an OK sketch.
To be sure, this building has been painted many times by many artists. It boasts an iconic octagonal domed cupola which is hard to resist. But resist I did, for the very reason that it has been painted too many times.
I was actually more interested in the light and atmospheric effects created by the backlighting. It was mid-morning, and facing east, I was looking right into the sun. Backlighting simplifies the shapes and the value structure, which I thought would help me get the job done with fewer issues. The view looks complex, but once I reduced hard-to-paint elements like the cars to just two values, they were not so intimidating.
The simplified shapes have to be accurately drawn, but beyond that, the amplified atmospheric effect allowed me to push paint around without worrying about details. I also didn’t want to get too tricky with colors, so I maintained more-or-less a monochromatic structure, and added a few local colors to make it seem not so monotonous. I think these simplifying strategies worked pretty well, and I was able to finish this up pretty quickly. And more importantly, I got over my first-painting jitters and had a great time painting the rest of the week!