Painting on location
Suzie Baker, "Twinkle Lights," 12 x 12 in., oil on linen panel, 2017. I painted this in Door County, WI as part of the Door County Plein Air Invitational. The particular location of this charming allyway was in Fish Creek. All the 30 plus invited artists were painting in the area of Fish Creek for an evening Sunset & Nocturne Paint Out.

In this artist Q&A, Suzie Baker explains her process for painting on location, from “the big idea,” to color, to how to assess a finished work.

Representational, painterly, impressionistic, and inspiring — these are all perfect ways to describe Suzie Baker’s paintings. Yet what matters most to the artist is recording her response to her subjects in a fresh, direct way.

Whether she’s painting a lush landscape on location, creating an evocative still life in the studio, or completing a commissioned portrait, Suzie paints with a loose, alla prima technique that is always evolving as she experiments with new approaches.

What does a scene need for you to want to paint it?

Suzie Baker: A scene needs to have something that stops me and piques my interest. When I have that moment of inspiration, I ask myself what stopped me, what is my “big idea.” The light? The arrangement of shapes? The mood? The harmony of color? The story of the scene? I want to ask myself that question first so that the idea, or motif, of the painting, is supported by everything that follows that first moment of inspiration through to the last stroke.

Painting on location
Suzie Baker, “Alpenglow,” 12 x 9 in., oil on linen panel, 2017. Winner of First Place/Artist Choice in the 2017 Telluride Plein Air Festival.

You work both en plein air and in your studio. How do the two inform each other? 

Early on, I much preferred my plein air work. The best of those paintings were fresh and responsive and loose, with a feeling of confidence in the execution. Then I would get into the studio, and that free-flowing look that came from painting from life got all constipated. Ugh! Recognizing this problem was my first step to fixing the problem.

Ironically, working larger outdoors, over multiple sessions, has helped this dilemma. Meaning, thinking of my plein air work as studio work has helped me treat my studio work more like plein air work. One informs the other. I remind myself to think and plan while in the field when time is scarce, and I’m tempted to jump in all willy-nilly and to paint quickly and responsively in the studio when time is expansive and I’m tempted to overwork a painting.

Could you walk us through your process?

As I mentioned above, the inspiration, or “big idea,” has got to come first. Starting a painting before my concept is firm almost always ends tragically or, on the bright side, with a nicely toned canvas from a wiped-out painting.

After the idea, I work out my design. If the design or drawing is complicated, I will do a sketchbook drawing to avoid making mistakes on the canvas.

The tone comes next. I think of my tone as setting the stage for everything that follows, and I base my choice of tone on how I want it to support the inspiration of the painting — sometimes that means no tone at all. Next, I work big shape to little shape, general to specific, big brush to little brush.

Painting on location
Suzie Baker, “Orient Santa Fe Line,” 12 x 16 in., oil on linen panel, 2017. Painted from images and a study in my studio after the EnPleinAir Texas event. This historic line of train cars sits at the Railway Museum on the site of the original Orient/Santa Fe Depot built by the KCM&O in 1910.

What kind of decisions do you need to have made before you begin a painting?

I need to have the main idea, the design, and the paint colors I intend to use settled before I lay the first stroke. I still allow myself the freedom to diverge from these parameters as I paint.

When you’re thinking about color in a painting, what decisions do you make about color before you get started?

Sometimes I paint with lots of colors on my palette. Sometimes I intentionally limit my palette to ensure color harmony. I let the scene and my “big idea” dictate my color choices. Sometimes I like to play with limited colors too — a red, a blue, a yellow, plus white, and see what they can do.

The more I paint, the more I know there is to learn. I hope I have 40 more years to paint. There is so much left to learn!

Suzie Baker, "Travelall," 12 x 12 in., oil on linen panel, 2016
Suzie Baker, “Travelall,” 12 x 12 in., oil on linen panel, 2016

What’s the biggest challenge you see your students facing with color?

Let me sneak up on this answer by saying that the first general problem I see students struggling with is lack of drawing ability. Drawing is foundational and not easily covered in the scope of a painting video or workshop. Inaccurate drawing squelches confidence as you proceed through a painting.

I found a book, “Sketching from Square One to Trafalgar Square” by Richard E. Scott*. Richard gives instructions on how to observe and draw from life in a systematic and easily digestible way. I’m so glad to have found this book, and I now recommend it to students. Having a good drawing foundation in place before watching a lot of videos and taking workshops is one of the best ways to get the most out of a video or workshop experience. As a bonus, drawing naturally builds a good understanding of value (how light or dark something is), which is an important concept to grasp as it relates to color, and probably the second most common problem I see students struggling with.

How do you assess a painting once it’s finished? 

Even after I feel like I am “done” with a painting, I will look at it again away from the scene. Sometimes I am bossed around too much by reality and need to make decisions that are right for the painting but not necessarily accurate to life. Knowing this, I will give the painting one more pass, looking to resolve design problems and finding issues that I just couldn’t see until I had some time away from the initial execution.

Suzie Baker, "Still Waters," 10 x 30 in., oil on linen panel, 2018
Suzie Baker, “Still Waters,” 10 x 30 in., oil on linen panel, 2018. I used five colors, plus white to paint this studio piece: Transparent Earth Red, Phthalo Blue, Cobalt Blue and Indian Yellow. A limited palette allows me to maintain color harmony and more easily remix matching color.

Learn more about how Suzie Baker works when you check out her video “Color Magic for Stronger Paintings.”

Here is just a glimpse at what else Suzie is going to reveal in this video:

Analyze and mix colors like a pro — goodbye pain, hello pleasure!
> How to bring realistic glowing light into your paintings
> How to make informed decisions about pushing the color of objects — not nearly as tough as it seems
> How to prepare your canvas in advance and why it’s just like wearing Spanx™! (You’ll love this truth bomb!)
Learn more about “Color Magic for Stronger Paintings” here!

*Plein Air Today covers artists and products we think you’ll love. Linked products are independently selected and linked to for your convenience. If you buy something using a link on this page, Streamline Publishing may receive a small share of that sale.

Related: PleinAir Art Podcast Episode 92: Suzie Baker


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