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Friday, October 1, 2010

Plein Air tips from the trenches

"Silver Basin" study - 8x10" oil on linen

This painting was done on the heli-painting trip Robert Genn and I led in to the Bugaboos this fall. I'll post a better shot of it once I get it photographed properly, but I've had a few questions about my pochade box so I wanted to show it here. It stores two wet panels in the lid, and folds up super compact. Made by Ben Haggett in Montana. Superb quality and design, I ordered mine with a clip on tray instead of the drawer to make it more compact. Mounts on a regular camera tripod.

As promised last post, here is a summary of the key things I learned in my 100 in 100 project:

  • If a scene is particularly complex, have a clear plan about how to simplify it. 
Rule of thumb: Squint to eliminate detail and clarify values. Attempt to reduce the scene to 4 or 5 large abstract shapes and ask if it’s still an interesting design. If not, consider how you can make it stronger.

  • Values must be seen relatively. Getting enough contrast painting outdoors can be difficult. In part this is because when we look in to the shadows our pupils dilate and everything seems at least 2-3 values lighter than if we look at shadow areas RELATIVE to the light. Remember to keep checking everything against each other.
  • Pick something and get painting. Hours can be wasted seeking the perfect design. Our job is to create something interesting from the elements available. More often than not if you just stand still in a place for 5 or 10 minutes, something appears out of what at first seemed uninspiring. See if you can let the painting find you.

  • Choose a star player, and make everything else subordinate no matter how compelling it is. Light on the peaks, sparkling water, backlit forest, sundrenched meadow, gorgeous clouds - sometimes all these things are present and compelling in the same scene, but they can't all be given equal attention or nothing will shine. 
  • When you see something beautiful and you know the light is going to change before you even get it drawn out, try to convince yourself to go for it anyway. The only way to develop visual memory is to practice it. 

If this is the case: Stand quietly in front of the scene for a few moments before painting and burn every vital detail into your brain:
  1. What are the major patterns of light and shadow? 
  2. Is something catching bright light in front of a darker background? Is it cool and blue in the distance / warm and bright in the foreground? Perhaps the opposite of this?
  3. Is the sun lighting up the water and infusing it with colour?
  4. Are clouds or mist moving in front of mountains and catching the light?
 Establish what is essential that is going to change with the light. 
  5. What is captivating you? Once you begin painting, try to get that down first.
  • Choose what you’re going to say and stick with it no matter how many other ideas you are tempted by as the painting unfolds. An exception is if something intriguing happens that will still work within your initial plan - but be wary of changing horses mid-stream.

  • Above all - if you’re getting cranky - try to remember to not take yourself too seriously - ultimately plein air work is about information gathering and exploration of your subject. Know that no matter what winds up on the canvas, every brushstroke you put down with care and attention makes you a better painter. Remember to have fun, and find joy in the very cool act of being outdoors painting life unfolding before you.

I'm currently in Vancouver teaching a couple of Advanced Skills workshops, hope to be able to post while I'm here. Those still in fair weather climes, hope you're getting out there for a blast of late fall plein air, lucky you guys!


    1. Liz, those are excellent tips. Some I hadn't quite thought about in that way. I think I'll actually print these out and carry them with me to remind myself when I'm out painting (my plein air stuff is on my website, my daily paintings tend to be in studio). Have you ever thought of doing a workshop in Ontario? Do you think it could be feasible? Really like "Silver Basin" and look forward to seeing it larger. Cheers.

    2. Congrats on your recent Bold Brush win! Your submission 'Secret Vantage' is a beauty.
      Have a fantastic and successful workshop!

    3. Good tips Liz. I just spent two weeks plein air painting and could have used these tips and more.
      Keep up the good work Liz!

    4. Excellent tips, Liz. I especially like the last two--they are good reminders. What's the point if you're not having any fun! Thank you for sharing.

    5. Thanks you, Liz, for bringing together all of your great tips. I'm going to print it out as well. And the painting on the easel looks wonderful, can't wait to see it up close. Time to get started on those workshop details for next summer in Maine! Looking forward to that very much.

    6. Thanks for sharing these tips. They will be a great help to me as I am preparing for an upcoming plein air workshop. Good luck with all!

    7. I love these tips! Thanks for putting them in writing!

    8. Glad you guys are finding the tips helpful. It was all stuff I'd read in books before, but didn't totally "get" until I'd put a good amount of plein air hours in.

      Happy practicing!

    9. Thanks for all the great tips Liz, you're always reminding me to ask the questions that can be answered in paint. It's good. Congrats on joining Daily Painter Originals.

    10. Good summation of tips. And congratulations on the win. Nice looking painting on the poschade box.

    11. Great tips, Liz. I visit your blog often to study your beautiful works and always come away motivated. Congrats on your newest award.