Grace en Plein Air
For me, plein air painting is the most challenging way to paint, and the rewards are even better! When I’m in open air standing in front of the live model—feeling the warm breeze of the summer air, hearing the sounds of nature—it is a moment in time that I’m capturing and want to share with you, the viewer. Also, if painting a model in a landscape isn’t hard enough, there can be flies, the clouds going in and out, perhaps rain, snow and the challenges go on and on; they are all worth it. Each time, there are learning experiences that are so valuable, and you can only get them by experiencing it.
I took time to set up my daughter Grace outside in a pose that I thought was interesting. I made sure I loved the way the light was hitting her and that she was comfortable. The pose is one of the most important parts of painting people outdoors for me. Next, I chose a lightcolored cloth to put behind her and draped it over the clothesline. When arranging the flowers around her, I again took care to find the pattern, colors and values that helped to create the painting in my mind and would be great to paint.
Before I began painting, I thought about how I was going to paint this, what this painting is about and how I’m going to relay my message to the viewer in my artwork with paint. I have four tools I am using: values, drawing, color and edges. I start by finding my lightest light, darkest dark, softest edge and sharpest edge. Squinting is a great way to find these things and simplify what is in front of me. It also eliminates unnecessary detail and groups the values into manageable shapes and patterns.
STAGE 1: I began with laying a cool, light value over the entire board. Doing this tones down the white and helps in determining my other values. The light is filtered through the white sheets and is relatively cooler than the areas in shadow. I put a flesh tone down loosely without committing to where the edges of her head would be and keeping the edges soft.
I put my darkest value, the hair, in next so I could use it to compare and determine the values in her face. I blocked in the eye sockets, being careful not to get into any detail, and constantly compared everything I put down on the board to everything that’s already there, asking helpful questions like:
• Is it lighter or darker?
• Is the color more red, more blue or
• What about the edge? is it softer or harder? I look for a great shape, like a triangle or a color that is easy to see and put on the canvas, and sometimes the color is right out of the tube. These things help to get the not-so-easy things because you have all the correct things to compare it to. Asking questions will help you paint faster because you’ll get it right the first time and won’t be wasting time correcting things.
STAGE 2: I’m getting the shapes of the eye sockets and placing the eyebrows, nose and mouth with no detail, opening my eyes to see color but squinting for value shapes and edges. The edges are very soft in the face, and I need to keep them that way. You can see here how adding a little more color to the background and the hair softens the edges. I’m thinking two dimensionally. It’s very important to paint the background in along with the head. I’m thinking about one shape and color meeting another shape and color. Each have a color, value, shape and edge.
STAGE 3: You can see the large rectangular shadow shape from the head and neck angled to the left, and now it’s easy to see a triangular shape next to it on the right side of her neck which is in the light. The edge where they meet is soft, but look at the edge where the chin meets the neck; it’s a harder edge than that, but softer than the edge on the opposite side of that triangle. Do you see how comparing every stroke to what is already there is so helpful? It gets easier with every correct stroke because you have more correct things to compare the next shape to.
STAGE 4: The hydrangeas were so much fun! The subtle colors of green, yellow and pink were gorgeous. I really had to squint to get the larger shapes and simplify all that was going on in there. I didn’t want to put too much attention on them; I wanted the attention to be on the figure. The light background made it easier to create those soft edges. Remember in the beginning, I took time before I started this painting for the entire setup! It really helps. Then I painted a few of the green leaves and with a paper towel, gently wiping them out. The result is the suggestion of the leaves without painting every leaf, and look at those edges!
STAGE 5: This painting took multiple days to complete. When the light changed, I would stop for the day and resume the next day or on a day with similar light. When Grace couldn’t pose, I stuffed her dress with clothes and set it up in the chair as close to her pose as I could get. That allowed me to still work on the painting as if she were there; I just couldn’t work on the head. When she was hot, I got a bucket of cold water for her feet and a cold towel on her back. When the dog ate the plant, I got another one. There are many challenges with plein air painting. However, I’m up for those challenges because the results are like nothing else!
STAGE 6: Placing an actual leaf on my painting is a great way to see if what I’m trying to do will work without worrying about having to wipe it out if it doesn’t. Anything goes (almost anything) when you’re painting. If it helps get to your vision, I’m all for it!
STAGE 7: Final painting: Grace en Plein Air, oil, 20 x 24" (51 x 61 cm). When I brought the painting inside I could see it needed a few touches. The hair around the outside needed to be softened, but the paint was pretty dry by this time. In order to achieve the same beautiful soft edges that I had done before,
I had to paint wet into wet. I repainted the area of the background where the hair was and then repainted the hair over it. I checked the overall painting for any hard edges that should be softened or soft edges that should be hardened, as well as anything else that stood out that shouldn’t. Turning the painting upside down and looking at it in the mirror also helps to see if any adjustments are needed and where.