En plein air

My Approach to ‘en plein air’

I may arrive in the mid-morning and locate a safe place to put my easel and supplies. My easel is always pointed such that the white paper is in the shade, to save my eyes from the glare of the sun. This may mean that I have to move my head to glance at the scene I wish to paint.

Next, I try to frame the scene in my viewfinder – formed by my hands, by a rectangle cut out from a card board or in the view finder of my camera.

In my sketch book, I make a “thumbnail” sketch considering overall design, dark and light patterns, colour scheme, horizon, perspective and other overall qualities. This process may take quite a while since it involves careful choices and decisions. This task also yields that the painting title and the reason it is painted from this particular perspective.

En pein air sketch

With these preliminaries complete I then sketch the general outlines of the subject with a soft pencil directly on the watercolour paper, carefully identifying the places where I wish to “reserve the white of the paper” as is the custom in watercolour painting. I may start with sky and clouds and distant hills ‘wet-on wet’ and set it aside to dry.

By that point, it may be noon, and a break is appropriate.

In mid afternoon, the sun will have moved, with the shadow patterns shifting accordingly. If I can afford to wait, I choose to paint when the shadows are long and descriptive. Then I paint as quickly as possible to get the proper impression. Even if the shadows continue to shift, I stick with the chosen pattern. I try to get at least 80 percent of the work done in decisive big brush strokes. This should require about one hour of high concentration. Only in the ‘center of interest’ do I paint some necessary details. With this complete I return home to the studio setting.

Back in the studio, I prop the unfinished painting up and study it carefully to find what I need to darken, ‘tighten’ or ‘leave alone’ (in order not to destroy the spontaneous quality, because this after all is what it means to paint ‘en plein air’). Most patrons of my work identify with this spontaneous quality of a painting done outside.