Thursday, September 06, 2007

Working Plein Air - the "before" and the "after"

The development of "Plumbago and Daisies"
photo / sketchbook/ artwork/ artwork matted and framed
all images and text copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Question: How, as a newcomer to working plein air, should you tackle the issues it presents, avoid some obvious problems and make the most of the material you collect while working in this way?

I've been having a conversation with another artist/blogger about working 'en plein air' and commented on the sort of challenges many people face when they start to work like this for the first time. Below are some tips which I've said before - but not quite in this way.

So for this post both subject matter and media are irrelevant as this post is concerned purely with the "before" and the "after" stages of working plein air.

BEFORE working 'en plein air'
  • Leave your paints at home when you start trying to work plein air and start by using a sketchbook.
    • If you are not used to working 'plein air', the visual overload you get when looking for something to paint can mean a few aborted or unsatisfactory efforts. Do not despir! It can take quite a while to "get your eye in". Being able to see what will work as a painting is a lot of work. However as with all things, lots of practice makes it easier to 'see' plein air scenes for what they are.
    • If you find selection and composition to be a bit of a problem, I always recommend using a sketchbook to explore these aspects and to record both what attracts you to a scene and material within it. Using your camera's viewfinder or a card viewfinder can help you to you make initial choices.
    • Lots of people try to get everything into their painting. It's often better to operate in reverse and start with something very simple and straightforward and to then build out from there.
  • Never ever expect the sun/weather to behave. Whatever is in front of you is going to change and look different over the course of the next two hours - you just have to find a way round that.
    • Get a quick sketch down of whatever it was that appealed to you and then keep that in full view as you paint. I normally put my sketchbook down on the grass near my feet where I can see it easily.
    • Take a photograph of the scene you find attractive at the beginning and then again at the end (It’s sometimes really difficult to remember what it looked like when you started).
    • Also photograph in the middle or throughout a sequence of moving shadows. The purpose of this is purely to capture the pattern being made - not the values.
    • make colour notes - name your colours / use pencils or paints to record colours accurately.
  • Decide what time of day it will be in your painting. Skilled plein air painters acquire a skill of being able to see what the view will look like after they've spent time getting set-up, selecting and composing and executing the initial drawing and started to get paint onto support. They're able to predict how and where the shadows will move.
  • Try and position yourself so you won't be baking in the sun halfway through your painting. A very important skill is learning how fast and how far the sun moves at different times of day.
  • Before you start, make sure you think about the relative formats and sizes of photos, sketchbooks and supports for painting. Lots of mistakes get made because people look in one format ("widescreen/no zoom"), photograph in another (6x4; 7x5), sketch in another (A4) and finally paint in yet another (20 x 25"). Personally it took me a while to stop making problems for myself - and I show you an example below.
AFTER working 'en plein air'

Back home, what do you do with what you've produced while working 'en plein air'?
  • Assemble all the material you collected. This should include:
    • Beginning on site: The initial thumbnail exploratory sketch and the photo you took at the beginning and any notes your made
    • End on site: The completed work (developed sketch or plein air drawing/painting) and the photo you took at the end plus any notes you made while working
    • Your impression of the scene. When you work plein air and really study and observe your subject, knowing that you'll have to come back to see it like this again unless you return in the same weather and light conditions you will acquire a memory of the scene like no other. You will never ever get that memory by just taking a photo - or even just by being familiar with the scene. It's the study and observation which leaves an imprint in your brain.
  • Back home/in your studio look at all your sources of material together - thumbnail sketch, plein air work, photos, notes and impression.
    • look at the thumbnail, initial photo and notes - and remember your initial impression - and what appealed to you.
    • then look at your final photo, plein air work and any notes - and decide how much what you produced was what you actually intended or set out to do.
    • evaulate what you did - are the changes you made helpful or not?
    • Work out what you will do differently in future. Maybe working out ways of dealing with specific problems. Monet (see end) used to create his own 'stock' of drawings of boats on the water - because they never stayed in the same position. He then had material work work from in composing finished paintings). One of the issues I found I had to tackle was working with material collected in different formats (for an example see below).
  • You can then use all the sources to produce (possibly) an even better work. Don't chuck! In my experience
    • a studio painting might be better composed and more accurate in the way it is drawn.
    • you have to work very hard to recapture the colours (colour notes are important)
    • it's very difficult to reproduce the spontaneity you get with plein air painting
    • HOWEVER you can get much better studio paintings out of the *&^% plein air works! Something about having the latitude to improve I guess………..
  • Stick a mat around a work. Your work is very often better than you think when you see the image isolated by a mat or a frame. This also helps with crop decisions if that is an option open to you. My guess is that those who work on board or canvas probably make better progress in developing skills around making crop decisions at an earlier stage - and before they start rather than after they've finished - through necessity.
Demonstration: The development of "Plumbago and Daisies"

By way of example, I've gone back to a work I completed in France in 1994. Back then, I was still very much getting to grips with some of the obvious problems which plein air work throws up - but had been using a sketchbook for a few years. In effect, it's when I was still developing skills as a plein air painter - getting better but still with lots of progress to make.

At the top of this post you can see a photo, a pen and ink sketch, a 'finished' work and a framed print. Click on any of the images and they will come up larger - then use the return arrow to get back to the post.

Note that:
  • Photo: It was a very hot and sunny day in the Aveyron region of France and I was sat on a terrace out of the sun. The values on the photo are very 'contrasty' - which is not at all uncommon and is one of the main reasons why value sketches can be so useful. Nowadays, with a digital photo one can 'see' into the shadows better by working with it photoshop or similar. However the July sun is producing big black shapes in this photo that simply weren't there in real life.
  • Sketch:
    • The sketch did not fill both pages. Nor did it conform to the format of pics to be produced by my camera. I hadn't at this stage started to work out dimensions and how they translated between camera/photo format, sketchbook and pastel board.
    • It includes some values - but I'd probably work on this more now.
    • I've made notes down the side. These include notes of colours for all the flowers and pots and identifies where the drawing is incorrect eg seat back and first pot are both too narrow.
  • Artwork: You can see by comparing the photo and the work that I made quite a few mistakes while eyeballing/drawing the chair - and that the chair back was STILL too narrow - but I decided that whatever errors it had the overall effect was much better than could have been achieved through starting over. I developed it a bit more when I got home - mainly strengthening values and correcting some particularly wonky perspective.
  • Framed artwork: The final image is of the print in a suggested frame. This finished pastel painting is staying on my wall! You can see I made a decision to crop the image. I was never quite sure where I wanted the bottom of this picture to be. Given the support I was working on I could do that. People working on a board or a canvas would not.
Finally, I've just done a post about Monet's Sketchbooks over on Travels with a Sketchbook for those interested to know a bit more about how Monet worked!