Staying With the Original Concept
Sooner or later every plein air painter is going to face a situation out in the field when the weather changes right in the middle of the study. This actually happens a lot, so you might as well get used to the idea and come up with a plan for when it does.
It’s sort of like working in a figure drawing class when the model has to take a break. I always found that frustrating in college, because I wanted to keep on working until I got done with the sketch. I remember the instructor would always say that we should stop drawing or painting until the model returned. Then we would have to go through the old ritual of finding the same pose again, line up the feet on the tape marks, wait until everyone was satisfied with the pose and get into it again for the umpteenth time. If it were up to me I would have super-glued the model to the chair and pushed on until the end of class (lucky for the models I wasn’t in charge!). I guess, in a way, my temperament was never right for that sort of thing and I naturally gravitated to the landscape. Of course that didn’t totally solve the problem and in some ways it’s even worse out there. At least in the classroom or studio you have consistent light to work with.
Be that as it may, I have learned to deal with the situation of changing light out in the field by doing several things, all involving either speed of execution or a course correction of some kind. I think all of those gesture drawing exercises, where we had to do a complete sketch in 30 seconds, then work our way up to an hour pose, paid off in the long run and is now helpful in the field. It is possible to do a complete painting in 15 minutes or a half hour; one merely has to pop in color notes and general shapes on a very small canvas, like a 6×8, with gusto! While these types of studies are not super-finished they do provide some color and value information that can be used to good effect back in the studio at a later date in conjunction with a photograph or two.
There is another procedure that works quite well and one I had to employ at a recent Plein Air Painters of Utah field excursion. This one involved getting down as much information as possible at a leisurely pace, taking a few photos while the light was the same and stopping work during the weather change. I could see that the conditions were changing rapidly and knew that I would only have a short time to get some finish on the canvas, about two thirds of the way through the painting. I decided to work in a finished manner without a “large mass block in” and just finish as I went. When the storm came through I packed up my gear and waited it out with the plan to return after it passed. As it happened, it didn’t pass for about three hours and by the time I got the view back the lighting effect had gone also. Oh well, the model stood up and left the room, nothing I hadn’t seen happen before — but I had got enough information that it made the experience all worthwhile. Besides, I was out painting with friends and that made the day enjoyable even if I didn’t finish the piece.
Years ago I had the good fortune of going down into the desert with painting buddy Dick Heichberger and spending some time with Don Miles, Carl Albert and Darwin Duncan at one of their yearly get togethers near Palm Springs. It was thrilling to hear Carl and Darwin talk about how they had gone out painting many years before with the likes of Edgar Payne. Don also had some stories of his time working with Sam Hyde Harris. I recall that Carl Albert started a painting, probably a 20×24 size of some sage brush and mountains; he only completed a portion of it and decided that he had enough information to go back into the studio to finish it. I remember being impressed with this approach and the casual way that he executed the painting, putting washes of abstract shapes down until he was satisfied that he had accomplished his goal for the morning. At that time I always felt like I had to rush to the finish line and come away with a completed study in a 1 and ½ hour time span. These guys never seemed to be in a rush and would plod along on their paintings for however long it took. If the shadows changed they were able to stay with the original concept because they got all the important shadows down in the preliminary wash. The bottom line here is, that it is not necessary to get a finished painting out there every time you venture into the field; sometimes that works out and you hit all the green lights all the way across town, but the next time it’s all red for miles. Pacing yourself, getting good information in the time allotment and simply starting a new piece when the storm hits may be your best bet. Sometimes the model just needs a break and so do you, it’s all part of the process, so just let it happen.