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John writes this monthly column to help aspiring artists get reliable information and learn basic procedures that are often hard to find in contemporary art curriculums. Each article first appeared in 15 Bytes, an online magazine about the artists of Utah.

The Plein Air Attraction

Reflections on an Artistic Journey

Besides the actual art, what is it about plein air painting that attract so many artists? Most of us would probably agree that it is all about the light, coupled with atmosphere and a certain peace of mind. As I see it, most people are drawn to light; it fills our very beings, when we are out in nature especially. Think for a moment, about one of your fondest memories in the field, and I would bet you have feelings of warmth; of the sun shining on your face, with a soft breeze and calmness in the air. On another level, it’s almost as much a place of mind as it is a physical location. I see my time in the field not only as a way to create artistically, but as a means to commune with nature and find solace in a troubled world. This solace is key to finding peace, and a centeredness that satisfies the artist inside. I think, as a group, plein air painters enjoy the pleasure of the moment, so to speak. We savor our environment on a deeper level than most; it’s who we are. Continue reading “The Plein Air Attraction” »

Preparing to Paint in the Field

Avoiding Plein Air Disasters

Preparation for a painting excursion in the field is essential to having a successful experience. The list of things to remember includes painting gear as well as personal items like clothing and water. Different seasons will dictate a different set of items for the latter. Probably the best thing to do, and something that has saved my bacon out in the field on more than one occasion, is a good check list that you can mark off before leaving the studio. Believe me, this information is coming to you via my own plein air disasters in the past. The old saying that “necessity is the mother of invention” is so true here; the check list is the result of much mental anguish over leaving something important behind.

Let’s face it, we’re artists, not always the most organized folks. We get excited at the possibility of finding the perfect spot to paint and, due to the adrenalin rush and excitement of the moment, often leave something vital back in the studio. Continue reading “Preparing to Paint in the Field” »

Painting Things vs.
Painting the Way Things Look

Fine Art is Beyond Accuracy in Detail

The task of painting in a painterly way is a very different concept from what most people think. For one thing, it is less about “things” being painted, and more about the way light affects these “things.” That is why a typical architectural rendering, though usually correct in detail and scale, is seldom on the level of fine art. Also, painting light effects is just as concerned with how much to leave out of a painting as it is with how much to put in. I often get the question from students — “What about all the details?” — as if that is the most important thing to consider when painting. My usual response is, “If you can paint the scene correctly with regard to how light is affecting the various forms in the painting, the details will take care of themselves.” To the student, details are all those objects that will make their pictures more realistic. The problem with this type of thinking is that these “things” become a sort of parts- list (assembly required) mentality that obscures the real job of the painter. Continue reading “Painting Things vs.<br /> Painting the Way Things Look” »

Chasing the Light

When Rules are Meant to be Broken

Ever since the early eighties, when I began studying plein air painting in a serious way, I have been cautioned not to “chase the light” when painting on location; but as in everything, in art there are no hard rules, only a lot of sound advice based on experience. That experience is passed down to other artists, who sometimes take those gems of thought and enshrine them into so called “rules” that were never meant to be. The old saying, “rules are meant to be broken,” more often than not, is a good rule to follow when approaching the study of painting. In one sense, without the breaking of these “rules,” no real progress is made in artistic expression. After all, it’s the constant pushing against the envelope that spawns new ideas and ways of doing things. Continue reading “Chasing the Light” »

Get Organized

Setting up Plein Air Gear for Success

One thing that keeps coming up over and over in the painting classes I teach is how to set up your plein air gear. Let’s face it, plein air painting has its challenges, which range from heat, cold, bugs, rain, snow to curious onlookers. Couple that with clouds that come and go, creating changing shadows, and you have a situation that is challenging under the best of conditions. My question is, why make the job any harder than it already is? There are things we can’t control, like the afore-mentioned ones, and there are other things that are well within our grasp to control. So, with that in mind, think about organizing your stuff!

The first thing to consider, even before you get to the actual painting gear, is what you are wearing. The old saying, “dress for success,” is certainly true here. Dressing for the weather is a must, if you are going to be comfortable enough to produce a competent painting on location. In winter this might mean boots and long-johns, along with all the other clothing items. Dressing in layers is usually the smart move, since weather conditions can and will change even in the time it takes to paint your subject. Along with clothing, items like sunscreen and bug dope are a must. Out of all the painting challenges I have faced over the years, the one that was the most serious was the mosquitoes and no-seeums up in Alaska. I remember being so miserable on a couple of those paintings that I couldn’t even think straight, let alone get anything meaningful down on canvas. When all else fails, a head net might be just the thing to get you through the day. Continue reading “Get Organized” »

The Value of Study

Prepatory Work in the Studio

When painting outdoors, the freedom of expression and immediacy of the process in a plein air study makes it a true joy. It’s a thrill to be out there responding to visual realities on an emotional level. This is the one time when your years of study truly come into play on an instinctive level. In a sense you forget everything you have learned and just respond in an intuitive way hoping the things you have learned will be manifest through your unconscious mind.

Truth is, the reliance you have on the unconscious process is no accident and the ability you have to instinctively put marks on the canvas in a meaningful way is very much guided by your years of study and experimentation, or, if you are just starting out, will be someday.

This brings up the real intent of this month’s column, “the value of study.” While the field study may be pure joy, the larger studio painting can evoke the same sort of emotional reaction, but with a twist. Since the studio affords us the luxury of time, it’s well worth the effort to spend a bit of that extra time in some meaningful study of your subject. Continue reading “The Value of Study” »

Painting Outside the Lines

Using Massing to Break Childhood Habits

Most of us had our first experience with art through coloring books filled with line drawings. Next in our progression came the obvious tool of convenient necessity, the pencil (a wonderful medium, and, in the hands of a master, a true thing of beauty). Pencil drawing lends itself to working in a linear fashion but can also be used as shaded technique, which more closely mimics the concepts found in painting. From there, most of us were exposed to tempera paint and water color in elementary school and jr. high. By high school it was on to vine charcoal and if you were lucky enough, acrylics and oil. But one of the biggest hurdles when one finally learns to paint is the tendency to revert to our childhood and see the visual world as a series of objects surrounded by lines. Continue reading “Painting Outside the Lines” »

Snow Painting

Preparing for the Delights and Challenges
of Winter Painting

For a landscape painter one of the joys of winter is the exhilarating experience of painting a snow scene in the open air. The excitement of a snow painting is just as much a visual experience as it is about braving the weather. Of course the extreme conditions of winter painting pose a unique set of challenges, but since snow can transform an otherwise mundane subject into something special, it’s well worth the effort.

Before venturing out the snow painter would do well to make sure they are prepared for the worst. The following items are ones I have found useful in adverse winter conditions.

Staying warm is crucial so dressing in layers is a must. A coat with a hood is helpful when the wind blows as well as a hat with a brim to protect your eyes from the sun. Continue reading “Snow Painting” »

Getting the Right Angle

Understanding Angles and Their Consequent Values in the Landscape

Understanding angles and the values they create is a must for landscape painters, as well as painters of any subject.

To understand angles we have to first discuss “planes,” which in painting generally means a somewhat imaginary flat surface based on reality that simplifies the undulations of forms in the subject. Planes determine the angle at which those forms receive light. Planes have a dual meaning in landscape, (referring also to foreground, middle ground and distance), but for our purposes we will discuss the “angled plane.”

Some planes are perpendicular to a light source and therefore receive light directly, which tends to make those planes light in value. Other planes receive light at an angle to the light source. These planes receive light only indirectly and thus are darker than the plane that receives light straight on. Continue reading “Getting the Right Angle” »

Plein Air Situations

Dos and Don'ts for Beginners, and a Painting-day Travelogue

This month I would like to talk about painting outdoors and two different types of situations for plein air artists to try. First of all, painting with a group of friends: it’s a good thing to do, the camaraderie alone is usually worth the trip out into the field. Then there is the added benefit of getting a different perspective on painting from other accomplished artists. I don’t care how seasoned you are as an artist, you can always benefit by seeing how someone else approaches painting, because it's always different from what you are doing and helps to shake things up a bit. These little tidbits that you pick up along the way go into the ever evolving artist that you are. Groups like this are good to join if you can get an invite. Even if you are not friends with artists in the group when you start out, you soon will be, because it’s just the nature of things when you have a lot in common with others. One word of caution for beginners, though: it’s one thing to go along with a group of artists and pick up ideas, but an entirely different thing to go along expecting a lesson. Continue reading “Plein Air Situations” »

Understanding Shadows

The Character of Shadows is Illusive

Because of their ability to create beauty and form, the illusive character of shadows must be observed and understood by the successful landscape painter. Shadows, it could be said, are the essence of form. Without them a landscape is reduced to flat masses, lacking in much interest and excitement.

The first consideration when setting up to paint a shadow is its general shape. These are determined by the shape of the object causing them. In the landscape this can be anything from trees, shrubs, hills, mountains, roads, riverbanks and a million other things. The shape of a shadow is principally a matter of observation and drawing.

A much trickier matter is the issue of value and color in shadows, which can be caused by various factors. The strength and quality of the light on a particular day, the amount of moisture, dust and pollution in the air, the color of the sky, the local color of the object itself and the colors in the adjacent area surrounding the shadow all play a vital role in the shadow’s color and value. Continue reading “Understanding Shadows” »

Loosening Up

A Pep Talk for Artists Struggling With Confident Brushwork

If you are like me and you love paintings that tug at your heartstrings with juicy direct brushwork then you will undoubtedly like what you are about to read. Loosening up isn’t for everyone, but done right it can have an astounding effect. If your goal is a tight rendering and a photographic depiction, then you don’t need to loosen up at all. But if your aim is to represent your vision of a subject in a painterly fashion with feeling and strong brushwork, read on!

A loosely painted subject that is done with confidence and know-how, is a beautiful sight to behold. Think of the works of Rembrandt, Franz Halls, Sargent, and Sorolla, or, more recently, Clyde Aspevig, Matt Smith, Dan McCaw, and Zang Win Xing. Their works ooze with feeling, drip with the visual rapture of a single brushstroke that “says it all.” Continue reading “Loosening Up” »

Details in a Scene

Avoiding the Detail Stumbling Block

Probably the biggest challenge in learning to paint plein air landscapes well is dealing with the confusion presented by the details of the scene. The first thing an artist usually notices about a subject, details can turn into a stumbling block when they become the focus of a painting.

I have seen more paintings come to ruin over the inclusion of too many details than for just about any other reason. Usually the problem arises from putting the details in before the underlying structure is in place. Remember this, no matter how well the details of a scene are painted, they will always fall short if the preliminary work with regard to form, value and color is not in place and painted correctly. There is nothing wrong with detail in and of itself; it’s when an artist becomes blinded to the actual underlying structure of the motif that details become a problem. Continue reading “Details in a Scene” »

The Plein Air Painting Approach

Going on Location

When going on location to paint en plein air, there are several things to keep in mind. First and foremost is your reason for being there, which will modify your approach and results to a certain degree. The thing you should settle on right away is your purpose that particular day. That purpose could be any of the following: 1) To do a study of nature, or a small slice of nature, to learn how light affects various forms outdoors; 2) Capture a certain light effect in a rapidly changing weather pattern; 3) Create a small study of a particular scene for future reference back in the studio or 4) Do a painting that will most likely wind up on the wall of a gallery for sale. Continue reading “The Plein Air Painting Approach” »

Craft and Commentary

What We as Artists Say, and How We Say it

Normally I focus my remarks on the painting process, but today I would like to take a moment and wax poetic on the subject of painting in a more general sense. I am mainly directing this commentary to young aspiring artists who are trying to find themselves artistically. That journey can be a long one and involves discovering both how to paint and why we paint.

In many institutions today it seems concept has so eclipsed craft that the visual arts are more about commentary than aesthetics. For me, the role of commentary is commentary; and commentary can be about art; but I’m not generally thrilled about art as commentary. My question really comes down to, what are we artists trying to say with our work, and is the message more important than the execution? Some artists feel the need to use their creative output to make a statement that causes other people to think; this approach sometimes makes me wonder if there is a shortage of newspapers. Continue reading “Craft and Commentary” »

Seeing Shapes, Values & Colors

Painting in Terms of What You see

The title here says it all. If an artist can distill visual realities down to a few simple shapes of value and color he/she will finally begin to understand the painting process.

Try this sometime (at first it will feel a little strange and a little unsettling, but the rewards of this approach to painting will pay big dividends in the long run): start by just looking at your subject in terms of colors, values and shapes. Look for positive and negative shapes as well and put them down on canvas in their approximate locations. When in doubt of an exact color just assign an approximation; exactness in color is not as important as overall color harmony anyway. The most important thing to remember is not to view the subject as the object you are depicting, but instead, just a series of abstract shapes, colors and values. Resist the temptation to paint “things” for as long as possible and only think in terms of what the object is toward the end of the painting process. Continue reading “Seeing Shapes, Values & Colors” »

Composition and Design

Composition (and design) has been — with the possible exception of color — the topic of more theories than any other aspect of painting. It has been studied, discussed, written about, theorized, pontificated on, and generally beaten to death for centuries by artists, art historians, critics and experts of all varieties. Unfortunately and understandably, a lot of what has been said has been confusing and sometimes even contradictory. The reason for this is plain: humans are involved!

Much of what we hear about composition results from opinions based on conventions that people have come up with over the centuries. One thing to remember about these conventions is, what looks “right” in one era, or culture might not in another. Continue reading “Composition and Design” »

Choosing a Paint Box

Paint boxes come in a lot of shapes and sizes. They have been around for a long time and over the years innovations and improvements have been made to make the job of the plein air painter more practical and enjoyable.
Let’s start with the basic box, usually in 12×16 and 16×20 sizes, with a lid containing slots for panels. With the smaller size, the artist would typically sit out in the field on a stool with the box handle fastened to a belt or rope around the waist and paint away. (Not exactly the most convenient way to work, but it got the job done). The alternative was to mount the canvas or panel on an easel, which would require the painter to bend down to the ground whenever a tube of paint or tool was needed.|1|

This situation was remedied by further innovation in the form of the Gloucester or Anderson Easel, a good wide based set-up that can more than handle the task and is still in use today.|2| It was designed to accommodate the 16×20 box that was then mounted on the easel. This eliminated the need of constant bending and the accompanying back problems. This particular configuration was used in New England quite a bit, which enabled artists, like Edward Redfield, Aldro Hibbard, Anthony Thieme, Emile Gruppe’, to execute larger paintings in the field while standing. Continue reading “Choosing a Paint Box” »

Fear of Failure

Overcoming a Painter's Most Debilitating Emotion

One of the most debilitating emotions for a painter is the fear of failure. Whatever form it comes in — fear of starting a canvas, fear of ruining what was initially put down on the canvas (causing one to protect what’s there) or fear of finishing a painting — this emotion is one the artist absolutely needs to overcome.

Fear has its root in the various life experiences of each artist, and the reasons vary, but the net effect is a state of creative inertia that keeps one from achieving a satisfactory result in the painting process. Knowing this, each artist must discover for him/herself a personal solution to the problem. Continue reading “Fear of Failure” »

Setting Up Outdoor Gear

10 Things to Remember When Painting On Location

One of the beauties of painting on location is the excitement of being out in nature, capturing a fleeting moment that will never come again in exactly the same way.

There are days when the light is near perfect, the air is clear with the aroma of fallen leaves and the artist savors it, in a reverie of pure enjoyment. Those are the days that memories are made of. Looking back, one can get lost in the moment, re-experiencing a dream-like time when life seemed to stand still. Of course, there are those “other days,” you know, those days when the air is not so clear, the cold is bitter, or the mosquitoes are out in droves and you can’t seem to concentrate due to all of the distractions! Sure, life isn’t perfect and there are situations like these that just have to be dealt with. Preparation is usually the key. Continue reading “Setting Up Outdoor Gear” »

Deceptive Visuals

Seeing Colors and Values with the Eye and Mind

You have heard about something being deceptively simple, but how about simply deceptive? That is the topic of today’s discussion. In this case we are speaking of colors and values that are deceptive. And why are they deceptive? The answer lies in the way we perceive information, process it, categorize and understand it, all in the blink of an eye.

For one thing, the mind is slower than the eye in a sense, but the eye takes most of its direction from the mind. In slight of hand card tricks the magician relies on the mind of the viewer to supply wrong information based on past visual experience. In the same way, colors and values can be deceptive because the mind is ready to supply the wrong conclusions based on our past visual memory. Continue reading “Deceptive Visuals” »