Construct a successful plein air painting from the ground up in three basic steps, laying the foundation, nailing down the look, and finishing it up. Each step includes many important smaller tasks, of course, so finishing one step at a time, physically and mentally, puts the odds in your favor. Here they are in brief…
1. Laying the Foundation
Building your painting starts with the selection of your subject. Find something in the landscape that draws your attention. Use a viewfinder to find compositions if needed. After you find your subject, take a few minutes to ask yourself these five questions:
- Do I see myself being successful with this subject or, honestly, is it simply too difficult?
- Is the composition strong and clear enough?
- What is the center of focus in this composition?
- Where is the light coming from?
- Is there anything I can or should leave out?
Now, pull out your sketchbook and do at least one quick thumbnail drawing. Break the scene down into simple shapes and lines. Note the values using your pencil or charcoal. If needed, use a monochromatic viewer to check the values.
Once you’ve asked these questions and made your sketches, it’s time to set up your easel, check your gear and supplies, and get ready to put some paint on canvas.
Tone your canvas with a wash of burnt sienna or any color(s) you prefer, and then, referring to the scene before you and to your thumbnail sketch, sketch in your composition onto the canvas with a burnt sienna or chromatic black using a small brush. Sketch it in quickly as an outline and do not pause for details. You have now completed the foundation step.
2. Nailing Down the Look
You’ve built your foundation well and now it’s time to create the basic look of the painting. This is the “lean” part of the fat over lean process. With your thin paint, create a value study in grays. This is called a grisaille. Some artists choose to do the value study in burnt siennas, a brunaille. Paint directly into the outline on the canvas. Put the paint on very thinly at this point using warm grays and cool grays. Adjust the values until you have what amounts to a black and white (and grays) version of the scene.
Start adding in your color, again thinly. Block in the major colors first. Remember, this is still the lean part of the painting. You are establishing the look of the painting, not finishing the painting. Double-check colors and values. Make adjustments. What you want to end up with at the end of this phase is what looks like a finished painting…from a distance. In other words, if you step back several feet, the painting ought to look finished in terms of values and colors.However it is not finished yet because you have not laid in the thicker, fatter paint. That comes next.
3. Finishing the Painting
Now comes the fun part and the part that takes all of your hard work to a brilliant conclusion. Take a Mandatory Deep Breath, step back, walk away for a few minutes, eat a sandwich, get a cup of coffee. In short, take a break for a bit. You want to be refreshed for the final run to the finish.
Now start matching the colors on your canvas, the lean ones, with a thicker, juicer version and start laying in that color. Make slight variations on the color. For example, if the lean is an orange, mix up a matching orange thicker, and a thicker version of the orange slightly cooler, and one slightly warmer. Lay those three fatter colors over the lean orange. Make sure you are juxtaposing colors, not just laying one over the other. You are looking for variety. It will begin to vibrate with life this way. Follow this mixing and matching all over the painting for each color area. What in the lean painting was simply a blue sky will now be a sky with many subtle variations in blue.
Create delicious brushwork and interesting textures. Your brushwork is crucial to an interesting painting when it is viewed up close. Brushwork is part of the finishing process. Make it look delicious to you and it will to others.
Now we come to the final stretch. You’ve laid in lots of thick paint, you’ve worked on your brushwork, creating a delicious surface and an interesting painting up close. Now step back and see if the focus of your painting has remained the focus. Adjust your brushwork, values, and color to bring the focus into sharp focus and to soften the focus on everything else. The easiest way to do this is to soften the brush strokes that are other than the focus and at the same time sharpen the edges in the center of your focus.
Add some final sharp details to your focus and a few sparkles here and there throughout the painting, step back one more time, then, if all looks great, go in for the signature.
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