Not all plein air painting needs to be focused on the landscape. You can set up a still life outside and paint it there. You get all the benefits of painting outdoors: bugs, fatigue, sunburn, wind, and, sometimes, tourists or annoying questions from family members or neighbors, but you don’t have to make much sense of the landscape.
Sometimes you just need a break from that difficult task, the task of figuring out of the landscape before you. The landscape can be quite complicated and full of decisions you need to make very fast.
Try plein air still lifes. In plein air still life painting, you are in the landscape and you are painting something in the landscape, focusing closely in on one thing, a vase of flowers on a table, a basket, tools, whatever. In fact, a still life painted outdoors is a great way to practice plein air in your own back yard.
Do You Feel It?
This began with my wife handing me a branch of lemons from the tree in our back yard. Everything about it was beautiful to me. And I was immediately struck by how fleeting this beauty was. I felt the beauty in my body and that is the kind of feeling I trust.
After hauling out a small table and covering it with a tablecloth, I resisted adding anything at all to the subject. The subject was the branch with lemons. This did not call for a vase, or a plate, or any other object. Just the branch in full sunlight.
A quick wash of burnt sienna was followed by an outline sketch using a small bristle brush and a mixture of phthalo blue and burnt sienna to form a black with depth. The entire painting was brushed in with a thin layer of grays. It was like a loose black and white painting. The lightest lights and the darkest darks were then placed strongly. Everything else must fit in between those two.
Then color was added to the lemons. Mixed up a few yellow, warm, cool, saturated hues and pale hues. Then the leaves, using the same idea, a mix of a few greens. All of these colors painted thicker right over the grays so that the grays were incorporated into the new color, changing it.
In a piece like this, where there are multiples of one thing, picking one as the focus, and another as a secondary focus, makes a better painting. The other objects should be less distinct, slightly out of focus to very out of focus. The eye is drawn to things in focus and sharp edges. The only sharp edges should be in the part of the painting that you have decided is the focus of the painting, in this case the lower left lemon should be the focus though I did not put the other lemons out of focus enough for my taste. Sometimes you see these things too late.
Nevertheless, the overall look of the piece brings the essence of the lemon branch and lemons to the viewer and the use of brightness around the lower left lemon helps the eye to go there. Then the eye may travel right, then up and left again, finally resting back on the lower left lemon.
Not entirely satisfied with the initial results of the painting, I took a Mandatory Deep Breath and considered the situation. Basically, a fine painting with a lot of promise; but not there yet. It needed something.
Remembering my rule of adding multiple colors whenever possible, I began to layer in brush strokes of various colors into the white tablecloth. Doing this turned an ordinary white background in to a vibrant, living texture.
Look at it and you know it is a white cloth, but look closely and you see it is made up of many colors. The brain gets this. The brain loves this and this translates into emotion, and if you are lucky, you have conjure up an emotion somewhat akin to the one you first felt when you were handed the lemons by your loved one in the first place.
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