Too many people avoid painting a big canvas when doing plein air work. Don’t miss the fun! The seven foot canvas is one of my favorite things— makes my blood race. I feel I am in jeopardy every stroke of the way. You need to know you are not safe.
Here are the rules
- Take care of yourself. This means hat, long sleeves even if you think that makes you hot, or if you must do short sleeves and shorts, grease yourself to whiteness with sun screen. Jug of water. gloves. (I’m bare-handed in the photo because I’m sketching in schoolroom chalk, but the moment the paints come out, so will the nitrile gloves. Sweat will fill those gloves— it’s uncomfortable and you’ll need to change out every so often when they get too full of sweat. Sweat will run down your fore-arms. Yuck. But the amount of sweat is your warning to drink, because the sweat on your body is being constantly dried away by the wind and sun and your clothes wicking it from your skin.
- Be bold. Commit to the canvas as a whole— the broad sweep of the land must be caught on your canvas. Don’t mire down in detail, or some cute corner that charms you. Cute is the enemy of good work. Remember to get the shadows sketched in as though they were ‘things’ they are part of your essential composition and matter as much as any rock or hill.
- Stop when you have the sketch. Look at the shapes the canvas has been divided into. Are they good shapes? Do all of them hold your interest? Do they ‘talk’ to each other across the extent of the canvas? You are looking for power in this sketch. Settle for nothing less.
- Don’t stop. Many people will say you need to step back from your work to assess how it goes. I have two answers to that. One is a 3/4” wide brush on the end of a three foot stick. Duct tape is your friend. After the chalk sketch I take brilliant Indian Yellow or a Quinacridone Coral, with turpentine to loosen it, and sketch using this extended brush arrangement. Because the length of handle allows it, I can truly see what I’m doing in terms of the entire composition. Second, too many stops to look and edit what you do, make for a stutter in expression, tentativeness. These things won’t help you cover the territory. Consider my number two. Commit. Lay down paint, rich thick paint. Once you have serious paint going down, put off stepping back and thinking too much. Let the brush work, let your hands do the thinking. Only step back every half hour or hour to see what’s happening. Sometimes I hardly look until I’ve been at it for hours and have a third of the big canvas covered.
- Get lots of rich buttery hues on your palette. Don’t water it down, don’t over-mix. Over-mixing physically breaks down the brilliance and purity of the paint. Fiddling about trying to get the color exactly right has two things going against it— first it doesn’t matter, only the value matters.. Two, it can’t be done within the context of dashing at a plein air work. The colors of real things are too complex for a batch of paints in tubes to match. Don’t ‘scrub’ paint thin on the canvas or board. You have no time for approximations— the world is changing. There are few common experiences other than painting en plein air that force you to realize as keenly that the world is turning. Slap down the pigments, keep the colors clean. This is the stage where I break brushes. This is why I buy cheap brushes.
- KEEP YOUR MEDIUM CLEAN. I’m sorry I shouted, but I can hardly emphasize this one too much. This is your one chance to get the colors pure and strong. Overpainting later never can recreate the clarity. You will never have good colors if you wash your brushes in your medium. So what to do with a dirty brush? Either set it aside for when you will need that color again, or dip it in turps and scrub clean it on paper or rag, re-dipping in turps as needed. Turps are for underpainting and cleaning brushes. Medium is for painting and glazing. Do not wudgle the rag or paper up and do not litter. Flatten the soaked dirty piece out to dry and put a rock on one corner. Later you will take these bits home and dry then thoroughly outside before discarding. These are the materials that spontaneously combust and are the reason why studio fires are a thing.
- Think about value. Not money values, but the blackness and whiteness of the landscape. Try to imagine you are mentally photographing the land using black and white film, and you will see the values then. You want to have a sense of how dark or light regardless of what color your shapes of landscape are. If you are in doubt, turn your canvas upside down and see if the composition works in the imagined black and white ‘translation’ in your mind. We humans see predominantly in value tones — know that a painting that works across the span as a black and white will be a successful one. The range of color blindness in human beings is amazing, it is more likely than not that we are all seeing something different when we talk about color. Color is trivial.
- That said, paint boldly, using bright light colors. You think of the pigment white as very full of light, it’s the most so of all your paints. Light as white may be, hold it up against the sky or better yet, the brilliance of reflected light on a straw on the ground and you will see that what you have on your brush is muddy and dull by comparison. You cannot paint as light and bright as the world can be.
- Take note of the darkness in your eye. This is a phenomenon that occurs in a great many painters’ work, making dull, unengaging paintings. The world outside is full of light so your eye physically closes down to protect itself. Like a camera lens it closes down to a very small aperture. This means that you stop seeing a great range of what is visually around you. You’re shut out. So you must use your brain to re-imagine what the world around you was like before your eye created this abbreviated perception. Compensate. Put back in those high values and bright colors— they are still there even if you are partially blinded by your own physical adaptations. One of the reasons I use atmospheric hot colors like orange and pink to sketch my composition at the start is to remind myself not to go dark. Even so, you may be dismayed by the end of day when you take your work which seemed so full of light, back in to the studio and see a sooty sky and dull hills with black trees.
- Don’t stop. You should be able to get the bones of a seven foot by three painting down in three to four hours with enough color notes slashed in that if you can’t come back out to finish, or the weather changes, you will have a complete guide to the premise of the work.
- Now step back. You will see that in many ways what you have made lacks subtlety and actually has only a rude sense of the reality. That’s what we want. Only God through nature can make a landscape, and only an artist can be so inspired as to translate it in to his or her individual language.
So you will have some questions, like, if the nitrile gloves are so uncomfortable, why wear them? The answer lies in the chemistry of your materials. Every oil paint and medium has toxic elements, some more than others. These can be absorbed through your skin. When you are a full time painter, there is no reason to marinate yourself in toxins. They may not make you sick today, but many accumulate in your liver, neural tissues, kidneys and other organs. It’s not glamorous to go insane from poisoning. It’s not adventurous to need a kidney transplant and it won’t make you popular when you’re asking for a piece of liver from your friends. So, why not use water based oils? Because even if you bypass some of the toxins, others still are there in the compounds that create the hues. What many folk don’t realize is that water color and pastels also contain toxic elements. Be careful, don’t confuse daring with foolishness. Know your ingredients. I’ve said it before and shall again, ignorance never saved anyone.
This means of course, never eat or drink without using extreme care when you are painting. Smoking also. Indeed, I don’t allow food or drink in the studio, but outdoors the need to keep hydrated demands more flexibility.. You do not want to ingest by any accident any of your paints or painting materials. I heard a rumor that Vincent Van Gogh ‘pointed’ his brushes in his mouth as he painted. Given the many toxic compounds he had in his palette— heavy metals, arsenic, lead, mercury, he may have had many reasons to be ill and have neurological symptoms.
I used to love to paint bare-handed, putting my fingers into the work for certain effects. Making dirt or pebbled soil look real by dabbing down high contrast values and then patting my palm across the surface. I do it with gloves now even though I admit it’s harder. But the more you hone your skills, the less it matters.
A side comment to the rant I just gave about the vital importance of value and the relative frivolity of color. Some days I will change all the colors on my landscape, paint pink hills and orange sky, purple trees and aquamarine shadows. If I get the values right the painting will have the authority it needs to assert pink hills and aquamarine shadows. It will look ‘right’.
A brief mention here about atmospheric perspective. When you are standing outside painting, remember this basic law. More distant objects generally look paler and grayer than the same colored objects up close. The values are higher, lighter. Think about all the air between you and those more distant things. Think about all the dust in that air, the veiling layers drifting between you and the far things. All that dust catches and diverts the light, thus graying out the intensity of value. Be aware of this in your work.
What about using a colored ground? You can, but if you do, keep it thin and light in hue. Over time your paints will become slowly more translucent, and if you use a dark ground, every value in your painting will become more and more identical until, in sad cases, a lovely work ends up a brown soup. Too thin to satisfy. Yes, a colored ground will solve your paint harmony issues because every hue you put on the colored ground will be subtly harmonized by its influence. I feel it’s a bit of cheating as well as potentially compromising the quality of your work over the years or centuries to come.
I like a white ground, it makes me think and correct the color I use, every step of the way. And I know that should my painting survive for thousands of years, it will be close to what I made here, upon this day when the world was young.
Moonlight under the oaks