Step by Step

::: By Hand and On Foot :::

I Am a Plein-Air Artiste!

I took my new French easel out on my first plein-air outing this morning, and I’ve already learned a whole lot about painting outdoors. The first lesson learned: remember to bring your canvas!

After a quick trip back home to pick up a canvas (doh!), I was ready to settle in with paint and brush. Whenever I’ve mentioned wanting to try my hand at painting outdoors, people have immediately asked whether I’ll be doing coastal scenes. So since I had to begin somewhere, and popular demand said “coast”, I picked a spot on the headlands just south of Davenport. My hike with Kimlin came in very handy, since I’d walked the coast before and remembered where all the access points are.

This is the spot I picked:
My first plein-air location

I’m glad I practiced setting up my easel at home before going out to paint; it’s not immediately intuitive. Luckily there are on-line lessons on how to unfold one of these gizmos. Here is the easel, set up and ready for me to begin painting. :
My easel set up

And here’s the painting after a half hour of work, blocking in colors.
Colors and values roughed in

Here are some of the lessons I learned on my first day, in no particular order:
1. A hat and a windbreaker are good things to have.
2. There’s no need for paper towels if you have a good rag.
3. Plastic bags are bad for the environment, but good to have with you for packing out any trash.
4. It’s probably not a good idea to drink a giant cup of coffee before going out for a long painting session.
5. Eventually, I should have two sets of paints, one to have at home permanently, and one to carry in the easel permanently. This will help prevent disappointment, like realizing you’ve left a key color at home.
6. While the easel folds up quite cleverly, a bungee cord would be good to help keep it from unfolding as you walk back to the car.
7. Fruit is good to bring as a snack. Bananas are not the best choice.
8. A good strong coastal wind dries out paint really, really fast. I had a bit of a struggle to find the balance between enough paint to work with and not so much paint that it dries into a crusty gob.
9. It might be a good idea to have several canvases in the car so you can select the best shape for the spot you’ve picked. Ideally, I’d have used a slightly wider canvas for this painting; as it is, I’ve squeezed the cliff a bit to make it fit.
10. The sun moves, and so do shadows.
11. Painting outdoors makes you hungry.
12. Painting outdoors is hard work.
13. Painting outdoors is fun!

After working for a couple of hours, the sun had moved quite a bit (see #10 above) and I had to quit. I thought about this a bit, and when I got home I looked at some of Van Gogh’s paintings, and confirmed to myself that he usually did not paint strong directional shadows, but instead painted a strong overall light. Or one could be like Monet, and paint the same thing over and over with slightly different light.

One of the things I like about this easel is that you can leave the painting attached while folding it back up, giving a handy way to carry the painting when the canvas is still wet.
Packed up after working

I painted for two hours today. I can’t go out tomorrow –darn the day job!– but will go back again on Saturday to try and finish it up. All in all, paint me satisfied.
Moi, the plein aire artiste

Plein Air Affaire in Santa Cruz
If you are interested in more plein air painting, you should make sure to attend this weekend’s Plein Air Affaire. Located at the Museum of Art and History in downtown Santa Cruz, the event takes place both Saturday and Sunday from 11am to 5pm. Our friend Andrew Purchin is one of the artists participating.

4 Comments

  1. Very inspiring, and an inspired present from Sarah-Hope!

    Interesting to read your comments about the changing light and how different painters have dealt with it. I hope you’ll post a photo of the seascape when you finish it.

  2. ellen strauss

    July 11, 2009 at 9:29 am

    Could you fill us in a little more about the medium for your “plein aire”? Is it oil paint, acrylic or watercolor? What do you usually use? I presume not usually watercolor if you are on canvas rather than paper.

  3. I use acrylics. Much easier to clean up, and the quick drying is usually a plus.

  4. Hey – how else are you going to learn, except by your mistakes (or omissions) -right? We’ve all forgotten something – only to realize it when you’re already way out there. Dang! I’ve done pleine air painting in both acrylics & oils. Oils are obviously messier but stay workable a lot longer. For the acrylics I found having a water spritzer bottle along a REAL help in keeping the paint workable. Also, if you’re not hiking too far from your car, I recommend bringing along either a small tray table or better yet, a folding chair (gotta sit down once in a while-eh?) But you can put your extra “stuff” on it. Your easel looks like a full box – mine is a 1/2-box & has very limited space for stuff, hence the extra table/chair for whatever. Your painting looks great! And I love the Red Shoes print (even if the story is a bit grim) Keep up the good work!

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