Thursday, May 18, 2017

Learning to Paint the Figure en Plein Aire

I've been painting outdoors (en plein air) for many years now and each year I see progress in my ability to select from all that beautiful scenery some particular little area that draws my eye.  I love  places with some mystery, a story just around the bend, so having an opportunity to paint from a live model in nature came as not only a wonderful opportunity, but a huge challenge as well.  Could I create a little mystery with my model? 

One of the first issues I had to deal with was the scale of the person relative to the landscape.  Which was more important?  One of my favorite landscape painting groups were the Hudson River painters.  In almost all of their paintings, the figures were dwarfed by their surroundings.  I also love Thomas Eakins, who again subjugates his figures to the landscape.  But then, there are Manet, Morisot and Cassatt whose figures are often much more significant than their settings.  I finally resorted to one of each  alternative -- my figure in the first painting is dominant and in the second she is subordinate.

Next came the problem of unifying the figure in her bright costume with the surrounding natural hues.  I'm still working on that one.  I've added the clothing colors into the landscape and put a few reflected lights from the natural surroundings into the figures but I think there's more that I can do in the next one.

Finally, as with any plein air work, there is the issue of light.  When the wind blows the shadows shift.  When time passes the warms can become cool and the cools warm as the sun moves.  Painting a figure takes much longer than painting only the landscape so simplifying the figure was an absolute necessity.  Making a value sketch helped solve this problem but it took some serious discipline not to try to change the lights and shadows as we got closer to the noon hour.  Oh, and about the mystery --  having the model's gaze directed away from view makes us wonder what she's thinking and the hat in the second work helped as well.
Can't wait to try this again with our wonderful model, Annie.


Monday, May 1, 2017


A couple of weeks ago I attended an excellent workshop through the Southeastern Pastel Society.  The instructor was Sally Strand, one of the most elite pastelists working realistically today.  She has written numerous articles for The Artist Magazine and Pastel Artist. 

Prior to attending, I really didn’t know what to expect.  I’ve attended SPS workshops in previous years and each successive one has seemed better than the last, so I knew it would be worth attending.  This one was no exception.  Sally was warm, extremely knowledgeable and generous.  The first two days I was very pleased with the studies I produced.  On the third day, I felt like I lost my focus, my concentration lagged and the end result was just mediocre.  I was frustrated, not with Sally but with myself.

The day ended with a critique and I left with several ideas about how to improve the final work.  By the time I got home, life was waiting and there was no time to try those ideas.  Finally, last night I was able to sit quietly and review my notes, study my paintings and think about what I wanted to do with the last one.  What I found was that everything began to come together.  All the little eureka moments, all the images of other people’s works suddenly made sense.  I could see my way to a better painting.  

 Tomorrow I will be plein air painting and I can’t wait to try applying everything I learned.  I’ve come to realize that the reason each workshop seems successively better is that I’ve learned more about art in the meantime, and how  to garner the most from the workshop instructor and most importantly, I’ve learned not to wait to use the new knowledge!