I recently completed a 5 week class painting with oils outside (Plein Air Alla Prima). It is kind of funny...at each class I wondered why I was there. Oils are not really my preferred medium to use and I have zero experience with realistic landscape painting other than some quick watercolor sketches at the beach. But I wanted to take an in person class and I wanted to be outside enjoying the weather. I also have a series of cold wax oil paintings that are stalled and I thought some instruction and time working with oils in a different way with a focus on the landscape might help. I am happy to report that I did find some connection!
We met for each class at few locations throughout Northeastern MA. This included two class meetings at Maudslay State Park in Newburyport, two meetings at Pettengill Farm in Salisbury, and one class meeting (the first) at Bartlett Mall in Newburyport near Frog Pond. I found it worked best for me to walk around and sketch out some possible scenes in my sketchbook as a first step. When I felt confident with the layout, I would set up the materials and sketch out a scene on my canvas board using soft vine charcoal. This step is the time to measure out the scene with a viewfinder and the paintbrush handle as a ruler. Vine charcoal wipes off easily when you are ready to add paint, but I was heavy handed with the charcoal, so I also found it worthwhile to use a pink eraser to get off as much as possible while still leaving the outline of my sketch behind. The Charcoal would muddy the paint (especially the white!).
I found the focus of the class for me was to "draw what you see." This may seem obvious, but I tend to draw what I see blended with what I assume is there. Every time I would come up against perspective or other measurements being off. This would skew the whole painting and even in an abstract painting, having the perspective and sense of space correctly laid out makes a huge difference. Funny enough, it actually connects quite literally to the figure drawing sessions I have been sitting in on lately. Measuring out what you see and where it goes on the canvas or paper using a view finder or other tool to measure is critical. "That's no fun" you say? Well, I used to think that too. I love the abstract landscape (and there is more on that to come for me I am sure of it), but it really hit home for me that in order to make a successful abstract landscape or figure drawing you have to know how to paint it realistically (-ish) in the first place.
Another challenge was color. Instructor and artist Sue Charles (please, stop now and click on her link... her work is GORGEOUS) recommended a set of colors which did not include black or gray-Cadmium Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Orange, Cadmium Red, Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue, Cerulean Blue, Viridian Green, Sap Green. We were reminded that complimentary colors will get you the grays you are looking for with a tint of color that will bring energy into the piece. Each week I wished I had taken the time to make swatches of the colors, but I never did. As a result, I was really challenged to get the colors that I wanted out in the field. There was a lot of green (duh) and I wasn't falling in love with the greens I was mixing. I still need to sit down and swatch out these paints.
Composition also presented some challenges. The first few classes I plopped my pile of stuff (there is lots of 'stuff') right down and focused on the first scene I saw. By the fourth class I realized a few things; 1) I need to sketch out a few composition options before I set up easel (etc) so I know that is the place I will enjoy painting for 2+ hours and 2) I like a man made focal point in the painting (not all trees).
It was HARD and took a lot of brain cells and I needed a nap after each class to recover. But I felt that I was learning something new and that was exciting. The instructor let me borrow her old french easel. The thing was a beast to carry, but she saved me some $$ and let me borrow it for the summer!. Other materials included oil paints, soft vine charcoal, Gamblin Mineral Spirits, Paint brushes, Palette Knives, Palette, rags/paper towels, snacks, water, bug spray and a hat.