Hints & Tips: Plein Air Painting
Simplifying the Process
Organizing your gear to make the most of your time in the field
Painting on location is a demanding activity that requires lots of concentration, forcing the artist to devote maximum intellectual resources to the task. For this reason, it makes sense that he or she eliminates any unnecessary distractions that can be controlled easily.
Besides all of the weather-related problems like heat, cold and unrelenting bugs, one of the main distractions out in the field is being disorganized. I often tell my students that, “Organizing your painting gear is half the battle.” Think about how much working time you actually have to tackle a plein air landscape — typically one and a half to two hours due to changing shadows. That doesn’t give you much time to fiddle around searching for tools. How much time do you think you waste just doing things like bending down to grab a brush, finding a roll of paper towels or searching for your paint thinner? It’s easy to see that some of your time would be much better spent thinking about the subject and engaging in the process of painting rather than spinning your wheels on cumbersome, time-consuming activities.
So what are you going to do about it? It may be high time to conduct a re- assessment of your procedures and plan accordingly. Where to start? Well, one thing is for sure, the field is no place to organize your gear and working methods. I’ve heard musicians say, “Never practice on stage” and the same is true when facing a blank canvas out in nature; that’s when you need to swing into action. May I suggest that you devote one evening in your studio or living room to a major reorganization of your gear and working method? This is really not as painful as it may sound and the time invested will surely pay big returns when the art spirit hits out in the rhubarb.
I remember an incident last March, when I was headed up Big Cottonwood Canyon, bringing dessert to a bunch of scouts on a snow camp. As I was driving, I noticed a spot on Cottonwood Creek that had just the right look to make a great study. Since I had my painting gear in the car, I quickly pulled over to the side of the road and executed a quick little painting on the spot before the light had a chance to change and the effect was lost. This would not have been possible had I not wrestled with the important procedural problems long before that moment arrived. And the scouts might not have gotten their dessert.
If you are ready to make the organizational plunge, the best way to start is to set up your equipment exactly the way you do out in nature as a dress rehearsal just like an actor would prepare for a part in a movie or play. The most important thing to be aware of is the accessibility of your tools. Try answering these questions:
How easy is it for you to get to your brushes, paper towels, paint thinner, medium, colors, palette knives and trash bag.
Whether you are sitting or standing, is your panel at a good level for your eyes? Is your panel securely attached to the easel so that it doesn’t move in the wind or when applying paint.
If using a stretched canvas, how are you going to keep the sun from shining through the back and creating an annoying glow on the work? (That is one of the reasons why most plein air painters opt for a solid panel.)
Other concerns in the field might be obstacles in the way that might impede the brush from making an expressive stroke? I have seen some outdoor painting set-ups that look good, but are designed in such a way that the artist has to contort their arm to get to the bottom of the painting support or even to mix colors on the palette. Ease of movement saves on a lot of frustration when working in the field!
When taken as a whole, these problems become major stumbling blocks in creating works of art and are sure to spell disaster if not dealt with before the big moment arrives. You can easily cut off a half hour or more by having things organized in a workable format that doesn’t change each time you paint. Just remember that however you set up your gear, try to keep your hands free so that you can grab your tools without the need to search or bend down. Also remember to keep your palette and canvas secure so you can concentrate on the important elements of the process like, drawing, color, value, edges and brushwork!
In each of the accompanying photos I’ve given examples of how I organize my outdoor gear.
Artists of Utah News
An Art Celebration
An early fall art retreat and 15 Bytes-sponsored plein air workshop
Any time spent in Montana's remote Centennial Valley is transformational but the beautiful fall season requires the word spectacular. The crisp clear morning air, the golden grasses and shimmering lakes on the valley floor, and the brilliant colors of the aspens in the alpine forests — all combine to inspire and instill a sense of profound gratitude. For that reason the University of Utah's Environmental Humanities Education Center (EHEC) schedules its annual Art Celebration on the last long weekend of September. And this year Artists of Utah's 15 Bytes is co-sponsoring the event.
Artists of all types — painters, photographers, writers, dancers, composers — are invited to converge on the Center's campus and spend four days working on individual projects and sharing the joy with others. Hikes, canoeing the Red Rock Lakes and nightly star gazing are all part of the experience. Participants are committed to no particular agenda, but will find their stay facilitated by the center's stuff. Last year's event featured paint out sessions, informal workshopping, invigorating hikes, plenty of wildlife sightings, nights shooting pool and a spectacular full moon.
This year John Hughes, nationally known Utah landscape painter and plein air teacher, and regular columnist for 15 Bytes, will be the featured art faculty. He will work with painters through demonstrations and act as in-the-field painting coach (visit www. johnhughesstudio.com for more information). "Centennial Valley is a marvelous place, and the opportunity to create work surrounded by other artists and enjoy their company in a relaxing setting is always motivating," says 15 Bytes editor Shawn Rossiter, who attended last year's celebration. "We were excited by the opportunity to partner with EHEC in this event, and to give our readers who follow John's column a chance to work with him in the field."
The Center is 5 1/2 hours from Salt Lake City via interstate 15 with the last 28 miles on a maintained gravel road. Lovely cabin lodging and great food are included in the package. Sign up at www.ehec.utah.edu under programs and events - community programs. Space is limited so act soon to secure a cabin.
Event Spotlight: Around the State
Plein Air Competitions
Summer approaches. Really, it does. And with long days, blue skies, and dry brush arrives the season for Utah’s plein air festivals. All told, over $20,000 in prize money is being offered at competitions from the top to the bottom of the state and many points in between.
So, time to go back through some of the plein air Hints & Tips articles by John Hughes in past editions, get out those traveling easels, put a little gas in the car, and hope to trade a few hours worth of work for some cold hard cash.
The process for most competitions is pretty similar. Artists register their surfaces with the sponsoring organizations and then have from a day to sometimes a week to paint within a geographically restricted area. Their entries are then submitted to a jury (the number allowed varies), money is awarded and all the work is presented to the public in an exhibition.
The first opportunity to paint begins at the end of the month at the Ogden Arts Festival plein air competition, Friday, May 31 - June 5. With two different plein air categories and a quick draw competition there is a total of $3500 in prize money.
Artists can try their hand the following week at Logan’s Summerfest's Plein Air Paint Out and photography contest for artists who create original art around Cache Valley June 10-12.
The purse gets pretty hefty at the Midway Art Association's Wasatch Plein Air Paradise. There's a total of $9000 in prize and purchase money and at last year's event all the entries were sold at the final auction.
The batch of competitions resumes in the fall with events in Helper, Spring City, Moab, Escalante, and, in November, plein air art lovers can enjoy the invitational competition at Zions National Park.