Plein Air Permission


The Fields of the Hudson (pastel, 10x14).

While demonstrating for a workshop in upstate New York a couple of weeks ago, I was reminded of one of the major benefits of working en plein air: permission to interpret. As I worked out a thumbnail sketch in advance of committing pastel to surface, the task of editing began. I established a center of interest within the framework of the composition and then manipulated other elements of visual composition—edge, shape, texture, value, and color—to strengthen its presence. I altered or even ignored major elements in the scene as the composition took form.


The reference photo of the scene.

After feeling confident about the bones of the painting, the process of applying pastel to surface commenced. If I have a good idea of the big relationships and purpose behind the painting in advance of starting, it’s easier to focus on the technique of painting, which allows for a more confident application. That assured feeling often comes through, producing a more spontaneous and positive end result. As the painting developed and these manipulations became more apparent to the students paying close attention, one of them made an observation: “It looks like you do what is best for the painting, instead of being subservient to the scene.” And indeed. that’s what painting is. We do what is needed, manipulating and orchestrating the elements of the painting to best communicate our intentions about the scene.

This student’s observation got me thinking. A few days after the event, I compared the photo from the scene to the finished painting. The photo appeared cold and boring. If I hadn’t been there in person, I would never have given this photo a second glance. When in the presence of the unlimited possibilities of nature, we have two choices: to feel completely overwhelmed and cower before it, or to open the door of chance and allow all it has to offer to provide inspiration. Being surrounded by natural light that’s always in motion and the influences of the entire setting, even the areas outside of our view, all have an effect. By practicing and applying the principles of composition, light and dark relationships, and color theory, we’re able to harness the power of the paint and become more confident and free to make choices that lead to personal artistic statements. No one gets a prize for making it exactly the way it was.

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5 thoughts on “Plein Air Permission

  1. mike matthews

    hi richard, regarding this article and the one on reflections, i had a photo of a landscape taken in the evening with little direct light cast into the scene. there was a very shallow rocky stream in the center and i tried to duplicate the photo in pastel. the stream has an overall brownish cast in the photo. it turned out looking like a rocky path instead. so based on what you have described here about doing what is best for the composition, does that include altering the colors actually in the photo to make them visually more what we "expect" water to look like? when i look at the drawings in the reflections article my brain says "that looks like water", but i don’t recall ever being on a farm where there was shallow water that didn’t look entirely brown and green to me without a bright sky overhead. or am i reading too much into it and the blues you tie in are just a trick of the trade?

  2. Kathleen

    I love to see both scenes – the actual and the artistically realized – and Now I have to learn how to make that trip – to go from the actual to the artistically realized it is a tough journey for me – thanks for the blog

  3. Marsha Hamby Savage

    Richard, These words are so important to get across to a student. I often take pictures of the scene to later show students the difference in what I painted and what was actually there. I believe this is a good tool to start them thinking.

    No matter how many times I mention to not just "copy" the scene, it still gets repeated time and again. Thanks for putting this information into the wonderful paragraphs above. Hopefully some of my students will pay attention. I will be forwarding this pastel pointers blog through an e-mail to them for their reading.

    By the way, the painting is stunning!