Plein Air Positioning

98-plein-air-tip.jpgWith the advent of nice weather, many of us find ourselves back out under the sun attempting to capture a bit of the fleeting light. A couple of weeks ago, after the International Association of Pastel Societies convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I was able to paint again in the beautiful northern New Mexico high desert. With its clarity of color and diversity of textures, I was reminded of why it has inspired so many artists over the years. While painting there, I was also reminded of one of most irritating issues of working en plein air: the intensity of surrounding light and how it affects the appearance of our paintings.

Most of our attention is focused on finding what to paint; once discovered, the job of positioning ourselves begins. Most of us were taught that it’s better to work in open shade than bright sunlight. Working under this intense light can easily produce dark/dull paintings. Many a painting that looked fine on location is found to be extremely dark and in need of major adjustment when analyzed indoors. For this reason, it’s always wise to second-guess your value and color selections before committing them to surface. Take breaks and scrutinize your painting in a variety of lighting situations (shade, full sunlight, and various angles which reflect different color influences). Whether you end up painting in shade or full sunlight, it’s advisable to have your pastel palette arranged in values. If your pastels are organized in values, you’ll know what value range you’re working in, even if they appear overly dark or light in that situation. Learn to trust your palette.

Another issue often overlooked is the amount of light surrounding the painting surface. When the painting is in shade and the surrounding light is extremely intense, you’ll have a hard time adjusting. There are two ways of dealing with this: turn or tilt your painting surface until it’s in full sunlight and trust your palette to guide your value choices; or create a large border around the painting to block the proximity of the surrounding light, allowing a space for your eye to rest before reaching the painting. For this reason many plein air pastelists prefer to attach their painting surface to a larger drawing board even if one is not required. If you use prepared pastel panels that are capable of standing alone, reverse tape them to the support by running a strip of tape over the backside, letting it stick out around the painting, then tape the exposed border to the support. This allows you to paint to the edge while still holding the painting surface securely in place. Choose a neutral color and mid-value drawing board when possible. Otherwise, alternate between white and black until you find a good fit. Remember that, due to simultaneous contrast, white will make the painting look darker and black lighter in appearance.

By putting some effort into understanding the lighting situation in which you’re working, you’ll be better able to adjust, producing a more pleasing outcome. At least one excuse for why the painting didn’t turn out will be surrendered.

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One thought on “Plein Air Positioning

  1. Robert Sloan

    Thanks for this tip, Richard. I never would’ve thought of that. Working in the shade makes sense, I’ve run into that before. But that border could seriously help with a lot of things.

    I don’t think I’d want to try plein air in deserts, I have a dust allergy that kicks in if I go anywhere too arid and some other health problems that aridity and desert conditions make worse. I’ve been dreaming of plein air for years though, now I live in a climate kind enough to my arthritis and moist enough that I can breathe in Arkansas!

    It’s full of wonderful landscapes. The mountains are green and forested, the valleys full of rivers and lakes. I’ve been out twice on scouting trips and photo reference shoots. Right now I’m preparing for a serious competition level painting as a gift for a lady who helped us move in, of a mountain cabin where she grew up as a child that’s on the top of a cliff.

    The view she wants is on a cliff peak visible from a particular lookout point. That’s the scene she chose and it’s very personally meaningful to her. I can actually see the little stone building when I’m up there, but my camera only picked it up as a couple of pale streaks within the trees. So I will need to paint at least preliminary versions actually on the lookout point.

    It’s rocky and hard to clamber over to the actual lookout point (especially with short legs and mobility problems). Do you have any suggestions for how to set up on an irregular rock surface with a chain link safety fence between you and the subject where the best vantage point hasn’t got soil to stick the umbrella pole into?

    I will have some help ferrying equipment over the crack in the rocks that I have to get over to get to the spot. Next time I’m going to try zooming on the cabin — didn’t try that this time and the references give a good view of the cliff, the forest and the valley.

    I want this to come out well, to be the best landscape I’ve ever done now that I can finally get outdoors and still function. Please let me know if there’s something as important as the ambient bright light that I should know before I haul all my goodies up there and dare try it in person!

    Robert Sloan