After a winter of studio work, I was fortunate to find myself teaching in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the first of March. The Pastel Painters of Arizona sponsored the event. It was great to be in a climate that invited plein air painting again. After the initial shock subsided of leaving the snowy, freezing temperatures of Oregon, I anxiously jumped into the dance of the artist, one-on-one with nature. While the studio provides the time to explore new techniques and the luxury of constant light, the ability to experience subject matter under the sun’s influence can’t be beat.
Whenever I come back to working directly on location, I am reminded of its benefits and pitfalls. Stepping into the Sonoran Desert was no different. The subject matter was totally different from what I had been working with in Oregon. The intensity of light was extreme and textural variations overwhelming. I had to remind myself, even with the students watching, to approach the scene simply and to not become lost in the minute detail. A basic field sketch painting is the best way of doing this. It forces us to see “the big picture,” which is the foundation of all good painting and especially useful on location.
What makes a field sketch different is attitude, not quality. There are many techniques of pastel application that I personally enjoy, but not all of them lend themselves to quick spontaneous fieldwork. They are better left to familiar scenes and repeat performances when confidence is higher. For the field sketch, work small. Simplify the elements of the scene into a few major abstract shapes. Associate a color and value sense to those shapes. Then expand on that foundation, building form and texture until the painting reads well. Let the camera record detail. Spend your time asking yourself, “What is it I can record that the camera cannot?” It is that information that makes someone an en plein air painter. Don’t get bogged down in technique; be messy if need be; it’s the information you are recording that is precious. These painting sketches may be winners and worthy of framing, or serve as reference back in the studio. Either way, they are an important element and should not be overlooked.
Having the opportunity to interact with painting friends in Arizona was a treat and it provided the means of reminding me of the importance of working en plein air. Now if only the weather would improve in Oregon!
MORE RESOURCES FOR ARTISTS