With adequate preparation and the right materials, it’s possible to create large acrylic landscapes en plein air.
by Andrew Paquette
A few years ago, I left the high-stress feature-animation industry in Hollywood, California, and moved to Arizona, where I could devote myself to painting Southwest subjects. I now make two to four 36″-x-48″ acrylic paintings every week, and I look forward to painting as much of Arizona and the Southwest as I can.
2003, acrylic, 48 x 72. The inspiration for this painting was an old friend of mine from high school who became a singer. A song by Gordon Lightfoot made me think of her and that reminded me that I’d wanted to paint these agave plants that always seemed to dance in the wind.
I learned to paint quickly out of necessity at first, because I was working full time, and I only had Saturday afternoons to paint. I knew that if I was ever going to get a gallery while I was still young enough to appreciate it, I’d have to use my time as judiciously as possible. Now, I paint quickly because I like the spontaneous effects I can achieve. However, painting quickly doesn’t mean I’m slapdash. It means that I give the paintings as much time as they need, and I don’t overwork them.
Painting quickly requires preparation. Literally speaking, a painting can be made in as much time as it takes to cover the canvas with paint. The best approach for me is to cut out as many steps as possible so that all I have to do is cover the canvas. This means I have to know what to expect before I start, particularly in terms of how I’m going to organize the elements. If I know which brushes to use, which brushstrokes to employ, and what I want to do with the composition and colors, I can spend my time painting rather than scratching my head, wondering what to do or if I got it right.
Almost without exception, I begin and end my paintings on-site. It can be awkward to carry and work on such big canvases on location, but I prefer to work large because I like to use my entire arm for the brushstrokes. This results in the broad strokes I find appealing. When the paint goes down, it dries very fast. Inclement weather keeps it wet longer, but I don’t get the benefit of that very often in Arizona. (Once, I had an entire painting wash off the canvas, leaving a multicolored puddle at my feet.) For that reason, I try to design a painting around colors that will not blend. If I think it is important to have blended colors, then I’ll mix the two or three colors I want to blend in advance, load a couple of brushes with those colors, and slap them down as fast as I can.
To find subjects, I simply drive in my truck and scan the landscape for likely spots to paint. I also frequently try back-country roads and take every opportunity to get “lost” to enhance my databank of potential sites. I’ll catalog sites in my mind when I’m getting groceries, weeding around the house, or traveling to a destination I read about in a guidebook. If I’ve got my truck loaded with paints, I’ll make a painting wherever I stop. Along the way I’ll usually spot half a dozen other places I’d like to paint that I’ll check out later. When I lived in California, I typically drove 350 miles each way to painting locations. Now that I’m in Arizona, I work within 100 miles of my house so that I can sleep in my own bed at night instead of the truck. The biggest problem with finding locations is that because I paint on such a large scale, I have to be able to get a parking space for my truck within a couple of hundred yards of the subject. I’ve seen a number of locations I’d love to paint, but I have no idea how I would get to them in my truck.
Once I’ve loaded all my supplies in my truck, I rarely turn back. I’ve only once come back empty-handed. I like to drive a long distance before stopping to paint, because it gives me a chance to relax and forget about daily issues. Once I realize I’ve noticed the landscape and tried to figure how to paint it—instead of thinking of the leaky roof at home or some other problem—I start looking for a place to pull over.
After I set up my two easels (one for the canvas, one to hold paints and water), I eat everything I brought with me and stuff two bottles of water in my pockets. I do this because I won’t eat again until after I’m finished. Once I start painting, I don’t stop for anything except to drink water. I use sport bottles to save time. I don’t step back to look at the painting. I don’t sit to rest my knees. I don’t stop to cool off. I draw, then paint. When I’m finished, I throw everything back into the truck, then make a dash for the nearest grocery store or restaurant for food and a bathroom break.
I never make preliminary sketches or take photos. I draw well enough that these aids are unnecessary. Moreover, it takes longer for me to trace a drawing from a photo or sketch than it does to execute an entire painting from scratch. Besides, tracing is incredibly boring. I do make a layout directly on the canvas before I apply any opaque color. Depending on the complexity of the subject, it might be as simple as a horizon line with a couple of dots to represent locations of major features, or it can be a very complicated drawing that takes almost a day to execute, necessitating two or more outings to apply the paint. I’ve done that several times—for such paintings as Welcome to Arizona and Art Rock—sometimes staying at a hotel for several nights as I complete the sittings.
Those paintings are, from a drawing standpoint, two of the most complicated paintings I’ve ever made. The first one, Welcome to Arizona, is complicated because of all the overlapping planes. In addition, it has a nerve-wracking jumble of skinny objects that snake their way in front of other skinny details. That means that if I flub a stroke, I have to paint the background over. The second, Art Rock, was complicated because the subject was so close that I could see the detail. My rule is, If I can see it, I can paint it. This is why the distance from me to the subject determines the size of the brush I use.
I use Golden Fluid Acrylics. These come in squirt bottles, which I prefer because I can get the paint out faster than with screw-top tubes. I can manipulate the bottles with one hand; the tubes take two. To keep the paint fluid, I use ArtBin six-slot boxes, which are deep enough to hold a full bottle of liquid paint in each slot. I use two or three boxes per painting. In the first one, I squirt water into each slot to fill them halfway. Then, I squirt a small amount of raw paint of random, inexpensive colors into the water. These are my “drawing colors.” I quickly wash in my drawing. When I’m finished, I grab a fresh palette and mix the six most common colors in the scene, usually these are the light and dark versions of the three most prominent objects: sky, clouds, and rocks. I fill the slots with this paint so that even if a skin forms, the paint will stay wet at least until I’m finished—if not longer. I squirt out “modification colors” in small amounts on the lid of the palette. These are colors that I’ll mix in small amounts to the major colors as needed.
For brushes, I use mostly long-handled Winsor & Newton University white nylons. I also have a few watercolor mops. I have four wonderful but expensive Tran brush cases. Again, this is to save time. All the small brushes are in one case, the medium-size brushes in another, the large in a third, and my short-handled sky mops in a fourth. This saves time sorting through the brushes while I’m painting. Before I leave the house, I sometimes select a palette, but more often, I do this on the spot because it is difficult to predict the colors that will predominate a landscape, especially if I haven’t yet decided where I’m going to paint. So I have three boxes of paints (I prefer large 16-oz bottles), and I pick out the 12 or so colors I’m most likely to use when I set up. I have all the rest of the paint in case I’ve left one bottle out, but I usually guess right.
For the most part I use Masterpiece Monet canvases. The Masterpiece stretchers are made of good, solid wood. They have cross braces in all the corners and down the middle in the sizes I use, and they are stapled on the back, not on the sides. This makes for a secure, well-made canvas.
All of my best paintings are of subjects that I had time to think about before I took out my paints. It’s difficult to make them all that way because I also have to explore new sites, but I now try to reflect on my subjects and select a location before I leave my house. On the drive out, I think through the likeliest compositions, considering my options and essentially painting it in my head. By the time I arrive, I have a good idea of what I want. I don’t allow myself much time, so I concentrate on executing the plan for the painting. Speed is of the essence. If I have multiple sittings, I continue thinking about the composition, order of brushstrokes, colors, and so on while I’m in the hotel room waiting for the next day. From time to time I’ll make a change to my method while I’m painting, but this is rare. If I want to improve my technique, I like to work this out between paintings, not on a painting. There are so many paintings to make that there’s not much point in worrying about whether I can incorporate every improvement into each one. I’d never get anything accomplished—and there’s always the next painting.
Andrew Paquette is an artist in Phoenix, Arizona. He is represented by Taos Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona.