I admit that I am not one who adores painting on location. If the truth be known, when I visit a national park, I'd rather be exploring and walking around—taking photos of everything that strikes my interest. Oh yes, I've paid my dues by lugging my oil painting equipment to remote vistas, but having "been there, done that," I've come to the conclusion that I'm just not crazy about standing in one spot for two hours focusing on one scene. When I am outdoors, I need and want to experience the whole place.
Although many of my painting colleagues absolutely love the experience of painting outdoors, I find it cumbersome. I am a fairly good photographer and can work at home in my studio from pictures alone, but I've learned that when I skip the step of working on location, the resulting paintings lack something. In other words, I've become convinced that working directly from nature is not optional if I want to become a truly great landscape painter.
I'm a soul that likes to explore as much as I like to paint, and I've worked out a system that lets me do both. I do all my plein air studies in graphite and watercolor, so my load is light because I’m able to keep my supplies to a minimum. I use 140-lb hot-pressed watercolor paper—which I can both sketch and paint on—and I also carry 140-lb cold-pressed watercolor paper. I cut my 22″-x-30″ sheets into quarters, leaving me many 11″-x-15″ sheets that fit easily into my backpack. I carry three watercolor brushes—a size 8 fine pointed round, a size 4 round, and a size 2 for details. By taping my paper to foam core and using a lightweight plastic palette, everything fits into a medium-size backpack. Sometimes I carry a folding stool if I don't think I'll find a comfortable rock or log to sit on. When I begin painting, I place the board on my lap and the palette on the ground.
Plein air study at Duck Pond, watercolor on 140-lb cold-pressed paper.
Although I probably could come up with some reasonably good paintings by working from photographs alone, doing plein air studies offers me several things that I wouldn't get if I were to work purely from photos. Here are a few key benefits of painting from life.
- 1. When I take the time to draw or paint a scene from life, I get to know the scene as I would a good friend. Spending time with a place along with my pencil and paint makes me intimately familiar with the scene's elements.
- 2. Cameras don't record accurate color. Even though I can adjust color using photo-editing software on my computer, the human eye and brain are capable of translating accurate color far more efficiently than any camera lens or computer can.
- 3. If we look into shadow areas when painting en plein air, our pupils adjust to the light conditions so that we can see details. A camera, on the other hand, often leaves what's in the shadows a mystery.
- 4. My intellect and emotion record and memorize what I see. When painting or drawing a place, I make an emotional connection with it. By taking the time to record what's before my eyes on paper, I store the details of what I'm painting in my memory. Briefly recording the same scene with my camera cannot make this kind of connection.
Duck Pond, Acadia
2009, watercolor, 10 x 15. Collection the artist.
I painted this finished piece in the studio on 300-lb cold-pressed paper
from my plein air study and from photographs.
Lori Woodward earned a bachelor’s degree in art education from University of Arizona. She has studied watercolor and composition extensively with Sondra Freckelton and Jack Beal. Simons’ work has appeared in several issues of Watercolor, and she is a co-author of the Walter Foster book Watercolor Step by Step. She is a member of The Putney Painters, an invitational group in Vermont. She resides in New Hampshire with her husband, Brian Simons, a software engineer. Visit her website at www.loriwords.com and follow her on Twitter here.