“My greatest joy comes from painting on location, struggling with the elements and racing against the changing light?to capture at least a glimmer of my original inspiration,? says Marilyn Rose. This love for working on location shows in her painting Out on Old Auburn Road. She started this painting on a bright sunny day that had only a few wispy clouds in the sky. But when she returned a few days later to complete the piece, the clouds moved in and it rained a bit. Rose has captured both the feeling of a sunny day and a stormy sky as a result. She conveys both thoughts well, but could make this painting even better with some adjustments to value, shape and color.
Maintaining the mood. By using a horizontal canvas, Rose has chosen a good format to express a lyrical feeling. The curved lines create a rhythm, and we’re able to meander through the piece with the gentle movement she’s created. But Out on Old Auburn Road feels more like two paintings with its two different thoughts: The larger land shape represents a sunny, warm, restful kind of day; the smaller sky shape is active and cool. Thus, the sky and the land are fighting for attention.
To keep the focus on a sunny day or a stormy day, Rose should have stayed with her original inspiration and completed her painting either in the studio or on the next mostly cloud-free day. Painting on location can be overwhelming because you have so much to choose from. But it’s important to be selective. Sometimes it helps to write down what you want to express in a painting. That way, if you start to paint more than is necessary to convey your inspiration—for instance, a quiet, pastoral day with high-key dominance—you can simply refer back to your notes as you work.
Some other techniques that could help Rose keep the same mood throughout the painting include doing a quick value sketch or painting smaller works en plein air. Value sketches will help nail down the direction the painting will go. This is a good time to draw the large abstract shapes and see how they work together. Also, painting on a smaller canvas can help with capturing the moment. I recommend that Rose try to complete a painting on location in one trip, and then use this work to create larger paintings in the studio.
Keeping It Simple: A lot of detail and bits of color overwhelm the painting. Here I’ve simplified the shape of the clouds, and combined the foreground shadow shape with the foreground tree shape. I eliminated the horizontal red and violet path and placed the fence posts to encourage the viewer into the focal area.
Controlling the design. Rose also needs to better consider the placement of the focal point and horizon line. Placing the horizon line higher in this painting would have given Rose more room to explore the pastoral scene she was painting, as well as to immediately subordinate the sky. Conversely, if the painting were about the sky, a lower horizon line would be a better choice. (See Choosing Dominance at right.)
Still another key to helping the composition be more powerful is to move the yellow tree on the right more into the painting and combine it with the small yellow-orange tree shape. This would have given Out on Old Auburn Road a stronger focal point. Keep in mind that it’s more important to compose the painting to meet your artistic principles and your personal vision than to paint things exactly as they appear.
Understanding value and color relationships. There’s a lot going on in Out on Old Auburn Road. There are small dabs of many colors, along with varying temperatures. This is where squinting your eyes on location can help. This practice helps you see the major value patterns and eliminates detail. For instance, I think the ground plane could have been simplified so the shape would hold together better. The small creek shape is too active in its color vibration. Though the cool blue is a nice relief on the warm land, decreasing the value and color contrasts would integrate that shape into the landscape. Changing the red outline of the creek/path to a grayed green value of 4 would still identify the shape but wouldn’t divide the land as it does. The red-violet vibrates against the green-yellow of the land. In a way it feels like a stop sign instead of a path to push us further into the painting. It feels as if the canvas is divided into thirds horizontally.
Creating depth. Overlapping objects as Rose did in this piece creates a feeling of distance. To further that thought, she could have used aerial perspective by cooling the colors as they receded, as well as diminishing the forms by using cooler gray colors and losing edges. Again, squinting on location can help define the value changes for this effect.
To better convey the illusion of depth, the land could be lighter, as well as a little cooler and grayer. Once past the dark cloud shadow in the foreground, Rose could cool the rest of the warm foreground as it recedes, using some of the sky color to cool and recede the land plane.
The distant middle ground trees would be less active and sit back in the painting if the shapes weren’t so defined as round bushes and all a different color. The cool green and warm yellow are creating a vibration. By quieting down that area, the yellow tree on the right will pull the eye. Keeping the vibrating color around the tree and graying down the land colors will let us identify the focal point more strongly.
In addition, as the distance increases, the brushstrokes should become broader. Less detail and broader painting will help move the viewer into the distance. Finally, a good way to bridge the sky and land, and to promote color harmony, is to use some of the sky color to soften the tops of the trees and lose some edges, to take some of the land color into the clouds, and to open up the sky by breaking the strong horizontal under the clouds that parallels the tree line.
Graying the colors in the clouds and using smoother, broader, and longer strokes would have allowed Rose to make the sky in Out on Old Auburn Road less active. In doing this, the feeling of depth would also have been improved. Like values, you should consider keeping the active smaller brushstrokes in the foreground and middle ground.
Art is a very personal statement. I believe that by thinking about some of the suggestions here and painting daily, Rose’s plein air paintings will have a more clear focus and continue to express the beauty she feels when painting outdoors.
About the Artist
?Recognition by professionals and the public are important to me,? says Marilyn Rose of Nevada City, California, ?but my first priority is to express in my own style the beauty and truth I see, regardless of the fashion of the day.? She’s won various awards in local art shows, and last year became an associate member of the Oil Painters of America. Her advice for artists: ?First, find that which is beautiful inside yourself; then find the things that express that beauty, and paint those things.?