I’ve always found painting outdoors to be exhilarating. Nature is the best teacher, and if you make a commitment to be out there day after day, she will ?speak? to you. During the painting process, many changes take place before you. Perhaps a beam of light will illuminate a particular area, or a cloud pattern will form. The foreground may go into shadow, making the composition more dramatic. If you pay attention to these changes and incorporate them into your work, it will be more interesting, exciting and believable.
Working small—mostly 8×10 and 9×12, but sometimes larger—gives me more time to observe (since I’m not trying to cover a large area with paint) and relate to the scene before me. I particularly like late afternoon and evening light. To capture this, I must work very quickly, before the fleeting light is gone.
When I want to paint, I head out the door to find a scene that will spark my interest. This may take hours, or it may take minutes. What tends to catch my eye is the light—the pattern and contrasts created on the subject, or the warm glow of a late afternoon bathing a particular landscape. I’ll sometimes drive around, searching everywhere for the right spot, or it may be right in front of me, waiting to be painted. Either way, I’ll generally spend some time getting acquainted with the scene, working out in my mind the design and distinguishing light and dark patterns.
I ask myself, What’s important here? What do I want to say about the scene? Is it the warm light of a late afternoon, or am I drawn to a particular effect, such as one ray of sunlight illuminating the valley on a cloudy day? Perhaps it’s a city scene full of life. Or are the buildings the real story? Whatever it is that seems most important, that’s what I try to hold on to from start to finish.
There’s nothing like the sensation of standing in nature, looking over a scene, and trying to communicate with it. I’ve never been successful at re-creating that feeling when working from a photograph, so my style has developed out of that need. The spontaneity, the ability to become part of what I see and the changes that occur, are vital to the life of my paintings.
Tony van Hasselt is an artist and teacher who loves to paint on location. He conducts watercolor workshops in Provence and in the United States. He’s written two instruction books and co-wrote The Watercolor Fix-it Book and Painting With the White of your Paper (both from North Light Books).