Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Landscape Painting: Plein Air versus Photographs

I got some questions today about this painting of the Grand Canyon:

South Rim Afternoon
Oil on linen panel, 18"x24"

I painted this one in 2014, several months after visiting the Grand Canyon.  I was only there for too short of a time: we drove there one day, walked around the south rim a day, and then drove back.  Not nearly enough time - the Grand Canyon is such a mind-blowing place.  As an artist, as a rock-hound, as a hiker, as just about anything, a person could spend days, weeks, or months there and never get enough.  I took several hundred photos that day with the intention of seeing what I could do in the studio later.

One thing that inspired me was an exhibition of paintings by a bunch of artists who had spent a week or so at the Grand Canyon sometime prior to our visit.  These paintings were awesome: almost all were plein air, done right there in the Canyon, and they captured the light, colors, and moods perfectly.  I was in awe of what those artists could do.  So, after I got back home to North Carolina, I tried my own versions in the studio.

And failed.  Miserably.

I am primarily a figurative artist, not a landscape artist.  For years, I avoided landscapes because I wasn't any good at them, and I wasn't any good at them because I avoided them.  Kind of a self-reinforcing circle, huh?  But landscapes, done well, have immense power.  Additionally, when you're In The Moment, painting a landscape that's right in front of you, you're alive to the world in a way that you're otherwise unaware.  You see shapes and colors and things that you would probably miss.  And you're trying to capture it all in paint, which is a hopeless proposition, but so worth it anyway.

After a bunch of failed efforts, I eventually came up with an idea for a carefully-considered approach.  I relied on several photographs taken in the same general area, worked up a composition, and figured out which area would be the focus (the cliffs on the right) and which areas would play supporting roles (the more distant canyon).  This painting was the result.  I was fairly happy with it.  Now, after a couple more years of experience with landscapes, I'd do it a bit differently, but still, it falls in the "okay" category.  Not a bad early effort.

That's the background for today's blog post.  The first question that prompted this post was, "Do you paint plein air?  Or do you use a reference photo?"  Generally, I prefer to paint plein air.  Being out in the open, in front of whatever it is I'm painting, makes me aware of the wide range of colors and shapes, as well as the smells, sounds, and feelings of the place.  I have to work fast to capture the feeling.  When it works, it's great.  It doesn't always work.  Kinda like golf: when you get that perfect drive, it's a great feeling, but then you flub the next several shots and maybe even wind up in the water hazard.  That's life.  That being said, here's an example of a plein air painting that I think turned out fairly well:

Harvested Hay
Oil on linen panel, 9"x12"

This was done about a half mile from my home last fall in mid-to-late afternoon over about an hour and a half.  What caught my attention was the swoop of the tan part of the field, where the hay had been cut, next to the green of the grassy area, and bordered by the rich oranges and browns of the surrounding hills.  For me, things clicked pretty well with this effort.

But I can't always work from life.  Sometimes there's no time, or I need to paint a large work.  (Ever tried to do a 30"x40" landscape from life?  Some people can.  Some people can build a car in their garage, too.  I can't do either of those things.)  Sunset paintings are an example of something that are extremely difficult to do from life.  The light at sunset changes so fast.  You wait and wait and wait and then THERE'S TEN MINUTES WHEN IT'S PERFECT and then POOF it's gone.  So last summer, when I was trying to do a painting of these beautiful summer clouds at sunset, I went out and took a gazillion sunset photos over a period of several weeks, and then used a bunch of them to do this painting:

Clouds over the French Broad River
Oil on canvas, 30"x40"

This thing kicked my butt.  I wanted to get the beautiful range of reds, oranges, and yellows of the clouds right at sunset.  As it turned out, this painting was all about light.  (Well, duhh ...) The real colors in the clouds are pure light, but I was trying to capture them in paint, which only reflects a part of the light and is really muddy and dull compared to the real light in the clouds, particularly once you start mixing colors.  But when I used stronger and clearer paint colors, then I wound up with an unbelievably gaudy mess on the canvas that was not nearly as bright, clear, and subtle as the real thing.  Eventually, I toned the sky way down so that the clouds could have a gentle range of reds and oranges while still popping off the canvas.  Did it work?  Well, ehh.  I probably need to do a lot of smaller studies for a while to understand the process before wrecking another canvas.

The second question was, "I really want to start landscape painting and I'm wondering if you can get beautiful paintings like this if you are using just a photo."  Well, thank you for that vote of confidence.  I think the answer to your question is "yes" but there are some qualifiers:
   - You have to paint plein air, from life, in order to understand what it is you're looking at, and to know what's missing from the photo.  Photos are a good reference tool, but they are very limited.
   - DON'T COPY THE PHOTO.  You need to know what it is that you want to say with your painting, what the focus is.  That will tell you what to stress and what to go lightly over.  If all you're doing is copying the photo, then you should just take the photo to WalMart or wherever and have them blow it up into the size you want.  Painting is something else altogether.
   - Go to the library or used-book store and find some books on landscape painting.  Get one and try some of the things the author says.  Then get a different book and try those things.  Then another.  Get something like Plein Air Magazine and copy some of the paintings in there.  Don't try to invent it all yourself.  Thousands of artists have gone down this road already and some have written down their lessons learned, so take advantage of them.  Not all of their approaches will resonate with you, but keep trying new stuff and eventually you'll figure out a way that works for you.
   - Take a class from a plein air painter.  You'll learn stuff you'll never learn from a book, because you'll have somebody experienced looking at your work and giving you feedback.  And you'll be seeing other students wrestling with similar problems and you'll learn from their experiences, too.  And you'll have fun.

Dang, this turned into quite the tome, didn't it?  I could write something similar about doing figurative paintings from life versus from photos.  Maybe I will ...