Sometimes it’s only when you’re back in the studio that you see.
Plein air painting is a challenge: the light’s always changing; there are bugs and heat (or cold), etc., etc., etc. James Gurney recently posted a list and video on plein air painting disasters. Well, here’s another one: sometimes you don’t see the inherent weaknesses of your composition until you’re back in the studio.
At the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge last month, they took us to a portion of the refuge not normally open to people. Which was fabulous and much appreciated. The day even cooperated a bit: the light got better as the high clouds started to move out.
So I set up my easel under the canopy the refuge staff kindly set up for us on that unseasonably hot day* and went for it. I wanted to try to capture the wide expanse of the scene, the feel of the sun shining, the open sky.
But I only had squarish boards: 9″ x 12″, 8″ x 10″.
So I tried squishing the composition to fit the board. I thought I could get both ends of the composition and leave the middle out**. The image above is that first version, painted on site.
Once I got back into the studio, I saw my experiment had failed. Oh, the day is warm, and the greens are close to right, but—eh. The painting doesn’t sing.
So I changed the composition, after this time doing some value sketches. Here’s what I’m getting. This one’s not quite done yet, and as I look at the photo I can see things that need changing. But this larger one has much more the sense of the open space, the big wide world that I almost always want to portray in my paintings.
I guess this is more reason to switch my plein air materials from pre-made boards to something I can manipulate—either cut or mount—later. So I can get the compositions better the first time round. AND be more rigorous about those doing those thumbnail sketches first!
What are you looking for in landscape paintings?
*or maybe this is the new normal in the Central Valley: almost no rain, and 90 degree days in April.
**And yes, I can think of lots of other solutions NOW, back in the studio.