Category Archives: Plein air painting

Bypassed

Bypassed. ©2014 Stephanie Benedict.
Bypassed. ©2014 Stephanie Benedict. 9” x 12”, oil on board.

Autumn has come to the Sacramento Valley. We had our first rain of the season last week, a welcome break from the heat and the smoke from the wildfires around the state.

Rain here also brings fog. Not the thick kind that comes in on little cat’s feet, then silently moves on, as Carl Sandburg wrote of fog along the coast.  We get tule fog here—or anyway, we used to.  Tule fog condenses close to the ground and doesn’t move much. It can make driving treacherous.

But it also can add a blessed sense of moisture to a dry landscape, especially early in the fall, when the land is parched and the rainy season is new.

It was on such a day that I went out to Conaway Ranch, in the heart of the Yolo Bypass, on a Yolo Art & Ag adventure. There, amid the levees and fields used for grain and I don’t know what, I found a marshy spot turned bright red with the season.  Actual tules filled the lined the marsh, and, as the fog lifted, I saw birds overhead: egrets and herons and blackbirds and geese.  I felt I’d stepped back in time, to a land before European settlers changed California.  I kept expecting to see a herd of tule elk and a grizzly bear, animals that once lived in the Valley but are gone now.  Or maybe I’d been transported even farther back, and should look out for saber-toothed cat and wooly mammoths.

I’m glad to know places like this still exist.

Pray for rain in California this year.

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Then and Now: 100 Years of Plein Air Painting

The Irvine Museum has an interesting show up this summer:  Then and Now: 100 Years of Plein Air Painting.  It’s an exhibition of early California Impressionist paintings paired with contemporary plein air paintings.  Many of the paintings are from private collections.  The viewer can compare and contrast the techniques, the subject matter, or the sizes of the paintings.  The museum offers little commentary on the matter, which is refreshing, so the observations are entirely those of the viewer.  Here are mine:

  • The older paintings are often larger than the newer ones. 16 in. x 20 in., 20 in. x 30 in., or even larger, are not uncommon sizes for the California Impressionist paintings. The newer paintings are more frequently 12 in. x 16 in. or smaller.
  • The earlier paintings are often more carefully painted, with more precise strokes and harder edges than the newer ones. Many of the newer ones are very think paint applied very quickly—not slapdash, but also not carefully controlled. The influence of the intervening century of abstract painting, perhaps?
  • The color palettes of all of the painters are similar. Few if any blacks, no strikingly different color ranges such as illustrators might use. The individual pigments might be different now from a century ago, but the range of colors are similar. And in this show, mostly California colors and light.

While this is a nice exhibition, and an interesting conceit, it’s also true that none of these paintings represent the best work of the earlier artists, and probably not the contemporary painters, either. I don’t mean these aren’t good paintings—they are.  A couple of them are very good indeed (take special note of the Ken Auster painting of houses near the beach). But not every show can be full of masterpieces.

In fact, as I think about it, these are plein air paintings.  A plein air painting can only be worked on for a couple of hours during the day, or the light changes too much.  I suspect the larger early pieces were painted over a couple of days, at the same time each day. But they’re not studio pieces, which can be worked on for longer periods.

And maybe that’s part of the point of the show:  that plein air paintings can be nice, even very good—but they are rarely masterpieces.

Then and Now: 100 Years of Plein Air Painting runs through October 2, 2014.

Have you seen the show?  What did you think?  Do you like plein air painting?

Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park

I finally got myself to Malakoff Diggins State Historic Park to paint last week. It’s been something I’ve wanted to do for some time, and we got a relatively cool-ish day so I packed the car and drove the two-plus hours from my house. (Far nice than this weekend, which is another scorcher*.) As I drove up into the foothills on ever narrower roads, I kept thinking about the truth behind Sacramento’s big claim to fame: it really is just two hours from anywhere. The weekend before, I’d driven two hours to San Francisco.

A view of the "diggin's" at Malakoff Diggins SHP.
A view of the “diggin’s” at Malakoff Diggins SHP. The trees in the valley have grown since mining ended in about 1884.

Malakoff Diggins is the site of the largest hydraulic mine of the California gold rush. Huge water cannons were used to literally wash away the soil overburden and expose the gold beneath. It’s a terribly destructive process that washes away mountains, leaving badlands behind.

Today, Malakoff Diggins is recovering, sort of. The mining generally ended in California in 1884, after a legal battle with farmers downstream, where the sediment washed down from the mines changed the rivers and caused flooding**. In the intervening years trees have grown where there is soil. The valley floor is covered with marsh, even in this dry year. The mountains of course will never regrow; there will always be scars from what the humans did here.

But those scars are both fascinating and beautiful. I’ve long wanted to paint the scene, so I set up my easel in the shade of a Ponderosa pine. The air smelled of pine and manzanita. I sketched for a couple of hours. I didn’t intend to do a complete painting; I just wanted to record the colors for reference.

Benedict plein air painting at Malakoff Diggins
My set-up at Malakoff Diggins. I found a great spot right next to my car. How convenient is that?

Now, I’m back in the studio working on the painting. It will be 30 x 40. Here’s a shot of the underpainting, done with acrylic paint mixed with gesso. This is actually my favorite part, probably because I really can’t mess it up yet. The only down side to this is that I have to wait overnight to start the oils, because I need to let that gesso dry thoroughly, and I’m eager to work on this one. I’ll keep you posted on the progress.

Stephanie Benedict Malakoff Diggins Underpainting
The underpainting. 30″ x 40″. ©2013 Stephanie Benedict. The colors are darker than they ultimately will be, because I was focusing on the shadows within the trees here.

What hidden gem of a park is close to where you live?

*I talked to a friend who is actually is a weather forecaster in the Navy reserve. He thinks that the next few decades will be notable for NOT having a “normal” weather, but rather by increasingly chaotic weather patterns. He may be right–the system cannot stabilize while we keep pumping energy into it. I think that we all need to get used to this extra heat.

**But it’s still practiced in other places around the world.

Auburn Arts in the Parks

I’ve been invited to participate this weekend in a plein air painting event at the Foothill Farmer’s Market in Auburn, California. I’ll be painting near the market in the morning. In the afternoon, my paintings will be available at the Arts in the Parks event.

Stephanie will be painting at the Farmers Market on May18.
If you’re in the Auburn area Saturday, May 18, stop by the farmers market to find me painting, or head over to the Arts in the Parks in the afternoon to vote for your favorite plein air painting.

I went to the farmer’s market last Saturday to scope the site out. The market itself is very small and BUSY! There’s not a lot of room for a painter near the booths, so I’ll be out on the fringes of the event. Someday, I’ll see if I can paint people in the wild. In the meantime, I’m going to stick to more stationery subjects: buildings and flowers.

 

Changing the Composition

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.

 

Stephanie Benedict mustard and goldfields en plein air
The original study for Mustard and Goldfields, on the easel. This one is too squished.

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.

Work on progress by Stephanie Benedict
Mustard and Goldfields in progress, by Stephanie Benedict. Oil on canvas. 12″ by 24″

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.