A few weeks ago I wrote about a plein air trip to the Sacramento River Delta. I finally had a chance to touch up the painting I did that day. Usually when you bring a painting indoors, you see things in it that need to be fixed: edges not right, some area too bright—something. This one had a shadow across that tree that was too much of a stripe, and the sky showed too many streaky brushstrokes. (I like the sky to be smooth, unless I’m painting clouds.) Here’s what I think is the final piece.
Do you prefer finished-looking pieces, or the more raw look of a painting done in one outdoor session, with no touch-ups?
I love to do underpaintings. I love that first layer, the first block-in, the first color on the canvas. Maybe it’s because I know that whatever I do doesn’t have to be either precise or perfect, so there’s a huge amount of freedom with first layers.
And when one paints en plein air, of course, they’re really painting alla prima, or all in one sitting. From start to at least pretty close to finished. Oh, it’s true, you can return to the same spot a day or few days later to finish something up, for example, on a larger canvas. Or you can be like John Singer Sargent painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose, and get everything set up to allow you to paint for those few minutes around sunset when the light is perfect—and make your models do this for months. That is, you can return more than once if the weather holds. A day or two after I was at the park shown above, we got three huge storms that changed the scene completely. All those bright red leaves are gone.
Or, you can be like me and do little studies outdoors and then do larger pieces in the studio.
I’d love to say I was a better plein air painter than I am, but I’m not.
And this is probably why: I like to paint in layers.
Here in the Central Valley of California, we kind of have two seasons, rather than four. Wet and dry, summer and winter. That’s a bit of an exaggeration, but our autumn only lasts about a month (if we’re lucky), and spring lasts about two weeks. In between are a short, mild winter, in good years full of gentle rain and fog; and the long, hot (but dry) summer. Where I live, outside of Sacramento, the nights are cool, and that’s what makes our summers tolerable.
In summer, all the plants dry out and hunker down. That’s because we only get about 18 inches of rain each year here in the Valley, most of it between November and March. “California’s Gold,” the color of the dried grasses in non-irrigated areas, is the result of annual grasses brought by European settles in the 1700s and 1800s, which out-competed the native perennials that stayed greener longer.
But then each fall*, we get this phenomenon of the hillsides and dales—all the non-irrigated areas—turning green again with the first rains. Acid green, brilliant green, green that hurts your eyes. Green you want to soak up and keep all year.
I went walking to my favorite local park/nature preserve the Saturday after Thanksgiving, and found the grasses are coming up green again. We’ve had two to three inches of rain so far this season, and all those annual grasses are coming to life again. They start under the oak trees and in the swales, then spread across the fields. The photo above shows what it looked like. In the middle of the picture, you can see in the background the brilliant red of alder trees in the landscaped development across the street.
I did a little painting of the same effect last year, called “Fall’s First Green.” Sometimes I feel like a documentary painter! But this is why I paint: to reveal the land around us, specific times and places, to help us remember there’s more to life than the latest tablet computer or Black Friday sale. Today’s walk made me want to do another one. But I’d better hurry: the effect won’t last.
Is it fall where you are—or is it spring? What’s your favorite season?
*Assuming it rains. Last year we got very little rain or snow in the mountains. Keep your fingers crossed.
The PBS program America’s Heartland has aired an episode about the Yolo Art and Agriculture program (It aired October 17 and October 21, 2012, on my local station, but the air dates might be different on your PBS affiliate.) It’s pretty cool that this program has received this kind of attention—and, according to the episode, it’s also been noticed by arts organizations around the country. I know I very much appreciate being able to go out to private property to paint with them, and then sharing the vistas and open space with people through my paintings.
I wasn’t there the day the film crew showed up, so they didn’t interview me. But I AM in it—very briefly! Toward the end, they show a couple of still photos. The artist in the gray jacket with her back to the camera is me. Don’t blink. You’ll miss me.
This is the painting I was working on the day Janice Purnell of Yolo Art & Ag snapped the photo PBS used.
I learned something about framing recently. Never wait until the last minute.
I’ll have more about frames in a future post, but for now I want to show you what happened recently when I waited too long to order and test out a frame.
First, here’s the painting. I seem to like these panorama formats.
I always envisioned this painting in a floater frame: that is, not with the frame wrapped over the edges, but the frame held away from the painting.
About a month before the deadline to take the piece to the gallery, I ordered a gold floater frame. It arrived about a week before I needed it—and I left it wrapped in the bubble wrap. The painting was wet, I was trying to finish it, and I didn’t want to risk scratching the frame by handling it too much. So I waited until the painting was done and dry.
With typical frames, you attach the frame to the painting with brackets or framers points or even nails—but you don’t nail through the painting. The painting is rigid, so all you need to do is put the framers points or nails behind the canvas to hold it into the frame. The front lip of the frame itself keeps the piece from falling out the front.
With a floater frame, there is no front lip, so you have to attach the frame to the painting by screwing it to the stretcher bars from the back. But when I went to do that, the brackets the framing company provided were too short, and would have put the screw right through the spline holding the canvas to the stretcher bars. This might be OK, but I didn’t want to risk my painting by screwing directly through the edge of the canvas.
I went to two hardware stores and a Michael’s to find longer brackets: no luck. Happily, my friend Kat Oliver works in steel. She fabricated some longer brackets for me. But she had a problem: the jig she had made them deeper than the originals: from 3/8” to ¾”. And when I tried to use them, that extra depth made the painting stick out in front of the frame awkwardly. So I couldn’t use them.
In the meantime, just in case, I had put an extra coat of black around the edges of the painting. I’d used black gesso on the edges to begin with, but paint had splattered around the edges, so I added a layer of oil paint to the edge.
So for now this is how the painting is hung, at High Hand Gallery. I’m still working on getting longer brackets, so I can frame this piece eventually. Otherwise, I need to order or make another 15” x 45” canvas—without the gallery wrap—just so I can use that floater frame!
Have you had framing malfunctions? Do you prefer not to use frames?