Category Archives: Works in progress

Secrets of Storing Wet Oil Paintings

A recent post by Marianne Post (who is primarily a pastel painter) asked “where do oil painters store wet paintings?” This is a serious question because oil paintings can take anywhere from 24 hours to a few weeks to dry to the touch, depending on what medium the artist uses.  (This is where acrylic painters and watercolorists laugh. They, of course, don’t have this problem.) 

A trick I learned a couple of years ago from another student in an art class is this: an inexpensive dish drying rack. It works perfectly as a painting drying rack, at least for smallish paintings on panels of boards. Here’s one that I use:

Paint drying rack by Stephanie Benedict
You can fit several small boards–up to about 12 inches–in a dish drying rack to dry, depending on the size of the rack.

I have another, slightly larger one, too, that I use for boards up to about 12 in by 16 in.

Small stretched canvases can fit sideways, if you don’t have too many boards in the rack. For larger canvases or panels, about the only solution I’ve found is a shelf. Lots of oil painters have narrow shelves molding on their walls just for this purpose.

What do you use for storing wet oil paintings?


Painting the Inside of Trees

Blogger Des Moines Art Collector wrote recently about wanting to see into a painting of a tree, not just see the surface. So while I painted this weekend, I took some photos showing one way to do that.

Delta Eucalyptus by Stephanie Benedict
Delta Eucalyptus at the end of a plein air session. It will need some touchup when it’s dry.

I was out with painters from the Sacramento Plein Air Painters Meetup group in the Sacramento River Delta. The Delta is famous for its narrow, winding roads on top of the levees that both protect the islands from floods and cut off their source of new soil—silt from those same floods. It’s not unlike the situation in New Orleans.

We had a beautiful January day by the historic Grand Island Mansion. We pulled off in a rare wide spot by the road and set up our easels, where this eucalyptus tree called to me to paint it.

Setting for Delta Eucalyptus
The scene for Delta Eucalyptus. Minus the postal service truck!

This technique for painting the different layers of trees I learned from Terry Miura. Usually painters are taught to think of trees as shapes: cones or ovals or balls. But because there is shadow inside a tree, as well as any cast shadow on the outside, you first have to paint that interior shadow.

Delta Eucalyptus plein air first layer
First I painted the shadows inside the tree with a thinned dull blueish-purplish-greenish color.

I started with a cool bluish-purplish-green, because it was a sunny day and the shadows were cool. Using thinned paint, I laid down a transparent layer to color for the shadows, and then let it set up for a bit while I worked on the other parts of the painting. I tried to do similar interior shadows for all of the upright plants (though in reviewing photos for this post, I can see room for improvement!). Then I went back over the shadow color with opaque pigment, this time a warm reddish-yellowish-green, because the sunny surface of the tree would be a warm color on this sunny day. (And there’s lots of red in eucalyptus leaves.)

Delta Eucalyptus by Stephanie Benedict, in process
This shot shows the painting at an intermediate stage.

Because I was thinking about this blog, for once I didn’t overwork it, though I think I’ll do some touch ups when it’s dry. Des Moines Art Collector also commented he didn’t like to see the texture of the ground, but I rather like the very thin paint scumbled onto that canvas surface around the edges of the tree in this one. (I use a yellow-toned board for exactly this reason. If some of the canvas shows through, it is warm like the atmosphere.)

What do you think? Do you have a technique for painting the interior shadows of trees?


Why I’m not (really) a Plein Air Painter

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.


Fall reds and greens, underpanting
Sometimes I do underpaintings in acrylics, sometimes oils. For this one, I used Gamblin’s fastmatte paints, just to try them. I’m not sure I like them yet. When this is dry, I’ll work in regular oils to add at least one, perhaps several, more 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.


Yolo Art and Ag

I spent a great morning painting last week in western Yolo County, California.

The Yolo County Arts Commission has a program it calls Art & Ag: they work with farmers to bring painters to their farms. Once a month, painters can come to a farm to paint. It’s a great program, because it lets us paint on private property we otherwise wouldn’t get to see. I, for one, really appreciate the opportunity. I’ve lived in California most of my life, and in Sacramento most of that time, and I’ve been to places with Art & Ag that I’ve never been to before. This is the Scott Farm west of Woodland. Those are the coast mountains in the distance, near Lake Berryessa. The morning was pleasantly cool, and the barn provided lots of shade to work in.

What interested me with this scene was the juxtaposition of the farmhouse and the wind turbine in the distance (it’s in front of the mountains, almost in the center of the shot, below). A few minutes later, some cows wandered in front of us, in that pasture in front of the green (olive trees?). Instantly, this plein air study became a sketch for a larger painting, of the cows and the wind turbine. Agrarian and high tech. I’ll post an image when I get it finished!

Painting setup in Yolo County
A plein-air study in progress at Scott’s Farm in Yolo County. The wind turbine went in as the very last thing.

Making Larger Paintings

Plein air painting is a race against time. Painters usually have about a two-hour window in which to complete their painting*. After that, the light has changed and it’s best to put the first painting away and start a new one. To complete their paintings within that window, most painters work fairly small: anywhere from 6” by 6” to 12 x 16. (There are, of course, exceptions. On foggy or overcast days, the light stays constant longer. And some painters do work larger. I’ve no idea how they do it.)

But what if you want to work larger?

Around the Bay by Stephanie Benedict, study and larger
Around the Bay, ©2012 Stephanie Benedict. The study is 8″ x 24″. The studio version (here in progress), is 15″ x 45″.

Many artists I know, including myself, do small-scale studies outdoors, often several at one location, and then come into their studios to paint larger works. I often do work small, because it’s faster and because, in this economy, the smaller pieces sell better. But my heart wants to paint larger.

Working larger has its own set of challenges. Things you could indicate in a small piece with just a brushstroke need modeling of light and shadow. Perspective becomes more important in a larger piece: are all elements oriented to the horizon (or false horizons) properly? Details become far more important.

And then there’s the mechanics of working larger: bigger easel, larger brushes, larger canvas, more paint. The amount of paint you need to mix for a small painting is very different from the amount you need for a big piece. I have to stop and ask myself before I start putting that paint on the canvas if I’ve mixed enough for the area I’m going to work on. Sometimes I get it right, sometimes not. (This is an advantage of using a limited color palette: it’s easier to recreate color mixtures when you only have a few choices to start with.)

Finally, larger paintings just take more time than smaller ones do. For me, that’s the biggest challenge. The rest are overcome-able: it just takes work. I find it impossible to work on large paintings for short periods of time—I need 2- to 4-hour chunks, minimum. And that, in our too-busy 21st Century lives, can be very hard to find.

Do you like to work larger?  Do you paint large in the studio or outdoors?  If your a collector, do you prefer larger or smaller paintings?

*That is, unless they don’t care about capturing the actual scene they see before them.