Tag Archives: plein air painting

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?

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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.

 

The Killdeer and the Painters

The killdeer pair figured they’d found the perfect nesting site. It was in the middle of a wide open gravel patch at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, with lots of gray and white rocks to hide their speckled eggs in. They could see for some distance in every direction, so they could spot any raccoons or snakes coming, and could trick the predators away from the nest. They laid four eggs, and were carefully tending them to keep them warm at night and not too hot during the day.

What they hadn’t counted on was a bunch of humans and their vehicles taking over their nest area.

That Gravel Patch is a Parking Lot

The humans were a group of about a half dozen painters, myself included, who had come to paint spring wildflowers. This was the second of two paint-outs the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service had hosted at their refuges in the Sacramento valley.

Painters at the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge
The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, April 2013. Painters scout out paintings.

Amy, a volunteer for the refuge, escorted us to go to one of the areas normally closed to the public. The refuge staff had generously set up awnings for shade, for the area was wide open. Behind us was a ditch and some willows, but the wildflowers were in a huge open area to our west. We parked in a gravel lot normally used by hunters in the fall—otherwise, few people ever came out here.

Most of us just parked our cars and started scouting around for something to paint. One woman moved her SUV to a better location. Later, someone from the refuge came in a pickup, parked where the SUV had originally stopped, then backed out and drove off. What we didn’t know was that both of those vehicles literally drove right over an active killdeer nest.

Luckily, neither of the trucks hit the eggs.

Why Is She Acting So Strangely?

We humans didn’t even cotton on to the fact there was a nest there until later, when Amy realized that this killdeer would start acting upset and go into her broken wing routine every time we walked near our vehicles.

Killdeer feigning injury.
Killdeer distract predators from their nests by pretending to be injured, like this one is doing.

So I watched her for a few minutes, when she circled back to a spot behind where those two trucks had briefly parked. There, she halted, and sat down. That must be her nest.

When she ran off again, we inched closer to find the eggs. I eventually spotted them, four specked round “rocks” among the rest of the gravel. We then marked the spot with a flag and some sticks, to prevent any other vehicles from threatening the nest. (I later found two more killdeer nests in other parts of the refuge.)

Four killdeer eggs in gravel
Four killdeer eggs are in the lower left of the photo.

And my painting? Well, it’s a good start. There’s information there I can use to make another one, with a different composition. Mostly, I’m very glad that our visit didn’t end in tragedy for that killdeer pair. It’s bad enough when insects get into the paint. Have you seen a killdeer nest?

Killdeer on her nest
Mama killdeer safely back on her nest. The flags and sticks are there to warn other humans away.

The Art of Racing the Wind

The Yolo Art and Ag project for 2013 began this past month on a clear and windy Thursday morning in far western Yolo County. The lack of rain this year meant the roads were dry and the fields weren’t muddy, good for artists but also scary for the future. I love the opportunity to paint on private farmland where one would never otherwise be able to go.

This time we went to a working cattle ranch the foothills that rise from the Central Valley to the Coast Range, near Lake Berryessa. The oaks haven’t leafed out yet—it is only February, after all!—but the grasses were trying to green up.

Early Spring First Layer by Stephanie Benedict
This was the first layer, after about 30 minutes. I focused on the shadow colors within the trees and tried to get the distant hills. The shadows were the part that would change most quickly as the light changed.

And the day was WINDY. We can get some pretty strong north winds here.  This one was not quite a howler, but gusty enough to knock my hat off my head and to untie the plastic shopping bag I use for trash from my tripod and send it floating across the field.

So painting was a race against the wind. My intention that day was to simply capture some of the color and value relationships before the wind grew too fierce to stand up in. I didn’t expect to make a painting: this was a sketch, information gathering, to come back into the studio with and perhaps make a painting from it.
Those silver-gray oak tree boughs, with a bit of reddish new growth on the ends, are such a tough color to capture. All the dull colors of winter are challenging. Only the bright green new grass and the brilliant blue sky were bright and clear colors—all the others were subdued and very complex.

But I’m actually starting to like the challenge of making such dull colors seem like they’re in light or in shadow.

So I raced to cover my 9 x 12 board with something approaching the base colors I saw in front of me. After 30 minutes, I had it, and then I relaxed. I knew that, while I might not get any more detail that day, I had the basics on the canvas. Then I started over to refine and add some subtlety.

Early Spring: a sketch by Stephanie Benedict
Here’s the piece after 60 minutes. So, call this a quick study.

After an hour I stopped. The wind hadn’t let up, the sun was actually getting warm, and the light was changing. Better to stop than to overwork it.
The piece is not a painting, but I kind of like the feel of the thing. I took more notes on the details—like the way the distant hills started showing more green in their trees as the sun rose higher. Maybe I’ll work on it again—or not. It’s all part of putting those miles of canvas behind me, the ones that John Carlson writes about:

“behind every great painter are miles of canvas.”

Paintings from Colusa NWR

Now that they’re dry and photographed (and signed), here are the two paintings I did at the Colusa National Wildlife Refuge two weeks ago. The first one, Snow on Snow Mountain, was done in late morning, with the sun over my left shoulder.

Stephanie Benedict, Snow on Snow Mountain
The marsh in the morning was clear and cold, with a north wind blowing. To the west, in the Coast Range, Snow Mountain had a fresh dusting of snow. Snow on Snow Mountain ©2013 Stephanie Benedict. 8″ x 6″ oil on board.

The second, Light on the Water, was done mid- to late-afternoon. The light that day just kept getting better and better—except that, as the sun moved west, it reflected more and more off the water. Eventually, I couldn’t look at the scene without getting blinded by the glare. Surely a small price to pay for getting to spend the afternoon listening to ross’ geese, greater white-fronted geese, several kinds of ducks.

Light on the Water, ©2013 Stephanie Benedict
The afternoon sun reflected gold on the marsh waters. Light on the Water, ©2013 Stephanie Benedict. OIl on board, 8″ x 6″.

I even got a new bird for my life list: white-faced ibis. How cool is that?

White-faced Ibis ©2013 Stephanie Benedict.
These guys are fairly common in the Central Valley in the winter–I’d just never seen one before.