Tag Archives: plein air painting

Delta Eucalyptus

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.

On the easel:  Delta Eucalyptus, ©2013 Stephanie Benedict
Delta Eucalyptus, 8 x 10 in, oil on board, by Stephanie Benedict

Do you prefer finished-looking pieces, or the more raw look of a painting done in one outdoor session, with no touch-ups?


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?


Winter in the Sacramento Valley

Winter is a great time in California’s Sacramento Valley. Lots of birds, especially waterfowl, come to the Valley to over-winter. I always try to get out to some of the nature preserves this time of year to see who’s there. This week, I got to go with a group of plein air painters to a tour put on by the California Department of Fish and Game to look for tundra swans. This is apparently the southernmost part of their range. We drove north of Marysville near some flooded rice fields* and got our cameras out. A couple of our group actually either sketched or painted, but most of us took photos. I find that birding and painting don’t really mix all that well. If I’m trying to watch birds, I want to be mobile and unencumbered with painting gear. And if I’m painting or drawing, birds are mostly a distraction, however fun, and that light just keeps on changing. At least, that’s my excuse.

But I got some good photos, and some great inspiration. AND I got some ideas of where to go back in the future.

Swans in the sky by Stephanie Benedict
The skies over the rural Sacramento Valley are filled with waterfowl each winter. Though they’re hard to see in this image, the white birds are tundra swans and the dark specks upper right are greater white-fronted geese.
Snow Geese and Swans by Stephanie Benedict
This flooded rice field was filled with birds. Here you can see tundra swans, snow geese, greater white-fronted geese, northern pintail, and a shoveler or two. The softness in this photo is operator error.
Tundra Swans and  Sutter Buttes ©2012 Stephanie Benedict
A closer view of tundra swans taking wing. Those are the Sutter Buttes in the background, and, in the distance, you can see snow on the Coast Range about 75 miles away.

What outdoor excursions do you take in winter?

*Our tour guide, Bruce, told us that, since the burning of rice stubble was stopped a decade or so ago, more farmers are now flooding their fields in winter. It helps the stubble to break down, I guess. If the water is deep enough (about six inches), dabbling birds will hang out. Some farmers host gun clubs—we heard plenty of rifle fire while we were out. Weird to think it’s OK to hear gunfire nowadays. I don’t actually know what the farmers think of birders—or painters!



No Need to Whine

I recently got to spend five days with 14 other artists painting in the Sierra Nevada foothills, at the most beautiful time of year, in near-perfect conditions.  The occasion?  Kathleen Dunphy’s advanced painting workshop, called “No Whiners: Serious Art for Serious Artists.”

Kathleen Dunphy sketches and Cynthia Hein observes. Photo by Stephanie Benedict
Cynthia Jackson Hein watches while Kathleen Dunphy (right) prepares thumbnail sketches for a demonstration at her No Whiners 2012 workshop.

Dunphy structures her five-day No Whiners a bit differently than most workshops I’ve attended.  She opens with a discussion of ways to work through the roadblocks and stuck places we all encounter.  Then she challenges her students to focus on their weaknesses. She asks everyone to name the three or four things they want to focus on during the workshop, and turns people loose.

She still gives demonstrations:  after all, her students are visual people, and learn in part by seeing.  And while her students are painting, Dunphy offers some very specific personalized instruction to address the topics each student wanted to focus on, whether it be paint handling or composition or painting moving water. People didn’t even have to paint, if they felt drawing would be more useful to them.

She also made sure we got to paint at locations with different types of painting problems.  We drove one day to Tamarack, California (elevation 6,913 ft.), where was snow on the ground, bright yellow aspen trees, and weather warm enough in the afternoon to paint in t-shirts. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Then again, maybe it does.  Dunphy’s enthusiasm is contagious.  She’s a great role model of a working artist, challenging herself to do different things, never settling.  She offer tips on everything from how to see values (“Squint, often.”), to how to protect yourself from snow blindness while you paint, to how to work with galleries.

Someone asked me what I got out of the workshop, and my answer was this:  Besides the painting itself, and the camaraderie with a great group of artists, I got a great attitude adjustment and a renewed sense of commitment.  Thank you, Kathleen, and my fellow No Whiners!

Have you taken a Kathleen Dunphy workshop?  What did you think?

Ebb and Flow: a solo exhibition by Kathleen Dunphy

I had the chance to attend the opening of Kathleen Dunphy’s solo exhibition, Ebb and Flow, at Knowlton Gallery in Lodi, California, this past weekend. Twenty-six paintings fill the gallery at Knowlton with light and—I have no other word for it—grace. The works range from still lifes of flowers in glass vases, to cows quietly watching the watcher, to fog rolling onto the Marin Headlands. Some were created on site, en plein air; many are larger studio pieces. (A couple of the pieces are 36″ by 48″, and one is 48″ by 60″.)

Kathleen Dunphy at Knowlton Gallery
Kathleen Dunphy discusses how she painted “Sanctuary” from the small plein air sketch in her hand. At the opening of Ebb and Flow, October 2012. Photo by Stephanie Benedict

The landscapes, especially, have a grandeur and immediacy to them that stops you in your tracks. And it’s not the plein air pieces, so full of the energy, that strike you. No, it’s the big ones. So often, enlarging a smaller painting results in a loss of the energy of the original work. However Dunphy did it, whether by creating a new composition by using multiple sketches as the source material or what, she has given the larger pieces a different kind of energy: less visceral, perhaps, but more intense.

I overheard another artist at the opening say, as the highest compliment he could pay, “I wish I’d painted this.” Well—me, too.

(Full disclosure: I’ve taken several of Dunphy’s workshops. I’m a huge fan, so this is not an unbiased review.)

I’ve long maintained Dunphy is an incredibly generous teacher. She was also generous with visitors at the opening. The 30 or so people who attended last Saturday afternoon got to hear Dunphy describe how she uses her small plein air sketches as source material for her larger pieces. Her stories of trying to catch the light before the fog engulfed the view, or heading out for trip to the Sierras and forgetting all but one brush, helped give each painting a life beyond mere canvas. They also helped her listeners understand a bit of what it’s like to be a painter.

It’s also nice to see all the red dots at the exhibition.  But then, most of Dunphy’s paintings sell.  So if you’re interested, act quickly.


Ebb and Flow: Painting Nature’s Rhythms is at Knowlton Gallery in Lodi through November 24, 2012.