Archive For "Technique"

From Outdoor to Studio

A common practice for outdoor landscape painters, is to use the initial outdoor sketches as inspiration for larger studio pieces. These are typically painted on canvases that would be too large to haul outside. It would also be difficult to capture a moment in time on a large canvas. With a 5×7 canvas up to about 11×14, the artist can quickly record the colors, light and atmosphere of a place at a particular moment. Then these quick oil sketches are used in the studio along with notes, pencil sketches and sometimes photographs to create a larger version.

Plein air paintings are charming in their smaller size and often portray an energy in each brush stroke that is difficult to reproduce in a studio painting. For me this is the biggest challenge- how do I infuse the studio piece with that  same energy and powerful statement of being present in the moment.

I found that what inspires me in the studio is first the colors of the outdoor painting. I don’t think I could come up with such vibrant, truthful colors if I were working from a photograph (I’ve tried). A nice benefit of reworking a composition in the studio is that there is time to critique what didn’t work in the original outdoor sketch, and improve problems in the composition or even details that could be corrected like figures or buildings. Most important is to use the elements in the plein air painting that did work and highlight these in the studio piece. When I spend more time thinking and contemplating the subject while I’m painting, it’s always a surprise when the canvas displays an emotional effect that I didn’t realize was there. A large canvas inevitably says about the artist, “Here is my statement. Here is what I want to say with paint. Here is what I think is important about life.”  My outdoor study, “Afternoon Swim” was a 2 hour oil sketch of the beach, one lone swimmer who braved the cold May ocean water, and of course the ever-present ship in the distance. It was a light moment, captured on a fun afternoon. But when I brought the composition to a larger canvas, a deeper message started to reveal itself. It was more accidental than anything, that there was a message or feeling being conveyed on the canvas. And so the new title of the studio work became “Contemplation.”  The viewer can’t help but look for a deeper meaning when observing a large painting, which in turn gives the artist an important job- making a statement.

To Tone or Not To Tone The Canvas


A canvas toned with burnt umber.

To tone a canvas means to cover the canvas with an initial layer of color. A base color can peek through the final layers of paint, adding an extra layer of interest to the painting. Artists use all sorts of colors for this base wash of color and some don’t tone the canvas at all, preferring to start the painting with the blank white canvas.

When it comes to plein air painting, there are advantages to toning the canvas. It helps to paint an initial layer of color because this color can then be manipulated into basic shapes of light and dark, helping to refine the composition before committing with more paint colors. The lights can be wiped away with a paper towel, or the darks can be applied heavier to depict the darkest darks of the composition. I have found this technique helpful since I don’t tend to do preliminary sketches before I paint. I like playing with the toned color to find the right composition, and then painting directly over these values with their corresponding colors. Lately I’ve been using burnt umber as my base coat, since it dries quickly and I like it’s mysterious quality when peeking between shapes of colors after the painting is finished. For a while I tried using red as a base tone but it seemed harder to then go from all red to finding the correct colors from nature to apply over it, although red gives the overall composition a beautiful quality especially if your painting has a lot of blue in it. One rule of thumb artists use is toning the canvas with the complimentary color of your main color or local color, making your painting really pop when it’s finished.

If you decide to try using burnt umber to tone your canvas, remember to put a lot of paint on your canvas and then spread it around with a paper towel. This way it won’t be too thin to be helpful, and it will dry quicker if not mixed with too much mineral spirits.

Blocking in the Big Shapes

Blocking in a painting has come to be one of my favorite parts of the process. Simplifying the entire scene, not thinking about details, and even forgetting about WHAT you are painting and just paint shapes of colors. I think a lot about value here although I’ve found this first layer only hints at value instead of recording the exact, final values of the painting. It’s difficult to record the exact value first because it is completely relative the other colors and values layed down around each other. I’m thinking about how colors relate next to each other and whether they are cold or warm. And I’m thinking about the entire “key” of the painting. The color key is the overall brightness of a painting. A high key painting is mostly at the lighter end of the value scale and a low key painting tends toward the darker end of the value scale. I put together a Pinterest page of high key and low key paintings to give you an idea of what the emotional impact of the different keyed paintings have. For example you find much drama in a low key painting. Do you want your paintings to have drama? Make them low key!