At the recent Gold Country 2006 Plein Air Invitational, I had a conversation with artists that is fairly common: do you want to be known as a “Plein Air Painter“, or just simply as an “Artist”? The reason we have to ask ourselves that is due to the fact–largely–that collectors would like a label that easily identifies a genre. They focus on plein air as a category of art.

The term “plein air” has gone through good times and bad, at least as one that collectors focus on. The truth is that plein air is both a technique/genre for finished works, as well as an important learning ritual for artists. Painting in front of your subject, outside, in natural light is the best way to learn how to do the same in the studio. Imagine painting the Grand Canyon from photographs, without actually having been there? Sure, it’s possible, but the artist wants to conveny a emotional response, and the best way to do so is to experience the subject first hand.

My own approach–like that of many–is to use plein air to fuel my larger, studio works. It’s fairly impractical to paint a large work on location due to changing light, without bringing the canvas back a few days during the same time of day, with exactly the same lighting conditions. The early impressionists, such as Claude Monet, followed this approach.

Below, I’ve shown the evolution of an artistic idea in three stages. In the first, I focus on design and placement in support of a desired emotional outcome and how I believe the eye will travel on the canvas. I wanted to focus on how the last bit of light lit the tops of Eucalyptus trees I observed while painting in Los Olivos, CA. To make the tree appear dominent, large, I extend it beyond the canvas. I balance the tree with a nearby smaller one, and with the distant hills. I represent the strong glow of the light by both the tree top colors as well as the far distant hills.

This three step process is common for me: design; study (plein air); and studio (larger work). You may click any of the images below for a larger view.

The image below is the 8×10″ study, at the underpainting stage. Here, I’m focusing on design, drawing, and identifying the big shapes. I’ve used a linen canvas board toned with pure Yellow Ocher to give the painting a strong sense of warm light.┬á If the abstract images at this point aren’t interesting, chances are the painting won’t be either.

The image above is the completed 8×10″ study. I know, I should have taken more pictures between the underpainting design and the end… Next time ­čÖé

I used the study to produce this 16×20″ final studio painting, “Last Ligth, Eucalyptus”.

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