Saturday, February 8, 2014

A Large-Format Plein Air Painting Workshop

(News flash! I have openings in my March 18-21 Paint Sedona plein air painting workshop. I have just one student that week, and I'd love to get at least one more! You'll get lots of personal attention in this one.  Workshop runs Tue-Fri, 9-1, and is $300. For details and to register:

Every once in a while, I like to spice up the workshop season by hosting a special topic.  This not only gives me something different to teach, but it also gives my repeat students a new skill to learn.  This past week, I conducted a large-format plein air workshop.  Typically, my students work in sizes that are fairly small, such as 9x12.  The reason for this is time.   As most plein air painters know, we only have a couple of hours to start and perhaps finish a piece.

But for this workshop, in which were to visit each location twice, we would have twice the time to work on a single canvas.  You can do that in the Southwest - usually - because the weather and light are reasonably consistent from day to day.  In my supply list, I recommended that students bring paper or panels that were at least 16x20.  To some plein air painters, even a 16x20 is small.  If memory serves, Emile Gruppe in one of his books said that beginners should start out with nothing smaller than a 24x30!  But I figured 16x20 would get the point across.

Did I mention consistent weather and light?  Well, we had an absolutely beautiful January.  But the forecast for this early February workshop looked rather iffy - rain showers, snow showers, low clouds.  Weather always makes for some good painting in Sedona, but not necessarily when you are going out repeatedly, hoping to find the same lighting conditions.  But we rolled with the punches.  Despite some nighttime snow and rain and clouds, even a bit of early-morning fog, we got out there every day!  We even visited each of our two locations twice.

Fleeting Weather, 16x20 pastel

Still, the weather challenged us, since we were never really sure if we'd have to dash back to the studio, or if tomorrow's weather was going to be the same as today's.  The first two days were better, and we all worked on a single large piece each.  Above is mine, a 16x20 pastel.  You can see the fleeting sun at work.  The last two days, because the weather was increasingly uncertain, we assumed our fallback position, and went back to painting smaller, one-session pieces.  Despite the weather, we were all very happy we each got at least one large painting out of the workshop plus a couple of smaller, pochade-style pieces.

If you're thinking of painting in a larger format, here are some other issues that you will need to consider:

Easel.  Those cheap, lightweight easels you can find at discount art supply stores aren't any good for large-format painting.  They are unstable in the wind, and if you are inspired to add that final bravura stroke, you may end up unintentionally giving the painting a coup-de-grace instead.  Instead, you need a very stable easel that can handle a large size.  When I taught a pastel workshop on Cape Cod several years ago, we had enormous wind, and out of the dozen different styles of easel, only two held up:  the standard French easel, and the Gloucester-style easel (Take-It-Easel.)  My preference today for large-format painting is the Take-It-Easel.  It is American-made, easy to set up, take down and transport, and will stand up to a gale.

Palette.  Large canvases require a large mixing area or some system for mixing large batches of paint.  I sometimes paint as large as 24x30 these days, and for my palette I use an earlier version of Artwork Essential's EasyL Classic.  The mixing area is about 12x16, and that is just big enough for my six colors plus white.  Another painter I know uses a standard French easel palette for large paintings, but only puts out the one or two colors he is using at any given moment.

Pastel painters will want larger pastel sticks in addition to a set of small sticks.  When I painted the pastel above, I started with my usual Heilman "backpack" box, using small hard pastels to get the drawing started and a few color notes laid in.  As I moved further into the painting process, I opened up a bigger box that has bigger, softer sticks.  (Mine is a brand that is no longer made, but you can find similar.)

Transport.  Sure, maybe you could throw that wet, 4-foot-by-5-foot stretched canvas in the back of your rental car, but how will you get it on the plane?   (I once had a student who painted this large, and he solved the problem by finding a local gallery to take all the paintings he did in my workshop; unfortunately, the gallery closed its doors just before my student was about to deliver the paintings, and I ended up storing them until they were dry enough to take to a shipper.)  If you're flying, very large stretched canvases simply may not be practical.

You will also need to consider how to carry a wet painting back from the field to your car.  If you can't find a wet canvas carrier large enough (Guerrilla Painter's Plein Air Porter will carry up to a 20x24 panel), you may have to invest in special clips that clip two stretched canvases together, front-to-front.  Or,  you can make two trips from the field, one with your painting, a second with your gear.    If you're a pastel painter, you won't have to worry as much, but you still might want to protect the painting with a sheet of glassine.

Large-format outdoor painting isn't for the weak of heart, but it can be very rewarding.  By taking the time to really observe a scene and record my response to it makes me feel a little more part of the natural world - and a little more alive.

(By the way, in the July/August 2013 issue of The Artist's Magazine, I gave more detail on large-format painting.  Click this link for a free article from The Artists' Magazine on my process.)

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