Saturday, August 30, 2014

Plein Air Sketch to Studio: Revisted

"Quiet Cove" 12x16 oil - Sold

For me, painting on-location is very straightforward.  You go out, pick something to paint, and then you paint it.  Simple.  But taking that sketch to the studio and creating Art out of it, well, that is a different matter.  I haven't done a great deal of this, mostly because I just love plein air painting, but  when I do, I often end up scratching my head in puzzlement.  Where do you start?  What's the process?  How do you avoid ending up with just a boring copy of your field sketch?

Recently, I was commissioned to paint the view from a patron's home, perched over a rocky cove.  I felt pretty confident going out and taking reference photos and creating my field sketch.  But when I returned to the studio, I realized that, after all these years, I still didn't have a process for turning that sketch into something bigger and better.  When do you use photos?  When do you refer to the color sketch?  And what about re-designing?  I've always fumbled my way through it.  This time, I decided to figure it out.

So, here's what I found worked for me.  It's rather simple, especially if you aren't doing a lot of  scene editing.  (I did add some rocks and a shadow, but that was easy.)  Here's my process for "Quiet Cove":

  • Using a reference photo, create a design that works.  (I used vine charcoal on sketch paper and worked my way through some "notan" studies.)
  • Transfer the design to the painting surface.  (I used a 3x3 grid and 2B graphite pencil.)
  • Referring back to the photo, refine the design.  (I used the pencil and looked for dynamic lines and rhythms, and then I gave the design a quick spray of workable fixative.  I also added the extra rocks and shadow in the lower left.)
  • Now, put away the photo and take out the color sketch.
  • Referring only to the color sketch, block in the simple shapes with your "best guess" to approximate the colors in the sketch.  (I used a big brush and my split-primary oil palette.)
  • Go back and adjust your "best guess" - and keep adjusting it until is either as close as you can get it to the sketch or you find yourself in a place with a better color scheme and harmony.  Don't be tempted to go the photo!  Don't add detail!
  • Once you're happy with the color, now pull out the photo.
  • Use the photo as a reference for refining the profiles and contours of shapes.  Also use it for establishing any lights and darks that may have gotten away from you.  (I used a smaller brush for all of this.)  If there is an important "detail" that you need - and make sure that you really do need it! -  make a note of it in paint.  (For example, I used it for placement of cracks in the rocks.)
  • Now put away the photo for good.  You're done with it.
  • Referring to your color sketch, revisit your colors and make any color adjustments.  (They should be very minor at this point.)
  • Finally, sharpen or soften edges, add highlights or accents.  As my friend Albert Handell says, "Orchestrate the painting."  Make it sing!

You'll note how little I actually use the photo.  Basically, it's for the initial design, for refining shape contours and adding any important details.  I don't refer to it at all for color.  I found it very useful to understand when to use the photo and when to use the field sketch.

Below are a variety of photos to help explain the process.

9x12 color field sketch

Reference material ready to go

Notan sketch

The setup

Palette close-up
Design transferred to 12x16 surface (toned with Gamblin FastMatte Indian Yellow)

Initial block-in - "best guess"

Continuing the block-in

Adjusting the "best guess" and refining color choices

Finish - Quiet Cove 12x16 oil

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