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Sunday, October 17, 2021

Painting Intensive Report: Improving Studio Work with Plein Air Studies

6x8 Oil Cottonwood Study
(all sketches/paintings mine)

This past week, an accomplished studio painter come to me for help.  She wanted to improve her plein air practice with the goal of improving her studio work.  Arriving from Maryland to study with me for a week, she agreed to a plan that we'd both worked on to help her with these goals.  The plan:  

  • Gather field references in the way of color studies and photos
  • Return to the studio to create designs in charcoal based on the color studies (and to avoid resorting to photos unless absolutely necessary)
  • And then to “scale up” the color studies into finished paintings, using the value sketches to plot out our compositions

Although she'd painted en plein air many times before, it wasn't her usual practice, and she often worked just from photos.  Photos, however, give us nothing but shape and detail; value and color are always distorted by the camera.  The eye is the ultimate tool for observing value and color.  So, every day, we went to the field to sketch in color with a particular subject and scene in mind.  (All except for one day, when we experienced an unusual October snow.  We focused on studio work that day.)  Although she brought oil pastels and oil sticks, I gave her oil paint, too.  Ultimately, we decided that her best plein air kit would consist of oil pastel—quick, clean and easily ported to a location.

Mentor and Student

Back in the studio, we worked out a number of design possibilities with charcoal on newsprint.  To avoid getting distracted by the details of a photograph, we used only color studies and pencil sketches as a reference for design.  These references contained enough information for us to come up with successful designs.  Finally, we moved to a studio medium to build the finished paintings  To keep things abstract, she used large oil sticks, employing a brush dipped in Gamsol to help spread the pigment around.

Our first day found us at the nearby lake, where golden cottonwoods, juxtaposed against the red and white cliffs, made for some beautiful fall scenes.  We returned there later in the week, too, as the location offered so much.  Another day had us exploring El Morro National Monument to look at the rock towers with an eye to abstracting them into engaging shapes by stripping away unnecessary detail.  All in all, it was a very successful week, and my student now has the tools and a process for improving her studio work on her own.

If you're interested in a plein air painting intensive such as this, please see my website: 

By the way, I still have space in my November 2-5 Sedona, Arizona, painting retreat.  It's only $300—not including lodging and meals—and I'd love to show you some of my favorite painting spots.

Plein Air Studies

6x8 Gouache Study

9x12 Oil Panel Split into Two
4.5x12 Cliff Study and Cottonwood Study

9x12 Oil Cliff Study

8x10 Oil Cottonwood Study

9x12 Oil Cliff Study

Value Sketches

Studio Paintings

12x12 Oil Cottonwoods

12x12 Oil El Morro