Archive | February, 2014

Some confessions of a ‘plein air’ painter!

The greatest studio an artist could ever wish for is the great outdoors!

An old painting showing a plein air painter at work

Plein Air by Ramon Casas i Carbo c 1891

Why ‘Plein Air’ Painting? What’s the big idea?

Artists have for centuries wanted to get outdoors and set up their easels and work outside under the hot sun and the brightest light that exists. This is when colours are at their strongest. For court painters and those with wealthy patrons, who could supply staff, this was possible, but not common. For most artists it was impossible to carry everything needed, and then to have to mix his paints, from various earth pigments, usually in powder form with Linseed oils, or even egg tempera, it was just not practical to do this in the field. What changed all this, was when pre-mixed paints were put into little lead tubes, A whole rainbow, of colours, well not quite, but that’s for another time, could now be easily taken outside to be used, and the french impressionist painters who we all know and love today, were the pioneers of this. Here is a picture of an early plein air artist at work about 1891.

O.K. So our artist has arrived, and set up his equipment, its a good warm and dry day with a cloudless sky, so what could possibly go wrong?

Well, almost everything actually!

View of Llanberis Pass, Snowdonia, North Wales. before the rain.

At Llanberis Pass, Snowdonia, before the rain!

Irrespective of the view, every day Is different. The light is different and it changes constantly, throughout the day and as ‘light’ is the vehicle through which we see, every time the light changes, so the colours change and the contrasts or tones change. At the same time, clouds are forming and moving across the sky, often very quickly. This in turn affects the light levels and changes the cast shadows, not only their shape or intensity, but their colours as well. Add to this, the fact that the light source also moves steadily throughout the day and well, I think you’ve got the picture!

Then someone comes up and says “That must be so very relaxing, painting” Ugh! If I had a £ every time someone said that!

So whilst I’m working at my easel, painting in a ‘relaxing’ manner, inside my head, all this is going on, how to cope with changing conditions, I can’t change with the weather, or the shadows will end up in the wrong places and at the wrong density. or the colours on  the ground won’t match the sky. Errors like this have caught out every artist from time to time. its all part of the learning experience. I hope you can’t spot any errors in this painting of mine, painted at a favourite spot in North Wales, where it usually rains.

Q Are you an artist who has tried plein air painting? I’d love to hear your story! 

Artists need to be Masters of Deception – True or False?

Jan Van Huysum Still Life

Jan Van Huysum Still life of Grapes and a peach on a table top

When you look at this painting by Jan Van Huysum what do you think makes it work?

Q Is it the apparent realism of the subject matter, the fruit looks juicy and real and ready to pick, or is it the composition, the positioning of the light source, or colour choices, or even the textures?

I think it works because the artist has succeeded in fooling us, the viewers, into believing that the fruit are really there, on the table, full of juice and ready for plucking!

Don’t the green grapes appear to be in front of the Black ones, and the other fruits? The leaves at the top also appear to be behind everything else in the painting. Of course it was actually painted onto a flat piece of stretched canvas or board using oil paints at the end of the 17th Century. The artists skills of deception are clearly working here, the use of strong light in the foreground allows strong rich and warmer colours to appear to bring forward the green grapes and orange fruits and these help the darker fruits and leaves to recede into the distance.

Clever isn’t it!

Deception – is the language of the artist. It’s their job to make us feel we are in the painting, ready to pick the fruit. Similarly with a landscape, the use of aerial perspective, sends the mountains back into the distance and a closer focal point will be painted with stronger colours and sharper lines to catch the eye and draw the viewer into the painting and allow them to be enveloped by it.

Llanberis Pass North Wales.

Llanberis Pass, Snowdonia, North Wales Watercolour

Its no secret that during the war, artists were selected to design fake vehicles, tracked tanks, aircraft and artillery etc. to fool the enemy and also to design camoflage schemes, to hide troops in the field, and even battleships whilst at sea. One of those artists was Edward Seago. Another venue for the artists skills of deception is the theatre, where the sets have to present vast open landscapes, or huge Egyptian temples, yet they are frequently located on a small stage with many differing lines of sight, from up in the gods, down to the front stalls, and even in the boxes at the sides. If you want to study perspective and how it can fool the viewer, get invloved with your local theatre, climb on the stage and see deception at first hand. The artists skills there will amaze you.

What do artists do all day – Drink and Chat ?

I seem to recall tales of my favourite artists, like Van Gogh or Monet, spending much of their time in cafes and bars, with a glass of absinthe or a bottle of wine. Of course the truth must have been quite different, the sheer volume of their work output, means they had to spend their days in the fields, by the riverside or in public spaces, painting as often as the weather and light would allow, and then when you add in all the studio and interior subjects they produced, it doesn’t seem to leave much time for idling.

The Card Players by Paul Cezanne

The Card Players by Paul Cezanne

And if you need proof, here is Paul Cezanne’s Card Players. Of course, that means Cezanne was actually working while others, played cards. Cezanne painted several more works in this genre all with similar models or characters. In addition he probably drew some tonal sketches, to help decide on the composition and where to place the various elements, including the light source and the shadow areas.

Artists, like anyone today who tries to earn a living by creating something worthwhile from just their imagination and surroundings, need to plan their days just like the impressionists did. Things haven’t changed much over the years.

While we’re on the subject of changes, easier travel and computers have made life for today’s artists easier, in many respects. One of my favourite Van Gogh paintings was lost in the war, and it shows an artist, probably Van Gogh, ‘On the road to Tarascon’, carrying his canvases easel and bags, looking for the ‘right’ view to paint.

Vincent Van Gogh An Artist on the road to Tarascon

When my wife and I visited Avignon recently, we were just a short distance from Tarascon, which sits between Avignon and Arles to the south, and in the heat of summer, it was not difficult to imagine the scene.

The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam confirmed the loss of this work in WW2, but they didn’t say how. I have recently learned that it was destroyed by fire in a German Art Gallery near the end of the war.

What a shame, a Dutch artist, painting a French scene, destroyed by British or American action in Germany. Maybe I should now stop checking the local auction rooms for it? 

I’m glad that travel is easier these days, I wouldn’t want to have to carry that lot, for miles on foot. The computer of course is most welcome and convenient, but now artists have to write blogs and plan exhibitions themselves, rather than rely on an agent or gallery.

What do you think life was like for an artist in the late 19th Century? Your views or ideas would be interesting to read. 



Anatomy of a painting

Have you ever wondered how a painting is constructed over several sessions in the studio?

I usually begin with a first coat of a colour, that I think will help visually, pull it all together. In acrylics, the first coat is often a bit rubbish, being painted directly onto the white canvas, which I can’t wait to get covered up.

Here is the first coat

Here is the first coat

In this case, I plan for the background to be dark – probably a dark blue, to represent the ‘smoke filled rooms’ of my youth, in Jazz clubs. So orange is opposite (complementary) to blue in the colour spectrum. The next step is to draw in the main outlines thus and check and double check everything.

draw in outlines

draw in outlines

Then I begin with the details, this is what takes the time, here it is, this is the magical bit, where three dimensional shapes begin to emerge from the canvas!


putting in some details

putting in some details

Now I continue as before, and when the details are finished, I have to decide on the background colours and textures. Don’t forget how important the shadows are! Here is what I did with this one:

Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker

Hope you like it! More details at Charlie Parker

This reminds me of my youth spent in jazz and folk clubs, with 20 Woodbines and half a pint of beer!  Q Can life get any better?