Friday, 10 January 2020


Plein Air Painting last summer, Pointe au Baril,  Georgian Bay

 Last September, I hosted a week of plein air painting at a Georgian Bay cottage, near Pointe au Baril, Ontario, about 40 km. from Parry Sound. 12 students and myself for one glorious week.

When I lead a group on location, we are usually in that location for 3 hours. This means some time looking for good vantage points, advising each student one on one, before setting up to do something quickly myself.  Then I have to finish quickly as well, so I have time to meet everyone once again, one on one, closer to the end of their paintings, to discuss and critique. I get one hour, basically, to create whatever I can get down. This has contributed to a very hurried style, which has good and bad points. 

Having an entire week to explore vantage points and ideas for paintings was quite a luxury, and I took full advantage. 

One of the first things we did when we got to the cottage, and everyone was settled in, was to meet, with only an adjustable viewfinder in hand. As is my style, I like to walk around and give an open commentary on ideas for paintings as the scenes come to me. Developing ideas, is how to grow into your concept of composition. Developing ideas is all about the thumbnail.

For those of you not familiar with that term, a thumbnail is a small drawing, a visual explanation of the essential, initial idea you have, for a painting. Once completed,  this little drawing advises artists as to the potential of your idea as a painting. 

In walking around our new environment, we not only gain new and deeper appreciation of nature around us, but new ideas pop up, old ideas deepen and become more complex. Time (in this case a week, instead of 3 hours) gives us this opportunity, as all our ideas get to stretch out over days ahead. 

With this thought process in mind, after about 24 hours on site, I chose what I thought was a composition with great potential. My subject matter was very typical, reminding me that I have to make the subject my own, in order for it to be original. I also wanted the piece to reflect the fact that I did have time to deepen my ideas, the details, to sink into the luxury of that.



Observing different qualities of light over a 24 hour period. I decided to use the last photo, for a consistent sense of light, and the one above, for more information about light and shadow on the island itself. 

Observing the light on my subject over 24 hours was very interesting, offering a multitude of compositional possibilities. In the case of the Island, the area with the most variation based on light, would be the water. The island itself would stay on a similar value range. I'm arranging my ideas. 
So, after many thumbnails, and no painting, I chose one scene, and did my thumbnail.

I'd describe it as a generic thumbnail, a beginning of the thought process. Next, I thought a lot about colour. This is where pastel differs from other mediums.  As pastellists, we visualize our palette with the underlying ground colour. I'm referring to the colour of paper we are choosing, or underpainting executed, and how that ground interacts with your palette. In order to visualize this, we need to rely on our visual ability in tandem with our imagination.

At this point my mind wants to mix colours, and get a general feel established. However, since I have a whole week here, I slow down, and observe my subject as often as I want, asking what if?, in as many ways as I can entertain. This is documented with as many thumbnails, or photos as I want. In fact, by waiting, I have the advantage of observing light on my subject from many different points, creating many different effects. Which one best expresses what I want to say about this scene?

The line drawing, working out proportions both positive and negative space. 

I created a thumbnail, that was only a line drawing. In it, I have chosen the proportions of my picture plane, and how the picture plane will be split, without assigning value. by keeping the plan open, I can observe different qualities of light, and assign value after this is chosen. No values or details until the time of day and specific light is chosen.  

Observing the light on my subject over 24 hours was very interesting, offering a multitude of compositional possibilities. In the case of the Island, the area with the most variation based on light, would be the water. The island itself would stay on a similar value range. I'm arranging my ideas. 

I could have chosen a very still scene on the water, where the reflection of the island was basically the same value as the island itself.  Or, a time of day where the reflection was so minimal, that more light came into the scene, with the water being a significantly lighter value.

The full value drawing, light, medium and dark.

However, I chose the scene of early morning, where the light infused the Island with value variations from the right, enhancing both island and water. This scene also offers us the waves as they wrap around the island, in varying values. This was the scene to me with the most interest. Now I am ready to assign value to my thumbnail to get a complete visual explanation of what my painting will look like without colour. Objects, lights and dark, placement. By working slowly through each step, I have time to continue working with my imagination, getting ideas of what to change, what to tweak, and what colours best express me.  

I noted the time of day, and started working on my ideas about ground colour, and palette. The following day, I was out at the location with plenty of time before the optimum light affect would occur. I set up my pastels, and my board. No one can predict the configuration of clouds (how different that is from yesterday!), and how this will affect light, but it's as good as we're going to get.


                       Alisons' island, 8" X 20", pastel on raspberry coloured Fabriano pastel paper. 

With the sun low in the sky, we have more time with consistent light as the light effect from the sun on my subjects moves slower. The higher the sun is in the sky, the faster the light moves. We have to be as ready as we can. My plan is done, proportions chosen, size (8"h X 20"w), ground colour chosen, and line drawing applied to my pastel paper.

Even before the optimum time is upon me, I can still establish value in a lightly-layered way. Meaning I am applying a light pressure layer of pastel, everywhere on my picture plane. A complete plan, for the entire painting. Now I have my composition established, values established. I am palette ready, as soon as the optimum light time period comes on. 

This is when I work quickly to get as much information down as quickly as I can. I've been very well organized, so my time is spent with the most important parts of the painting first. I'm focussed on the largest areas first, working deliberately from largest ares to smallest, and from dark to light. Once I am in the painting, and concentrating, time travels much quicker than my usual perceptions. By the time the sun is too high to be accurate any more, I have everything established that is most important in the painting.

Now I put the painting away, and don't look at it for a while. this will give me a fresh eye, and more objectivity about what is working, what needs tweaking and what needs completion. I move onto other projects.

I go back the next day for those tweaks, very conscious not to overwork the spontaneity established from working on locations. when done, the piece is placed somewhere I can see it, with the express intention of not working on it for some time. I find my impression of a piece can change without doing anything to it. Just observing, over time. 

At the end of our week, the owners of the cottage came back for a final meet up to discuss how it all went. Dennis and Alison Kolody had been very accommodating to us, we all felt very appreciative to their efforts to make this a wonderful experience for us all. They in turn were quite interested in what had been created. I showed them my work, about 10 pieces in total.
They quickly zeroed in on the Island piece I just described, because whether you are trained in composition or not, people gravitate to good composition. It was the obviously best piece in the bunch. or so I thought, and they concurred. 
Dennis and Alison then commissioned me to make a large oil painting, based on this piece. Group of seven people! In my years of plein air painting, I had often thought of the group, what would they have done if pastel had been available to them like it  is now? Would all those 8X10's been pastel, instead of oil?
Regardless, this is a great way to work. Do your on location piece in pastel, allowing for quick spontaneous work, then followed up by larger work in oil, either also on location, or later in studio, with thumbnail, pastel colour study, photos, and notes. 

So, onto the next phase, creating the piece in oil, at home.


The first thing I did was to stretch a canvas in the exact same proportions as the pastel piece. The client wanted a piece that spanned 5', so I applied some math, and found that my pastel, if 5 feet wide, would be exactly 24" in height. So my newly stretched canvas was 24" X 60". 

Next, I replicated the ground colour of the pastel, but with a little variation. I underpainted, in oil, varying the colour and value just slightly, so there'd be more contrast in the water, (foreground of the painting). A little darker on top, a little lighter on the bottom. A little more raspberry on top (cooler), a little lighter, but more intense pink (warmer) at the bottom.


Feeling pretty comfortable with a piece of vine charcoal, I drew out the division of space in vine charcoal, drawing in the island, and keeping large open areas that will be painted in gradations, allowing for some painterly freedom.

My imagination is always creating the painting for me, before I execute each stage. 

The easel was set up in my back yard, which I love. First, I'm outside, where I belong. Second, I can stand very far back from the easel, offering me great perspective on the effects of every single step I take. 

It's now time for oil, which I work exactly as I do in pastel. I'm working dark to light, first in light layers, to make sure I am happy with my composition, adjusting anything i don't like, as I go. Dark to light, but also largest spaces to smallest. Once the second layer is done, because I've done so much prep work, I am well off into the painting.


Neutralizing for a more sophisticated palette, adjusting values to make the painting work, not necessarily going after the realistic colour. doing what works for what I want to say. 

Standing back a lot allows me great objectivity as to what's next, and how fast I am developing the painting. Sometimes the oil needs to dry before working on it more, so I am slowed down but waiting for it to dry. I look at it like it's a good thing, allowing for more objectivity, better decisions. Also, it's easy to get going and want to finish something in one go. However, I find after painting for 3 hours straight, I am fatigued enough to not necessarily be making the best critical decisions. Waiting to the next day is best.


Once I get to the point where I'm almost done, I  put the painting aside for a while. More thinking, less execution. Careful decisions. More drying, and time away, in order to have a fresh eye for finishing touches. 

Over the years, I would say I re-work pieces less and less at the end. Allowing imagination to draw conclusions for the viewers. It's more fun that way.  My choice.

The Happy clients. thank you Kolodys'!

1 comment:

  1. hi, Great to see this! I have no doubt it will be spectacular! :) will love to see the finished product.