Friday, November 7, 2014


Field Study

I am regularly asked if I ever rework my plein air studies when I get back into the studio. The answer is yes I do. Most times my hunting and gathering trips into the field end with a good set of finished paintings that are ready for a frame and a trip to the gallery. But once in a while I just miss it and I do a piece that 
is functionally a good painting but at the end of the day, it just doesn't measure up. This is one of those paintings.

About a month ago I took a week long painting trip to Estes Park in the Rocky Mountain National Park with the Outdoor Painters Society. Over a five day period I painted four paintings a day for a total of 20 paintings. Not a bad week's worth of painting, but along the way I realized my focus had turned to getting four paintings done a day instead of producing paintings of true quality. It hit me the day I did the painting of the cabin pictured at the start of this blog. I was painting alongside Randy Saffle and Frank Gabriel.

Randy Saffle

Frank Gabriel

We stood pretty much in the same spot so we all were painting the same scene. As I was doing this 12" x 16" I was actually pleased with what I was doing but the minute I saw Randy's result I realized just how far off the cliff I had jumped and how badly I really missed capturing the scene.

This kind of experience leads to plenty of inner soul searching and questioning of one's approach. Had I gotten so cocky that I thought I could go out and totally ignore the true beauty of what I was seeing? Do I need to have my eyes checked? When did I decide I could just wing it and not really seriously study my scene? Where had my sense of study and dedication to capturing the true essence of the scene gone?

When I got home and looked at my photos from the trip and, in particular this scene, I knew I had to correct the situation. I can't have a bad painting hanging around the studio. Its just bad Karma and it infects all the blank canvases yet to be painted, so I have a duty and obligation to keep the Karma positive in the studio.

So today is the day I put that bad boy on the easel and slap it silly with new paint.

The first step is to cover the entire painting with a layer of Liquin. This evens out the values and returns my darks back to their original value so when I put new paint on top I can match values where necessary.

The cabin is my center of interest and I realized I needed to adjust its shape and value. The entire rest of the painting will be done to support the cabin as the main object in the painting.

"Be bold or go home" is my approach on this one. I decide I want to drop the mountains really far back so I paint on a very light purplish gray and cover the entire mountain range in it.

I'm going to be completely redesigning the mountain range so I want to obscure anything I had before so it doesn't influence my new design. Even at this point I like the sense of distance and atmosphere this is creating.

Between the cabin and the distant mountain range is a smaller tree covered hill so I put this in to be able to judge the values I will use on the mountains.

Now I move to the next level of mountains. With every brush stroke I am judging color temperature and value in comparison with the middle hill and the foreground cabin. Something I should have been doing in the field. I have to create the feeling that this part of the mountain is farther away than the middle ground hill and that the hill sits between the mountain and the cabin.

I have completed the first row of mountains. Notice how much bluer the color temperature is than the middle hill. Now its time to carry the painting out the top with two more rows of mountains.

I decide to create a little tension in the upper right corner of the painting. The cabin sits kind of low left of center. By putting in the sky it will help take the viewer's eye past the cabin, through the mountains and out the top. If I had taken the mountain all the way out of the painting there would be no reason to view the entire painting and the viewer's eye would get stuck on the cabin. This way my painting tells a complete story.

With this close up you can also see how close in value each mountain is and yet they still separate visually.

After a little more work on the cabin and trees I have finished reworking my plein air study. Now the question becomes "what did I learn from this process?" Well the honest answer is I realize that I blew it in the field and that I have to get better at studying my scene. Many times I am an illustrator stuck inside a painter's body and the illustrator takes over at the worst moments. I am going to have to fight that tendency in the future and trust the painter in me to make the proper judgments when in the field.