Plein air is an odd occupation. You go out loaded down with equipment and weather gear, then you try and paint whatever happens to be about. When you set off the world is, in your imagination, full of fantastic pictures just waiting to be painted. Arriving at your venue however can bring about a rather abrupt and vertiginous descent to earth. The picturesque church you had in mind is a flat grey wall bracketed by almost black ewe trees. The whole lot is roofed with a completely featureless dull grey sky. It is just after dawn and the only sounds are the drips of the rain and the squirrels sniggering at you from their nice warm drays. You circle your victim, trying not to stamp over too many of the deceased, searching for a distinctive view, or any view for that matter. The light is so flat that every side of every object is lit exactly the same. After several futile circuits, punctuated by listlessly framing possible compositions with your fingers, you slowly set up your tripod and pochade in the furthest possible corner of the churchyard and fix a blank primed board in place.
Next is drawing the salient details out. The light is not a problem here so you get the thing sketched out with everything placed more or less as it appears before you. While you do this the sky grows a little greyer and the rain fall a little faster. Your subject looks not a bit better, but after a short spell of ritual squinting you start to mix up the tones and lay them in. Thinking about whether the thing will be worth the effort can be put off a little longer as you block in the approximate tones. While you work you try not to notice that your palette is completely covered in funereal greys.
With the last of the prime covered you can step back and consider the crime. At this point I usually get a strong urge to wipe the damn thing off and go for a “full English” in the nearest greasy spoon. The day chooses this moment to give you a glimmer of watery sunshine, and your subject lifts from the suicidal to the merely depressing. Time for a deep breath and fixing the moment of illumination in your mind’s eye you put in a few optimistic lighter tones. While you wait for the light to come back you get the next layer of greys in defining the few shapes you can discern in the gloom.
With most of the work done you retreat again and with an act of will attempt to look optimistically at the masterpiece you have wrought. This is perhaps the hardest part of the process of painting. Putting your imagination into gear you try and imagine what would make the picture work as an image away from where you painted it. Does it need a figure? A relative visiting a loved ones grave might add pathos and suit the gloomy day… a hanglider caught on the church tower would add drama. There is no getting round, it desperation is setting in. To make things worse an early morning dog walker appears and asks politely if they may look at what you have done. You hope they will see something in it that you don’t, but they look for a long silent moment plainly wracking their brains for a comment that doesn’t include the word “depressing”. “That’s nice…” they manage at last and hastily move on after a brief complaint about the prevailing meteorological conditions.
Then the light suddenly returns. Ignoring the hosannas that the circling cherubim are singing you leap into panicked action and start whacking in the effect before it goes. Madly dipping into colours that have so far been unneeded as they were not grey. After a few brief minutes the glimmer is gone, the cherubim silenced and the drama over. You couldn’t care a brass penny for that though, your turgid study in abysmal greys is transformed. With fewer brushstrokes than could be numbered on both hands and the contents of a couple of boots your picture has gained an identity, distinctive atmosphere and a sense of place. All those greys you hated so much have become a subtle foil that set off your touches of restrained colour. There is no need for solitary mourners or indeed dangling gliders. Your painting isn’t the triumph you were optimistically dreaming of as you drove through London in the dark, but neither is it a cause to chop off your ear and TNT it to a female friend.
I hope this encourages some readers to try getting out there and try painting “en plein air”. All painting is a bit of an emotional roller coaster and painting out of doors is especially fraught with the possibility of disappointment. In my opinion though the lows only serve to make the moments of achievement feel the sweeter. It is at the very least a harmless brand of masochism that leaves you mostly undamaged and cheerfully scoffing your breakfast as quickly as you can, so as to get out there again as quickly as possible!
This (I hope you realise tongue in cheek) account was prompted by a kind invitation by Steven Alexander to spend a few days painting in Surrey with a few of the Wapping Group. The weather teased us with sunny spells and showers garnished with steady drizzle, but nonetheless at the end of the day the table was filled with paintings all pulled kicking and screaming from the surrounding area. A special thank you goes to his partner Anne who had to put up with soggy plein air painters, who at a distance are hard to distinguish from itinerants, cluttering up her house. Here’s the results, perhaps not any call for hosannahs but a few winners amongst the also rans.
This is St Michaels Church at Bray which is in Berkshire. I had to be very careful not to overstate the lights. There are still a few that I will probably
knock back once it is dry. A few areas of sky will need a spring clean as well. 16in by 10in.
These are some alms houses again in Bray. I need to sort out the traffic but this was interesting against the light. 14in by 10in oil.
This is painted from Bray lock. Nothing took my fancy at first but this old canal barge passed through the lock and I though it made a picture. I painted
the basic scene and did the barge later. 16in 10in oil.
I joined Derek Daniells, Michael Richardson and Steven Alexander as the day was ending and we all stood in a row and painted Windsor castle in the
distance. I don’t often do the “telephoto” thing, but here there was no choice. Only about 35min with a big brush but great fun to do. 16in by 10in oils.
This was a trial to paint. The weather had delivered a fine persistent drizzle that the lightest breeze would blow on to your palette. I got this all blocked
with the beginnings of some detail but my paint was turning to mayonnaise and wouldn’t take on the board so I had to stop. Great subject though, it is
Mapledurham in West Berkshire, I hope to return on a better day! 16in by 10 in oils.
Painted crouched under a brolley near the previous scene. I could only manage about 20min before it started to rain so much the trees vanished entirely
leaving only a couple of furrows to paint! The others were getting soggy in a nearby wood. 12in by 10in.
This was a lovely scene and should have made a good sketch, but somehow I the rabbit stayed well and truly in the hat. I feel it only fair to post the misses
as well as the near hits here, as it is I hope educational in showing how to mess up a perfectly good subject. My error here was getting fixated on the field
which was a fascinating mixture of dew reflecting the sky and tracks made by animals and dog walkers. But in focussing on a detail I missed the whole.
Adding walkers was an act of desperation at the very end! It is near Pirbright in Surrey. 14in by 10in oils.
I despondently went to share my disappointment with Mike Richardson who was painting nearby, but no sympathy was forthcoming so I
painted him as a form of revenge! Only a very quick sketch but miles better than the previous effort. 10in by 14in oils.
Here we are in a soggy field! Photo Steve Alexander.
I came across this little scene after an abortive start on another. I had been intending to try and paint some autumn colour and this fitted the bill.
It is Pirbright in Surrey again. 14in by 10in oils.
This is Windsor guildhall Another monumentally grey day and I started this without much hope. I got all the architecture in before the rain started. I
was painting in a very exposed spot where I became entertainment for damp tourists! Once I had put in people and cars however it took on a life of its
own and in its way it is more interesting than the same view on a sunny day might be. Some of the hall itself needs softening I feel. 16in by 10in oils.
Finally a few sketches done with waterpens in my wee sketchbook. This is a rather damp Mike Richardson painting in a wood!
Another from Pirbright. I am starting to really like the waterpens as a sketch medium this took no longer than 10 minutes.
Last one, this is the Guildhall in Windsor again. Altogether a great few days painting, a big thankyou to Steven Alexander for organising it and asking