One of the bonuses of going out painting plein air that is often not mentioned is the increased chance of seeing a decent subject. When painting plein air you are in a place for a considerable while as the day changes around you. Often the most magical of subjects are there only moment. A jogger passes from shadow to light, somehow completing a scene, a street is lit by the sun breaking through leaving the distance dark. It can be any number of things. One thing is certain however if you don’t spend the time out and about keeping an eye out for the possibilities then good subjects will be few and far between.
If I go out for the day and bring back a decent plein air I am very happy with the day, but often the main haul of treasure is in my camera carrying potential for studio paintings. I know many say it is too easy, but you have to take I estimate about a hundred photos before one has a possible painting. I put them all in a folder called “possible paints” usually it is not just one photo but a group with a scene and then further shots of people traffic etc. I don’t think I have ever taken a photo that was “ready to go” if I did it would probably be better just to leave it as a photograph.
Another valuable aspect of a days plein air is that you are in “painting mode” you are constantly assessing and testing things you see in your mind’s eye for picture possibilities. Thsi also happens when you are out and about generally, I always carry a camera even when popping down to the shops for a pint of milk! This often results in 500 or 600 photos a week! I have learnt from experience that the photos need to be looked at very soon after you take them. So on getting home I put them on the computer and pick out anything that has possibilities. I then immediately adjust and scribble over the top my ideas for how it would translate. I drop in potential figures and play with the colours to look for harmonies. The reason for doing this straight away is that the quality of the real day is still in your memory. When I am making the adjustments I am trying to make the photo conform with the memory of the actual day. Often in you mind’s eye the scene was memorable, but the photo when you look at it on screen is a disappointment. I have learnt that you can adjust the image to nearer fit your recollection.
A few things are needed to make that easier. Firstly shoot in RAW format. With jpg most of the information has been thrown away for the sake of the file size. With memory cards so cheap this is daft. A .jpg file is only 8bits per channel whereas a RAW file is 14bits this means that you can adjust the exposure afterwards without the image degrading. A .jpg given the same treatment will decay into a contrasty nightmare and loose all subtlety of tone. I seek also to make the image feel “painterly” hard to describe, but it means that I can see in my minds eye which areas can be combined and simplified and which will carry the story and need more definition. I often quickly paint over areas in photoshop to unify and make them less defined. I do this on a layer so I can always refer to the original should I want to.
The end result is often a world away from the original camera image, but is nicer to paint from. I always paint from a screen image as a printed image has all the tone decisions made for you. Because you cannot paint the actual tones from the screen you are forced to make compromises which gives the painting I feel more immediacy. Painting from a printed image feels lifeless compared. In the same way if I bring a plein air back that needs attention, I first adjust the photo to look as much like the plein air as possible. This makes it far easier to just do the changes needed and no more, which retains the feeling of the original sketch and conditions on the day.
I am increasingly interested in various mixtures of studio and plein air. In several pictures recently I have done a plein air painting, then worked on it in the studio and finally taken it back on site to refine from life. I have this week also done a picture from a photoref and then taken the resulting picture back to the location. It was very interesting to work directly on top of the almost finished image adding direct observation where it improved and leaving where it was fine. The result was a definite improvement. The main changes were to the shadow areas, it is hard to see the light “bounced” into the darker areas in a photo ref. The eye sees more variety of tone.
This is Blackheath. I am always interested in spots where you can get that “in the road feeling” here the pavement kicks in so you can get a view straight up
the hill. I don’t quite know why, but this gives a very active view, as if you feel that in real life you would need to move or get run over! Sadly I got most of the Taxi
done on the spot… I have more or less memorised that familiar shape. The family group are from the same place on a different day. Pleased with this one
though it has a joinedupness that has been slightly eluding me recently. 8in by 10in.
Having lectured two fellow painters on drawing this out I fancied having a go myself. Here is a case of a plein air that could do with a bit of tinkering in
the studio. In order to get the whole lot done in reasonable time I had to lay in the buildings in a flat tone and add a couple of detail layers on top. This
has resulted in rather a dead feel. The left hand range could do with less definition and some “hero” nearby figures are needed to stop the picture running
off on the left hand side. If I can get it right I quite fancy doing an all singing and dancing studio painting of this. 10in by 14in.
A very quick sketch as the rain was coming, with plenty of wind! I couldn’t resist the outrageous tones of the river and the sky. Only 15min.
Here is one of the mongrels I mentioned. I arrived with this as an almost finished work done from reference. I ended up re working the road and pavement.
I also lightened the sky and took out a fair bit of colour. The main improvement came in the overall unity. I should have scanned the first state but I’m afraid
I didn’t think to. On the other hand people would have probably only told me the early version was better! 8in by 10in.
This is St Martins on Trafalgar Square. Done from a photo taken last year. Very pleased with the feel of this one, a possibility for the open exhibitions.
Watercolour, 8.5in by 11in.
A day in Chelsea with the Brass Monkeys. A wonderful crisp and breezy November day. I love the low light at this time of year, it is OK to paint most of
the day unlike the summer months. I tried to keep this very simple just putting in the vital things to set the scene. 8in by 10in.
Second one I loved this little bit of the embankment and the way the shadow divided the composition. I took some square boards with me it is easy to stick
to a few standard formats so I am going to vary board proportions more I think. 10in by 10in oils.
Here I am painting the last one, I look like I am having fun! Photo by Terry Preen. In the background Tony Lawman and Graham Davies.