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  • Writer's pictureLucy

Inspirational Plein Air Paintings

September started off by meeting a friend at the Legends of the West gallery in Santa Fe for the 15th Annual Plein Air Painters of New Mexico show. To see all the paintings included in the show click HERE.

It was a fun evening at a very well attended opening--almost too well attended for my liking (below). It was hard to hear my friend talk even though she was right next to me!

Photo courtesy of Legends of the West

Anyway, she really enjoyed hearing my take on the paintings so I thought you might too.

I looked at the plein air paintings four different ways:

(1) Emotional response: Am I transported somewhere? Do I feel something when I look at the painting?

(2) Composition: Does the painting invite the viewer into it with compositional structure (diagonals, triangles, curves, the Golden Ratio, etc.)?

(3) Technique: How well does the painter use their medium? Plein air painting can be in oil, pastel, watercolor, acrylic, gouache, tempera (paint made from eggs), casein (paint made from milk), etc. Each medium requires different techniques and a clumsy application ruins a painting for me. On the other hand, expressive strokes that evoke the fleeting reality of painting outdoors really works for me.

(4) Values: In renown painter John F. Carson's book "Guide to Landscape Painting" he notes that generally there are 4 main values in landscape--with lots of others in between. Generally speaking, from lightest to darkest, the values are:

  • Sky--including clouds,

  • Land/snow/water,

  • Hills/mountains,

  • Vertical elements like trees

If a painter gets the values correct in a painting it will look "real" or "natural" regardless of the colors used.


Were you expecting me to say color?

Many people respond to color first and it can be an attention grabbing element in a painting. For me, whereas color definitely plays a roll, it is a support role to composition and value for making a painting work.

One interesting note on color, every single color has both a warm and a cool version. Including colors that we generally think of as being just warm (orange) or just cold (blue). The next time you are in a hardware store look at all the paint chips and you'll see cool oranges and warm blues.

Anyway, when painting outside anything in the light of the sun will be warm and anything in shadow will be cool. So if a painting feels "unreal" or "off" it may be because the painter made a tree's shadow a warm green instead of a cool green.

Or maybe it's because the sky is all one color and in reality the sky is a gradation in value being the most saturated overhead and lightest at the horizon line. Don't believe me? Check it out! Go outside and look.

The color that we see in the world is merely a product of light interacting with different surfaces and substances, bouncing around the atmosphere and morphing depending on distance, intensity and any particulate obstacles in its way.

by John Staughton

In some ways, being a plein air painter is to be a naturalist, a careful observer of what nature shows us instead of what we think to be there.

I am the FIRST to acknowledge that I am not a master at this!!!!

And getting all those different componets to work in harmony is a big challenge made even more difficult by painting on site in the elements and with a short time window. (FYI: generally plein air paintings are completed on site in under 3 hours. If a painting isn't complete on site then typically the painter takes reference photos and finishes it in the studio).

Good plein air painting takes patience and lots (and lots and lots!) of practice.

Here are a few paintings in the show that I thought worked and were inspirational to me. Of course, to be truly appreciated they need to be seen in person. 😊

One last note, in my still life paintings I explore my own personal human experience using a lot of Western European symbology (because that's my ancestry--English and German to be specific). Landscape painting is about something different. To me it's the story of nature and time told through light, shape, and color.

It's a big topic!

When I'm outside with my art supplies it's difficult to narrow my field of view and simplify all the magnificent complexities of nature to something small and 2 dimensional. But it's a fun challenge and I look forward to doing it more this fall and winter.

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