Painting En Plein Air – From a Sketch to a Finished Oil Painting

This September, I was lucky to be a part of a landscape painting workshop taught by my husband, Marc Dalessio, and Daniela Astone, a principal painting instructor at the Florence Academy of Art.

The workshop took place at Daniela and her partner Simone’s beautiful property in Tuscany, aka Studio Chianti, and provided me with a great chance to once again return to the basics of plein air painting.

Given the circumstances, I figured I should take it slow this time around in order to learn as much as possible and get all the valuable advice I can from these two great teachers. For that purpose, I decided to go back to oil painting – since both Marc and Daniela work primarily with oil paints, and since I could finally truck along all the equipment I needed (the painting venue was only 30 min away from our Florentine home).

Also, since we stayed at the same location during the whole workshop, I could allow myself to keep working on the same paintings day in day out. Occasionally, I did some watercolors (if my light did not correspond to the chosen effect for my oil paintings), but my primary focus was oil painting.

Now, one of the most important pieces of advice that Marc always gives his students is to draw more and rush less. That is to say, before starting an oil painting, it is advisable to do a pencil sketch of the envisaged subject for a painting in order to get a preliminary idea of the composition and potential problems attached to it. Why? Because what can often go terribly wrong in a painting is the design (I talked more about that in one of my pervious blog post on landscape painting, so I will refrain from discussing it again here). And when the design goes wrong, that’s when you have the so called “turps party” – that is, the not so joyful experience of erasing your entire painting with turpentine.

So, in order to avoid having too many turps parties, one should sketch more. Only once one is satisfied with a chosen subject and the composition thereof, should one move to painting it in oil. At that point though, one (and by one, I mean a student like myself) should still go slowly about tackling their subject in paint in order capture it accurately, in all its variety and complexion.

The problem that often occurs during plein air painting workshops of this type is that students see a teacher do a demo very fast (often even faster than the regular pace at which a teacher paints) and then the students try to paint at that same pace during the rest of the workshop. This frequently results in a mass of rushed student paintings and very little knowledge acquired about the middle and later stages of painting.

In that sense, it was explained to us that students who paint slowly and accurately will eventually get faster, but students who paint fast and inaccurately will never get more accurate. Makes sense. In other words, if you’re a student who likes realism and wants to work in that genre, do not rush through your student artwork.

So, in order to avoid any disastrous outcomes of sorts, I decided to go slowly about my oil paining and make sure I get the most out of it this time around.

Following the given advice, I first sketched my subject out very roughly in my sketchbook.

 

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I was aware that this is not the kind of perfect landscape painting view where a foreground, middle ground and background compose well together. To begin with, there is no foreground in my view. Nonetheless, I decided to go for it because I found it interesting and beautiful (for its quintessential depiction of Chianti), yet simple enough to tackle. Also, it gave me a nice opportunity to practice atmospheric perspective in painting. And since we were told a major historic point of landscape painting is to get a sense of distance (depth) on a flat surface, I figured this view would do.

Once I was content with the choice of my view and the sketch thereof, I put my easel in the chosen spot and drew a slightly more precise sketch of my view onto the canvas before starting to paint. They say behind every great painting is a great drawing, so I made sure I literally have one behind mine 😉

 

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In doing this, I applied the sight size approach, which I talked about in my previous blog posts. With the exception of a few ‘unfortunate tangents’ created by the distant mountains, I made sure to capture the rest of the view accurately and follow the rhythms in nature. Partially, this is the reason why I decided to do a rather detailed pencil sketch on the canvas first (despite the risk of the graphite showing through in time).

Another possibility was to sketch it out in oil paint, which a lot of painters do. But given the intricate nature of all the little bushes and trees in my view, and the fact that I didn’t use oil paint for some months now, I did not want to risk loosing track of the actual shapes of the vegetation and fall down the rabbit hole of dreadful repetition when I actually got around to painting it.

After my sketch was finished, I started applying the first layer of paint. In doing so, I tried to mass out the big shapes and leave any details for later. One of the useful pieces of advice I got from Daniela in that regard was to avoid using small brushes, especially in the initial stages of an oil painting. The reason for that is that students often get caught up in painting the details (like individual leaves) and get the big shapes all wrong (like the overall shape of a tree).

At the end of day one, this is how far I got:

 

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On day two, I continued covering the canvas with paint and once the first layer was done, I proceeded to improve the accuracy and add variety to the things in my view. Shapes were corrected, some details and highlights were added and smaller brushes were introduced for that purpose.

 

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Yet, despite adding to the painting in many ways, I kept my palette limited. In fact everybody at the workshop was advised to do so, as it results in more harmonious looking paintings. Our palettes were thus very basic, containing only titanium white, cadmium yellow light and cadmium yellow medium, yellow ochre, cadmium orange and cadmium red, cerulean blue, cobalt blue and ultramarine.

On day three my goal was to add some more detail, give texture to my painting and add some variety to my brushwork. I was also very lucky to get some beautiful clouds in my view that day – for the first time since that very first sketch I did – so I made sure to put those in. This is a great advantage to working from life – as the elements improve, you can improve your painting with them.

 

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While painting the clouds, I was advised to make the closer ones bigger and the further ones smaller, even if this did not correspond to reality. Another thing I had in mind while painting them was the advice given to me previously – about making sure that things get not only smaller, but also lighter and bluer in the distance. Both of these tips are very useful for achieving the sense of depth and atmospheric perspective in a painting, so I made sure to follow them.

And finally, the last important advice given to me was not to overwork it. So, once I was more or less content with the similitude of the painting and the scene in front of me, I made sure to stop and call this painting done.

Et voilà! That was the process and here is the photo of the finished product:

 

Morning in Chianti. Oil on Canvas, 20 x 30 cm.

Morning in Chianti. 20 x 30 cm, Oil on linen.

Although working outdoors can be tricky because of the constantly changing effects, I’m happy I took this one slow and didn’t try to frantically chase those effects. This allowed me not only to achieve batter accuracy, but also resulted in a painting based on informed choices rather than happy coincidences. At the end of the day, this is what the learning process should be all about.

As for my other paintings done during this workshop, I do have to admit they were made on a faster pace. The second oil painting I did was finished over the course of two days and with no preliminary sketching in graphite involved. The watercolors, on the other hand, were completed over the course of a few hours with the obligatory sketch in graphite pencil. But that’s a totally different medium, which requires a vastly different and much faster approach, so I don’t feel guilty about that. Here are the results of these other efforts.

I hope you enjoy them!

 

Orcio. 20 x 30 cm, Oil on Panel.

Orcio. 20 x 30 cm, Oil on panel.

 

Villa Coli. 22 x 25 cm, Watercolor.

Villa Coli. 22 x 25 cm, Watercolor.

 

Young Apples. 22 x 25 cm, Watercolor.

Young Apples. 22 x 25 cm, Watercolor.

 

Daniela's Nest. 26 x 36 cm, Watercolor.

Daniela’s Nest. 26 x 36 cm, Watercolor.


Postcards from Croatia and Some Reflections on a Watercolor Setup

 

I am happy to share with you that, since my last blog post, Marc, Emma (the dog) and I have successfully moved and settled in our beautiful new home in Florence. We absolutely love it and feel so blessed that we have found such a perfect spot to embark on our future projects.

Yet, just as we finished unpacking and started to relax a bit, we were Croatia-bound once again. This time for a very exciting reason, my best friend’s wedding. The ceremony took place in the ancient town of Zadar and was absolutely wonderful.

After an intense month of packing and unpacking, being on the coast and sinking into the easygoing Dalmatian vibe was a real treat, so we decided to extend our stay in Zadar to a full week.

I frankly had no idea whether there would be any time available for painting on this trip, but decided to bring my equipment nonetheless. As it turns out, the pre and post-wedding activities were all very relaxed and spontaneously organised, so I managed to squeeze in a few painting sessions.

Interestingly, I had a bit of a stage fright, so to say, before I started my first painting. I am not sure if it was because I hadn’t painted regularly for the previous few weeks and was worried I wouldn’t be able to pick up where I left; or was it the fact that I was painting en plein air in my native country for the first time and was concerned about doing justice to its beauty; or both.

Either way, it all went smoothly once I got going and I was content with the overall experience – especially with the fact that I got back to painting after a few weeks long break.  

In fact, having done a couple of few hour long workshops this summer in Ireland at the Art in the Open plein air painting festival (which I highly recommend!), I noticed I felt more confident painting watercolours then before. As it turns out, watching my teachers, Claudia Araceli and Grahame Booth, paint taught me how to simplify more and apply washes better. 

I should mention in that regard that, thus far, I was totally self-taught in the watercolour medium. So, I found these teachers’ demos very helpful and felt like I experienced a sort of a breakthrough after taking their workshops.

This reminded me how beneficial it is just to watch someone else (who knows what they are doing) paint and how much one can learn through pure observation of a master at work.

Another thing I realised after these lessons is that my watercolour setup is less than ideal. Namely, so far, I had a sitting setup with a small foldable table next to me, where I would put my pallet and a water container, while my pad would sit on my knees. This is basically what it looks like:

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While it is quite comfortable, this setup is problematic on multiple levels. It provides me with a painting surface which is, first, not very stable and, second, not positioned at a proper angle. As I have learned, one should have their watercolour block (or a panel to which the paper is attached) tilted at a minimum 45 degree angle. This is in order to allow those preliminary rich washes to flow properly, and to be able to get rid of access water if necessary, by allowing it to drip down. 

Another problem I noticed with my current setup is that I often get much better views from a standing, rather then a sitting position. Namely, being up higher in many instances provides a more interesting perspective, and helps me avoid having various obstacles (such as fences, bushes and tall grass) block my view. In addition, since I scout for my views while walking around, it’s easier for me to determine what the view will amount to while standing, instead of sitting.

So, in the near future, I am hoping to figure out a better, lighter and taller setup, which would ideally work both for watercolours, as well as oil painting. I will keep you posted on how it goes. 

In the meantime, I leave you with a few of my paintings from the recent Croatian trip. I hope you enjoy.

 

Petar Zoranić Square. 9 x 10 in, Watercolor.

Petar Zoranić Square. 9 x 10 in, Watercolor.

 

Church of St. Donatus. 9 x 11 in, Watercolor.

Church of St. Donatus. 9 x 11 in, Watercolor.

 

St. Mary's Church. 8 x 9,5 in, Watercolor.

St. Mary’s Church. 8 x 9,5 in, Watercolor.