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Saratoga Car Show… The car I had hoped to paint, making the turn.

A vintage car festival at Saratoga State Park- a win-win, or so I thought! It was Saturday morning and I had the whole weekend ahead. After weighing my options for places to paint, I decided the car fest would be an ideal place to plein air paint. Stately brick buildings  provided the ideal backdrop for cars from the early 1900’s through my favorite decades, the 1960’s-1970’s. I was so excited to paint a few of the cars. The park was buzzing with action. Skidmore College was holding its graduation. It was the first seriously nice weekend. Luckily, I found an ideal parking spot and schlepped my gear to the show. Of course, before setting up, I had to walk around and gawk at some of the cars.  They were offering Ford Model-T car rides around the reflecting pool.  the old Model-T chugged along its course with happy passengers being transported back in time. I set up my easel so I could paint the car as it made its way around a turn in the gravel road. There was a big tree on its left as it turned. Perfect, I thought! Confident, I decided to paint a 12″ x 16″, a big change from the 6″x 8″ I had been doing. I got this! So, I thought. First mistake: my umbrella wouldn’t work. The sun was beating down on me and I couldn’t figure out how it attached to the easel. My second mistake was skipping breakfast and only having a granola bar and one warm water bottle with me.  My third mistake was attempting to paint on a panel primed only with Zinsser. I have decided to prime with gesso, but that’s a story for another day. Needless to say, my paint was sliding all over the panel which was extremely frustrating. And lastly, and the biggest irritation: people! Now normally, I don’t mind one or two random people stopping to peek at my painting. It’s actually sort of fun. But there was an onslaught of people. Person after person had to tell me their story about painting, cars, Saratoga. I just wanted to paint. It really got me thinking about plein air painting. I have been juried into a few plein air shows this summer. They will be my first competitive plein air events. The problem is, while I teach and love presenting material I am familiar with, when I am plein air painting, I just want to be left alone. Is this the norm? I couldn’t take it anymore. Tired, hungry and hot, I packed up my gear with a painting half done. I didn’t even include a car in the painting!

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My half done painting…missing the car.

After downing an extra-large ice water when I got home, I decided to venture back out in the afternoon to a more remote area. Ah….time for redemption. I painted a smaller panel, just a 6″ x 8″. Only a handful of people stopped by

with friendly dogs for me to pet! that was a win-win. Dogs, painting in solitude with the sound of the birds chirping. Two hours later, I was pleased with my plein air postcard. Life was good again!

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Plein Air postcard sketch.

Season of change

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Old Ford truck, painted by Lisa David en plein air (outside). Located in Saratoga county, upstate New York.

Finally, it’s spring here in upstate New York. The earth has come alive with chirping and squeaking, bright yellows, chartreuse greens. There is great excitement among my plein air painter friends. Everyone is talking about shows they are in and planning meet-ups. This is all new to me. I discovered plein air last summer. Ask anyone who knows me, and they’ll tell you I’ve been obsessed with it ever since. I have entered a few shows, teaching a workshop, even started a club with 15 high school painters! Needless to say, I’m hooked. This spring season for me is full of change. Personally, I’m about to become a grandmother to my son and his wife’s first baby. My daughter is also getting married this year. Yikes! Now I find myself packing my car almost daily with art supplies venturing out for another adventure.

If you like adrenaline, fast rides, and attention, plein air painting in public might be for you. But if you are like me, and are more solitary, like nature, then painting in quiet locations is for you. This season of change, I plan to “tip toe” into painting more in public places, as opposed to painting in more remote settings.

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Old school truck for the North Colonie School District sitting in a field in Saratoga County.

The wonderful thing about painting outside, plein air, is that there are no rules, except you shouldn’t trespass! In this season of change, I finally got the nerve to ask permission to paint something I’d been eyeing for years. A family farm until about 12 years ago, my suburban development has some rich history. Near the entrance, there is an old truck covered in tall grass. I’ve had my eye on that truck since the day we moved in, about 9 years ago. I finally summoned the courage to ask the owner of the property adjoining the parcel figuring I could at least access the truck. My suburban neighbor was more than gracious about walking through his property. I didn’t get permission of the actual land owner because I never see them around and I figured the old truck has been parked there for at least 20 years. Trust me, this truck hasn’t moved in at least that long. There are lots of pieces of old farm equipment scattered through the field. Within five minutes of setting up my easel, an older gentleman wearing his Saturday plaid flannel and jeans approached me. However, to my surprise, he was thrilled that I was painting in his back yard. In fact, he brought me around and showed me lots of other treasures on the property, including an old pond and a corn crib. I was thrilled! I met an interesting person who was more than willing to share his property. Phew, I wasn’t trespassing and in fact, this one property will yield an abundance of wonderful paintings! I’m glad that in this season of change; I was bold enough and decisive enough to finally paint that old truck!

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Plein Air Painting by Lisa David. 

Signing Artwork

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Stack of unsigned paintings.

“Put your name on your paper”. It’s literally the first thing you are taught. Even as a high school teacher, I repeatedly say “no name, no fame”. But I’m the kid that totally ignores the teacher. I procrastinate signing my art. Guilty as charged. Why do I put it off? What’s all the fuss with signatures? What’s in a name, anyway? Apparently, a lot.

It was a big deal during the Renaissance for individual artists to sign their art.  Before that, artists often worked in collective guilds. Historically, signatures can provide authenticity to an artwork. I recently watched the show Fake or Fortune (highly recommended). In Season 4, episode 2, there is dispute over the legitimacy of a Renoir because he never signed it! The provenance (the lineage) is easier to maintain with a legitimate signature.

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Inscribing signature into wet paint, alla prima.

Typically, the last time an artist puts brush to painting is to sign it. The act of signing may be the culmination of hours, days or months’ worth of work. When I sign, it’s like the entire process flashes before my eyes. So many thoughts and decisions go into a work. Often, as an artist, it’s sometimes hard to know when the work is finished. Inevitably, though, every painting says, “I’m done, please, no more!” An artist friend looked at my signature once and thought I was signing it to mimic that of a Grandma Moses because it is so primitive, lacking any artistic flair! I laughed, “No,” I said. “It’s just my name”. But then I got to thinking. I sign my work L. David. I often wonder if I should just sign David, and if changing the style is acceptable so I did some research. Yes! Turns out, artists signatures evolve over time. And it’s about time my signature changes. Maybe on the next painting.

So, you are done with your painting and ready to sign. How? Where? Are there rules? Standards? Yes, and no. Typically, a work is signed in the lower right or left corner in the same media the work was created in. The size is similar to the signature on a check. Some artists only sign their last name. Others sign the first letter of their first name, and their last name. Some sign meticulously. Their signatures are works of art. Others use an illegible scribble. It is preferred by the art establishment that the signature be legible.  Art collectors and patrons want art that is signed and legible. If they are spending big bucks on a work, they want bragging rights and a legible signature helps.  The signature should not dominate or take attention away from the art.

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Artist signatures

Studio painters may wait until the painting is dry before signing. This allows more control with the brush. Plein air painters don’t have that luxury. They typically will sign on location by inscribing the work or simply signing wet on wet (alla prima). Collectors are thrilled when the artist indicates (on the back) where the piece was painted and perhaps a bit of information to go along with it. For example, I painted this today and inscribed it with a rubber tipped tool. It was painted partially from my car and partially from just outside my car. It wasn’t cold, a balmy 34 degrees. It was at Gurney Park, in Glens Falls, NY, just inside the Adirondack Park. Lucky for me, there was a sledding birthday party. I didn’t bring any cadmium yellow and had to make the best with the colors I had. The kids were screaming and laughing as they sped down the hill. While I painted, my husband rode his mountain bike on nearby trails. t took about an hour and fifteen minutes to complete. So, now you know the story.

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Sledding Party, 6″x 8″ Oil on panel, plein air painting. Gurney Lane Park, Glens Falls, NY

Eighteenth century landscape artist Jean Baptiste Camille Corot has the distinction of being the most forged artist of all time. Art news reports  “Corot (1796–1875) was extremely prolific: he produced some 3,000 paintings and roughly the same number of drawings”, Dieterle says. Even today, real Corots still come to light “in someone’s attic or basement, at a flea market or estate sale.”

I find art forgery fascinating! Christies auction house has a great article about signing art. 

True Story: I recently delivered some work to a gallery. Lucky for me, a customer wanted to purchase one just a day later! I received a call asking me to come in; apparently, I forgot to sign the painting. I apologized profusely and the gallery said not to worry, it happens often.  Looks like we need to add one more thing to the artist’s checklist! And remember, no name, no fame!

 

 

 

 

The most important five minutes of plein air painting

Lucille Ball Plein Air Painting

Even Lucy painted in plein air! American actress Lucille Ball (1911 – 1989) painting in the garden of her home, circa 1960. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

I’m a relatively new plein air painter (about eight months).  Typically, I paint in the studio in the cozy comfort of my home or cabin. Coffee is a mere 5 steps away. My dogs lay by my side. I blare my music, ranging from Henri Mancini to Vivaldi’s Winter. Last spring, I was asked to teach a plein air workshop in September at our local arts center. I’ve painted outside once or twice before, but definitely did not consider myself a plein air painter. With fall on the horizon, I ought to see what the hype was about.

A good artist and teacher prepares. I ventured out to a local park. The first painting I did was a muddy mess. What was I doing wrong? I stumbled on a video called “Outside the Lines,” an easy to watch documentary about the history and how-to of plein air painting. The host mentioned Asher B. Durand painting in the Adirondack area of Schroon Lake  in 1837. The town is about 10 minutes from my cabin. I took it as a sign; I should paint plein air! I then watched every possible video, listened to every podcast and read many books. I went out practically every day last summer trying new techniques, palettes, brushes and subjects. It was like the movie Groundhog Day, with each day presenting new challenges. Once I forgot a canvas to paint on. I have forgotten medium, turpentine (“turps”, which I only use outside), and once, I even spilled all my turps. Pine needles have fallen into my paintings, along with bugs I attempted to get out of sticky paint. My easel has collapsed, and if I am not remote enough, a family will photo bomb my painting.  Despite the uncertainty and unpredictability, I love it! I can’t get enough.  It’s an adventure each time I pull out of the driveway (with my coffee!). What I have learned, I am realizing, is that most critical work happens in the first five minutes, even before I touch a brush.

Here’s a snapshot into my current routine. I am sure plein air painters are always trying to streamline their process, as time and cargo are precious. Finding a spot to paint is an art form in itself. I’ll talk more about that in another post. But let’s assume you have found the spot and lugged your gear to that ideal location. Here’s 5 tips to help you have a good start to your painting:

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Be ready for anything! This beaver swam into my painting!

  1. Consider what the sun will do in the time you have. I once set up in front of a birch tree that was beautifully lit. Two minutes later, the clouds rolled in and I had to adjust.
  2. Take a picture as soon as you get there. Some people will say not to, but I want to record what it looked like the second I decided this was the place to paint.
  3. Look. Before you touch a brush, just look.  Your adrenaline will be high and for me, it helps me to just SLOW DOWN and take in my subject.  I typically pray/meditate and thank God for providing me the opportunity.  I want to make a deeper connection with my subject. I think about it in history, and what it has seen over the years.  Think about WHY the place caught your heart, not just your eye. What was it that appealed to you?
  4. Make a few thumbnails with your horizon line in mind. I like to use a viewfinder (View Catcher).
  5. Breath, relax and paint. Oh, and savor every second; this is the good stuff!

PS. As I write this, my Dad, a guide-boat builder and woodworker, is building me a lighter weight set up. I’m finding my current Guerilla Campaign Box, easel and supplies are too heavy. Thanks, Dad!

Don’t wait for the lights to change!

Plein air painter in winter
Norwegian artist Frits Thaulow painting “En plein air” circa 1900

Last summer, I caught the bug. Bad. Everything changed for me. I was asked to teach a plein air workshop in our town. How hard can it be, I thought? I’m a studio painter and art teacher so I felt pretty good in my ability to teach a handful of adults. The workshop was in September. In June, I thought I should see what plein air painting was all about. I had painted outside once or twice before. I even owned a French easel. So, I packed up my supplies and headed out. The first painting I did was a hot mess. Working alla prima (all at once) in the studio was hard enough, but outdoors is an entirely different mindset. Changing weather, bugs, people and remembering everything were only a few of the challenges. But soon, I became addicted. I caught the plein air bug. It’s going around! More and more artists are finding painting from life is exhilarating and adrenaline-making. Fast forward to today, just a few months later. I now struggle painting from a photograph. While the numbers decrease, many hardcore plein air painters paint outside in winter.

Lisa David painting plein air outside in snow. I brought WAY too much.
The lovely birch tree in the sun with amber and violet tones.

Yesterday, I ventured outside to paint. It was about 25 degrees in upstate NY. I live near the Saratoga Spa State Park. The sun was out. I schlepped my gear (including hot chocolate) and found an old gnarly birch tree. It was blackened in a few areas and its shadow provided a strong compositional element. Two minutes after setting up, clouds rolled in and I lost the sun. It was almost immediate. My colorful violet shadows turned to drab shades of gray. The tree with its lovely highlights turned gray. It reminded me of the Seinfeld episode when Jerry sees his girlfriend in bad lighting and realizes she’s not that attractive! I stuck it out and did my best to paint the tree. I really wanted to use color and there just wasn’t much. Believe me, I looked. My hands started to get really cold despite using hand warmers in my mittens and boots. You may be asking, so why? Why do I feel compelled to paint outside in winter? Unless you have tried it, it’s hard to understand. Being outside, drawing, seeing and recording is supremely satisfying. It improves my skills and while yesterday’s painting is definitely not a favorite it will serve as a memory and a reminder. Lesson learned? Be ready because the lights sometimes change.

Best I could pull color from tree after grey clouds rolled in. Not much to see here….move on…..!

Stop Painting! For a little while, anyway.

Stop painting…for a little while, anyway!

Plein Air Painting by artist Lisa David

Saturday in the Park, 8″ x 10″ Oil on Panel Plein air painting by Lisa David. Painted outside on a cold (18 degrees) day in Saratoga State Park, upstate, New York.

Do a painting, post a painting, do a painting, post a painting, update website, send emails, order supplies, look through photo references, paint another painting, post another painting. See the problem? I do. I’m not stopping for reflection and honest critique. No learning, no reading. My rhythm is all about making. I mistakenly think, if I don’t paint, I will get out of the groove. Does this sound familiar?

I am realizing it’s okay to stop.  Artists need to pause and reflect. The paint will be there waiting. We need to evaluate what we did so we don’t keep making the same mistakes. This may mean reading a book. I have about a dozen that have been waiting for me. It may mean spending money on a workshop or a class. It might mean sitting and watching videos. Or it might mean getting a mentor. If all we do is paint and post, there may not be growth. Mistakes are good. Honest criticism is healthy. Learning feels good. As an art teacher, after every project, my students have a critique. We talk about what worked, what didn’t. We discuss what they would do differently next time? I need to apply this critique to my own work. SLOW DOWN. It’s okay to spend time relaxing with a good book about composition or color.  So instead of going into my studio, I’m going to critique a painting I just finished. Here it is. A plein air painting I did in a park. It was a mere 18 degrees. Speed was necessary. I did not work on it back in the studio.

Plein Air Painting by artist Lisa David

Saturday in the Park, 8″ x 10″ Oil on Panel Plein air painting by Lisa David. Painted outside on a cold (18 degrees) day in Saratoga State Park, upstate, New York.

I like the looseness. Trees in the back are a bit boring- too much the same. Figures are good, lose- a bit clumsy. Tone of yellow seems too green. Texture of weeds could have more tooth. Birch trees okay- like that there are 3. Next time, vary tree line, work on the yellow tones, etc. What did I learn? Maybe premix colors when it’s too cold. Also, stop while painting and clean palette at each interval (foreground, middle ground and background). I’m sure there is much more I could learn and improve on this plein air study, but I’ll spare you, you get the point. Now, to go read!