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. 

If you have to paint from a photo…

Landscape painting reference photos

Reference photos I have used for studio paintings.

There’s a lot of debate in the art community about painting from a photo.  I was at a figure drawing class recently and the topic came up. There were several plein air painters in the group. There were also some newbies who didn’t quite understand the stigma related to both techniques. The debate went something like this: If you paint from life, your painting will be more lively, vibrant, have energy. It won’t look like a photo, it will look like a painting. You will get the colors and values accurate. The other side argued working from a photo allows you to paint on your own terms, in a studio. It offers the artist convenience and more freedom of subject matter. You are able to see details. You can take longer on a work.  It may look realistic. The rationale for each goes on and on.

I have my own opinions (as does everyone!). Basically, a painting is a painting. It’s not a photograph. The untrained eye will think the painting from a photo is “so good”. If it is tight and realistic, they may compliment it by saying “I thought that was a photo!” For a long time, I heard these statements. I thought this meant I was a good painter. I may be a good painter, but I want to be a good artist. I have become more aware and appreciative of paintings that show more of the artists brushwork and process. For me, being an artist means I am leaving a bit more of “me” on the canvas; my brushwork, my colors and my composition.

I studied photography in school. I have taken tens of thousands of photos. In fact, I have over 25,000 on my phone from the last year. Yikes, that’s a lot of photos! Anyway, I feel confident in my skills of composition and design. I learned to paint by copying my photos. But is the art in the photograph or in the painting? Recently have I discovered painting from life. I’m still copying what I see, but for some reason, I feel more like an artist! I get a rush from painting from life. I can interpret the colors and make bolder brush strokes.  Consider this: If I took a photo of the exact place I plein air paint, it would show a moment in time. A quick snap – a freeze frame. As a photo, it might be wonderful. Ideally, it would trigger an emotional response.  Now, if I stay in the same spot, becoming immersed while painting for a few hours, the experience would transfer onto the canvas.  And for many artists, they will use the plein air painting and a photo reference together for a studio painting.

It’s all just preference. Some artists have the propensity for details and getting every detail in their painting. There are collectors and art buyers who love to show off such works. Others prefer a more painterly approach, seeing the brushstrokes and the mark of the artist. While both techniques have their merits, here are a few tips to consider if painting from a photograph:

  1. Whenever possible, create a small painted study to accompany your photo. Not possible? Then draw a sketch. Not possible? Take some color notes. What colors would you mix? Jot down what the weather was like, or some words for your mood.
  2. If you must work from a photo, at least work from your own. Don’t use other’s photography. All you will be doing is showing your skills at copying. No fun.
  3. If you use a smart phone, keep it in portrait mode when possible. Also, make sure to keep the phone at same level and perpendicular to your vision. Distortion and wide lens are giveaways that you painted from a photo.
  4. Beware of shadows and highlights.  Your photo will obliterate the highlights. It will make all your shadows black.
  5. Make corrections immediately after taking the photo, while you are still in front of your subject.
  6. Take several photos in the same area, all around, all views.
  7. Compose ON THE SPOT if possible. It saves time and sharpens your vision as an artist.
  8. Find your focal point and soften the rest. Our eyes see differently than a camera. We cannot focus from one thing to the next. Try it! Look at something, anything in front of you. Now notice the extraneous objects surrounding the item you have focused on. You cannot make out their details. The camera flattens everything and shows you everything in clear focus but, we do not see that way.
  9. If you do paint from a photo, edit elements that won’t help your composition. Don’t put in every last item or detail. It can really weaken your painting
  10. Convert your photo to black and white to help see the values. This can be helpful if you are new to painting or just are having difficulty making them out.

Above all, remember that the camera is a tool. YOU are the artist, the one mixing the paints. YOU are the one reading the information and interpreting what you see. And only you can prevent forest fires. (Just seeing if you’re still with me!) All that really matters is that you are fortune enough to paint!

 

 

 

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…..!