Take it Outside (and your comfort level)!

I am always amazed at how many pastel artists have always wanted to paint “en plein air” (out in the open air) but were hesitant to try. Taking your precious supplies outside into a field or beach, on a vista or even the garden may seem like a daunting task when you are used to having all at the ready safely next to your easel, table, and comfy chair!

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Canyon Plein Air, by Helen Turner
Canyon Plein Air, by Helen Turner

The beauty of onsite painting is a way of growing as a painter, no matter what your preferred subject. Learning to understand shapes and see the direction of light and how the colour will change with the sun’s angle, are all important lessons.

I started bringing my pastels out in the field in 2004, and have had both positive and negative painting experiences, as you don’t always achieve what you’re after and sometimes you learn what NOT to do next time.

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The studio work I do is mostly landscape and I try to make my paintings as realistic as I can while also capturing the mood of my reference material. A plein air painting can help you catch that mood, a certain shadow or color that a camera cannot. I usually work on a 9×12 piece of Art Spectrum Colorfix paper with a colored ground to reduce the glare of the sun, or to save me time when working for shorter sessions, or impending cloud cover or rain showers! I even like their dark purple ground for dark scenes that have heavy shadows. Of course, I have a prepared set of travel pastels that include quite a few Unisons from years of collecting the correct shades for my area. Recently Unison has started making half stick sets which work perfectly for plein air, no more peeling labels, and the range is wonderful, I have a set of “Heather Harman” half sticks that slip into my gear easily to compliment my tried and true colors. I also own the full set of half sticks, but I find them so handy in my studio I could not bear to add them to my sandy travel box!

Click to enlarge…

I have chosen a few of my more recent plein air pastels from my area to show you the loose and unfinished look of this sort of work. I seldom work for more than two hours, because I am going for more of a study then a finished work. If there is a scene you really want to capture, you need to be totally comfortable on site, and that means a chair, umbrella, and an easel you can easily move, carry and adjust.

I will go into further details on plein air comfort and equipment on my next blog!

Meanwhile, try something new, challenge yourself by going out and seeing the world not through the reference photo but with your own eyes!

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9 Responses

  1. I’m surprised how many of your artist are striving for photographic realistic images What happened to more abstract creativity??

    1. In my case Harvey, I am trying to get as close as I can to reality, but will never achieve it due to my failing eyesight, so I believe when I’m ready to embrace the abstract, it will be the natural order! Hyper realism is amazing but not for everyone, and abstraction too, I’m so glad there are so many wonderful artists doing all sorts of painting, everyone an individual approach!
      Helen

  2. Thank you Helen for reminding us in your blog not just the importance of stepping out of one’s comfort zone to try another appraoch to making art, but to try and use photography as a means of reference differently. Photography is a great tool for artists but no matter how virtuoso and skilled the artist may be reproducing a single photographic image the result will always be flat or dead. David Hockney is particularly interesting on the camera lens and photography. The reproduced image may indeed look real yet reality is missing. The camera lens flattens as it captures the image through a single perspective. but unless we are partiallly blind we see the world through two eyes giving depth perception as we scan via multiple perspectives. Working from situe brings an energy and life to the work. The interpretation of the view or scene will of course not be a photographic rendering, but it will have captured the essence of life, time and with it atmosphere. Its too cold today to go outside, but the garden looks great behind a window! until Spring then.
    ” Iv’e finally figured out what’s wrong with photography. Its a one-eyed man looking through a little ‘ole. Now how much reality can there be in that? David Hockney

    1. Jane I love taking photographs almost as much as I love painting, so with that in mind, I like to frame the scene and compose it as if I were to paint each one I shoot. You are right about the limits of reference material though, so I like to have a reference and a field sketch if possible!
      Helen

  3. Yes being out in nature is wonderful and to see and feel as you work though not sure when it’s very cold how we would manage I have tried in Warm weather
    Thanks for sharing your work and methods 😊👋🏻

    1. Beverly, I live in a pretty warm place and can plein air year round if I like, however sometimes I’d rather be at my easel with ALL my colors at the ready. Being inside also means I can change paper, experiment and answer the phone! Spring will be waiting for you!!
      Helen

  4. This was a great read. I will read your next blog with interest too as I need to set up my kit to make it portable, so any advice would be welcome. I have a comfortable setup in my studio with neat drawers of pastels but I do think we should all push ourselves at times to expand our experience, even just to find out whether or not it is for us !

    1. Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner, just saw this!
      You have inspired me to start taking some pictures of my set up and such to get you ready for spring plein air time! All you need is a good easel, small folding table, and your pastels to start, stay close to home at first! I’ll write with more tips!
      Thank you for replying!
      Helen

  5. Lovely blog, I’ll be looking out for the next. It’s a great reminder to get out and enjoy the subject as much as the creativity. We’re so lucky that pastels are easily transported. Looking forward to seeing your set up xx

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