I was talking to a student the other day about my experience learning how to paint outdoors. In my early days of painting en plein air I was simply trying to find out how to apply oil paint so it would stick on a canvas surface in freezing temperatures. I had problems when the wet paint I was applying would remove the existing paint on the surface of the canvas. I couldn’t get the paint to layer properly. In addition to this technical aspect of paint handling, I was often overwhelmed by the amount of visual information that I encountered in the landscape. When on location there were way too many things that I wanted to paint. I tried to get help and instruction from experienced painters that I knew. They offered a variety of advice, some helpful. But no one was painting exclusively outdoors. They were all studio artists who did a little plein air painting in warm weather.
Whenever I went out to paint I encountered the same situation. What should I paint? Where should I set up ? How much time do I spend hiking into a location? What if the best spot is still ahead of me? It was enough to drive me nuts! I would see a lot of scenery that I liked but it didn’t look anything like the paintings that I wanted to paint. I often had visions of completed paintings in my mind. They were luminous and glowing. They were about mood and a deeper message, not how the light looked at a certain time of day. I soon noticed that the time of day when I was usually out painting never offered a lighting situation that was close to what I saw in my minds eye. I realized I wanted to paint a message, not a depiction of a specific place. I decided to look at as many landscape paintings as I could. The Hudson River painters; Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt and Frederick Church were painting something similar to what I was seeing. The Luminists looked like they were painting some of my internal scenes. After much searching, when I encountered Aldro Hibbard and the Russian Impressionists I felt like I’d found my tribe. The Russians and Hibbard were the most helpful as they were dealing with snow and lighting conditions that I faced every year during New England winters. I knew they were going outdoors to paint, so I figured if they could do it and paint it; well, so could I. I started to look at all the work they produced. It made me so happy to see a painting of the rural Russian countryside on a cloudy day in winter. It was exactly the same conditions that I encountered. What did I learn? Find some one who is accomplished and paints in the same types of conditions that you do and see how they handle it . The Russians painted gray winter days in a way that was spectacular. Hibbard painted snowy Vermont scenes in villages where I had actually lived ! Now I had some value and chroma guide lines to follow that made sense to me. To be continued…
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