James Middleton Plein Air Workshops in 2017
Hello fellow painters,
This year I will be teaching two plein air workshops on the beautiful South Shore of Nova Scotia, one on August 14 – 18 and another on September 4 – 8.
Getting better at painting can be a long and sometimes frustrating journey.
I fumbled in painting for many years – I was good at drawing, but painting was difficult. I know this to be true: painting is not a skill you’re “just born with”, but practice & deliberate effort is the door to improvement and even mastery.
What made a big difference in my paintings was taking two plein air workshops in Putney, Vermont in 2006 and 2007 with Albert Handell, where I met and painted with the legendary Richard Schmid, his wife Nancy Guzik and their group the Putney Painters.
After the workshops, I started winning awards, even for portraits. Was it because of the workshops? I really don’t know – although Richard Schmid did pass around one of his magic painting brushes, which I touched!
In 2006 I won “Best Painting” in the Art Gallery of Peel’s annual competition. In 2007 I won 2nd Place in ArtWorks Oakville’s annual competition. These are big shows, with entries from artists all across the Greater Toronto Area – all types of art accepted. Then the big one, in 2008 I was a finalist and Certificate of Merit winner in the Portrait Society of Canada’s national competition “Miracle of the Portrait” – with a 2hr oil sketch from life! Then in 2009 I won 2nd place in the Society of Canadian Artists’ national competition. There have been many others since, but enough about me – my workshops are about you.
“One Approach” – Four Essential Steps to Plein Air Painting
I’ve been painting outdoors for many years and I wish I could say that every painting I do now is a complete success, but that just isn’t the case. I do have more successes now than I did years ago. Of course, I’ve practiced a lot and am a better painter now, but it’s also because I usually follow a coherent set of steps — an approach — that helps me stay on track and keeps me out of trouble.
This is one of the approaches I teach in my workshops (there are a few others). Even if one can draw, compose, mix colour and handle paint reasonably well, if any of these steps are left out, one invariably runs into trouble. There are no free passes. Everyone, including the masters, had to consider each one of these steps.
Here then is the condensed version of “One Approach.”
It’s worth noting that three of the four steps all happen before one begins applying fully developed colour. This approach is based on strong foundations with ordered steps that make the entire process more manageable.
Step 1 – Site selection
This is one of the most overlooked steps. Just because a scene is beautiful or interesting doesn’t necessarily mean it will translate well into a painting. Because nature fills our subjects with resplendent colour and light, it’s easy to assume that any scene will become a beautiful painting. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The three-dimensional “reality” that we see at the actual location and the synthetic two-dimensional reality of our painting are two different things. Nature always looks “right” because it’s real and we see it in three dimensions. A painting, though, is a constructed illusion. For a painting on a flat picture plane to be “readable” and suggest depth, its shapes and colours must distinguish themselves from one another and the painting must incorporate as many spatial cues from the scene as possible.
Step 2 – Compositional thumbnail
Good composition isn’t an accident; more often than not, it has to be extracted from the larger scene before us. Students often do a thumbnail in the form of a line drawing, which is the least informative type of thumbnail. A thumbnail that is shape- and mass-oriented is much more effective in capturing shapes, which is what a composition is built upon. A compositional thumbnail should determine the best composition for the subject you have selected.
A thumbnail doesn’t have to be highly accurate or very neat, but it must suggest the general placement of the main shapes. I typically limit the thumbnail to two or three values. This keeps it simple and allows me to see the composition in terms of its basic shapes. It’s easier to do a shape-oriented thumbnail if you use a bold drawing instrument like a soft pencil, markers or black and white paint (or paint thinned for light areas).
And don’t forget the power of the picture window — use your viewfinder! The viewfinder helps you “eliminate the unnecessary so the necessary may speak.”
Step 3 – Underpainting or block-in
An underpainting is a monochromatic (single colour) version of the painting that establishes drawing, composition, and values before getting too involved with colour. This is a step that is overlooked by many plein air painters. However, skipping this step would imply that you have enough skill to do the following: place varying colours down on a white canvas, of the correct value, hue and intensity, all in a single stroke. Unless you’re channeling John Singer Sargent or Joaquin Sorolla, that’s an unrealistic expectation.
It’s extraordinarily difficult for all but the most seasoned painters to consider composition, drawing and value at the same time they are thinking about colour. Separating the monochromatic foundation from its multi-coloured development breaks the process down into more manageable steps. What’s more, the pigment colour you choose for the underpainting can be the first step toward a colour strategy. It’s true that this step will add some time to the already short sessions of outdoor painting, but the control it offers you makes it well worth the time, especially if you are a novice or intermediate painter.
Step 4 – Paint handling and colour application
Finally, we begin actual “painting” — mixing colours and applying fully-loaded pigment to the canvas. Painters like to rush ahead to this step — what they consider the “fun” part. But if our colour and paint handling is going to work, it must be built upon a solid foundation, which is what Steps 1 through 3 are about.
Step 4 is the most difficult and requires the most time. It demands an understanding of colour and mixing, as well as facility with paint handling. Everything involved in this step cannot be condensed into a few short paragraphs. However, I have several suggestions that can make this step more manageable.
Take your time. In plein air painting there is a popular belief that one should work quickly and apply paint liberally. Again, this is a fine idea if you are as good as Sargent or Sorolla, but until you have that kind of facility, take it slow, be mindful of each stroke As you get better, you can move through the steps more quickly.
Work in layers (obviously not dry layers, unless you are using acrylics). With oil painting, working wet into wet is a challenge. The most common problem is overworking the paint, which results in a muddied surface. You can minimize the potential for this if you work in layers — from thin, to thicker, to thickest. Don’t apply thick, impasto strokes unless you are sure that you are not going to hit that spot again. To apply fresh colour over wet paint, you must apply paint that is thicker than the layer underneath. For this to work, you have to do three things:
- Use a soft, flexible brush. A stiff or crusty brush will scrape through the underlying layer. You want the opposite effect: the ability to apply a light stroke that will sit on top of the previous stroke without disrupting it too much. A soft brush is gentle on the previous layer.
- Use a light touch. Apply one or two strokes without pressing too hard, and leave it! Lots of rubbing and stroking is a sure way to destroy the underlying layer and create mud.
- Use enough paint. Remember, the layers build from thin, to thicker, to thickest. You can’t get a fresh layer to sit on top of a lower layer if you don’t have enough paint on your brush.
Consider a limited palette. Getting colours to work well together can be a complicated endeavour. A limited palette can help. A limited palette is a small set of pigments, usually one of each of the primaries, plus white (or a split primary, a warm and cool of each primary colour). Sometimes there may be an additional pigment or two. Fewer pigments lead to colours and mixtures that are more interrelated and harmonious. I don’t use the same limited palette for each subject, either; rather, I choose a set of pigments that are keyed to the colour plan I have in mind. In my workshops I say, “Use whatever pigments are called for, but no more than absolutely necessary.”