Thanks to Artists’ Network, one day earlier this week I got about as close to plein air painting as I’m ever likely to get. This was through a video called “Painting the Alberta Landscape” with Doug Swinton. He’s a friendly character, and I enjoyed my imaginary visit with him. Together we traipsed through the wilderness until we came to the perfect scene for plein air painting.
Of course, I did this in the confines of my studio. My intention wasn’t to copy his painting. I simply wanted to be a bit of an observer, watching to see how he went about setting up, choosing a view, and painting in the open air.
As he scanned the horizon and chose a view he liked, I listened intently as he described the process — and I loved what he said. This expedition into the countryside of Alberta was not about making a finished painting. Forget that, he said. What he was there to do, he explained, was to gather information, to create a plein air study that he could then take back to the studio with him. I was intrigued. I decided to put myself in the scene with him, to look at what he was looking at, and to fully imagine that I was actually there painting side by side with Swinton.
But painting wasn’t where we began. First, we chose how we wanted to map out the scene. This meant making a quick sketch. A very quick sketch. Once again Swinton pointed out that this was not meant to be a “frameable” drawing. This was merely a way for us to make notes about what we saw.
In the past, the idea of making a quick landscape sketch always left me bewildered. I was never too sure how much — or how little — information to include. Now, however, having discovered a greater sense of freedom in my approach to art, I just jumped right in and put together a very useful sketch. I was pleased that I didn’t try to “copy” Swinton’s marks. Indeed, my sketch looked different from his, and that’s how it should be! I was excited to see that I’d used my own artistic sense and my own artistic abilities to make a sketch that truly represented what I was seeing, a sketch that was, by all accounts, good enough to serve as a road map.
I’ve darkened this a bit so that you can get an idea of how my sketch looked. This was drawn very lightly on the upper half of my sketchbook.
Next, I followed along as Swinton set up his tripod easel. My portable easel just happened to be sitting within arm’s reach, so I grabbed it. At this point I was feeling quite comfortable. Just as I hadn’t needed to concern myself with an accurate and highly-detailed sketch, I wasn’t supposed to think about making a finished, frameable painting. This was just a study, a sort of “rough draft” in oils.
I set up my palette, although my colors were a bit different from the ones Swinton used. It was all right. “This is not to be a frameable painting,” he repeated over and over, and I, in turn, repeated those same words over and over to myself.
Once my palette was ready (it took me much longer to get set up than it did for Doug Swinton), I followed his suggestion to sketch the scene again, this time on the canvas with a very thin burnt sienna color. This is a technique I was familiar with. Sometimes I use it, sometimes I don’t. But this was to be a road map, so I sketched in the basic shapes and indicated a few areas of darker value.
And then it was on to the painting. Very loose. Very free. This is not to be a frameable painting. Oh, yes, I loved the freedom I felt. Whatever I did, it would be all right, and best of all, whatever I did would be mine. I wasn’t creating the exact same painting Swinton was doing. I wasn’t using the same colors. I was just watching his process and going from there as I completed my own wilderness study.
My study definitely looked different than Doug Swinton’s study, and I was very happy about that. I’m finding that the more I go out on my own, the happier I am with the results. For a quick study, this small 8 x 10 canvas works.
If there’s any area that’s lacking, it’s that bit of foreground. I always have problems with the foreground area in landscape paintings, so I’ll continue to work on that.
But now comes the real challenge: taking this small study and turning it into a larger landscape painting, one that — hopefully — will be suitable for framing. How will that turn out? You’ll just have to wait and see. My completed version of “Alberta Landscape” will be posted in a few days.