Question: Painting plein air can be challenging. Do you have any suggestions for getting the most out of plein air sketches?
Answer: From Sketch to Finish.
One of the most overlooked aspects of plein air painting is the thumbnail sketch. This seemingly simple step can solve so many early problems in both composition and design.
When I arrive at a painting location I will wander around looking for a unique point of view with four to six strong, graphic shapes. I don’t get my paint kit out, but rather just take my sketchbook with me. Once I’ve decided on a subject, I determine the format – whether it’s rectangular, horizontal, square, or panoramic.
Next, I sketch in an outline of the outside format (a square for instance) and determine the horizon-line, or eye-level. This is a very important element to establish. As I sketch in the main elements using a ballpoint pen, I’m looking for three values, which fall into categories: black, white, and grays.
I use a crosshatch technique to create my values. Overlapping different directional lines creates a value pattern. I may also darken the outside lines of specific shapes to strengthen the graphical work.
As a former illustrator (22 years), I see the major elements as graphic shapes. I try to simplify them clearly, looking for hard edges. In the paining, I’ll lose or soften edges, but not in my sketch. This is also the time to edit elements from the scene. I ask myself what’s important to the composition? Does this shape help tell a story or compliment the scene?
If there’s an architectural element, I work out the perspective and the shadow pattern on the building. This can be really helpful as the shadow often changes with weather; I can refer to my sketch for the shadow shapes. Organic elements like trees are important and need to be designed well. I give them specific, well designed shaped, keeping in mind their unique characteristics.
The whole process might take five to ten minutes, but it solves so many issues before I pick up a paintbrush.
Now, I get out my painting kit. I redraw my composition in pencil on my board, just so I know where the elements belong. I then use thinned burnt-umber oil paint to block in the painting. I may make slight adjustments, making sure my perspective is correct.
Now I’m ready to paint. At this point, I ask myself what is going to change the quickest that I must capture first. It might be a long shadow. It might be the sky or the reflections in the water. I might paint these areas completely and work in other areas later. I prefer to block in the whole painting first, but that’s not always possible.
Using a fairly thin oil wash in the shadow areas, I block in these darks first using large, bright brushes. I’ll mix my colors on my palette in one general area shifting colors slightly to give them more interest. The next step is to block in the major light areas, using more opaque colors and slightly thicker paint. The goal is to have a harmony of color and capture the light of the day. These areas are mixed separately on the palette and I use a clean brush for each major color.
Next, I’ll block in the major light areas, using more opaque colors and slightly thicker paint.
At this point, my canvas is covered and I always step back to see the overall look of the painting. This is a critical step. Again, I ask myself, what adjustments do I need to make in value and color? What jumps out that I need to fix? It’s easy to fall in love with a brush stroke or a passage of color, but stepping back let’s me see the whole painting.
The last step is refinement of shapes. I’ll go back to the shadow shapes and refine color and value. In the light areas I’m building up a thicker, more opaque paint using directional brush strokes. I soften the edges of the trees and add sky holes.
I may add some texture with a palette knife and/or add smaller details, like telephone poles, fences, or tree branches. Sometimes the sky is done last (if it is a small area) and I’m careful to keep it clean. Often, I scrape my palette and add more white paint so the color is clean. Stepping back frequently during the last stage allows me to get a better overall view of my piece.
The thumbnail sketch may seem like a quick exercise to get to the finished painting. I find it to be an essential aspect of the process and critical to the success of my painting.
To learn more about Paul Kratter visit his website by clicking here.
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