Summer Painting

Tips for Painting outside and when did the trend start? With Barry Whitehouse (First Published July 2016)

Top tips for painting outside with Barry Whitehouse,

  • Make sure you have all the equipment you need, but limit it to the least amount possible for carrying. 7 colours, one pencil, a pad, and a few brushes should give you a nice enough range to get the painting right
  • Consider the changing light. Monet said that it is impossible to paint for longer than 30 minutes at any one time due to the change in light and shadows. I would advise that you work in one of two ways (i) sketch everything first and then begin painting leaving the shadows until last, or (ii) draw an arrow indicating the direction of sunlight first so that even a while after you’ve been painting you still know the original direction of the shadows. Never add the shadows as you progress in the painting as you’ll find that after an hour they will all be changing direction and the painting will not look right
  • Pay attention to what you wear. If possible wear darker clothes or have a black apron. This method was used in full by Monet who wore a black smock when painting outside so that the colour of his clothing did not reflect and change the appearance of the colours he was creating on the canvas. Darker clothing stops reflection so the colours you paint are the colours you see and wantTry not to get carried away by the whole landscape. A photograph captures one small area, but when you are outside you are faced with a 360 degree view which can be distracting and also make angles look odd if you try to add a building on the far right in a painting where you’re mainly looking left. Use Natural markers to stop your eyes from wandering outside the scene. For example use a tree on your left to be the left hand edge of your paper, a fence post on the right to be the right hand edge of your paper, a rock to represent the bottom edge of your painting, and perhaps an overhanging branch to represent to top of your painting. This way your eyes can remain fixed on the subject at hand. Should you see an interesting building outside of this ‘view’, do not try to fit it in, but perhaps create a second painting that moves the view to incorporate that building
  • Paint what you see and not what you know. Whether you know the landscape you are painting well or not, it is advisable not to guess at what things are, nor is it recommended to paint something in detail if the eye can’t make out what it is even if you know what it is. Doing so will alter the perspective and depth of a picture. For example a dark flick in the distance should be painted just as that. Even if you know it is a pylon if you paint it as a pylon you are bringing it closer to you and therefore altering the depth, which will make some of the closer things you don’t’ know and have painted as seen look further back than the background

The Art Surgery

Summer Painting En Plein Air – When did it start

As soon as the weather is warmer, artists pick up their paints and take them outside to paint from nature. Was this always the case? Interestly the term ‘en plein air’ is a French phrase and many of the old fashioned art terms are in Italian and were devised in the renaissance; so the fact that we are dealing with French phraseology could indicate it happened much later in the timeline of art than we imagine. It is sometimes called ‘peinture sur le motif’ (painting objects that the eye actually sees) which perfectly describes the artist sitting in the environment of what they are painting.

Throughout history many artists painted only in their studio as it was difficult for them to paint outside. If they wanted to paint real objects they would have to dig them up or cut them and bring them to their studio to observe. As seen in the painting ‘Large Piece of Turf’ painted by Albrecht Durer in 1503. This also meant they could keep the lighting at a constant angle giving them longer to paint than in natural sunlight which causes shadows to change direction over a short period of time. It wasn’t because the artist did not want to paint outside, but they were not taught to due to it being extremely difficult to do. Imagine the renaissance artists trying to carry all their essential materials away from their studio to paint outside! Where would they put their wooden boards to paint on, their eggs, their powdered pigments, their mortar and pestle, their brushes, their linseed oil, their water, their charcoal, their stylus and all their other additional materials? This is not to say that they wouldn’t make on the spot sketches or studies which they would then use to make paintings from once they got back to their studio or workshop. Although it is accepted that at times Rembrandt, Da Vinci, and Claude Lorrain all painted outside at some point, but it was not their usual way of painting.

Largely the change to moving to painting outside happened when tubes of paint were invented, along with collapsible easels, carriers to transport canvases and so on, along with trains and railways so artists could travel further afield. This is thought mainly to have happened in France in the mid-17th Century with the birth of art movements such as Impressionism where the artists wanted to capture natural light from life. They felt that by being absorbed in the atmosphere it could give more sensitivity to the subject. For example it is difficult to paint a cold snow scene whilst sitting in 25 degree heat. Eugene Boudan was a French artist who used en plein air painting a lot, and even encouraged a young Claude Monet to go with him and to learn the art of painting outside. In the painting ‘Beach at Trouville’, grains of sand got stuck to areas of the oil paint indicating it was painted on site, on rather a blustery day

William Holman Hunt: The Scapegoat, 1854.

Over here in Britain at around the same time as the Impressionists were painting outside using their modern Alla Prima (all in one go) technique where the whole painting is created from start to finish outside using broad flat brushstrokes, the Pre-raphaelite Brotherhood had formed and were painting outside but in a method closely related to the mid Renaissance! They wanted their art work to feel real, as if the viewer were standing in that scene and could feel the heat, or the cold. William Holman-Hunt for example travelled to the holy land just so he could make sketches and see what the landscape looked like for the religious scenes he was painting, as seen in his painting entitled ‘The Scapegoat’ painted in 1854. Interestingly many artists before him that painted religious scenes would either make up and imagine what the landscape looked like, or use scenes from their own town and area as it was all they knew. So dedicated were they of capturing the true essence, that ‘The Light of the World’ was painted by moonlight in a small shack in a woodland so that Holman Hunt could observe how the moonlight landed on the tree filed landscape.

Much earlier in Britain though there was an artist not only breaking from the norm and painting landscapes, but he was also painting some of them outside and again breaking what was considered to be the ‘proper’ way of painting. That artist was English landscape painter John Constable. During Constable’s early career, landscape painting was not viewed as a genre of art in its own right, but were merely there as backdrops for whatever was happening – albeit a religious scene, mythological story, or a portrait. Constable decided to take this to a different level and followed in the footsteps of Claude Lorrain whom he admired. Because of this action, Constable’s work was never really accepted to begin with and caused him a delay to be accepted into the Royal Academy, and also caused him to be engaged for seven years until his fiancée’s father was satisfied that John had a stable enough income to support his wife and raise a family! His painting ‘Wivenhoe Park, Essex’ was one of the landscapes painted on location, outside.

Why paint outside?

Painting outside is totally different to working from a sketch or photograph. The reason is because a sketch whilst capturing the bare bones, fails to capture the ‘feel’ of the environment; and a photograph deadens the mid tones – it lightens the light bits and darkens the dark bits. Photographs also push back what is seen. Painting from life however really makes you see far more colours and layers than a photograph can. Try to paint outside as much as possible, for as John Constable said ‘imagination never can or will compare to the beauty of reality’.