Oil Painting: Plein-Air Painters of America Members: From the Site to the Studio

Oil Painting: Plein-Air Painters of America Members: From the Site to the Studio

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A current exhibition in Stockton, California, shows how members of the Plein-Air Painters of America (PAPA) interpret their on-site studies to make larger studio paintings. Here’s what they had to say.

by Bob Bahr

Study for Canada’s Dome Glacier
by Linda Tippetts, 2006, oil, 12 x 16.
All artwork this article
collection the artist unless
otherwise indicated.
Canada’s Dome Glacier
by Linda Tippetts, 2006,
oil, 18 x 24.

Linda Tippetts
Montana artist Linda Tippetts painted the studio version of this composition shortly after she did the study. “It’s different for every individual but, for me, if I have lost the excitement and passion I had when I chose that scene on location and I can’t recapture it, I just won’t do the studio piece,” says the artist. “It needs to be fairly immediate—I have to keep that continuity going from the field to the studio, without breaking my focus in between.”

Although she confesses that she slightly prefers her studies, Tippetts says she is motivated to make studio versions of outdoor scenes for various reasons, including the fact that she occasionally runs out of daylight while painting en plein air, and a studio version allows her to incorporate more details. She may also alter the design, as the artist did when she enlarged and changed the shape of the glacier in the studio version. Tippetts also visibly changed the light in the studio painting—she was intrigued by the composition and design while painting on location, but discovered the light was better the next day. She filmed the scene with a camcorder—she feels video does a better job capturing light effects—and used the footage along with the study to create her larger studio piece. She works on canvas board in the field and stretched linen in the studio. She uses the same full palette for both tasks.

Tippetts painted the Canadian Rockies in part because she loves the American Rockies so much. “Because I live near the Rockies in Montana, I wanted to explore the Canadian Rockies to discover their personality,” she says. “I was born and raised in the mountains, and they are very dear to me. But if you look at the same scene too long, you don’t see a fresh view. Seeing the Canadian Rockies gave me a fresh perspective on the Rocky Mountain chain.”

Joseph Mendez
Joseph Mendez uses reference photos to help him get certain details for his studio paintings but, in general, he considers them “a big lie” and looks to his study for color notes. “Photos won’t give you accurate colors,” he says. “The photograph is cold.” Like Tippetts, Mendez feels that it’s important to paint the studio version as soon as possible after completing the study, while he still vividly remembers the experience. “I do it within a couple of days,” he says. “I have to do that, otherwise the image goes away.”

Mendez paints on canvas board or Masonite on-site and stretched canvas or canvas board in the studio, using the same limited palette for both. Above all, he seeks to capture the feeling of the place. “I don’t care if I make a rock bigger or smaller—I will do anything I want,” he says. “But the feeling of the place is very important to me, the feeling of that particular day.” The composition will likely change from the study to the studio version, and Mendez expects that. “The difference in size between the study and the studio painting forces me to have a different composition,” he points out.

The California artist also employs an unusual step to help emphasize the experience rather than the specific objects viewed: he works on the studio painting upside down. “That way, I won’t use my brain and think about what the scene is—it prevents me from thinking and justifying things,” says Mendez. “I just paint the colors that I see and remember.”

John Budicin
When asked what is the most difficult aspect of painting a studio version of an on-site sketch, John Budicin agrees with several plein air artists: “Trying to keep the freshness that was there, that’s the biggest challenge,” he admits. This California artist and current president of PAPA doesn’t necessarily address the issue by trying to paint the studio version as soon as possible after the study is completed on-site. “For me, it means working on the studio version a little bit at a time so I don’t overwork a certain area,” he explains. “I will just walk away or work on a frame—I enjoy making my own and applying the gold leaf—and then after I’ve cleared my mind I go back to the painting.

“If you see an area that doesn’t work, that’s a warning sign,” Budicin offers. “If you see a tree that doesn’t quite fit, even though you have painted it several times, you’ve lost your freshness.” He also warns that the larger painting has to have a life of its own. “You can never duplicate what you got on the little one,” says Budicin. “The study has one language and the larger piece has to speak for itself. I’m just painting in the moment when I am doing the study.”

The part of Tuscany that Budicin depicted in this pair of paintings is one of his favorite areas to visit. The biggest change he made from the study to the studio version is in the treatment of the background. “I added more detail and made it recede more,” says the artist. “I gave it more interest and designed it so it takes the viewer’s eye back around the painting—I was trying to get more of a circular pattern to keep one’s eye in the painting.”

The Trailer Park
by Brian Stewart, 2006,
oil, 18 x 40.
Study for
The Trailer Park

by Brian Stewart, 2006,
oil, 6 x 8.
Study for
The Trailer Park

by Brian Stewart, 2006,
oil, 6 x 8.
Study for
The Trailer Park

by Brian Stewart, 2006,
oil, 6 x 8.

Brian Stewart
Minnesota painter Brian Stewart patterns his use of studies after such past masters as the Hudson River School painters, who worked from several studies to produce larger studio works. “The tough part is integrating it all and making it look believable,” he says. “To get the same feeling, light source, angle, distance, perspective—that is the difficulty, particularly when you are dealing with man-made objects. These are things that the human eye tends to identify and have some familiarity with, so you have to be very technical in your drawing. If I am doing a landscape of mountains and trees and rocks, it can have a drawing error, and no one will pick it up. But if I paint a manmade object, I have to get it right, because people will pick up on it, whether they’re trained or untrained.”

Stewart tackled this composite image of retro car-trailers by painting numerous studies for about two hours each on 6-x-8 cotton canvas panels. “The first study, the trailer park in Bisbee, Arizona, dictated the overall tonality,” he says. “I tried to make everything cohesive.” He painted the car separately and adjusted its color temperature from the study when painting the studio piece. The people in the composition were painted from photographs he later staged indoors, in costume, in the winter. The trailer that’s the focus of the studio piece was painted in a different trailer park.

“Color, values, and the overall feel of light is what I’m trying to capture in studies,” the artist says. “I’m not concentrating on drawing as much—I’m trying to get the drawing accurate, but I can rely on reference photos for accuracy on the larger piece if I need to. I’m still trying to create art—I’m not trying to do a documentation.” Instead, he tries to evoke a feeling of nostalgia and feels free to take liberties with details in the signage, buildings, and similar elements in the periphery of the painting.

He begins by drawing with paint, using very few lines. “I’m always drawing while I’m completing the painting,” says Stewart. “I complete the drawing while I paint. If I do too precious of a drawing at the beginning I could become married to it and be afraid to deviate from it.” Next, Stewart usually creates an intermediate drawing, a charcoal cartoon on Ingres paper with white chalk, to work out any drawing problems. He then adds a grid over the drawing and on the canvas so he can accurately transfer the information.

“I’m usually not able to do the larger studio paintings immediately, but the sooner I do the finished painting the more successful it is,” he says. “The feeling stays with me initially, but it seems to dissipate over time. And with a painting, it’s more important how it feels than how it works.” For The Trailer Park, Stewart first painted the trailer park that serves as the setting, then one week later, the primary trailer. Five months later, he found the car to pull it. Six months later, he was able to start the studio painting, which took him a week and a half to execute.

Gil Dellinger
“In the studio version I slightly downplayed the dynamic light to give the painting more unity,” Gil Dellinger says about this pair of acrylic pieces. “There was a brashness that was really charming on a small scale, but on a big painting it would have been too gaudy and sort of inharmonic. I changed the colors slightly, and I changed the shape of the road—I tried this out in the studio painting and decided I liked it, so I followed the new idea, let it morph.”

Dellinger says that when he is on location he nearly forgets about design because he is so intent on capturing the sense of the place. “I work by feeling the ambience of a place,” he says. “Even a smell—I may bring in plant materials from the area into the studio. It’s part of the experience. A smell is something that bypasses some brain functions and takes you back to a memory. You can smell something and be back 20 years ago.

“Usually I have to paint an area just after I’ve experienced it,” says Dellinger. “A year later I am too emotionally detached from the initial experience. It is very difficult to recall it.”

Scott Burdick
The difference between Scott Burdick’s study for a painting of Yosemite in January and the studio painting inspired by the same scene is arguably the most dramatic of the pairs exhibited in the PAPA show. Not only has the format changed from horizontal to vertical but a painting that seems focused on the yellow hills in the background has mutated into a piece that emphasizes the play of the yellow light on the stream and the cool, snow-colored rocks.

“Even while I was painting the study I was thinking about doing it vertically,” he explains. “I get excited about the scene that I am going to paint, and I just want to get started right away. But I’m always looking around and seeing other things that would be great to paint. And things change over time. In this case, the light really wasn’t reflecting off the water until well after I started. Then the yellow in the hills started reflecting and I was wowed, and I took some photos—I knew I wanted to do a vertical. That happens often—you get started and then suddenly you see other possibilities, better possibilities. But if I hadn’t done the study, I wouldn’t have stayed there long enough to see that change in the light.”

Burdick spends about three hours painting his studies, and he considers it an important record of the colors in the scene, and perhaps equally important, three hours of close observation of the subject. He also takes reference photos, “bracketing” them to capture the details in both the very light and very dark areas. The North Carolina artist finds studio paintings satisfying because they allow him to explore a new approach to the subject matter and to take a break from being away from home. But painting outdoors is clearly a highlight for Burdick.

“Painting en plein air is the fun part of being an artist,” Burdick says. “Going out and exploring, learning about the location—you see how the sun changes, how the light is different in a particular place. Even though those paintings aren’t the ones that get sent out and bought by the collectors, for artists, the studies are the real fun. But you are cheating yourself if all you do is studies. The great artists all did studies, but they are known for their big incredible masterpieces done in the studio, which were only possible because of their studies.”

Ken Auster
A Ken Auster studio painting is likely to be 600 percent larger than its study, so his goals are a bit different than some plein air painters. “The study is just to organize my thoughts and lay down something as quickly as possible,” the California artist says. “I want to see if it will work in a larger format.”

He uses a big brush on his 12-x-16 studies “so it takes less time to do the painting.” Auster says he doesn’t like being in people’s way when he is painting in the city; he gets a study done in 90 minutes, often getting the basics down in the first 30 minutes, then moving to a less obtrusive spot to develop the study further. Using reference photos, he’ll add a few scant details to the study later in the studio. Then, he’ll make assessments.

“I’ll do a multitude of smaller paintings and look at them a long time, then finally make a decision on which one will make a good big painting,” he explains. “You have to determine if the painting will work in a large format. The stronger the subject matter or focal point in a small painting, the more successful the larger painting is going to be. You can do almost anything in a 6-x-8 format and it will work—because you won’t try to put in all the information in a small painting. You are forced to adhere to the rules of good design and resist filling it up with a bunch of junk. A good painting is dependent on what you leave out.”

The next step for Auster is to block in the large painting in his studio. He says this stage, in which the design is set, must be done in one session—he generally completes this “foundation” in one afternoon, putting on gloves and smearing the paint on with his hands. “It’s a fast process; you have to work while it’s wet,” he says. “And it’s physical exercise; you have to put a lot of paint down quickly.” Auster feels that if this foundation is correct, it is nearly impossible for him to later ruin the painting during refinements. Only a lot of work and a big brush could sabotage the composition and design.

The artist then spends chunks of time over a couple of weeks developing small areas of the painting and establishing the focal point. He avoids too much detail. “Nothing will hurt a large painting more than too much information,” asserts Auster. “You need a square foot of really interesting information, and the rest should be abstract. You can’t feel like you need to put more things in it just because there’s more space. You have to rein in that thought and keep the focal point.

“On smaller pieces you can get away with such things as a huge chunk of red, but in a big painting it would be so dominating you couldn’t stop looking at it,” he explains. “You may get a lot more subtle information in a larger piece than a smaller one, but you won’t get more detail.”

Auster does add significantly more depth in his larger paintings, and he takes care to make his colors a bit subtler. “In a study, I might divide the landscape into three layers—foreground, middle ground, and background—and there will be big value changes between them,” he says. “In a studio piece, I can put six or seven layers in there—I can push the envelope while retaining the full range of values.”

Jim Morgan
Jim Morgan’s study of a maple tree in late fall was actually done in the studio, as are most of his studies. He makes very rough, simple sketches on-site, then works up a small study at home before launching into a larger, more finished piece. “This study was based on a few on-site hen-scratch sketches,” says the Utah artist. “I do these to see how the composition will work out, before I do the larger one. Those initial thumbnails give me the essence of the subject and the movement of the line.” Morgan also uses reference photos, but he refers to them only fleetingly, preferring to rely on memory and intuition.
The small junco in the studio painting was planned from the beginning, but Morgan left the bird out of the study because he wanted to first make sure that the composition would be strong enough without it.

About PAPA
The Plein-Air Painters of American (PAPA) was founded by Denise Burns on Catalina Island, off the coast of California, in 1986. The idea was to handpick 20 artists, have them paint on the island for a week, and then show their work in a sale on Saturday evening and Sunday morning. This format proved very successful, and for the next 18 years the group painted and exhibited on Catalina, followed by two years in the Lake Tahoe area. The organization still limits its membership, and the goal remains the same, “documenting a place and time and calling attention to landmarks large and small,” according to PAPA’s website. Annual workshops have recently become part of their activities as well.

The group’s 21st annual exhibition and sale, titled “From the Heart: Plein-Air Painters of America” opens at The Haggin Museum, in Stockton, California, on October 21. More than 120 artworks by 34 signature, emeritus, and honorary members, as well as six guest artists, will be on view through January 6, 2008. The paintings, which were done over the past year, include plein air work, as well as studio paintings created from field studies. Among the opening events is a painting demonstration (free admission) on the morning of Saturday, October 20, at Jessie’s Grove Winery, in Lodi, California. An exhibition catalogue is available through the museum.

For more information on PAPA, visit www.p-a-p-a.com.

Watch the video: Plein Air Painting Demonstration-Gregg Russell (August 2022).