Today's Post is by Lori Woodward, Regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. She also writes "The Artist's Life" blog on American Artists' Forum. Lori is a member of The Putney Painters, an invitational group that paints under the direction of Richard Schmid and Nancy Guzik. Find out how you can be a guest author.
As a stubborn, self-directed artist, I'm not fond of having other artists make rules for me - forcing rules on anyone is not my intent, so if you are painting from photos, that's entirely your prerogative as an artist. There are no rules in art - just recommendations. But, if you do paint recognizable scenes or objects, you can't go wrong by gaining information by painting from life.
Above: Plein air watercolor studies - Acadia National Park by Lori Woodward
Many of us use photographs for references from time to time; some artists use them all the time. I have no bone to pick with you, either way. So now that we've got the "no rules" segment of this blog over, I'll move ahead to explain why, even occasional studies from life help representational artists paint better final paintings in the longrun.
I don't consider myself a plein air painter, but rather - a studio painter. While I enjoy the outdoors in general, painting on site distracts me. Dealing with flying insects, wind, inclement weather, and lugging painting gear around isn't my idea of fun; besides, I'm too social and enjoy talking with friendly passers-by who seem interested in my work. However, I believe that painting from life is necessary to making better works of art.
Plein air study of trees at Pirate's Cove - watercolor
I prefer that my works of art begin with an intimate cerebral connection with my subject. In order to love what I paint, I must paint what I love, and get to know my subject personally. Direct observation connects me with my subject in a way that no photograph ever did. I get to wrap my head around it - while the visual elements get woven in my memory through use of my hands and eyes. I get clear about my feelings about the subject and then translate those feelings, along with my ideas, into the final artistic statement (later, in the studio).
Plein air study of Bass Harbor Marsh, Acadia - watercolor
OK, so the previous paragraph was a bit lofty; now let me get down to the practicality of working from life. But first, I need to let you know that I do not make finished paintings outdoors. Perhaps it's just my inability to focus outside, or that I don't like the pressure of making a finished painting on the spot. Almost all of my plein air works are meant to exist purely as studies. My initial goal is to record what's there: accurate color, shapes of the landscape elements, and my view from one stationary position. By the way - working from numerous photos/positions gets confusing because your references end up with multiple perspectives.
Sometimes, I have so little time to record the scenery in paint that I do a quick pencil drawing of the shapes and values and then mix a few colors and make a color chart. I've actually carried color charts with me, held them up to the landscape and marked which little squares matched the hue and value of objects. This works really well when the light is changing quickly.
I rarely carry an easel or oil paints outdoors. I prefer a light burden that I can easily fit into a medium-sized back pack... watercolor paper taped to a light, rigid board, watercolor paints, palette, one brush, a cup and small bottle of water. Additionally, I carry a sketchbook and pencil. I tend to write my notes right on the study, so there's no need for an extra notebook.
Plein air study at Tucson Mountain Park - watercolor
When I return home, I have a wealth of reference material, studies and drawings from life - which record color, shapes and values, plus I take a series of digital photographs. From these, I later build a series of paintings in the comfort of my studio, until I arrive at something I consider my best effort - or masterpiece. Even if it's not a masterpiece in the true sense of the word, I hope that all my effort and observation will culminate into my best painting to date.