Today I painted in the conservatory at the Burlington Art Center with my friend, Bridie. We haven’t painted together in a long time, and we probably haven’t painted in the Conservatory since last Spring, so I’m really happy we finally made it out there.
Although I paint from my photographs most of the time, I also enjoy painting from life. I changed the background to a sky blue – to simplify the composition. Overall I am happy with it, and although there are a couple things I can see to tweak, I’ve learned that an observational painting is best done in one session. If the weather was warm, instead of bitter cold and snowy, I would have loved to paint outside for the whole month.
The IDEA of plein air (outdoor) painting as a regular practice fascinates me, but to be honest I haven’t been able to make it work for me yet. I’d have to be organized/motivated enough to have my art supplies, lunch etc. packed the night before so that when I take the kids to school I could drive straight to the location. Usually, by the time I get to the site, set up my easel etc, choose a composition, it’s later in the day that I’d like. Then I have to leave to get the kids before I’ve had enough time to bring the painting around to a satisfactory level of finish. Today I didn’t have to pick them up, so I had an extra hour, which really helped. At that point anyway the light had changed enough – as you can see in the photo of the painting on the easel, in front of the actual vine – that I had to stop anyway.
The remedy for this is just to make it a habit, then I’d develop systems to make it work. As it is, especially in this cold climate, I’m much more comfortable staying in to paint.
The other thing I have to figure out, with repeated trips and experimentation, is what media I want to work in for plein air. I’ve found that in the summer, or in the Caribbean, my acrylics dry out too fast. A good mister (spray bottle which puts out a very fine mist) helps to keep the paint wet but not runny. Still, I do really like using my Staywet palette in the studio, but I’ve found it awkward to use on location. The small version gives very little room for mixing, the big one is too heavy to hold with one hand while you paint with the other. I’ve thought of bringing a side table, but that won’t be practical for some locations.
Today I worked on a disposable paper palette pad (the kind with a hole for your thumb), and it was strange how much it felt like working with oils, because of the thicker consistency. I guess I’ve been using a Staywet palette for so long, I’ve figured out the tools (eg. bristle brushes) and techniques (eg. dry brush) that work well for me in the studio. I use heavy body acrylics most of the time, because they absorb water from the Staywet palette – if I used a more fluid acrylic the paint would spread too much and the colours would mingle.
However today, I found that my heavy body acrylics were both drying out/getting hard too fast on the disposable palette, AND it was also thicker than usual, which somehow feels messier. That may be because the paint doesn’t have time to dry in between layers as much so the colours blend together even when you don’t want them to, and in general it feels like I’m just globbing on colour, and don’t have the control I’m used to. Of course, if I were outdoors and painting a landscape, instead of today’s painting subject which is more like a still-life, then I could have taken a looser approach and it would have been smoother sailing.
I suppose that’s all relative though, just how much you render or imply something in your painting is a matter of taste.
I realize that most of what I’ve written is boring – even for another artist – because the process of painting is so subjective. There is no right or wrong to the thickness of the paint, just of how appropriate it is for the intended application. And yet this level of scrutiny when it comes to the materiality of paint … probably speaks to how long I’ve been using acrylics, in that I’m noticing a slight loss of control.
By that I mean, in the studio if I want to add some thicker paint to a painting I push aside my Staywet palette a little to expose the glass palette below and just mix the colour there. And I have a few bottles of fluid acrylics that I use all the time … raw sienna for applying straight onto the canvas with a wide brush as a quick background colour, or titanium white for quickly tinting a colour on my Staywet palette.
Anyway, I’m going to give pastels, oils and watercolours each another shot outdoors – or maybe just skip ahead and invest in Golden’s Open Acrylics because they sound like they’d work out better on the disposable palette.
It’s all part of the journey, the creative process. An artist is naturally a life-long learner, because the nature of art is to study, explore and express our interpretations and opinions of the worlds within and without.