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Painting a Plein Air of the Rat River (1/5)

Author: Larry Seiler, Contributing Editor

For me, nothing is as invigorating as the challenge of confronting beauty in nature with a French easel and canvas in hand. It is as critical to know what NOT to paint as it is what to paint. To recognize your eye was drawn to the scene for a particular reason, and that the painting task will seek out what that reason is, or as I like to call it, the "ah-Hah!"

Now...some may have full command painting outdoors on location knowing well ahead of time what they want the finished work to look like. For me, painting on location is a pursuing of beauty, a romancing of the Creator. I like not knowing exactly why something catches my eye and that there inevitably exists many variables such as detail not all at once seen that will act as distraction from my finding the "ah-Hah!"

The greatest challenge will be the existing sunlight. If it is overcast sky...you will have several hours uninterrupted. However, the most dramatic paintings of course are those of low sun light. By the time one sets up his easel, mixes the paint and gets all set...the existing light that made a scene catch the eye could be gone, or have shifted such that the inspiration is quenched.

I will lay out for you my method which has developed and works well to serve my needs. In all honesty, I'll admit that I'm thankful I have about 20 some years of painting behind me, for I depend on all that I have learned and experienced to respond intuitively during a painting session. You'll find little time to think it all through. You simply must react and learn to trust yourself.

You can get a feeling and preparation for plein air painting in the studio with 8" x 10" pictures of scenes you've photographed, and setting a clock's timer/alarm. In the beginning...paint no larger than 12" x 16" and give yourself two hours. Then graduate to one hour.

I use painting knives, rags...and squint to eliminate unwanted detail.

Here we go!

First, you find a scene, in this case, a river in northeast Wisconsin called the "Rat River".

Something about it catches your attention. It must be painted! Pull over...waste no time. Get your easel, panel and whatever else you need out of your vehicle and set up as quickly as possible.

Next I tie a grocery store type plastic bag onto my easel to put rags and used paper towel in, then put on a pair of latex throw away gloves. I use a limited palette and think of color in terms of warm and cool temperatures. Therefore I have a warm and cool red, a warm and cool blue, warm and cool yellow. I use Titanium white...(intending to try lead white one of these days!). I use no black. I use burnt umber to help suggest darks when mixed with other colors.

I use Garrett's Copal Medium and add a drop to each color, and about six drops to my white paint using a small diamond shaped painting knife to mix.

Initially...I take a small rag and wrap it around my right index finger and dip it into turps....squint my eyes at the scene and find the dark and ordinarily cooler shadow masses. I then rub the paint and turps into the board or canvas. Then I do the same with mid range values. This I do and complete in less than about 5-10 minutes.

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