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Painting a Plein Air of the Rat River (2/5)

Author: Larry Seiler, Contributing Editor

Now I wipe my palette mixing area clean, working only with extra medium needed (which I keep in a small cup attached to the palette) and the paint. I mix what I need with the knife, and often block in color as I see it using the knife. I have often completed nearly 65-70% of a painting with the knife alone.

I look at the color I need...add white to tint as necessary, and the opposite color to gray down or neutralize. With my midtones rubbed on...I really focus on where I would want the viewers eye to be manipulated, sorta like the hook of a song that sticks in the mind. That area I will paint the paint its thickest, and use color its purest. The whites its whitest, and darks their darkest. All other areas will be played down by comparison, even if only slight.

I'm not exactly sure when my eyes figured this one out, but I have not painted trees by focusing on the trees for many years. I simply block the trees-in, squinting my eyes. Then...mixing up my sky color I focus on the shapes of the sky poking through the trees...or the negative space, and pay attention to the character of the tree. Using a small round brush or the tip of my palette knife I then poke, dot, and dab these spaces in. As simple as I describe it, I suddenly have this sense of realistic trees laid out on the canvas.

I've been complimented perhaps most frequently on my handling of water. I know some painters make a big effort to understand how light works with water. Sunlight reflecting off the surface. Light passing through the and revealing the bottom. Color of the sky directly above. I guess I just think of myself as a painter of light and color and trust that if I perceive a spot of color and dab it in...it'll all mix together in the eye to appear as water. Often...I use my palette knife and use short small sweeping motions side to side, wiping and dabbing spots of color. Initially squinting my eyes to perceive a sense of shapes and strong overall color, and then opening my eyes to pick up specifically on the subtle specks of color.

I avoid getting hung up on any one area of the painting, constantly moving to a new area (sorta like how I clean a room in my house!), so that it all comes along together. Only in this manner can the unity and harmony of the piece be assured. Only in such a manner can I feel confident that I will succeed in a viewer's eye looking where I want it too in the scene. If I do this successfully, I can be almost abstract and very loose in areas of lesser interest, yet if I handle the one area I want with complete mastery that the eye will fall on, the viewer will walk away convinced they just took in a satisfying realistic image.

The eye needs a place of rest in the painting. One common mistake of painters is to make the painting as a whole too busy. They eye is lazy however, and make the eye work too hard and the viewer will simply move on to the next piece.

To be a good plein air painter, one must develop the habit of knowing when the light has shifted so much so, that to continue to paint would be destructive to your work. I often paint with only about an hour of light left in the late afternoon or evening, so unless I want to stand there with a flashlight, I have little choice!

Knowing that I may later in more critical analysis of my painting want to change a few things, or add something else, I take a photograph at the beginning of my session of the scene. "Note, however...why it is not a good idea to fall into the habit of simply copying photographs in the studio. Look again at the photograph of the actual scene of the Rat River (left). The sky is bright white....shadows on the snow very pale blue, and trees light shades of gray and brown.

In reality....the scene actually looked closer to what my painting depicts (below). Rich shades of blue and violet in the shadows and on the snow. Pinkish yellow light poking through the back trees, and touches of bright yellow-orange on small branches. The problem is, through the lens metering of cameras respond to the greatest area of light, which was the sky and what had color in the sky shows up as bright white. Shadows become darker and colors muted.

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