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Old 09-17-2016, 06:13 AM
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Nomad Z Nomad Z is offline
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Finding Subjects

I've been wanting to try painting plein air with oils, having recently done it with watercolours and found it very enjoyable. At the moment, I only have a full size French easel, which I duly packed up with stuff (and a small backpack with my usual array of non-painting junk) and set off a couple of days ago, driving around my local area.

Unfortunately, the light was less than inspiring, and changeable at best. After about 3 hours of driving slowly around back roads, I eventually headed home. Yesterday, I did the same thing - better light, but still changeable, and ended up coming home after a couple of hours or so.

Although I was ostensibly going out to paint, I accept that it was probably more a case of going out to scout out possible subjects. There were a few possibilities, but some were hampered somewhat by not having anywhere to park within a reasonable distance. (I'm looking for countryside views, some hills, a few trees, maybe something in the foreground.)

Two things have struck me...

I'm feeling that using oils is somehow more of a commitment than watercolours, probably in terms of time (not cost), so I seem to have become more fussy about what I might or might not paint. I revisited a place I painted in watercolours, and felt that I didn't want to do it in oils (lacking foreground).

I'm wondering if the large box easel is limiting me to what I can see from the road. It's quite heavy and awkward, and not something that I'm inclined to carry far from the car. There were a few times when I stopped and felt that it would be better to go for a wander to see what else there might be, and was put off doing so because of the weight and bulk of the equipment.

It occurred to me that maybe it would be better to split things up to scouting out possible subjects without the gear - just take a camera and notebook, say, and go wandering about with the idea of returning later with the painting gear (I don't mind a shortish hike with the gear so much if I know what I'm aiming for).

Alternatively, I could downsize the gear to a pochade box and tripod, which would be more conducive to random wandering. I do plan to do this in any case, but it isn't going to happen immediately. The advantage of this would be that I could find something I want to paint and get started there and then (ie, use the light that's part of what I see, rather than try to second guess what the light will be like another day).

At the moment, I'm feeling a little frustrated by the lack of actually painting stuff. (Better light today, so heading out again, maybe to a different area.)

How do others approach this?
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Old 09-17-2016, 09:02 PM
ColinBaxter ColinBaxter is offline
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Re: Finding Subjects

Hi, I have a similar set up, French easel, 5kgs, and back pack, about the same loaded with snacks, water, and art supplies. I'm usually on foot or bike as I find it easier to scout out subject matter in the local area but if I'm in the car I will stop, park and wander around, it's the best way to find subjects, sometimes I come back without having painted but it's all research, and I file away potential spots for another time.
I am now looking into a light weight easel for outside, about 1kg, as lugging around 10 kgs for a day and biking or walking I feel is taking away from the energy spent on painting.
I've been at plein air for only a short time and found that the more you paint the more subjects pop up, different times of day, weather and angles all allow for broader range of subject matter. As for weather I like it sunny to paint and had a hard time seeing paintable scenes in dull overcast weather but after getting some ideas from plein air forum folks I am overcoming that obstacle.
I think your idea of sketching is a good one, something to show for the day out, also allows for the scenery to soak in and for you to start seeing other possibilities.
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Old 09-18-2016, 03:48 AM
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Journeyman Journeyman is offline
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Re: Finding Subjects

As Colin says “the more you paint the more subjects pop up”

Typically I have a rough idea of what I’m going to find eg I’ve gone to the coast or to the river or mountains.
To begin with I’ll leave the gear on the bike or in the car and walk around with a note book and camera.
You will soon learn that there are subjects all around and it doesn’t pay to keep walking and looking for that elusive perfect subject.
As soon as I find something of interest I start thinking of how best to portray its nature.
Then go back and get the gear.

One thing I often do is paint the view or object I’ve chosen and then turn around 180 degrees and paint what ever is behind me.
There is nearly always something of interest and the more you find something to intrigue in what at first looked mundane the easier it becomes to find subjects.
Don’t always go for the obvious.

Dave.
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Old 09-19-2016, 07:22 PM
debratoo debratoo is offline
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Re: Finding Subjects

One thing that helps me is to use a view finder. You can buy one or make it. You can make one out of an old picture mat. Cut it into two L shapes and overlap them to the same size or ratio of your painting panel. Hold them together with paper clips or binder clips. Hold it up and look through it, moving it forward and back until you come up with a pleasing composition. It helps cut down on that overwhelming feeling you get when you see just how much stuff there is to look at!

Edgar Payne's book "Composition of Outdoor Painting" has a section with composition diagrams. It helps to look through them so you can recognize a good composition. Another thing I like to do is look at paintings I like and think about what attracts me to the painting.

I'm always on the look out for what makes a good painting as I'm out and about. I have a file on my computer of photos I've taken of places I'd like to paint. But I usually go by memory, something catches my eye and stays in my head. Then there are the times I end up painting somewhere because it's convenient, and I choose something to work on just for practice. That's when the view finder comes in really handy.
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Old 09-19-2016, 08:39 PM
tegular tegular is offline
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Re: Finding Subjects

Quote:
Originally Posted by debratoo
One thing that helps me is to use a view finder. You can buy one or make it. You can make one out of an old picture mat. Cut it into two L shapes and overlap them to the same size or ratio of your painting panel. Hold them together with paper clips or binder clips. Hold it up and look through it, moving it forward and back until you come up with a pleasing composition. It helps cut down on that overwhelming feeling you get when you see just how much stuff there is to look at!

I just want to add that you can also just use your hands. It's a lot of fun and it looks extremely goofy too.
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Old 09-20-2016, 06:05 PM
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Nomad Z Nomad Z is offline
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Re: Finding Subjects

Thanks all. As mentioned, it's all research even if I didn't paint anything on the day(s). Also, duly noted that it gets easier the more one paints.

I've been looking into the apps on my phone with a view to finding a relatively easy way to take a photo and record information about it (ideally, GPS location and some notes).

Having done the driving around, I think I agree that it's better to park up in a particular area and go wandering, either just to take some photos, or with a lighter setup. I'm leaning towards the view that the French easel and backpack are best left for when there's a specific plan.

I did actually make a simple viewfinder out of card, but packed it in the easel and didn't think to take it out (wouldn't use it when driving in any case). I've been musing on viewfinders (and perspective frames) for a little while, and am making a plastic version with a sliding bit, similar to those Viewcatcher things but bigger (still pocket size, though).

In the longer term, I plan to make a pochade box. I'd buy one, but everything in the UK just seems like a compromise in some way (within the concept of a pochade, that is). I have two possible approaches on that. The more time-consuming one is an all-in-one, which does appeal a lot. (The design so far is similar to an Alla Prima Bitterroot, but with some differences.) The alternative is to do a simpler one that's a palette and easel, probably with a two-panel carrier in the easel part. That would mean carrying a separate supply box (got boxes for that), which I need to think about some more - wasn't what I initially envisaged when the pochade design idea came about, but would be easier to make. I need to get my head around the idea of two boxes, with the supply box probably lying on the ground.

I did learn from what was eventually driving about for four afternoons and doing no painting. Going out with heavy gear and no plan doesn't really work (at least, not in my area). As the afternoons wore on. there was also a feeling that I was probably running out of time to actually get a painting done - depending on cloud cover, the light is starting to go at around 6pm here. So, I should have headed out earlier to begin with. I was quite happy with the packing of the gear. I felt that I had everything I needed, which was fine. (I'm starting a community education course next week, and I'll be using the French easel for that, so at least I had a rehearsal for preparing everything.) More than anything, though, I appreciate more the need to have a plan, which either means a lighter setup if I'm going to wing it by wandering around, or separating the trips into reconnaissance and painting.
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Old 09-21-2016, 06:36 AM
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Re: Finding Subjects

I once read a statement that John Singer Sargent picked plein air subjects by carrying his gear into a field (or whatever), dropping his gear, doing a 360 to pick the best view and painting. I am a little suspect.

I do try this when I get stuck. I pick a general area in town that has felt paintable in a general sense. I walk about for a short while and force myself to paint. It is sometimes very enjoyable not to overthink it.

James Gurney paints in some of the least obvious places (motel parking lots, railroad crossings, etc.) and creates very inviting works. You might check his blog. Select Plein Air Painting from his Blog Index.

http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com
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Old 11-07-2016, 12:24 AM
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Grotius Grotius is offline
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Re: Finding Subjects

James Gurney's blog is wonderful, and yes, he demonstrates that the most mundane scenery can make a great painting.

One further thought: overcast days are good! The light doesn't change as much as on a sunny day, which can make for a more relaxed session -- no rushing to catch the light.
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Old 11-07-2016, 09:44 AM
serpentixus serpentixus is offline
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Re: Finding Subjects

I'm a Gurney fan too. Very motivating blog to start plein air. And daily updates. He switched to gouache and casein lately to work faster.

Why are you waiting for a pochade box? I hesitated because of the prdices but made my own pochade box for 30 euro. I even have a separate palette in the pochade that can be closed to keep the paints wet using clove oil. next and above that I can keep some painttubes and brushes and a palettecups. I think I have a nicer setup now compared with buying one that suits me personally.

Maybe you can just start sketching in gouache and do some value/color-studies and take some photo's. You can buy a few tubes of gouache (limited palette) and just start sketching. When the light changes and you do not have the opportunity to return when the light is the same you can use your study in the studio to complete a more detailed painting and use the photo as a reference. At least you will have the correct colors and values sketched and are not tricked by the camera results with losses in the shades.

What I like about gouache is that you can be packed really low weight and keep it in your car. When they dry, just rewet them.
If you have watercolor expercience you have an advantage and to me it really is somewhere between watercolor and oil paint.
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Old 12-06-2016, 01:57 PM
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MChesleyJohnson MChesleyJohnson is offline
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Re: Finding Subjects

This is a problem that plagues all of us, so you aren't alone! Usually what I do is, before taking out my gear at all, I'll go for a walk with camera and sketchpad. I walk around until something speaks to me. I note the time of day and the weather, because I will want to go back at under the same conditions with my gear. If you don't do this, the lighting will be different and the subject won't have the same impact.

Sometimes, even while walking about, nothing strikes my fancy. I don't let it bother me, because I know something will strike my fancy maybe on my next walk, or the walk after.

Another thing to think about is: Don't have the goal of making a finished painting. Going out with that high goal can be disatrous, especially if you don't already have the subject figured out. Instead, choose a lesser goal: explore a new area, gather reference material for a studio painting, or work on a skill or problem. This can remove some of the burden of plein air painting.

As for gear, the lighter and simpler, the better. I use a French easel a lot because it is sturdy and well-built (the older ones, anyway) though it is cumbersome If I want to keep things light, I'll use something like a 6x8 Guerrilla Painter ThumbBox. I don't even need a tripod but can work in my lap. A new thing I'm trying now is the Daytripper easel from www.prolificpainter.com.

I hope this all helps!
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Old 12-06-2016, 01:57 PM
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MChesleyJohnson MChesleyJohnson is offline
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Re: Finding Subjects

This is a problem that plagues all of us, so you aren't alone! Usually what I do is, before taking out my gear at all, I'll go for a walk with camera and sketchpad. I walk around until something speaks to me. I note the time of day and the weather, because I will want to go back out under the same conditions with my gear. If you don't do this, the lighting will be different and the subject won't have the same impact.

Sometimes, even while walking about, nothing strikes my fancy. I don't let it bother me, because I know something will strike my fancy maybe on my next walk, or the walk after.

Another thing to think about is: Don't have the goal of making a finished painting. Going out with that high goal can be disatrous, especially if you don't already have the subject figured out. Instead, choose a lesser goal: explore a new area, gather reference material for a studio painting, or work on a skill or problem. This can remove some of the burden of plein air painting.

As for gear, the lighter and simpler, the better. I use a French easel a lot because it is sturdy and well-built (the older ones, anyway) though it is cumbersome. If I want to keep things light, I'll use something like a 6x8 Guerrilla Painter ThumbBox. I don't even need a tripod but can work in my lap. A new thing I'm trying now is the Daytripper easel from http://www.joshuabeen.com/merchandise/portable-painting

I hope this all helps!
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Last edited by MChesleyJohnson : 12-06-2016 at 02:00 PM.
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Old 12-06-2016, 04:38 PM
bartc bartc is offline
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Re: Finding Subjects

I organize a Meetup group of plein air painters, who use every medium imaginable (except sculpture so far). Adding to the constraints for locations are the need for parking reasonably within walking distance of the subject areas AND a bathroom (we're mostly middle-aged). To that I add the desire to have multiple potential subjects and viewpoints, so that there is inspiration for more than just one type of painter.

Scouting suitable subjects and areas takes a lot of time if you only do it on foot, which you ultimately should do. Hauling heavier gear while you hike is no fun.

What saves me a lot of headache is Google maps and Google Earth. I can scout nearby locations for probability and even plop down virtually in a lot of places to see what the views might be. I do that before trekking all over the place. Much of the time I find that this is very workable.

I live in coastal California, so landscapes and seascapes abound, but we don't want to just paint and repaint the same stuff.

When I used to travel in the UK and parts of Europe with a watercolor kit on foot or bike, that was enough for me and worked out fine. The endless subjects (except for urban modern scenes I don't like) kept me going. I can usually sketch in watercolor in about 20 - 30 minutes, making light shifts less of an issue. When using my heavier Guerrilla Painter rig for acrylics and going out early in the morning, I can rough out what I need in an hour or two, but that does entail dealing with shifting light. I don't view the shifts as a problem, as often the eventual light gives me more to work with than the earlier scene. You would find the reverse at end of day, I imagine. Mid-day light is more stable, but it's often very dull!

FWIW, broad vistas are great for some, but not the whole ball game. If you look at John Singer Sargent for example, you'll see vistas but also just corners of woodland, buildings, alleys, streams, etc. So I can see a corner or a door or window or some scattered materials around a structure as a good subject just as easily as a broad vista. It's like viewing a still life, but one that you found naturally occurring outdoors.

Last edited by bartc : 12-06-2016 at 04:43 PM.
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Old 12-08-2016, 05:06 PM
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Re: Finding Subjects

Nomad: a wee bit off topic but my goodness, what could be better, I think we can all agree; that you can choose subjects in Bonnie Scotland.
I was born in Dumfries.
Would love to come back for a Holiday sometime.
Happy painting: aye ye're a' richt.
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Old 12-09-2016, 11:43 AM
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MChesleyJohnson MChesleyJohnson is offline
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Re: Finding Subjects

I was in Scotland this past June for two weeks painting, and loved it! I'll be heading back in 2018. Can't wait.
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Old 12-19-2016, 01:04 PM
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manfrommerriam manfrommerriam is offline
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Re: Finding Subjects

What I do is drive to what I believe will be an interesting area... find a place to safely park... see if there is a shaded spot there, (if needed)... stand in the shade and look around to see if there is something that excites me. If not.... get back in the car and repeat the search. This works for me.
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