Chair With a View 8"x10" oil on canvas panel
If you’re eager to try painting outside, but don’t have any special plein air gear, don’t worry. You probably can do it with gear that you already have, as long as you don’t try to go too far from your car.
Let’s talk about the most important components: an easel to hold your painting, and a place to put your palette so you can mix your paint. Any lightweight easel will do, even if it’s a table top model. In that case you'll need a table to put it on. A card table or folding camping table works great. Or you can choose a location where there are already picnic tables, like a local park. In fact, there’s no reason not to try painting outside in your own backyard, on your deck or patio, or the lawn, at whatever table you already have out there. Put a piece of plastic on the top if you want to keep it clear of paint spills.
Two easels that are easy to set up anywhere.
You can paint standing or sitting, that’s up to you. Standing has the advantage that you can step back to see what your painting looks like a few feet away, you get more exercise, and you can see farther. Sitting has the advantage that you can use a table for your easel, you have more room to spread out your gear, and it’s not as tiring.
Now for a place to put your palette. If you’re using a table, then you’re all set. You’ll need your palette to be smooth, so tape palette paper to a board that’s a bit bigger. That will keep it from being blown around by the wind. I sometimes use the back of painting panels that are still in their plastic for this.
If you don’t have a table that you can sit at with your legs under it, a folding camping chair and table work well. This is how I paint on our boat. You'll need to lower the painting holder on your easel and to sit, but that’s preferable to using that type of short table with an easel in the standing position. In that case, you would have to lean down too far to reach your mixing surface. Believe me, your back will not be happy with that method!
A backyard table can work with a table top easel, or a folding table with a chair and full sized easel.
So if you’re painting in your backyard, what can you paint? Try something simple at first, an empty flower pot will work well. Your gardening tools might be fun. I’ve even painted a lawn chair. Go for something that won’t move, and place it in an area where it gets good sunlight and makes a nice shadow. That’s a great composition to start with.
Paint what's in your backyard. And change the color if you want to.
Start with something simple, like an empty flower pot, and then move on to more complicated outdoor still life options, like these.
Once you get a feel for painting outside, you can think about gear made specially for that purpose. HERE's a blogpost about the gear that I use.
Rachel Carson Marsh in Kennebunk, Maine,
8"x16" oil on treated paper
A plein air painting is a landscape painted on location out of doors. If you aren’t a painter, you’re probably wondering how that’s different from a painting created indoors, and if it makes a difference to the look of the painting.
Let’s start by talking about how plein air painting is done differently. First, when painting plein air, we “paint from life”. In other words, we aren’t taking a photograph, and using that as our reference to create the painting. One of the fun parts is scouting around looking for places that would make interesting paintings. Once such a place is found, we choose a section of what we see before us, and make a several freehand drawings in a sketchbook to test options. After a few minutes, there are often 3 or 4 sketches to choose from. Once we’ve found an option that we like, we draw it on the canvas. I usually do the drawing on canvas with paint rather than charcoal or a pencil.
One of our family boats, showing a monochrome block-in, or value underpainting,
and the final 8"x8" oil painting
The actual paint application is not very different indoors versus outdoors when painting with oil paint, since it doesn’t dry very quickly. Except for one thing. The scene before us is changing as the sun moves across the sky. So without a photograph to record the scene at a specific time, we have to get the painting done quickly, before the lighting changes. Usually about 2 hours is all we’ve got, unless we come back another day, and that requires the same weather conditions. If we’re at the ocean, then the tide is also changing as time goes by. And most complicated of all, is sunrise or sunset, where things change very fast. And if it’s sunrise on sunset over water, there are actually two scenes that are both changing fast. No wonder plein air paintings are often small!
Two paintings on different days of the same scene at Great Brook State Park in Massachusetts, both 6"x6" oils
Plein air painting requires a good bit of planning and some practice to see what works best for the painter. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to go back to the car to get something I forgot that I can’t paint without, like paper towels, or the tripod that my paint box sits on. A checklist is very helpful.
You might ask, if plein air paintings is that much trouble, why do painters do it? I think there are several reasons. First, it’s a lot of fun. And being outside is always something to be treasured. It’s also a challenge, and many of us love a challenge. And I like the fresh look of a painting done quickly from life. It’s easy to overwork a painting, and when working outside, there’s much less chance of that.
Three paintings done in quick succession as the sun was going down from the top of Mt Agamenticus in York, Maine,
all 5"x7" oils
Is a plein air painting better than one painted indoors? No, I’m not saying that. But it is different. And the experience the artist has while creating the painting is different, and I think that shows in the work. Both kinds of paintings are appealing, and we have many of each kind in our home.
Looking out my studio window, I’m glad to see the leaves on the trees and the nice weather. It’s time to go outside and paint. Yay for plein air season!
Jeremy's Skiff 5"x7" oil on gessobord
My husband and I have owned two cruising boats over the last 30 years. A cruising boat is one that’s suitable for travel outside of protected bays and comfortable enough to live on for days or weeks at a time. We’ve had both a sailboat and a lobster boat style power boat. We’ve spent the night in many beautiful harbors from Cuttyhunk in Buzzard’s Bay to Northeast Harbor, Maine. As a painter the scenery and the boats we see on the way are inspirational.
When I see a boat that I want to paint, we get into our dinghy and circle it a few times so that I can see the light on different sides and from different angles. We may have to do this at different times of the day as well. And I often paint my favorites more than once. Jeremy’s skiff, featured above is probably the boat I’ve painted the most, about 10 times so far. I have many photos of it. It was built by a lobsterman in Yarmouth Maine, as a tender to his lobster boat.
The Owl and the Pussycat 10"x10" oil on canvas panel
I sometimes change things about the boats I paint, but never the shape. I’ll change the color and give them a new name. I did the name change to these two boats that we found in the harbor at Little Cranberry Island in downeast Maine. But I didn’t have to change their colors, they already worked well. I was looking for a name for the rowboat that would be reasonably short, look good as a reflection, and a name that I would use on a boat. I came up with Owl, and it didn’t take long before someone said, well, the lobster boat needs to be the Pussycat. Perfect! When I posted the painting on Instagram, I quickly got a comment from a fellow who lives across the bay on Big Cranberry Island. He had built the boat I called Owl, at Jarvis Newman Boatyard. It only took him two guesses to figure out which one of the many of this model they’ve built it was. I meet so many nice people this way. And some day I’m going to visit their boatyard and see how they build these classic rowboats.
Truro Marsh 5"x7" oil on cradled panel
Of course I don’t always paint boats. This is a marsh in Truro, on Cape Cod, that I was particularly taken with, because of the tide level showing the mudbanks and the spit of land in the distance. Tidal mud can be so many beautiful colors! On this painting, I used a knife to apply the paint rather than a brush.
Summer Marsh 8"x10" oil with knife
There are three basic ways to paint in oils solvent free, or at least with minimal use of solvents. The first is to use Gamblin's range of solvent free mediums and safflower oil for brush washing to minimize the use of solvents. There are limitations to how one can paint with this approach, which doesn't allow thin washes of paint in the under layers.
Lapstrake Dinghy 9"x12" oil with knife
The second approach is to use water mixable oil paints. Several paint companies make this type of paint, which is regular oil paint with an added emulsifier, so that the brushes can be cleaned up with water. Some dilution with water is also possible, but in my experience with this these paints, using the paint maker's medium is the best way to thin them. I've used the Windsor & Newton water mixable oil paint, which took a little getting used to. I found the result to look just a bit shinier than my paintings done with regular oils, and they did take longer to dry. All totally solvent free.
Low Tide at Tidewater oil with knife on treated paper
But there is another way to paint without solvents, and this one is my favorite. Painting with a knife doesn't require thinning the paint, and to clean a knife, you only have to wipe it off with a rag or paper towel. I love the look of knife paintings, and once you get used to it, it's a faster way to paint than with a brush, because so little time is needed to switch between colors. For me, the technique is somewhat different than using regular oil paint, because layering the paint is easier with a knife. So for example, clouds can be painted on top of the sky, where I would normally paint the clouds before the blue part of the sky. I also paint with a knife with the panel horizontal rather than almost vertical, to aid in turning the painting around, which is convenient when painting with a knife.
In my new studio, I haven't quite gotten the ventilation sorted out, so knife painting is a nice option.
Lapstrake Dinghy 5"x7" watercolor on paper
What a year it’s been! Buying a house and selling another one during a pandemic, wow. I never actually thought that would happen. But it did.
grasses on the beach
We are now located on the shore of Buzzards Bay, in Massachusetts. The beach is different here from where our cottage is in Maine. It’s mostly sandy rather than mostly rocky. There are islands and lighthouses, and wonderful walks; along the shore, in the woods, and even along the Cape Cod Canal. We are boat watchers, after all. I’m already scoping out plein air painting locations, though it’s been snowing all day today, so warm summer breezes are down the road a bit.
my new studio
I’ve got a great studio, larger than in our previous house, and very well lighted, by overhead LED fixtures that mimic the sun without the UV. Those were hard to source, but we stuck with it until we found the right combination of lumens and color temperature. The studio has a whole wall of closets, and another of shelves. And I needed every one, once I found all the art supplies I had stashed at the old house!
my video setup for demonstrations in the new beginner online class
I don’t have many new paintings to show you, because I’ve been been working hard on a new online class, which has just opened for registration. I’ve been painting a lot, but those are exercises that the students will be doing in class. It’s a lot harder to paint them while explaining what I’m doing and simultaneously video-ing. I found that I’ve had to do every demo at least twice and sometimes start over with a different approach. But it’s done and ready for prime time. The class is for complete beginners, people who haven’t ever painted before, or tried and got frustrated and put away their paints. you can learn more about it HERE.
Yellow Dinghy Christmas Cove 5"x7" watercolor on paper - demo from the Holiday Market
After Thanksgiving, I took a break from getting our new house and my new studio up to speed, and did a demo at a holiday market in New Bedford. My host was Anthi Frangiadis, at The Drawing Room, her gallery on Water Street. It's across from the famous and very interesting New Bedford Whaling Museum. The market was lots of fun, with a brass band playing outside, wonderful Corey directing a wine tasting, Mrs. Claus giving out candy to the kids, and of course, all the beautiful things that Anthi offers for our homes. Here's a link to some great photos of the event.
The experience reminded me of why I enjoy working with my galleries.
Lapstrake Dinghy 5"x7" watercolor - unfinished demo from the Holiday Market
It’s so much fun to meet people with similar interests, who are trying to make their homes more suited to their lifestyles, and their personal style. Anthi’s shop is wonderful for that. In addition to paintings, she sells Farrow and Ball paint and wallpaper, and the work of many artisans. It's hard for me to deliver paintings to Anthi without leaving with a large bag of beautiful things for our own home.
Yellow Rowboat 8"x10" oil on canvas panel - a previous demo at the Drawing Room
I also meet people who would like to learn to paint at these events, and I hope I can give them some encouragement and inspiration. I once did a paint night class at Yarmouth Frame and Gallery, where I show my work in Maine. We had a blast, painting sunflowers with acrylics. They also have wonderful openings for new shows, where I get to meet collectors and chat with the other gallery artists. It’s a great group.
I also enjoy working with a gallery that does framing and restoration, like Yarmouth Frame and Gallery. They’re a great resource. I often need a frame made, a few mats cut, or some advice on a restoration problem. And they offer my collectors a discount when framing my paintings, even if bought online.
Paint Night at Yarmouth Frame and Gallery several years ago
It’s the camaraderie as well as the sales that makes it fun and rewarding to work with a gallery. I’ve had readers of this blog ask me where they can see my work in person, and I always point them to these two galleries. Both are located in vacation spots, and I’ve had numerous readers tell me they visited and enjoyed the experience. And some have even taken home a painting to remember it by.
Ocean Hues 12"x12" acrylic on canvas
Acrylic paints are a relative newcomer to the art scene. Water based acrylics were first commercially available to painters in the 1950's. Acrylics are made of the same pigments used in watercolor and oil paints, but suspended in an acrylic polymer emulsion with some additives. They are generally fast drying (very fast). Depending on the amount of water they are diluted with, they can give effects similar to watercolors or oil paints.
3 Tomatoes 8"x8", left acrylic on paper right oil on canvas
You will find acrylic paintings created on canvas, paper, board, and other substrates. Acrylics are usually framed the same way as oil paintings, without glass or mats, which means you can frame them yourself relatively easily. Ready made frames are available online or you can have them made by your local frame shop. Acrylic paintings are a great way to start or grow your art collection. This blogpost will show you how to frame your paintings with a minimal investment.
Red Sailboat Boothbay 6"x6" , left acrylic on paper, right oil on canvas panel
Painting with acrylics is a bit different than oils due to three factors. First, the solvent for acrylics is water rather than odorless mineral spirits. No special ventilation is needed to work with acrylics indoors, and cleanup can be easy if you are careful (see the second factor). Since I have a septic tank, I'm careful to minimize the amount of acrylic paint that goes down the drain, wiping off my brushes carefully before rinsing them.
Second, the drying time is short, so short that if you aren't careful, your brushes will be stiff and unusable in short order. Always rinse each brush or put it in water when you are not using it! The paint that you put out on your palette needs to be misted with water often in order to stay usable, and using a Masterson pallette box is a big help. Painting wet in wet is hard to do with acrylics unless you use a retarder or the new "Open" Acrylics by Golden, that dry more slowly. Any acrylic paint you get on your clothes will be there forever. Once it's dry, soap and water wont clean it up.
3 Sunflowers 8"x8" acrylic on paper
The third difference is that acrylic paints dry darker than they are when wet. This is because the emulsion contains small beads of polymer that are white in water, and clear when they dry. This makes it tricky to mix more paint of the same color and value to match an area that you've already painted. And with acrylics, the quality of your paint is even more important than with oil paints if you like bright color. I highly recommend Golden acrylic paints for their high pigment concentration and bright colors.
When I paint the same subject using acrylic and oil paints, I see a difference in the results. For me the acrylics are usually more graphic. I think you can see that in the 3 Tomatoes and Red Sailboat paintings above. In the sunflower painting, I was able to work quick;y enough to get a bit of wet in wet feel.
Some of my favorite painters who work in acrylics are Leslie Goldman, Robert Joyner, and Geer Morton. Robert is an excellent teacher and offers courses in several media.
A Serious Game 10.5"x8" pastel on sanded paper
Pastel paintings can have amazing color, because pastel sticks have more pigment than oil, acrylic, or watercolor paints. They can be very bold, or soft with minimal texture. There’s a lot to love with pastels. What are pastels? When you open a box of pastels, they look a lot like pieces of chalk. They are powdered pigment with a minimal binder to make them into sticks. There are different kinds, some softer and some harder. But don’t confuse them with oil pastels, which are something different.
10 Minute Apples Exercise #4 2"X2" pastel on sanded paper
Pastel paintings are closer to colored pencil artwork than they are to the mediums mentioned above, because the color is not applied with a brush or knife, but comes from a stick of pastel, and is applied by holding the stick in your fingers. Pastels are almost always done on paper, often one that has a fine layer of sand, which grabs the pastel better than a smooth paper. There are no brushes, or palette knives, though an underpainting could be created with watercolor or pastel and alcohol applied with a brush.
Sunshine on the Marsh 9"x12" pastel on sanded paper
Pastels are the most delicate of the mediums I’m covering in these blog posts. They aren’t as light sensitive as watercolors, but you have be careful not to loose particles of pastel after they are framed. So we lay them flat, pastel side up, and don’t ever turn them over in the frame. Usually there is a mat or a spacer in the frame to keep the pastel surface off the glass. And glass is required, or any touch to the painting could remove some of the artwork!
My Schmincke soft pastels
Mixing paint to create a specific color and value is not as much of a thing with pastels as with other mediums. Most pastel painters have boxes of pastels, in varying colors, and in varying shades, dark to light of each color that they like to use. This can get expensive, and though each pastel is pretty light, they can be bulky to carry around.
Harraseeket Road pastel over watercolor
Goosefare Brook Marsh 6"x12" oil on canvas panel
Have you ever wondered when visiting an art museum why there are so many oil paintings? It’s probably because they're the most likely paintings to have survived through the years. As you know, I’m partial to oil paintings. I started working in oils about 20 years ago, and I still love them. But I didn’t start collecting oil paintings until I started painting them. I’m a huge fan of how the internet has opened up the art market to all of us, and I've bought paintings having only seen them online. But I do enjoy seeing paintings in person, with my own eyes, and love that we can do more of that now.
The appeal of oil paintings to me is both the bold colors and the textures. I often want to touch them because of these characteristics! Oil paintings are also easier to frame than watercolors or pastels, which require glass. That allows me to collect unframed oils that I see online and at open air art shows, and frame them myself. Here’s a blogpost on how to do that.
Mini Landscape #16 3.5"x3.5" oil on treated paper
Oil painting has a reputation of being more difficult to master than other mediums. I doubt that’s true. Mastery of any medium takes time and dedication. But most of us would be happy to be competent, and I think it’s easier to do that with oil paints than with watercolors or acrylics. There are a few reasons. Mostly it’s because oil paints dry relatively slowly, and because of that, you can scrape off your mistakes before they become permanent. There are two approaches to painting with oils; called direct and indirect. In the direct approach, or wet-in-wet, the painting is completed before any of the paint is dry. In the indirect approach, the painting is created with thin layers of paint, and the layers can be somewhat transparent. It's a time consuming process, waiting for the paint to dry between each layer. The indirect approach is also used for watercolor, where transparency is key.
Nature's Grace 5"x7" oil on panel, painted with a knife
I prefer the direct approach, maybe because I’m pretty impatient. I can finish a small painting in a few hours, and a larger one in a few days. The paint stays wet enough to make that possible. And, when I do make mistakes, I can remove them quickly and easily and try again. Also, that approach is perfectly suited to painting out of doors, where the direction of the sun and the level of the tide are not constant. Watercolors and acrylics are more challenging to paint out of doors, because they dry so fast.
Some contemporary oil painters whose work I admire and collect are Colin Page, Carol L. Douglas, Mary Gilkerson, and Peggy Kroll-Roberts. You will probably find that they have influenced my work, since I’ve studied with all of them!
Three Leaves - 7"x10" watercolor on paper
Have you every felt overwhelmed by the many types of paintings you see at an art show or gallery? And maybe asked yourself "how are they different, which ones would be best for me?". Those are good questions!
In the next four blogposts, I'll try to answer them for those of you who are looking for artwork for their walls and for those who would like to start painting, but don't know which medium would suit them best.
What do we mean by medium? When talking about painting, mediums refer to the different types of paint used. The most common are watercolor, oil, acrylic, and pastel. The substrate is the surface that the paint is applied to, for example, paper, canvas, and wood, and most painting mediums can be used on several different substrates. I have painted in all of these mediums, and our art collection includes works in all four as well. I'll talk about water color first and leave the others for future blog posts.
Cloud Study IV - watercolor on paper (wet on wet technique)
What's the appeal of watercolor? Watercolor is inherently transparent, which lets the white paper shine through. A light area of paint is made by adding more water as the paint is applied, so that more of the white paper shines through. It's a beautiful ethereal look, and for me means that some scenes just cry out to be painted with watercolor. I'm thinking particularly of Winslow Homer's Caribbean boat paintings, and example which you can see here.
Watercolor also lends itself to texture, using different application approaches, like wet on wet, and dry brush, or leaving some marks in the pencil sketch showing through. And there is nothing whiter in a painting, than unpainted paper, and so the watercolor painter leaves the lightest values in a painting unpainted to take advantage of that. And watercolor is often combined with pen and ink to create to beautiful line and wash paintings, the line provided with the pen, and the wash with the watercolor. They can be magic, for example those in this blogpost by British painter Rob Adams.
When looking to buy a watercolor painting, you need to think about framing. Watercolors are more complicated and expensive to frame than oils or acrylics, both because they require glass and because of the need to seal the back of the frame. Neither of those is required for oil or acrylic paintings, which makes them easier to frame yourself. Glass comes in many levels of glare and UV protection, from hardware store window glass (lots of glare and low UV protection) to museum quality glass (minimal glare and high UV protection). Glass towards the museum end of the spectrum will let you see your paintings better and preserve them from UV damage for many more years. For the same reason, it's best not to hang watercolors in direct sunlight.
Green and Orange Leaves - 6"x9" watercolor with pen
Many artists began their painting journeys with watercolor, me included, because to the uninitiated it's thought to be easier to learn than other mediums and is definitely easier to clean up. However, as most of us learned the hard way, it's in fact one of the more difficult mediums to master, because you mostly can't fix mistakes without damaging the paper, so you usually have to start over, which can be quite frustrating.
Some of my favorite watercolor painters working today are Poppy Balser, Robert Joyner, and Michele Clamp. The later two teach online, if learning watercolor is on your bucket list. Poppy teaches wonderful in person workshops in Canada, one of which which I had the pleasure of attending. I recommend all three.
Bobbi - Painter. Sketcher. Teacher. Boat and Dog Lover.