Why NOT paint outdoors?

In the past week, I twice took off from work in order to go on a plein air painting expedition. Last Wednesday, Flo (Florence Parlangeli) and I went lupine hunting out West (Peterborough, Jaffrey). In northern NH (Sugar Hill) the natives plant lupines in every field and roadside shoulder and fence post in order to lure visitors to their Lupine Festival. But western NH natives apparently have no use for the mostly blue flower. Fortunately, we had a tip that there was a fabulous field of lupines behind an artist-friendly private home in Troy. Our hosts welcomed two complete strangers onto their beautifully landscaped property. The only hardship we endured was the annoying flies. Not the little black flies, known for their propensity for invading bodily cavities, but some large flesh-eating ones. One hardship is not enough to discourage a plein air painter.

I am pleased with the picture above. I could have chosen another angle on that field, one with Mount Monadnack in the background, but I was struck by the drama of the foreground shadows acting as a threshold to the scene beyond.

I have never been satisfied with the color of my lupines in paint, but got a clue from Michael Chesley Johnson in his recent blog on painting lupines in New Brunswick: when the blue of the flowers is applied to a surface of wet paint, the blue sinks into the paint underneath, muddying the blue; so the painter must go back after the oil paint has set up a little bit, with fresh blues to represent the glorious blue of the real life flowers. This I did, and I also blended in a tiny portion of a rose color that I don’t take outdoors with me, to achieve the purply blue lupines.

OK, so that was Wednesday. Yesterday, Monday, (sorry about being a day late with the blog if you were waiting for it with bated breath but now you know why, and it is a good excuse, right?) we took advantage of a beautiful day and an invitation from the newly organized southern Maine plein air artists to paint at Wells Harbor in Maine. I set up my big Gloucester-type easel and my big umbrella in a sandy area that was also very rocky. The wind was stiff. The umbrella would not stay put in the sandy soil, so eventually I lashed it to the easel with a bungie cord. I proceeded to work on the following painting, which is a view of Wells Harbor from across a considerable expanse of water.

My point of view was dead on straight at the buildings, which simplified the composition of a complicated collection of objects. Here is a photograph of the scene:

The panorama format as in the photo would have suited me much better, but all I had with me were squarish panels, so I limited my subject to what would fit. But composition was the least of my problems. As I mentioned before, it was windy. My umbrella had blown away twice before I lashed it to the easel.

Why all this concern over an umbrella? If I paint in the sun, the paint colors look much more vivid than they will indoors. I learned the hard way that I have to shade my palette and my painting in order to see how my work will look when it is exhibited indoors. Other painters may learn to compensate, but I just use an umbrella if I can, or turn my easel and palette away from the sun if I can’t get them in shade any other way–which means me facing into the sun. But when the sun is overhead, as it was yesterday, it is hard to find any spot where it is not shining on the painting or the palette.

“Shade Buddy” is the name given to my umbrella by its manufacturer. “Evil” is the name conferred by me after the second assault. In its first assault, it leapt over the easel striking me in the shoulder as I devoted all my attention to protecting the painting, easel and palette. I forgave, and reattached it to the easel, tightening the bungie cord so that the assemblage could not travel up the easel leg again, and got back to work. Evil umbrella was still Shade Buddy, innocent victim of windy gust. The painting required a few repairs, but no big deal. (The ultimate disaster would be a painting falling face down in the sand.)

The second assault almost had the ultimate result. I can’t even remember how it happened, it happened so fast, but the umbrella attacked me again and everything, including the painting, went flying. Not the palette–it was clamped down to the easel, which met its hype for stability by not budging. (This is a snapshot of my easel the first time I used it.) Even the open jar of turpentine was unspilled. I cursed the umbrella and gave it its new name, Evil. I closed it up and managed to maneuver the painting’s position so that no sunlight fell on it, but my heart was heavy and I gave up shortly after repairing the smears and scratches inflicted by the brutal bumbershoot. (To the painting, not to me–although I expected to suffer some aftereffects, bruising, etc., but so far, I’m okay.)

But the day was not yet over. Our whole crew (Sharon Allen, Barbara Busenback and Catherine Weeks) found our way with some difficulty to that spot across the bay or whatever I was painting, and there we all started over. I found some serious shade and plunked myself and my gear down where the sun could not get to me, and prepared to paint the only scene that presented itself:

You can make a good painting out of anything. Given half a chance, that is. It was cold in that shady spot, and it afford zero shelter from the wind that blew through there like a freight train. I have painted in adverse conditions before, once in conditions very like these, and in a similar marine environment. That time I had to cope with a fierce wind, the cold, plus some sunlight issues that had virtually forced the scene I was to paint, and that painting turned out really well. Here is that successful one:

“Working Boats at Rest” 8×10 2009 (Rhode Island)

But the wind in Wells Harbor was something else again. I had switched to using my pochade box as an easel–it takes up less of a foot print and just seemed easier to deal with overall. The box sits on a tripod that I anchor with a stone bag and my SLR camera. The painting is secured to the lid of the box, and the lid is stabilized against the wind with pins, one on each side, that fit into holes drilled into the lid and box. (This is Steve Sauter’s “All in One” easel.) The wind shook the box so much that each of the pins worked their way out of the holes and fell to the deck. I, of course, was aware that the painting was shaking. Every time I tried to apply some paint, the paint would end up not exactly where I had planned for it to end up. However, I did not notice my first pin go missing, and happened to see the second go flying just in time to catch the lid and keep it from slamming down into the palette. Well, I was cold and miserable anyway, so I was ready to write off the day as just one of those days when the painting does not make my heart sing.

Here is that second effort:

I’m thinking this one is salvageable if only for the blowing tarp, but that the first one may be a candidate for wiping out or painting over. I’d like to hear from you if you think I should salvage the first one.

Think of my story if, the next time you see a plein air artist, you are tempted to coo, “Oh, this must be SOooo relaxing!”

P.S. Barbara just emailed me a photo of me at early stages, just getting set up, before any umbrella shenanigans.

Looks so peaceful, doesn’t it? Soooo relaxing!

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