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Painting On-Location Basics

A Dream Life:
Painting on-location was the thing that segued my art career, and changed my life forever. Somehow, growing up in Colorado, I never once saw an artist out painting on-location, and I was pretty outdoorsy. I didn’t even know people did this, let alone it now being a ‘thing,’ misnamed, ‘plein air’ painting. I was working full time for a video game company called Midway Games, as an animator, officially, though I did a fair bit of concept art and other stuff too. Mostly, gory fight-game character animation mixed with an underworld akin to Dante’s inferno, by Gustave Dore. A dream job. I was taking figure painting classes at night after work, and got invited to go, ‘plein air painting’ with one of the instructors, Ryan Wurmsor. I was addicted to the core, from the very first dose. I could go for an adventure, and get some art done. Mind = BLOWN. My dream job, now turned into a prison. And I had to report in for well beyond 40hrs/week, and many weekends. It was time for a life hack! It paled in comparison to what I now do for a living. Which is paint, travel, paint, camp, paint, road trip, paint, teach, paint, write, paint, hike, paint repeat. A dream LIFE.

Sustainability Outdoors:
Reconnecting with the Universe through a wilderness experience helps our civilization, as a whole, stay grounded. As our population grows it becomes increasingly important to embrace a no-impact code of ethics when in the sanctity of our special wild places, the best places to paint. Obviously, you want the next person to share an equally exalting experience, so picking up after your visit is a no-brainer. When it comes to dealing with your bowel movement, after all there is almost always morning and coffee involved, there is a protocol in nature. Also, it’s not a bad idea to have a porto-toilet, the enzyme bags, and some baby wipes in your car (all folds up very conveniently). Be aware of your solvent jar, try not to spill when cleaning your brushes or breaking down, and do NOT use glass jars for obvious reasons. It’s easy to use and respect the outdoors, and more than ever, we need to utilize and enjoy our public lands. Demand that they stay intact, so that future generations have some expanse to go get lost in.

The Basics of What you NEED:
You do not need a lot to go out and take a stab at some painting on-location. I go over some of the outdoor stuff later, here, I’m just listing the stuff ya need to sling paint outside with any chance at representation. The limited full color palette from the exercises and the color wheel, being: Titanium White, Cad. Yellow Lemon, Alizarin Crimson, Ultramarine Blue, is the absolute bare necessities of color, and highly recommended. For brushes, keep it simple. A #2 Long Flat, a #2 Rigger, two # 4 Long Flats, a #6 Long Flat, a medium palette knife, in some kind of holder. A Brush cleaning jar of some type, preferably not glass as the mineral spirits in it are toxic. Of mineral spirits, Gamsol is the best. No other fancy mediums or quick-dry this or that. You’ll want to bring a trash bag, and a roll of paper towels. For a palette, you can take a piece of cardboard out there to mix paint on, clamp a board to a tree to paint on, just go do it, if you’re skeptical of the fun to be had. If you’re seriously into this, you’ll want a nice portable easel set-up, a pre-sketch kit, and a sense of wonder. For painting surfaces, I prefer double oil primed Belgian linen glued down to panels made of mdf hard board. This surface is a luxury, a little acrylic gesso, and some masonite can get you through a bunch of brush mileage, as you begin this journey.

On-Location Right Practice:
Going out with a group is a blast, but painting is mostly a solitary, problem solving endeavor. The more you can go out on your own, at your own pace, with a lunch, some gorp, any number of panels, and your gear, the better for your growth. Whether you’re driving from spot to spot or exploring by foot, a day of devoted on-location painting, should be part of your routine. Nature has a way of throwing just the right curve balls at your level of development!

Even if you’re painting near the car, have your gear all in one pack, because you’ll want to explore the viewpoint options nearby. As we’ll soon learn, the viewpoint has just as much to do with the way things look as the subject itself. Stay lightweight and portable. Know your equipment and where things are (see the packing guide next). For the best outdoor apparel, look to outdoor sports like climbing, backpacking and fly-fishing. Be diligent, disciplined, and resourceful.

Painting Perpendicularity (page 66 in the Learn to See Learn to Paint book):
This concept stems from the horizon line you decide on for your scene. Adjust the vertical angle that your panting is at on the easel, so that out from the Horizon Line, a perpendicular line can be drawn to your eyes, at the precise location where you’ll be doing most of your painting. This harmonizes the Horizon Line in your seen with your own personal direct Line of Sight, helping you SEE the three dimensionality IN to the canvas.

Steering Wheel Painting:
Sometimes it’s just too cold to paint outside. The paint can get gloopy, your mood can get gloopy, and that doesn’t usually mix for awesome work. On days like this, stormy, too windy, and the like, if possible to get a decent viewpoint from a parked vehicle, do steering wheel paintings. Having a friend is even more fun, and you can jam out to your favorite play list in the comfort of the vehicle. The real point is get out there and translate 3D to 2D from life, however, and whenever you can!

Shaded Painting:
The painting must always be in shade, either from itself, turned away form the light source, or in a solid cast shadow (no dappled light through trees on the canvas). When painting front-lit scenes, this could mean looking over your shoulder, craning your neck the whole time. Gesso’d panels, or linen mounted to an opaque hardboard, or plywood is best for painting on-location, as opposed to stretched canvas. This is because when your painting is turned away from the light, as it should be, the light won’t translucently be coming through the canvas. When light is hitting the painting surface directly, you will mix your values to compensate for the brightness, and color of the light. A painting you may have thought was accurate, inside now looks dark and cool in temperature. No matter what, shade the painting surface, nothing else matters if it’s lit or not lit during the session including the palette. You will build a palette-to-painting sense during the session, knowing what mixture corresponds to what on the painting, regardless of what it looks like as a stand-alone mixture. Remember, every color is relative to every other color, so the painting dictates what is accurate, and this is often counter-intuitive.

Painting Session Length:
How long a typical session takes depends on all kinds of different things. Things like the size of the canvas, familiarity with the subject, familiarity with painting, gear, weather, etc. When I go ultra-light, like above to Plateau Point in Grand Canyon National Park, I’m painting small, with a lightweight set up. The session above is 18×6 (small for me), I’m very familiar with the subject matter, I paint all of the time, and it took about an hour. The hike in, hike out, that took seven hours, and when getting back to the rim, I had conquered the world.

Doing larger work outside can be a challenge, but it’s fun and engaging enough to continue to do it. After all, it’s WAY easier to do larger work in the studio, but the exposure is priceless (crowds will gather if you’re in a place with some foot traffic, especially when you get something going). A good bit of literature and cross-sections of your best work can easily be gifted to folks taking an interest. After all, to them: they just met, so and so, actually out painting, and they’ve got the brochure and selfie on Instagram to prove it. A new collector, or even just someone more interested in art, may have been born. We can hope.

The results of painting in the studio and painting large multi-session pieces on-location, are the same, for me. I just like to be outside more than being in the studio. Some planning is required in doing multi-session work, both in the handling of the canvas size, as well as the return, often with a large wet canvas, to the exact same spot at the same exact same time of day. The amount of time for each session in this case depends on the scene choice. After about two hours, most scenes have changed drastically. If memory fails, just come back, and do this for as many sessions needed. The lighting in this 24×48 lasted about 20 minutes each morning, and changing drastically during that time, even. This all happening at sunrise, so darkness was mine at reveille each of these chilly mornings, as I prepared for the light.

Look Professional:
Keep a tidy camp, and you’ll be a lot more efficient with your time, and look like a professional if someone approaches with interest (and they will). Have your brochures at the ready! In this business, you never know where that next sale is coming from, so you put the good vibes out 100%. My brochure shows a cross section of work, but it also shares a bit about the painting process they have just witnessed. It is a novel thing to see someone out painting if you’re a random hiker, so be a billboard for your career, and an ambassador for painters. This builds interest across the spectrum, building a stronger connection between us all, and many of those folks have an empty wall or two. Help them, help you perpetuate this deep study, and don’t ruin it for the rest of us by unloading your pack all over a sidewalk. Please, for us all, don’t block the thoroughfare for others, or have paper towels loose, and blowing all over the place.

The World is Your Studio:
I take my micro easel, aptly named, the Fly on the Wall, everywhere. Paint your life, the people in it, and show the visual poetry in all things. One of my favorite things is taking it inside museums. I’m not saying, “don’t ask permission,” just, “you’ll be better off, preparing yourself to be halted.” It’s no big deal if you have a micro setup, you’re quietly and neatly working on a very small painting ‘sketch’ in the corner, not drawing any attention to yourself. Ideally, you won’t even get noticed. A Fly on the Wall. If you go ask for permission to do an oil painting, a flat out ‘NO’ will be the answer for sure, in most museums as they envision a much different, much messier methodology. I keep it small, neat, preferably in a corner, and I’m well out of the way. If I get halted, “OK no problem, thank you, sir/ma’am. I love this scene here, etc.” That is all, no big deal. Take a picture if you’re able, and on to the next challenge.

Be Aware:
Painting outside can be a wild experience. It’s Nature. Be prepared in the ways of the weather, but also the sun, and bugs. You’ll NEED a few things to maintain comfort. A brimmed hat is paramount to your success, and happiness. If the sun is glaring in your eyes, you will not be able to judge the scene’s Visual Language Elements accurately. I wear sunglasses, polarized, gray prescription lenses when I paint outdoors, mostly. That sun can be intense, and you don’t want the glasses to effect your color perception. They just take the brightness down a notch, and I often check color/value with out them during the session. Wear long sleeve, neutral gray shirts, alleviating the need for a lot of sunscreen, and the color won’t reflect back on your canvas. Layer up in colder weather, shedding them if needed. If you’re in the back-country, know your surroundings, there are wild things, and you should try to avoid being part of the food chain. If I don’t have my dog, I carry a small firearm when backpacking in the alpine.
Have fun, be safe, and ‘Paint Your Curiosity!’

My Goal:
I hope to foster and inspire creativity in the artform of painting, in any genre, medium or style, through outlaying a foundation in the truths of perception and subsequent depiction. Put paint on the canvas any way you want, abstract or realistic, but if you want to paint with intention, depicting some thing or idea, from the mind or life, this is the book you want. It is a broad based foundation in the universal Visual Language of expression on a two dimensional surface. Seeing more keenly is the guide, and virtuosity in any medium you choose, comes only through understanding and evolved practice. Anybody can learn to paint if you have a curious mind, and a love of creative process.

An Emphasis on Painting On-Location:
Because I have found such love, inspiration, and education in painting on-location, I have dedicated a few pages to the basics involved in the practice. It may seem like a burden at first and there will always be unaccounted for variables that increase the difficulty. Avoid frustration with an easy, lightweight, and capable easel. Embrace the odds as learning opportunities, and keep a light heart. It’s a very healthy addiction. Not only will you “loosen up” your style, and build your brain, you’ll get some fresh air and some exercise. Plus, it’s FREE.
…And may your experiences be windless, bugless, and full of enlightenment.

This whole section is an excerpt from the book, Learn to SEE Learn to Paint; The Science of SEEing, A Foundation in Visual Language, and On-Location Painting.
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Support me by purchasing one, while you read it online for a day or two until you have the gorgeous hardcopy!

-Joshua Been