Fall 2006, Volume 23.1
Chasing the Light
Roberta Glidden studied art in the ‘60s at the University of Colorado where she earned a BA in English literature. Later she studied design, color, and art history at Weber State University. She developed a successful wholesale business producing hand-painted silk scarves. Roberta has garnered acclaim for her unique silk paintings and as an illustrator for children’s books. She was a founding member of Utah Designer Craft Gallery and Local Colors Artworks in Salt Lake City. She has exhibited her work nationally, and most recently her plein air paintings were featured at Gallery at the Station, Ogden, Utah. Currently, Roberta travels and works out of her studio/home in Ogden. See some of her plein air paintings as well as other artists published in this issue of Weber Studies. Http://robertaglidden.com.
When you see a person with an easel set up outdoors, be it town or country, painting a small piece of the world, you are looking at a plein (rhymes with ten) air landscape artist. You probably notice that this person is wholly intent on the task and oblivious to anything outside of the view he/she has selected to depict. We call this state "being in the zone." The whole process seems to have an aura of urgency about it—a rush on a beautiful day.
Some landscape painters invent their subject or even record dream imagery. Others work from photos in the comfort of a studio. Plein air is a French term meaning "outside" or "fresh air." Such a painter attempts to wrestle an aspect of the three dimensional world onto a flat surface by confronting the subject—in all its complexity—directly.
The rush is to grab the light—even as it constantly shifts. For landscape painters, the holy hours are early morning and late evening, looking into the light or across from the rising or setting sun. We love long shadows and back lighting for the drama and the relief it provides to the mountains. High noon may be good for movies but not for painters who seek shadow, crave the intricate patterns of light and dark, the gift of early or late, partial or slanted sunshine. I’m learning all about these things late in life.
As a college student during the anything-goes sixties, I was encouraged to experiment and express myself, but I didn’t receive a great deal of traditional training in art. Traditional landscape was considered passé, even decadent. I went on to develop a career as a silk painter, so I have experience as a textile designer and colorist.
About four years ago I found myself at a crossroad, yet another mid-life crisis, when I followed a friend to Doug Braithwaite’s home studio class in Sunset. We were doing figure drawings from live models. This practice is like putting together a puzzle, a game, and I enjoyed refreshing that skill from long ago. As the weeks passed the weather warmed, and Doug suggested that we bring our oil paints and meet at the Hooper graveyard. At the time I was preoccupied by nonproductive, negative thoughts that seemed to possess me with an artistic lethargy.
However, outdoors and watching Doug paint that spring afternoon refocused my brain and opened an avenue of fresh thoughts I eagerly embraced. I found it impossible to attempt this kind of painting while thinking of anything else. The effort filled every space inside my head. As I was driving home at dusk along 1900 West in Roy, I noticed the changing light on Mt. Ben Lomond, and I mentally mixed the colors on my own phantom palette. Even the ditches and parking lots took on an otherworldly glow. I wondered at this mundane world so suddenly entertaining—I was hooked.
I have devoted almost all of my artistic energy since that day into the practice of plein air painting—the practice of "chasing the light." I may select a subject because of a certain reflection in a pond which in turn is having a conversation of light with some passing clouds. I have to grab the image fast because it will be gone—or radically changed—in fifteen minutes. This is the urgency and joy of plein air painting.
Plein air painters are in a hurry because they, too, obey the urgency and chase the light. They often use a large brush, a limited palette (a few essential primary colors), and a small canvas, maybe 6" x 8". Plein air painters are after the essence, the here and now—they stop time. Plein air painters are consumed with their subjects and focused on their images. They are completely taken at the beauty before them. Everything seems to exist in the moment, there before their open eyes.
Plein air artists may represent a sweep of lawn with a few quick strokes of a wide brush. They may block in the distant hills and the messy thicket with a smaller brush, thicker paint. They might indicate an approaching storm with some quiet grays, step back, then add some white, tinted with cool yellow to the ridge line, which magically becomes a reflection of late spring snow. No detail. The whole thing seems to pop, to become believable as a recognizable part of the world they inhabit.
Plein air artists could just take some photos and paint in the comfort of their studios, but they choose to work in the open, near the action, near the light.
To a plein air artist, using a photograph alone as a subject is a poor substitute for being there. A photo conveys limited information. It is difficult to go from a flat photo to a flat canvas and expect to experience the wonder of the multi-dimensional world that you can only be a part of when you are in it. Even beginner painters quickly discover how inaccurate colors are on film or digital images. They realize that the subtle gold highlight on the tree bark is white in the photo, and the way the mountain peeks through the trees is not visible at all. "My plein air studies are the basis of all my studio work. I still do a lot of painting in the studio, but it’s those trips out into the field that keep the work fresh," claims John Hughes, a highly accomplished landscape painter and teacher from Riverton, Utah.
In the hands of an amateur, even a good camera yields a sort of indifferent result compared to a painting. That’s because an experienced artist can convey not only the feeling of being there—the temperature, time, season—but can also deliver a personal passion for the place. That’s why viewing a masterpiece painting is such an emotional experience. You are in able hands when viewing, say, Monet’s series of haystack paintings at the Chicago Art Institute. The heaps of hay seem lit from within and then, in turn, illuminate the surrounding field. Visitors stand in front of the four paintings in silence, as if in church, looking from one to another in awe.
John, again: "Photography can play a big part in my studio activity as well as in the field studies themselves. I don’t always have the time to capture everything I see out there, so I sometimes use a camera to store up reference from trips into nature that might be the basis for future paintings. As long as I keep fresh with my field studies, my studio work will have a certain credibility because I know how it is supposed to look. It’s more about my reaction to a scene than any literal reproduction—copying is never the goal. It’s about my feeling toward a place more than anything else. It is very easy to tell if the artist goes outdoors to paint. If all an artist does is paint from photos, there is a certain tightness that creeps into the work—the shadows are a deadly dark, and the color usually lacks the luminosity associated with working from life."
Plein air painters often use three sources to create larger pieces: the small study still wet with paint, photos, and memory. They rely upon the field study for color and mood. Photos can aid with design elements and suggest ways to expand the image. "I always use plein air studies in some way to do studio paintings. I seldom do the same painting in the studio, but as I am working outside, I collect photos of the area and then will use the photos and the plein air work to put together another painting," says Doug Braithwaite. "A practiced painter learns to rely on his memory for details of the scene and for the spirit it evokes. After staring hard at a subject for even and hour with total attention, the particulars get tattooed on the brain for a day or two. Even months or years later, when I look at one of my studies, I can recall exact details about the experience. It feels like time freezes as I scrutinize the shape of a blue shadow on gold snow, trying to get it right."
Plein air painters develop a zeal about being out in any weather, at any hour. John muses, "We all have war stories we love to share. Like the time I sat on an open tube of yellow ocher while painting in the family car in California, or the time I set up on a beautiful lake only to discover I left my brushes at home… and all those bugs near Saltair—I was still itching a week later!"
Van Gogh battled the severe Mistral winds of Provence. Doug has devised a mobile studio in his truck so he can be out in January painting cold snowy mountains in Ogden Valley with his beagle, Buddy, warming his feet. Plein air painters are deeply committed to witnessing the actual scene even if it means sunburn, bug bites, and frozen fingers.
They feel a special attachment to nature, perhaps akin to birders or anglers whose skill also depends on an ability to focus single-mindedly on the task at hand for hours. Their goal is to communicate the passion of using blank canvas and tubes of paint. This was the achievement of the Impressionist painters. Viewing the paintings of Cézanne, we are struck by the beauty of Mt. St. Victoire. At the same time, we can almost hear the heartbeat of the artist as he depicted the scene of his childhood with his brushes and paint.
Much of what Cézanne accomplishes may emerge more from his craft than his objective or his subject. In fact, when ego intrudes into the process, the game is up. The painter must give himself up entirely to the practice of combining shapes into an orderly pattern. Doug claims that even identifying the shapes as "tree," "sky," etc. will impede progress. "Painting is easy," he tells students, "You just have to put the right color in the right place." Sound easy? It may be a start but the real secret is practice. An article of faith for me is that if I keep after it regularly and evaluate my efforts thoughtfully, I will notice improvement over time.
When I began plein air painting, it was difficult to know where to begin. My teachers, Doug, John and David Koch, who lives near Logan, are on the same page here. They advise to study the land with squinted eyes in order to discover interesting arrangements of abstract shapes and patterns of light. "I just drive around and find something that hits me in a certain way, and I know it when I see it or feel it, and that can really occur at anytime of the day. I prefer early mornings or late afternoons," says Doug.
They do a small simple sketch of basic elements, called a "thumb-nail" to determine what the painting is about, "the answer to the first question," as Dave calls it. If it’s the dramatic sky, the horizon line is low. If it is something in the foreground, the sky is a tight band on top. Time spent deciding what to paint is not wasted. It takes a lot of practice to be able to look around and spot the good painting or at least a likely candidate. "Keep it simple! Don’t defeat yourself!" urges Dave, as he demonstrates how interesting a single tree can be.
So the design, also known as the composition or drawing, is the important first step. To start, John boldly draws on a white linen canvas with thin paint which allows for continual adjustment. Doug smears the whole surface (prefers a smooth board) with a purplish mess, removing lighter elements with a Q-tip or rag. This is called the "under painting." Dave, who is entirely fearless, tackles the design aspect with loose, gestural swabs, using a wide, wet brush. As they draw, all three local masters are staring at the subject with only casual glances at the support (the canvas or board) as students watch raptly.
The next step is carefully establishing value, or patterns of light and dark, to achieve variety and cohesion of design. At this point, John decides his "key," maybe a gray-blue of the mountain, which he blocks in as a single tone. This way he can determine the other elements—the sky, near and far trees, water—as lighter or darker than the key. He covers the canvas with approximate values and hues (colors) before looking for detail. "Don’t fracture the mass!" he implores us. If you establish the middle ground as a certain value, all detail must maintain that value for the thing to make sense. Beginners often go astray by deciding to put light accents in an area of mid or dark value. This produces the famous "ping-pong" or polka dot effect, and the structure fails.
Variety can be achieved by color, the next consideration. This is the element of temperature. White is the coldest color followed by blue and then red, with yellow as the warmest. The goal here is to represent the deeply dimensional world on a flat surface, an exercise in deceit. In nature, dark, bold objects near to us become pale blue masses as they recede away to the horizon. Through atmospheric haze, yellow is first to disappear (including greens and oranges) then red (including purples), so pale blue can indicate great distance. Local color might refer to yellow tulips in the middle distance. They are bright saturated yellow in the foreground but must lighten and gray out to convince the viewer that the tulips are receding. Additionally, they become smaller as an aspect of linear perspective.
The blurred edges of these distant tulips are another indication that they are well out of reach. This is about atmospheric perspective, the effect of looking at distant objects through a veil of haze. A camera sees most objects as hard-edged, but that is not how the eye works. If an observer were to focus on a single face, the room behind would dissolve into soft focus, a feature called depth-of-field in photography. Painters can communicate what a painting is about through effective design and also by simply sharpening an edge or two at the focal point while leaving the rest in soft contrast. Too many edges can confuse and even irritate the viewer. According to Dave, early on in the painting, it is critical to decide on what the focus or "hero" is to be.
Paint can be applied thin or thick. Usually the dark areas are established with the under-painting, maybe tinted to approximate a local color. For example, a purple or burnt sienna under-painting can be partially brushed over with dark green to indicate trees. Darks stay thin, as a rule. Subsequent block-ins usually err on the side of a darker value of local color because one can add light on top of dark, but not the reverse, without risking "mud," which John defines as the wrong color in the wrong place, especially adding a warm tone to a distant background.
Each painter develops his own methods over time. Doug likes to build up the layers of his paint using watercolor brushes until he’s about done. Then he uses a loose scribble with thicker paint, usually as a foreground element. He calls this the "money stroke," which makes the whole thing pop before our eyes.
John scrubs in the thick paint early on, using a wide, short bristle brush, which he pushes and rolls. Sometimes he seems to wallow in thick paint, but there is a clear reason for every stroke. They are all in the service of rendering the subject. He abhors what he calls "aimless dabbling," or applying paint with no clear purpose. Meaningless brush strokes are characteristic of no clear plan of attack. There is logic and order in a master painting, not unlike the music of Bach. John knows how to accentuate the sensual qualities of pure paint applied generously, the abstract elements.
Brushwork, or texture, is the fifth element of a successful painting. There is nothing more enjoyable than seeing a master painting, up close, as an abstract canvas filled with seemingly random patches of thick and thin color. When seen at a distance, the same abstract patches of thick and thin color emerge as water lilies under a Japanese bridge (Monet) or aspen trees with the sky peeking through. There is a charming magic to it.
Dave is always aware of edges, the meeting of two shapes. As he closes in on the image, he often does the decisive "look here!" stroke with a loaded palette knife, almost a sculptural touch. I think he stole the idea from LeConte Stewart, Utah’s famous Impressionist.
Plein air painting is sometimes called alla prima, an Italian phrase loosely translated as "all at once." Before the Impressionists, painters usually rendered a subject in shades of gray (a grisaille) and added color in layers of glaze, over a period of weeks. This is called indirect painting, a technique that is still employed today. However, the innovative technology of putting paint in tubes, making it portable, was first available to the Impressionists. It allowed them to move outdoors more freely. The impressionists not only painted directly from nature, but they often made the landscape the subject of the painting, rather than using it as a background element.
To paint alla prima, some planning is required. If students try to skip a step—notably working out the design with care—they can be quickly disoriented and find themselves looking away from the subject where all the answers are, slashing away desperately at the canvas. I happen to know about this rapid slide toward chaos and anarchy. In my four years of attempting this craft under the patient tutelage of these three local masters, I feel like I go from green light (Now I get it!) to red light (What was I thinking?). I go back and forth on a regular basis. But I forge ahead because I’ve been caught up in the spell. Maybe it’s the same reason others get caught up in chess or golf—some of us need a big challenge to feel alive.
One thing leads to another. I find the simplest things—the nearby mountains, the reflection on the lake, the pattern of shadows—are like putting together the pieces of a puzzle. It becomes a multi-faceted landscape from a dream world, a separate place. It invites me in as I squish out more paint. What to include, what to leave out? Hard choices, but there’s a real logic in looking closely, and all the decisions are intimately connected. It’s all a way in, a path into this enchanted country.
When I am engaged in plein air painting, I am entirely absorbed, all the parts of my scattered brain are filled with the focus that can only be gained by being among the things I paint—being there. I am awed by the beauty, the perfection of nature, the variety and surprises.
When I watch Doug paint, he is so far into the zone he dwells there among the "art" angels. Our task today is to paint Doug’s suburban driveway, tract house, and truck. What could be more ordinary, more mundane? As I begin, I realize it is like a large still-life crowned by a huge tree behind the house. I start with the drawing and see intricate lace-like patterns of shadow on the concrete. Nice. After I set up the under-painting, I begin adding local color. The hues begin to interact and feed off each other as the afternoon light shifts. I get drawn into the excitement of it. I notice an old green garden hose making a blue shadow on the plastic fence. Is it the same blue of the sky or a little more vivid? Let’s see… maybe a touch of cobalt, yes, that’s it! I’m so pleased. I notice a hose and I decided to add it because it’s exactly the detail required… or is it competing with that shrub shape now? Hmmmmm. I keep placing the puzzle pieces until I am at least somewhat satisfied—I am done.
I will keep this little driveway study leaning against some books in my studio, and I will look at it often. It’s pretty primitive, not anything anyone else would admire. But for me it’s as if I had sent myself a postcard from a treasured time and place. I allow myself an entrance into that world where my identity will merge with others who have paint stains on their clothes and big grins on their sunburnt faces. The secret we share is that even a concrete driveway in Sunset is wonderful. One can enter the secret space of art only by abandoning the preconceived images of things. Only when one allows the eye to lead the mind, can one be convinced that there is beauty everywhere. Painting can cause the self to merge with the wonder of the outer world. Art generally requires solitude, but it is not a lonely experience because it transcends the awareness of self. The paint on the canvas is the message I bring back from that timeless world—best when outside, close to the source.