Sunday, April 19, 2015

Morning in Big Sur - A Step-By-Step Plein Air Painting

I just returned from a trip to Monterey for the Plein Air Convention. On Friday we took a drive down the coast and I did a couple paintings in Big Sur. I took some progress photos and I'd like to share how I created this painting:

"Morning in Big Sur" Oil on linen, 9x12 inches
I started out by toning my canvas with a little bit of Cadmium Red Light thinned with Gamsol. I like to use a paper towel rather than a brush. 

My palette today consists of: Titanium white, cadmium yellow light, cadmium orange, cadmium red light, crimson lake (Holbein), dioxazine purple, ultramarine blue, cobalt blue, viridian hue (Holbein), yellow green (Utrecht). I use mostly Utrecht, Gamblin, and Holbein paints. 

Here is my starting scene. I really like the strong diagonals here and back-lit trees. I'm going to try and focus on the central cliff. I start out by sketching in the outlines with cadmium red light and a touch of ultramarine blue. 

Once I'm satisfied with the composition sketch, I begin blocking in local colors and shadows. Since the cliffs are mostly back-lit, I'm starting a little darker. The main cliff has a muted purple (made with cadmium red light, ultramarine blue, and a touch of viridian) and the closest cliff has a little bit more green in the mixture (Viridian, cadmium red light, ultramarine blue, and some cadmium orange).

I try to mix a little bit of everything in every color I make, or close to it. I think it creates a more harmonious painting. When I clean my palette, I keep all of the leftover paint and mix it into a grey. This is a handy way of neutralizing colors. You have to be careful not to overdo it though - it's easy for a painting to end up looking chalky. 

I took a few detail shots of the vegetation progress on the cliff. I've got about 3 separate brushes in use at this point. I use my left hand to hold them while I paint with my right. I like to have dark, midtone, and highlight brushes handy, especially while painting vegetation. It's a constant, back and forth between shades of green. The more they overlap, the more unique shapes you can create. 

Here's another shot of vegetation progress. Note the variety of greens now. I like to take my midtone and highlight brushes and vary the greens between marks. Adding cadmium orange can make it more olive, adding crimson can neutralize a green quickly, and adding a touch of purple can really cool it down. The third brush is my shadow brush, and I do the same with my dark colors, making some shadow marks warmer or cooler as needed. 

Variety is the key when painting greens. Keep most of your greens subdued, that way when you can save those high-chroma, intense bursts of color for just the right spots. The more muted the rest of your greens, the more those bursts of color will really sing. 

I've added a little bit of reflected light at this point, using mostly blue and a touch of viridian. Note the variety of green marks in the highlighted areas. 

This shot shows the foreground as well. Remember that yellow is the first color to dissipate in atmospheric perspective, which is why I saved most of my yellow and orange green mixtures for the foreground. Reserving your yellows in this way will really make the foreground jump forward. 

I started working a little bit more on the water. I've found that starting as simple as possible works best when painting water. Taking that into consideration, if you look at my initial block-in, I began with a simple gradient: Lightest at the horizon, darker at the bottom. 

My favorite colors for painting the Pacific Ocean are Viridian (or Phthalo Green) and Crimson. When you mix the two together you can get a great muted blue. Add a little bit more crimson and it shifts to purple. Add a little bit more viridian and it shifts to a cool green. The water gets very green in some areas. Near the horizon it's lighter and more purple. I add some cobalt blue to the mix when painting reflected skylight. 

Variations and subtleties are created with mostly those three colors. I add a little bit of cadmium orange and cadmium red light here and there to neutralize. Keep your pure whites in reserve and use them sparingly. White is your lightest value and you can't get brighter than it! 

In this shot I've added the sky. Remember that the value of the sky changes. You can get a much more convincing sky when you take that into account. It's always lighter and more yellow on the side where the sun is. It's lighter near the horizon, and usually a little green. I used mostly cobalt blue here, with a touch of viridian near the horizon, and a touch of cadmium yellow near the sun/top left. 

Done! I added a few accents here and there, saving the best for last. Signature scratched in with a toothpick.

Thanks for following! Happy painting. 

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