I’ve recently completed my first “big” studio painting, and I wanted to share some of the work that went into it here. Over the past four summers I’ve been developing my plein air painting skills, working on drawings or small panels under 9″x12″. All along my goal has been to take these outdoor studies into the studio to use as reference for larger paintings. The years of rigorous life study at GCA has been incredible training but I feel limited in my ability to express larger ideas when I can only work with a live subject in front of me. I would love to work from my imagination and still represent nature truthfully. Ultimately I would like to combine figure, landscape, and other elements into my paintings without using the aid of photographs or digital technology. For me landscape painting has been a perfect place to start experimenting with this process.
This painting was commissioned by Mark and Teresa Richey, who have an incredible view from their lake house in New Hampshire. I felt I had plenty of freedom for my own creativity, but I enjoyed spending time with the Richeys on location hearing what they loved most about their special spot. Mt. Chocorua is the star here, but they asked if I could fit the entire mountain range into the composition, which became the main challenge in designing this piece. The panoramic view meant that most of my canvas would be occupied by sky and water, so I paid special attention to cloud compositions and learning how to paint water.
The foundation of this painting is made on the piles of careful drawings and notes that document my observations from life. When I was on location, my mission was to absorb as much information as possible about the structure of the landscape. Detailed drawings of the mountain ranges, the foreground elements, and the behavior of the clouds helped form my vision. With the light conditions constantly changing, my ability to paint detailed scenes was limited and my color studies were abbreviated. What the paintings lack in structure, the drawings accomplish. In these I focused on understanding the three-dimensional form of the landscape so that in the studio I could put the sun wherever I chose and paint the scene accordingly. I may have gone a little overboard with the amount of sketches I made, but now I have enough information to do several more paintings of this spot! I’d love to try a sunset or sunrise.
When I look at each of these studies, I am transported back to the moment I was observing when I made them. I use this time-travel device to help re-create the moment in my mind. The full sensory experience is important, so I try to recall the smells, sounds, emotions, and thoughts that I had at the time I made the initial study. I make my painting decisions from this state of meditation, fully occupying the memory. Ultimately, not everything can be recalled, but the most important things make it through and into the final piece. Over time this exercise makes your memory stronger!
Two months passed before I had a chance to begin the studio painting phase. Meanwhile I was continuing to paint outside in other locations, and always keeping in mind the things I would need to learn in order to tackle my commission.
Once back in the studio, I took out all my drawings and began working on a composition. Using a perspective grid, I was able to piece together my different sketches into a believable space. I placed a few sailboats in the scene to help give a sense of distance since the receding shore line is nearly horizontal and I thought it might be hard to sense how far away the right hand side of the far shore is.
After shuffling around all these parts until it felt right, I transferred the drawing to a small 9″x14″ canvas to start a small version of the painting I envisioned.
The small painting was a crucial step in this whole process. It gave me a chance to work through a lot of the questions I had in a more forgiving scale. After Mark and Teresa approved of this version, I dove into the final process.
Working through this whole project has taught me so much. When I come up against a section that I don’t know how to paint, I go do some research. I look at master paintings of a similar passage, or go outside to observe nature. Back in the studio I try to bring my observations to life in the painting. The process becomes a feedback loop – from plein air study to studio painting and back. It keeps my mind constantly challenged and learning. Among the many reasons I don’t paint from photographs is that it prevents this analytical learning process. The photo flattens out the world and it’s too easy to just copy the flat shapes in the photo. It feels limiting and lifeless. I’d much rather struggle through some unknown territory and learn along the way!
If you took the time to read all of this, thanks for sticking with me, I hope some of it was helpful or interesting! I welcome comments or discussion too, so don’t be shy.