I won’t keep from revealing the most important thing I learned the day I was painting en plein air at the closed military base at Fort Ord in Monterey, California.
Because I think it’s important to anyone who is new to painting in the open air, as I was on this painfully unforgettable day, to know – and never forget – that of all the things you must not forget to bring with you, the most important of these is food.
I don’t mean to suggest that I had to struggle through the day painting this abandoned barrack on only a single banana or a stray granola bar I managed to dig up in the glove compartment of my Prius.
I had no food. Zero. None.
No hand-packed sandwich. No candy bar. No breath mint. No pre-chewed gum in the ash tray. My dining options were, as far as I could determine, limited to only three things: a tube of paint, sand off the ground, or one of my less important fingers.
Ford Ord was only my second time painting outside. I wasn’t at all clear yet on how fast I would be able to work my way through the canvas, without the luxury of a kitchen sink, a sofa, and a stocked refrigerator at the ready.
What I can tell you is that unless I am within five miles of my home in Los Angeles, it will not be anytime soon that I plein air paint on a canvas this large. The sketching of the abandoned barracks, and making sure it was in correct size relation to the surrounding trees, dunes and electric poles was time-consuming all on its own. Then, factor in mixing colors, replenishing them when the cold winds dried them on my palette, and re-filling my water from stored bottles in the trunk, plus cleaning brushes, and the occasional sitting down of my ass to rest, ended up taking over the entire afternoon.
By the time I finally packed up my gear and started a slow roll of my car down the hill of sand and wild flowers I had oh so eagerly motored up that same morning, I could barely see straight from hunger. My head was pounding. My stomach was growling and folding over on itself, searching for some bit of stashed away nourishment. When I finally returned to a populated area, I stopped at the first place offering food I could find, which in this case was a Subway next to a local hair salon. And isn’t it always the case when you’re near the point of doubling over with hunger pains that the woman in line in front of you – the one final obstacle between you and sweet relief – has to ask the kid behind the glass case the exact caloric and fat content of every single sandwich on the menu before declaring her order.
Yes. You need to bring food with you when you plein air paint. Or you just might murder someone at the submarine sandwich franchise next door to “Do–Be-Doo’s Hair and Nails” before you make it home again.
As for the painting, it currently hangs in our bedroom. It serves as a marker of time for me. I had progressed just enough to let no scene deter me from attempting to paint it. If I like it, I go for it whether I think I have the skills developed to achieve the vision in my head or not.
It also amazes me how much I’ve progressed as a painter since then. My ability to mix colors was still primitive back in June, and I spent a lot of time blindly combining colors and hoping for the best. Since then, I’ve studied up on undertones, how to tint and shade, and complimentary colors.
I’ve also severely cut back on the number of tubes I use in a single painting. Had I put this canvas aside and come back to it a week later, the odds were slim I would have ever remembered how to achieve those colors for a second pass. Whereas, for my last painting “Lake in Tonal Palette,” I only used three tubes, and for “Secret Beach,” only four – and that’s counting Titanium White.
Being able to understand how your colors mix is crucial to getting a jump on a plein air painting session. Since I’ve gotten back home to Los Angeles, I’ve adopted a new procedure. Before starting any painting, I determine one or two colors I think I’ll work with, then I blend them with other colors on a single sheet of large mix media paper to assess which hues will work well alongside each other in the painting. And I keep those sheets in front of me as I start into it. It isn’t something I plan to do when I’m outside, but repeating this process in the studio creates lessons learned that do go with me. I can achieve the colors I dream of in my head faster, with less waste of paint and vital time while trying to beat the sun across the sky. That, in turn gets me to food faster, just in case I find myself in the forest one day and realize I left the sack lunch on the sofa.
Did any of this help you?
If it did, go paint. Right now! Don’t even finish reading this sent–