Plein Aire Painting

I mentioned in a previous post that I really like water soluble oils.  They have many of the same characteristics as regular oils. They dry slowly so you can blend the colors on the canvas. They have that nice sheen to them.  The main advantage they have over regular oils is that you don’t need harsh solutions like turpentine.  Today I learned they have a disadvantage that I hadn’t thought of.

Falls Church Arts has a plein aire show every year.  Entries must be painted outside on location and the scenes must come from inside the Falls Church City lines.  This presents me with several challenges.  First, I’m not a very practiced plein aire painter — I usually paint from photos.  Plein Aire is something I need to get better at because it will sharpen my skills in many ways.  Second, I’m mostly a landscape painter and Falls Church is pretty urban.

Last year I painted a scene from the front yard of a friend’s house.  It was a lovely scene.  The azaleas were in bloom. The painting wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t everything I wanted it to be, so I didn’t enter it.

Today I decided to sit out in the plaza in front of Mad Fox Brewing Company and paint the awnings, windows, and tables out front.  It is a lovely day with a mix of clouds and sun. I was a little intimidated by the people at first but most people didn’t pay much attention. Those who did were polite.  Kids were fascinated.   I relaxed and painted and the painting, which was challenging, started to slowly come together. Then it started to rain.  A disadvantage of water soluble oils is that they run in the rain (only when they are wet – once dry they are as permanent as regular oils). The painting can probably be repaired, but it’s going to take some time. I was going to post a picture, but it’s just too sad.   All is good though – I got to to spend the afternoon painting.

Seeing Color

One challenge I have when I’m painting is getting my engineer’s brain to see color rather than seeing what color I think something should be.  For example, mountains are green in the summer, right?  Of course that’s true when you are standing next to them, but as they retreat into the distance and are subject to viewing through more atmosphere they fade to blue.  Getting the right color of blue is a challenge for me.  I never could get this right in the picture below although I painted over the mountains at least three times.  I love the scene and may try it again, but I decided I’d need to start from scratch.

OAT Overlook

The first example where I really realized that I wasn’t seeing color was in my class with Jean Barrett (which I wrote about in an earlier post).  When I was painting the scene looking out the dining room window of Il Casale di Mele there was a splash of light on the dining room table.  My engineer’s brain wanted to see this as a lighter color of brown than the table.  That made perfect sense to me since if you shine a light on a color you just get a lighter version of that same color – shadow and light.  Jean looks at me and looks at the photograph and says that splash of light is bright blue.  After a period of denial, careful consideration, and eventually acceptance I finally agreed that it was indeed blue. I adjusted my painting but Jean and I never agreed that my version was blue enough.   Below I have included the painting and the original photo.

Il Casale di Mele sm

ICDM Dining room

Then, in my class with Andras Bality at Nimrod Hall we spent a lot of time analyzing the color of the sky and the clouds.  My engineer’s brain thinks the sky is blue and clouds are gray and white.  In fact, the sky is not pure blue especially depending on what time of day it is, and clouds include white, gray, pink, purple, blue and often other colors.

I found a book that has helped me get past the color blindness of my engineer’s brain.  It’s called “1500 Color Mixing Recipes for oil, acrylic & watercolor” by William F. Powell.  Actually this book is a compilation of several color mixing recipe books he’s done.  I use the landscape section the most (of course) but there is a section for portraits, which I can see would be very useful.  There is also a special section for watercolors.  I will probably use that more after I take my next class at Nimrod this summer.

The way it works is that the book has pages of recipes.  It shows you different color swatches, and what combinations are used to make them.  I have found that it helps me see colors better, including the subtle differences, by comparing the swatches with the photograph I am painting.  It also helps me mix more vibrant colors.  Before, my colors would get “muddy” because I would mix too many colors together trying to get subtle differences.  Now I plan and mix my pallet with the aid of the recipes before I start the painting.  I’m very happy with the results so far.  Below is an example of a page from the book that I hope will help better show what I mean.

One last note, the index of this book is amazing. You can look up a color based on a detailed list of items including different kinds of trees at different times of year, skies at different times of day, different kinds of rocks, etc.  It’s really amazing.  I have included an example page below.

Water Mixable Oils

As I said earlier posts, when I started painting I used acrylics.  They are great for beginners. You mix them with water and they clean up easily with water.  They dry fast.

I particularly liked the fact that they dry fast when I started out.  My engineer’s brain liked to paint from back to front.  (It still does but I’m working on it.)  So I’d paint the sky and the background.  Then I’d paint the things that were further away, finishing with the detailed things in the foreground.  This made sense to me.  Acrylics were great because they dried in a few minutes and I could move on to the next layer.

When I first painted with oils I realized that as convenient as fast drying paint is, it also has its downside.  You can’t blend the colors well.  You can mix colors on the pallet, but getting those soft edges by mixing with your brush once the paint is on the canvas doesn’t work well.  Because of that, oil paint became my preference.

As wonderful as oil paint is, you thin paint and clean up with with turpentine or turpenoid. Turpentine is pretty toxic. Both are smelly. For that reason, I tried to go back to acrylics when I first started painting again a couple of years ago.  This lasted less than one painting (I didn’t finish it).

I started doing some research and discovered something called water mixable-oils.  These are oil paints, but they are made with a particular kind of linseed oil that is water-soluble.  That means it can be thinned with and cleaned up with water.  My research showed that opinions vary on how these compare with traditional oils.  Some people say they behave differently.  I would agree that they are slightly different, but I think the tradeoff is worth it.  I’ve been using them for about a year now and I like them.  They dry slowly enough to mix well.  They still smell like oil paint, which is nice.  The colors are pretty consistent.

I’ve tried two brands, Windsor & Newton and W Oil.  Both are pretty good. I might have a slight preference for the Windsor & Newton. There are water-mixable linseed oil products you can buy if you like to thin with oil. You can buy several brands of water-mixable oils online at Dick Blick or Cheap Joe’s.