Plein Air: San Gabriel Park with Plein Air Austin group

First sketch (acrylic/paper, ~8×8)
The scene painted from

It was debateable if driving 40 minutes to join a painting group at sunrise in a fog was worth it. I arrived about an hour late and went to find the others. Nobody showed. Dang! So I set up my easel determined to make something of the day searching for scenes along the river. Around 9am, two painters show up and join in. At 10, another. At 11ish, an artist showed up and said a group of others had set up in the wrong area.  This is definitely a group of creatives. A 7am start time means 8am through 10am-ish in the park area-ish. Ha.  Although it seemed half-organized, they are dedicated and has been the starting point for several internationally renowned painters that have gone on to their fame and fortune. 

Around 8am when setting up my easel, almost as if it was planned, a few geese swam out into the scene I was checking out. I was wondering how to paint a scene with almost no contrast in this fog, and then, BAM, there they were. Out came the camera phone and I had the geese for reference to add to the scene at the very end. Nice when that happens! I set the background dark in value, careful to not let anything bright highlight in the plants shout out too loud. It played out nicely when the pure white laid played in with the geese. Done.

After about hour and a half, normally I’d finish, pack up and scout out another scene, but the other painters were all around. I really enjoyed talking art with them as we painted, so I just turned 180° and painted a small section of a scene that appears almost abstract at first glance until your mind find a way to reason what it is. It’s a fun twist. 

Second sketch of the day
The scene (the geese showed up!)
This scene turned out to be harder than I expected with all of the shifts in value between the shoreline and the water. In the foreground the bank is lighter than the water; further back, the water is lighter than the bank. Luckily, this is where acrylics excel in allowing layers of paint to go on until it’s right. I really like the flow of the leaves in the reeds bending down to the bank. When I see these patterns, it’s as if I could see music rather than hear it. Every leaf has a small, but important part of some bigger design, and it’s beautiful. Nature is eloquent. 

Great day!


Landa Park (New Braunfels): Plein Air Painting

Landa Park, New Braunfels, TX. View down the river on a cold, rainy day.  12 x 16" canvas panel
Landa Park, New Braunfels, TX. View down the river on a cold, rainy day. 12 x 16″ canvas panel

At 2pm, it’s cold. Wet. Drizzy. Surely this is no time to get out to paint. 100% chance of rain with possible t-storms is what the Weather Channel App says.  With a heavy case of boredom and curiosity of what there is to paint in conditions like this, I remembered Landa Park has a gazebo looking down the river that might make for a good scene with a roof over my head.  As I drove past Prince Solms park, down the hill through Hineman Dr., I spotted a great little water fall tucked just to the edge of the golf course beneath the trees and shrubs, so I pulled off the road to check it out. As I video taped the scene for later, something caught my eye. There was a mist above the water above the falls. It was tempting to get out the gear right then, but if there was mist here, then that scene of the river at Landa Park would be incredible.  I quickly headed over to Landa Park, Bingo! Heavy mist lit up above the water around the cypress trees giving a wispy, mystical feel.  A cliff full of trees ran along the river on the left as the river bent to the right, fading away in the distance.  I dropped my usual small sheet of paper and brought out the big guns, a 12 x 16″ canvas panel.  This scene paints it’s self. I figured the scene’s lighting would stay the same, being overcast, but 20 minutes into it, it warmed a few degrees and poof, there went the mist. It was a totally different scene! I tried to stay with my initial lay in to hold true to the misty scene over the course of four hours, but it slowly changed to what I was looking at. Just when I was finished and put everything away telling myself I’ve given it my best shot, the temperature dropped and, Poof, instant mist! It was suddenly exactly like it was when I got first arrived! Ha. I took a reference photo to note the differences if I want to change it later.

Reference pic taken as the magical mist reappeared.
Reference pic taken as the magical mist reappeared.

With the mist, the foreground trees are a muted grey mass, slightly darker than the background cliffs. Not much color. It’s a very peaceful, yet mystical feeling. Without the mist, the tree’s have more contrast with definite lights and dark areas. Also there is much more color saturation, especially in the light spring green leaves.  It presents a more dynamic scene.

I has a lot to be thankful for. There were no t-storms and some city folk risked waking the path gave me a thumbs up as they went.  A very inspiring man named Diego stopped by to chat. He decided Guam was too small for him, so he packed his thing to travel the world and hasn’t stopped in 20 years. It’s his passion. He saw me and immediately recognized it.  I’d like to think my painting was inspiring, but realistically, anybody wanting to paint in these conditions is either nuts or passionate. I told him about my being a welder and he quickly dismissed it and said I should paint. Awesome compliment. Thanks, Diego!! It’s never boring on a plein air experience.

Artists Chat: Titanium White, Ultramarine Blue, Burnt Umber, Cad Yellow Hew.  With this scene, it was easier to start from the background and work forwards, keeping the background mid value and darkening as it got closer, holding the darkest dark for the foreground trees. The value changes with the disappearing mist really thew me for a loop, but the overlapping of the trees against the background really helped to keep the painting going. I actually had to throw in mid-value blues behind the foreground trees to help push them forward more.  The focal point is where the branches reach across to the little island clump of trees in the center, so I kept the lines sharp with a lot of contrast and tried to keep the rest of scene somewhat soft in edges.  The water was tricky, but using a big brush loaded with paint, using horizontal strokes really helped get the feel of it.  Mostly, I had to  remember, THIS IS ONLY A STUDY.  It’s so easy to over do it! This is enough information to go big now (18×24 or larger) using the photo references for details, but the painting for color notes.

Guadalupe South Trail (Canyon Lake Dam, downstream): Plein Air


Guadalupe South Trail (below Canyon Lake Dam). Acrylic. 8x6ish
Guadalupe South Trail (below Canyon Lake Dam). Acrylic on paper. 8x6ish

After a bit of work on Saturday, I headed up to Canyon Lake, Texas to jog the dam a few times and brought my plein air pack just in case. Usually just downstream of a lake dam is a scenic area and sure enough there was one here too. I found a parking lot with “Nature Trail” marked on it and found fly fisherman taking up every space along a beautiful, clear river lined by cypress trees.  About 1/4 mile down the riverside trail, I found a place where the limestone crept out in an embankment, perfect for a painting. The sun was bright, temps perfect and I was ready. Upstream, a grassy bend in the river, lit up by the sun and was clearly the focus for a painting. I quickly drew in a simple plan to help guide me and when I looked up, the scene changed! Clouds?! Dangit! I sat there waiting for the sun only to see it get worse. No sun. So I shifted gears and went with an overcast painting to highlight the river rather than the sun lit grass. Twenty minutes into the painting and I was in a zone. I look up an instantly, sun!  There was just one cloud left. It was like a Hollywood movie where weather changes without warning. I’d gone too far with the painting to go back, so I used the scene for details and went with my color notes already put down. I’m so glad I did.  Later, the sun fell behind the trees to one side and I was in the shadows, similar to the overcast lighting. I took a picture for a final reference to add the last touches at home.

Reference picture to finish at home.
Reference picture to finish at home. I wanted to reduce the distraction of the tree lines and make the farthest treeline almost totally fade away. “When possible, simplify” – a plein air mantra.

Day 2:

A little further downstream. Acrylic on paper. 6x8ish
A little further downstream. Acrylic on paper. 6x8ish

Today was full sun and the fly fishermen (and women) were out in droves. In the afternoon, I planted myself just downstream of day 1 and became the “go-to” guy for fishermen to check and see if others were catching anything. I have no idea how that came about, but just so you know, the fishing was really slow. These young cypress trees were growing on the very edge of the limestone embankment and really stood out against the background trees and green lawns. The intention was to add a fisherman into the painting, but they kept moving around.  It was a perfect scene for it too, since the water was calm in the foreground producing a great reflection of them beside the trees. Next time I’ll use my iPhone to get a pic and use that as a on-sight reference in order to make them “stand still”. Fun day.

Artist Chat: Simplifying

This weekend I chose to simplify. It’s hard. When you sit down, there are a million details and all of them seem important for the scene.  Day 1 was rough.  I think over half of the time, I spent unpainting what was in the background only to paint it back without thinking moments later. Eventually, I just faded out the farthest background completely with a cool shade of gray and all the sudden the foreground snapped into focus. Day 2 I took out a big bushy brush to block in everything making it impossible to get detailed. I made me think “Do I really need this?” before each step. I was definitely out of my comfort zone, but it was worth it! Next time you’re out there, try it!  Decide beforehand what your center of interest is (small brush), and what’s not important to it (big brush). It may not produce that “finished painting” look, but if you’re out there to do a study that the time to try.

Plein Air Painting in Gunnison, Colorado

This is a 6x8" color sketch that helped to get a palette that works for the area
This is a 6×8″ color sketch that helped to get a palette that works for the area

“I wish you would go with me to visit James in Gunnison for a week.”, Dad said. I’m in the middle of job hunting for a welding job, but somehow that stuck in my mind.  Eventually all the job descriptions that basically said, “must be able to work weed days, weekends, overtime, and have no life whatsoever beyond welding” convinced me that this is indeed a great time to get in a trip with Dad to Gunnison.  James, a relative through my Mom’s side, is 88 years old and has the energy and mind of a youth.  We went four-wheeling, trout fishing, site seeing where he took us on a 300 mile guided tour, eating at his favorite restaurants (everyone knew him)… it was amazing.  After 30+ years of going from Austin to Gunnison for the summer, this was his final summer trip. I thought, if there is ever a time to do plein air, this is it. I can paint something on site in his favorite spot and give this to him as a way to remember it.

In getting ready, I realized many of the colors were different from Texas, so I’d need to find the colors in my arsenal of paints to mix and match what I saw.  On one afternoon, we had a couple hours of free time and I got in the quick sketch seen at the beginning of this post with rocks, cottonwood trees, some shrubs and distant background mountains. Oddly enough, the colors of the rocks were subtle grays of orange and cobalt blue. Glad I got in this sketch before tackling a bigger plein air!

When James took us trout fishing on the Gunnison River in a canyon about 3 miles from his place, I knew this was the place to paint. It was stunning to see. In the morning the canyon lit up the walls upstream like something from a fairy tale. Coming back to paint in the afternoon, it had changed dramatically and now the view 180 degrees downstream became a fantastic scene of overlapping canyon walls I couldn’t have imagined in the earlier light.  Using the orange/cobalt blue mix I’d found earlier for the rock color, I quickly blocked in the main colors and values (about 10 min) before the light changed, like dictating notes from an oral lecture that hopefully make sense later. The next hour was spent making sure I could emphasize the depth by making the shadows darker and warmer in the foreground cliffs and lighter in the background. In four hours, the light had changed so much, I was working from memory and glancing at the scene for details.  While all this is happening, wind gusts blew so hard I had to bury my easel in river rocks. When the easel rocked and the canvas met my brush before I could lay down a stroke, I just had to go with it. There wasn’t a rock there, but now there is. Thanks wind. When the dry air dried the paint of my palette within 10 minutes, I just squeezed out a big blob twice the size and painted twice as thick.  It was infuriating at times, as if the wind and sun objected to my being there, but somewhere deep inside, it just made the journey of completing the painting that much sweeter.

16x20" acrylic "Gunnison River". This was a big plein air to attempt, but it really fit the scene.
16×20″ acrylic “Gunnison River”. This was a big plein air to attempt, but it really fit the scene.

I finally relented as the sun set over the ridge changing not only the shadows, but the colors of the rock.  I could have spent an entire second day refining details and colors, but it was as finished as time would allow and I felt like it captured the depth beyond what a camera would provide.  Presenting it to James, that smile went straight to my heart.  He even pointed to a spot where he had caught a fish in the past. This is really what art is for.

Artist Chat:

Palette: titanium white, cobalt blue, cerulean blue, cad yellow, red light hue (orange), black

The sky was a gradient from light cerulean on the horizon to cobalt up high, and this was the only area I used cerulean.  The rocks were done with cobalt blue and orange, changing values with white where it was sun-lit, and leaving variations of blue to orange shades of gray at about 60%.  The foreground cliffs on the left had a lot of indirect lighting from the grassy area in front of it, warming it up, so I mixed in some cad yellow into the shadow mix. I added some black into the mix to make some indications of dark cracks in the foreground cliff, punching it forward the sending back the cliff the right. I tried to do something with the straight roadway coming in from the right to vary the horizontal lines, but that’s the way it was (and the way James remembers it), so I left it.  I went back several times to cool down the shadows in the back cliff. This is an area I would definitely have worked if I had more time. The paint dried so quickly, it was had to soften the edges where it meets the sky. The water was tricky! It had a full spectrum of color and changed constantly with the winds, but sat for a few minutes noting the basic colors and reflections and just went with it.  It actually saves time to just sit and look!  Within 1 minute after the last brush stroke, the painting was dry, so next time, I’m going to get a big tube of Golden Open white and cad yellow to slow down the drying time in the mixes. Not too slow, but at least to a five or ten minute drying time to allow some blending.