Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Sonoma Plein Air

Just returned from the Sonoma Plein Air event last week, and thought I’d share one of my favorites from the week-long painting competition. We had a bit of a challenge with some unseasonably cold weather, wind and rain getting in the way, but like the saying goes: “A bad day painting is better than a good day at the office” (although, technically this IS my office!). The bright side was I hung out with some great artists, met a few new ones and “talked shop” all week, which definitely spurs growth. Plus, realizing that we’re all in the same boat keeps your spirits up and pushes you to focus on your work, not the weather.

It was a wonder the above 9x16 painting, “Doin’ Chores”, even came to fruition. It was born after a disastrous morning in which I scraped off a not-so-well-thought-out composition at another location. Then, after discovering this scene and setting up my gear, it started to pour. I packed up even before beginning and tried to look for a drier place to paint, but ended up driving around for an hour or so with no luck. After lunch and a break in the weather I checked back and was able to complete the painting before the rain began yet again. What drew me to this scene was its simplicity. I loved the big, simple foreground, tree masses and flat front of the barn. I figured they would complement the small details if I could keep them interesting but not overpowering. Plus there was a nice color harmony created by the gray day.

I began by blocking in all the trees and establishing the behind-the-barn ground color, then moved to the face of the barn to make sure I had the hue correct to go with the background harmony. Next I painted the sides, roof and details in the barn, working to completion. I tackled the entire foreground after that, getting the color intense enough to stay forward in the painting. I used brushwork to create interesting shapes and altered the color here and there for variety. I also added some accent colors in the foreground to move your eye where I wanted and built smaller details to guide you up to the barn. I dropped in the sky next, making sure to use a warm gray and not the same color as the barn roof. Lastly I added a couple of cows laying in the grass before it starting to rain again and I quickly threw all my gear in the car.

Leaving hurriedly, I wasn’t sure I was completely happy with the scene, but chose to wait until the next day to evaluate. Upon review, the cows looked like an afterthought and maybe some farm hands would be better suited. So my thinking was this: paint in a couple of guys working and see if they looked better than the cows. If the figures didn’t work, I could fix up the cow forms to read better. After the two workers were painted in (entirely from my imagination), I felt they told a better story and added a human aspect that I liked. Alas, the cows had to get axed (only in the painting, though!).

Sometimes if I can tell a better story by reworking it a bit, then it’s worth a shot! Enjoy.


  1. Thanks for sharing your process; it's nice to know even the pros have to scrape and start over. This is a lovely painting.

  2. You had to be happy with that! Interesting size, too. Thanks for sharing the whole process thing. Most observers have little idea what goes into a lot of plein air work. The decisions, scrapping off, moving around, rain, wind, bugs, etc. and occaisionally a really nice piece like this one.

  3. Hey Bill
    Yeah, you know the plein air drill! Oh, the obstacles sometimes!
    On the size ... I've been using this 9x16 more and more. It's basically a "theater screen" size ratio and can lend itself well to landscapes, especially down at the beach with all the horizontals. I think it has more applications than the 2:1 ratio. Appreciate your comments.

  4. This is really nice. I really like the soft simplicity of the piece. Its also nice to know that guys like you have to scrap once in awhile. Thanks for sharing the whole story.

  5. The figures are a like the cherry on top of an ice cream sundae, they are right at your focal point and the detail there is a nice reward for your viewers journey into the painting. I admire your ability to pull off a painting this strong in the lighting conditions you were faced with. I absolutely lothe gray, overcast, shadowless days because my paintings turn to uninspired mud.

    Italy is just a week away - I can't wait!!!

  6. Thanks for sharing your process. I agree with adding something (the figures) from imagination. A painter is trying to get the essence of a scene and if cows don't do it for you, improvise.

  7. Greg it is always great to read your experiences in the field. I too appreciate hearing the process and developement of your paintings and the decisions you made in the creation.
    Have a great trip to Italy. I hope you have wonderful weather and fabulous wine. Can't wait to see your fabulous work and hear about the adventure...

  8. This composition has a great sense of space, and speaks of the weather that is getting warmer. Grass is turning. I greatly appreciate this composition; it has a very authentic "voice". Reminds me of how our cows head down to the meadow by the creek to graze. Sometimes, they are nowhere to be seen, until you head down to the cool temperature of the oak canopy by the creek. And there are always a few "fix it" chores to be done around the barn. The repair of an irrigation line, that runs from the barn to the meadow. Or fabricating a few pig-tails, to repair a section of sagging fence line. Such a grand and beautiful barn!
    Love this work, Greg.
    Looking forward to seeing your work at the Laguna Festival of the Arts,
    Michelle & Craig