Issue: 50

Plein Air Photographer, Studio Painter   
by Bill Hudson
Being with nature for the purpose of creating art explains the enduring popularity of plein air painting. Capturing a scene on location as it is observed under natural-but-fleeting light forces rapid decisions and commitment to techniques; the spontaneity often results in images that have more illusion and impression than detail or realism. All are persuasive reasons to enjoy the benefits of plein air painting. But I find that my "art time" in the outdoors is best spent taking many reference photographs for future work to be painted later in my studio with more thought, planning, and detail.

Watercolor & Casein, 14" x 20", by Bill Hudson
The Excalibur is one of the fishing vessels now featured in
the latest TV series of "The Deadliest Catch."

I'm not a great (or even good) photographer. Therefore, I make up for poor quality with large numbers of photographs. I take enough reference photos of potential compositions to confidently begin sketching and painting with high expectations. For example, this past summer I photographed the commercial fishing fleet (including the Excalibur shown above) in the harbor of Newport, Oregon. Every morning for two weeks I walked the harbor taking pictures with my comparatively inexpensive, compact 16MP Nikon P600 camera equipped with a retractable 60X optical zoom, and a swivel LCD monitor. The camera exceeds my photography skills and the super zoom meets my harshest requirement ... to quickly capture a possible composition even if that may be a boat unloading its catch a half-mile away. When taking pictures for a potential painting I try to:

  • Capture the topic with different levels of zoom. This helps cropping decisions later.
  • Raise and lower the camera position. For example, the reticulated LED allows me to see a subject with the camera near the surface of the water for unusual views with greater interest.
  • Take pictures with zero zoom to document the location, time, and surroundings including the sky, the sun angle, shadows, reflections, and water surface characteristics.

Good Morning Newport     

Watercolor & Casein, 14" x 20", by Bill Hudson

Once at home I down-select compositions that I want to eventually paint and then print supporting photographs of that subject at my local Sam's Club. I then sketch the painting on watercolor paper (sometimes with the aid of a projector) and make decisions about colors, simplifications, atmosphere, and edges. I typically begin the watercolor painting with wet-on-wet washes for the sky and water to define the light and mood of the painting. Then while blasting my own favorite 256 rock-n-roll songs of all time, I slow down and enjoy the 10 to 60 hour process of completing a studio painting - the number of hours being a function of size, complexity, and the amount of rework.

Painting Tip - When painting from photographs, use a large magnifying glass. Put the magnifying glass right up against your face and study the photo up close. It's motivational. The photograph comes alive, almost as if you are there once again, with the original light and details that you can choose to either delete or represent.
I've had the pleasure of giving painting demonstrations to many art organizations over the years and the one memorable comment that I've heard several times from attendees is, "Thank you for telling us that it takes you that long to complete a painting." These people love art and they love to paint, but they feel uncomfortably pressured to paint quickly.
Under no definition could my paintings be categorized as plein air. I need the outdoors, but I also enjoy painting from my studio with no time constraints. And when that process involves painting with one of my grandkids, it's even better.
Like the other day when one of those "oldies" started up with a single guitar strum followed by two lone drum beats and then Elvis screaming "The warden threw a party in the county jail." I looked over at my 14 year-old granddaughter Lauren who was in the process of painting her own seascape, and asked, "You know who that is?"
Lauren smiled, looked over at me and said, "That's The King, grandpa ... The King."
Why would I ever want to rush through moments like these?

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